by Rob Lamberti
Scouring through my collection always feels like a treasure hunt, rummaging through boxes and finding items I’ve forgotten. Oh, look. A Wally Wood cover. Um, there’s one by Jack Davis. Here’s Jack Kirby. There’s one by Steve Ditko and another by the macabre Bernie Wrightson.
Speaking of which, Wrightson’s Frankenstein cover art sold for $1.2 million in a December auction in Los Angeles. The artwork was for his 1983 adaption of the classic for Marvel Comics. It is the definitive fantasy art adaption of Mary Shelly’s 1818 book. I wrote about his work earlier this year in Wayback Times, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein.
Good covers tell the story that’s inside in one usually explosive drawing. They’re active, succinct and emotional, much like a powerful headline for a news story. Great covers linger in readers’ memories forever.
So here are a bunch of covers I think are among the most iconic. Of course, the list is both woefully incomplete and subjective and in no particular order.
There are decades worth of great covers depicting Batman— including the character’s first appearance in Detective 27 — but one that stands out is Batman 227 by Neal Adams, published in 1970. Gothic in style with ominous tones, it is a much-improved rendition of Bob Kane’s Detective 31.
Close seconds include Batman 241 with the clean, classic lines of Wrightson and Adams, and 194 by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson who drew a rock ’em, sock ’em cover that shattered the magazine’s flag.
Frank Frazetta drew the cover of Weird Science-Fantasy 29 showing cave dwellers ambushing a stranded spacefarer on a narrow pathway precariously wrapped around a mountain or along a cliff. It’s a powerful and savage work. EC fans will undoubtedly scream other great covers being omitted — which include every other EC cover.
John Buscema on Silver Surfer 4 shows what I imagine is a news photograph taken the second before what will be a near-nuclear impact between a manic Surfer and an angry God of Thunder, Thor.
Green Lantern-Green Arrow 85 tells a complete story on the cover. Issued during the realism wave of the 1970s, the comic explored drug addiction and managed to get approval for publication by the repressive Comics Code Authority. The topic and the Authority were usually not compatible.
Spider-Man titles have numerous excellent covers, but my favourite is Amazing Spider-Man 33, released in 1966 and drawn by Ditko. It was the last chapter of the three-part series called If This Be My Destiny. I still remember my thought when I saw that as a kid at a Toronto variety store on the corner of Oakwood Avenue and Rogers Road: “Oh, no. How does he get out of this one? Is Spider-Man no more?” The shock returned when number 50 hit newsstands, “Spider-Man No More.” That panic lasted a month when number 51 came out.
I never knew they existed until I saw one in a collection I purchased. Grey tone covers — also known as wash tone — from DC, in particular, Our Fighting Forces 71. The technique was used on several covers, particularly among the DC war titles. The style was also used on hero books, including Sea Devils. It visually added to the sense of danger and anxiety.
Fiction House published many extraordinary works. Wings beginning in 1940 presented some of the finest war comic covers of the era. Number 61 by Lee Elias, in particular, captured the moment when duty overtook fear. Later editions — and those of sister publication Rangers Comics — had soldiers and airmen saving damsels in distress in an obvious attempt to increase sales. They were beautiful works that moved away from the realism of the earlier Wings issues, but, hey, we’re talking comics here.
Marvel Mystery Tales with covers by Schomburg generally don’t draw the eye to one focal point. The action is intense and spread out over the covers. One can study a Schomburg cover for years and still find something new in the action-packed scene. Here’s number 35 from 1942.
The Alex Ross painted covers on the 1994 Marvels series are outstanding, but number 1, a new take of the 1939 edition of Marvel Comics 1 — the origin of the original Human Torch — captured the shock of seeing someone “Flame On.”
Artist Walt Kelly produced some of the best funny animal books, including Pogo and Walt Disney. They’re warm, funny, endearing and, in the case of Pogo, poignant. They are all definitely magical. I’ve included Number 2 of Fairy Tale Parade here.
Crime Does Not Pay 42 has Charles Biro depicting the not-so-subtle dead-end trail of a gangster’s life with a powerful use of light and shadow. It shows a gangster in a shoot-out with police in a, well, dead-end laneway who is throwing off a shadow forecasting his future of sitting in an electric chair.
Matt Baker is among the best, and gifted, artists to ever draw comics. His specialty was women, and among his spectacular works I find captivating is Canteen Kate. Baker avoided blood-and-guts in the Korean War-era comic to focus on campy military humour. I’ve been searching for this title since they were affordable.
Wrightson’s 10 Swamp Thing covers are, in a word, astounding. They each powerfully depict an environmental Frankenstein seeking to balance the wrongs done to the planet’s natural wonders. In some ways, the storylines were ahead of its times.
But which is the best cover among them? Is it number 1, where ST is rising out of the ooze to confront a hostage-holding gunman? Or number 5, where he battles pitchforked and torch-carrying town folk á la Frankenstein? Maybe number 7, where he faces Batman. Or number 9, where one can hear the water and mud dripping off his plant-based body while rising out of the muck as his red eyes focus on his quarry?
Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four covers are tremendous. He was a master of telling a complete tale on a cover. FF 12 shows Hulk quietly prepared to ambush an unsuspecting Thing at the intersection of two tunnels, while 52 dramatically introduces the Black Panther, and 37 offers a sense of pending doom. But the cover of FF 48, the first part of a three-part story line that introduced planet devourer Galactus and his herald the Silver Surfer, offered an image that leaves the reader spellbound.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this but this story arc, published in 1966, goes beyond a science fiction tale and metaphorically dropped the reader into the middle of the Cold War four years after the Cuba Missile Crisis. The feeling of pending Armageddon was palpable in both ’63 and on Kirby’s cover, as Galactus would destroy our world as much as nuclear missiles. Diplomacy, however, saved the world as the Silver Surfer negotiated peace with Galactus.
Jim Steranko’s covers on the original Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., series introduced ’60s psychedelic images to comics, but number 7 added dollops of Dali, which were totally mind-bending, man.
Comics were exploring genres to find new markets when Barry Windsor Smith’s art exploded on the cover of Conan the Barbarian 1 in 1970. The book solidified a spot for the Sword and Sorcery genre, which Marvel dominated for many years.
And, of course, there’s Wrightson’s Frankenstein graphic novel, which he worked on sporadically for seven years to finish.
A long column, but not long enough. There are so many covers that should have been included, drawn by Wood, Mac Raboy, Bill Everett, Marie Severin, L.B. Cole, Jack Cole, Jeff Jones, Jack Davis, Joe Orlando, Gene Colan, Michael Kaluta, Mike Ploog…