You know that expression about the tail wagging the dog? Well, these days at Chapman Magazine, we are being wagged by a doggedly memorable cover, and truth be told we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Perhaps you remember the cover in question. A gangly black Lab plunges into a swimming pool, looking otherworldly underwater, eyes as big as quarters, nose seemingly headed straight for your face.  Around here it’s known simply as “the dog cover,” and for us it’s a point of demarcation. With that fall 2012 issue, we dived into a new dynamic that now guides us as we choose a cover for each issue.

That shot was captured by Chapman University alumnus Seth Casteel ’03, whom we profiled in the fall 2012 issue. Casteel made an international splash in February of that year, when his series of underwater dog photos so captivated Web users that the images went viral overnight.  Chapman Magazine readers were just as taken, as the magazine traveled far outside the university community, and the cover image was posted on blogs and Facebook pages, with hard copies taped in windows and pinned to cubicle walls. A star – and a style – were born.

Before that issue, we had traveled a lot of different paths to a cover, sometimes combining multiple images, other times hiring a graphic artist to create an illustration pegged to a theme or particular story. Since the dog cover, however, we have labored to unearth a single image with great impact to display on our cover.  We want that style to be the signature of a Chapman Magazine cover. We look for a photo so distinctive and compelling that it requires no cover headline or description; something that demands readers’ attention, all but daring them not to open the magazine to see what’s inside. We acknowledge that it’s a rather quixotic quest, but we pursue it with all the buoyant zeal of that black Lab. Sink or swim, we are motivated by that soggy dog.

For the spring 2013 issue, we wanted the cover shot to link with our eight-page feature spread on the new Center for American War Letters at Chapman. Over the past 15 years, historian and author Andrew Carroll has amassed an archive of more than 90,000 letters representing every conflict in U.S. history that has involved American troops.

After interviewing Carroll and reading the letters in his three books compiled from the archive, I became particularly attached to the content and determined to make sure that our magazine stories and images did justice to the new center. I’ve read some of the letters about a dozen times now, and they still give me goose bumps.

Perhaps the most visually arresting letter in the archive is the one Pvt. John P. McGrath wrote in Anzio, Italy, in 1944. Before he could mail the letter, a bullet ripped through it, leaving a hole and singe marks. But while the letter is unmistakably striking, when the creative artists at Noelle Marketing Group, our page-design partners, used it to create a cover, the impact wasn’t as strong as we had hoped. We used the image of the letter on the first page of our spread inside the magazine, but for the cover we needed to regroup and search out other alternatives.

Noelle’s Kris Elftmann and I started scouring online photo libraries and other sites by the hundreds, seeking images of service members in the field, preferably reading or writing letters. To our surprise, we found a host of choices, several of which we turned into the mock covers.

The team that ultimately chooses the Chapman Magazine cover includes Sheryl Bourgeois, executive vice president for University Advancement; Mark Woodland, vice president of Strategic Marketing and Communications; and Mary Platt, director of Communications and Media Relations. We all agreed that one cover stood out. It shows a lone World War I soldier at the edge of a bunker, rifle at his side, pen and paper in his hands, knees pulled up to provide a writing desk of sorts. For me, the photo captures the stark existence of the frontline service member as he steals a precious moment to reconnect with loved ones and a life he hopes one day will be his again.

In many ways, the image we chose couldn’t be more different from that of the underwater dog. Instead of the bright blue of the water, there is the gray of the bunker; ethereal exuberance is replaced by the weight of history. But we think this cover is just as compelling and impactful, but in a different way.

What do you think?