As difficult and time-consuming, yet thoroughly enjoyable, as it was to narrow down my 25 favorite covers of the year, it was a task made much tougher by one thing: the holiday calendar.
Despite what the DC Comics website led me to believe, this week's releases came out today (2009) and not Wednesday (2008), which meant a couple of early entries had to be bumped off the list late in the game. I'm a stickler, at least when it comes to that. Maybe those covers will make the next edition.
I've tried to explain, to the best of my ability, what makes the covers so successful, at least in my eyes. In some cases I've probably gone overboard, while in others I've failed to put a finger on that indefinable quality that makes an image stand out. That's the nature of art, I suppose.
So now, without further delay or caveat, here is my list of the 25 best comic-book covers of the year (in alphabetical order):
100 Bullets #92, by Dave Johnson
For the past nine-plus years, Dave Johnson has created a jaw-dropping look for the covers of the Vertigo crime series that blends elements of '50s pulp novels, classic Blue Note album jackets, the works of Saul Bass, and Soviet propaganda posters with a modern, and bold, design sensibility. The result is often sexy and savage (occasionally at the same time), but seldom, if ever, boring.
As Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's byzantine saga winds down -- 100 Bullets ends with February's Issue 100 -- Johnson is producing some of his strongest work on the title. Chief among them is this cover to August's Issue 92: An execution occurs beneath the looming, moon-like symbol of The Trust and a leafless tree whose bloody roots entangle in skulls (graves, perhaps). It's stark and stunning.
The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, by Eddie Campbell and Charlie Orr
It's not often the word "whimsical" is used to describe a comic-book cover, but in the case of The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, it definitely applies. Whimsical and clever. It's exactly what's called for by an offbeat graphic novel about a young man trying to live up to the legacy of his uncle, the famed circus performer of the title.
Jacket designer Charlie Orr, who worked with Eddie Campbell previously on the covers to The Fate of the Artist and The Black Diamond Detective Agency, lets his imagination run wild with type, twisting more than a dozen adjectives into a bird's nest of hair, and transforming the book's title into eyebrows and lips to accent the expressive watercolor eyes and mustache. To complete the picture, a subtitle becomes the chin, and the creators' names turn into the perfect bow tie.
The Amazing Spider-Man #575 and #576, by Chris Bachalo
It may seem like a bit of a cheat to include two issues in one entry, but to fully appreciate either of Chris Bachalo's covers you really need to view them in context. That's not to say each doesn't stand on its own. It's rare that a superhero-super villain brawl is depicted on a cover in such close-up fashion; typically, we're removed from the action, in part so we have a clear view of the title character(s).
Here, however, we have a front-row seat to the brutality: On the cover to Issue 575, you can count the cracks and creases on Hammerhead's massive fist as it connects with Spider-Man's face, the impact creating a crater in the fabric of the mask. With the addition of Issue 576, the covers become sequential art as Spider-Man strikes back, sending his opponent's sunglasses, and teeth, flying amid a shower of blood.
An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories, Vol. 2, by Daniel Clowes
Daniel Clowes' cover to the second volume of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction is delightfully understated in its execution: A woman talks, with the globe of a hanging light conveniently providing the word balloon, while a row of street lamps lead up to a low cloud, creating the man's thought balloon. Ah, the symbolic language of comics, reinforced by the framed print on the wall.
I feel as if I should say more, but the image is so wonderfully, and perhaps deceptively, simple that it probably speaks for itself.
Batman #682, by Alex Ross
Alex Ross' raucous ode to the 1960s Batman television series is too busy, too loud, too garish. In short, it's perfect for a nod to the William Dozier show, which was all of those things and more.
Batman and a smiling Robin are framed by their opponents, The Penguin, The Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze and The Joker. In the background, Batgirl rides in to provide backup while Bat-Mite (!) watches from atop one of the neon signs that double as the show's trademark sound effects ("Pow," "Biff," "Bam"). As if all that, plus trade dress and credits, weren't enough, Ross squeezes in the Bat-Signal -- it's mostly covered up by the title and the "Last Rites" banner in the final cover -- and a modern Dark Knight superimposed over the action. It's almost too much to take in. Almost.
The Boy Who Made Silence #6, by Joshua Hagler
Joshua Hagler's covers to his Xeric Grant-winning series don't bring to mind comic books as much as they do prose memoirs. It's not difficult to envision the surreal images wrapped around a somewhat tragic autobiography in the "New Arrivals" section of Borders. And maybe that's in part why the covers, and the cryptic title, initially stand out.
Hagler toys from cover to cover with logo placement and size, and with two images versus one. With Issue 6, the experimentation succeeds as the title's wave effect -- a consistent element -- appears to interact with the water. The cheery colors of the logo and the soothing blue tones of the main image stand in stark contrast to the cold, even bleak, feel of the secondary image. It's an interesting juxtaposition of moods.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight #14, by Jon Foster
All five of Jon Foster's covers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight are wonderful, but the one for Issue 14 -- the third part of the "Wolves at the Gate" story arc -- really stands out. To get the humor of the image, all you have to know is that the storyline takes place in Tokyo, and Buffy's sister Dawn has been transformed into a giant by a curse. Of course, a passing familiarity with Godzilla or the kaiju genre may be helpful.
I appreciate, too, that the comic's title has been incorporated into the illustration, on a sign, rather than plopped down on top of it.
Captain America #39, by Steve Epting
Once upon a time, when comics were sold primarily on spinner racks, covers were designed to catch the eye of a passing kid. There might only be a few seconds to grab his attention, so the image had to work quickly. Never mind that it might have had little, if anything, to do with the story inside; its job was to make the kid pick up the comic and march with it to the counter.
I'm not overly nostalgic for the days of the newsstand. Distribution often was spotty. Comics were battered. And the move away from the spinner racks has permitted more experimentation with cover design.
But Steve Epting's cover for Captain America #39 is one of those old-school covers -- the kind that makes you want to pick up the comic to find out immediately what's going on. Has Steve Rogers returned from the grave? Is it the time-displaced Captain from that Avengers/Invaders miniseries? We have to know!
Casanova #14, by Gabriel Ba
One of the hallmarks of Casanova, the trippy spy-fi series by Matt Fraction, Fabio Moon and, later, Gabriel Ba, has been its bold and imaginative covers with their shifting color palettes (the first seven employ oranges and purples, the second seven oranges, yellows and greens).
The final four covers, by Ba, are perhaps the strongest, with Issue 14 the best of the bunch. Ba makes liberal use of white space, which is disrupted by the wing and head of a couple of abstract crows -- but not before that negative space transforms into the face of ... well, I'm not sure which character it is. No matter, though. It's a striking effect.
Criminal 2 #2, by Sean Phillips
Sean Phillips' wraparound covers for his and Ed Brubaker's Criminal are lush and atmospheric and sexy -- and all the other things jackets for a good noir story should be. But this is the only one to date that's felt ... I don't know, dangerous.
Teegar, with his bloody and broken nose, seems real: You might've sat beside him at a corner bar so seedy that you realize, a little too late, that you probably should've passed it by. His face and his pose tell a story -- that's a recurring theme in some of my favorite covers -- and not a particularly happy one. You just know that as bad as Teegar looks, the other guy is in worse shape. You also know that he wants nothing more in this world, at this moment, than to enjoy that cigarette. So you're better off not asking him about the fight.
DMZ #34, by Brian Wood
For the covers of "Blood in the Game," DMZ's recent election storyline, Brian Wood played with the repetition of familiar campaign visuals such as stars and political buttons, sometimes pairing them with more militant imagery, such as guns, masked operatives and a raised-fist salute.
He brings many of those elements together, and then distills them, for this, the concluding issue. The stars are still there, though here they're much larger and fewer in number. Gone are the guns, and the city skylines, and the disguised figures. And here the clenched fist of solidarity, or defiance, is replaced by a finger dipped in blood and signaling "No. 1."
Fables #76, by James Jean
In composition and in style, James Jean's cover to Fables #76, "Around the Town," probably has more in common with his advertising work than with most of the pieces he's done for the Vertigo series. Jean typically has reserved a more cartoonish approach for those covers spotlighting Snow White and Bigby's children. Here he uses that not-quite-real look to great effect on Pinocchio as he gives a certain guest a tour of Fabletown.
My favorite parts of the cover are the stickers and the graffiti, many of which give nods to previous Fables storylines. A sticker at the bottom of the signpost even clues readers into the identity of Pinocchio's mystery guest.
Joker, by Lee Bermejo
If there was one noticeable trend in cover art last year, it was the rise of the close-up (there are a half-dozen on this list). And you can't get much closer than in Lee Bermejo's beautifully grotesque cover to the Joker orginal graphic novel.
The yellowed, jagged teeth, the smeared lipstick and the razor nicks, or pimples, on The Joker's neck -- viewed at close proximity -- combine to make the Clown Prince of Crime seem very real. And that's more than a little disconcerting.
Justice League: The New Frontier Special, by Darwyn Cooke
The word "iconic" gets tossed around a lot, particularly when discussing the art of superhero comics. A certain pose is iconic. Or a costume. Or the emblem on a character's chest. But it wasn't until I saw Darwyn Cooke's sketchy cover for this New Frontier one-shot that I gave much thought to how even the hands and forearms of certain characters have become instantly recognizable.
Using sparse, and choppy, lines, Cooke demonstrates what few clues we need to identify the icons of DC Comics: the jagged edge of Batman's glove (closed in a fist, naturally), the blue of Superman's costume and his hand posed as if in flight, Wonder Woman's bracelet, Green Lantern's ring, The Flash's lightning-bolt trim, Adam Strange's ray gun. And so on. The only place the iconography falters is with the inclusion of the little-known John Henry, created for the original miniseries, and in the use of the completely alien form of Martian Manhunter (versus his more familiar humanoid form).
Kramers Ergot 7, by Sammy Harkham
The more I look at the cover to the much-discussed Kramers Ergot 7, the deeper it draws me in. I honestly have no idea what's going on in the image, but I desperately want to find out. Sammy Harkham's detailed illustration reminds me, of all things, of the post-apocalyptic setting for the early-'80s cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian. The ruins of once-great cities now reclaimed by nature? Never mind.
I can only speculate what event led to this street being overtaken by vegetation, naked hippies and wildlife. I can only wonder what happened to the more guy in the yellow car (maybe he was killed because he was wearing clothes). Or what the couple on the left, and those ducks, are doing. Or what's going on with the sky. Or ... well, every time I look at the illustration, I come up with another question. Not too many covers can do that.
Meathaus S.O.S., by Tomer Hanuka
When I came across this Tomer Hanuka cover while compiling candidates for this list, I wrote in my notepad, "Like something from a David Lynch movie." It brings to mind the opening moments of Blue Velvet, sure. But it runs deeper than that: It's the idyllic scene corrupted, or destroyed, by something tragic. It's the meeting of the playful and the ghastly, the natural and the unnatural. (I don't just mean the body in the otherwise lush and tranquil setting; note the smoke stack in the background.)
The white, featureless butterflies and the dancing, worm-like letters lend an otherworldly, dreamy quality to a scene that, at least for the boy running away, is all too real. This cover tells a story, too -- or at least encourages the reader to begin crafting one. Did something happen while the two boys were playing? Did one boy find the other? Does the smoke stack have anything to do with it? It's engaging.
Power Pack: Day One #3, by Gurihiru
The art duo known as Gurihiru -- Sasaki on pencils and inks, and Kawano on colors -- has consistently created solid covers for Marvel's all-ages Power Pack books. But it's with the two most recent miniseries, Power Pack: Day One and Skrulls vs. Power Pack, that Gurihiru has hit upon an approach that really conveys the humor of the title.
The Skrulls vs. Power Pack covers that cast the Power children as street thugs, complete with tattoos and "Pack Life" brass knuckles, were funny, but the one for the third issue of Power Pack: Day One is what won me over. The look on Katie's face as she frantically, and futilely, tries to feed dozens of hungry baby "Snarks" -- yes, that's what they're called -- is near perfect.
From a technical standpoint, I have to praise Gurihiru for either drawing dozens of little aliens or disguising all the copy-and-pasting by making changes to each of the clones.
Savage #1, by Mike Mayhew
There's something almost magical about the union of the right art with the right title. Here it happens: Savage. That's the word that comes to mind when you see that open maw, those enormous incisors dripping with saliva. (Or is that blood?)
I'm not crazy about the distressed logo, but that image sent me looking for more information about the comic.
Scalped #15, by Jock
One of the things I've enjoyed about Jock's work on Scalped, and The Losers before that, is his willingness to move and manipulate the logo to serve the artwork. Sometimes it's a matter of shrinking the title or pushing it to the side to give the illustration more room. Other times, such as with May's Scalped #15, it's turning the logo into an art element. Here, the blood-like ink spills out of the letters as it's washed away in the aftermath of ... something. Something gruesome.
Stickleback: England's Glory, by D'Israeli
I have a feeling the cover to this collection of Ian Eddington and D'Israeli's Stickleback comics from 2000 AD is even more impressive in its physical form. But until I get a copy, I'll have to be satisfied with the digital image with its nearly Day-glo blue and green, and its woodcut-like lines. I like how the stooped posture of the title character in the background is reflected by that of the figure in the globe, and repeated, more whimsically, in the first letter of "Stickleback."
Superman #680, by Alex Ross
Despite a legion of fans, Alex Ross receives a fair amount of criticism for his brand of superhero adoration. Now, I'm not a Ross devotee, but I'm willing to give credit where credit is due: There aren't many artists who could take an inherently goofy Silver Age concept -- a super-powered alien dog in a cape -- and make it look believable. Heck, Ross makes Krypto appear downright noble.
After seeing the cover to Superman #680, you will believe a dog can fly -- or at least look good trying.
The Transformers: All Hail Megatron #4, by Trevor Hutchison
With a title like All Hail Megatron and a plot that involves conquest by the evil Decepticons, it's not surprising that Trevor Hutchison referenced Soviet propaganda posters for his alternate covers. However, he only uses that classic imagery as a starting point for an exploration of white space, limited color palettes (just one or two colors per cover) and typography.
His most successful cover of the series to date is for Issue 4, which features the white silhouette of an Autobot, small against a field of blue, as it bows in submission to the comic's title. The words "All Hail Megatron" serve as a stand-in for the character of Megatron and, at the same time, evoke a monolith. I hesitate to say it's brilliant, but it's pretty darned clever.
Vagabond, Vol. 1 (VizBig Edition), by Takehiko Inoue and Yukiko Whitley
Although Takehko Inoue has utilized a couple of extreme close-ups for the covers of his popular samurai epic, he more often uses full-body shots surrounded by plenty of white space. Similarly, while he sometimes employs intense reds and deep blues, he's more likely to use muted colors or pastels.
So it's a little surprising, but in a good way, that for its first VizBig Edition of Vagabond -- it contains the first three volumes in a larger format -- Viz Media goes in tight on Miyamoto Musashi's face, obliterating the usual white space. Gone, too, are the pastels, replaced here by Viz's in-house designer Yukiko Whitley with gold, a field of deep red, and the splotchy blacks of Inoue's brush.
Wolverine: Flies To A Spider, by Tim Bradstreet
Tim Bradstreet's cover for the apparently Christmas-themed one-shot was done a serious disservice by whomever stacked the oversize title atop the ironic "Peace" lights. Had the production artist only shrunk the words a little, readers would've gotten a better look of Bradstreet's image in all its wry glory: the juxtaposition of "Peace" and the dove with Wolverine's claws, the splatter of blood that may or may not morph into Christmas-tree lights, and Wolverine's belt buckle.
Yes, Logan's apparently a Scorpio.
Y: The Last Man #60, by Massimo Carnevale
Massimo Carnevale gives the well-regarded Y: The Last Man a fitting send-off with this appropriately complex and eerie cover that conveys both hope and hopelessness.
If the straightjacket doesn't signal to longtime readers who the old, bent man in the cell is, the shafts of light that, with his chair and body, form a "Y" certainly do. The wisps of white hair make it clear the story has moved further into the future, so we have just a moment to brace ourselves for what the cute little stuffed monkey represents: Ampersand is no more. (Sorry.) But -- but! -- the presence of the little boy makes it clear there's still hope, even in a world in which almost every male mammal has died.