Cover Story – Top 20 Star Wars Covers
Hello, and welcome to Cover Story: digging as little into comic books as we can. Well friends, in what’s sure to become a tradition for at least the next 6 years it’s Star Wars season. At time of writing countless geeks and muggles alike have piled into midnight screenings and opening day shows to catch a glimpse of The Force Awakens, the first in a new trilogy of Star Wars films that’ll be intercut with the upcoming Star Wars: Anthology series. In honor of such a historic event I thought we’d spotlight some Star Wars comics here, specifically the first Star Wars comics ever made. Yes, today we’ll be looking at the Marvel Star Wars comics, from the 107 issue run that started back in 1977 as what could be considered the first official entry in the Star Wars extended universe. So, let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 20 Marvel Star Wars covers.
This might end up a trend for this column of the most iconic and engrained covers taking the final spot as a bit of a grandfather clause situation. Star Wars #8 is one of the most recognizable covers of the series, mainly because it’s one of the few to prominently feature the bizarre, giant green rabbit design Marvel was originally working from for Chewbacca before seeing the film and the final version. There’s a lot of other weirdness to this cover beyond that, like I’m fairly certain the balding jedi in power armor is Ben Kenobi and it looks like Marvel villain The Mandril is lurking on the far left, even though the Marvel Universe never managed to encroach on their Star Wars publications. This issue also marked the first original Star Wars story Marvel ever published, released in 1977, a full year before Lucas’ unused episode 5 script became the Star Wars EU novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Not much more to say about the cover, it’s more noteworthy for the historical precedent than content though I do like how much Gil Kane didn’t capture anyone’s likeness for it, not even Chewbacca.
This cover comes to us courtesy of one of the great unsung artists of comic book history Carmine Infantino. Infantino made his mark initially alongside some of the giants of comics like Gardner Fox, Robert Kanigher, and Julius Schwartz but is rarely mentioned among them despite his pretty impressive and unique style. Granted, his stylistic approach has given us the most un-Luke Skywalker looking hero possible for this cover but I’m willing to overlook that in favor the stylistic flourishes that inform the overall concept of this cover. When Marvel’s Star Wars books were coming out there was sort of an ongoing shift in the comics landscape with a greater bent toward covers that featured iconic imagery or a movie-poster esc blend of elements rather than the more ‘60s and ‘70s trope of using the cover to showcase a scene from the comic. With this cover, Infantino is bringing us right back to that classic Silver Age approach of giving you a crazy scene from the comic that’s meant to reach out, grab the customer, and shake them while shouting “don’t you want to know more?!” And it works, I do want to know more, specifically I want to know why the TIE-Figher pilot lurking the background needs his flight gear when Luke seems to be breathing vacuum. I also wonder what that big rock in the sky is but priorities.
I’ve long been mixed o the work of Howard Chaykin but this cover is unequivocally awesome. As only the 2nd issue in the run this comes from when Marvel was still working off an early draft of Star Wars so that they could crank out the comic adaptation alongside the film as, at the time, home video wasn’t a viable option. It’s easy to forget that for decades if you wanted to re-experience a film’s story you had to seek out a novelization or comic adaptation and that’s something both Marvel and DC cashed in on big time, but that’s a subject for the day I eventually get to George Perez’s Logan’s Run comics. Getting back to this cover my favorite thing about it is the incredibly imaginative array of alien monsters populating the cantina in this version, especially that giant honred sasquatch looking guy in the background. I’m not sure if Chaykin was working from any costume designs or the like but you can make out the implication of some major monsters here, like the freaky bug-eyed mustachioed guy to Luke’s right or what seems to be an early draft of salacious crum getting caught under foot. It’s also pretty neat to see the outline of what Star Wars could’ve been given that the cantina sequence seems to have been intended for a larger brawl rather than the quick slice up it was.
Like I said, a lot of the pre-issue #8 covers of Star Wars feel a lot more like someone trying to rhyme along with the original film than an actual recounting. So now when the Death Star makes its way to the rebel base it actually attacks with possibly the most precise yet least effective green lasers I’ve ever seen. Actually, if you can wrap your brain around the ridiculous physics and proportions required for the Death Star, something the size of a moon, to be that close to the rebel base without its gravitational pull just destroying the entire planet this is an incredibly well constructed cover. Rick Hoberg is the artist on hand and he has an amazing command of perspective, sweep, and leveling. The cover is designed to use the direction of movement from Luke and Chewie, the figures closest to us, to guide our eye naturally to Han and the Falcon in the foreground where we follow the laser beams back up to the Death Star in the background. It’s almost like the comic book version of a composite shot, individual scenes layered over each other greating both an incredibly illusion of depth and a dynamic and engaging cover. Hoberg is one of those workhorse artists from the classic age of comics that doesn’t get nearly enough credit because his style isn’t as immediately identifiable as Kirby or Ditko but as a strict formalist he’s incredible, right up there with Don Heck or John Buscema.
Just as Marvel’s Star Wars comic began life as a tie-in vehicle for the films it returned to that role when Empire Strikes Back premiered in 1980. I’m not sure if they were working from the same early script situation as they were in 1977 but if they were it’d certainly explain why the imperial walkers are now green and Luke is wielding a blue light saber. Also there’s the question of why Hoth’s sky is now red but that’s probably crisis/multiverse related. Actually, despite my snark I think the coloring by Glynis Wein is one of the best parts of this cover. It doesn’t really match the films certainly but it’s got a weird and grainy aesthetic all its own that I like, especially the ink smatterings on the smoke of Luke’s crashed ship. Al Williamson is the artist here and despite some questionable perspective elements he does a stand out job. Great works of sci-fi art defined by their detail and lived in aesthetic has punctuated Williamson’s whole career and that’s what he brings here. This is a very lived in and kind of grimy Star Wars and I like that.
This one’s a tie, owing mainly to how shockingly similar both of these covers are despite being separated by well over 40 issues. Issue #4 comes to us courtesy of Keith Pollard and Frank Giacola and is one of the first of many instances of comic artists fumbling to depict Darth Vader well. Part of that here can be written off with the same script conceits I’ve mentioned before as even earlier covers and comics featured a much more bug-eyed Darth Vader in a green costume so the fact he looks as much like the dark lord as he does works very well here. The biggest clue that two artists drew this, however, is that it’s caught between a literal and figurative interpretation. Normally, the old cover trope of the looming figure over smaller ones is metaphorical, Darth Vader’s encroaching presence, but here Luke is somehow attacking him, implying that Luke, Leia, and Obi-Wan have all been shrunk at some point in this comic. I’m also not sure why Obi-Wan is shouting “NO!” but Luke doesn’t really seem to be listening anyway.
Issue #52’s cover is a much better use of the looming figure trope though its foreground feature is a lot less impressive and interesting. I love the detail and design of Darth Vader, especially how the golden rod up-lighting makes him blend into the speckled starscape really nicely but the Millennium Falcon and TIE Fighter are a little less than impressive. The Falcon itself is severely over-inked and looks weirdly flattened, also the color work on the laser beam is a bit too dull. It’s a shame because this cover is by Walter Simonson, one of the great comic artists and writers. There’s a lot of Simonson’s trademark inky line work in this cover but it fits Vader’s imposing and well realized form better than the ship or the very drab looking alien city bellow.
Given that I don’t have infinite time on my hands I haven’t read all of these comics but covers like this one really make me wish I had because this freaky, female Darth Vader looking villain looks amazing. As the title boxes suggest this cover actually takes place in the wake of Return of the Jedi as the Marvel Star Wars comics continued on after Episode 6 for about a little over a year. Darth Vader is an imposing presence and all but I feel like this baddy, apparently named Shira Brie, is even more menacing. The main thing is that Darth Vader has always been a weird villain design, this giant plastic/leather monstrosity in a gas mask and cape stomping around the scene killing people at random. However, those clothing choices, especially the plastic/leather and gas mask combo, may imply strength when applied to a man are much more coded as fetish gear for a female character. I especially like the freakiness of giving Brie this tight leather suit with thigh high boots like a quasi-space dominatrix but then her face is the kind of gaunt skull like maw that just makes you shudder. Really great character design and surprisingly evocative for a series as decidedly chaste as Star Wars.
Another Infantino cover, though this time he’s working with Terry Austin, which may be the perfect pairing of under-appreciated art greats. I absolutely love this forced perspective shot and how well it plays with the idea of a 3 dimensional battle in space, though I wonder how incredibly long that space ship must be if it stretches beyond the vanishing point. What’s most striking is the unique blend of Infantino’s more ‘50s, Strange Adventures approach to sci-fi, and Austin’s much more ‘70s inflected aesthetic. Things like the horde of orange and green guys on the side, the design of the machine, the blurb and title box placement on the cover, and especially the design of the star field feel more in line with Infantino’s work. Conversely, the big action pose figures of Han and Crimson Jack firing away at each other on the cover are much more in Austin’s wheelhouse. Even before I knew he was involved drawing this cover I was instantly reminded of the space based X-Men stories from the ‘70s involving the Starjammers, M’Kran Crystla, and Shiar Imperial Guard. Janice Cohe is providing color work for this cover and she does a superb balancing job, especially in creating the background as that much space can easily end up a blank nightmare.
More Infantino though this time he’s working with a different Marvel ‘70s workhorse: Bob Wiacek. Bob Wiacek and Terry Austin have actually pretty similar styles and bodies of work and they both seem to blend with Infantino’s style surprising well. What really sells this cover though is the, quite frankly, insane subject matter. My google-fu has failed me as to the identity of this random, bright magenta Cyborg dude but he and Shire Brie from #14 need to team-up and re-enter the modern line of Marvel Star Wars comics because they’re both amazing. Speaking of the modern books, this cover was actually kind of prophetic as recent Darth Vader had to throw down with a collection of Cyborg-fighters engineered as living weapons and replacement apprentices for the Emperor. It was a great issue and this Terminator looking guy would’ve fit in perfectly with that bunch. It’s actually kind of surprising we don’t see more Cyborgs in the Star Wars universe overall given that they’re entire concept of medicine seems to be based around replacing your broken parts with robotic ones. Glynis Wein is back on color duty and bless her for giving us the greatest looking Star Wars matched with that amazing violet gradient for the sky.
Different cover but pretty much the same team only now Carl Gafford is on color duty and the subject matter is even more amazing. I’m not sure if this giant skull at the center of this wheel of death is literal or metaphorical but I pray to God it’s the former because that would just be the greatest achievement of the Empire as well as a decidedly Star Wars-ish idea. It’s more commonly known now that Star Wars started life as essentially Flash Gordon fan fiction and when Lucas couldn’t get the rights he reworked the characters and names for his own opus but that pulp sci-fi serial affect has always lingered in the series’ DNA. The whole “wheel of death in space literally shaped like a skull” is almost straight out of an old fashion sci-fi serial or indeed the weird science anthology magazines that Infantino specialized in. I like that they also give us a Star Destroyer next to the ring so we can get a sense of its massive and imposing scope. Mostly though, I just love the idea that there’s no practical reason to make the center of the wheel a skull; that fits perfectly into the Star Wars ethos of “do the thing because it looks cool.”
Back to the adaptation covers with more Rick Hoberg, this time joined by Dave Cockrum with Paty Cockrum on color duty. Like I said, Marvel’s Star Wars is following more the suggestion of A New Hope’s plot line than a strict 1-to-1 transliteration hence why Luke is actually throwing down with Darth Vader here unlike in the movies. In line with Hoberg’s last cover this is a brilliant use of guided perspective across layered image beats. Obviously you’ve got Vader against Luke in the foreground just dominating this cover with one of the best depictions of Darth Vader I’ve ever seen. It’s a little hard to tell on first glance because of the strange structure Luke is awkwardly perched on but Vader is huge in this cover. Even though he’s bent over and beneath Luke’s elevation he’s still taller than him, if he stood up straight he’d tower over Luke like an Amazon. Patty Cockrum has also really perfected the color work on him, using the old Batman trick of swapping in deep blue for outright black. I really like the ringed design of Vader’s legs here mixed with those gigantic boots. There’s enough Vader in the design so that you know it’s him but this looks a lot more like “Darth Vader; Super Villain” than space dictator or franchise mascot.
One of the unfortunate aspects of Marvel’s Star Wars covers is how little focus Leia got over the course of the run. I mean, it took me around 90 issues to find one solid cover featuring her as the focus instead of just cowering in fear like on #10. However, this is a pretty great cover concept and a brilliant use of symbolism that digs into Leia’s character in a smart way. It actually reminds me a lot of the emphasis Mark Waid used for his Princess Leia mini-series during Marvel’s Star Wars launch, zeroing in on the divide between Leia’s swashbuckling pragmatism and her duties as a political figurehead and rallying point. There’s an interesting idea in the core concept of her as the face of the rebellion as well as the conscience of its leaders while also trying to pull off rescue missions and daring raids and the like. I’m not exactly sure what Vader’s lurking form has to do with any of this but it’s a nice addition, also good to see Admiral Ackbar finally make it onto one of these covers.
Despite the title this cover actually isn’t the start of the Empire Strikes Back adaptation run, it’s just a very bizarre coincidence. I kind of wish this was a scene from the movie because the image of C3P0 carrying the unconscious Luke Skywalker like a damsel in distress may be one of the greatest Star Wars related images conceived of by humans and committed to the printed page. That’s actually something that the comics excelled at, digging deep into the minor characters for interesting story beats and affording them a greater range of significance and identity beyond things like “the scared one” or “teddy bears.” If the star clusters didn’t give it away than his signature on the page certainly should’ve as this is another Infantino/Wiacek cover, which makes a lot of sense given how much this is a “you’ve got to read this!” type cover. It’s a Silver Age type gimmick, the hero all but beaten with only his weakest ally to defend him, you know he’ll escape but the journey is more important than the destination. Also, this is a cover with speech balloons so that automatically gains it +10 quality points.
As I mentioned I haven’t read most of these Star Wars comics but I still feel reasonable confident in asserting that is a space genie. While some might look on this with skepticism I really love the idea, mainly because Star Wars has always been a science-fantasy so giving greater sway to fantasy elements with space genies or witches has always been a good move in my book. People tend to forget that the plot of the series is about magic knights trying to rescue a princess, fantasy is a core foundation of the entire saga. The cover comes from Tom Palmer and Ed Hannigan, with Glynis Wein returning for color and doing her standard amazing job. I’m not sure if Wein just really loved magenta or it’s a happy accident I’ve spotlight covers from her with big pink bastards on them but either way nobody finds that iconic sweet spot of color coordination like her. Other fun fact about this issue, the author is credited as Wally Lombego but that was actually J.M. DeMatteis under a pseudonym. Fitting that when handed the reins of a Star Wars comic the co-creator of G’Nort decided on “space genie.”
This is actually the only all-girl cover featuring artwork by Cynthia Martin and colors by Glynis Wein and it’s absolutely amazing. I know a lot of folks dislike the Ewoks but that’s because they forget they were violent, murderous little bastards. Sure, we think they’re lame because they look like teddy bears and somehow defeated the empire but in that assumption we make the same mistake that lost the empire their star war; we underestimated them. Sure, the Ewoks look adorable but they’re actually horrific killers that most likely feasted on a stew of storm trooper parts at that big celebration where Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin watched on in tacit approval. There’s probably a head still in that storm trooper helmet, unless the Ewok perched above it took the time to clean out the head and blood and what not. If this was any other figure posed with a foot on top the helmet of his fallen adversary it’d be a grand and imposing image but with the Ewoks we just can’t except something so forcibly cute could be so deadly, the same mistake the storm troopers made. 9 times out of 10, it’d be our head in that helmet and our last words would’ve been “oh come on they can’t be that deadly.”
Shocking twist time: this amazing magenta guy complete with giant gold boots, massive gold collar, and subtly hidden golden girdle; not colored by Glynis Wein. No this cover comes to us courtesy of Petra Goldberg though the color work on Luke and his fabulous opponent is every bit as strong as Wein’s, though she isn’t quite as strong on filling in Infantino’s speckled starscape backgrounds. Something that’s always been true of Star Wars is that it boasts an incredible array of villains, from the Emperor to Darth Maul to Kylo Ren, the bad guys of the Star Wars universe have always been stellar. I have no idea who this guy is or why he’s wearing a tiny jacket and green sunglasses with his widow’s peak hair and soul patch or even how he’s able to breath in space but none of that matters because he’s amazing. I actually doubt any context could improve this image, knowing what’s going on or why this nameless space dude is the way he is would only devalue the glorious conflagration of insane elements that made him. I also note that in this case he’s wielding the green light saber and Luke the red, makes you wonder who the TRUE hero of Star Wars is doesn’t it.
Like I said, a lot of artists had trouble managing to get Darth Vader’s look right and that’s very true of Infantino and Wiacek as this cover shows. It actually looks a lot like Vader is scrunching his neck down to try and crouch bellow the “Star Wars” title at the top of the page, like he’s afraid he’ll block the marquis and people won’t know what comic this is. However, none of that matters because this cover is amazing in every other conceivable way. Firstly, we’ve got another confused blend of literal and figurative cover content as Vader isn’t just manipulating pieces on the board, the pieces are fighting back against him, imply the dark lord’s gambit is to entrap his enemies on a giant chess board for reasons that elude me. What’s more I note that R2-D2 is the only hero brave enough to just roll right up to Vader to take him on, probably because he has no survival instincts whatsoever. I also wonder if the guy in Vader’s left hand is the same sunglass, soul patch, giant collar dude from the previous color only now dressed in the sage green outfit of Baron Mordru. Really though, this cover just wins on the fact that it predates Spaceballs by 7 years, meaning it’s entirely possible the whole “playing with your dolls” scene from Spaceballs was directly inspired by this comic, that’s the kind of world I want to live in.
That’s right, C3P0 was a bad guy the entire time, what a twist! In all honesty I don’t know if that’s the case with this cover but that’s certainly the message I’m getting from it, loud and clear. So clear that I’m willing to overlook some of the artistic flubs by Tom Palmer like the very shaky line work on Vader and the wonky perspective on his right arm. We do have Glynis Wein back on color duty, as the massive magenta background interior should’ve clued you all in to. I’m not sure if the decision to color C3P0’s transmission orange rather than the standard blue was intentional because of like a coded transmission or something but I like it, it bounces off Vader’s deep, navy coloring well. Speaking of which this is a major step down for Vader’s color design as the navy blue is far too dominate and bleeds into the black ink a little too much, also his torso doesn’t have any lights or colors. Still, the idea of C3P0 being a traitor all along and reporting in to Vader is just to perfect and amazing to pass up, it’d be the greatest twist reveal in genre fiction.
Now that’s a good Darth Vader, coming to us courtesy of Al Williamson again. As I mentioned last time Williamson does a superb job with very detailed and kind of gritty space opera and pulp sci-fi affects and that’s exactly what we have here, especially with how much detail he’s put into the texturing on Darth Vader. The way Vader’s holding that light saber seems a little suspect and admittedly the comics never really figured out a good way to render light sabers on the page but this is still a pretty epic image regardless. Of all the single image splash covers that punctuated the long first run of Marvel Star Wars comics this is easily the best, most in line with the actual source material while still imbued with the artist’s own stylistic flair and aesthetics. It also makes good use of the comic book medium. That blend of big planets and light speckles along the star field background is absolutely great and Glynis Wein finds a superb color balance between the planets and ships. She also does a great job with Vader, digging into that steely, cobalt blue look rather than the deep navy of #3.
Fun fact: the story this cover is selling is called “Jawas of Doom.” I seriously wonder how the images on display here could be related to that but it’s ultimately a moot point because this cover is beautiful. Tom Palmer again, completely overcoming any shortcomings he might’ve had before for a superb cover than captures that Drew Struzan style very nicely. I usually don’t go in for these kind of very movie poster esc covers but it feels appropriate here given how much the Star Wars posters influenced the idea of cover art in general. What’s more this is the only cover in Marvel’s entire Star Wars run where the characters actually look like the people playing them in the films, which is no small feat. Most of all though this is just a perfect balance of subjects and content, everything is scattered in just the right space so that the cover feels full and dynamic without slipping into cluttered. That might seem like a simple task but it’s actually incredibly hard requiring an insane amount of balance between the elements. It’s also nice that Glynis Wein gets one more shot at coloring things magenta with the color work on the Jawas ship and the bright magenta back ring around the planet behind Han Solo’s head. It wouldn’t feel like a true Marvel Star Wars cover without at least one element being bright pink.