I'VE LOOKED AT THE ARTISTIC QUIRKS of Marvel Comics covers before in this blog. So here's another one for your collection ... Floating Heads.
Yes, it's an odd one - pretty much exclusive to Marvel, I'd say. I'm hard-pressed to think of any examples at other companies ... though you, dear reader, might prove me mistaken. And of course, we were much more likely to see these on team books, where the artist had to squeeze a lot of characters into a very restricted space.
|It's a common problem. You only have so much space on the cover of a comic, but you need to fit in nine characters ... what are you going to do?|
The first recorded example that I can discover was on the cover of Avengers 9 (Oct 1964), which was drawn by Jack Kirby. And because of this, I think, many Marvel fans have assumed that the idea - which would become a bit of a Marvel trope - was Jack's idea. But I'm not so sure.
|You know what it's like ... you have ten super-powered characters to fit in to a 7 x 10 comic cover, plus a teen sidekick and a shedload of blurb ... what're you gonna do?|
It certainly wasn't Jack's go-to solution for when he had to fit dozens of characters onto a comic cover. For example, one of the great cross-overs of the early Silver Age was the two-part Fantastic Four-Avengers bust-up in FF 25 & 26 (Apr & May 1964) - eleven characters and never a floating head to be seen.
|Here's another trick to fit eleven characters into a standard-size comic book cover ... the metaphorical giant villain cover.|
A couple of months later, Jack had to accommodate the FF and the X-Men on the cover of Fantastic Four 28 (Aug 1964). Did Jack reach for a cliche? Of course he didn't. One thing we know about Jack is that he didn't like to repeat himself. He took pride in coming up with new ideas for every situation. Here, he depicted the villain as a giant and the heroes as tiny ... not a concept that was supposed to be taken literally. I covered this particular artistic trick in another blog entry a while back.
So, as we'll see, Jack didn't return to the Floating Heads idea very often. In fact after the first couple, most Floating Heads covers were by Other Hands. This makes me wonder if this wasn't a Stan Lee or possibly a Marty Goodman cover solution, both of whom had very firm - and sometimes fixed - ideas about what a cover should be.
Still, the next cover to feature floating heads would be another Jack Kirby effort.
|The composition is a little awkward, but I don't think it would have been any kind of improvement to place the Frightful heads at the top of the cover of Fantastic Four 41.|
Okay, maybe the heads weren't quite floating on the cover of FF 41 (Aug 1965), but it's only the tiniest variation on the theme. It does seem like a strange choice, however. The upper image - with the tortured figure of Ben Grimm towering over his team-mates - is the best part of the cover. The heads of the Frightful Four floating at the foot of the cover almost seems like an after-thought. If it's meant to convey the idea of the influence of the Wizard and his allies over The Thing, it's not working. Maybe it's just intended as a way to get the Frightful Four on the cover. It does accomplish that, at least.
The very same month, Avengers 19 (Aug 1965) sported a floating heads cover, this time with Kirby pencilling the figure of The Swordsman and the production department adding the Don Heck heads later ... it's a terrific issue, one of my favourites of these early Avengers. It's not recorded why Stan, or maybe Sol Brodsky, decided to add The Avengers to the sides of the cover. But I don't think it's a tragedy, just another instance of what was already starting to shape up as an overused trick.
Clearly not wanting to left out, DC Comics dipped a toe in the Floating Heads pool ... predictably enough on Justice League, another book with a large cast of characters. In this instance (and again the following year) cover artist Mike Sekowsky would use the trope to show readers all the characters involved in that year's Crisis cross-over, typically involving The Justice League, the Justice Society, and a complementary array of matching super-villains. But it wasn't a solution DC would use very often.
|When you have a cast of 29 and not a great deal of space, then there's only really one way you can go ... JLA 38 (Sep 1965) and JLA 47 (Sep 1966).|
The next time we'd see disembodied heads on a Marvel cover, it would be the cover of Journey into Mystery 123 (Dec 1965), which had Vince Colletta inking Jack's terrific pencil art, and gave us the supporting cast orbiting around a dynamic and powerful figure of Thor. Yet, when I came across a repro of the original art, it looks like Jack had nothing to do with the floating heads. These were almost certainly added during the production process, by Sol Brodsky and his team.
|Here's the original artwork for Journey into Mystery 123's cover, along with the finished version. I'd say that showed signs of production department tinkering ...|
The Odin headshot is taken from the previous issue's cover. The Crusher Creel head is from Journey into Mystery 122's splash page. The Loki head is taken from Journey into Mystery 121 page 6. The image of the Demon is a bit of a puzzle. There's no drawing like that in any previous comics (or either of the next two issues the character appears in). Also, the detail of the mask isn't exactly how Kirby has drawn it inside the book. The inking of the Demon illo looks like Colletta, so my guess would be either Brodsky pencils and Colletta inks, or all Colletta.
A few months later, we'd see another floating heads cover from Marvel. The credits for the X-Men 18 (Mar 1966) cover are a matter for some debate. But most agree the layout was Jack Kirby, with Werner Roth either pencilling or altering Kirby's rough pencils.
|The consensus is that Jack Pencilled the Magneto figure, Werner Roth pencilled the rest and the inking was Sol Brodsky, with perhaps Dick Ayers inking the Kirby parts. Whichever way it happened, it is a bit of a patchwork.|
With Fantastic Four 50 (May 1966), Jack went all floating heads again. It's not a great cover layout, so there's a good chance there was a bit of editorial interference going on here. How much stronger would the cover have been with less clutter and the strong figure of the Surfer as the focus. I'm not mad about that inset panel at the bottom right, either. I think it would have been better as a text box, as I don't believe that drawing of Johnny Storm walking through a University campus adds anything.
|This cover design could have used a little simplification, by losing at least one of the elements. My vote would be for deleting the inset panel at bottom right.|
Later the same year, X-Men 22 (Jul 1966) would sport a similar cover layout to that of issue 18, again by Roth but this time inked by Ayers. As far as I know, Kirby had no input. This one also folds in the trick of squeezing in extra characters by keeping them small, adding the trope of a metaphorically giant villain. As such, it ends up being a muddled conflation of ideas with no strong focal point.
|Werner Roth had been drawing romance books at DC when he jumped the fence to freelance for Marvel on X-Men. Action wasn't Roth's strong point and he later returned to DC to draw Lois Lane.|
It was a bit of a sore point with me ... these mid-1960s X-Men issues were among the weakest in the Marvel lineup. While Roy Thomas battled manfully with the scripting, the results were hampered by bland pencil art from Werner Roth. Roth would remain as an on-and-off penciller on X-Men until issue 55 (May 1969), both on the main strip and on the "Origins of the X-Men" back-up stories, but for occasional fill-ins by Dan Adkins, Don Heck and even Jim Steranko. Then, with Roth committing more and more of his time to DC, Stan hired Neal Adams and gave him X-Men to play with ...
The same month, Avengers 30 also sported a cover with vignetted heads, pencilled by Kirby and not a million miles away in design from his Journey into Mystery 123 cover, with its powerful central figure of Goliath and the orbiting heads of the supporting cast.
|Pretty much identical in layout to Avengers 20 and Journey into Mystery 123, Avengers 30's cover has a literal giant and bunch of orbiting hero and villain heads.|
The inking is by Frank Giacoia, whose work I always liked on Kirby, and most pundits agree that the figure under Goliath's arm was added in production by John Romita. It does have the look of an after-thought so that does seem plausible.
Meanwhile, a month after X-Men 22, Kirby turned in more floating heads for his cover for Fantastic Four 54 (Sep 1966) ... or did he?
This one's a pretty good way of featuring a record twelve characters and still include an impactful Human Torch figure as the main focus. Only Medusa seems a bit awkwardly placed. When you look at the original artwork, you can see that once again, the heads were pasted on after Jack delivered his art ... as was the figure of The Torch. So it's likely that Kirby's original design was simply The Torch flying straight at the reader. The alterations would have been made at Stan's direction, I'd have thought. And what about Prester John, for me the most interesting character in this issue ... how come he didn't make the cover?
Marvel managed to go a few months without any floating heads anywhere, but it was X-Men 29 (Feb 1967) that broke the run. And it looks like another production studio paste-up job.
It's possible that penciller Werner Roth didn't turn in cover art that showed just The Mimic scrapping with the Super-Adaptoid, and that the Production department didn't say, "Hey ... where's the X-Men?" But I don't actually think so. The composition of the two combatants is too studied, and it seems unlikely that an experienced artist like Roth would have thrown the composition out by adding unnecessary heads to the side of the artwork. But like I say, I could be wrong.
But the following month, on the cover of Avengers 38 (Mar 1967), an experienced artist did exactly that.
|I'm leaning towards a Kane-drawn alteration asked for by Stan Lee. The way the Enchantress is a cramped into the tiny space by the spine makes me think Kane moved the Hercules figure to the left to accommodate the floating heads.|
Gil Kane had been working at DC - one of their star artists - for decades. Yet one of his earliest covers for Marvel used an artistic device that was never seen at DC. That struck me as a little odd. Whether the heads were added by the production team is not known, but they are certainly Kane-drawn heads so maybe, on this occasion, it was an editorial edict to the artist.
Gil Kane was also involved in the next floating head cover from Marvel. the artwork for the cover of X-Men 33 (Jun 1967) had a convoluted conception. The first version was done by Werner Roth, but was, in my opinion, a pretty poor job. That may not have been Werner's fault, of course. He may have been following a brief. But, certainly, editorial weren't happy with the result and assigned Gil Kane to create a new cover from scratch.
But the replacement version - with its floating heads and growl-y close-up of the villain The Outcast - was deemed too scary by the Comics Code and Kane was forced to make alterations. The final version replaced The Outcast with The Juggernaut, and re-used the Marvel Girl and Cyclops heads from the initial Roth cover art. The Beast head looks like a Kane original to me. Others have suggested that the Juggernaut is by Roth with John Romita alterations or inking. I agree that The Juggernaut doesn't look much like Kane's work, but I would think that Romita would have done a better job of it. I think it's a production department cut and paste job.
Another incoming Marvel artist would bring the floating heads to his first cover. John Buscema was just starting at Marvel and got The Avengers as his first regular assignment.
|One of my favourite Silver Age Avengers stories - it might seem a bit obvious in hindsight, but I loved the idea of a Soviet version of Captain America. And it didn't really bother me that most of the Avengers weren't really featured on the cover.|
Once again, it looks like Marvel editorial got spooked when Buscema turned in a cover that showed only one regular Avenger on the cover, so either got Buscema to draw the heads of the other Avengers or they sourced and added them themselves.
John Buscema has a history of redrawing artwork, often at the request of Stan Lee. Stan really liked his artists to lay stories out in the same way that Jack Kirby did, but Buscema often tried to take a different approach. Later, on Silver Surfer 4 (Feb 1969), Buscema recounted, "I thought, 'This is one job I'm going to get away from the Kirby layouts. I'm going to try something different,' which I did. I think it had a different look about it from the previous stuff I'd been doing. People were congratulating me on this particular issue. Stan tore the book to pieces! He started with the first page: 'Well, okay, not bad.' On and on and on. Every second page he ripped to shreds. 'This is not good, this should be done this way...' I walked out of that damn office of his; I didn't know which way was up or down. I was completely demoralised. I walked into John Romita's office; John looked at me and saw that I was very upset. I said, 'John, how the hell do you do comics?'"
So given that account of not wanting to do things the way Marvel always did them, I'd have thought it would be pretty unlikely that the floating heads on Avengers 43 would have been Buscema's idea.
|At a time when the X-Men title was struggling to find a workable direction, John Buscema was turning in some superb covers. This one puts a different spin on an old idea. I even like to sly reference to the works excesses of contemporary DC book ...|
As 1967 rolled over into 1968, the floating heads began to float away. The sole X-Men example, issue 42 (Mar 1968), wasn't really a traditional Floating Heads design, more a variation on a theme. Not surprisingly, the artist was John Buscema.
Over on Fantastic Four 75 (Jun 1968), Jack Kirby was also trying a variation on the floating heads idea.
|No danger of this one being a production department paste-up. You can see that Kirby designed the cover this way. Simple, striking and effective.|
Although appearing similar to an old-school floating heads cover, this was more like Buscema's X-Men idea, with the heads reacting to either the scene depicted or something "off-camera". And the trend was continued on Buscema's next cover using the concept. Avengers 56 (Sep 1968) had disembodied heads, but also reacting to the cover scene.
|The 1968 Avengers comics had what was probably John Buscema's finest artwork. Though he didn't much care for George Klein's inks, I thought that he was by far the best inker for Buscema.|
Then finally, the last Silver Age floating heads cover I could find - Avengers 60 (Jan 1969) - was John Buscema doing a more traditional design, though it doesn't appear to be a production paste-up.
|Buscema's penultimate issue of the 1968 run featured a cracking storyline from Roy Thomas and another cool floating heads cover design.|
After that, the floating heads design appeared to fall out of favour with Marvel cover artists. If the idea did turn up in later comics, it was almost always used in an ironic - or a nostalgic throwback - kind of way. By the time we got to the 1970s, the concept had more or less disappeared.
|Avengers 117 (Nov 1973) art by John Romita, 128 (Oct 1974) art by Gil Kane and 135 (May 1975) art by Jim Starlin were just three examples from the 1970s.|
The last few stragglers, exclusively on the team books, included The Avengers and The Defenders, all under the watchful eye of John Romita, who was Marvel's Art Director from 1972 till the end of the 1980s.
|Defenders 51 (Sep 1977) art by George Perez, 65 (Nov 1978) art by Keith Pollard and 68 (Feb 1979) art by Herb Trimpe.|
The cover style would crop up here and there during Romita's watch, but those instances fall outside the scope of this blog. Feel free to go looking for them yourself on The Grand Comicbook Database.
|The Avengers 154 (Dec 1976) - Jack Kirby's farewell to the floating heads cover. Inks by Al Milgrom.|
Then - almost as a coda to the whole thing - Kirby came back to Marvel in the late 1970's and contributed one last floating heads cover to The Avengers, a fitting postscript to a peculiarly Silver Age phenomenon.
Next: Yee-haah, you rannies!