Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Tale of a Classic Cover

Variant cover of Adventure #8/511 (5/10)

Since the relaunch of Adventure Comics (#1/511), the variant covers have all been the same pattern: title above three columns, one large picture in the middle column, three smaller pictures in each of the two outside columns. Most often, the smaller pictures feature characters from the stories in that issue.

Here's the variant cover to Adventure #1/504:

And here are the variant covers from Adventures #2/505 thru #7/510:

All of these covers are homages to the iconic cover of Adventure #300 (9/1962), which was the comic which launched "Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes" as a continuing series. Here's what that classic cover looked like:

Notice that the character's names are included with each small picture. This is an element that's missing from the more recent Adventure covers. Cover labels for charcters just don't seem to fit with the modern comic aesthetic. (Although half the modern covers do identify one character - Superboy or Superboy-prime - with a label. Maybe a logo is more palatable to the modern sensibility.)

Over the decades, the creative teams behind the Legion paid homage to this cover many times. Here, for instance, is the cover of Superboy #147 (6/1968), a tenth-anniversary collection of great Legion tales:

In this case, the influence is one of inspiration, not imitation. In the center we have Superboy and the Legion clubhouse, and along the sides are Saturn Girl, Sun Boy, Cosmic Boy, Triplicate Girl/Duo Damsel, Phantom Girl in place of Mon-El, and Brainiac 5 instead of Lightning Lad (yet Lightning lad is still present, in the center picture along with Supergirl, Ultra Boy, Streaky, and Krypto). There are no character names (at least not on the smaller pictures, although the center picture has characters carrying text signs).

In 1983, the cover of Legion of Super-Heroes #301 (7/1983) was more of a direct imitation:

Again the Legion Headquarters in the center along with a flying figure. The Leigonnaires are different, but notice that most of their poses and backgrounds are almost exactly the same as on the cover of Adventure #300. Timber Wolf is in a slightly different pose than Mon-El, and Shrinking Violet is totally different, but otherwise it's a remarkable imitation. The character names are back (although in this era, one would have expected that they would be in Interlac).

The same pattern recurred with Legion of Super-Heroes #24 (12/1991) and Legionnaires #59 (4/1988).


But the question is, where did this basic cover pattern come from? Was it original with Adventure #300, or did it predate the Legion?

I've been prowling through archives of DV covers, and I think I have some answers.

Here's the cover to Superman Annual #2 (1/1961), which was more than a year before Adventure #300:

It's obvious that this was the direct inspiration for Adventure #300, down to the labels with character names. In fact, the Superman Annuals used variations on the same format, so this layout clearly signaled to the readers that this issue was something important.

Superman Annual #1 (8/1960) had a similar cover, but with five smaller pictures on each side:

I'm guessing that they decided that five pictures were too small, so they tried three and were happy with the result.

Still, these covers didn't spring from a vacuum. Take Superman #132 (10/1959), which was obviously derived from Batman #98 (3/1956):

These aren't direct ancestors of the Superman Annuals, but they do have a cover divided into smaller boxes...I say that counts as an influence, if nothing else.

Going further back, Superman #100 (9/1955) may be another influence:

The boxes, in this case, are facsimiles of the covers of Superman #1, #25, #50, and #75. 

However, the lineage of Adventure #300 stretches much further back than 1955. Take a look at the cover of Star Spangled Comics #13 (10/1942):

Bingo! Here we have the cover of a comic with title at the top and a large picture flanked by three smaller pictures featuring characters from the story, with character names. This seems to be based on real-world tabloid newpapers (fittingly, since this comic features the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion). [Isn't it odd that the cover which launched the LSH's first regular series traces its lineage to a comic featuring a completely different Legion?]

It would be interesting to find out if this arrangement was common in tabloids of the time, and if so, where that tradition came from. Anybody know, or want to do the research?

One last influence, from even earlier. The cover of Flash Comics #1 (1/1940), like the covers of the first seven issues of that title, features the title, a large picture, and smaller pictures of characters from the comic, along with their names:

Okay, the smaller character pictures are in circles rather than rectangles, but I think it's still clear that this is also part of the same lineage.

So there you have it. The cover of the most recent issue of Adventure bears the traces of covers from seventy years ago. It's always been known that the Leigon has a sense of history, but who could guess it went back that far?

Can anybody offer any earlier antecedants, or more information on the lineage of this iconic cover design?



Michael said...

I looked at those covers a few years ago, and I too noted Superman Annual #2 as the inspiration. My post showed another title at another company homaging the ADV 300 cover.

Also, check out Superman Annual 6 from 1963, another derivative cover.

Dr. Michael J. MacArthur said...

Thank you for this post. Obviously, a great deal of work went into this.

I don;t recall if I owned this book, but I know that someone in my group of pre-teen comic book fans did, and I recall a heated debate of the value of the Legion compared to the recently-cancelled Bizarro feature.

Years later, (circa 1975) I attended a seminar on graphic design. My jobs included the production of a company magazine. I could write but I knew very little about design.

During the presentation, the insturctor displayed Adventure 300. He was discussing how to divide space to create drama, while also presenting more multiple items of information.

I wish I could affort the variant covers, put I apapreciate the scans. I have not been able to find issue 604.

Dr. Michael J. MacArthur said...

Sorry, I am recovering from eye surgery, and proofreading is difficult.