14 Comic Book Cover Enhancements That Caused Waves of Ecstasy, Angst and Despair (Typically in That Order) Among Comic Fans During the 1990s
1. Variant covers
By the late ’80s, the American comic industry was at a crossroads. Facing higher production costs and shrinking markets, publishers had two options: opt for long-term viability by producing new kinds of stories and formats that would appeal to underserved audiences, or go for the quick-profit gusto by deploying cynical marketing schemes to squeeze more money out of a rapidly shrinking fan base. The choice was clear. “Variant covers” refers to a single issue of a comic book that’s printed with multiple covers, the idea being that obsessive fans would gladly shell out money to buy multiple copies of the same issue just for the joy (or potential profit) of possessing the complete set. The first issue of Todd McFarlane’s much-ballyhooed Spider-Man series, for example, came in seven variations: black background, black background (bagged), yellow background, yellow background (bagged), gold (second print), the rarer second-print gold with UPC symbol, and the “platinum edition.” The most egregious example of this technique was used for an issue of Gen 13, which had 13 different covers, each an homage to a famous comic, ad, or movie poster. And just in case fans weren’t coughing up enough cash for these “collectible” covers, some variant covers were deliberately printed in low numbers for no other reason than to drive up speculator demand and back-issue prices. Visit your local comic shop’s bargain bin to see how well that scheme worked out.
2. Gatefold covers
Gatefold covers are covers that fold out to present a larger canvas on which cover artists can create epic masterpieces. Or, in the case of most ’90s artists, way more bitchin’ T&A. In some cases, such as the first issue of 1991’s X-Men series, the variant and gatefold cover ideas were combined: X-Men #1 came out with five different Jim Lee covers, the first four featuring images that combined to form a larger cover for the gatefold issue (designated 1E) that came out the following month. Cynical or not, combining a superstar artist with a cover gimmick translated into 8 million copies sold, making it (as of this date) the best-selling comic book of all time.
3. Polybagged issues with (or without) premiums
Those of you who count obsessive comic fans among your friends know how much effort they put into bagging and boarding their cherished copies, preserving those pouty expressions and poses for posterity. Comic publishers in the ’90s catered to this type of behavior by pre-bagging (but not, as far as I can tell, pre-boarding) comics at the source, sometimes with a premium — like, say, a poster or trading card — to sweeten the deal. This gimmick was particularly insidious, as there was no way to actually read the book without opening the bag and ruining the issue’s “collectible” status — not that it mattered to a lot of speculators, who weren’t getting into business of buying up comics to read the silly things. To be fair, some pre-bagged issues did come with clever enticements — witness the black polybagged version of Superman #75, the “death of Superman” issue that came with a poster, full-color commemorative stamps, Daily Planet obituary, black mourning armband and exclusive Skybox trading card.
4. Hologram-enhanced covers
Many of these cover enhancements were made possible by advances in printing technology in the 1980s and ’90s, and you can’t really blame comic publishers for being a little giddy at the possibilities. Still: holograms?In theory, they’re a super-cool way to render the heroes in all their three-dimensional glory; in practice, hologram-enhanced comic covers meant having a greenish-hued representation of a character that was awkwardly jammed into the middle of some otherwise serviceable cover art. Sometimes, an effort was made to incorporate the hologram into the cover scene — a prime example is 1991’s Robin II mini-series, in which the holographic image on each of the four covers becomes a framed photo, a view from a window, etc. — but in most cases, the only real purpose that holograms served was to make the books stand out on the shelf, a tricky proposition when every other book was doing the same thing.
5. Foil-stamped covers
“Oooh, shiny.” And… that’s pretty much the appeal of these covers, actually. The process of affixing a thin metallic foil to paper is not something that started with comics — you can find it on everything from restaurant menus to album covers — but comic publishers took to this technique with particular zeal as a way to stand out on the shelves. There were times when foil-stamping made sense given the image involved (Wolverine’s claws, Doctor Strange’s magic spells), but restraint was key. After a while, comic publishers slapped foil on just about every “special” issue, including the 25th anniversary(!) issue of 1990’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which was definitely not one of Marvel’s more popular or better-produced titles at the time. But look! Shiny!
6. Holo-Grafix-Foil covers
And so we arrive at the inevitable combination of foil-stamping and holographic art, an unholy union known in the trade as a holo-grafix-foil cover. Not content with merely making covers shiny, comic publishers (and Marvel in particular) decided that truly special issues required something shiny and holographic, as this special 300th issue of Uncanny X-Men demonstrates. Needless to say, the stories inside rarely measured up to the sparkly promise of magical experiences that these kinds of covers suggested, and staring at one of these covers too long can cause one to wonder if the comic publishers had a specific niche market in mind — specifically, the niche market that also keeps incense and snack-food manufacturers in business. (Side note: imagine artist John Romita Jr., having just finished this nice piece of art for the cover of this issue, being told that they’re going to “add a little something” to really make it pop. Can’t you just picture how thrilled he must have been by the end result?)
7. Glow-in-the-dark covers
This one was a particular favorite of mine, despite the inherent gimmickness of it. For one thing, the glow-in-the-dark enhancement requires a substance on the cover to do the glowing, and that substance gives the cover a texture and heft you’re not likely to find on, say, your older Richie Rich comics. Also, the books that tended to get the glow-in-the-dark treatment were those with a supernatural or spooky bent to them, like Marvel’s Ghost Rider or Valiant’s Shadowman. DC’s 1992 Spectre series was particularly fond of glow-in-the-dark covers — I dare you to turn off the lights with Spectre #1 in the room and not get the heebie-jeebies from looking at it.
8. Die-cut covers
Got a character who likes to stab and slash things? Great — put out a cover with pre-cut rips down the front and watch the fanboys froth. Die-cut covers stand out because they play against the standard rectangular canvas, making artwork “pop” with the appearance of layers. For the deluxe version of Batman’s 500th issue, readers were treated to a die-cut image of Batman on the front and then — flip! — an image of the “new” Batman directly underneath. Then there were the four die-cut covers during the “Reign of the Supermen” storyline, with each cover cut to reveal the S-symbol of the four ersatz Supermen. (For those who don’t consider die-cut covers “extreme” enough, there was Malibu’s The Protectors #5, which featured a bullet-sized hole that went through the entire comic.)
9. Embossed/Foil-embossed covers
Instead of going shiny, why not go bumpy? Or heck, why not both? Embossed covers were all the rage in the early ’90s, with The Avengers alone featuring four different embossed covers (nos. 360, 363, 366, and 369) of bronze, silver, gold and platinum to celebrate the book’s 30th anniversary. For a particularly notable issue (like the die-cut embossed tombstone on Amazing Spider-Man #400 announcing the death of Aunt May), you can justify a little extra expense. But the problem, as always, was lack of restraint — just because, to take a completely random example, a hugely uninteresting villain in Action Comics #695 is made of metal, it doesn’t necessarily follow that readers will want to pay the extra cash to see him in all his metallic and bumpy glory. Bonus points to Lobo #1, though, for showing the right kind of attitude towards these kinds of unnecessary enhancements.
10. Halloween mask cover
What, you don’t remember Halloween 1992, the year everyone went out dressed as the Sleepwalker? I’ve only found one example of this kind of cover enhancement, and it’s just so bizarre I still can’t believe someone at Marvel ever thought it was a good idea. Background: Sleepwalker came out in 1991, a time when Marvel was riding high on a wave of stock market and speculator interest (spoiler: it didn’t last). It was an era in which just about any cockamamie character could get its own book, including Sleepwalker, an other-dimensional creature that emerged from a young man’s mind while he was asleep to fight injustice. While he definitely sported a Halloweenish look, he was an obscure character even at the height of his 33-issue run, so the idea of making him (and not, say, a more iconic character like the Hulk) into a Halloween mask for the truly desperate trick-or-treater suggested wishful thinking at its finest.
11. “Special technology” cover
I had totally forgotten about this “innovation” until I read this column by Caleb Mozzocco over at Newsarama, a pretty funny take on some of the wilder cover enhancements from the ’90s. Following hot on the heels of Robin II and its holographic covers, the enhanced cover version of Robin III #1 upped the ante by featuring a two-sided moving image slidesheet. That is, you would pull an inserted card slowly out of the cover and the special window viewer made it seem as if Robin’s cape was fluttering in the breeze; flip the card over and you had an image of super-villain KGBeast doing something vaguely menacing. The issue also came polybagged with a poster by Mike Zeck, and I’m pretty sure the poster didn’t have to come with instructions on how to fully appreciate its imagery. Here’s a tip: if you’re coming up with an idea for a new comic cover enhancement and you figure your readers need instructions to make sense of it, then you might be making things more complicated than necessary.
12. Create-your-own-adventure cover
Superman: The Man of Steel #30 (2/94) is an utterly average example of the type of Superman book a fan came to expect during the first half of the ’90s (Superman! Lobo! Fight!), with one notable exception. The polybagged issue (with the logo and cover copy printed directly on the bag) came with vinyl clings that you could use to create your own superhero battles over the Metropolis skyline image that filled the front and back covers. Fun in the “I can just imagine someone happily holding little images of Lobo and Superman and making pow-pow noises,” but not exactly worth the $2.50 ($3.25 Canadian) cover charge.
13. Embedded object cover
This is another cover enhancement for which I can only find one example, and probably for good reason. Eclipso was just another minor-league villain until DC decided to make him the star of its 1992 summer crossover event, Eclipso: The Darkness Within. Part of his shtick was that he could possess vengeance-minded people if they held one of his special black diamonds while thinking their angry thoughts, so the idea of embedding an actual black diamond (well, a purple piece of plastic, but close enough) onto the crossover’s first issue seemed like a no-brainer. Until, that is, you tried to store the bloody thing in a box with your other comics. Eye-catching, but definitely not recommended for faint-hearted collectors who obsess over their mint condition babies.
14. Pop-up cover
This, as far as I know, was attempted only once, with Malibu’s The Mighty Magnor in 1993. I wasn’t even aware of it until I did a little research for this list, and now my life’s mission is to possess it. To quote co-creator Mark Evanier: “The first issue was published in two editions — a cheap one with a normal cover and a fancier one with a ‘pop-up’ cover that unfolded into a little diorama. They sold the latter for $3.95, but if you were really dumb you could get two copies — one signed by Sergio [Aragones] — for $34 plus postage on the QVC shopping network. They sold thousands, hawking it as a wonderful collector’s edition and investment. That was 8 years ago and, like all comics sold that way back then, you can still pick up a signed copy on eBay for under ten bucks. ” A pop-up comic cover. It’s almost… magical.