The fourth annual rundown of the best covers of the year features 50 images representing the work of 42 different artists (plus colorists, inkers, letterers and designers) from eight publishers.
Returning creators like Jo Chen, Dave Johnson, Paolo Rivera and J.H. Williams III are joined on the list by such "newcomers" as Francesco Francavilla, Viktor Kalvachev, Tradd Moore and Steve Morris.
As with previous installments, I've attempted to explain the appeal of each entry; some covers get just a sentence, while others receive entire paragraphs. That doesn’t reflect the quality of the image, but merely what I have to say about it.
With that out of the way, I present, in alphabetical order, the 50 best covers of 2011:
Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest #1, by Francesco FrancavillaPerhaps best known for his recent work on Detective Comics and Black Panther, Francesco Francavilla has a pulp-influenced style that lends itself well to the world of Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. Reminiscent of some of the old Gold Key comics, this cover wonderfully relates what's in store for Abe Sapien as he investigates the "deep, dark family secret" buried in the basement of a demonologist's home.
Action Comics #2, by Rags MoralesWhile Rags Morales' style is contemporary, the concept is a throwback to the heyday of the newsstand or maybe the movie serial: It's a classic cliffhanger image, leading the reader to wonder how Superman ended up in this predicament -- the shadowy yet easily identifiable face of Lex Luthor provides a clue -- and how he might escape.
Angel & Faith #4, by Steve MorrisUsing a limited color palette and symbols of death and immortality (the skeletons and the peacock), Steve Morris creates an image that's eerie, beautiful and sinister. I love how the haunting "eyes" of the feathers are echoed in those of the people, and on the woman's bracelet, and how the two figures are themselves sinewy and skeletal.
The Amazing Spider-Man #665, by Paolo RiveraI'm a sucker for logos that interact with the cover illustration, rather than simply rest on top of it. So I have to give Paolo Rivera and his editors credit for not only swapping the trademark Amazing Spider-Man font for marquee letters -- and then dropping four of those letters as the wall-crawler takes a spill. It's a nice touch, too, that the M, A and N stick to Spidey's feet and hand.
The Amazing Spider-Man #666, by Mike Del MundoFor the start of the "Spider-Island" storyline, in which hundreds of New Yorkers manifest spider-powers, Mike Del Mundo could've opted for another landmark -- I don't know, maybe a web-encased Brooklyn Bridge or Chrysler Building -- or gone in another direction completely. Instead, he chose the Statue of Liberty, adding a "human" if slightly alien element, and he absolutely nailed it (so well that the webbed skyline isn't even necessary to convey the Spider-Island idea).
Baltimore: The Curse Bells #5, by Mike MignolaMike Mignola is a master at relating mood -- eldritch, haunting mood -- using a heavy dose of black and minimal detail. Here that ability shines with the blood-dripping bells, the creepy trio of undead nuns and flaming cross.
Batman Beyond #6, by Dustin NguyenDC Comics and Warner Bros. did the August-dated covers no favor by slapping a banner for the Green Lantern movie across the top. Still, Dustin Nguyen manages to stand out with his nearly DayGlo image of the irradiated Blight's translucent hand crushing a batarang in front of a radiation sign.
Batwoman #1, by J.H. Williams IIIFor Kate Kane's solo series, J.H. Williams has replaced the Art Deco touches of the acclaimed Detective Comics arc with water and death elements for the "Hydrology" story arc, which sends Batwoman up against the Weeping Woman.
Blue Estate #1, by Viktor KalvachevFor an Elmore Leonard-style crime story, I can think of few better covers than this: whiskey poured from a gun barrel into a glass containing the ghostly, caramel-colored image of a woman. The comic's logo is even modeled after the label of a whiskey bottle.
B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: Russia #2, by Dave JohnsonFor the latest B.P.R.D. series, which sends Kate and Johann across the Atlantic to meet their Russian counterparts, Dave Johnson turns to the bold graphic imagery of classic Soviet posters for inspiration.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9 #1, by Jo ChenWith the world cut off from all supernatural influences, Buffy Summers makes a fresh start in a new city, San Francisco -- beautifully established by Jo Chen with this cover for the first issue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9. I like, too, how the title of the story arc, "Freefall," seems to in with Buffy's dizzying perch atop the Golden Gate Bridge.
Butcher Baker the Righteous Maker #4, by Mike HuddlestonMike Huddleston's smoking star-spangled semi roars through the air like an impossible stunt from a cocaine- and diesel-fueled 1970s road movie. You can almost smell the fumes.
Casanova: Avaritia #2, by Gabriel BáHonestly, how can you not love this beautifully illustrated and colored Kung Fu Panda-inspired image that pits Casanova Quinn against two Ailuropoda melanoleuca?
Clive Barker's Hellraiser #8, by Timothy BradstreetHumor isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Hellraiser franchise, but Timothy Bradstreet delivers the subtle laughs as Pinhead falls victim to his own pins.
Criminal: The Last of the Innocent #1, by Sean PhillipsSean Phillips so wonderfully captures That Moment, fleeting as it often is, at a party or a club where someone (in this case a young woman) loses herself in the music, seemingly oblivious to everyone else -- making it virtually impossible to take your eyes off of her.
Daredevil #1, by Paolo RiveraSetting the tone for the relaunch, Paolo Rivera depicts a smiling Matt Murdock against an imaginative cityscape that offers a glimpse of how Daredevil perceives the world around him -- already a visual hallmark of the new series. (You can see a time-lapse video of the cover's creation here.)
Daredevil #4, by Marcos MartinGargantuan gun barrels stand in for skyscrapers in this Marcos Martin image, in which smoke rises from the two gun muzzles like steam from exhaust vents.
Daredevil #7, by Paolo RiveraLast year The Amazing Spider-Man landed three covers on the list, and this year it's Daredevil, a testament perhaps to how well the team of Mark Waid, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera, under the editorial guidance of Stephen Wacker, gels (Comic Book Resources chose Daredevil as the top comic of the year). Rivera's depiction of Matt Murdock, who hasn't had a reason to be cheery in years, grinning as he makes a snow angel atop a water tower is surprising and heartwarming. If this cover doesn't bring a little smile to your face, I don't know what will.
Daredevil Reborn #1, by JockOf course the Man Without Fear wasn't all about wide grins and snow angels last year. Before the relaunch there was Daredevil Reborn, which debuted with this arresting image by Jock of the cable of Murdock's broken batons stretched into an enormous body outline across what I presume is Marvel's gritty, time-trapped version of Hell's Kitchen.
Detective Comics #880, by JockJock's stint on the pre-launch Detective Comics produced some of the strongest work of his career, and this cover is undoubtedly the best of that run. This image of the Clown Prince of Crime is so frenetic, his rapturous gaze unnerving by even Joker standards as his broad smile reveals cracking teeth. That the upper part of his head is composed of countless bats taking flight, as if spooked, gives a sense of schizophrenia, as if the Joker is about to break away from this reality.
DMZ #61, by John Paul LeonThe massive amount of white space and the muted palette -- I love the single punch of color with the flag -- combine to give this J.P. Leon cover a sense of solemnity as DMZ enters its final year. I also like that series protagonist Matty Roth is made insignificant, dwarfed by the sky and nearly lost amid the clutter outside the Holland Tunnel.
DMZ, Vol. 10, by Brian WoodI rarely select trade paperbacks as, more often than not, the covers are merely recycled from issues published the previously year. But for the 10th volume of DMZ, "Collective Punishment," writer Brian Wood brings his bold sense of graphic design to blend photography and illustration to convey the brutal "shock and awe" bombing of Manhattan that marks this storyline.
Drums #2, by Raul AllenThe 2010 list featured two chickens -- both from Chew -- so it's only fitting that this year's installment has at least one, right? I've not read this Image Comics horror series, about an FBI agent assigned to investigate sudden, unexplained deaths during a Santeria ceremony, but Raul Allen's brutal and beautiful cover makes me want to give it a try.
Fables #106, Joao RuasFor the penultimate issue of the "Super Team" arc, Joao Ruas seems to give a nod to John Romita Sr.'s classic "Spider-Man No More" page as Ozma and Pinocchio casually walk away from what's presumably a battlefield.
Fear Agent #31, by Tony MooreVirtually everything about this cover -- the colors, the scale, the hovercraft-riding creatures with their leaf-like tentacles -- is so perfectly over the top and ... well, alien.
Feeding Ground #4, by Michael LapinskiOne of my favorite cover artists to emerge in the past couple of years, Michael Lapinski has a distinctive style that, for Feeding Ground, manifests itself in bright colors -- purple, magenta, orange -- and woodcut-like lines. I love when humor meets horror, such as in this image, which at first glance appears to be merely the head of a rabbit piñata. But when you notice that the paper "entrails" of the bunny are being swarmed by flies, a much darker element surfaces.
Flashpoint: Deadman and the Flying Graysons #1, by Cliff Chiang and Jared K. FletcherThat Green Lantern banner rears its ugly head again, distracting from the otherwise terrific take on a classic circus poster by artist Cliff Chiang and letterer Jared K. Fletcher.
The Goon, Vol. 5 (second edition), by Eric PowellTo be honest, I'm not sure what I can say about Eric Powell's new cover for the second edition of The Goon: Wicked Inclinations. It's just beautiful.
Green Wake #7, by Riley RossmoI find myself drawn into this haunting Riley Rossmo cover for Green Wake, the supernatural murder mystery from Image's Shadowline imprint. The white silhouettes give the children a ghostly appearance, marred by the blood dripping from their mouths -- or where there mouths would be -- and down their shirts. Are they all being led to the gallows, or are they executing their sibling or classmate? And what about the man with the creepy white spectacles and impossibly long scarf? There are just so many questions ...
Heart #1, by Kevin MellonFor the first issue of a miniseries set in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, Kevin Mellon zeroes in on the perfect detail, capturing the bloody hand, the "Unbroken" wrist tattoo, the hurricane fence and the flash of lights from the arena crowd.
House of Mystery #38, by Esao AndrewsIf the dripping (oozing?) blood that forms the conveniently placed image of rooftops and windows weren't creepy enough, there's the orchid in the woman's hair, with a child-like sleeping skull at its center.
Iron Man Legacy #10, by Juan DoeLast seen on the 2009 list, Juan Doe returns with this well-designed cover that places Iron Man at the center of the clock. I particularly like the retro-style dot pattern applied to Tony's head.
iZombie #20, by Michael AllredWith all of its type and floating heads, this cover would be a disaster in the hands of a lesser artist. But Mike Allred pulls it off, delivering a terrific ode to old-school teen magazines.
Morning Glories #15, by Rodin EsquejoAs I noted last year, early into the series, Rodin Esquejo has found a way to perfectly translate to the covers the feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia the permeate Morning Glories. Here the branches and shadows are perfectly placed, drawing us to the watchful, and slightly menacing, eyes at the heart of the image.
Northlanders #45, by Massimo CarnevaleAh, how I'll miss Massimo Carnevale's beautifully painted covers for Brian Wood's Viking-era epic. For the cover of Part 4 of "The Icelandic Trilogy," subtitled "Conversion," Carnevale cleverly contrasts the cross in the Norseman's hand with the symbol of the old religion on his helmet.
Ozma of Oz #5, by Skottie YoungThere's an almost-infectious sense of whimsy to Skottie Young's Oz work, perhaps no more so than in this illustration of pint-sized blue gnomes climbing the book's logo for the cover of Ozma of Oz #5.
Power Girl #26, by Sami BasriI couldn't help but chuckle when I saw this cover, which depicts Kara trying to push her way through a throng of cosplayers at the first Power Girl Convention. It's one of those rare times we get to see "superheroines" of varying shapes and sizes.
PunisherMAX #12, by Dave JohnsonFor my money, Dave Johnson's covers for PunisherMAX have been every bit as good as his epic, celebrated run on Vertigo's 100 Bullets. With this cover, everything works -- the white space, the shadows, the dripping blood, the skeleton key (har!).
Red Skull: Incarnate #2, by David AjaA talented artist with an eye for design, David Aja stretched his muscles with this miniseries, approaching the five covers as if they were Nazi newspapers and propaganda posters of the pre-war era. His research paid off, resulting in slick, eye-catching images that look as if they could be found in the dusty archives of a library (at least if you ignore the guy with the rather obvious red skull).
Robert Bloch's That Hellbound Train #1, by Dave WachterFor the adaptation of the 1958 deal-with-the-Devil short story, Dave Wachter goes with a looming sinister locomotive -- it's black in the original version but red here -- billowing otherwordly steam that takes the form of an ominous skull (unfortunately mostly obscured by the logo).
Rocketeer Adventures #1, by Alex RossIf you're looking to have your hero portrayed, well, heroically, you really can't do much better than Alex Ross. That combination of photorealism, noble pose and Hollywood lighting pushes all the right nostalgia buttons, making him ideal to tackle Dave Stevens' beloved homage to classic matinee heroes.
Secret Avengers #18, by David AjaDavid Aja delivers an atypical cover that displays a surprising feeling of motion as the dual image and purposely out-of-register color evokes an old film reel. We're seeing a moment in time, rather than a posed snapshot, as Shang Chi's blurred fist seemingly disappears into his opponent's face, like two frames from a Bruce Lee movie.
Spaceman #3, by Dave JohnsonDave Johnson is nothing if not versatile, recalling 1950s science fiction novels in his covers for Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's series about a hulking man genetically engineered by NASA to live and work on Mars.
Spider-Island: I Love New York City #1, by Mike Del MundoWhile Mike Del Mundo's cover for The Amazing Spider-Man #666, the start of the "Spider-Island" storyline, was much more somber, for this tie-in he plays up the lighthearted aspect, with New Yorkers enjoying their new-found spider-powers. A cat even gets in on the act.
The Strange Talent of Luther Strode #2, by Tradd MooreThere's just enough humor in the faces of the onlookers to diffuse the horror of the students' see-through skins, exposing the musculature beneath. But the neatest aspect of the cover may be in the coloring: amid all the reds, Luther, basked in cool blue, remains the center of attention.
The Unwritten #29, by Yuko ShimizuYuko Shimizu's entire run on Vertigo's The Unwritten has been stellar; I can't think of a single one of her covers that didn't fire on all cylinders. For the third part of the "On to Genesis" storyline, which takes Tom Taylor to the 1930s, Shimizu channels the pulps of the era. The cover blurbs really clinch the deal.
Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes, by Carl Barks and Jacob CoveyFantagraphics Books' lead designer Jacob Covey carries over the color palette from the interior pages -- lots of cyans and yellows in those old strips, recolored for the collection by Rich Tommaso -- for this sophisticated but playful cover to a volume that includes Carl Barks' favorite Donald Duck story.
Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, Vol. 2: Trapped on Treasure Island, by Floyd Gottfredson and Jacob CoveyI could've just as easily used the cover of Vol. 1, "Race to Death Valley," to represent designer Jacob Covey's refreshing and modern-yet-somehow-still-classic packaging for Floyd Gottfredson's nearly 80-year-old comic strips, but an elated Horace Horsecollar trumps an anguished Mickey Mouse any day.
Wonder Woman #3, by Cliff ChiangFor the issue that demolishes Diana's decades-old origin -- the one in which she was molded from clay by her mother Hippolyta and given life by the gods -- Cliff Chiang shatters a statue of the Amazonian princess.
Zatanna #13, by Adam HughesAdam Hughes had done his homework, transforming the imagery of early 20th-century magic posters -- the Devil, laughing skeleton, numbers, child-like demons -- into something thoroughly modern and, given Zatanna's stage career, apropos.