Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Real Top 70 Marvel Covers: #40-31

All this week we're counting down the REAL top 70 Marvel covers of all time, as opposed to the fan poll version that Marvel released on their official site. Not that fan opinion isn't great, but if it was the end-all, be-all of aesthetic judgment we'd all have been stuck reading Lobo vs. Howard the Duck three times a month. Tastes change, but classic art is forever.

Enough with the rationale, lets look at some cool comics! (And for a shortcut, here's the Real Top 70 Marvel Cover Master List).

40) Conan #1

Back in the late 1960's, those whacked out dope fiends known as the hippies re-discovered fantasy and helped turn it into a mainstream genre. But putting out a comic based on a forty-year-old swords and sorcery pulp character was hardly a sure bet. Marvel's decision to give licensed properties a try was a bold enough move; putting relatively unproven young penciller Barry Windsor in charge of the art was even bolder. The result, however, was a blockbuster smash, turning Conan into a mega-hit, leading Barry Windsor-Smith to become one of the most acclaimed artists in comics and paving the way for dozens of other wildly successful licensed properties for Marvel in the future. All of that was kicked off with this fantastic cover which could still front a new comic today and sell copies. Just a great piece of art and the foundation of fantasy as a viable comic book genre.

39) Amazing Spider-man #33

Arguably the most famous work Steve Ditko ever did, this cover of Amazing Spider-man leads into (as the blurb says) the final chapter of the epic Master Planner storyline. This multi-part tale capped the classic Lee-Ditko collaboration with one of the most legendary sequences in comic history, showing Spidey struggling to free himself from a collapsed building before the rising water drowns him. This cover encapsulates the mood of the story inside perfectly in one striking and memorable image. It's only fitting that perhaps the best Spider-man story of all time also had one of the best covers in the character's history as well.

38) Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #13

Sgt. Fury #13 is interesting for a few reasons, almost all of which have to do with the guest appearance by Captain America. This was fairly soon after Cap's revival, so it's no wonder that he was so prominently feature don the cover. However, this seems to be one of the few times where the old "Because you demanded it!" line was actually accurate. The letter column in Sgt. Fury had been jammed with people begging for this crossover, but more evidence can be seen by what did not happen: in the 150+ issues of Sgt. Fury that followed this, no other Marvel hero ever appeared in the book despite repeated requests. Marvel wanted to keep the war action relatively realistic and balked at having any hero involvement, but just this one time, reader demand was so heavy they had to give in. As it happens, Jack Kirby provided one of the most iconic images of Captain America ever as a result, so it's a lucky break for comic fans that they did.

37) X-Men #1

The second X-Men #1 to appear on our list is the original, courtesy of Jack Kirby. Its inclusion here was earned by the numerous homages (including that Jim Lee version as well), as well as the fact that the team's massive popularity has made this a famous image among comic fans and, to a lesser extent, non-comic fans alike. Having said that, I'm not really a big fan and I suspect that had Wein, Cockrum, Claremont and Byrne not revitalized the franchise a decade later, few people would care much for this cover. That's not to say it's a bad cover, though. An interesting comparison is Avengers #1, which came out the same month, was also drawn by Kirby and features the exact same layout -- i.e. the villain on the left side of the cover with the arrayed heroes attacking him from the right. However, on the Avengers cover, the heroes seem to be kind of just milling around, whereas on the X-Men cover they are dynamic, springing to action. The white background also helps compared to the red color scheme on Avengers. Overall, then, I felt obligated to include this cover, so here it is, but it certainly doesn't warrant any higher rank than this.

36) Amazing Spider-man #40

Once Ditko was off the book, of course, Lee teamed up with Jazzy John Romita for a two-part epic that blew the doors off Spidey and comic book cliches both. The arch-villain learns the hero's identity? And vice versa? Wha huh?! It's always hard to replace a massively popular creator like Ditko, but Romita couldn't have hit a bigger home run that the classic covers he turned in on his first two issues. Just by looking at the cover you could tell that the book not only was in good hands, but that it might even be reaching new heights.

35) Avengers #16

The classic Silver Age barrage continues with Avengers #16. The historical importance of this issue is well known, so I won't rehash it here, but the importance of what happens inside the issue sometimes overshadows the iconic nature of the cover itself. The image of Captain America shouting "Avengers Assemble!" has become synonymous with the Avengers themselves over the years and has been homaged countless times. It's also just a really striking cover, thanks in large part to the blue background; but it's the text that really make this cover, which means this is also one of the only classic comic book covers known more for the blurbs on it than the art itself (which, by the way, is from Jack Kirby, of course).

34) Fantastic Four #49

Galactus! The Silver Surfer! The Fantastic Four! This cover showcases Jack Kirby at the height of his powers. It's just an epic image, with our heroes now small and running from the incredible might of Galactus, who is emerging from the clouds to blast them into oblivion. And while some cover blurbs can detract from the cover (for instance, the otherwise awesome Amazing Spider-man #40 which I just cited probably doesn't need that "Spidey Saves the Day!" blurb -- it gives away the ending a little and is also superfluous since the "End of the Green Goblin" below is much more powerful), this cover's "If This Be DOOMSDAY!" is just perfect. Stan and Jack, setting the bar for the rest of the industry on one great cover.

33) Strange Tales #167

Jim Steranko makes his much anticpated return to our list with this patriotic SHIELD cover. Steranko was no dope; he knew that the American flag is one of the most recognizable and iconic images in the world. It's no surprise then that his Captain America covers would be among the most famous ever produced. Here, on the less famous Strange Tales series, he toys with this theme to brilliant effect. Don't worry, though, we'll be seeing more of Steranko again later.

32) Hulk #1

Okay, everyone probably knows by this point how much I hate the Hulk. Specifically, I think he should only be used as an antagonist in other comics because his on series has pretty much been 45 years of desperate flailing as writers try to figure out some way to write stories about a one-dimensional, boring monster. Still, this is a cool cover. It's also interesting because for my money, the whole cover is made by the giant question mark. I'm not sure when this was decided on -- if Kirby drew the cover intending the question mark to fill that space all along, or if it was added in post-production -- but however it came about, it's a great piece of graphic design and turns an other wise solid cover into a really cool cover. Plus, this cover is also nice because if you were a kid seeing it on the stands, you would be tempted to read it due to your total ignorance of who the Hulk is -- if you don't already know how pointless he is, then this cover is a lot more appealing.

31) Amazing Spider-man #122

You may have gotten the impression that this part of the countdown is where I stuck a lot of the covers I was obligated to include but don't actually like that much. Well, here's Amazing Spider-man #122, which from what I gather is a favorite for a lot of people. It's a perfectly fine cover, and I certainly can't argue with its importance. However, on strictly aesthetic grounds, I much prefer the cover to the preceding issue, #121. Spidey freaking out as he looks at the head shots of his supporting cast against the brilliant yellow background is just sweet. This cover, on the other hand, doesn't really strike my match, but I seem to be in the decided minority on this count, so we'll just leave it at that.

Tomorrow: Hey, wait. Gwen Stacy got killed on the last cover, so the Silver Age must be over! So tomorrow you can expect more comics from the bronze age, the modern age, the golden age and every other age of comics. But mainly, the Steranko age. See you then!

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