This week’s question: How do you feel about enhanced covers? They always get a large part of the blame for what happened in the 90s, but is it deserved? Were there any you liked?
Logan Polk: I don’t think it’s entirely fair to place the blame of the ‘90s comics market collapse at the feet of gimmick covers. Yes, they had a part to play in it, but the over saturation of issues was, I think, a much bigger problem. With the possible exception of the poly-bagged Deadpool card, can any retailer still move their copies of X-Force #1 at even face value? Yet it still gets mentioned in conversations regarding how many copies were sold, how popular the book was, and so on. The only gimmick to it was that there were different trading cards bagged with each issue,* and I don’t recall there being a shortage on any particular card, Mike Sterling would have a better memory of that though. But, the true gimmick covers, like the glow-in-the-dark Ghost Rider issue, or the chromium/acetate/hologram stuff? I always enjoyed them. I can’t speak for the retailers though, maybe they were an absolute nuisance. My favorite has to be that Ghost Rider issue, easily. I even have the second printing.
*Ed. Note: There was also the matter of the reverse-image UPC boxes.
Chris Allen: I never had a particular problem with special or variant covers. I remember being one of those guys in the early ‘90s buying all the different editions of X-Force #1, which was poly-bagged and had 4 or 5 different trading cards to collect. Even at the time, I questioned why I was buying multiple editions of a comic made by a creator I didn’t even like all that much, but I did it, and that’s on me. A little later, acetate covers helped the quite good Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross miniseries MARVELS stand out on the shelves, and while the acetate one-shot thing was quickly overused and applied to lesser books, I didn’t blame the covers themselves. I was already growing beyond the irrational need to buy every cover, especially once some variants got to be over $10. Mostly, I don’t care that much about the cover, especially if I really only have to buy one edition of the book. In the internet age, I think most people kind of decide whether to pick up a comic by the description of the story, list of creators, etc., and the cover doesn’t much matter. At the same time, I think maybe there’s something to be learned from some of these covers, as a lot of the time, one sees a cover and, due to the “it’s going to be collected in a trade very soon anyway” nature, the cover itself isn’t treated as a necessary selling tool.
Joe Gualtieri: I love a well-done gimmick cover (please note the well-done modifier). Some of that is certainly nostalgia; after all, I was the right age in the early 90s to be into them at the time. That being said, I honestly believe that a gimmick can enhance a cover to create an effect traditional pen an ink cannot replicate. My favorite example of this is probably the cover to Darkhawk #25 by Mike Manley. Rendering Darkhawk’s blast in foil makes it pop off the cover in way that even modern coloring techniques would be hard-pressed to match. Similarly, Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme #50 uses prismatic foil to make Strange’s magic look truly otherworldly. Glow in the dark covers tend to be a favorite of a lot of people, and I’m not exception. Ghost Rider #15 is probably the most famous and best example, followed by Venom: the Enemy Within #1, but I’m partial to Green Lantern #50.
So what’s the difference between a good and a bad gimmick cover? Well, for starters, let’s just get this out of the way—polybags are bad. They keep people from being able to flip through comics on the stands and generally discourage reading (the Colorforms-style covers DC did were neat, and probably the only justifiably poly-bagged comics). Beyond that, let’s compare the thirtieth anniversary covers for Spider-Man in 1992 to the ones for the X-Men in 1993. In both cases, Marvel “celebrated” with hologram covers. The Spider-Man covers are, essentially, only the holograms with a border. Coming out in 1992, covers usually reflected the contents of the comic, so iconic shots of just Spider-Man were a rarity, and making them holograms were an added twist. The X-Men covers, by contrast, are mess. The six X-Men anniversary covers are wrap-around images, nearly a quarter of which are then covered up by a wall of text in a very 1993 font with a hologram card slapped on top. The Spider-Man covers revolve around the hologram while the X-Men covers just slap them on in an example of unattractive excess. It’s actually a shame, as the X-Men holograms look a lot better, on their own, than the Spider-Man ones (the X-Men thirtieth anniversary magazine contains an in-depth feature on how they were made that is quite interesting), but they have nothing to do with the covers that they’re attached to, making them aesthetic abominations and among the worst gimmick covers.
No title better exemplifies the good and the bad of gimmick covers than Fantastic Four. Between #358 and 400, the title featured seven enhanced covers (not counting the issue polybagged with Dirt magazine, an allegedly hip magazine Marvel poly-bagged with a random title a month for awhile), and basically serve as a microcosm for the good and bad of the trend. #358 is one of the earliest enhanced covers and sports a simple die-cut for the book’s thirtieth anniversary. #371 is a completely gratuitous in terms of being a gimmick cover (ostensibly it was a key story, but in hindsight, no, it was not), but it is utterly gorgeous, with its all-white, varnished and embossed cover. #375 has a terrible, poorly integrated foil cover because it’s an anniversary issue. #394 comes poly-bagged with an animation cel promoting the new FF cartoon and sports a metallic-ink cover just because. Finally, #398-400 all have a foil covers, as a closing iris gradually reveals the new look team that does not exactly debut in #400. So as with gimmick covers as a whole, those FF covers start off as something new and innovative, and gradually just become a sales gimmick that are not well thought out and are solely there to bring in more money. It’s not at all accurate to blame them for the comic market collapsing in the 90s, but they certainly fed into the bubble that existed, as the history of Fantastic Four gimmick covers shows.
Mike Sterling: You know, by and large I was okay with
enhanced covers, at least until things got way out of hand. As I’m
presuming some of you know, I’ve been in the business of funnybook-sellin’
for nearly three decades now, so I was there when, as the market began to
swell with more and more comics all demanding the consumer’s attention,
companies began to look for new ways to grab the eye. I’m not quite sure
what the first comic out of the gate was that kicked off that '80s/'90s
trend, but there were predecessors: there was Boffo Laffs with
“the first holo-comic!” in 1986, and I suppose there was that one
issue of RAW from 1985, where corners were torn off each cover, and then
randomly taped back into each copy of the magazine.
Like I said, I was fine with the idea of it, but as the marketplace burgeoned with more and more first issues and event comics, and too many investors were desperately looking for whatever the next big thing was going to be, the proliferation of special covers of course meant they were less special as time went on. Retailers, ordering cases of these books when they once could have expected to blow through them all in short order, were now finding they had to dump them in their bargain bins. Piles of chromium and foil and die-cut covers, all relegated to dusty backroom shelves, filed away in 50-cent boxes,hiding away in forgotten storage units, or occupying landfills as they slowly break down, or not break down, depending on what exactly comprised the material of the cover in question.
An interesting thing I’ve noticed over the last few years, however, is that there is once again some demand for those enhanced covers. Kids who weren’t around back in the Stone Age twenty or so years ago, and thus weren’t burnt out on the fad, are pulling those foil-or-whatever covers out of the back issue bins. They’re able to see them with a fresh eye, not contemptibly-familiar with them, not pulling stacks off the racks with one hand while clutching their “Comic Book Becketts” with the other, but buying them because they look neat. They have no idea these special comics went from “oh hey this is kind of cool” to “oh God I have to pay extra for yet ANOTHER shiny cover?” in, like, a year and a half.
And, you know, some of them are pretty neat. Probably my favorite
just plain ol’ shiny holographic/foil/whatever it is cover is Adventures of Superman #505 from 1993. Some of you may recall the whole Death-And-Return-of-Superman brouhaha, which itself was no stranger to multiple special covers along the way (including the infamously over-ordered Adventures of Superman #500). At the conclusion of the storyline, to herald the return of the one True-and-Mulleted Man of Steel, a special cover was provided for #505, which used the holographic/foil enhancement to nice effect, making it appear as if fireworks were bursting in the background as you moved the cover around. Really, get your mitts on one of these and check it out yourself… it’s pretty cool-looking and it is sufficiently celebratory given the context in which it is presented.
Ah, but that isn’t my all-time favorite cover enhancement. In fact, this may not even count as a cover enhancement but rather a full-book enhancement, as, Adhesive Comics, back in 1993, took their copies of their comics anthology Jab #3 down to the shooting range and put a bullet through every copy:
Here’s a slightly closer look at said bullethole, in case you don’t
And get this: the regular version of Jab #3 was shot in 10-copy stacks by a .22 caliber bullet. There is an ad in the back of the issue where you can order “Ultimate Collectors Edition” copies of Jab #3, each shot individually by a 9mm ($6) all the way up to the "guaranteed not to be readable" shotgun edition ($10). Each comic would be bagged with the shell of the ammunition fired into it. I don’t know how many people went for this admittedly awesome offer, but I do know that they created something amazing, a crazy-ass enhancement to beat all enhancements. The bullet’s passage through the book was even incorporated into some of the stories themselves, such as this panel from Shannon Wheeler’s “Too Much Coffee Man” entry:
This is just downright bonkers, but this
almost makes the piles of Namor the Sub-Mariner #37 and Turok: Dinosaur
Hunter #1 all worth it.