I briefly had a blog dedicated to comic-book cover art and design called, appropriately enough, Comics, Covered. Unfortunately, I had to abandon that to focus on other things. But now I’m bringing it back as a weekly feature at Blog@Newsarama.
How’s that for a brief introduction?
The Man from SHIELD
Shortly before I wandered away from the Comics, Covered blog, I’d intended to write an appreciation of Jim Steranko’s late-’60s Marvel covers, such as The Incredible Hulk King-Size Special #1 and X-Men #50. Mostly, though, I wanted to focus on his brief, but groundbreaking, stint on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.
I’d nearly forgotten that plan until last week, when Marvel released its January solicitations. There I saw Greg Horn’s cover for She-Hulk #15, which makes use of the black-and-white psychedelic swirls and op-art elements introduced by Steranko back in September 1968′s Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #4.
It’s easily my favorite Steranko cover and, arguably, his most influential.
Oh, his Incredible Hulk King-Size Special cover would be referenced again — most notably in Kaare Andrews’ Incredible Hulk #34 (January 2002) — and his work on X-Men #50 would provide the series with a logo for the next four decades.
But Nick Fury #4 went beyond that: It contributed, if you’ll excuse the pretentious phrase, a “graphic language” that’s evolved into a visual shorthand for “spy story,” or more specifically in Marvel’s case, a SHIELD story.
Although Fury debuted in May 1963 as the cigar-chomping leader of a World War II Army unit, he was quickly transformed into first a CIA agent and then the head of a clandestine agency. This was, after all, the decade of spy-fi, populated by the likes of James Bond, the Man from UNCLE, and The Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel, not Iron Man and Captain America). Fury’s adventures in Strange Tales and, later, in his short-lived solo series reflected that.
And so did Steranko’s covers for Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, but none more so than Issue 4. The cover for the first issue incorporated elements of ’60s pop art, and the seventh issue referenced Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. But Issue 4 screamed “espionage thriller.”
There’s so much happening on that cover, like the trailer for an edge-of-your-seat spy movie. Whether intentionally or not — I’m guessing it was — Steranko evokes the famous gun-barrel sequence from the Bond movies with the psychedelic spiral on the right. And in case we missed that nod, the element frames Steranko’s take on a Bond girl.
The other background figures hit the right genre cues, too: the sniper zeroing in on his target, the motorcyclist giving chase, the gunman aiming his pistol, the bullseye riddled with bullets. Above it all, the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline, and standing at the center … Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, looking part Old West gunfighter, part modern-day spy. Exciting stuff, really.
Although other artists may have paid tribute to that work in the decades that followed, the first I remember seeing is Dave Johnson’s cover for 100 Bullets #12 (July 2000). It’s an homage, and not so much an adaptation of the “visual shorthand.” But it’s by far the most successful in its use of the elements Steranko provided.
Here, Johnson casts Dizzy Cordova at the center, replacing Fury but replicating our hero’s pose. Lady Liberty is dropped in favor of the Eiffel Tower — the issue takes place in Paris — and he cleverly substitutes a row of bullets for the New York skyline. The story is more about subterfuge than espionage, but Johnson’s tribute still works, and works well.
The emergence of the visual shorthand began at Marvel, I think, in March 2005, with The Pulse #7. Why it took so long, I don’t know. Maybe the artists’ collective memory was jogged by the November 2001 release of the Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD trade paperback, which used the cover to Issue 4.
Whatever the case, with Mike Mayhew’s cover for The Pulse #7, we see the psychedelic spiral from Steranko’s piece radiating like a saint’s halo from behind the head of Nick Fury. (That element reappears in November 2005 as the background to Joe Quesada’s cover for Wolverine #33, apparently establishing its place as the “SHIELD story” cue.)
Three months after The Pulse #7, Greg Land pays tribute with the cover to Wolverine #27. Land’s cover incorporates several elements of the original — the skyline, the spiral, the Statue of Liberty, the bullseye — but design-wise, it’s nowhere as strong as Steranko’s or Johnson’s. Instead of creating that exciting, movie-trailer effect, the background details compete with, and even begin to overwhelm, the character at the center. There’s chaos, not tension.
However, Wolverine #27 further cements the notion that, whether separately or together, those elements on a cover signal “SHIELD.”
Now skip ahead to January 2007′s She-Hulk #15, and we’re essentially back where we started. I’m not sure that, from a design standpoint, Horn’s cover works any better than Land’s. Even in black and white, the background wrestles with the full-color She-Hulk at the center.
But those visual cues are still there, although the spiral at the bottom left has more in common with an M.C. Escher painting than ’60s psychedelia. And there’s a growth in the graphic language: Even if you don’t see the agency’s emblem on She-Hulk’s left breast you still get the sense that this is a SHIELD story, without the aid of type or Nick Fury’s chiseled jaw.
Wow. I do go on, don’t I?
Tentacles — they’re not just for hentai anymore!
I love when, for no discernible reason, similar elements appear on the covers of unrelated comics around the same time. On the old blog, I pointed out three samurai covers being released in June by DC. Uncommon, maybe, but not exactly strange.
But now, going through January solicitations for multiple publishers, I found five covers, all prominently featuring tentacles:
Bizarre coincidence, mollusk conspiracy, or the answer to the prayers of timid hentai fans? Anyway, I had much more I wanted to write about this week, but I got a more than a little long-winded. So those will have to wait until later.