Welcome to yet another installment of Judging by the Cover (Nostalgia Edition). Here, we celebrate comics past as the industry (and the world at-large) plans ahead for a (very different) post-COVID world. Consider this an essential little crossroads for past, present, and future.
Spider-Man: Life Story #2
Cover by Chip Zdarsky
When it comes to Spider-Man comics (and even the movies to an extent), the front cover should be very simple. Spidey is enough to get the message across, so long as you can come up with something inventive. This is what Chip Zdarsky did when drawing covers for his six-issue masterpiece Spider-Man: Life Story. In an all-orange background, where you have Spidey using his web to lift a giant disco ball that resembles the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs, Zdarsky uses the iconography of both the hero and the villain, as well as the 1970s setting, to give you some context of the issue you’re about to read. Like I said, simple but effective.
Silver Surfer: Black #2
Cover by Tradd Moore
The best thing about comics (aside from the dynamic between visuals and text and an endless supply of machine guns) is the sub-text. Comics ride the line perfectly between true art and pop nonsense (and I mean that totally complimentary), and thus you can read as much as you want into the story and visuals. Case in point: Tradd Moore’s excellent cover for Silver Surfer: Black #2. Could you say the Surfer’s pose in the fetal position is meant to explore ideas of rebirth and destiny, motifs central to the very store? Sure. But is said artistic choice also just cool as heck? You know it. So, whether you skim the surface, or delve into the textual smorgasbord, this is one truly great series powered by beguiling artwork.
Outsiders (2003-2007) #4
Cover by Tom Raney
You always remember your first. Specifically, Judd Winick’s run on the Outsiders is the first book I collected from the beginning in real-time, right up until issue #25 (it’s a feat given how fickle I can be in maintaining a series beyond the third or fourth issue). Part of it was Winick’s story, assembling a rag-tag team of misfit heroes to save the day (an approach that’s been mirrored in years since). But it’s also about the art team, which includes some great covers by Tom Raney. Issue #4, in particular, still feels deeply unsettling after 17-ish years, and Brother Blood instantly became this massive presence in the series then in its infancy. Maybe it’s that the blood here looks like chocolate milk, or the Outsiders in the background are warped like mutant scarecrows. Either way, images like this are why this book remains a tried and true classic for this writer and so many others.
Daredevil (2015-2018) #11
Cover by Ron Garney
OK, here’s another example of comics’ penchant for surface vs. a deeper dive. Ron Garney’s work on this Daredevil run made ample use of the red-black-white color pattern, providing a lot of depth while playing with our sense of reality and emotional leanings. In the case of issue #11, specifically, there’s so much to pull away here, like the endless dichotomy Matt Murdock experiences with his Daredevil alter ego, or his desire to separate the man from the bloody machine. But even if you don’t decide to explore those motifs, Garney’s cover is deeply human, and a profound mix of the tragic and the romantic — there’s this deep, deep sadness that’s also somehow captivating. It makes Daredevil look thoughtful and poignant without foregoing the coolness of “blind lawyer fights crime in red spandex devil’s suit.” Talk about efficient.
Cover by Chris Sotomayor
Competent though he may be, Nightwing remains eternally trapped. He struggles to be the crime-solving, spin-kicking bad-ass he is while grappling with his persistent legacy as the Boy Wonder. And with little more than a green domino mask, Chris Sotomayor has captured that painful dichotomy with the greatest of ease. But this cover excels beyond that powerful little detail. It’s the look of frustration and anger in Dick Grayson’s face, which manages to be both stoic and somehow vulnerable. Or the use of blood, furthering the dichotomy between Nightwing’s desire to rise above this world and his inability to run away from a fight. Even the Crow-like face paint tows the inhuman-human line. Is all this another instance of reading into a cover? Sure. But also, Nightwing has always been a character brimming with so many layers of meaning and value as a hero, friend, and average Joe looking for his own piece of mind.
Cover by Frank Quitely
I way behind on getting into this book, but I finally made the move on We3. I won’t lie, either: as much as I’m into the idea of this miniseries as an exploration of, among other things, the military industrial complex, I just want to see adorable animals in sick battle armor. But even if I only need the adorbs factor, Frank Quitely’s art demands so much more. Take, for instance, the cover to #3, which features the totes cutie Pirate the rabbit. There’s something about this blend of visual “tricks” — the child-like handwritten notes, the grainy, almost nostalgic quality of the photo a la an ’80s Polaroid, and the dull red of the rabbit’s eyes — that just hit you right over the head. It’s an experience that’s both charming and unnerving, and this series in general is all about playing with your heart, soul, and mind.
Extermination Volume 1
Cover by Trevor Hairsine
If you haven’t already consumed the Si Spurrier-written Extermination, the whole premise is basically, “What happens if a Batman and Lex Luthor knock-offs have to work together after an alien apocalypse.” The whole series is far more complicated than that description (and wonderfully and completely delightful), but that sense of overt cheese is central to the series’ success. And that’s sort of why I love Trevor Hairsine’s art (not to mention, Jeffrey Edwards’ interiors): it plays up the most important qualities, namely the endless grit (like a ’90s straight-to-VHS classic) and the whole dynamic of seemingly unlikely teammates battling the forces of true evil. From there, the proper story unfolds, and you’re treated to a weird and wonderful meditation on morality, friendship, and why men in capes are what they are.
Nextwave: Agents of HATE #1, #7, and #12
Covers by Stuart Immonen
Over on the AIPT Comics podcast, Forrest and I will be breaking down the Nextwave series by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen, which made highlighting the cover art to this hilarious series a no-brainer. The series remains a cult classic of sorts, but those who have had the luck of reading it know full well this book was inspired. The covers were, too.
Much like the team itself, the cover art does not abide by common rules, is punk as hell, and isn’t afraid to take risks. Most of the 12 issues had a split-screen look with the bottom half and top half dividing the book in a sometimes pleasing but oftentimes jarring way. Each cover seemed to be saying, “We don’t care what you think,” which added to the attitude the book brought.
Issue #1 had a blending of classic art with modern sensibilities thanks to Immonen’s penciled drawing overlaid on the classic The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. The Hawaiian print used as the backdrop of the characters makes them pop oh-so nicely, as if to say this is all about fun, but underneath there’s some truly serious business.
Issue #7 features an oddly stretched Elsa Bloodstone on the bottom and a cool cut-out print of the team at the top. This all seems to be a statement about the then hugely popular and “edgy” covert-ops teams like The Losers.
Finally, #12 (the grand finale) features the team in a similar position as issue #1, with a black smear of ink used as a shadow on the characters. Underneath them is a hologram that looks akin to something Tony Stark would see in the Iron Man suit, but it is, in fact, a turntable. The cover wants you to think it’s taking itself seriously but it isn’t at all.
James Bond: Casino Royale
Cover by Fay Dalton
Honestly, what’s not to love about this? Fay Dalton’s style lends itself beautifully to Fleming’s super spy as he was originally conceived. That’s why she has been chosen to provide some incredible illustrations for numerous Bond projects. This cover is easily one of my favorites, though. It has a smoky, old old-school quality to it that wonderfully recalls old paperback covers. It feels sexy without leaning into anything overtly cheesecake-esque. It’s classy and dangerous at the same time, just like its lead character. Best of all, it gives us all of our major players in one image while keeping the all-or-nothing game front and center. It’s a perfect summation of the stakes and the intrigue and heaps of imagination.