Brian Cronin is the author of "Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent: And Other Amazing Comic Book Trivia!" (Plume Books, $15.99)
The comic book cover is a unique form of art, as it must be at once both a teaser for the story within but also a piece of art of its own. For comic book fans, the covers of classic comic books are often the only part of those comics that they will ever get a chance to read. Certain cover images become an ingrained part of the comic book fan experience and very often become representations of certain comic book characters and/or eras in comic book history. Here, then, are the 10 most iconic comic book covers of all-time.
Gil Kane's powerful cover is an expert manifestation of "out with the old, in with the new" as the new members of the X-Men are literally tearing through the old guard. That this group of heroes became the most famous group of X-Men ever takes this cover from being merely a great cover by one of the all-time great comic artists and into the realm of the most iconic covers of all-time.
While Kane's cover shows the exit of the old, Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson's cover for <em>Flash #123</em> shows the return of the old. Besides being an excellent cover on its own merit (Infantino had a real gift for coming up with great ideas for covers), this comic signifies the birth of the DC Multiverse, the conceit that allowed for the return of the superheroes introduced during the 1940s that DC had recently replaced with new versions. The old heroes are still around, they just live on an alternate Earth. This simple idea became a lot more complicated as time went by.
The final cover that John Byrne drew during his landmark run on X-Men is also his finest. Inked by Terry Austin, this striking cover is the ideal all other "alternate future" comics aspire to be. The power of first seeing the names of all your favorite X-Men listed as either "apprehended" or "slain" cannot be underestimated.
The first book of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's classic tale of Batman returning from a long absence in the future to a dystopic Gotham City (each book was labeled The Dark Knight: ____, but the first book, <em>The Dark Knight Returns</em> eventually became the name that the whole series was referred to as) was striking enough of a story that readers would always remember it. However, this brilliant silhouette cover by Miller made it that much more memorable.
This cover was penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Steve Ditko. It actually replaced a cover penciled by Ditko that Stan Lee felt was not heroic enough. Lee's instincts panned out as this bold cover played a major role in Spider-Man quickly breaking out as Marvel's biggest star.
Like his <em>Dark Knight Returns</em> cover, Frank Miller perfectly captured the mood of his series with the cover of the first issue. Here, with a stunning image of Wolverine, Miller depicts the wild, chaotic charisma that Wolverine possesses, a man who can't wait for you to make the first move so that his razor sharp claws can go to work.
The cover that signified the birth of the Marvel Age of comic superheroes is one of the most homaged covers in the history of comics. John Byrne alone has paid tribute to the cover seven times! Besides being a powerful image by Jack Kirby (and a still unknown inker) the cover gives us a hint towards how the Marvel Age of superheroes was going to be different from any other type of superheroes seen at that point. Note the emotions apparent on the cover - you have the bravado of the Human Torch but you also have the panic of the Invisible Girl. These were superheroes who real, human emotions. Nothing would ever be the same. As a humorous aside, one of the most fun aspects of this cover is the question, "Who exactly tied Mr. Fantastic up?"
There had been other covers before this one that showed superheroes giving up their identity, but they were always "imaginary stories" that did not really happen in the comic. Here, Spider-Man actually <em>does</em> give up his identity and that is the beauty of John Romita's cover. He captures the emotions of a hero who really does <em>not</em> want to have to be a superhero. He'd rather give it up and hang out with his friends. It is only his cursed sense of responsibility that keeps dragging him back into the superhero business. Here is a man haunted by his ghosts but cannot give them up. Combined with the interior page inside the issue (also by Romita) with Spider-Man's costume in a garbage can as Peter Parker walks away in the rain, it is the most iconic imagery in Marvel Comics history.
This George Perez cover is not even a particularly original composition. The image of one person carrying the slumped body of another owes its heritage all the way back to Michelangelo's Pietà, but even more recently, John Byrne had done a cover of <em>Uncanny X-Men</em> with Cyclops carrying Phoenix in a similar pose. However, this cover stands out by the multiple shocking facets of the cover. First, you see seemingly every superhero in the world standing in the background in solemn tribute - not something that you see very often. Secondly, it is the world-famous Supergirl (who had just had her own movie a few years earlier) lying dead in the arms of Superman. Finally, Superman, the picture of poise, is losing it and bawling out of sorrow for his dead cousin. Add them all together and this cover screams, "You thought you knew what to expect from comics, but you thought wrong." This cover has been homaged countless times over the past three decades.
The fascinating aspect of the cover for <em>Action Comics #1</em> is that it was not intended as a cover. It is simply an interior panel by Superman co-creator Joe Shuster that was blown up and cropped into a cover. Yet Shuster would have been hard pressed to come up with a more iconic image for the birth of the superhero. The unique combination of evident super-strength and a colorful costume solidified the image of what a superhero is to the point that it is still what we think a superhero "must" look like to this day. You don't get any more iconic than that.