Comic book covers have been a unique form of art since their inception in the 1930s. While they have shifted and grown more intricate over the years, few decade experience such massive changes and improvements as the 1980s.
New artistic styles, titanic artists, and more inventive approaches to what can be featured onside and on the cover of a comic book led to a renaissance. The art of the 1970s paved the way for more dynamic layouts and detailed takes on comic book storylines, but the 1980s ran wild with new notions.
Because of artists taking chances and comic book companies pushing the envelope more than ever, covers were created that stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest art work anywhere. These 25 covers are some of the comic industry’s shining examples, many of which have influenced comic book art in the decades since.
See more of the best comic book covers by reading The Greatest Comic Book Covers by Decade!
25. Daredevil #181 by Frank Miller
After dozens of issues, this is one writer and artist Frank Miller’s biggest issues in his dramatic run on Daredevil. The hero’s biggest villain, Bullseye, and his lover, the assassin Electra, face off in a brutal and deadly battle, with unconventional reds and yellows catching eyes in mere moments. Their mid-air attack with the fearful shadow of Daredevil looming in the background make this an obviously high stakes affair. Add in the fact that “one wins, one dies” is plastered on the front and this is ripe for tragedy. And one really does die!
24. Fantastic Four #276 by John Byrne
Byrne’s use of pure black and white in a negative-like effect illustrates sheer power. Including the book’s title and its tag in the black and white illustration and this is full commitment to an idea and it makes its use all the more powerful. As the figure at the center overwhelms The Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic with sheer power, it’s clear that our heroes are in serious trouble. This is just the first of many Byrne covers on this list, but it is definitely his most unusual.
23. The Sensational She-Hulk #1 by John Byrne
Rather than rely on unique visuals and iconic poses, Byrne’s cover for the first issue of Sensational She-Hulk is powerful because of its full commitment to breaking the fourth wall. Like the comic book series itself, She-Hulk directly talks to the reader, referencing comic fans’ love of X-Men books and alluding to her previous series, which quickly failed. It’s this savvy knowledge of comic books trends that sets this apart from your typical ‘80s comic and makes the issue a harbinger of comic trends to come.
22. Batman #407 by David Mazzucchelli
Just one of the many amazing covers that make up Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s definitive Batman: Year One, this piece strikes an immediate chord with Batman fans by pitting long-time friends Gordon and Batman directly against one another. With the outside of Batman’s cape blending in with the darkness, it seems as if The Dark Knight is leaping directly out of the shadows. Mazzucchelli’s art is both human and iconic at the same time, making this a thrilling composition that is actually boosted by the start white Batman logo.
21. Marvel Comics Presents #77 by Barry Windsor-Smith
A feral naked Wolverine stalks through the snowy wilderness, adamantium claws bared and covered in blood. It’s a brutal and haunting image that perfectly illustrates one of the most memorable scenes of Weapon X, as the wild Wolverine has all but lost his humanity after being experimented on by a government organization. Combining detailed nature scenery with the obscured image of a hero gone wild, this is feels like a piece of classic art turned into superhero lore.
20. The Dark Knight Returns #4 by Frank Miller
This is it, Batman versus Superman in the climax of Miller’s instantly iconic dystopian future tale. After decades of stories, these two classic characters need little more than their outlines to be instantly identified by readers everywhere. Facing the overwhelmingly powerful Man of Steel, The Dark Knight is decked out in armor, guns, and a sword. With a fire raging in the background and two heroes locked in mortal combat, this is an apocalyptic scenario with little hope foretold by the title – “The Dark Knight Falls.”
19. Fantastic Four #243 by John Byrne
A colorful collection of heroes joined together in glorious battle against a gigantic foe. This is everything that makes comic books so much fun! While the book may be labeled Fantastic Four, an enemy as deadly as Galactus can only be fought with the combined might of Earth’s most powerful heroes. The stark white background makes the many colors on display in the characters’ costumes truly pop. But with powerful heroes like Thor and Captain America dwarfed by the villain and Mr. Fantastic stretched to his limits, is there any hope?
18. The Transformers #5 by Mark Bright
It’s a simple but shocking statement that surely made fans everywhere dive in without hesitation. With the Decepticon villain Shockwave burning the fate of the heroes into the wall, things definitely do not look good for the Autobots. Dark shadows, smoke, and a villainous color scheme make this typically bright series take a turn for the dangerous. When compared with the far more basic and crude covers that came before and would come after in this well-loved series, Bright’s painterly cover is even more memorable.
17. Amazing Spider-Man #238 by John Romita Jr. & John Romita Sr.
If there was any villain that excited Spider-Man fans more than any other in the ‘80s, it was the mysterious and deadly Hobgoblin. The villain’s darkended face and glowy red eyes add to his mysterious nature and he rips through the hero’s costume, symbolizing nothing but disaster looming for the hero. As rain and shadows overwhelm the cover, it’s obvious that the Hobgoblin’s return means excitement and danger are within the many pages. Plus, it’s got free press-on tattoos inside. How could any kid resist?
16. The Uncanny X-Men #141 by John Byrne & Terry Austen
Even non-comic book fans are well-acquainted with the classic X-Men storyline Days of Future Past by now, and this cover is the one image most closely associated with the tale of dystopian future and mutant annihilation. With the image of a markedly aged Wolverine backed against a wall illustrating the death and capture of countless mutant heroes, the shock alone of the future that awaits the X-Men is enough to entice any reader. Byrne and Austen created a cover that has been imitated and reproduced more times than anyone can count, both in and out of comics. The future may look bleak, but the storyline is golden.
15. Secret Wars #10 by Mike Zeck & Terry Austin
Battered, broken, and alone, but defiant and brimming with power, the villainous Dr. Doom faces off against The Beyonder. But this utterly powerful spotlight on the Fantastic Four villain does not need any context beyond what is shown on the page. It’s clear that Doom is facing an opponent that surpasses even his immeasurable power. With his armor in shambles and his exposed body covered in blood, Doom has been beat down among the burning wreakage. Zeck and Austen make this into a detailed and powerful image that will have any fan cheering on the villainous Doom, a prospect that would seem impossible in any other sense.
14. Swamp Thing #34 by John Totleben
As a beautiful and calm moment between two lovers, Totleben’s gentle art makes this strange pairing into something relatable and serene. It’s a moment of peace in the tumultuous life of the elemental Swamp Thing and his lover Abigail Arcane. Rippling water, touches of light, and serene creatures make this a clearly loving moment in the place where these two can be alone. Looking at this cover almost feels like interrupting an intimate moment and the relatability of these two breaks through the odd appearances that define so much of their battle against culture in writer Alan Moore’s series.
13. The Avengers #223 by Ed Hannigan & Klaus Janson
Hawkeye and Ant-Man are together and ready to raise hell. Using a simple design and putting forced perspective to great use, Hannigan and Janson put the spotlight on this unusual but exciting pairing, and that’s what makes it so great! With the tiny Ant-Man clutching onto the tip of Hawkeye’s arrowhead, the shape-changing hero is ready to be shot into action. What comes next? It’s the promise of exciting and unconventional action that makes you desperate to see this in action!
12. Batman: Arkham Asylum by Dave McKean
A chaotic mix of shadows, smoke, and psychotic imagery, this cover alone is a descent into madness. It’s appropriate, since this entire comic is a psychotic journey that pits Batman against the madness of Arkham Asylum and its inmates. As The Dark Knight enters the doorway of Arkham, he also passes into the mouth of The Joker, whose fang-like teeth and monstrous eyes loom overhead. This cover alone can instill terror in anyone who catches a glimpse of it. The power and artistry created by McKean balance the fear with an undeniable sense of intrigue.
11. Web of Spider-Man #32 by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod
As the turning point in a six-part saga that saw Spider-Man shot and buried by Kraven the Hunter, the Wall-Crawler’s brutal rise from the grave is both an iconic image and thrilling entry into the story of Kraven’s Last Hunt. Covered in mud, doused in rain, and lit by a lightning strike, this is both a moment of triumph and horror as Spider-Man’s personalized tombstone looms above him. This darkly heroic imagery is made even bolder by the stark black and white costume, which blends wonderfully with the imagery and themes in a way his red and blue outfit could never quite replicate.
10. The Mighty Thor #337 by Walt Simonson
What happened to Thor and why does he look like that? Author Walt Simonson wasted little time making major waves at the very beginning of his epic Thor run. First issue? The introduction of Beta Ray Bill – the alien warrior who is worthy of Thor’s mythical hammer Mjolnir! Having Bill center stage and smashing through the series’ title is the perfect way to announce his presence. The sheer power and momentum brought to life on the cover by Simonson will catch anyone’s eye. The idea of a comic book title being affected by the art had been done before and many times since, but this is one of its finest examples.
9. Animal Man #5 by Brian Bolland
The hero Animal Man lays sprawled out and at the mercy of his enemy. But his enemy is his very creator! This isn’t just an inventive cover, it’s a glimpse of what happens inside, as Animal Man and his fellow characters come face to face with the fact they are fictional creations. Every little piece of the cover is rendered in loving detail, creating a greater sense of realism that makes the ideas and interplay between reality and fiction all the more striking. These are strange concepts rarely confronted in comic books, by Bolland’s art conveys an extremely complex message in a single, unforgettable image.
8. The Silver Surfer #1 by Moebius
When the embodiment of the Franco-Belgian bandes dessinees style collides with the iconic cosmic characters of Marvel Comics, you better believe that the cover makes the list! Moebius uses a heavily lined approach to bring the enormous Galactus and the iconic Silver Surfer to vivid life, making them powerful yet human. With pure power emanating from Galactus’ giant hands, the planet-eater’s face is illuminated by his own will as the Surfer comes under his will. While this is a relatively simple image, the sheer energy poured into it sparks vivid imagination and a truly cosmic feel most appropriate for these two spacefarers.
7. Batman #404 by David Mazzucchelli
It’s the tragic moment that would change Bruce Wayne’s life forever and give birth to Batman, rendered in all its brutal and graphic realism. Put under a harsh spotlight with the darkness creeping in, young Bruce is all alone with the lifeless bodies of his parents. While it’s a scene that has been recreated again and again, with every fan knowing this moment on sight, this is the moment rendered at its most powerful. Having Thomas and Martha covered in blood make their murder far more real than it had ever been before. Add in the layer that the three figures form the vague shape of a bat and origin of Batman is rendered in vivid and powerful detail.
6. Watchmen #1 by Dave Gibbons
It’s strange and bold, with just a hint of repulsive violence. But what does it all mean? Every cover for the 12-part Watchmenminiseries served the dual purpose of being the first panel the story, with each image being an extreme closeup that would pull back into a larger scene. While each served its own purpose, it’s the first issue that struck the perfect balance between artistry and greater meaning. The image of the smiley face splattered with blood conveys so much meaning to the series as a whole here. In its first appearance, it a beckoning call to enter a world that subverts everything known and loved in superhero comics.
5. Moon Knight #23 by Bill Sienkiewicz
If there is any Marvel hero to walk a morally grey line, it’s Moon Knight. This insane avenger is most at home among the scum and criminals that he battles each night. Sienkiewicz’s art is perfect for this brutal and filthy superhero, with Moon Knight’s white and black costume mottled by dirt and grime, melting him into the dark and dirty city behind him. The creeping darkness and the last remaining bits of light that remain strike a wonderful balance on the cover. Moon Knight may be a hero and the last vestiges of hope represented here, but the cruel bright eyes that peek out from his dark face show that there is little happy or truly hopeful about this hero.
4. Batman: The Killing Joke by Brian Bolland
Simply based on his design alone, The Joker is a dynamic character whose mere presence on a comic book cover is enough to catch the eye and convey extreme menace. While this cover is the recreation of an unforgettable moment in this classic tale, its version here puts the reader in Joker’s direct line of sight. Bolland’s life-like representation of the villain, complete with smile lines, messy hair, and shiny red lips, makes Joker feel like he’s right in front of you. Whatever you feel about Batman’s greatest enemy, no one would want to be photographed by him. And there’s no good reason why he would want you to smile.
3. The Incredible Hulk #340 by Todd MacFarlane
When a cover has been copied and reproduced again and again with no signs of slowing down, you know the original is special. Pitting The Hulk against Wolverine is easily enough to get anyone excited for a battle between these two vicious titans. McFarlane’s art truly telegraphs the anger and energy between these two foes and having the Hulk (the star of this comic) reflected in the metal glint of Wolverine’s claws is a stroke of genius. The juxtaposition of these two heroes heads being simultaneously next to one another and against one another gets the message across immediately. Who would want to see these two tear each other apart?
2. Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #101 by John Byrne
The beauty of Byrne’s black and white marvel is that it’s seemingly simplicity gives way to its truly complicated nature the more and more it is studied. The lack of traditional artistry gives way to the complexity of the negative space and geometric perfection that is applied by Byrne. As Spider-Man blends into the gleaming nature of nighttime New York City, the Wall-Crawler is still boldly represented his eyes, symbol, and evocative pose. Somersaulting through the air, Spider-Man excites and amazes. Byrne makes a smart choice by highlighting the soles of his shoes, creating a stronger reference point for his positioning and adding a greater juxtaposition that keeps him from being lost in the skyline. It’s a dizzying, powerful, and unforgettable piece.
1. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1 by Frank Miller
It’s an image that has not only come to define this seminal tale of The Dark Knight, but one that has helped to define Batman in the decades since its creation. Frank Miller’s iconic Batman strikes a silhouetted pose against the lightning struck night, leaping into action once again. Even for those unfamiliar with the tale, the title of The Dark Knight Returns juxtaposed against the image of Batman’s dark actions is exciting and incredibly evocative. While it’s an incredibly simple layout, Miller’s detailed silhouette will have no one mistake the instantly recognizable outline of The Caped Crusader. With Batman leaping into frame with nothing but lightning-illuminated sky below, there’s an inherent depth added to an essentially flat image. There’s also a sense of realism created by the lightning strike that makes the comic style flatness of Batman jump out even further. Combined, it’s one of the 1980’s most iconic images, and its greatest cover.
Honorable Mentions: Captain America #332, Daredevil #179, The Amazing Spider-Man #300, Uncanny X-Men #234, Wolverine #1, Uncanny X-Men #142, Iron Man #150, Secret Wars #8