You know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t mean you can’t judge the cover on its own merit. Some covers are so excellent that they pack all the drama, excitement and emotion of the whole issue into one succinct image. Sometimes they end up being their own surreal experience. And other times, we’re just exciting to see our favorite heroes kicking ass one more time. These are our top 10 covers of 2015.
10. Lando 1 – Alex Maleev
Charles Soule and Alex Maleev’s Lando series played a simple game: that Lando Calrissian could talk his way out of any situation. The subtext being that he should be able to win any battle without firing a shot. Maleev’s cover ends up Trojan Horsing this theme disguised as a straight-up main-character-on-the-front-of-the-book cover. Mind you, it is also that: Maleev’s gift for expression perfectly sells Lando’s likeness and personality with having to draw the draw the character photo-realistically. That personality is really the selling point of the series, and Maleev captures it perfectly here — Lando may be facing down a shadowy figure with a gun, but he couldn’t be more relaxed.
9. Justice League 45 – Francis Manapul
You can’t accuse Geoff John’s Darksied War of being simple. As the war between the forces of Apokalips, New Genesis and Earth (and… Qward, I guess) arrange themselves in the multiverse to do battle, readers could be forgiven for asking “wait, who is that again?” Which is why Francis Manapul’s breathtakingly clear pencil work was a godsend for this story — his clarity acts a salve for all this DC uber-mythology. That streamlining is evident from this cover which folds the major players into a simple stark graphic design. Manapul’s experimental use of discrete coloring techniques is also on-display here, making Wonder Woman, Mister Miracle and Darkseid all look like they’re being articulated with totally different visual vocabularies.
8. Batman Eternal 50 – Cliff Chiang
Goddamn, do we ever love stories about the Bat-family getting the everloving snot kicked out of them! As Batman Eternal picked up steam heading into its final issues, superstar artist Cliff Chiang did a few covers that played with the designs of the main cast members, but it’s his most by-the-numbers cover that makes the strongest impression. Their costumes are shredded and the only non-moody-blue coloring on the cover is the alarming red blood oozing from their all-too-numerous wounds. In spite of that apparent darkness, Chiang’s strength with expressions shines through — there’s no hiding the palpable sense of determination that these four characters are expressing through their faces and body language.
7. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 4 – Erica Henderson
We’re suckers for a good gimmick here at Retcon Punch, and this 16-bit style cover for Unbeatable Squirrel Girl 4 is one of the best. Erica Henderson’s pixel-y designs look so natural and lived-in that I had to double check to make sure Doreen wasn’t actually in a Marvel vs. Capcom game at some point (she’s not). The frivolity of the cover also underlines the silliness of pitting these two characters against each other in a fist-fight. I mean, come on: it doesn’t make any kind of sense in a comic and it doesn’t make any kind of sense in Street Fighter II. When Ryan North’s script finds a much more logical conclusion than what this cover would imply, we can come back and fully appreciate Henderson’s wonderfully retro irony.
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 45-50 – Mateus Santolouco
Cheating? Maybe. It’s a little weird to suggest that six covers together are number six on our list of best covers of the year, but holy cow, have you looked at this thing? This was a big year for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as the creative team found ways to regularly double down on, and then re-express, the simple concepts set forth in Cityfall. This ur-cover does an amazing job of highlighting the series enormous cast of characters, using these graphic red banners to set up compelling dichotomies over and over and over again. Series regular artist Mateus Santolouco even stages little battles everywhere, with all lines of action either leading to or away from the scroll in Karai’s hand, which represents the future of the Foot Clan. It’s a dizzying achievement that more than does justice to the stories of the issues within.
5. Hawkeye 22 – David Aja
Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye finale was a legendary release — delayed for months and months and capping off a universally celebrated series. Hawkeye has been so influential to Marvel’s publishing strategy that now it seems like every new series is about an under-appreciated Avenger with hilariously down-to-earth problems. All due respect to that pithy distillation of Hawkeye‘s tone, but the series was also deftly dark and hopelessly cool without being detached. With this relatively simple cover, Aja manages to express that graphic darkness with some stark coloring and a reminder of the hook of the series: Clint’s apartment building. It’s half idyllic and half terrifying, as gentle splatters of red and yellow paint vie for the eye’s attention. Of course, there is one thing in the middle of the page that we can count on, even if it’s upsidedown and hanging from a clothesline: Hawkeye’s purple shirt. It’s graphic, it’s cool, it’s vulnerable — it’s everything the series ever was.
3. Ant-Man 4 – Mark Brooks
Some homages are too silly not to love, such as Mark Brook’s impeccably recreated Miami Vice cover for Ant-Man 4. Beyond the joke, it’s sort of startling how effectively cool Ant-Man and Grizzly are on this cover, even if it’s a very affected kind of cool. Plus, Ant-Man itself was incredibly stylish, going for a joke or wacky premise over plotting or verisimilitude, much like Miami Vice. The two series might have tapped into different cultural inspiration for their crackle, but a common focus on style over substance is keenly observed and expressed in this jokey cover. Plus, I mean, come on: Grizzly’s wearing white slip on shoes. What’s not to like?
3. Thor 4 – Russell Dauterman
There was a lot of hullabaloo about the new Thor — she’s a lady: can you believe it!? That change did leave an hugely intriguing question mark in the form of Thor, the Odinson. He’s lost an arm, and carries a god-killer ax and readers could be forgiven for just wanting to spend time with him. Striking that balance never detracted from Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s excellent Thor series, and this cover plays with all those cards on the table. Dauterman has such a gift for clear, compelling characters with an uncanny mastery of weight, light and shadow (seriously, check out the shadows on Odinson’s chest), and this cover plays to his strengths as simply as possible. Just draw both Thors. Though he doesn’t take up any less space, Odinson is clearly the guest-character here — that upsidedown positioning assures that. It ends up being concise celebration of both what Thor was and what Thor will be.
2. Grayson 8 – Mikel Janin
Is there any comic book character who’s easier to cheer for than Dick Grayson? Mikel Janin’s cover for Grayson 8 bets that no, there is not. Even when he’s just expressing a satisfying face-punch, Janin graphically expresses the series’ Morrison-esque espionage identity with the persistent swirl of Mr. Mino’s hypnos. Of course, he doubles back to the satisfying part of this equation — the violence — and smears some of those swirls into blood.
1. Mighty Thor 1 – Russell Dauterman
If there was one thing holding back Thor, it was the insistence on Thor’s secret identity. Only on the final page of the series did we learn that she was Jane Foster, and that Thor was dying of cancer. Mighty Thor shouts this juxtaposition from the rooftops, and Russell Dauterman’s triptych cover illustrates this beautifully. Not only is the three-fold format wildly evocative of religious art, but Dauterman manages to pack in a blistering number of Thor’s supporting characters, from Heavens and Hels and all the
nine ten realms. It’s like a classic Star Wars poster, but benefiting from Dauterman’s clean lines and occasionally baroque embellishments. But the most effecting part of this awesome widescreen spectacle is the meek, yet determined, body of un-transformed Jane. What do you see in that? Strength? Weakness? One despite the other? It’s the whole promise of the series, expressed with blockbuster energy and angelic clarity.