One of the unexpected side effects of the success of the Direct Market in the late 1980s was that comic book publishers now had much lower overhead for any given comic book. Under the old newsstand system, they would have to accept returns on any copies that didn't sell. So even a book with decent sellthrough in the 70% area meant that the comic book company would be printing 30% of their print run of that comic on copies that were then going to be thrown into the trash. Once they no longer had to worry about returns, the printing cost on each comic lowered dramatically. This allowed comic book companies to begin spending more money on production, hence the innovations in things like coloring and page quality. It also made it possible for publishers to experiment with "special" covers, as they would only be printing as many covers as were ordered, so they would not have to print any extra "special" covers that would be returned later (and thus making the whole experiment cost-prohibitive). This, then, launched the era of comic book gimmick covers.
As time went by, the various comic book companies would compete against each other to see who could come up with the most innovative use of new technologies, like holograms and foil covers. Here, then, are the 10 best gimmick covers ever released.
10 Magnor #1
In 1993, Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones were far enough ahead of their schedule on their excellent long-running series, "Groo," that they decided that they would do a second project. That project ended up being the superhero satire "Magnor," which they did for Malibu Comics. For the first issue of the series, Evanier and Aragones got on board the gimmick cover train with one of the best of the era, a pop-up cover for the issue. The book came polybagged to hold the pop-up cover in, and the creators hilariously mocked the whole speculator's market on the cover of the book, as a boy is distraught that his sister has opened up his copy of "Magnor," thus making it no longer mint.
Here is what the cover looked like all popped out (courtesy of Eleven O'Clock Comics)..
It's quite a nice job. Sadly, "Magnor" did not catch on as well as "Groo" did, and it ended up just being a six-issue miniseries.
9 The Spectre #13
Visually, there were few comic book characters that better lent themselves to glow-in-the-dark covers than the Spectre, as so much of his body was supposed to be eerily glowing anyway. So when the Spectre began to star in a new ongoing series in 1993 by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake, it was no surprise that the first issue would feature a glow-in-the-dark cover. In fact, three of the first thirteen issue of "The Spectre" had glow-in-the-dark covers (which was probably a bit of a case of diminishing returns the more you try something). None used the gimmick better, though, that "Spectre" #8. A recurring idea in the early issues of "The Spectre" is the notion that many people carry darkness within their souls, so how does a being like the Spectre compensate for that? Where does it get off judging others? That darkness within everyone is beautifully visualized by Tom Mandrake's cover to "Spectre" #8, where we see a bunch of "normal" people, but when the lights are off, the glow-in-the-dark part of the cover takes over and we see within them all and it is not a pretty sight.
8 Wolverine #50
Most early die-cut covers for comic book gimmicks were pretty awful. One of Marvel's very first die-cut covers was on "Fantastic Four" #358, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, and it was just a simple circle cut into the cover showing the Fantastic Four logo. However, Marvel then followed that up with the much more impressive work later that same year with "Wolverine" #50. The comic cover was designed like it was a file folder, with Wolverine's claws cutting through the file folder. This tied directly in with the storyline going on in Wolverine's title at the time, which had him discover for the first time that he had fake memories. When you opened up the cover, it followed the file motif by showing photographs and paperwork from various pieces of Wolverine's alleged past, all in the folder.
Very clever work, with great artwork by Marc Silvestri and Dan Green.
7 Jab #3
The independent comic book anthology series "Jab" had a brilliantly twisted idea for a gimmick cover for the 1993 third issue of the series. Each issue would have a bullet hole in them! An actual bullet hole! Shannon Wheeler (the awesome creator of Too Much Coffee Man) was asked about it for an old Comic Book Legends Revealed, and this is what he had to say about the comic:
We actually shot every one of our comics with a gun. The standard issue was shot with a .22. We had special editions of a 9mm, a .45 and a shot gun issue. We charged more for the higher caliber books. The shotgun issue came in a bag for $20 and was guaranteed unreadable.
Our bullet hole went through the middle of the book. We asked the artists to incorporate the hole into their stories. In my Too Much Coffee Man story the police were continually shooting into his house and I placed the hole in a breaking window, shot Elvis decanter, shattering coffee mugs, etc.
It took 3 days to shoot the 3,000 comic books.
6 DC Comics Villains Month
In 2013, DC Comics celebrated the second anniversary of the New 52 with a special "Villains Month," that also tied in with their "Forever Evil" crossover. For the month of September in 2013, the villains would take over all of DC Comics' titles. Not only that, but each of the books would come with a 3-D lenticular cover that would appear to be moving. Lenticular technology had come a long way since it was first used on comic book covers in the early 1990s, and the resulting covers were absolutely gorgeous, like Jason Fabok's Joker cover for "Batman" #23.1.
The actual event was a bit less so, as it was essentially a month filled with one-shot comic books, mostly by creative teams not actually involved with the main comics, so the quality of the interiors of the book were a bit hit and miss, and DC also mistakenly was unable to actually print the books to order (as they had to commit their orders extra early due to the lenticular covers), leading to drastic allocations on some of the covers, particularly those that were assigned to low-selling books like "Dial H for Hero" and "Swamp Thing."
5 Reign of the Supermen
In 1993, DC pulled off their own successful die-cut gimmick cover release, and just like "Wolverine" #50, the reason that it worked so well is that because it tied in with the story in the comics. After the death of Superman in late 1992, DC had left fans wondering what was going to happen next. In early 1993, they gave the answer - they were going to debut four new Supermen and it would be a mystery whether any of them would be the "real" Superman or not. The idea, of course, was to keep the new Supermen around when Superman came back as new characters, and that worked wonderfully with Steel and Superboy (a clone), who debuted in the event. The covers for each character's debut would look like a "normal" Superman cover just featuring the traditional Superman logo, until you opened the cover to see that that logo was now on four very different new characters.
4 X-O Manowar #0
To give you an idea of just how big the comic book speculator's boom was back in the early 1990s, the very same day that "Superman" #75 came out, the "Death of Superman," there were three other comic book releases that sold over 500,000 copies, as well, with Marvel shipping two installments of their "X-Men" crossover, "X-Cutioner's Song" and Valiant debuting their latest series, "Bloodshot." "Bloodshot" #1 was very hyped because it included a special "Chromium" cover, a new gimmick cover technology introduced by Valiant that was basically a fancier, shinier foil cover. "Bloodshot" #1, however, had the chromium just in a sort of box on the cover of the first issue. In 1993, they improved the technology so that it could bleed out to take up the entire cover, which they demonstrated with the wraparound cover to "X-O Manowar" #0, which was drawn by comic book superstar Joe Quesada.
To this day, when you still see the occasional Chromium cover produced, it remains one of the best cover technologies introduced in the Gimmick cover era.
3 Superman: The Man of Steel #30
Fans had barely had time to rest after the return of the one, true Superman before DC dropped another gimmick cover on them in late 1993. However, this time they came up with an even more clever cover gimmick. The concept of "Superman: The Man of Steel" #30 was that Lobo learned that Superman was alive again, so he decided to travel to Earth to test Superman out to see if he was as strong as he was before he died. In other words, a perfect excuse to have an all-out brawl issue. The cover for the issue was a glossy wraparound scenic display of Metropolis, drawn by Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke. Then, included in a polybag with the issue, were a series of vinyl drawings of Superman and Lobo by Bogdanove and Janke.
You would then remove the vinyl drawings and place them onto to the cover and, due to static electricity, the vinyl pieces would stick to the cover. So you could create you own fight between Superman and Lobo (it was billed as "The first do-it-yourself cover!"). It was essentially the same as the game Colorforms.
2 Silver Surfer #50
Foil had been used on mass-produced novels for years before it slowly began to creep into the world of comics, as well, but only on logos. In 1991, Marvel decided that they would take things one step further, and really, was there a better choice to debut using embossed foil figures on a cover than Silver Surfer? The guy looks like he is made out of foil! So Ron Lim and Tom Christopher drew a cover for "Silver Surfer" #50 (a tie-in with the "Infinity Gauntlet" crossover, which had launched out of the events of "Silver Surfer" when Jim Starlin took the book in late 1989) and then Lim and Christopher's Silver Surfer figure was embossed and made out of foil.
The striking effect changed the history of comic book covers forever (well, at least for the rest of the 1990s), as it helped sell hundreds of thousands of extra copies of the title, leading to a second printing and a deluge of copy cat covers from that point forward (even "Silver Surfer" itself just reused the idea 25 issues later in "Silver Surfer" #75).
1 Ghost Rider #10
Remember when we mentioned that few comic book characters lent themselves to glow-in-the-dark covers more than the Spectre? Well, guess who is one of those few characters. That's right, Ghost Rider, he of glowing flaming skull fame. "Silver Surfer" #50 came out in April of 1991. Just one month later, Marvel released "Ghost Rider" #15, with a glow-in-the-dark cover by "Ghost Rider" artist Mark Texeira featuring the Ghost Rider's flaming skull taking up the entire cover. One of the major complaints fans have always had with glow-in-the-dark covers is that it always seemed like there was not a lot of actual glow-in-the-dark material on the covers. That was certainly not the case here, as the glow-in-the-dark material took up roughly a quarter of the cover!
It was a stunning cover, and paired with the aforementioned "Silver Surfer" #50, it showed that there was a whole lot of money to be made in gimmick covers ("Ghost Rider" #15 also went to a second printing). However, few later covers did it quite as well as these two early Marvel gimmick covers, where the gimmicks fit the characters in the books so naturally that it just seemed to make sense that they would have the covers that they did (we almost considered making it a tie for first between "Silver Surfer" #50 and "Ghost Rider" #15, as they were both so influential and they both look so cool).
What's your favorite comic book gimmick cover? Sound off in the comments.