The second-to-last cover included in DC Comics: The 75th Anniversary Poster Book (which I swear I won’t write any more posts about after this!) is Gary Frank’s cover from Action Comics #863, depicting Frank’s Christopher Reeves-inspired Superman standing among the members of the new old post-Infinite Crisis Legion of Super-Heroes.
It’s a nice enough image, but when I first laid eyes on it while flipping through the book, my initial thought was “What’s that doing here?”
The section of the book devoted to the last ten years is in some ways the most interesting section, because it’s so difficult to see history when you’re in the midst of it.
Picking out the most important, influential images from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s from the early 21st century was probably a breeze, the biggest challenge being which ones there weren’t room to include. Those covers—heck, those from the ‘80s and perhaps even ‘90s—are far enough away that an editor or compiler can see how they’ve held up over the years, how many homages there have been to them, how the comic under that cover has come to be thought of over the years, what the artist who drew it has gone on to do.
But Action Comics #863…? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to me like it will be regarded as a necessarily important cover, any more than the story inside will wind up being a classic one, but I suppose it’s too early to tell.
So here are the covers from the 21st century that were included in this visual history of DC Comics (If you have a copy of the book, you may want to whip it out and follow along. If not, I’ll link to the relevant images at comics.org.)
—Dave Johnson’s cover for Detective Comics #745, one of the earlier issues of the post-“No Man’s Land” iteration of the title. At that point, Greg Rucka was writing, Shawn Martinbrough was penciling, the book was colored in single colors approaching a black-and-white effect, and there were back-up stories included, at no additional cost to the cover price. Johnson would hang around until #761, after which point EDILW favorite John McCrea came on as cover artist and Greg Rucka, now teamed with Rick Burchett, Scott McDaniel and Steve Lieber, finished up his Sasha Bordeaux storyline and TEC got swept up in the “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” crossover story.
Here’s my favorite from Johnson’s run as cover artist: They’re all pretty great though, and Johnson continues to do dynamite cover work, now for DC’s Freedom Fighters title.
—Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman #2, from the 2002-launched volume of the book, initially written by Ed Brubaker. That title was one of DC’s most visually interesting for a few years there. In the first year, there were four covers by Darwyn Cooke (who penciled the first story arc, his art inked by Mike Allred), five covers by Paul Pope, one by Scott Morse, one by Jeff Parker, followed by a few by J. G. Jones and then Javier Pulido and Cameron Stewart, who were by then doing interiors.
Here's one of Pope's covers, a pretty unusual view of the character, seen in the rain through a car windshield:
—Dave Johnson’s 100 Bullets #33, from a series of Johnson’s covers which featured design work so completely different from that of his TEC covers that it seems like the work of a different artist in many ways.
I have to confess to having decided to trade wait 100 Bullets after the first few issues…and then never actually catching up on it in trade. I hear it’s pretty great though. A glance at the cover gallery makes picking just one to represent all of them seem like an unenviable task.
—Adam Hughes’ cover for Wonder Woman #184, which was no doubt a difficult choice, given the fact that Hughes has drawn roughly one million Wonder Woman covers (Okay, it’s closer to 50, still).
Hughes was something of a controversial choice for Wonder Woman cover artist, given the relentless sexuality of his images. His Wonder Woman had a sense of humor, sure, and she could “act,” but it was her scantily clad body that seemed to be the focus of the majority of the covers.
And I think that’s fine. Wonder Woman is a scantily clad woman after all, and most of Hughes’ depictions of her tended toward the good girl end of the cheesecake spectrum, with relatively few ever approaching exploitation (Even ones like this “mud-wrestling” cover generally winked knowingly at the audience).
I didn’t really care for the way Hughes portrayed Wonder Woman’s boots, which were always baggy, and I had a hard time understanding how they even worked, and I wasn’t crazy about the way he drew her lasso, as a thin little wire whipping about as is possessed of its own life, but there’s no denying that Hughes is a great artist, and his version of Wonder Woman is probably the most consistent and pervasive over the past few decades, on account of how long he was attached tot he character.
When I close my eyes and imagine “Wonder Woman,” it’s a Hughes image that comes most immediately to mind.
Here are two of my favorites:The first one is from a multi-part crossover in which the Wonder women team-up with the Bat Family for a few issues. I like the way it says “Batman’s in this” subtly, without actually surrendering the cover to him, and Hughes just plain rendered the hell out of Wondy’s face there. And the bat’s face too. There’s an amusing one a few issues later, showing a bunch of the side-kick types cowering behind Wonder Woman (I think Scarecrow and/or a Greek god of fear were involved at that point).
I really only like about a third of the second one, and that’s the third featuring Wonder Girl. I like her pose and expression, and the fact that Hughes went to the trouble of making her look different than the other two Wonder women.
Actually, looking at the cover for Wonder Woman #186 longer, Wonder Woman actually looks pretty gross on that cover. Her costume seems about seven sizes too small on top, too…
—Jim Lee’s swinging-flying-kick cover for Batman #608...... which seemed an odd choice, give how much more often I’ve seen this one:Lee later repeated the pose and basic composition on the first issue of his less popular run with Brian Azzarello on Superman:I didn’t realize until I read this particular poster book that the pose was at least inspired by Brian Bolland’s Wonder Woman #72 cover.
I like Lee's work a lot more now than I did in the past; he’s an artist who has only gotten better over the years, but revisiting his cover work for Batman, Superman and Infinite Crisis, I see he’s still not all that much of a cover artist. Oh, he does the superheroes posing superheroically images just fine, but there’s nothing special about his covers.
Check out his Batman run on the cover gallery on comics.org, and it’s dullness becomes accentuated.
The cover artist immediately preceding him was Scott McDaniel who, for all his faults, suffuses his work with a weird, awkward energy that reminds me a bit of Jack Kirby’s work in terms of posing and the feeling of bottled up tension either about to explode or in the act of exploding:
And the cover artist immediately following Lee was Dave Johnson again, doing something fresh, new and exciting with negative space and story title for the Azzarello/Risso “Broken City” story that followed “Hush,” and was all but eclipsed by it (I liked that story, by the way, although it read as if it was only meant to be in some sort of quasi-continuity, more appropriate for Legends of the Dark Knight or Batman Confidential than the flagship title.
(Holy shit, let’s stop and think about this for a minute—Jim Lee and Eduardo Risso were drawing Batman comics just a couple of years ago! Now they stick poor Grant Morrison with guys seemingly at random).
—James Jean’s covers for Fables #18 and Batgirl #45. I would wager that these were included because they are exceptional images created by James Jean moreso than because of the particular individual titles or characters involved… although it’s worth noting that Fables became Vertigo’s post-Sandman, default flagship title.
I would further wager that a fairly large part of Fables’ success is owed to the strength of Jean’s work (I know it’s what first got me to pick up a Fables trade, and what I missed the most when I eventually tired of the series; the covers on the trades seemed to result in more visitors to my house picking up copies and flipping through them then other trades I may have laying around, as well).
Jean did 17 Batgirl covers, coming on to the 2000-launched, Cassandra Cain-starring title right about the time it probably should have been canceled, when it’s original creative team left, their story complete. Around that same time, Jean did just shy of a dozen covers for Green Arrow, another title that had begun flailing and failing creatively.
Jean turned out to be a hell of a superhero cover artists, perhaps because his work is so far removed from the typical superhero cover art.
—J.G. Jones’ cover for Y: The Last Man #16, the Ampersand-doing-Hamlet cover. This popular and highly addictive Vertigo series seemed more visually striking on the inside than on the outside, but that’s a pretty great cover. You can’t go wrong with monkeys or frilly, Shakespeare collars, and this cover has ‘em both. And I love how hard Ampersand is acting in that image. He’s not a monkey pretending to act, he’s a monkey acting.
—Tim Sale’s cover for Detective Comics #792, a rather weak cover from late-ish in Sale’s 20-issue run of covers for the title in 2003 or so (Dark, dark days fro the Batman franchise, which was just about to enter into the “War Games” crossover, which would pretty much unmoor the whole family of books until 2006 or so, when Grant Morrison and Paul Dini would take over the two main Batman books.
I can’t imagine why they chose that particular Sale image over the other 19 or so in that run of covers, or why they chose any of Sale’s covers from that period. If you think “Tim Sale” and “DC Comics,” you probably think of one of the striking covers from one of his two signature Batman series, The Long Halloween Not sure why they chose to highlight Sale’s work on this particular title instead of the much more popular and influential limited series he did with Jeph Loeb, Long Halloween and Dark Victory…
—Darwyn Cooke’s cover for DC: The New Frontier #6, one of six great covers for that series (I really liked the moody Challengers of the Unknown image on the cover of #3 and the cubist renderings of Justice Leaguers around the coiled tentacle on the cover of #5 too). That sixth and final one is probably the best of the lot though, and certainly the most “DC” of the images, with Hal Jordan reaching for his Green Lantern ring and the other six members of the “Big Seven” JLA all throwing their fists in the air.
It’s stylized, it’s artsy and it’s “Hell yeah!”
New Frontier is probably this past decade’s Kingdom Come, in terms of a high-profile, out-of-continuity miniseries that made a star of its artist and influenced the way in which other creators depicted DC’s superheroes.
I just wish it influenced the art in the DC Comics that followed as much as the writers…
—Alex Ross’ Green Lantern #1, speaking of Kingdom Come. I flipped through the stack of Green Lantern comics in my room before typing up this tidbit, and realized that despite all of the great artists who have drawn this book since it launched in 2005, there aren’t really very many great covers.
Ethan Van Sciver did scary versions of Hector Hammond and The Shark on the covers of #4 and #5, but for the most part the covers from the series that stick out in my memory are the unintentionally funny ones: Green Arrow and Green Lantern blissfully about to make out with a couple of Black Mercy monster flowers on Neal Adams’ cover for #8, Green Lantern and Batman about to angrily make-out on the cover of #9, blood puke and so on.
Alex Ross’ cover for Green Lantern #1 may actually be the best one in the series then, as static and uninteresting as it is (although it’s worth noting that it’s actually an incredibly dynamic image for Ross).
As the title neared the end of Blackest Night, and Doug Mahnke started doing the covers, I think we started to see a lot more higher quality images, but this book was assembled before that.
—Dave McKean’s cover for the 2005 Arkham Asylum Anniversary Edition seems like a bit of a cheat, as the book itself is from the late eighties. Nice, scary, evocative image though!
—Paul Pope’s cover for Batman: Year 100 #1, from the fairly incredible, alternate future Batman series from 2006 that I’ve devoted an awful lot of verbiage to before.
It’s worth noting again though that Pope’s cover there was his version of the first appearance of Batman on the cover of Detective Comics #27: Man dressed as bat, legs folded, rope, some pipes. See?
—Frank Quitely’s cover for All-Star Superman #10 is a really weird choice, given the unique strength of the smiling-Superman-resting-on-a-cloud image from All-Star Superman #1:When I think about All-Star Superman, that’s the cover I think of. All of this book’s covers are pretty great though; #6’s featuring Superman and Krypto at Jonathan Kent’s grave and the wacky Bizarro World cover for #8 are particular favorites.
—Gary Frank’s cover for Action Comics #863, which we already discussed a bit. Looking at Frank’s other Superman covers from Action Comics and Superman: Secret Origin, that probably is the best image of his Reeves-inspired Superman, although I’m awfully fond of his quiet cover for #869. The original one, without the big, generic “SODA POP” label photoshopped in, of course.
—Alex Ross’ cover for Batman #679, a chapter of the “Batman R.I.P.” storyline, is the final image in the collection. It’s probably one of the most boring Batman images imaginable. Well, you can imagine a more boring Batman image—say, Batman just cold standing there—but Ross already used that one for a poster.
I generally like Ross’ work, and think he’s a pretty decent cover artist, but he seemed pretty out of his element on this particular storyline. It was chockfull of some pretty crazy ideas—Batman was, if I recall correctly, out of his mind on “weapons-grade” meth, hallucinating a magical negro hobo and an alien parasite version of Bat-Mite, while dressed in a homemade red, yellow and purple Batman of Zur-En-Arrh costume, fighting his way to Arkham Asylum where he would face both The Joker and a guy claiming to be either his father and/or the devil.
And Ross just paints a picture of Batman swooping down from a rooftop, an image that could been the cover for any Batman comic book ever published. Here’s interior artist Tony Daniel’s alternate cover for the very same issue:Imagine how scary a Ross version of that Batman would be, his photorealistic eyes with their eye-lashes all looking crazy at the reader from behind a purple cosplay cowl stitched together in an alley.