There are more stories about Batman in comic books than there are of any other character. And yet, Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Dear Detective is a Batman story unlike any you’ve read before: one which compiles pages and pages of cover art by the illustrator into one cohesive story.
As demanding and expressive as the art of comics can be, the art of the comic book cover is another game altogether—one which demands the ability to communicate the appeal of the book, the soul of the character and the story itself in a single image. It could be a unique pin-up or a thrilling action shot, but the best comic book covers draw you in by telling a story all on their own. DC has published many such covers over its 87 years and in this week’s edition of DC House of List-ery, I’m counting down my ten favorites.
Action Comics #1
Artist: Joe Shuster
Action Comics #1 was an immediate best-seller when it hit newsstands across America in 1938, selling millions of copies within weeks. How did it get there? Nobody knew who Superman was at the time…or then again, looking at the cover, maybe they did. Joe Shuster’s illustration of a circus strongman smashing a car over his head with his bare hands, with onlookers fleeing in terror, presents a powerful first impression. The primary colors of his costume and the emblematic shield convey righteousness and goodness to match the severity of his violent action. Looking at this cover, one gets the sense that not only are these mere mortals having the worst day of their lives, but they probably deserve it. Humanity’s greatest champion was born in the minds of readers across 20th century America before they even needed to open his first magazine.
Detective Comics #378
Artist: Irv Novick
1968 was a dark time for the Dark Knight. After a season of cuts and compromises, the once mighty Batman TV series had gone off the air that March. Globally, the mood was bleaker still. The Civil Rights movement was seeing unprecedented resistance, political assassinations had become a fact of life and nobody knew if there would ever be an end to the war in Vietnam. Every day, newspaper headlines presented new developments in an unthinkable reality. In its subject matter, Detective Comics #378 might not have been too special. Heroes have differences with each other all the time to drive the drama. But to see the soul of goodness, camaraderie and cooperation in pursuit of justice fall apart in this context, soaked in heavy rain above the fold on the Gotham News front page, was an image that must have felt all too real. In this tumultuous era, not even Batman and Robin can be expected to stay together. Maybe this time, the split is for real.
World’s Finest Comics #199
Artist: Neal Adams
The ingenuity of this piece is the sales tactic in that bottom fifth of the image—the rare second panel on a comic book cover. Remember what we talked about with heroes fighting each other being a well-known story beat, even in the 20th century? By 1970, experienced readers knew these conflicts usually ended in a tie, with both parties settling their differences. The reactions here by the young spectators to the unseen results promise that’s not what’s happening this time. Unlike every Flash and Superman race which came before this, there will be a winner, and there will be a loser. Neal Adams’ reaction shots of anger and tears are just as important as the joy, as the prospect of victory is meaningless without the potential for failure. This cover promises a story that ongoing comics often seem far too reticent to do: take a real stance. (And it does!)
Adventure Comics #247
Artists: Curt Swan, Stan Kaye
The first appearance of the Legion of Super-Heroes immediately captures the imagination with this startling scene reminiscent of a loser contestant on a reality competition. Superboy, one of the world’s greatest heroes, has been found wanting by the high standards of this new group of young heroes we’ve never seen before. If Superboy’s incredible powers are too “ordinary” for their standards, then imagine how fantastic this “Legion of Super-Heroes” must be! Immediately, this image presents a Superboy who is forced to reckon with his own limitations as he steps into a larger world.
Crisis on Infinite Earths #8
Artist: George Perez
When you hear people talk about “images that go hard,” this is what they’re talking about. The sky is aflame at the end of the world. The Flash stands alone among the rubble and wreckage devoid of life. He stands bent, but not broken, looking up defiantly at a towering but unseen enemy. The cover promises only “THE FINAL FATE OF THE FLASH.” But if this is truly the end of the line, it’s going to be an epic finale.
Artist: Don Kramer
If recent successes such as Teen Titans GO! and Batman: Wayne Family Adventures have taught us anything, it’s that we crave seeing our heroes in their downtime, developing their dynamics between each other, just as much as we love seeing them in action against an existential threat. This special Thanksgiving holiday issue of JSA mimics Norman Rockwell’s classic art piece “Freedom from Want,” a portrait of domestic bliss as a family comes together to share a meal. It’s a cover that shows us that our heroes are welcome to slow down for a bit between ambitious story arcs and savor the simple pleasures of food and friendship they’re fighting to preserve. It’s these humble dynamics which heighten the drama to come, as an enriched knowledge of these characters will drive the reader to care more about what’s at stake.
Adventure Comics #6
Artists: Francis Manapul, Brian Buccellato
On this cover, Superboy and Krypto are being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex and that’s really all that needs to be said here. Seriously, I don’t know why that wouldn’t immediately make you want to pick this one up. The focal line work towards the T-Rex, the head-on angle of the chase and even the unfocused, monochromatic background all drive a sense of terror and urgency that really puts the “Adventure” in Adventure Comics. With this sense of kinetic motion, it’s no wonder that Manapul and Buccellato would take on The Flash soon after this issue.
Mister Miracle #12
Artist: Mitch Gerads
Borrowing its visual aesthetics from “Duck Amuck”—the best Looney Tunes cartoon of all time—this variant cover for the finale of the award-winning 2017 Mister Miracle series features its hero encroached on from all sides by the unconquerable darkness of Anti-Life. With a Daffy Duck-like stubbornness, Mister Miracle balances himself on one foot while barely keeping the heavy curtain of inky blackness from conquering his desperately vulnerable corner of the world. Mitch Gerads’ most significant addition to the Looney Tunes tableau, however, is the child clinging to Scott’s leg—the reason to keep on fighting. That child is why he’s so determined to keep whatever speck of light he can alive, no matter how lost the cause may seem. Every second you win against the darkness counts if it’s another second spent with someone you love.
The Green Lantern #3
Artists: Liam Sharp, Steve Oliff
Grant Morrison has often said that superhero comics are about taking the ordinary and heightening it to the extraordinary. Superman doesn’t just walk his dog, he flies him around the solar system. Batman doesn’t just fight criminals, he battles the concept of evil itself, whether it’s personified by Darkseid or the visage of his own father in an opera mask. So, for Morrison’s run on Green Lantern, who’s at the top of the Space Cops’ most wanted list? Well, how about God?
Strange Adventures #79
Artist: Gil Kane
I have no words for this one. Strange Adventures #79 boasts the most perfect comic book cover ever made. Drawn by the great Gil Kane, everything you need to know is right there. Never has there been a more perfect depiction of hubris in any medium, with such elegance and distinction. A universal image which cries out the folly of ego in all forms, purer than Homer or Shakespeare could ever dream. It belongs in a museum.
These are just ten covers out of literally thousands that tell a story—my personal ten favorites. If you love comics like we do around here, you probably have your own. So snap a picture from your collection, share it with the DC Community and tell us about the story it tells!
Batman: Dear Detective #1 by Lee Bermejo is now available in print and as a digital comic book.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.