Friday, 30 August 2019

Separated at Birth 2 - another comic covers interlude

HERE'S SOMETHING A LITTLE MORE LIGHT-HEARTED than my more recent posts ... another look at the many tropes, cliches and chestnuts that show up over and over again in the cover designs of our favourite comics. I'd barely scratched the surface of this subject on one of my very early entries in this blog, so I'm giving the subject another outing.

I should clarify that Marvel and DC comics took quite a different approach to how they created their covers. DC had always traditionally created their covers first, often using the idea behind a "grabby" cover to drive the plot of the story inside the comic. Both Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz took this approach with the DC books they edited. Marvel, though, did exactly the opposite, creating their covers after the interior art was completed. This meant that Marvel would often create symbolic covers that might not illustrate a scene from the story inside. But you'll see what I'm getting at as we go along ...


I think it's fair to say that Julie Schwartz was the king of recycling when it came to re-using old cover ideas. During his run as editor of DC's revived superhero titles, he'd regularly plunder the cover gallery of his 1950s science fiction comics for ideas.

Uncanny, isn't it? It's almost as though Schwartz was cynically re-using cover ideas from the previous decade, wasn't it? "Ah, what the hell ... the kids'll never know." Click image to enlarge.
The above 1960s cover concepts are absolutely identical to their 1950s antecedents ... but this is hardly unusual in the comics industry.


It wasn't just Schwartz who liked to dredge up old ideas and trot them out for further airings. DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger also loved the economy of using an old idea instead of thinking up a new one.

As before, the top row is the copycat covers and the lower row is their original inspiration. You could argue that the Jimmy Olsen 110 infinity cover is an homage to the 1946 Superman 38 cover ... but who except for the editor and artist would have known that?
Here's a bunch of Superman Family covers enjoying a second roll of the dice. The Superboy covers are just 18 months apart.


I wouldn't want you, dear reader, to presume I'm picking on DC as unprincipled purveyors of parallel portrayals. Marvel have also displayed ill-judged moments of imitation - admittedly, not as many, though.

Is this deliberate? How would John Romita, Gil Kane and Sal Buscema all manage to draw a comic cover featuring The Tarantula in pretty much identical poses? It's a mystery to me.
The first few times Spider-Man villain The Tarantula appeared on Marvel covers, it might have seemed as though the production department were just sticking the same drawing of the character against slightly different yellow backgrounds. But those really are different covers by three different artists.

Over on the Hulk comic, iconic portrayer of the Angry Green One, Herb Trimpe ("rhymes with blimpy"), produced a run of covers that were ... well, pretty much the same, really.

Is it Herb Trimpe who loves a low-angle shot? Or might Stan have been telling him that this point-of-view makes for more powerful covers? It's striking how similar these covers are ... they could almost be different drafts of the same cover.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a massive fan of Trimpe's work, and of course, it may not be poor ol' Herb who's to blame for the sameness of the above covers. It could be that Trimpe was being given cover direction by Stan ... but it's interesting that the first seven covers of the Hulk's 1968 run - by Marie Severin - all show The Hulk much larger on the page than the Trimpe covers that followed.

See? Marie Severin, who was pinch-hitting for Stan as Marvel's in-house corrections artist and was also laying out covers before John Romita took on the role officially, took quite a different approach from Herb Trimpe on how her covers looked.
Researching hundreds of covers to this blog entry, I was struck by how some themes kept coming up. It's as though certain types of subject matter call out to comics editors ... "use me, use me!" Here's some of the more common ones.


I have no idea whether Mort Weisinger was a fight fan, but he sure used a lot of boxing and wrestling themed covers on the Superman family books.

Look at this collection of ringside covers ... whether it's Jimmy Olsen getting KOed, or Jimmy knocking Superman out. Or Superman being beaten up by unlikely antagonists, they all share a certain sameness. You'll never see anything like this on a Marvel cover.
I would guess that Weisinger's thought process was, "Two boxers on a comic cover is dull. Put a superhero in a boxing ring, that's interesting." Having heroes in unusual but slightly mundane situations was a constant theme in DC covers from the 1940s right the way through to the 1970s. There were other examples ...

Superheroes in a boxing ring? I can't imagine Marvel would ever
dream of going down that route, would you?


Something else Weisinger liked to do was to lock his heroes up in jail. It's astonishing that he didn't add a speech balloon to this type of cover to have Superman say, "Aw, not again!" Here's a small selection of just some of the convict Superman covers I was able to uncover ...

A lot of the time, it was Clark Kent banged up so as to reveal his secret identity (incidentally, I never understood how it was that people even realised Superman had a secret identity. He must've told them, right?) Sometimes, it was Superman imprisoned, taken for a criminal. The World's Finest 156 cover with the bizarros freeing the Joker I included because it's just so goofy.
But it wasn't just Superman who found himself wrongly (or rightly) imprisoned. Other DC superheroes also got in on the act.

"I'm innocent, I tell you. Innocent!" In all fairness, it should only take Batman about ten seconds or so to free himself from a standard jail cell. So why were we so worried?
OK, mostly Batman ... but you get the idea.


Another common DC cliche is turning their characters into giants. It happened so often that you wondered why any of the supporting characters might be surprised. 

Ooh, a giant Batman in a Giant Batman comic. This was a reprint of Detective 243 from 1957 in which Batman became a giant. Later in Batman 177 (Dec 1965) he became ... a giant. Jimmy Olsen also became a giant in JO 53 (Jun 1961), in a cover that looks awfully close to a cover of the pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories, merely a remarkable coincidence, I'm sure. A very similar image also showed up on the cover of Superboy 30 (Jan 1954). What are the odds?
I think the idea started out in Julie Schwatrz's old DC mystery stories of the 1950s, then somehow made its way into the Weiseinger edited superhero titles during the Sixties. These covers must've sold books, or they wouldn't have done them ...


Over at Marvel Comics, Stan avoided all the DC-style body dysmorphia madness, though he did like covers that depicted his characters as giants, just in a metaphorical way. So you'd often have the huge figure of Doctor Doom towering menacingly over the Fantastic Four, or Magneto and his Evil Whatchamacallems looming threateningly over The X-Men. But that didn't mean that they were actual giants, okay?

The trope of showing characters, especially villains, as giants on the covers of Marvel Comics was started by Jack Kirby. Perhaps this was some kind of hangover from all those monster covers he drew for Strange Tales and Amazing Adventures. The thing is, we kids knew that Dr Doom and the Mandarin weren't actually 50 foot tall ...
This trend would continue throughout the 1960s and even into the 1970s, though once Stan was no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Marvel, the figuratively colossal characters tailed away. And strangely, it wasn't really a look that DC went for. The closest I could find to this was in an old Justice League cover which is almost - but not quite - depicting the characters as giants for dramatic effect.

... and though Kirby might have started the trend, it continued with other artists, so we'd get giant Spider-Men as well as big villains. Look how similar that later Avengers cover is to the Justice League artwork below it. And how about those two brilliant Steranko covers on the right hand side?
Here's a whole other bunch of cover tropes that loomed large during my favourite period of comic ... The Silver Age.


That's right, there are many different themes for comic covers that would crop up more than once. Because of the way DC worked - identifying ideas that they knew would sell books, then building their stories around that - it was more frequent to experience deja vu if you were a DC reader. Stan did it too, as we've seen, but was strangely less formulaic with his covers than you might imagine, given the notorious lack of imagination on the part of his publisher Marty Goodman.

Still ... try some of these out for size.

Holy gurgle: Batman enjoyed this deadly water trap in Batman 166 (Sep 1964) so much that he tried it out again just four years later in Batman 207 (Dec 1968).
Up periscope: It's a a pretty arresting image, so it's not too much of an assumption to suggest that cover artist on Sub-Mariner 11 (Mar 1969) Gene Colan may have - consciously or unconsciously - swiped Jack Burnley's cover idea from Superman 23 (Jul 1943).
Gone fishing: As a kid, I hated fishing. Yet I clearly recall that the House of Mystery 94 on the right is the very first American comic I ever saw on a newsagent's counter some time during 1960. My mum wouldn't buy it for me.
Between Two Worlds: This is unusual. More often the superhero comic borrows an idea from an old mystery title. This time it's the other way round. The Adam Strange cover on Mystery in Space 82 is dated March 1963. The Strange Adventures 181 is October 1965. Weird couple of worlds, isn't it?
I'm a Robot: Here's one so odd, you wonder why DC used it twice. You wake up one morning and find that you're a robot. It first turned up on Action Comics 282 (Nov 1961) and returned on Green Lantern 36 (Apr 1965). Maybe an unconscious acknowledgement of body dysmorphia?
I have literally dozens more examples of comic covers that were separated at birth, more than enough for an additional post, so I think I'll leave the rest for another time.

Next: Something Inhuman this way Comes ...