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Friday, July 1, 2016

Cover Story - Top 15 Evil Empire Covers

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This Friday marks the premiere of The Purge: Election Year, the third installment in the shockingly profitable political horror/dystopian thriller/Slasher action film series.  Yes, The Purge wears many hats but the one most key to this article is that of political horror, which this latest installment seems to be getting back to in a big way.  

There was still a socio-economic angle to the excellent Purge: Anarchy but Election Year looks to be taking the “American nightmare” set-up full force with a ton of creepy, Slasher infused American iconography punctuating pretty much all the marketing for it.  All that nightmarish Americana got me thinking about Evil Empire, a fantastic comic from BOOM Studios about the rise of anarchic fascism in the US.  

It was a great comic and my number 10 pick for the 10 best comics of 2015, it also featured a ton of spectacular covers that we’re going to showcase today.  So, with that said, let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 15 Evil Empire comic covers.

We open fairly simplistically with one of the lesser covers in this particular oeuvre.  See, all of Evil Empire’s covers are devised in this same, very striking, minimalist style with a very literal approach to iconography.  There’s some difference from this approach but for the most part the covers are these bizarrely memorable paper cut-out designs with literal icons representing something going on. 

Obviously, the direct reference at hand in this cover is the combination of being the black sheep of a group and the idea of people as sheep (sheeple.)  Those are both endemic concepts of Evil Empire, which comes down very hard on the susceptibility of the masses to be shepherded down the path of ultra violence and self-indulgence when afforded the opportunity.

Though not the best iteration of this style this is still a great example of how this kind of iconogrpah set-up can be used to convey a simple and clear message.  The blocky design of the sheep and the Evil Empire logo are very nice and the color contrast between the red, white, and black makes the entire visual pop very nicely. 

This is the same basic approach as the previous cover, same blocky visual designs, same bold popping colors, same blunt force message on display only now it’s all filtered through a much more comedic bend.  The design of the falling bombs is an even better use of the minimalist style than the sheep as they’re almost instantly recognizable thanks to their simplistic geometry.  The best part has to be the little person underneath the hail of bombs holding up his umbrella and the peace sign.  It’s a jokey visual but it gets the point across very well I’d say.  

Most of Evil Empire is concerned with the slow cultural shift that brought the US from ordered republic to lawless fascist union where all crime is legal, and part of that slow drift has to do with the failure of opposition to the fascist movement.  Twisting around the idea of the peace symbol and peace movement, emphasizing the reliance on symbolism over action even in the face of oncoming destruction, is a great visual metaphor for that key component of the comic’s plot. 

This approach is a lot more oblique as far as the metaphorical significance goes and the actual depictions at hand but once you work out the symbolism it’s a very striking concept.  If you can’t tell, what’s happening here is that a dove is perched atop the muzzle of a rifle.  

This is the first piece of actual American cultural allusion to work its way into the Evil Empire covers as it’s a reference to the ‘Flower Power’ photo of protestors outside the Pentagon placing flowers down the rifles of an assembled group of National Guardsman.  The symbolism there was about the importance of tranquility and harmony surpassing the power of violence.  This cover builds on that basic symbolism, swapping the flower for a dove, but twists it a little, perching the dove atop the rifles.  

The dove, a symbol of peace and hoped, perched atop a rifle barrel changes the meaning from one of conflict to symbiosis, with a sense the peace is being propped up by the violence lurking underneath.  That’s another key idea within Evil Empire, that most people are, at a base level, violent animals just waiting for society to allow them to unleash their worst impulses.  That’s part of why The Purge’s recent release made me return to Evil Empire, both are stories of a failed utopia emerging out of an America that chose to embrace humanity as a destructive and violent animal rather than striving to improve. 

Now we’ve switched from metaphor to out right literalism with easily the best cover yet.  Like I said, Evil Empire does a lot of nifty things with American iconography but it loves repurposing the American flag and this is a great example of that.  The flow of the stripes into a more liquid state, circling the drain, is a great blend of metaphor and literal meaning that’s impossible to miss. 

At the same time, despite the greater complexity on hand the color make up of this cover is still extremely simple, which adds a level of power that’s deeply impactful.  The cover still only employees three colors to make its point but that limitation causes it to ring louder and clearer than if it was more muddied with detail.  The only real complexity on display is in the drain itself and even that is deceptively simple.  

The way the flag stripes splatter around the drain is an incredibly evocative effect and the visual reference to blood here is a very subtle addition to an already unsettling visual.  I also really like the reworked logo for this particular style, adopting a more archaic design to compliment the star spangled nature of this cover, giving the whole thing a uniquely constitutional bent. 

This was actually the first cover of Evil Empire and, by weird coincidence, it’s one of the most complex we’ve seen so far.  This was back before the nature of the titular Evil Empire was really revealed and it seemed like the book could just be a fairly simplistic “dark future” narrative rather than the exploration of the horror of human brutality through the prism of political and cultural change that it is.  As such, the fists in the air visual was a very flexible cover image and the flame in the background lent the design a kind of nobility before what was to come. 

What’s most compelling about the cover has got to be the texture it manages to evoke.  It’s hard to tell but if you pay attention to the sides of the image you’ll note there’s a kind of ink smattering around them.  It gives the illusion of a paperback cover, the likes of which you’d find at an old book store or the like.  There’s even the implication of fraying around the bottom right corner, which is a really subtle touch to increase that element.  That’s also part of why the Evil Empire logo is much bigger and blockier this time around, it’s meant to look like old school publishing rather than a comic.

Here’s a pretty rare occurrence for Cover Story, an incredibly evocative and politically charged cover that was made to be that way.  Most of the time whenever these kind of covers show up here referencing current events like police brutality or political meltdowns it was unintended at the time of original creation but not this one.  

This cover is very much a direct reference to the ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ protest slogan that grew out of the Ferguson/Eric Garner trials that came out of 2014.  Though not as entrenched in race politics that was an element of Evil Empire’s focus as the story’s main heroes are a black entertain and her best friend attempting to wage a culture war and military insurgency against the Evil Empire.

Even without the political context this is a beautifully well conceived image that makes great use of its own format.  Once more we’re back to the land of blocky iconography, though the rifles here are much more in line with stencil art though I love the clarity of design in the hands up pose.  What’s really unique about this cover is the way it uses the concept of a world existing off panel, with the various rifles jutting in from parts unknown to threaten the central focal point.  Additionally, we get another reworking of the Evil Empire logo, a continually adapting element of the cover design.  This one takes on a scribbled, hand painted aesthetic to reflect the protest origins of this cover’s inspiration. 

From blocky icons to absurdly detail realism, I’m actually not sure this isn’t a photograph it’s that well rendered.  This was an alternate cover design for the first issue and it’s incredibly stirring, though it does tie into the overall bait and switch the comic was originally pitching.  If you don’t recognize the imagery on hand, the helmet design here is drawn from the Nazi helmets of World War 2 only rebranded with the Evil Empire’s double E logo.  

This ended up foreshadowing for one of the comic’s really interesting parts, the way the Evil Empire emphasized branding and IP management as a way to make fascism “cool” again, adopting the trappings of traditional fascist iconography to impose their identity on a populous while twisting their agenda to be a more anarchic one. It’s a very bizarre idea but that’s the kind of high concept pitch that comics tend to thrive on, especially the emphasis on brand marketing as a form of power.  

There’s something about comic books that tends to attract that kind of self criticism but you actually find it a lot, to the point there’ve been multiple separate Superman and Batman arcs where they face down an enemy with the power of marketing.  Getting back to the cover, this time the Evil Empire logo empire is reworked to feature hard angles and sharp diagonals, especially on the Es and Ls.  That kind of set-up puts readers immediately in the mind of WW2 and when coupled with the helmet it speaks heavily to Nazi origins. 

From the outside this might appear the same style cover as the minimalist icons from earlier but actually this is a look into stencil art.  The key give away is the duel color nature of this visual and the heavy line work that goes into creating the core image at hand.  This is easily the most minimalist cover in the bunch, dropping things down to the bright yellow background and the black ink overtop of it and boiling the central image down to a single concept.  

If it’s not obvious, what we’ve got here is a hand giving the peace symbol only the two fingers have been chopped off.  It’s a curdlingly gruesome concept that’s thankful not as bloody as it could be thanks to the stenciled nature of this design.  The stencil artwork design is overall meant as a reference point to graffiti protest art, again digging into the idea of populous politics and the bizarrely anti-establishment undercurrent of Evil Empire.
This is something I’ve danced around this whole article but the entire ethos of the eponymous Evil Empire is essentially anarchy.  

They believe that you should be able to rape, murder, and steal as you please and the only reason they employ their various soldiers is to make sure nobody stops you from doing whatever you want.  They’re basically a death cult committed to destroying civilization by destroying the establishment that holds civility in place.  In its own weird and twisted way, the Evil Empire is against law and order and committed to total freedom.  It’s another big, weird idea that the comic pulls off shockingly well and informs a lot of covers like this one.  Bonus points for the stencil version of the logo. 

This is one of the few covers I might actually consider a reference to the iconography of comic books, in particular Watchmen.   At this point in comics history the visual of a massive bank of TVs or monitors can’t help but draw parallels to Alan Moore’s groundbreaking series, even if it’s unintentional.  Aside from that I'm not quite certain what this cover could be referencing though I especially like the design of the various televisions at hand.  

The majority of them are playing some form of static and the artwork manages to dive deep into the varieties of static you can actually get on the television.  There are “no broadcast” cards, a handful of unique static effects, an ‘adjust your tracing’ pattern that’s pretty damn clever, and my personal favorite has to be the TV that’s broken in the center of the bank. The other images are mostly indicative of revolution in some form.  There are images of police and people lined up together, eerie night shots of city skylines, and fists raised in protest.  

I’m not exactly sure what the significance of the two random people is for this cover but I suspect they might be the leaders of the Evil Empire, which would make a good amount of sense.  In a twisted sort of way, the television screen break-up is a reference to comics themselves, splitting up a disparate collection of images to create overall meaning in the same manner as panels do within a comic.

This cover is a lot more representative of the actual content of the comic than most.  Most of these have been big, metaphorical images contemplating the ideology of the book or the iconography at play but this cover is pretty much a direct reference to events in the comic, specifically the US’ targeted take out of the United Nations and the way the ethos of the Evil Empire spreads to various other major nations.  

That was one of the smarter elements of the comic, addressing the fate of other nations without necessarily diving too deep into them as the American situation was meant as the central focus of the book.  As for this cover, this is another paper back esc design, as evidenced by the serious smudging around the edges of the flame and the very ‘70s stylization on the Evil Empire logo.

As for the cover itself, it’s a damnably evocative visual that manages to capture the feel of this issue as well as the content.  Aside from the flames engulfing the UN flag, I especially like the crosshairs targeted over the dove.  There’s a sense of destructive power and inevitability about this cover that’s the most chilling.  

The entire issue is all about how there’s no help coming from the outside, how America is very much on her own in this particular situation, and this cover exemplifies that perfectly.  What’s more, the color balance of the cover is beautifully realized, splitting the visual design horizontally between the calm blue and smoldering orange with the white highlights informing both areas nicely. 

This is such a jokey cover I absolutely love it.  Unlike most of the other covers at hand (pun intended) there’s really not any deeper meaning or metaphorical reference being drawn here, just the incredibly crass symbolism of the American flag proudly and defiantly giving the audience the finger.  

This cuts back to that anti-establishment thing I mentioned earlier, a kind of cultural defiance that informed the ethos of the Evil Empire.  They’re basically a big, massive evil organization like Cobra or the Galactic Empire but they’re run by an incestuous brother/sister pair with a seething, burning hatred for authority and culture of any kind.  

That’s part of the tragedy that informs so much of the series, that the entire world is brought to shambles through the actions of a couple of rogue jack-asses with the mentality of a high school teenager convinced that everyone is miserable deep down.  

None of this is subtly done either, in fact the arch-villains “secret origin” is actually laid out for us in an incredibly simplistic 2-page infographic that works as a brilliant parody of the elaborate villain origins most stories tend to saddle their lead baddies with.  So yeah, blatantly adopting an aggressively, hateful anti-intellectual/anti-establishment view and draping it up in cheap jingoism is the perfect metaphor for the plans of the Evil Empire. 

Now we’re getting to the really great stuff, the pure slices of American iconography reworked into pure nightmare fuel.  In this case, the image on display is a silhouette version of the famous Uncle Sam recruitment poster, here reworked to turn Sam into a hideous monster and marking his design with the logo of the Evil Empire.  

Of all the Evil Empire covers this is the one I could most easily see adapted into marketing for like The Purge or Bioshock Infinite.  It’s a big, showy reworking of an instantly recognizable piece of Americana meant specifically to throw you off balance and shock and it does a great job. 

I admit, I’m a sucker for this particular blend (there’s a reason I gravitated to The Purge after all) but this is still a dynamite comic cover.  Like all of these, the minimalism is key to the memorable nature of the cover, boiling down the concept of a perverted America into a single recognizable image with so little fanfare it can’t help but stand out.  

The reworked logo helps a lot with conveying that change, emphasizing the font styles of American propaganda posters through its bold widths and hard angles.  It’s a great image that really fulfills the cover’s innate purpose of making a shopper stop and take notice.

Another great example of perverted Americana, this in the style of the Sex Pistol’s God Save the Queen.  I should mention at this point that Evil Empire’s author, Max Bemis, was a musician before transitioning to writing comics so a lot of the cover and plot work on the series is steeped in the kind of cultural shorthand one might expect from a song or album art.  

This cover also resurrects the stencil style of lettering as a way of hammering home the “defaced” nature of the cover at hand, as already indicated by the Hitler moustache penciled onto Washington in this image.  I especially like the dripping paint and smear effects around the edges of the image.  

Despite their deceptively simple designs Evil Empire’s covers always managed to emphasize detail to create a kind of realism and unifying style that immensely increases the impact that each visual is going for.  For instance, the ink work on George Washington in this cover is simply magnificent, a beautiful rendering the shading that goes into printing on actual money.  See, the design of the portrait on money is as complicated as it is partly to throw off counterfeiting but also because money is printed on cotton rather than paper, so recreating that style of shading and line work is extremely difficult but realized expertly here. 

Well this is certainly…chilling.  While this image was certainly made to be provocative (the whole comic is provocative) it’s definitely a lot more unsettling in the wake of the recent Orlando mass shooting.  Unlike the ‘hands up’ cover I showcased earlier, this particular cover wasn’t really intended to piggyback on any recent gun violence news, just a general critique of American gun culture, which I suppose never goes out of style.  The obvious visual metaphor at hand is people “taking aim” at liberty, which itself was a pretty clever smoke screen for the Evil Empire’s true goal given their dystopia was one of unlimited freedom but no security, but it’s hard not to see this as commentary on the continued threat of gun violence in the US. 

Look, I’ve been getting very political in these post lately so I’ll try to keep this brief and just say that after what feels like a year straight of non-stop gun violence news stories, punctuated by the worst mass shooting in recent US history, it’s hard to disassociate the imagery of gun culture from the gun issue still plaguing our nation, especially in the wake of sweeping inaction on that issue.  

Fairly or not it creates a prevailing sense of dread and inevitability surrounding tremendous loss of life a complete lack of safety anywhere in the nation.  So the image of a firing range target plastered over the Statue of Liberty strikes me as a pitch perfect visual metaphor for the way gun violence has targeted our most basic freedom and put a stranglehold on the institutions meant to keep us safe.  This isn’t even a question of choosing security over liberty: this is having neither. 


These last two images are fairly unique in that they double down on the American iconography, seeking a blend between the grand trappings of patriotism and American identity and the more hollow realities of government and American culture.  While the previous cover emphasized gun culture this one is about the culture of government obfuscation and center point.  

Whatever you may think of the federal government it’s hard to deny that its developed into a political class that looms large over the lives of every citizen of the US regardless of whether or not we really know what its doing.  That culture of government opacity, of secrets within secrets and a sense that no one truly comprehends the workings of government unless your within its inner circle, is exactly what this cover is referencing through the unique imagery of redacting.  Redacting is a process where documents released to the public will have major sections blacked out or ‘redacted’ as they’ve been considered unfit for the public to see.  Redacting the declaration of independence is the perfect symbolization of government obscurity spread to the extreme degree.  

However, beyond just the imagery of censored text and the rubber stamp of the Evil Empire (another great logo redesign,) this cover is still referencing back to the anarchic elements of the series.  This isn’t just an act of censorship against a declaration of freedom, it’s also an act of vandalism against a declaration of ideals.  That’s the core monstrous nature that informs the evil of the evil empire, that more than law and order they hate ideology, ethics, and the idea that humanity can truly accomplish something great.  

That’s why they’re such a terrifyingly seductive force, they’re sloth and hatred and bigotry incarnate all wrapped up in the nice comforting lie that it’s how things just are and the improvement is a fool’s errand.  I can think of no purer representation of that willful ignorance and defiant de-evolution than bloating out the declaration of independence to show how free you are to be as awful as you please. 
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