Comic covers are a huge drawing point for readers as a way to get more of the public interested in spending their hard earned cash or card on said comic. While scouring the web I couldn’t find any definite history on cover art. Which is highly weird on the internet where you can find just about any weird ass thing you want, but barely anything speaking on the most obvious aspect of the genre. Everything has cover art, Movies, Books, Video Games, Board Games, literally everything. What do all these covers have in common? The notion of selling the product no matter if the art actually parallels the story or has any significance. Between the supposed first comic cover, first variant cover, a few controversies, and some of my thoughts haphazardly tossed in, dust off those covers as we open them taking a look inside comic cover art.
What is considered by many to be the first American comic is Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics. This is the first case of a comic book cover I could find with it having said characters from the series, but no sticker price. Following that nothing pertaining to cover art really stuck out until 1937 in which we saw the first cover of Detective Comics. Many years following this release the cover would become quite infamous due to it’s racist nature and xenophobia – more on that later. In the following year of 1938 the world was introduced to Action Comics #1, what many consider one of the most iconic covers of all times, if not that then one of the most referenced and homage covers.
In the 1940’s we had many other highly memorable covers hit the shelf: Captain America Comics #1 with the famous image of Captain America socking Hitler in the face. The first issue of Batman, among many other characters receiving their debut series showcasing the titular character on the cover. Many comics got there beginning in this era and the ones that followed, with a fair amount gaining cult statues years later due to their iconic images of said teams or situation. With how many comics debuted and how many later iconic covers we got in this beginning era you could easily make a comic series revolving around these. Actually that’s a damn good idea, so please don’t steal it. It’s mine. But the thing that followed suit between all these comics where the characters adorning the covers showing them in compromising situations that stimulated young readers minds. One thing throughout the years that still holds true is selling the comic via the cover art. Sometimes the artist on the cover wasn’t even the one inside the book, in days gone this didn’t happen much but in later years it become more common, especially with the introduction of the variant covers.
To sell or not to sell…
As stated comic covers were used as a means to draw attention with some bombastic image or massage to entice readers old and new to pick up and read their story. In some cases it got more extreme then others with, “Robin Dies at Dawn” promising that Robin will die. But once you read it it all turns out to be a government training exercise. Oh yeah, 56 year old spoiler alert. Riddle me this: which cover is a homage cover to 1952’s Baffling Mysteries #7, where a character holds another dead, or unconscious character in their hands dead center of the cover? The answer is many. This image has been redone countless times. The two most famous ones being Uncanny X-men #136, where Cyclops holds a dead Jean Grey, and Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, where Superman is holding Supergirl. Homages happened in the early years, but really ramped up in the years following and is still happening quite often today. Often, the original artist makes homage to their earlier covers, such as Todd McFarlane, while most cases is the cover artist paying respect to the multitude of years of amazing covers.
Before I get even more ahead of myself, let’s go back to the original concept of covers for any media – the notion of selling the product. Now anything with cover art tries its damnedest to make you want to buy it, with some excited happenings gracing the cover, but comics seem like the worst offenders when it comics to showcasing something that never happens. Promising an end to ones life, or “if you don’t buy this I’ll die“. In my favorite case, showing something that doesn’t even happen in the comic just to sell more of the issue! Now these per say aren’t bad, more just a funny thing that some covers even call out. Then we have the older comic covers that are just outrageous: Lois Lane turns black, Worlds Finest makes their sidekicks dig graves, so many stupidly fun covers that came out in the past usually in the let’s shock em 60’s. Truth be told I absolutely love some of the comic covers in the 60’s, they are so campy and just so outrageous.
Anatomy of a cover….
With some history and laughs behind us let’s make our way to the dressing, or as some would call the anatomy of a cover. On the top big loud and proud is the comics title followed with the company’s logo, issue number, and sometimes the year/month on the side in a box. This used to be on the top of the cover in the beginning, helping show the info needed while the comics where on a spinner rack but throughout the years it has changed multiple times to different locations. If the comic was a “Direct Sale” it would be adorned with a bar code on the bottom left saying so. In my few years working at a comic shop I never recall once having to scan this, but hey it’s different everywhere. Joining the characters on the covers sometimes was conversations to the reader, or another character, with this primary in the early years to draw attention or as we’ve seen just for laughs. Sometimes the art itself needed help catching the readers eyes thus came the caption box, which would have a catchy slogan, or juicy inner comic moment that would help the cover stand out more than others. Such as letting the reader know why this issue may well be spectacular, teasing The New Avengers! The Madness Of The Mole-Man! And the ever famous Spider-Man No More! In the most recent years of covers we have strayed away from character dialogue and went more with the epic action set pieces, or badass looking poster moments.
In the many years of comics the designs have always changed for covers, like anything this could be considered bad or good. With recent trends showing the story title on the cover to let you know what part it is, or when events happen showing that this comic you hold is in fact part of an event. In the past you wouldn’t see the creators name unless it was one of the better known comic creators. Then that changed with the writers, artists, colorist, and inkers hopefully getting there name on the comic. That doesn’t always happen now a days but it very well should to showcase all the hard work that went into the product you are enjoying.
A cover made for pain…
Now kids close your eyes and pray to the comic gods above because In this next moment I will speak of the dreaded movie cover, and the “busy” cover. But first hear a quick story….
Recently I wanted to read Game of Thrones – yes, I know I’m late – so I went to the local bookshop and they had one! But with a scene from the show and that was all. Now I’m not one to judge or diss, but no, just no. I will not buy a comic or book where the cover is a scene from a movie/show. Thankfully this isn’t common with floppy comics, but it has become a recent trend with some Marvel trades to help sell the comic for movie goers. Like I said, it isn’t common and they are just reprints to get movie goers interested in the comic but anytime I see this it terrifies me, while bringing a fear of the future. But I honestly believe this won’t become to big of a trend and per usual if I don’t like it don’t buy it. Even in the past covers would have, “Soon to be a major motion picture”, which is A-okay as long as it doesn’t take away from the art too much.
One minor annoyance occurred while writing this with the release of DC’s Mister Miracle hardcover. With a black background covered with the phrase, “Darkseid is” and Mister Miracle opening through the black as if the stage curtains closed on him while addressed with the name of the series and the creators, all of this making a gorgeous cover. Until you notice the big circle declaring the awards that it has won, and the quote from a review site above the title. Yes it is awesome it won all of those awards I totally agree, but why does it need to declare that and ruin such an amazing cover? It could easily say so on the back, or in the inside, or better yet a sticker. The same goes for the quote, other then to push more sells there is no reason these need to be front and center. The worst offense would have to be the Barnes and Noble exclusive edition, noting the store exclusivity in a big square on the bottom. But hey, it sells so why not?
I wanted to end this tirade of how not to do covers here, but while I was at the store I saw a new DC Hardcover that had a magnificently done cover. It may sound simple but yet it was highly effective in making me want to read the collection by how well done the the cover was, with an epic looking Wonder Woman adorning the majority of the cover. Giving her the main billing on the cover showing this story focuses on her character, with DC’s logo barely taking up space and the title of the series Wonder Woman and Justice League Dark: The Witching Hour. Looking through what is included in the collection their is no place that this cover shows up as a singles cover art, instead a cover made specifically for the Hardcover. Clean uncluttered covers bring interest, our I seem to think so.
Homage, or how I learned that nothing may be original…
A few paragraphs back I maintained Homage and if you don’t know what that means let me give you a quick rundown before we carry on. Because I myself could not remember the word. Hey, I can be forgetful sometimes. A homage cover has been around for years, as a means to celebrate milestones, a way for cover artists to show inspiration received, or show their admiration for an eras long past. With a updated version of said cover, or another character in the same situation as characters past.
As I had mentioned earlier Todd McFarlane is a prime example of what I think of when I hear homage covers. Having done this twice with Spider-man #13 and Spawn #8 based off of his Spider-Man #1 cover, which has garnered a huge following for how great of a cover it is. One I had no idea about (thanks Daniel) would be Marc Silvestri’s Witchblade #170 which is an homage to his X-men #251. This is an amazing example of a homage where in Uncanny X-men Wolverine is strong upon an X-shaped crucifix and Witchblade herself in the same position but instead of an X we have a W for Witchblade. Visually these are beautiful, and give a great example of just what a homage is.
We are different yet the same…
One of the most prominent trends in comic covers got its start in 1986 with DC’s Man of Steel #1, variant covers. As Wikipedia defines it: “refers to an issue of a comic book printed with multiple covers, each with unique cover art.” This happened due to spectacular boom of 1990’s in which the collecting of comics became more widespread and hobbyists would buy one to read and another to preserve for their collection. This Wiki page was one of the only sites I could really find any info about comic covers and it had some interesting things to say. The comic companies started this trend to make more money off of collectors because they realized some fans wanted to collect them all. Another flash fact I learned while looking was that The Amazing Spider-Man (1963) # 666 holds the record for the single issue with the most variants at 145 different covers. Now that’s insane.
The fun part of variant covers is that each one is different and in most cases are drawn by different artists or even come in a blank variant, where you can take it to a convention to get it signed. One of my favorite versions that has hit big in the recent years, mostly from Dynamite and in the indie scene are the cosplay covers. These feature fans at Cons or professional photography shoots for the covers and is a great way to show fans of the series. Some come as website or even store exclusives with some ranging in the thousands of copies, to hundreds and rarely even less. Talking about huge numbers some of those variants can easily go up a few hundred dollars, but the great thing is you don’t have to buy them. You can just get the normal cover and receive the same stories, it’s just a different cover.
With the creation of variants came gimmick covers. Unique covers that companies created to sell even more to their hobbyist readers, this could be attributed to that fact that in the 80’s when comics started being sold in the direct market instead of newsstands the cost of production went significantly down. I can’t find a definite history all on one site, but I love reading so I made a deep dive so ya’ll don’t have to. The 90’s comics era was an Xtreme, testosterone, gimmicky wild ride. With so many different types of covers being created that to go over each one would warrant a sequel to that cover art comic idea I had. Don’t steal that idea please. For briefness sake I’ll mention a few of the different styles released and two of what may be the coolest, then one of the worst. We had chromium, holographic, 3D, lenticuler, poly-bagged, die-cut, 3D lenticuler, pop-up, and embossed covers. With two of my favorites being a glow-in-the-dark cover, and build your own battle vinyl cover. Which I’ve only seen one of.
There had been a few glow-in-the-dark covers back then but one of the best examples had to have been the Ghost Rider #15 cover. On this cover we have Ghost Rider front and center with his flaming head and black background making his features have a great pop when the lights went off. In 1993 DC released what may be one of the only examples of a vinyl build your own cover with the return of Superman in Superman: The Man Of Steel #30. With this beautiful monstrosity we had the skyline of Metropolis and Daily Planet in the background with no characters to be seen, but why you may be asking. Well DC came up with the brilliant idea of building your own fight between Lobo and Superman. Having it’s own sound effects and different positions for the action to happen you would place the vinyl sticker on the cover and the static electricity would allow it to stay and later be removed so you could have the characters duke it out. I wish there was more covers in this vain.
Now the award for the worst comic cover goes to……Eclipso: The Darkness Within #1, if you owned this you know exactly what I’m talking about. On this cover Eclipso is holding a diamond over his eye, in their immerse wisdom DC glowed a plastic diamond on said cover. So if placed with your other comics in a box it would poke out and could ruin other special issues. I owned this comic at one point and it was horrible, please just take my word and not ruin your collection with this. The 90’s had it’s run of gimmicks and weirdness going all around media, but funny enough a lot of these cover ideas are still around today, but with years of development making them much better in many expects. Another recent trend is second and third prints. Where a comic sells so well, or literally sells out of printed copies thus causing the companies to make another print. This is common in other media’s but is fairly new and not as used in comics. When it is done the cover usually stays the same but some colors on the borders change showing it is a different print.
It wouldn’t be real life if there wasn’t controversy, but luckily there are only a handful of these pertaining to covers. With one of the first being DC’s Detective Comics #1 which on it’s release seemed fine and dandy until a few years later. In which it became known for its racism and xenophobia depicting a derogatory stereotypical version of an Asian villain. Which crazy enough was brought back by DC in New Superman. Hopping many years in the future we have the highly controversial Spider-Woman #1 Variant. Now I do have a few words to say pertained to this controversy, but let me preface by saying I know why it’s bad, and why it had so much backlash. But that doesn’t mean send death threats to the artist, that’s just not cool.
Just by looking at the cover you can see exactly why this cover has the hate towards it, it features Spider-woman in a highly provocative pose that kinda doesn’t make sense while overly sexualising her. The artist in question for this cover is Milo Manara whom has been a cartoonist/artist since 1969 whose work consists of erotica nature. Going into this Marvel knew his past and how he draws his art while having collaborated with him in the past for other covers. They should’ve seen this coming, or stood their ground. But I’m not here for this debate because everyone is different and I can completely understand all criticism.
DC shared in their own controversy the following year with a Batgirl #41 Variant cover, it’s always those variant covers. In this case artist Rafael Albuquerque paid homage to The Killing Joke with a crying Batgirl held hostage via Joker. A beautiful cover in it’s own right, but some saw it lacking in “class” whereas this new Batgirl series was a more lighthearted take on the character and this cover not fitting that tone. Albuquerque asked DC to drop the cover having this to say..
“My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker. For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited. My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I’m incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.”
If you go back and look at dozens of covers from day’s past you will see a multitude of what could be called sketchy, racist, sexist, and many other ‘ists. Let’s end this short controversial conversation with one final cover brought to you by DC’s 1970’s Superman’s Girlfriend: Lois Lane #106. This cover depicts Lois walking into a machine that turns her into a black woman for 24 hours to show what it’s like to live as a woman of color, with the title, “I am curious (black)!” It’s the 70’s guys, plus they tried to tackle the struggles persons of color went through, but I agree the cover may be ever slightly funny due to how outrageous it was, but DC was trying to showcase real world problems. Which I will commend DC for trying to acknowledge these real life issues in s comic, but the cover they use is just in bad taste. Good intentions, poor taste (in cover). Whereas years later in 1971’s Snowbirds Don’t Fly ( DC’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85) we have what a hard hitting cover that deals with a hard hitting real life problems, that changed comics showing we can address series problems. Just make sure the cover isn’t like some from days past.
Looking back at the 80 plus years of comic cover history is very unique to me. With so many comics coming through the years covers can help us understand how feelings towards certain things where “okay” at one point in time, and problematic years later. A great quote from a Tom and Jerry cartoon collection always stood out to me..
“Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”
Many times in the past things would be published in media that just wouldn’t fly nowadays and looking back makes you think, how the hell did this get approved? As in anything thoughts, feelings, and the way we look at things evolve a great amount. Once where the Superman’s Girlfriend: Lois Lane #106 was okay now isn’t due to valid criticism, same could be said for other covers throughout the years. Looking into this subject a fair amount of covers came from the World War 2 era. With images of America defeating our opponents in the war, one that really stood out that I recently discovered would be Flash Comics #33, where our good friend Hawkman is dropping a bomb on Japan. Like holy shit what?
These type of war covers prevailed in Marvel’s Captain America comics due to the character being created as what Joe Simon said, “… a consciously political creation”. I never really deep dived into Captain America, but I always had a feeling he was created in part to America and WW2. Luckily I have the power of Wikipedia to help me learn just a little more behind the creation.
Simon said Captain America was a consciously political creation; he and Kirby were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II and felt war was inevitable: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”
Looking back at these covers we should delight in the way that we have advanced – to a degree- past all of these problems, but still take a moment to acknowledge what was once okay while moving forward. Hell maybe some covers in these past few years will be troublesome in our far future.
If you stuck around this long I congratulate you, and if you didn’t, well then you didn’t see this so whatever. As Dr. Strange said in Infinity War “We’re in the end game, now.” You could say it’s all being collected, sorta like what were will be talking about; collections. These come in many forms: TPB (Trade Paperback), HC’s (Hardcovers), Omnibuses, Deluxe Editions, Essential’s, Absolute Editions. All of these share the common structure of bundling series, arcs, events, or assortments of comics inside. These comic covers differ than the usual floppies.
Where as singles try their best to show what is in that specific issue collections try their best to showcase what it’s content is about. Sometimes this ends with a brand new cover being created, or chooses one of the singles best looking and relevant covers to showcase. Adorned with that image and the main creators name and companies logo, nothing to crazy happens here. But I do love a wrap around cover.
Closing The Cover…
As we close the cover on this cover story let me ask you one last question, what is your favorite cover? I asked some of the other’s here at ComicsBulletin and we plan to post them in a future article, I hope you look forward on our coverage of these covers!