Jim Shooter said it best in an editorial for Valiant Comics. He bemoaned the excess of the industry in the early ‘90s when it seemed like all you needed was a cool cover to sell a crappy comic. He promised his readers that Valiant would never do that. Of course, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t use a special cover to draw attention to one of their comics. It just meant they would do their best to make sure that the inside of the comic was as impressive as the outside.
And, honestly, some of those comic book exteriors were pretty impressive. They were eye-catching. They were beautiful. They were memorable. So, in tribute to enhanced comic book covers, here is my list of the most impressive entries from the ‘90s and beyond.
Note: Picture scans may be hard to see due to the high reflective value of the cover.*
The first winner isn’t even a comic book. It’s a magazine about comics. But it’s a great cover nonetheless. Hero Illustrated commissioned Alex Ross to paint this luscious recreation of Steve Ditko’s original art for Amazing Fantasy #15. The image jumps off the page even on the newsstand version. The special edition 3-D version is simply spectacular.
The Best Acetate Cover: Marvels #2 (1994)
This is simply a great work of art. There’s the incredible contrast between the beautiful angel soaring into the air and the angry mob beneath him. And then, Marvel gave the art a great cover enhancement. The acetate cover provides protection, plus it allows the viewer to see the art unencumbered by the cover copy and the logo. Simply beautiful. The first issue, featuring the original Human Torch, is stunning as well and could have just as easily taken home this award.
Honorable Mention: Wizard Ace Edition #4: Madman #1 (1996)
I discounted this cover somewhat because it was commissioned for a reprint, four years after the original issue. But there’s no denying that the cover itself is incredible. Mike Allred has fun with an infinity cover, with Madman sitting in front of a barbershop mirror. And the acetate overlay only adds to the effect, as the top image can be peeled away leaving only the reflections.
This was by far the most difficult category to determine. There were simply too many great entries. Mike Deodato’s cover for Avengers: The Crossing. Chris Bachalo’s Steampunk #1. And all of those great Valiant #0s and #1s by artists like Joe Quesada, Bart Sears and Barry Windsor-Smith. But the best of the bunch is Travis Charest’s cover for Wildcats #25. It’s such a great use of negative space, and the chromium makes it look even better. Majestic, towering over the rest of the team, looks- well- majestic. And the other ‘Cats look cool, hanging out on a classic car.
The Best Die-Cut Cover: Wolverine #50 (1992)
You can’t just cut a hole out of a cover and call it good. The thing that makes a good die-cut cover is a good cover concept. And Wolverine #50 is a great cover concept. The comic book is designed to look like a manila folder. It’s marked “Top Secret” and it supposedly contains all of the secrets of the Weapon X program. And then, it’s slashed through the middle with Wolverine claw marks, revealing pictures underneath and some of the secrets contained within. This cover promises answered questions and mysteries revealed.
Honorable Mention: The Punisher Meets Archie (1994)
Kudos to Marvel and Archie Comics for coming up with one of the oddest crossovers of all-time. And kudos to them for giving it a very special die-cut cover. That’s hilarious.
As part of their 30th anniversary, the Avengers celebrated with a series of embossed covers. They appeared on issues 360, 363, 366 and 369. I love them all but the best of the bunch is the cover for #363. It’s just a very simple yet very intense clash between two heroes. Black Knight swinging his sword down against Captain America who is holding his shield up in defense. Steve Epting did a great job on the whole series, stripping away backgrounds and focusing on essential, iconic images.
The Best Foil Cover: Aliens/Predator: The Deadliest of the Species Ashcan (1993)
I had never seen this cover until I started doing research for this project. Suffice to say, I was blown away. I love the simplicity. I love the contrast between beauty and menace. And I love that Dark Horse went with a blood red color for the foil enhancement. This is a great, striking cover. And it helps me understand why Aliens/Predator became such a successful property.
How do you make a small trade paperback into something special? Simple. You take the original art from the first issue of a four issue mini-series and transform it into a stunning gold foil cover. Maybe I’m like Pinky or Stimpy (how do you like those ‘90s references?) and fascinated by shiny objects, but these covers were completely irresistible.
You could buy your favorite of four images, three of which featured the X-Men and a fourth which featured Magneto. Or you could buy one comic which featured all four images in one great fold-out cover. Yeah, I went with the latter. The Jim Lee art is powerful. And watching those images spread out like an accordion was something magical.
The Best Glow-in-the-Dark Cover: Blair Witch Project #1 (1999)
A lot of the glow-in-the-dark covers were pretty much normal covers with extra ink. They were shiny. But they weren’t designed to be looked at in the dark. You can’t make that same claim about the Blair Witch Project. This was a comic that was meant to be read after dark, in a tent, with a flashlight. The lights out aspect of the cover seems almost essential to the design. And it’s a perfect feature for a horror comic based on one the most ground-breaking horror movies of all time.
The Best Holofoil Cover: Voltron #1 (2003)
Combining the movement of a hologram and the shininess of chromium, holofoil covers were the technological advance of the new millennium. Image gave the holofoil treatment to several comics. But for several of them, the foil gave the cover a weird green glow and the unenhanced cover looked better. But the Voltron variant, part of the early decade ‘80s cartoon nostalgia boom, used the enhancement to perfection. The robot looks extra dynamic, as if he really is rocketing through space.
The X-Men comics had some great cover concepts for their crossovers. 1993’s Fatal Attractions used a hologram card of a featured character and a wrap-around action cover. The best of the bunch is Joe Quesada’s cover for X-Factor #92, narrowly beating out Andy Kubert’s cover for X-Men #25. I just like how Quesada’s cover is stuffed full with action. And I prefer the fact that the character in the card, Havok, is also in the action scene. It gives the cover a unified feeling and helps make it a winner.
Not every great cover is a great comic. Case in point: Superman Forever. This issue was supposed to be the grand finale of the Superman Red/Superman Blue story that had been running through the Superman titles. Superman was supposed to be getting his powers back. And, well, he did. Except we were never actually told how. He just had them back. And then he went around visiting people. All in all, it was a boring non-story. But I have no complaints about that great Alex Ross “Magic Motion” cover. It’s the only reason why I haven’t sold my copy.
Okay, maybe I’m cheating a little by giving this award to three issues rather than one. Consider it congratulations for the entire mini-series. Most photo covers are little more than publicity stills or excuses to show pretty women. But this Angel mini-series broke away from the mold and the result was spectacular. The first two covers were fairly normal pictures of Angel actor David Boreanaz. But the third was a wry, extreme close-up. The fourth had Angel pushed all the way to the right with a second picture inset of the rest of the cast. And the fifth had a relaxed Andy Hallett as Lorne, looking as cool as Sammy Davis Jr.
Leave it to Sergio Aragones to poke fun at the comic book industry. His pop-out cover for Mighty Magnor is an excellent satire of a fandom and an industry that had become obsessed with pristine condition comics. This cover was one that was designed to be bent. And Aragones even threw in a picture of a small fan fretting about the fact that he had to buy two copies: one to mangle and one to store. Come to think of it, in the day and age of officially graded CGC copies, it’s about time someone else came out with a cover that was designed to be defaced.
I’m not sure I know the difference between a prism cover and a holofoil one. And I’m not alone. I’ve seen this cover listed as both. Oh well. It’s an excuse for another category and another winner. This cover does a great job of using the reflective surface to highlight important features. One shiny spot casts an additional shadow on the villain’s face, emphasizing the menace within the story. The other shiny spot draws attention to the hero’s hand of power.
I discounted this issue because it was a special edition available in limited quantities, rather than a regular cover or even a standard variant. Yet this is still a great cover. It takes what had been a fairly boring villain piece and builds it into something remarkable. I love the way that Onslaught’s powers are sparkling around him. And I especially love the holographic skull that’s floating inside his armor. Very creepy and very cool.
In 2003 and 2004, DC developed a new tradition: releasing sketch cover variants for comics that went back for multiple printings. The best of these was the second cover for Green Lantern #2. The black and white picture contained so much texture. And DC let just a little bit of green in to highlight the ring in the center. It was an incredibly striking cover. I even remember some fans bemoaning the fact that they had bought the first printing because the sketch variant looked so good (and yes, I was one of them).
The Best Velvet Cover: Glory #1 (2001)
Here’s an idea I would never have thought of: velvet covers for comic books. As if velvet Elvis Presley paintings were in need of competition. And, truthfully, most of the velvet covers are pretty hideous. They seem like failed attempts to make bad girl characters like Lady Death and Avengelyne even sexier. But I found one velvet cover worth complimenting. It’s from Avatar’s release of the Glory series that Alan Moore wrote before the funding for Awesome fell through. Hey, if anyone deserves a velvet cover, it’s Alan Moore.
It’s not that hard to make a virgin cover. You just have to remove all of the cover copy: the title, the company logo, the bar code and so on. But it’s significantly more difficult to make a great virgin cover. The picture has to stand on its own. It has to look, not like a comic book, but like art. Of all the virgin covers I’ve seen, I think that this Billy Tucci cover for Shi Senryaku is the best. It has that fine art sensibility, while also playfully evoking a Duran Duran cover. It’s the perfect cover for a mini-series that is sometimes deadly serious and sometimes decidedly silly.
JLA/Avengers is overwhelmingly impressive. George Perez has a habit of making great wrap-around covers. I love his covers for Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 and Avengers Vol. 3 #1. But this cover is simply jaw-dropping. It features every Avenger ever and every single member of the Justice League in its history. It’s a cover that you can pour over for hours and still be impressed. Even though it’s grandiose, there’s such incredible attention to detail. Body postures, character positions, even animals. I’m almost out of superlatives. Wow!
I know that I’ve already given a lot of awards to X-Men comics. So it’s not like I needed to come up with yet another category. But I really like this cover concept and I think it worked very well on multiple issues. Each cover had a foil bar down the right side and a picture of a key character just right of center. Then, there was a big wrap-around cover showing off some of the action from the story inside. The contrasts are incredible, with Sabretooth seeming to menace Synch (X-Men 36), Banshee apparently screaming at Skin (Uncanny X-Men 317) and Douglock and Forge standing off against one another (X-Factor 106).
They may have been the new companies, but Image and Valiant came up with a classic design for their intercompany crossover. The border on the left side and the top make it look like the book had been bound and belonged on a bookshelf. The cardstock paper only added to that feeling. The border was usually something special as well- silver foil or a marble print. The Valiant covers were a little over-crowded but Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld (yes, Rob Liefeld) came up with some strong images featuring the heroes in powerful poses or exciting leaps.
To celebrate its debut as an ongoing series, Gen 13 celebrated with not one, not two, but thirteen different covers. But it wasn’t just an excuse for thirteen different pin-ups. The Wildstorm crew had a great time coming up with all kinds of covers. There were parodies of Rolling Stone, Pulp Fiction and the Brady Bunch. There were Spider-Man, X-Men and Frank Frazetta homages. There were even dress-up doll and draw-your-own covers. Brilliant!
*I borrowed the disclaimer from mycomicshop.com. I thought it was appropriate and hilarious.