Stupid Ways Comic Book Covers Can't Be Trusted
If you've ever looked in the back of an adult magazine, you've probably seen ads for erotic pheromones which you rub on yourself to become irresistible, or pills promising to increase the size of your dong, or beautiful sex workers you can order to your home. I bring these things up to help you get an understanding of me and the kinds of stuff I'm into, but more importantly to make a point: You can straight up lie to nerds for decades, and no one will care. And this article is about the lies comic book covers have been telling dorks, over and over, for close to a century.
"We Are Definitely Not Overselling This Titanic Showdown!"
When superheroes meet, they always introduce themselves with a fistfight. Captain America was trained by our great nation to punch his way through every misunderstanding, and Wolverine deals with confusion by jamming knives through the back of its head. It's crazy, but even crazier when you consider how most of these people are just athletic men and women carrying some kind of gadget. Hulk bench-presses 100 tons and attacks everyone like he thinks they're a Thor. It seems absurd to think all those misunderstandings got cleared up before Hulk landed a shot and an unexplained pile of meat landed hundreds of miles away.
Back to what I was saying: Even outside of mind control or robot duplicates, it's not unusual to see superheroes fighting each other. So if you were to, say, put fellow good guys Black Bolt and Captain America battling on the cover of your comic, we have no reason to believe you're full of shit.
Look at this cover! It's Black Bolt sonic-screaming chunks off of Captain America! This is Christmas for a nerd brain. What extraordinary circumstances could have led to Blackagar Boltagon (his fucking real name) unleashing such planet-shattering power, especially at a friend? And Cap's shield has vibranium in it, which is comic for "sound magic," so he could maybe reflect it back? Holy shit, he might actually win this fight! This cover awakens a nerd's imagination like realizing you'll have to explain to your parents why your dick is stuck in a shampoo bottle. And I'll say to this what the man claiming to be a pediatric urologist screamed at my penis: This was a lie! Give me back my $3.99!
What happens inside the comic is this: Captain America attends the same funeral as Black Bolt, and is politely asked to give the eulogy. It's about as far from a sonic scream battle as you can conceptually get. It's like buying a UFC pay-per-view and seeing a man look up from an easel to say, "Hi, I'm Chuck 'The Iceman' Liddell. Thank you for joining me on this watercolor journey through loss and acceptance. Let's start by taking inventory of our brushes and our feelings."
And this Black Bolt comic isn't from the '70s, when cocaine addicts designed their narratives around which type of animal guy Spider-Man hadn't fought yet. It's from two years ago. The new Black Bolt series is a modern work of genius which won the most prestigious award in comics, and it advertised itself with all the ethics of a van murderer. If you agreed to buy a toaster oven on Craigslist and a man showed up to beat you to death with a George Foreman grill, your dying review would be "Seller more honest than Black Bolt #9. Two stars."
For a lot of covers, the lie isn't quite this extraordinary. A cover showing a brawl between superheroes may turn out to be a dream or some hologram nonsense, but that's more of a plot twist than a deception. More commonly, a cover exaggerates. For instance, a child in 1978 may have seen Avengers #167 and thought, "Guardians of the Galaxy vs. the Avengers!? For only 35 cents!? Um, what oil crisis?" Then they'd open up and see that the "battle" is a single foot-clap that leans heavily on the comedic punch of a Bonanza reference.
Another series brazenly overselling the action was the original Star Wars comic. It adapted everyone's favorite movie into a waste of ink more boring than the personal story behind your tattoo. You'd never know that from the awesome covers, though. Remember in the Cantina, when Obi-Wan cuts a guy's arm off to prevent a bar fight? Here's how they portrayed it on the comic's cover:
It's an amazing brawl with Luke throwing lasers into a crowd of drunks, shooting an alien that even I don't recognize -- and I'm the man typing about how Kabe has apparently been killed so hard that she got undressed and turned into a man. It's like the artist saw how a child played with the Cantina action figures and said, "Oh, you're right, that is better." And this all goes down before the laser sword lights up. Let's see how it plays out inside the comic:
Oh. Instead of a brawl featuring every single alien, it's Obi-Wan calmly disemboweling one guy while everyone stares. Which might have still been a dramatic moment if the narrator didn't use eight boxes of text to say "Jedi cuts fucker in half" over a drawing of exactly that. These comics were like a government form describing the events of Star Wars as required by legislative mandate, and the covers were adapted from the imagination of the world's raddest eight-year-old. You might call this artistic license rather than a lie, but if your friend told you he shot up a bar full of aliens and you found out later he only sat next to a stabbing, you wouldn't call him an "artist."
"We Swear, This Time Someone DIES!"
Death in comic books has about as much meaning as a serving suggestion on a box of Wheat Thins. No sane person thinks I'm going to stack 11 gourmet cheeses and meats on a Wheat Thin. What am I, the fucking Duke of Walmart? And in a comic, no sane person thinks death is any kind of consequence. If it's not a clone or android fake-out, the bereaved can ask a wizard or a time traveler for help. Hell, in most comic book universes, you can walk right up to Death and punch them until they give your friend back.
So why do comic covers keep thinking it's some big event when they threaten to kill someone? It's as meaningless and deceitful as Dwyane Wade texting, "Hi, Sweetheart. I am not inside Scottie Pippen's wife." Let's look at some examples!
In this powerful cover of Uncanny X-Men, we see the heroes mourning the death of their mentor, Charles Xavier. That's a weird way to advertise a story about him turning into a bug monster and then being fixed by a space doctor a couple of pages later -- not only because it's wrong, but because it's worse. A fake funeral is objectively not as fun as a monster hatching out of a guy in a wheelchair. There's a reason the tagline for Aliens wasn't "It's very sad when Sigourney Weaver dies. Aliens."
The Avengers did this all the time. I don't know if there was some kind of language barrier between the writer and the cover artist, but whenever someone got hurt in a story, the cover art would declare them absolutely dead. It's almost closer to madness than dishonesty. Imagine a doctor coming into a waiting room and screaming, "Your husband is dead. DEAD! It was only a minor sprain and he's fine. Here he is now, and I'll be doing this again every few months for 50 years."
In the stories above, both characters receive injuries and then recover from them in the same issue. And one of them is a robot. Even if the conceit is that he's a really great robot with feelings and fertile balls, it seems a bit much to vow revenge on the world that allowed your robot to break before replacing his batteries, which is basically what happens.
Though at least with the Avengers, there was some vague threat of mortality. Every issue of Aquaman showed him dead or holding his dead girlfriend, and it literally never had anything to do with anything. It'd be 20 pages of unmolested swimming advertised with a picture of his corpse. It's as if DC got a great deal on dead drawings of Aquaman and thought, "No one's going to read these things anyway."
Probably the least forgivable death fake-out is when you open the comic and it all takes place in some dumbass dream. Though Batman #156 managed to pull it off pretty well. The cover features Batman on an alien planet holding Robin's lifeless body. How could this little unarmored boy hastily trained to somersault into gunfights have died!?
After 20 exhausting pages, we learn that Batman is in a simulation designed to test outer space conditions on the astronaut mind. And it does not go well. He hallucinates a rock creature crushing Robin with a boulder, and then Batman throws himself in front of a monster because he can't live without his young ward. He is shrieking all of this out loud, so the scientists stop the experiment. Then, after seeing the smartest, toughest man alive get reduced to whimpering suicide, they declare their hyperbaric sadness machine a success and tell him, "YOU'VE MADE A GREAT CONTRIBUTION TO SPACE MEDICINE!" The rest of the issue is Batman dealing with flashback hallucinations while he infiltrates a gang of men in gorilla costumes. Honestly, of all the events in this story, Batman holding a mostly nude teen corpse in space seems the most sane and relatable.
Not all covers announcing a character's death are a total fabrication. It's pretty common to say "THIS ISSUE: SOMEONE DIES!" and then kill the Justice League's mailman or another one of Daredevil's girlfriends. It's the artistic equivalent of replying to an activist's tweet with, "Sincerely, explain how it's wrong to suggest we also have a White History Month."
And speaking of history, who can forget the heartbreaking tale of Captain America #183? We all remember the shock we felt seeing Cap's remains strung up next to the words "DEATH OF A HERO!" This turned out to be technically accurate, except it was actually a guy named Roscoe wearing a Captain America costume. Because all good art should make the viewer think, "Legally I can't sue, I guess."
"Your Favorite Guest Star In: This Very Real Team-Up!"
Some superheroes work much better in a group. Countless movies and TV shows have proven what comic fans have known for years. Hulk is a delightful addition to any crime-fighting team, but he's a soul-crushing bore by himself. And Wolverine is perfect as any team's antihero, but the second you leave him alone, he gets on a flight to Japan to sleepwalk through another pointless ninja fight. As far as I can tell, Ghost Rider's only powers are long motorcycle rides and staring at people until they die of regret, but he looks cool as shit next to the fun characters. My point is that team-ups are great, comic creators know this, and so they constantly lie about them.
The covers I used in the header are extreme examples where the "guest stars" do not in fact appear in the comic. Sometimes this happens due to miscommunications within the breakneck pace of comics publishing, and sometimes it happens because this fun article about how Hulk never actually showed up in Ghost Rider #10 is the worst possible consequence these liars will ever face.
Usually, if a special guest star is featured on the cover, they'll show up for an aimless cameo or appear suddenly in the final panel. This type of cover is a very advanced type of shitty, since it stays as close to untrue as possible while also spoiling a surprise ending. Statistically, the most common type of guest appearance is Wolverine briefly stopping by. And putting him on the cover makes sense if you're Alpha Flight, because if you're Canada's premier super team, the most interesting part of your month is when Wolverine asks to borrow your snowmobile. But mathematically speaking, if you were a comic book in the '90s, you had 7-10 Wolverines on your cover and far fewer than that inside. For instance:
There's not really a word for the disappointment I felt in 1986 when I opened Power Pack #27, expecting to see Wolverine fight alongside child superheroes, and instead watched him tell the kids to fuck off while he ran past them in a sewer. It was sort of like blue balls, but for knife murder, and it's probably why I still don't trust men in sewers. It also helped illustrate how when a comic book pairing is too weird to be true, like a shirtless killer and a little rainbow girl, their team-up is going to be a brief conversation at best. Here's my favorite example:
You thought Spider-Man might need Dracula's help to uncover some vampire mystery? No, all they do is bump into each other on a boat. And Peter Parker, a professional adventurer with a magical danger sense, looks at Dracula, who is dressed as Dracula, and only thinks, "Man, what a grouch!" If you were obligated to have Spider-Man and Dracula interact, this is literally the minimum you could do. The only way this writer's intent could be any clearer is if Spider-Man looked at the reader and said, "YOU HAPPY? THREE DAYS FROM DEADLINE AND THEY GO, 'LEN, WE NEED YOU TO ADD A TEAM-UP WITH DRACULA!' WELL HERE YOU GO, DICKS: THE LORD OF VAMPIRES BONKING INTO PETER PARKER ON A GODDAMN FUCKING PLEASURE CRUISE. THIS IS NOT THE JOB I WAS PROMISED WHEN I QUIT WRITING HOT WHEELS BOXES!"
"Superman: A Total Asshole!?"
Superman is famously virtuous. I once did an article about racism in comics wherein I dug up examples of every single superhero shouting racial slurs or owning minstrel-faced slaves, and Superman absolutely stumped me. The man made it through the '30s, '40s, and '50s without uttering a single phrase of intolerance. And intolerance was 70% of the English language back then. In 1942, the president on the $5 bill was a crowd of Japanese families in a cage under a beautifully calligraphed N-word. So it is absolutely ridiculous that so many hundreds of comic covers feature Superman, a man known for always doing the right thing, torturing the shit out of his closest friends.
Superman obviously never laughs while he watches his girlfriend die of thirst, but readers are presumably supposed to wonder what circumstance could be remotely close. Does he give her a speech on water conservation? Does he reveal he's too square to piss on her? Sometimes it's an accurate representation of a misunderstanding caused by Lois Lane's outrageous insecurity and stupidity, but more often it's nothing. The covers of Superman comics aren't even vague suggestions of what's inside. They're parts of a chaos magic spell intended to bring about an era of madness. Here's a comic in which Superman visits the Flash. See if you can spot the differences between the actual event and how it's depicted on the cover.
If you think you'll sell more comics if Superman sucker-punches his friends instead of politely saying hello, have him do that. Imagine if Netflix played a preview of Queer Eye that was 45 seconds of Jonathan Van Ness tearing the heads off kittens, but the show was still him teaching shy guys self-confidence through haircuts and ice dance. Whether you're there for finding beauty inside yourself or cat decapitation, you're going to be confused and let down. That's how nerds in the '50s felt with every issue of Action Comics and Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane.
"This Guy Finally Fucking QUITS!"
Of all the lies told by comic book covers, few are more transparent and counterproductive than announcing that a superhero is quitting. At its most honest, it means a legendary and beloved character is giving away their costume, probably to someone representing one of the races or genders the internet hates. At its most dishonest, it means a hero will spend a few panels wallowing in self-pity before getting back to shrinking or turning into an ape or whatever. Every cover featuring a hero quitting is an artist's overreaction to a character's overreaction. If Steve Rogers takes a moment to reflect on the fractured identity of his nation, the cover will be him screaming at God, "CAPTAIN AMERICA MUST DIE!"
The stakes in these stories are never more than someone's self-esteem. Plus it's a pretty empty threat to show Green Lantern quitting when the comic is called "Green Lantern" and the previous issue ended with a full-page ad for yearly subscriptions to Green Lantern. Do they expect us to believe the comic is going to switch to a ring-less human stuck in deep space asking aliens for a ride home? Even if we believe them, seeing someone give up doesn't exactly ignite the imagination. No one is going to see Daredevil vow to quit and think, "I know he's going to immediately change his mind and never mention it again, but what a fun adventure he must have had to lead to such despair!" You know, what? Daredevil has a point. I can't write this article anymore! I QUIT!
"Inside: Something At All Close To THIS Happens!"
With some covers, it's hard to tell artistic choices from actual circumstances. For instance, a giant Red Skull grabbing the Avengers probably indicates his sinister influence, not a growth ray. If Human Torch is throwing a fireball at Hitler, that's a typical day for him, not necessarily what he does in the story. The older the comic, the more often this happens. In the '40s, a team of kids called the Young Allies mostly stumbled from ghosts to watermelons so their blackface character could express his full emotional range. Picking my words very carefully, their adventures were the worst thing about World War II. Except for their covers. Their covers were the best.
On a Young Allies cover, they'd all be tied to different bombs in the same room where Hitler and Tojo are making Frankenstein monsters. Half of them might be be massacring a bunker of Japanese soldiers with flamethrowers to save the half being lowered into a lion cage by Nazi cranes. It must have been a real letdown when our grandparents opened those up to find a fat kid farting about pie for 60 pages. I believe it inspired the Jean-Paul Sartre quote, "It is unwise to place your confidence in one promising drawings of children burning men alive. Now, and please don't include this part in the quote, it is time to prepare my erection potion."
Around the same time period, Mary Marvel was also misleading readers with its covers, but in the other direction. Instead of lying about how exciting her life was, Mary's covers always featured her enduring some mundane task. She floated indifferently after escaped parrots or runaway sleds, or maybe did nothing at all as she smiled blankly at the reader from nowhere. The science of the time didn't know how much stimulation girls could endure, and so the artists played it very safe.
Look at the un-events of those covers. She's saving a girl from too many rubber bands, in a situation both unworthy of her tremendous abilities and also not anywhere inside the comic. Inside is a story about her foiling a jewel heist with the Greek god Mercury, and it sucks, but if it happened to your friend, you wouldn't interrupt to say, "Shut up about the Greek god and the jewel robbery, did I tell you about the time I made a really big rubber band ball?" And the other comic, where the cover shows her rescuing a sled from fun? She fights a dragon and a robot, and while there is a sled story, that girl is specifically the one person she doesn't save.
Sometimes a cover is so absoludicrous and deranged that no potential reader in their right mind would ever believe it. Take, for instance, the front of Avengers #218, where the team watches a child holding a gun to his own head next to the words "TO SAVE THE WORLD ... THIS BOY MUST DIE!"
Do they think we're stupid? They expect us to buy that the entire team is going to crowd into a child's room to watch him shoot himself? These cover artists have been pulling this bullshit for years. We know they're not going to-
I guess now I don't know what to disbelieve. I QUIT AGAIN!
For more, check out Why Superman Will Never Be Cool:
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