Archive for March 22, 2020
There’s an old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover, and for the most part, that’s true. Today though, as we’re taking a trip through the history of comic book covers to find the absolute best gems, it might be better to leave that adage by the wayside.
A discipline all to itself, comic book covers are a gateway to fantastic worlds of brilliant art, epic stories and immortal characters. Sometimes the cover does say a lot. There are many incredible artists in the field who have crafted breathtaking images in service of their book-covers, and this list leaves off some of the very best. But such is our task.
The cream rises to the top, however, and based on criteria including influence, artistic merit, cultural impact and overall style, here are the five greatest comic book covers of all time.
Of all the great Golden Age artists who graced the pages of the pioneering Entertaining Comics label, few have endured the test of time, nor influenced as many of their successors, as the incomparable Frank Frazetta. A devotee of renaissance disciplines and the far-flung fantasy worlds of Robert E. Howard, Frazetta took the hyper-realistic style of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant from the Sunday newspaper funnies and injected his own vision of raw, kinetic drama that served as a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps his best work would be the cover of EC’s monthly anthology series, Weird Science-Fantasy. Repurposed from an unused Famous Funnies Featuring Buck Rogers cover, the image is a masterclass in composition, movement and detail that still holds up today. EC covers were known for their violence and elicitation of shock, but few ever came close to the raw brutality displayed here. A suspense-filled, action-packed scene brimming with so much life it jumps off the page, Frazetta takes the classic, hackneyed “explorer trapped in a land before time” trope and reimagines it as a gritty fight for survival beyond equal.
There’s many stand-out qualities: the fine inking, the intricate expressions engraved on the faces of the explorer and his primitive enemies, the simian quality to the explorer’s wrist as he follows through on the devastating strike, the vagueness as to whom is the attacker and of course whether or not the explorer isn’t about to meet his own end at the caveman’s club. These elements together produce a vivid fever-dream that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Today the cover is a testament to both Frazetta’s skill as well as the power of imagination within the pre-space-age futurism of the time.
Steve Ditko, along with his contemporary Jack Kirby, probably contributed more to the Silver Age aesthetic that helped define Marvel Comics throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s than any of their stable. A virtuoso at his craft, Ditko’s fluid, animated style imbued his work on Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with a spontaneity and depth that smoldered with barely dormant psychological intensity. While his rocky partnership with writer Stan Lee has often served as a point of controversy among fans, few can gainsay the lasting influence of their 38-issue run, nor Ditko’s own impression on the character as the original artist. Perhaps this is why the story-arc generally considered to be the height of their partnership, “If This Be My Destiny…!” running issues #31-#33, is often seen as the definitive Spidey story, and why issue #33 in particular takes a spot on this list.
The cover picks up where issue #32 left off: after defeating Doctor Octopus in his secret lair under the Hudson River, the Web-Head has been buried under a massive hunk of iron he believes too heavy to lift. In front of him lies what he came for: a serum needed to save his Aunt May’s life from a radioactive blood disease he accidentally gave her. The ceiling is leaking, and soon, the harbor will flood the chamber. And Peter Parker is trapped.
What the cover captures in gut-wrenching fashion is something we seldom associate with the light-hearted fare of the ‘60s: true despair. Amidst the cartoonish flair Ditko was known for, we see the hero, his head bowed in utter hopelessness, as gouts of water flood in submerging him. The colorful contrast between bright red and somber blues highlight the atmosphere of claustrophobia, all drawing focus to Petey’s iconic mask. It actively asks the reader, “what do you think is going on under that mask?” an invitation into the mind of our hero in his darkest hour.
The issue opens up with this very scene, offering no respite to the reader. Like Dave Gibbons would later demonstrate in Watchmen, the use of the cover as an inciting image of the story adds a certain immersiveness to the experience, a technique Ditko got in spades. This addition to the formula only strengthened the cathartic moment of the issue when Spidey manages to hoist the impossibly heavy machinery over his head in one of Lee’s greatest written sequences (as homaged in the climax of Spider-Man: Homecoming). A classic cover for a timeless tale.
The backstory surrounding the cover to 1971’s Green Lantern #58 is one of the most fascinating in the history of comics. Since the mid-‘50s, the major comic book publishers had entered into self-censorship agreement under the “Comics Code Authority”, in which they agreed to keep the content of their stories free of sex, violence and other lurid details, including the words “horror” and “terror” in the titles of their books. None other than Stan Lee eventually broached the spirit of this agreement in Amazing Spider-Man #91, also published in 1971, forgoing the code certification found on all of their titles at that point and depicting Norman Osborne struggling with addiction. Later that year, DC decided to follow suit, resulting in Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams producing one of their most powerful works.
The controversial issue ran amidst the merging of Green Lantern’s title book with Green Arrow, and came on the heels of their cross-country journey exploring the changing culture of America in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. The Comics Code, among other draconian measures, specifically required that “crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal” within a comic book story. So it was a major shock when Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy ended up attacking him with a gang of heroin dealers, with Speedy himself in the grips of possibly fatal addiction brought on by the absence of his mentor.
It’s not just the gripping, grounded portrayal of two costumed heroes addressing real-life issues. Nor is it Adam’s attention to the human elements within the piece that make it so powerful. What makes this cover so powerful is how it really brings home in stark and sober terms that, fantastic and wonderful as the world of superheroes may be, not all problems can be solved through the administration of justice. Sometimes, we just have to be better to people. And even heroes make mistakes.
The ‘70s was a hotbed for all things weird and wild in comic art and when true, bonafide geniuses get in on the action, magic can break out. So it was when French artist Moebius, also known as Jean Giraud, got together with Les Humanoïdes Associés and began printing Métal Hurlant in 1975. A man who brought dreams to life with pen and ink, Moebius introduced Arzach, an irreverent, pterodactyl-riding fantasy hero in a lush, yet opaque world of surreal imagery. His eye-catching style eventually found its way to America with Heavy Metal Magazine in 1977, and earned a spot on this list.
Edited from the epic splash page found within the issue itself, in this jaw-dropping cover, entitled “Arzach Rides Again”, Moebius channels a retro sense of wonder with the contemporary psychedelic ephemera of the ‘70s. Featuring a brilliantly-colored alien landscape, the action involves the gathering of a mysterious army of monsters as the titular grim-faced glider flies across the field. On exhibition is Moebius’s impossibly well-trained attention to detail, as each creature great and small appears fully-formed straight from the mind of the artist.
The elicitation of awe emanating from the image is one that still pushes the boundaries of what comic style can accomplish when placed on the very frontiers of imagination. Other Heavy Metal artists like Richard Corben, Howard Chaykin and Bernie Wrightson all produced incredible covers for the title, but none ever quite matched Moebius’s unadulterated dreamscapes of excitement, mystery and adventure.
Superman may not be the most exciting character and his recent failures to ignite success on the silver screen suggest that depicting him relatably for a mass cinematic audience can prove to be a challenge. Even so, beneath all the criticism and failed permutations, there is an ineffable spark of hope that keeps the character close to our hearts as superhero fans. It’s because Superman represents the best of humanity: a near all-powerful, godlike figure who uses his abilities to keep an eye out over his adopted home and makes sure everything is all right. A hero we can admire and, above all, trust.
A great image of a classic hero can be a tall order. How can a depiction of a character as storied as Superman to add anything new to our understanding? In 2005, Frank Quitely stepped in, and assuaged all our fears with this cover. While DC’s All-Star label didn’t end up expanding quite as far as they must’ve hoped, Quitely’s All-Star Superman mini-series was critically lauded as a fitting tribute to the classical depictions of the Man of Steel. It’s easy to see why looking at this cover. Clearly drawing from Golden Age influences like Simon and Shuster, Quitely delivers the erstwhile Clark as an earnest, confident man in his pajamas, sitting on a cloud and gazing off with serene attentiveness as the sun rises over the city his protects. A concoction of childish whimsy and grown-up realism mixed together to create an understated yet powerful image of a hero everyone can understand.
Peter Stormare, the tall Swedish actor who plays brutes so well, appeared in the back-to-back Coen brothers classics Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Much to the delight of fans, Joel and Ethan Coen wrote an inside joke into The Big Lebowski for Peter Stormare's character that calls back to his role in Fargo.
Fargo is the tale of a kidnapping for hire that goes horribly wrong. In it, Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi play a pair of low level criminals hired to pull off that kidnapping. Stormare's character is Gaer Grimsrud, a quiet and intimidating brooder. Gaer also proves to be a heartless killer, shooting police and witnesses with little or no thought. His partner, Carl Showalter, is Gaer's exact opposite. Carl is weaselly, nervous, and never without something to say. Their sloppy way of doing dirty work propels Fargo along, until Gaer famously kills Carl with an axe and then feeds his corpse into a wood chipper.
The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, tells the unlikely story of The Dude (Jeff Bridges), who is a laidback guy just sort of floating through life until he gets caught up in a convoluted scheme because he shares the surname Lebowski with a man of affluence. Stormare and Buscemi are also both in the cast. Unlike in Fargo, here they're on opposite teams. But similarly to Fargo, Stormare's character is involved in a kidnapping -- of sorts.
Stormare plays an unnamed member of a bumbling band of German nihilists. This group devises a flawed plan to demand ransom for the return of the affluent Lebowski's young floozy of a wife (Tara Reid). The catch, of course, is that the wife is out of town on her own accord and not actually in the clutches of the nihilists. And while Stormare's nihilist and Buscemi's character (Donny, a bowler who is frequently and rudely told to shut up) are rarely in the same scenes, Stormare's role is pivotal in leading to the death of Donny, who has a heart attack in a bowling center parking lot when the nihilists clumsily attack.
So how were the Coen brothers able to connect the lives of The Big Lebowski's unnamed nihilist and Gaer, Fargo's cold-blooded killer? Simply put, with pancakes. In Fargo, Gaer, smoking a cigarette, announces to Carl that he is hungry and wants to go to the "pancakes house" as they drive across the vast, snow-covered emptiness of rural Minnesota. Carl shoots down the idea, citing that they had pancakes for breakfast. He instead suggests that they go to a place where they can get drinks and steaks, "not more f***ing pancakes." Two years later, in The Big Lebowski, Stormare's character sits in a diner with his nihilist buddies (including musicians Flea and Aimee Mann) and orders "the lingonberry pancakes" as he hands the waitress an oversized menu shaped like a stack of pancakes. This, he finally gets his wish.
2008 slasher sequel Return to Sleepaway Camp featured original star Felissa's Rose return to the franchise, but the final product did poorly. Sadly, it's not really that surprising that Return to Sleepaway Camp failed to wow horror fans. While 1983's original Sleepaway Camp film tends to be well-remembered, it's really not that great a movie. It's got a certain sleazy 1980s slasher charm to it, but the main reason anyone remembers Sleepaway Camp is its admittedly very creative and surprising ending twist involving the identity of the killer.
That twist of course being that shy, quiet camper Angela (Felissa Rose) was in fact the killer the whole time, and not only that, she was actually born a boy, but was forced to live as a girl thanks to her crazy aunt after becoming an orphan. It's an ending that most likely wouldn't fly in today's social climate, and for good reason, as it certainly lends itself to a potentially unfortunate implication about transgender and other non-binary people. Granted, the situation is certainly unique, as "Angela" was forced to change gender identity against her will.
Gender politics aside, the ending is the primary reason Sleepaway Camp is still a movie horror fans are aware of, and with that twist used up, the sequels haven't been good. Angela was recast for Sleepaway Camp 2 and 3, with little mention even being paid to the character's gender issues, and both films were pretty terrible. With the original Angela back for Return to Sleepaway Camp, some fans hoped the franchise would improve, but it did not.
In what's never a great sign for any film, Return to Sleepaway Camp actually finished production in 2003, but didn't end up getting released until 2008. This was reportedly due to issues with the film's CGI special effects, which director Robert Hiltzik - who also helmed the original Sleepaway Camp movie - found to be lacking, and demanded be redone. Considering that both the critical and fan response ended up being terrible overall, the special effects clearly weren't the major problem present.
Reviews savaged Return to Sleepaway Camp, calling it boring, derivative, painfully unfunny, poorly written, and full of lame kills and unmemorable characters. Most critics even considered Return to Sleepaway Camp even worse than Sleepaway Camp 2 and 3, which had already earned low marks from just about everyone. While those films at least tried to change things up a bit, too much of Return to Sleepaway Camp seeks to coast on fans' nostalgia for the first film, with seemingly no effort being put into being creative or surprising. With the original director and star back, Return to Sleepaway Camp could've been special, but it ended up being just another disappointment.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars season 7, episode 5 included an Easter egg for the original Star Wars toy line. A huge part of Star Wars' success over the years has been Lucasfilm's merchandising, including action figures based on prominent characters (even some small ones, too). From Obi-Wan Kenobi to Lak Sivrak, names big, small and even long-forgotten have made their way to plastic form. Nowadays they're accurate, with proper paint and accessories. However, back then they often missed the mark. This was the case with a trio of characters who popped up in the most recent episode of The Clone Wars.
Clone Wars season 7, episode 5, "Gone With A Trace" reintroduced one of the series' most popular characters - Ahsoka Tano, who had been missing since season 5. Ahsoka left the Jedi Order behind, and now survives day to day in the slums of Coruscant. Her travels brought her to mechanic and pilot Trace Martez - and Trace's sister, Rafa, assigned her to a droid building job that quickly went awry. The droid went on a rampage, destroying much of level 1313. Trace and Ahsoka were able to stop it, but not without attracting a crowd. Among the many faces, a handful stood out as particularly odd. Collectors of the vintage Star Wars toy line would recognize them immediately.
As Ahsoka used the Force to pull the binary load lifter back onto the platform, a vibrant group of spectators stood front-and-center. The Rodian, Ithorian, and Aqualish in question were all dressed strangely, though. The first of which wore a green jumpsuit, the second a blue romper, and the third a blue bodysuit with an orange vest. They stood out quite obviously because those clothes weren't the ones their species typically wore. However, the 1978 Star Wars toys of them made these outfits famous. They were not screen-accurate by any means, but they have reached iconic status in pop culture. This is their first appearance on-screen together in their peculiar wardrobe, despite the figures being over four decades old.
Upon the release of Star Wars in May 1977, toys weren't ready-made. Instead, a small toy company called Kenner rushed them into production so they were ready by Christmas 1978. The first wave was a hit, so they sought to keep the momentum rolling into wave 2. This is where a pre-Maclunkey Greedo, "Walrusman", and "Hammerhead" would be released. However, they weren't identical to their on-screen versions. This was because there was a lack of proper reference pictures, so Kenner sculptors had to do their best. Some wore the costumes of other Cantina patrons while others were completely redesigned.
Star Wars has become known for its action figures, with even the most obscure characters getting releases at some point. Back then, they weren't always spot on, as is evident with the aforementioned characters. It took over 40 years, but these costumes are at last canon. It's better late than never, and The Clone Wars was the perfect place for it to happen. The show has referenced obscure entities of Star Wars' past on a handful of occasions. Although, it may be the first time it retroactively canonized something from its original toy line. At any rate, it was a fun detail to include. It's not every day vintage Star Wars toy designs pop up in The Clone Wars.
The Platform has proven to be one of the most timely films in recent memory with many of its themes reflecting certain elements of the COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic. Based on a script by David Desola and Pedro Rivero, the dystopian horror first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Well received by audiences in attendance, The Platform won the People's Choice Award for Midnight Madness. The film also secured a worldwide streaming deal following the festival and debuted as a Netflix Original on March 20. The Platform has already drawn comparisons with Cube and Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer and the Oscar-winning Parasite.
Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, the Spanish-language film follows the journey of Goreng (Iván Massagué) as he awakes in a tower-like prison. Goreng is quickly treated to an orientation by his new cell-mate, Trimigasi (Zorion Eguileor). With an initially unknown number of levels in total, the structure is known as a Vertical Self-Management Center, but more colloquially referred to as The Pit, and as Trimigasi grimly intones, there are three kinds of inhabitants: "Those at the top...those at the bottom...and those that fall." Goreng then receives a stark lesson as to exactly what the older man means when the titular platform arrives with their daily meal. Prepared on Level 0, the meal starts as a lavish feast, but by the time it reaches Goreng and Trimigasi on Level 48, all that remains are bones and meager scraps.
The levels beneath them fared even worse, enduring either Trimigasi's own spit-covered and broken glass-strewn leftovers or nothing but empty serving dishes. As a result, the lowest levels are forced to drastic measures to survive. Goreng himself learns this first-hand when the pair are randomly reassigned to Level 141. Despite bonding over their first month, Goreng awakes at the start of the second to find himself tied to his bed. Armed with a knife, Trimigasi makes clear his grisly, cannibalistic plan. Though Goreng is eventually able to escape with help from the mysterious Miharu (Alexandra Masangkay), his descent into madness and depravity - as well as his fight for survival and systemic change - had only just begun. While the film was more overtly designed as an indictment of capitalistic greed and "trickle-down economics," The Platform also held a mirror up to a coronavirus-panicked society in a myriad of ways.
One of the main ways people have been advised to help curb the spread of COVID-19 is to go into quarantine if you have the virus or even demonstrate symptoms, and even those who are unaffected have been instructed to stay at home as much as possible and practice social distancing. Though The Platform offered a much more extreme version, such isolation is at the film's center, offering both ends of the spectrum.
The Pit is meant to provide opportunity in tumultuous times. Goreng and Miharu voluntarily checked in for individual and social benefits, The Pit offering them a chance to achieve a goal: be it quit smoking, read more books, or even get a degree. Such proactive tasks have often been offered as an incentive for self-isolation in the wake of the coronavirus. Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan), however, was driven more by a greater good approach. After working for The Administration that created The Pit, she opted for the chance to stop spreading that which she spent years helping to exacerbate, which is eerily similar to the concept of trying to flatten the curve and not spread the virus.
Again, The Platform offers a much more extreme version. There's no selection of streaming services. There's no internet. There's nothing to pass the time besides the one item each inmate chose to bring with them, their thoughts, and the daily arrival of food. The Platform touches on several consequences of such isolation, including depression and even suicide. Even Goreng descends to the point of hallucinations and despair. Despite there being more distraction in the real world, people have been no more beset by boredom and mentally worn down by the solitude. As a result, many have forgone the risks of the coronavirus by still venturing out - either acting as normal or otherwise seeking respite. In the wake of even brief isolation, it's easy to adopt a more self-centered point of view and not see outside of yourself or your feelings.
The Platform offers a darker take on that symptom of isolation. By the time Goreng arrives in The Pit, the system has been in place for some time with the division between those on the upper levels and those on the bottom deeply ingrained. The same can be said between young and old. Trimigasi, after all, feels the need to remain steps ahead of potential, more virile threats rather than being able to rely on able-bodied assistance and companionship. It's no doubt a reflection of real life, where so many are currently content to put such vulnerable and immunocompromised people at risk. So long have The Pit's residents been isolated with only one other cell-mate for full-time company, they have all dehumanized each other so that their individual needs can take priority. In The Platform, it has led to upper and even middle levels gorging or otherwise spoiling the food (with no handwashing in sight) rather than thinking of sharing equally. In the real world, a similar mentality has been shown to have taken hold across the world, with many stripping supermarket shelves bare - not just of food but toilet paper and other essentials, even when not necessary.
The Platform also takes on such ideas of "fake news" in a very real way. Equally, it tackles the way such misinformation can fuel bias and provoke division. There is, of course, the already established divide between the top and bottom levels, only exacerbated by The Administration. Once a month, they randomly reassign their inmates to new levels - sometimes higher, sometimes lower. Though the organization believes it does this to maintain balance, the random redistribution of inmates manifests as anything but an equitable organization. Instead, it merely throws gas on the fire, giving those once mistreated below an opportunity to enact petty or gruesome revenge on others once the tables have turned. The Administration also knowingly spreads lies, such as the fact that there are no inmates under sixteen in The Pit, no doubt to ease any guilt they may feel and maintain the air of respectability exemplified by the food preparation scenes.
The sense of division is most prominent in the treatment of Miharu. Stated as once being an actress with a desire to be the "Asian Marilyn Monroe," she has been driven to violent bouts of mania by the time The Platform begins. The specific reasons for her descent are only teased, with the broader issues of The Pit no doubt meant to be viewed as the primary factors. Whatever the case, she's viewed as an outlier, as other, by the mostly white population. Even Imoguiri, who is introduced with noble intentions, ultimately refers to Miharu with racial epithets and perpetuates the lies about her - all in order to sway Goreng against her. Such divisions are also explored when Goreng teams up with Baharat to fight the system with one character evoking their racial differences to keep them from working together.
The Coronavirus outbreak has only served to spark and further heighten such real-world divisions. While some behavior can be attributed to a symptom of isolation, a lot can also result from a bombardment of conflicting and contradictory information. There has been a spread in inaccurate information regarding the virus from the very beginning, especially when some officials insisted it was not a serious matter or even a "hoax" until it was too late. Even today, there remain contradictory statements as to how best to combat the illness. Equally, like in The Platform, a lot of division has been racially motivated. With many erroneously referring to the illness as the "Chinese Virus," it has spurred on mistreatment of the Asian community.
Fortunately, The Platform isn't entirely doom and gloom. Goreng manages to maintain his desire to fix the system, even after he has devolved to the point of murder and cannibalism himself. He chooses to remain in The Pit and accept death, no doubt knowing he is forever changed and not wanting to contribute to such heinous injustice anymore. Likewise, Baharat gives his life so that the depravities and deceptions of The Pit can be addressed, and Imoguiri commits suicide so that Goreng can live long enough to see that same endeavor potentially achieved. Not only does Goreng successfully show the other inmates that cooperation is possible, but that there is hope for the future. The Platform offers hope in the form of a little girl. Believed not to exist, Baharat and Goreng find her on the lowest level.
Choosing to send the little girl up to Level 0 and freedom, both declare the little girl to be "the message." While it's never expressly stated, it's evident that the message is that future generations don't have to suffer the way that past ones have and that if more people thought of others, things could be a lot simpler and many more could thrive. Since the coronavirus became an official pandemic, many have tried to share that message - be it through misguided musical efforts or more direct actions. Despite the fact that the film is but a heightened microcosm of the real world, The Platform still demonstrates that unity rather than division is the best way to ensure prosperity for all in tumultuous times and that the kindness and compassion of even one can mean the difference between life and death for many others.