Many conversations today lament comic journalism’s shortage of arts coverage. Pencillers, inkers, colorists, assistants and (especially) letterers remain a relative mystery in the creative process. The press may feel comfortable analyzing plot and character, but it can’t tell a Bristol board from a Wacom tablet. And those conversations are, unfortunately, accurate. Art is hard, and it takes patience and immersion to articulate its clandestine language.
With this following list (and our many State of the Art features), Paste would like to honor those individuals who first attracted us to the drug store racks, comic store rows or, more recently, comiXology jpegs that sucked us into their delicious innards. The value of comic covers simply can’t be underestimated. Cover artists balance a demanding Venn diagram that juggles various duties at once. A great cover advertises the story within, previews the issue’s mood and aesthetic and, most importantly, makes you want to buy some great comics.
The following gallery isn’t a ranking or a hall of fame; it’s an expression of appreciation for the men and women who invited us to read comic books. We judged these books by these covers, and we couldn’t be happier. Let us know your favorite comic cover artists in the comments.
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Since breaking out with Longshot in the 1980s—a character so fun he wound up in the X-Men despite not being a mutant—Art Adams has come to define raw energy and pulp goofiness through his covers. From cute girls to giant monsters, there's an astonishing sense of design and expression to his work. But his most joyous covers are the ones crowded with characters, often rushing toward the reader as though the book's two dimensions aren't enough to contain the excitement within. And when Adams also tackles interiors, that's usually the case. Zack Smith
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In the world of comics, change is never easy. But you wouldn't know that looking at Neal Adams' career. Prolific and innovative, his work injected a sense of modernity into such DC luminaries as Batman, Green Arrow and Green Lantern, thus providing a definitive creative bridge between comics' Silver and Bronze ages. By tailoring his illustrations after the emerging '60s commercial art style and TV storyboards, rather than the traditional cartooning formats that had been the norm for 40 years, Adams is largely responsible for how comics would look for decades to come. Mark Rozeman
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Though sometimes overshadowed by the brilliant artists he inked—including Neal Adams, Carmine Infantino and Curt Swan, with whom his collaboration was nicknamed "Swanderson"—Murphy Anderson exercised his own unique talents as an artist, rendering the extraordinary…ordinary. On many DC Comics, he often illustrated cover concepts that didn't have actual stories behind them, resulting in some of the most offbeat and unsettling images in comics, from a man with Saturn for a head to tunic-clad mole men spying on Atomic Knights on Dalmatian steeds. Anderson's elegant, streamlined style worked beautifully for such heroes as Hawkman and Adam Strange (the latter whose costume he designed), but his covers for such books as Strange Adventures more than live up to that title with their sense of the uncanny. Zack Smith
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Carl Barks may not have created Donald Duck, but he's certainly the artist most commonly associated with the character, as well as his various duck associates. Dubbed the "Hans Christian Andersen of comics" by Will Eisner, Barks' action-filled covers would go on to stoke the imagination of such future visionaries as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Osamu Tezuka. And, for younger fans of nostalgic television, you have this guy to thank for Disney's Duck Tales. Mark Rozeman
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Brian Bolland's hypnotic images are burned into the collective subconscious of the comic book medium. When we think of funny books of a certain time and a certain place, we think Bolland. The artist's name is synonymous with the gritty, post-modern British revolution of the '80s. After introducing Judge Dredd's hyper-violent antics, Bolland jumped oceans to usher Vertigo into the limelight with a string of subversive covers. Grant Morrison's mind-melt runs on Animal Man and The Invisibles gave the artist the perfect strata to let his inner psychedelic burst loose. Whether he's sketching a half-drawn Silver Age hero contemplating his existence or four hands milliseconds from detonating a cubed earth, these images beg their inner pages to be consumed. Bolland exuded the fearlessness and poise to propel comic books into a future of mature storylines and limitless imagination. Sean Edgar
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Between his celebrated runs on X-Men, Superman and The Fantastic Four, John Byrne's creative output is almost too vast to fully comprehend. Boasting a precise balance between eye-catching vibrancy and grounded naturalism, Byrne's artwork also serves as a great lesson in how to use covers for maximum storytelling clarity, as evidenced by his legendary cover for "Days of Future Past." Mark Rozeman
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Why isn't Travis Charest a modern staple of illustrator royalty? Rumors swirl around tales of crippling self-doubt, missed deadlines and creative differences during his time on Wild C.A.T.s with Alan Moore and Scott Lobdell. But despite any potential flaws, of this we can be certain: the man makes pretty, pretty covers. His shading and occasional cross-hatching hint back at 18th century fairy tale illustrators in terms of sheer detail. Skin gradients, fabric folds and hair strands beautifully echo reality, with a huge dose of action hero fantasy for a truly spectacular appeal. Charest's superheroes almost look touchable, betraying their two dimensions. The artist has subsequently moved on to work for French imprint Humanoïdes Associés as well as his Spacegirl web comic, but a return to the Big Three would be cause for celebration. Sean Edgar
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L.B. Cole's comic covers are visual comfort food to a certain generation. The artist, who was most active through the Golden Age, is recognized now for his striking covers that decorated titles like Weird, Suspense Comics and Startling Terror. A quick scroll through his published history will launch you back to a time of pulpy goodness: one where werewolves, crocodiles and mullet-clad skeletons lined the shelves along with less-broody Batmen. Whether that nostalgia comes from viewing Cole's work during your childhood, or it's set in some nostalgic grey-area from before your birth, Cole's work cements him as one of the premier cover artists in the Golden Age of comics. He's crafted more than 1,500 covers, some of which were recently documented in Fantagraphics' Black Light: The World of L.B. Cole. But all it takes is a glance over his output to recognize his sphere of influence over modern comics. Tyler R. Kane
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Lee Bermejo draws images like photographers shoot HDRs. The deepest, richest shades contrast with hot whites, creating a surreality bursting with fantastic energy and anxiety. The self-taught artist specializes in angle and shadow, showing how one light source breaks and reflects on flexed muscle, leather and kevlar, weaving a tangible sense of texture in the process. Bermejo has recently experimented with desaturation on his We Are Robin entries (which he also writes), adding a new degree of drama to his evocative, singular style. Sean Edgar
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Greg Capullo has proven that he still rocks over the course of decades. You could point to his consistency: Capullo's work across DC's New 52 Batman has been remarkably delightful. Or, maybe look at his on-off contributions to the heavy metal community; another glance at Korn's Follow the Leader or Iced Earth's Dark Saga album covers will prove he fits in just fine, there. Hell—you could point to his own personal aesthetic, which he's practically branded in the last few years with a Black Label Society baseball cap on his head and a no-bullshit presence on Twitter. But Capullo's covers are unmistakable: they blend clean designs with the gritty, nuanced pieces that he branded with works like Spawn, The Creech and Quasar. Capullo's work features my favorite kind of hyper-detailed images, which somehow make you squirm at their realism while still reminding you that what you're holding is, without a doubt, a comic book. Tyler R. Kane