DC Comics Variant Covers: The Complete Visual History review

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There’s some credence and legitimacy to the old adage “never judge a book by its cover.”  After all, a cover can hardly encapsulate the plot, themes, and tone of most any work it represents.  A cover may be misleading in its simplicity, or it may be purposefully ironic to bait the reader.  The sum of a written work should not be judged solely on the cover that represents it.

And yet the cover is the very first thing anybody notices about a book, so they’re necessary.  While an entire work shouldn’t be judged solely on its exterior, dynamic and striking cover art is as much a part of comics as the stories themselves.  After all, chances are you picked up your first comic because of the cool cover, whether it was Batman swinging across Gotham’s rooftops, Superman performing some heroic feat, or the Hulk fighting Santa Claus.

Especially the Hulk fighting Santa Claus.

So iconic cover art is an integral part of the comic experience.  In recent years, variant covers have become just as much a standard in the industry, and DC Comics are no strangers to the variant game. It’s almost harder to find an issue that doesn’t have a variant floating around than it is to find one that does, with the idea of alternate covers being a market unto themselves.  Take Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle series: each issue has a standard cover from Nick Derington, and a variant from Gerads himself.  Derington’s covers are great in themselves, with bright colors and pitch-perfect character models.  Yet Gerads’ variants are just as creative, just as iconic as Derington’s.  Take the covers for issue seven: Derington’s work has the Female Furies of Apokolips, all of whom play a huge part in that particular issue.

Yet it’s Gerads’ variant that really gets at the heart of the story: it has one of the most simple, peaceful images you can imagine, yet its so incredibly moving.  It may be one of my personal favorite comic covers of all time.

Two completely different images that are equally successful in selling the same story.

And that’s just one example of many you’ll see from DC Comics.  Their history with the variant cover market is so deep, in fact, that the first issue of John Byrne’s 1986 masterpiece The Man of Steel is widely regarded as having the first variant cover.  To celebrate decades of variant covers, Insight Comics have recently published a coffee table-sized book collecting some of DC’s most beloved variants, while also giving insight into the process and form of creating the covers themselves.

Even before you open the book, DC Comics Variant Covers: The Complete Visual History has plenty going for it.  It measures a massive 11 x 1 x 14 inches, so good luck fitting this on a bookshelf.  There’s a cover from legendary illustrator Neal Adams, and the back cover of the dust jacket has a selection of nicely laid out covers that you can see within.

I mean, Plastic Man and Swamp Thing will always grab my attention, and with such an attractive layout with works from the likes of Brian Bolland and Lee Bermejo it does what all good covers should.

It doesn’t end there, though.  Take off the dust jacket and you’re treated to yet another front cover, and a similar four cover layout on the back with different images.  It would have been easy to just duplicate the images on the dust jacket, but going the extra mile indicates just how much thought was put into this volume.

Crack open the book and the first image you’ll see is Batman from Jock’s All-Star Batman #3 variant, so you know you’re bound to find some good stuff here.  There are close to three-hundred images spread throughout, and some really interesting notes and insights from various artists.

It begins with an introduction, talking about the history of variants and how enticing covers have always been a staple of the comics industry.  It’s pretty interesting stuff, especially an anecdote about how DC used to always have gorillas on their covers because those issues tended to sell better than others.  Makes sense.

The first few dozen pages don’t follow any sort of theme, and it’s really interesting seeing such wildly different styles on the same page.  You can go from Alex Ross to Francis Manapul to Ryan Sook and then end up at Gary Frank, and while each artist’s style is completely different than the other, they’re all distinct and make for some fine cover images.  Interspersed throughout here and the rest of the book are some asides from select artists, and these are almost worth the price of the book alone.  You have someone like Jae Lee talking about how he decided on a specific composition, or Joshua Middleton telling how he was initially intimidated to try and depict Wonder Woman in an iconic pose, or Doug Mahnke talking about effective use of perspective and negative space.  They’re interesting to read on their own, and oftentimes refreshing in how honest and humble the artists are about drawing such iconic images.

From there, the book is broken up into different categories, largely split up by theme and showcasing covers from as recent as 2o17.  Some of the sections collect a select number of variants from theme months over the past few years, like Bombshells or LEGO or Mad! Magazine (my son’s favorite image is from the Mad! collection, where Alfred E. Newman, made up like a Green Lantern, uses a construct to pick his nose.)  All of the images are of incredible quality, and they’re arranged in a way that’s very aesthetically pleasing.  Some covers take up a full page, others are grouped together in clusters of four, and still others have a larger image on the page partnered with one or two smaller images.  It’s a nice variety and helps to break up the formatting, so it’s not just an endless stream of images page after page.

While each section has a great selection of covers, it’s the Darwyn Cooke tribute that may be the very best.  Cooke’s style was in a league of its own, and they’ve selected a good half dozen of his covers from his theme month in December 2014.  Each of the six pieces are laid out across double-page spreads, giving the best possible look at his pitch-perfect line work.

It’s difficult to judge a book like this, because what’s here is great.  The covers that were selected look fantastic on the glossy paper, and the input from dozens of industry veterans lends it even more legitimacy.  There are several notable omissions, though, and they’re worth pointing out.  Granted, there’s no possible way to collect every single variant cover that’s ever been printed over the years, so even though it’s touted as a “complete visual history,” it’s more a comprehensive overview than anything.  Making it truly complete with every single variant cover ever printed would have been unrealistic.  Even if the covers were laid out in a grid on each page, it would be a massive, unwieldy book.  Heck, they’ve already printed a collection of nothing but the variants for The Dark Knight III: The Last Crusade, and that’s just from one book.

That said, it’s curious that a lot of the excellent covers from Grayson were omitted.  The title is represented by the (admittedly excellent) Bombshells cover treatment it received, but why not show the amazing Enter the Dragon-inspired movie cover?  Or the awesome Darwyn Cooke cover that it had?  Or even the non-themed variant from Jock that’s just amazing?  Grayson was one of the most popular titles while it was being published, so it’s strange to see a lack of representation.

Then there’s a cover that maybe should have been included, though I can understand why it was omitted.  You probably know which one I’m talking about already, but Rafael Albuqurque’s canceled Batgirl variant is one of the most popular covers from the past several years, for good or for ill.  It was pulled after it created a controversy, as it depicts a distressed Batgirl being tormented by the Joker in a Killing Joke-inspired scene.

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Originally planned for Batgirl #41, it was shelved after a number of complaints online.  Again, it’s completely understandable why it wasn’t included, and I’m not trying to make light of anybody who finds the image offensive.  It is very intense, after all, though that very well may be the desired reaction.  The fact that it was so controversial, though, could have made way for an interesting look at covers that don’t get the desired reaction.  I’m sure Insight wanted to keep things positive, and understandably so, but I can’t help but thinking that a look at the good along with the bad would have made for a more complete experience.

It shouldn’t be judged by what it doesn’t have, though.  Taken on the merits of what is included, this book is an excellent collection for any comics fan.  With a retail price of $45, it is a tad pricey, though that’s relatively modest for a coffee table book.  In fact, you can find it new on Amazon for about thirty dollars.  Given the high quality of the content, the attractive presentation, and the wealth of knowledge it contains, this is a fantastic volume for displaying in your home or gifting to other comic fans in your life.

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