Book review: ‘Marvel Comics 75 Years of Cover Art’ is not without its issues

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Marvel Comics 75 Years of Cover Art
Marvel Comics
75 Years of Cover Art

If you are a fan of comic book history and great comic cover art, then Marvel’s seventy-fifth anniversary commemorative book, Marvel Comics 75 Years of Cover Art, is a must-have tome that will likely be treasured for decades to come — but it does have some issues, and I’m not talking about the comic continuity kind.

Printed by the Dorling Kindersley (DK) Publishing Company (the folks who publish the large-scale genre-centric reference picture-books like “Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Episode Guide” and “Batman: The Ultimate Guide to the Dark Knight”), 75 Years of Cover Art is a huge volume, weighing in at over 6.5 lbs. it is truly a heroic act to hold this book for more than ten or fifteen minutes in one sitting.

Specifically, this hardcover book is 320 pages of heavy paper stock that measures about 14” x 10” inches. It comes in a handsome and sturdy dust case that has the Incredible Hulk #181 art on one side and the Avengers #3 (2012) Granov variant art on the other. It also comes with two 9×13 art prints (Amazing Fantasy #15 and Iron Man #1 (2005)) that are in a handy slip folder just inside the front cover.

The cover of the book itself has the art from Marvel Comics #1 (1939) on the front and The Infinity Gauntlet #1 (1991) on the back. The colors within the book are beautiful and crisp, and I only had one page where the ink bled into the surrounding white border.

The book’s forward is by illustrator Adi Granov, who speaks briefly to how his career and life were influenced by Marvel Comics cover art, and the one-page Introduction is by the book’s author, Alan Cowsill, who provides a short explanation about how the volume’s material was selected and arranged.

The Infinity Gauntlet #1 (1991)
The Infinity Gauntlet #1 (1991)

75 Years of Cover Art covers Marvel’s Golden Age (1938 – 1956), with Marvel Comics #1 (actually published by what was then known as Timely Comics), which introduced The Human Torch and the Submariner; the Silver Age (1956 – 1970), which saw the birth of most of the iconic Marvel heroes we know and love today; the Bronze Age (1970 – 1986), which brought us the “new” X-Men and The Punisher; and the Modern Age (1986 – Marvel Now); which gave us the version of Guardians of the Galaxy that we’re currently enjoying at the movies.

The quantity of pages allotted to each of these eras is my first beef with this compilation. The Golden, Silver, and Bronze ages are given 10, 44, and 85 pages respectively. Now if you do the math that is 139 pages to cover the three most historic time-periods, whereas the Modern Age is given 163 pages on its own. I can’t imagine why the selections in this book are weighted so heavily on the “modern” side, unless the editors (of which there are many) simply chose to promote their more current comics, vice producing a book that best represented all of their illustrious history.

The covers represented are broken into families, themes and storylines, where a particular section might focus on an artist’s work, or artists’ work on a particular title, or cross-title storyline. This lends to another problem in that sometimes a cover seems to be included, not because it is great art on its own merit, but simply because it fits a theme.

Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)

Each era is introduced with a two-page spread representing that age, while the comic covers themselves are seen as either a large 8×12 one-page feature, a medium-size 6×4 image (two per page), or a two-page blow-up of a cover section with a thumbnail-sized image of the full cover embedded within.

This last type of feature is a travesty for a book meant to celebrate the art of comic covers, especially when they have Captain America #1 as a tiny 1.5×2 inch picture buried within a blow-up of a portion of the cover. I’m all for the poster-sized print, but why not feature the full image on the next page? One can always look at it closer if you need to see the lines that large – not so with the thumbnail.

The selection of covers is inevitably going to be a subjective endeavor, but I have to disagree with the editors of this book on dozens of their selections, especially in the extensive Modern Age section.

It’s long been a pet peeve of mine that word balloons have all but disappeared from comic covers (not to mention thought-balloons from the interior stories), and these days it’s a complete mystery as to what the storyline is within a generic cover that is basically a portrait of the titular hero (albeit an often nicely produced portrait.)

How is it that within this 75 Years book that modern humdrum canned covers took precedence over historic covers where the artist actually had to consider and visually summarize the story within its pages?

NOTE: The reason that today’s cover art is so generic is that the covers are often commissioned months in advance and sometimes before there is any idea what the story will be. Lame as that is, it’s the comic book world we live in today. #TheMoreYouKNow

Marvel Comics 75 Years of Cover Art also has artist profiles of many of their greatest illustrators, including Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr. & Jr., and the Buscema’s, John and Sal. There is also a nice art process page that shows the creation of Nova #12 (1977), by John Buscema. My preference would have been for more of these process examples and less of the mundane Modern Age cover portraits.

Marvel Comics 75 Years of Cover Art
Marvel Comics
75 Years of Cover Art

As for the text in this book, Cowsill does a good job for the most part, providing a short summary of the story behind each cover, but even he is obviously grasping at straws to say something about many of the selected covers (once again, especially in the Modern Age section.) I was left wanting more information though, or at least more art, as a large portion of this huge book is simply white, blank page, that could (and should) have been filled with commentary or additional art.

The highlight of this compilation is the original and unused Steve Ditko cover of Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spiderman), I had never seen this image before, despite hearing stories about it for decades. (According to Stan Lee, Spidey appeared too wussy on Ditko’s cover, so he had Jack Kirby redo it in a more heroic manner.) I wish there were more surprises like this within the pages of this album.

Despite my misgivings about much of this book, I still enjoyed it and I’m happy to have it on my comic-history shelf, but every time I look at it I’ll be thinking about an alternate “What If?” version, where they got it all right.

Marvel Comics 75 Years of Cover Art retails for $49.99, but if you shop around I’m certain you can find it at a reduced price.

Be sure to read our weekly “Classic Comic Cover Corner” column, every Sunday morning on NERDVANA!

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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.