Best Comic Book Covers Ever (This Month) – May 2012
A great comic book cover is both an advertisement and a work of art. It is both a statement and an invitation. Sometimes a great cover conveys character, sometimes mood, sometimes moment. Great covers can pastiche the classics or pay tribute to the past, or they can strive to show us something new. Great covers always show us a glimpse of somewhere else on a canvas no bigger than a window pane. In Best Comic Book Covers Ever (This Month), we look back at some of the most eye-catching, original and exceptional covers of the month that was.
This feature is now in its fifth month, and that seems like a good time to clarify a point; I don't count covers. I don't check to see if I put in a fair balance between, say, Marvel and DC. My only criteria for picking covers are, "Do I love it?" and, "Is Diamond saying it shipped to stores this month?", and even then that second question can get a bit fuzzy. This month I checked; I have six Marvel covers, four DC covers, and three Francesco Francavilla covers. Let's see which is which...
In their best month, Marvel had ten covers in this feature. In their worst month, they had only two. In total, they've had 29 covers, boosted somewhat by last month's Avengers art pastiches. But I think Marvel works with some of the most innovative cover artists in the business, including the legendary Dave Johnson, who gives us a blessedly cheeky composition on this James Bondi-ian Fury cover.
Batman Annual #1 (DC); cover by Jay Fabok
By comparison, DC Comics also had ten covers in its best month and two in its worst, but its total is a smidge behind at 26. I think DC has been struggling with its identity a bit since the reboot and leaning too heavily on dull, formulaic images; chest shots, hero poses, shots of seven angry people charging at an unseen foe, or the classic image of two tumbling figures with their fists raised, floating or falling against a background busy with noise and color. Marvel does it too, but at the start of the reboot DC was doing it more. I think they're transitioning out of it, and I think this cover does a good job of marrying a high detail Jim Lee-style line with a very un-Jim Lee use of white space and spot color.
Fables #117 (DC Vertigo); cover by João Ruas
Ten of the 26 DC covers I've picked in these first five months have been Vertigo. I'm actually surprised that number isn't higher; Vertigo used to be the home of inventive cover design and emphatic cover identity, but then I suppose Vertigo used to do a lot of things it doesn't do as much anymore. Two cover artists still stand out, and one of them is João Ruas, who has a gift for elegant melancholy. He creates covers that feel both classically Vertigo and completely new.
Unwritten #37 (DC Vertigo); cover by Yuko Shimizu
The other standout, of course, is Yuko Shimizu, whose covers I've now singled out for praise four months in a row. But some months there are two Shimizu covers, and I still only picked one, so I'm exercising a lot of restraint here, OK? Her composition blows me away, and she seems to come up with endless new ways to capture the themes of Unwritten.
Animal Man #9 (DC); cover by Steve Pugh
Animal Man is no longer a Vertigo title, but it hasn't forgotten its roots. This is a sensationally macabre image. Very rich, very striking. I sincerely hope DC is going to give us more books with this sort of powerfully distinctive identity and fewer with a traditional growl/grimace/pose cover.
Smoke And Mirrors #3 (IDW); cover by Francesco Francavilla
I don't check to see how many covers I've included by a single publisher; I also don't check to see how many covers I've included by a single artist, but I wasn't surprised to learn that I'd picked three Francesco Francavilla covers this month. This one grabbed my eye with its unorthodox composition and color choices. Reality as a crazy quilt.
Dark Shadows #5 (Dynamite); cover by Francesco Francavilla
Then there's this one, with the complementary shapes of the woman's back and the coffin lid providing a simple elegance. There's also a powerful sense of menace to the framing of the woman's head between the vampire's eyes and the trickle of blood on her shoulder.
Spider #1 (Dynamite); cover by Francesco Francavilla
And this one, completely different in style and tone to the other two. Francavilla sits comfortably in the top tier of cover artists working today, which is why his name crops up time and again in this feature. He often brings a retro sensibility and a muted palette to his work (especially well suited to this pulp character revival), but his ability to distinguish voice from one series to another is exemplary.
The Shadow #5 (Dynamite); variant cover by Ryan Sook
Speaking of Dynamite's pulp revivals, Ryan Sook's Shadow portrait is a great companion piece to Francavilla's Spider. It uses the same basic spot color to achieve a very different effect, and I think it's pitch perfect. Sook makes great shapes on his pages.
Daredevil #12 (Marvel); cover by Paolo Rivera
I think one thing Marvel has done very well for years now is find cover artists who want to establish striking aesthetics tailored to the books they work on, far removed from the usual banal language of superhero covers. It doesn't happen across the board, but when it does happen it's very welcome. Paolo Rivera has been knocking it out of the park on Daredevil, and he does it again with this provocative radar view. Click here for some behind-the-scenes on this image.
Ultimates #10 (Marvel); cover by Kaare Andrews
I'm glad to see Kaare Andrews move away from his recent line of filmic hero-pose covers on the Ultimate books and back towards the sort of original vision that I've always loved in his work. How often do you see a superhero cover that pulls the camera back this far from the heroes? It's worth it to see the beautiful temple, the cherry blossoms and the... floating islands?
Journey Into Mystery #638 (Marvel); cover by Stephanie Hans
I've only noticed Stephanie Hans's work recently with her covers for Journey Into Mystery. This cover is one part of a frieze for the current JIM/New Mutants crossover Exiled. Impressively, the pieces are all good covers in their own right, but this one is the best, and all of them make me excited for what Hans might do next.
Mighty Thor #14 (Marvel); cover by Walter Simonson
This cover stands out to me because it's refreshingly old school. It's not painted, it's not digital, and it's not stylized or abstract. It's a pen and ink superhero image, but it's Walter Simonson, so he's built the page like the master he is; split level, split dynamic; direct, powerful, brilliant.
X-Factor #235 (Marvel); cover by David Yardin
And finally from Marvel this month, a classic Wolverine cover, with two key changes; one, it isn't Wolverine, and two, it's vectorized. Are vectorized covers on the rise, or have they always been with us to this degree? I think it works very well here for placing us in that flashpoint moment of red rage.
Jinchalo (Drawn & Quarterly); cover by Matt Forsythe
There are two types of comic that I worry are under-represented in this feature. One of them is independent books, but I think they're only underrepresented because there's proportionately fewer of them. A great cover like this one for Forsythe's Korean fantasy will still catch my eye, even though it sometimes requires a mental gear shift to go from thirty pictures of constipated heroes to one light lovely storybook image like this one.
Kamen (Gen Manga); cover by Gunya Mihara
The other under-represented type of comic in this column is manga. I spent last weekend at Anime North in Toronto where I was swimming in manga covers, and it was tough to pick out any remarkable ones. That's not a comment on the art, which offers as much diversity and beauty as any other section of the industry, but on the way manga is packaged, which feels even more formulaic than the superhero books. This exquisite inky scribble is a manga cover that stands out for its unusual use of framing, color, text; I think it does everything right.
Danger Club #2 (Image); cover by Eric Jones
I don't know if this book is superheroic in content, but the cover has many of the hallmarks of a typical superhero cover; bright costume, loud action, explosion, chaos, a blaze of text. But here it works beautifully, because it's not busy; it's just restrained enough to be manic.
Saga #3 (Image); cover by Fiona Staples
This cover, by comparison, is very static, but just as effective. I don't know who this ghost girl is, but I know from the ragged intestines that something truly horrible happened to her, and I know from her expression and her body language that she doesn't seem too hung up on it. A great cover can convey the layers of a story in a frozen moment.
Rachel Rising #8 (Abstract); cover by Terry Moore
I will admit that sometimes there are good covers that don't make my picks for the month because I think that artist or series hasn't yet hit its peak. The red and green covers for Rachel Rising are a good example; they have all been striking, but this month they leapt up a level. The way the color buries the woman on the page while the density of the inks keep her alive and fighting is just stunningly sinister.
Fatale #5 (Image); cover by Sean Phillips
Here's another apt example; all of the Fatale covers have been strong and distinctive - this is a book that knows exactly how it wants to present itself to the world - but this was the cover with the strongest noir punch of black coffee and red passion so far.
Elric: The Balance Lost #10 (Boom); cover by Dan Panosian
So that's how it works in Best Comic Book Covers Ever (This Month). There are no rules about which covers I pick. I don't look for a publisher or an artist or a character. I just choose the covers that I really like. If I know the story that might help me grasp the significance of a cover, but it shouldn't be strictly necessary. This Elric cover is a perfect example; I've never read an Elric book in my life. I couldn't tell you the first thing about the series. But this is a cover that makes me want to know more. This is a cover that sparks my imagination and stirs my love of art. That makes it one of the best comic book covers ever. (This month.)