Monday, August 9, 2010

The Top 150 DC Covers of All Time: Prologue

Aaaaaand we're back. Yes, a year after rocking the internet world with The Real Top 70 Marvel Covers countdown, The Vault (which means, you know, me) is back with an exponentially larger feature: The Top 150 DC Covers of All Time. Yes, 150 isn't technically exponentially more than 70 -- that would be, like 4900 covers or something -- but the task itself was vastly more difficult, given the fact that DC has been the nation's number one comics publisher for decades and as a result has vastly more covers to go through than Marvel.

But that's exactly why I wanted to take a shot at ranking DC's incredible output. Because, let's face it, DC has put out some of the greatest comic book art of all time and not just in superheroes, but in every possible genre, from mystery to fantasy to romance, from westerns to war to teen humor. It's really an incredible output covering the entire history of comics, featuring art from the greatest artists of all time.

For the next fifteen long-ass days, then, we'll be counting down the Top 150 Covers in DC history as determined by a panel of experts: me, myself and I. Like last time, I did my best to incorporate the views of others in order to make this as fair and balanced a list as possible. In particular, the folks at the Comics Should Be Good blog and the CBR forums deserve recognition, as I've been informed and enlightened by their opinions and expertise on DC comics over the past year while this list has been fulminating. Having said that, unlike my Marvel list, there doesn't seem to be nearly as much consensus or discussion regarding DC covers, meaning that this list is by necessity going to reflect my personal opinions even more than the Marvel list did.

So what makes up a "Top" cover as opposed to a "Best" or "Most Iconic" cover? "Top" is a nicely nebulous term that for my purposes encompasses both of these factors and more, as in some ways I'm comparing apples to oranges when trying to weigh the merits of a superhero cover from 1940 against a sci-fi cover from 1955, a romance cover from 1964 and a horror cover from 1971.

Here, then, are the basic criteria I used for this list, tweaked slightly from when I did the Marvel countdown:

1) Iconography. Some covers have transcended the actual image on the cover or the importance of the story within the comic to become iconic images. This can happen for several reasons – the first appearance of a major characters, the story within the comic, the issue’s collectability or just the beauty of the art itself – but the result is that the cover has become iconic not just to readers of that book, but to comic fans in general and in some instances to the public at large. If I felt a cover was iconic, I gave it more consideration than other covers of similar design or attractiveness that are not as well known.

2) Importance. This ties in to the first criteria, but some stories are so important for one reason or another that the cover image becomes ends up becoming iconic as a result regardless of artistic merit. When researching the choices, there were some covers that I personally didn’t feel were particularly great images or designs but which other comic fans cited over and over again as being a top cover primarily due to the importance of the events in the comic. Many first issues, first appearances or character deaths fall into this category.

3) Popularity. No, it's not the end all and be all, but how popular a cover is directly ties in to some of the other factors here. What makes a cover iconic or memorable, after all, is mainly the visceral response it (and the story inside the book) provokes in the reader. So while I don’t personally love all the covers on the list, I did try to incorporate other opinions and spent a good deal of time reading different messages boards and studying other people's lists (to the limited extent that I could) to see just which covers really are widely popular with the greater fanbase.

4) Art and Design. Some covers aren’t necessarily important or iconic but are so beautifully drawn that they merit inclusion on the strength of the art and design alone (though it should also be noted that some covers have also become iconic solely because of their artistic merit). Of all the criteria for my list, this is the most subjective and there are a handful of covers on my list that are basically personal preference. I tried to be as objective as possible when compiling this list, but art defies objectivity, so this cannot and perhaps should not be avoided. Whenever a cover made it on to my list solely through personal preference it will be noted in my comments. Though this is the last of the four major criteria I'm listing, it's actually the most important to me personally.

In addition, before we get started, there are a few notes specific to this DC list I'd like to mention. Firstly, as I was compiling the list, it became apparent to me that, as I suspected, DC has generally been much more bold and experimental with its designs than Marvel. Part of this, of course, is as a result of Marvel's competition; it should come as no surprise that the two periods with the most creativity in terms of cover design were the early Golden Age, when DC was still competing with a wide array of other publishers for industry dominance, and the Bronze Age -- roughly 1967-1974 -- when DC had to react to Marvel's sudden market surge. As a result, those two periods, particularly the latter, have much greater representation than other, more stagnant design eras (particularly the period from 1946-1967 when DC, safe at the top, locked into an extremely stagnant and boring design aesthetic).

One side effect of this imbalance is the unmistakable dominance of one artist, Neal Adams. Adams has two major things going for him. Firstly, he's justly revered as one of the greatest comic book artists -- particularly in cover design and execution -- ever. And secondly, the period of his greatest output coincided with Carmine Infantino being named art director in 1967. This meant that Adams (and the other artists) essentially had free reign to experiment with design elements, and Adams in particularly was massively prolific, providing dozens of covers for every genre DC was publishing, many with envelope pushing designs. So you'll be seeing a lot of him for those reasons.

On the flip side, there are three things you won't be seeing much of -- or any of -- on this list. The first is modern comics. The main strike against putting them on a list like this (though there are a few that snuck in and I did review most of them) is simply that they are, by definition, new, meaning that it's too early to say just which covers will end up being memorable or iconic once enough time has passed to judge such things, which I generally think takes a good 10-15 years at minimum. This is further complicated in my opinion by modern coloring techniques. While classic four color comic books may have been simplistic compared to today's excellent coloring, those simpler colors also provided the side effect of strengthening and highlighting the composition and design of a cover, whereas today's more subtle coloring techniques do just the opposite, often obscuring and muddying composition in service of muted tones and gradients. The result is that many modern covers, while individually beautiful and expertly rendered, are not particularly memorable; they tend to blend together. Good? Yes. Memorable? Not necessarily.

This actually is not quite as true for DC as it is for Marvel, thanks to the fact that DC is much more experimental with their design work. But that is mostly thanks to their groundbreaking Vertigo imprint, which brings me to the second thing you won't be seeing on this list: Vertigo Comics. I had originally intended to include them; however, after studying their output, I came to the conclusion that Vertigo's aesthetic was so inherently different from almost everything else DC has done that it needed to be considered separately. Comparing apples to oranges is one thing, but this would be like comparing apples to dominoes. At some point I hope to do a separate top cover list for Vertigo so we can look at some of the awesome covers they have been doing over the past 20 years, but for this list, I had to leave them off. [This also caused some issues in terms of titles like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, which started at DC and switched to Vertigo. it's a little complicated but essentially I decided to leave those titles off the list entirely and treat them as Vertigo in their entirety]

And for similar reasons, I also left off DC's pre-hero covers. While some people seem to be under the impression that early Golden Age art is sub-par, the opposite is true; DC's mid-30's, pre-hero covers feature impeccable art from some of the best magazine illustrators of the time. But they also are completely different in style, tone and substance than anything DC did once superheros came into existence, so I decided to leave them out and look at them closer another day.

But, anyways. That's a whole ton of talk with not nearly as much action. Or Action. And after reviewing 10,000+ covers, I'm ready to actually show some of them now. So without further ado, let's stop the chit-chat and get to it: The Top 150 DC Covers of All Time.

Tomorrow: #150-141. The Justice League of America! Wonder Woman! Zatanna! And more! Be There!

And you can check out The Top 150 DC Covers of All Time Master List here.

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