In the wake of the most recent San Diego ComicCon (which I, sadly, didn’t go to), I’ve been reassessing my 35-year passion for comic books.
As a collector, comic covers had a certain disproportionately high significance for me; cover don’t just hint at what’s inside, they can signify milestones. For a long time I knew EVERY comic book cover in my massive and ever-growing collection (I probably could get 90% right on a quiz to this day on books published before 2000).
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover (and you can’t), but with comic books the covers are works of art in their own right (as some artists transition away from the grind of doing a monthly book and strictly do covers). They provide an additional emotional punch to the story inside in a way that a novel’s cover doesn’t, that a movie poster can’t quite do either. Comic book covers are unique in fiction (throw in its precursors like pulp magazines), and their importance can’t be stressed enough.
In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and even early ’80s, sometimes the cover would have a dialog or thought balloon integrated into the final art; many time these snippets of hyperbolic conversation were interesting, other times they were goofy as hell… and eventually, they disappeared from superhero comics altogether. I don’t remember too many of them, if at all, except for many a Spider-Man cover from the late ’60s or early ’70s. However, there is one in the list below that does have a dialog balloon on the cover (although it’s probably superfluous because the cover design is so strong).
“What list below,” you ask?
Below are 25 comic book covers that resonated with me the moment I saw them and helped convert me into someone who worshiped “New Comic Wednesday” (I think it was new comic Friday back in the ’80s, yet the release date steadily slipped back to Wednesday by the early 2000s).
These aren’t the all-time greatest covers (that’s subjective, and depending on when you started reading and how deep your obsession became it’ll be different), rather these are covers that I think about when an uninitiated or novice asks me about comics. However, I’d wager many of these are in the Top 100 covers of all time.
First up is this cover by David Mack for a collected edition of his seminal, influential, and groundbreaking series KABUKI.
I remember picking up the original black & white comics from Caliber (Circle of Blood); the interior and covers were traditional comic book style art coupled with a most emotional story that was compelling in a unique way. Mack started employing watercolor for his covers and interiors later on in the long run, and it elevated his universe to an unbelievable level. There is a sublime nature to Mack’s KABUKI (his primary original work throughout his career, even though he’s done some amazing work for Marvel… KABUKI is his masterpiece).
One of the early Marvel covers that sucked me into the Marvel Universe was for a miniseries called CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS (1982). Art by John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton.
Looking at it now, it might not seem special… just a splash panel of a pantheon of Marvel Comics’ characters rendered in a rather flat way. However, as a kid who was just getting into Marvel, this cover — with so many of the first and second tier heroes who didn’t have their own books and rarely appeared in a year (like Quasar and Hellcat and Arabian Knight — screamed, “look how f-ing cool Marvel is!”
As a stalwart space opera fan, nothing beats Jim Starlin’s DREADSTAR. I had read a couple stories in Marvel’s anthology magazine EPIC ILLUSTRATED (which they need to bring back as a quarterly book) and liked the logo (sensing that branding meant the coolest stories). Tragically, I had missed the Dreadstar stories in EPIC ILLUSTRATED (the Metamorphosis Odyssey), so when I started seeing comics with that same logo, I was intrigued. Especially with issue no. 4.
However, this book was $1.50 (when newsprint comics were 60¢) and it came out bi-monthly, so fitting it into my budget meant ditching almost three other books! So I didn’t start buying DREADSTAR until issue 7, which has a less compelling cover — it’s still compelling, but not as much as this one for issue 4. I love how the title treatment is tweaked and made part of the composition; it’s overrun by the content mimicking how Vanth and Company are about to be overrun. Twisting title treatments is one of my favorite cover techniques.
I can’t think of a seminal or classic superhero as Spider-Man whose suit was so radically altered from the iconic version we all knew and loved. Yet when the “black suit” debuted it seemed to supplant all notions of the original blue and red; fans were in two camps (like that great line from James Mangold’s COP LAND – there are two kinds of people in this world; those who like pinball machines and those who like video games) you either loved the black suit or hated it.
At first I loved it, but then it became one of the worst creative choices in the history of comics, IMHO. Why do I say that? Because the suit gave way to Venom; I never liked the entire concept of Venom, Eddie Brock, and everything that spawned from the symbiote found on The Beyonder’s World in the original SECRET WARS series. In fact, Venom soured me on Spider-Man as a comic to read (later to be totally cast adrift with the clone saga).
However, when the black suit first debuted it was unadulterated awesomeness. No other hero reconfiguration has ever really succeeded (save for the Fantastic Four’s black & white suits from that Negative Zone adventure). Daredevil’s blue & red armor was okay… none of the Superman revamps have been interesting, Iron Man’s armor just evolves… yet it’s still ol’ shellhead at the end of the day. Dick Grayson totally changed from Robin to Nightwing, but he was changing much more than his suit. The black suit, initially, was an amazing creation.
Next up is this UNCANNY X-MEN cover by Paul Smith for the double-sized issue, number 175. This was a special issue for me. I had started reading The X-men with issue 172, but this cover (primarily because I love Smith’s art so much) encapsulated everything there was about the X-men… their battle is, many times, against themselves.
At this time, I hadn’t read the Dark Phoenix Saga or knew hardly anything about the depths of Jean Grey and Scott Summers’ relationship. When it was revealed that Madeline Pryor was a long-game con/trap set by one of the X-men’s oldest foes, it struck me as genius. (Note: I hadn’t seen Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, so I wasn’t aware of the similarities in how frail men can be to look-a-like women.) All I knew was if the battle inside was anything close to what the cover was hinting at, I had no choice but to tear through those pages and see how Chris Clairemont left us with another cliffhanger.
It’s funny when I think about Frank Miller, he and John Byrne were the two guys who made comics more than fun for me during that early and explosive period in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Miller’s DAREDEVIL run had just ended when I started collecting comics, and my first Uncanny X-Men book was the one with the Wolverine wedding invitation on the cover (so I had missed Byrne’s definitive run). That issue of Uncanny X-Men kept referencing the WOLVERINE miniseries Miller did, so that pushed me into tracking down the tres cher back issues. While doing so, I came across this DAREDEVIL cover that Miller forged and never looked back.
While Miller didn’t introduce me to ninjas or those cool elements of Japanese culture the West expropriates with impunity (that was the SHOGUN TV miniseries), he incorporated ninjas into comics perhaps the best. And Miller’s facile ability to infuse explosive graphic design into his covers set his work apart… to this day.
This cover from the O.G. crossover maxi-series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS stunned me. Supergirl was dead, and Superman was crying… two things you just didn’t expect from comics.
I wasn’t reading CRISIS at this point. I don’t think I was reading any DC Comics (maybe DETECTIVE COMICS or perhaps THE NEW TEEN TITANS… but I don’t think so). And this hooked me on DC; how could you not be hooked when in the very next issue of CRISIS the Flash was killed? Remember, this was the mid ’80s and heroes or villains weren’t getting killed for sales, and if a character got killed… he or she stayed dead (e.g. Captain Marvel, Adam Warlock, Norman Osborn, Gwen Stacy)… if we saw the body.
However, we’ve reached a point (a long time ago, actually) where killing a character doesn’t even signify permanent death. These resurrections emotionally deplete the first time a character dies in the hearts and minds of long-time readers. For me, after Jen Grey came back to life, which led to the original X-men re-teaming for X-FACTOR, the whole concept of killing characters became a pointless gimmick. Pretty much NOBODY stays dead in comics, even the recent “killing” of Wolverine of Earth 616 ain’t going to last that long. It makes sense, because why would these companies eliminate a money-making piece of IP, and only beloved characters are killed with the design for shock impact.
It makes sense that comic characters don’t stay dead; especially now because all the characters are IP (and it’s exceedingly rare for a new character to be created who has any lasting power in the minds of readers. In the past 25 years, you can probably name only a handful of characters (i.e., Marvel’s Elektra, War Machine, Deadpool) that have stood the test of time and earned their own books with long publication histories.
So the next cover takes us our of traditional comics…
Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN… I can’t say anything better or more profound than what has been said in the last 25+ years since Gaiman’s creation of Dream and the Endless first hit the shelves. I remember seeing those weird and evocative covers, but they seemed so odd to me, so non-superhero, and I wasn’t reading any non-cape books — except for the occasional space opera (e.g. DREADSTAR) or manga (AKIRA) or sword & sorcery stuff (SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, KING KULL). So I didn’t pick up a SANDMAN comic until 2/3 of the way through its run. Something about Issue 50 touched me. I had found interest in Middle Eastern history several years before, so when I saw “Ramadan” as the subtitle, curiosity got the best of me, and the rest is history.
Honestly, I can’t think of a fantasy writer who created such a vast original tapestry in comics than Gaiman (Jack Kirby is in a league by himself, and I consider his work primarily science fiction); people will argue with me about this, for sure. But the thing about Gaiman’s successful work on SANDMAN is it opened the floodgates for a tremendous amount of other non-cape comics for the mainstream… and the comics world has been all the richer for it.
As I started to delve into the difficult-to-obtain UNCANNY X-MEN back issues, I found more and more interest in Kitty Pryde, who I didn’t like when I first started reading UNCANNY X-MEN with issue 172. It’s narratively odd to read back issues because you’re picking up on a story that is the de facto “backstory” of a continuous storyline, so it’s not really “backstory.” This exists, to a certain extent, in serialized TV, but it’s not quite the same, as you can read comics from any issue — that jumping on point doesn’t have to be a ‘publisher stated’ jumping on point — and get the greater gist of the story and the characters in an issue or two (and then maybe have two decades of back story to further your investment)… and that’s the beauty of comics; I include newspaper strips in this as well). Anyway, I’ve always felt Chris Clairemont did something interesting when he and Paul Smith had Kitty square off against some Sidri Hunters solo. An issue to elevate her from the near-hapless teen of the group to someone who could pull her own weight. There’s a great moment in the climax of this story, where Kitty judo flips a Sidri hunter.
This cover gave me a new sense of respect and appreciation for Sprite (her code name that she and everyone else pretty much never used).
Right around the time I started collecting comics quite seriously, Hasbro has relaunched their G.I. Joe toys, and with much fanfare the comic and the cartoon. The comic was awesome fun. Although, these are some of the only comics I never revisited as I got older. Anyway, Snake Eyes was one of those characters like Wolverine or Lobo that everybody just dug. He was a mute (for reasons that were explained later in the comic series), and the creative team blessed us with one of the most amazing comic stories of the era, akin to what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” — sequential images that conveyed a full 22-page story with no dialogue.
Larry Hama’s cover for G.I. JOE issue 21 is more seminal for the interior story than anything else… just seeing the cover brings back all the memories of that explosive episode entry. Even when Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta executed a similar “silent” comic for EAST OF WEST (number 22), the first thing that popped into my mind a few pages in was the Snake Eyes story and this cover.
For decades I saw Steve Rude and Mike Baron’s NEXUS on the comic shelves, and never read it, never even picked it up… even though I love space opera! But I happened to be reading the WORLD’S FINEST miniseries that Steve The Dude Rude penciled, and I thought, “damn, this guy is amazing… what the hell else has he done in comics?” And then I picked up a NEXUS comic during the Dark Horse Comics run… and I fell madly and passionately in love. I spent about two years tracking down all the back issues for the whole First Comics run. I remember two consecutive San Diego Comic Cons where I picked up 20 or so NEXUS comics. But this cover stands out in mind (although there are dozens of other NEXUS covers that are unforgettable too), mainly because it was so different; it doesn’t say “space opera” at all, and that’s primarily why it’s too cool for school.
Horatio and Dave riding camels… as far from Nexus the Execution as one could get it! And that’s why it’s so dope. It sort of encapsulates everything there is about the inner struggle that Horatio faces and the multi-dimensionality of the storytelling.
While John Byrne is maybe one of the most divisive figures in the last 40 years of mainstream comics, he’s still one of my favorite creators — no matter what he does, his UNCANNY X-MEN elevated the book to its halcyon status, and his unprecedented run (in length and sheer storytelling wizardry) on the FANTASTIC FOUR are definitive of the best of what comics can do. No writer has done anything close on FANTASTIC FOUR in 25 years… which is odd. I guess people don’t get how to do that book, as evidenced by the ultra-poor films.
Anyway, his ALPHA FLIGHT — which should be a creator owned series — was a unique look at Canadian mutants and their different brand of problems and goals. While Weapon Alpha, James MacDonald Hudson (who eventually became Vindicator then Guardian) was a unique hero, as close to Iron Man than almost any other hero… his story is the most tragic. Of any hero book. IMHO.
I believe that Byrne said he envisioned ALPHA FLIGHT to be just 12 issues… and he designed it to go out with a bang. He didn’t disappoint.
I don’t think anyone would have the balls to pull this off today… I can’t think of anyone who did it post Byrne. It probably pissed a LOT of people off, and maybe was a huge stripe on earning the malignancy that Byrne receives today. This was an interesting book; I think Northstar was the first gay POC in a mainstream comic book. I’d be curious to know who predated him (and none of the retcon shit that’s been happening in the last decade or so; like ICEMAN being gay… I don’t think Stan and Jack conceived him as being gay when he debuted in the 1960s). Northstar was one of my favorite characters for that simple reason (I say was, because all X-men characters/mutants exhausted my patience around 2003 or so); that complexity of character and his personal secret that he struggled to keep (until Rogue kissed him one time).
Okay, so back to Frank Miller (again!) and his extra graphic-y covers. I remember pre-ordering THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and still did not get a first edition print run copy! What the fuck, DC? Anyway, Miller’s cover for the first issue was/is glorious and it must have been flying off the shelves everywhere! As I know it did at Kovacs (the comic book store I frequented on Cedar & Lee in Cleveland Heights).
Batman in silhouette, against a photograph of a sky with a lightning strike.
That’s genius. Hands down.
This was Miller’s at his zenith. Sure, SIN CITY was awesome and same with BATMAN: YEAR ONE (which he only wrote)… but I don’t think he got better than this; maybe more bleak with the Mad Marv SIN CITY story that first appeared in DARK HORSE PRESENTS… this cover started a revolution in comics (that fuel Zack Snyder’s dreams for Batman v Superman). Debuting roughly around the same time as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN, comics were forever different after this came out.
The LEGION OF SUPERHEROES… what a comic series! A fan favorite for decades that hasn’t been in print far too long, and hasn’t been intergalactic good since Keith Giffen left the book in the late ’90s. This cover sparked my love affair with the Legion. Again, the Legion — in some iteration — was continually being published during my initial days of reading comics… first as a newsprint version, then a Baxter paper version… but I still wasn’t reading it. It seemed very pop art inspired (all those costumes were bright-bright) difficult to penetrate, and the characters seemed kooky whenever I came across them in DC’s WHO’S WHO (a less interesting version of Marvel’s MARVEL UNIVERSE). Anyway, when Giffen, along with Tom & Mary Bierbaum, relaunched the series with the infamous FIVE YEARS LATER… version. I decided, “this cover looks like a great jumping on point!” Something serious must have happened for the events on the cover to have taken place.
And, yeah, some serious shit did go down! The Giffen/Bierbaum LEGION took a LOT of shit from die-hard fans… and for someone who had never read a LSH story before, I was lost, lost, lost… the Legion didn’t appear in their recognizable costumes for at least a year, and all the characters where going by the real names (not their code names)… which I couldn’t identify, not that it really would have mattered anyway to fill in my knowledge of the “backstory” because it was becoming a puzzle — in terms of the relationships — that I needed to get the goods on.
I started hunting down back issues of the LEGION OF SUPERHEROES and one of the mysteries of my most beloved comic series was slowly filled in. I know a lot of people didn’t like this incarnation of the LSH, but considering everything they went through in the 70s and 80s… this was a mature look at the characters as they reached adulthood (they’re all teens when the Legion for banded together… and stayed teens for decades).
So as I’ve said before, John Byrne did the definitive run on FANTASTIC FOUR, and the first issue I read was issue 259, which along with UNCANNY X-MEN 172 and MARVEL UNIVERSE number 8, were the very first comics I bought at the old Westside Market in Cleveland. FANTASTIC FOUR 259 was an explosive cosmic battle issue… where Doctor Doom squared off against Terrax the Tamer and the Silver Surfer (‘Nuff Said). The cliffhanger ending was a shocker, even for a first time reader! I knew who Doom was and his stature in the Marvel U from watching Spider-Man cartoons. But this cover…
Again, you didn’t see a lot of destruction of the main elements of a hero or villain’s costume like this. Doom’s mask OFF his face and smoldering… Sue Richards awestruck, Ben and Johnny just as aghast…
While this cover for BATMAN: YEAR ONE, part 4 (Batman issue 404) isn’t technically a Frank Miller cover design, considering that David Mazzucchelli was working with Miller, I have to believe Miller had a lot of creative input ’cause it feels like something Miller might do.
The whole concept of doing a “Year One” was pretty new at the time (not that origin stories were new, but looking at that first year was new for a character who had been around for 40+ years).
Not a lot of DC covers in this list, but I didn’t get too into DC books until Frank Miller’s RONIN and some books in the wake of CRISIS. Nevertheless, this early GREEN ARROW/GREEN LANTERN cover is damn powerful, even now! Neal Adams was shocking people with this.
I don’t think you’d see a comic cover even in the late ’80s of some hero doing crack or snorting coke, and you would not see it today either (completely off brand message) — even though superhero comics are NOT for kids, and haven’t been since I was a young teen (which I firmly believe; sure, there are kid-friendly books here and there, but by and large both Marvel and DC aim their books at late teens to mid 40-year-olds… the cartoons are for kids, though).
This cover for ALIEN LEGION stands out in my mind… maybe because it’s Jugger Grimrod going the fuck off like the homicidal maniac he was but kept ostensibly in check while part of the Legion.
Jugger, much like Wolverine and Deadpool and Lobo, was a violent character on the fringes, and he struck a chord with a lot of readers. In retrospect, it makes a tremendous sense that disaffected and wayward youth with a an axe to grind and listening to death metal or punk rock or hip-hop, would gravitate toward characters that acted out their primal instincts for violence with impunity. The ’80s birthed the insatiable societal violence among white male youth that has plagued teh country since Dylan Klebold and Erik Harris went the fuck off, and the comics (along with video games) were part of the eco-system.
Jim Steranko isn’t just a comic visionary, isn’t just an graphic designer who dabbled in comics here and there, he brought a level of cinematic craft and punch to comics… and his major work was NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. First doing work in the split story comic STRANGE TALES (which also introduced Doctor Strange), Stan Lee and Steranko gave the world the super spy who was indeed more human and more fantastic than James Bond. Here is the cover for Fury’s first solo series in his own book.
Steranko was doing pop art on the level of Roy Lichtenstein (arguably more interesting in my book).
I started reading IRON MAN when Tony Stark had given up Stark Enterprises and Obadiah Stane was in control. Tony was a homeless alcoholic vagrant and James Rhodes was filling for Iron Man. It seemed that Stark was consumed by his alcoholism. This was a fascinating storyline … something they barely touch upon in the movies (for obvious reasons, considering RDJ’s battles with addiction). I needed more of this, and come to find out this was the second stint of Stark’s problems with alcohol. David Michelinie and Bob Layton put him through the ringer half a decade before. I dug through the back issue bins and found this cover.
Tony’s battle with alcoholism was something that was a perfect Achilles’s Heel for a millionaire playboy. The story still holds up today, on an emotional level.
Again Frank Miller birthed a startling and unforgettable cover… and again it was for DAREDEVIL… honestly, if you go back and review Miller’s DAREDEVIL run there are easily half a dozen unforgettable covers that spurred me into wanting to read more of Matt Murdock’s adventures, and to this day, it’s the only Marvel book I still read… unbroken for 30 years (except for that 5 year gap where I didn’t read comics at all… I did go back a pick up 90% of the DAREDEVIL back issues).
The Punisher used this ammo called “mercy bullets” on Daredevil in this issue; bullets that were some nonlethal style that I guess were used to soften up Frank Castle (until Mike Zeck did his miniseries that changed The Punisher from a sometimes villain to a full-fledged antihero that he still is; that Zeck series was too awesome, BTW).
John Byrne was blowing everyone’s mind when he was on THE UNCANNY X-MEN and one of his final stories was the seminal and yet contained story that spoke more volumes than its mere 22 pages; “Days of Future Past” (it’s been revisited far too many times since… I think first by Clairemont himself with John Romita, Jr. on art, when he introduced “Hound” aka Rachel Summers). When this cover hit the stands, people literally lost their shit.
It’s even more explosive that the “Dark Phoenix Saga” cover… Byrne’s pencils never looked better under Terry Austin’s inks, and this is a classic example of that great partnership. Look at that cover — all the surviving original X-men SLAIN! And most of the new ones captured. Who would have thought envisioning the future of the Sentinels would be so harrowing. And the police state nature of America… I’m pretty sure this pre-dated the first TERMINATOR film, but that borrowed from this (as well as the old “Outer Limits” Demon with a Glass Hand episode).
I never read any CAPTAIN MARVEL comics when they were being published, and I only picked up a few after I read the DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL by Jim Starlin… Mar-Vel’s stories never seemed that compelling considering the potential space opera nature of his character and his potential villains. I guess Starlin did as much as he could with the character (and like Adam Warlock, Starlin was writing the tragic final chapters of his characters).
This graphic novel kicked off the concept of the graphic novel, if I’m not mistaken. It was sad story.
Mar-Vel (as was the Captain’s Kree name) died not at the hands of his arch foe, but of the Big C! Something he picked up from battling Nitro. There was even this part where Thanos (who was pseudo-dead as he was turned into a stone statue) visited Mar-Vel on his death bed… wild. Comics weren’t supposed to be sad like this, and not resonate so strongly, yet this did. I don’t think this story would have worked as a two or three parter to close out the monthly book; it has to be an event and the graphic novel was the event. I think Marvel followed this up with the X-men graphic novel, GOD LOVES, MAN KILL… which is a great follow-up!
The last cover on list is the very first Silver Age comic I purchased – I still have it, it’s in a Mylar sleeve in my parents’ storage unit in Chicago. It was X-MEN issue 12 (this was before the book was retitled THE UNCANNY X-MEN)… it was the first appearance of Cain Marko, the Juggernaut, who happened to be Charles Xavier’s step-brother.
I relished the Xavier/Marko contentious relationship, it felt so real to me (primarily because of my own contentious sibling relationship during that time in my life). This cover and this comic were my first introduction to Jack ‘The King’ Kirby’s wild, fantastic, and inspirational art. It was, on a certain level, more rudimentary than Miller, Byrne, and Starlin’s art (it was 20 years earlier), but there was a majestic power to his compositions and his sequential storytelling that defined the comic lexicon of the early Marvel Age of Heroes. Kirby had a unique way of conceiving technology, it was futuristic, yet practical in its impracticality — if that makes a damn bit of sense!
So there you have it, the comic book covers that burned their images into my mental retina and were part of the fuel that kept me coming back to comics for the better part of my life.