The comic book cover--along with her stylistic antecedent, the Pulp cover--is one of America's most instantly satisfying pictorial entertainments. Precisely because of their need to appeal to an unsophisticated audience, they are often shocking, lurid, exciting, powerful, grotesque or titillating. As a result they elicit an immediate response from the reader, one which eschews the intellectual reaction so often required of other visual arts.

The very thing which, until recently, divided the Comic Book cover from traditional illustration--unselfconsciousness--had long been a crowning virtue of the medium. No shame, no guilt and no embarrassment were in evidence--no awareness of the social force or influence which comics exerted, however subtly, in our society. Lacking the pretense of civility and conformity found in other media, they were allowed to develop and change apace, stripped of any mitigating influence until all that we were left with was pure, unadulterated sensationalism. In the end, in spite of the low critical esteem accorded to art which appeals to our more base and hedonistic nature, there is something to be said for the momentary thrill of discovery, or shock, or horror. For comic books, they, especially reach back to our youth, and innocent days when those were our only possible reactions to the world we knew.

ATLAS COMICS presents:

Of all our lists thus far, the 25 Greatest Covers is by far the most subjective and difficult to compile. In looking through the incredible wealth of images which comics have produced to sell their publications, it's obvious that we've left out a surfeit of pictures which represent outstanding artists, publishers, genres and characters.

After setting our criteria and composing a rough list of contenders from memory, we began scouring our resources: the 100,000 back issues at our disposal, Ernest Gerber's invaluable Photo-Journal Guides and scores of books covering the history of comics publishers, writers, editors and artists. With our now-burgeoning list, we began to make our cuts in earnest. With the increasing trend since the 70's toward brand loyalty from readers (blindly buying titles from publishers on a monthly basis), and the lack of top flight professional editors within the industry, the cover has become far less the focus than it once was when publishers competed on equal terms for readers on the newsstands. The dearth of "modern" covers on this list can be attributed primarily to these two factors. Editors especially seem to have the idea that slickly rendered, sharply colored portraits are enough to entice marginal or new readers into purchasing their wares. Very often these covers are muddied by cluttered backgrounds, overemphasis on flashy colors (rather than simple ones which support or frame the action), and bland, repetitive poses. Additionally the "portrait" cover now seems to reign supreme, with no attempt to enjoin the reader in the narrative looming inside.

We judged the covers on the following criteria:

The comic book cover is designed for one thing: to sell comic books. A quick glance at any newsstand or comic shop rack will show you one thing - there are some covers that draw the eye, and others that do not. Composition, color, drawing, logo and design all combine to create that elusive connection with the audience. An artist might only have a fleeting moment to capture the readers as they scan the rack, looking over scores of titles to decide what they want. It is a dying art once controlled jointly by the editor and artist to create maximum reader interest.

Whether they are tableau vivant or a narrative preview, the image which captures a dramatic moment or tells a story in a concise and simple way is often the most effective. The adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" was never more apt than when applied to a comic book cover. The artist (and the editors, the best of whom share some credit in this list) is attempting to communicate directly with the reader and intrigue or interest them in what's between the covers. When it works, you don't need a moment to contemplate or consider--it says it all immediately.

Let's face it--there are some covers which are just flat-out cool. The ones which are really memorable often fall outside the typical cover fodder. That's a great reason why so many of the covers on this list are from the 40's and 50's--it was the golden age of cover subjects and design. Electric chairs, severed heads, gangsters, war scenes, atomic explosions, aliens from outer space, weird heroes, strange villains and a host of interesting stories, situations and ideas made those two decades a storehouse of great covers.

Good drawing is not in and of itself sufficient to create a great cover; good drawing and presentation in service of the theme of the cover, however, is a necessity. Bernard Baily might not be the artist Brian Bolland is, but he maximized his talents to create dozens of covers of enduring impact.

A final word. This list is not (as stated above) just about pretty drawing. It is about an artist communicating with a viewer using a single picture. It requires the artist to be a storyteller in a manner markedly different from his storytelling duties inside the book, and often to interpret the narrative the way great book illustrators did in the past--by choosing moments of maximum drama or richest pictorial rewards.


[Click here to see the covers that didn't make the list.]