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Friday, July 15, 2016

Cover Story - Top 20 Real Ghostbusters Covers

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Edited by Robert Beach 

Well, today’s the day, the long-awaited premiere of Ghostbusters 2016.  At the time of writing, I haven’t seen it yet as I’m getting this article out of the way in advance but I’m personally really looking forward to it.  I like the cast; Paul Feig is a amusing director, and I’m thoroughly interested to see the new spins on Ghostbusting this new generation puts together.  In the meantime, Ghostbusters are just dominating the cultural landscape, so I figured I’d join in with this week’s cover story taking a look at the Marvel comics spun out of the 1986 animated show The Real Ghostbusters. 

I already wrote about the series but if you missed that: it was a hit animated series continuing the team’s adventures from the film and fleshing out their characters.  The tie-in comic embodied the visual style and quirky humor of the show and the film perfectly and feature some amazingly good work in this medium.  So, with that said, let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 20 best Real Ghostbusters covers. 

We open with slimmer and a perfect visual gag for what to expect from this series.  See, while The Real Ghostbusters had some horror elements it was still planted firmly in the realms of comedy and would often utilize horror tropes to realize comedic exaggeration and slapstick through them.  This cover, featuring a giant burger monster preparing to eat Slimer, is a great example of that.  The creature’s design is a great take on Slimer’s blob-like conception but the idea of evil; living objects is a well-worn horror trope The Real Ghostbusters loved to indulge. 

The construction of this cover also says a lot about the kind of comic this is endeavoring to be.  Given the era this was produced in, 1991, most mainstream comics of the time had transitioned away from the kid friendly or even adolescent readership that had defined them in the ‘60s and ‘70s for a more mature style of storytelling and serious narratives.  

Whereas everything about this cover is a throwback, the bold lines, the bright neon colors, the jokey double meaning cover complete with fluffy thought balloons, it’s all constructed as a reference to older comic designs and styles.  However, that old style of construction is being filtered through a more modern and detailed artwork aesthetic that’s decidedly striking and well rendered. 

I swear, there are so many great designs on this cover it’s amazing.  The monster design was always a big part of The Real Ghostbusters and one of a unique aesthetics as they managed to find a bizarre spot between fun and scary that wasn’t overtly spooky.  Some definition of terms here, spooky is a phrase I throw around a lot to embody something that has been coded to be “scary” but is more humorous or enjoyable than actually frightening.  For instance, we know that skeletons, jack o lanterns, and sheet ghosts are meant to be scary, but no one is afraid of them. Hence they are spooky.  It’s the dominant aesthetic of Halloween iconography as well as the amplification of classic monsters from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

The monsters in this cover and a lot of Real Ghostbusters material somehow manage to subvert that expectation through their unique blend of bright, spooky colors with distended details and visual language that would normally indicate real fright.  All the creatures are perversions of the human form in some disturbing way that takes them beyond the trappings of fright, but they’re all bathed in these bright pastel colors that keep them from being fully scary.  It’s an impressive tightrope that the covers walk perfectly. 

Fun fact, this was the second time The Real Ghostbusters canon put together a bunch of monster Ghostbusters.  The first time was in the episode Flip Side where the boys went to a bizarre parallel reality where ghosts were the norm, and people were the spectral haunts.  The team they encountered over there, named the People Busters, were more of a freaky, zombie/ghost version of the classic characters.  

This team dives full on into the spooky aesthetic I mentioned just previously and pulled it off pretty well.  See, everything about these guys is grounded in classical horror.  They've just modified version of the Universal Monsters, but they’re also cartoony renderings of those characters, subverting any actual fear the originals might’ve inspired.  They’re camp, and that campiness is what makes them spooky rather than scary. 

I think my favorite part of the cover is the attention to detail paid to the way the Unreal Ghostbusters are constructed.  Like, everyone here is wearing their unique colored jumpsuit but the werewolf whose clothes have all been ripped away.  Then there are their weird proton gun things that are made out of bones so broad and cartoon in nature they look like the local militia of Halloween Town.  My favorite part, though, has to be that the Dracula Buster is still wearing his cape with the massive bat broach and huge collar because, to be fair, if I were Dracula I’d wear it too. 

You pretty much had to know this guy was going to make a return for this series.  The Stay Puft Marshmallow man is, at this point, endemic of the whole Ghostbusters franchise, he’s every bit the visual mascot of the series as Slimer or the anti-Ghost logo, even appearing on the TV show on multiple different occasions.  Given that pedigree, he had to make it into the comics and what a great way to do it here.  

The idea of a face cover is pretty old hat and most of the time it pops up it tends to be disappointing and generic, but this is a great spin on it, with the Marshmallow Man looming over the boys as they flee for their lives across some random rooftop.  I do wonder why the Ghostbusters are on this roof and where their proton packs went, but then again there’s also a giant commercial mascot kaiju roaming New York so logic can take a back seat.

My favorite part of this is how incredibly erudite the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is.  I don’t remember him speaking during the film, just a handful of grunts, and when he did come back on the show he never really struck me as a guy that would throw around words like “thy doom” in a sentence.  

I've always kind of wondered how Stay Puft works in the Ghostbusters own continuity.  Like, he was created by Gozer to destroy the Ghostbusters but just persists with his inner life and identity past his inception, to the point he once teamed up with the Ghostbusters to fight a deadly giant mantis.  I don’t know; maybe I’m getting too metaphysical about this giant sailor made of confectionary. 

By now, the stylistic formula of the Real Ghostbusters formulas should be coming into view.  Each one takes a fairly comical set-up or a classical format of cover construction and renders it with a heavy emphasis on detail and coloring.  In this case, we’ve got all of that and more in the form of a terrible pun.  This is a good chance to address something that’s been lingering over this, the fact that the real Ghostbusters don’t look like the movie Ghostbusters.  

I’m not sure what the deal was with likenesses, I haven't found much information, but for whatever reason, the creators of The Real Ghostbusters opted to redesign the boys' visual appearance thoroughly while keeping their individual personas intact.  For instance, this guy here is meant to be their Peter Venkman.  

Egon became a blonde; Winston is clean-shaven with a lighter build, and Ray is a much more pronounced red head.  Along with the jumpsuit color changes it all ended up giving The Real Ghostbusters a unique vision of the crew that was wholly their own and honestly feels like a different creature from the original film despite featuring what the same characters are. 

We’re doubling down on the Silver Age of comics cover construction here as there’s nothing old comic creators loved more than working with exaggerated fun house mirrors like this set-up.  I’m not exactly sure why so many Silver Age covers loved rolling out this trope but they certainly did, and it’s incredibly emblematic of a lot of cover construction of that era.  

This whole set-up of the characters gazing upon their own, distorted, reflection feels like someone deliberately referencing the cover design of Superman or Lois Lane.  The unique spin on it here is that the malformed reflection is meant to intimate horror rather than comedy and man does it do a good job of it.

I’m serious; there’s something about the designs on Peter and Ray here that is deeply disturbing.  Well, I say “something” but what I’m probably referring to are those terrifying teeth.  Teeth are one of the go to visual reference points for creepiness that is just always unnerving in any context.  

I think it goes back to the origins of fear as a survival mechanism and the idea that seeing an animal’s teeth is something that should totally trigger a human’s flight or fight response.  Frankly, seeing teeth as a terrifying signifier of horror strikes me as way more rational than finding comfort in a toothy smile. 

Here’s another perfect example of this series love of classical cover construction.  The visual of the hero and villain playing chess with their respective contemporaries as pieces goes all the way back to Justice League of America #1, where Flash played human chess against longtime JLA foe Despero.  That kind of reference point and command of comic book language tells you a lot about the level of skill and talent that went into producing this series and that it wasn’t just quick cash-in produced to capitalize on the TV show. 

One of my favorite parts of this cover has to be the look on Peter’s face.  Given that this a cover I’ve been assuming the chess game we’re seeing is a metaphor, the two sides moving their forces on some plane of visualization but considering this is also Ghostbusters this might well all be literal.  For all I know, coming at this from the outside, that freaky skull demon turned the Ghostbusters into chess pieces for him and Egon to play with, it’d certainly explain how incredulous Venkman looks. 

I’m not sure if this cover counts as a pun or not, but it’s certainly got a lot more teeth for me to be bizarrely disturbed by.  Seriously, it’s creeping me out to just look at this cover with that big wall of teeth in the background and Slimer’s hideous, crooked chompers sticking out of his mouth.  Even worse than the teeth you’ve got that gross drool dripping down from the top of this freakish giant mouth and it’s all so horrible, I swear.  Anyway, the main reason I wanted to highlight this cover was for its incredible use of volumetric lighting. 

No, seriously, even though all that stuff about the teeth and the spittle and what not is incredibly freaky and unnerving the real triumph of this cover has to be the work of shadow, hue, and vibrancy achieved around the idea of Slimer’s match being the sole source of light in the scene.  If you look, the shadows around him and the teeth are incredibly well rendered to highlight the flow of luminance from that one point at the top of the scene, creating the real illusion of lighting. 

What’s more, I like how this cover digs into the practical issues of being swallowed alive by a hideous nightmare creature.  We all tend to assume it’d be over in a second, but the idea of surviving being scooped up by some monster and then living in its stomach where you’re digested is infinitely worse and more terrifying.  Though all things considered, I’m not sure what Slimer’s worried about given he can just slime his way through solid objects. 

This is such a cool cover, and I think it touches on a unique kind of detail that informed The Real Ghostbusters aesthetic.  I’m fairly certain what we’re seeing is Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx from Greek Mythology, hence why he’s carrying a staff and lantern rather than a scythe.  What I like about this visualization, and what makes it key to this aesthetic, is that it’s designed to be made into an action figure.  

Yeah, it’s easy to miss that in the visuals at hand, but that’s the thinking: the hard lines of definition around his edges, the way the details create node-like protrusions molded into the plastic, the way his hood maintains a detailed shape rather than forming into a cloth blob. It all speaks to a character designed to go from drawing to figure. 

The same goes for Winston and his gear, which we’re finally getting a good look at here.  As you can see, the proton packs and PKE meter were both redesigned for The Real Ghostbusters show and now look pretty different.  A lot of this goes back to studio expectations, as Columbia Pictures had originally intended Ghostbusters for a mature audience and hadn’t considered toy sales.  

As such, the design of the Proton Pack in the film is pretty difficult to make in cheap plastic, so they redesigned it to be a lot more manageable for the show.  You can see that very much in the stripped down rifle part of the pack, the way it’s composed of segmented parts and the bright yellow plastic of the feed tube.  Also, this is the only cover we’ve seen with a fully realized background, which is pretty cool

It was true in the ‘50s, it was true in 1989, and it’s true now: apes on comics sell comics.  This is another great example of the GBs adopting the actual content of a Silver Age comic as well as the construction.  What’s more, this is a great example of the mastery of scale that goes into these covers.  

I don’t talk about scale as much as I could, owing to a lot of the time it ends up a neglected aspect of cover construction, but there’s so much use of it in these visuals it’s incredible.  They manage to shift between sweeping wide shots, tight focuses, and medium scale images to create a wide range of evocative designs. 

This cover, similarly to the Stay Puft cover, is an example of sweeping scale, pulling back from the image to emphasize just how big this gorilla is with Peter in there to enhance that idea.  It’s an instant, pie in the face; type shock achieved through the perspective of the image and more inclined towards comedy than if we had been zoomed in.  

That difference in genre definition is key to The Real Ghostbusters’ mastery of scale, the way it uses it’s frame of reference to inform the emotions of the image.  Broader images are funnier while the closer in we get the more intense until we reach close-ups like the one where Slimer got eaten. 

Oh, good, even MORE teeth and once again complimented by that same “more than you can chew” pun.  In all seriousness, this is one of a terrifying images in this entire list, and it’s all thanks to that horrifying dentist creature.  I’ve never been afraid of dentists like a lot of folks are, but I think we’ve fairly well established my fear of teeth that more than that, this guy is creepy for what a perversion of the human form he is.  

Like it’s not just that he’s got a bright pair of chompers lined up for deadly purpose but the way his jaw stretches down, the giant size of his head, and the way his arms are these freaky stretched out appendages are all thoroughly terrifying.  I especially like that he doesn’t seem to bellow the waste in the manner similar to Slimer. Also I’m fairly certain he’s got an afro which is honestly pretty weird for an evil ghost dentist.

This is also a pretty good look at the show’s redesign of Winston.  Like I said, this vision of the character ditches the mustache and is clearly meant to be a lighter build than Ernie Hudson, but I still think he captures the character well.  I like that he isn’t shown to be sweating or even panicking at the hideous monster incarnating right next to him if he anything he just looks kind of annoyed, which makes sense given he’s the greatest Ghostbuster. 

Now here’s a good example of Real Ghostbusters subverting the nature of scale to great success, while also giving us a nice close up of their Egon.  As you can see, his face is redesigned to be more exaggerated and easier to render in molded plastic, especially with that weird jellyroll haircut he’s got going on.  I’m not really sure why Egon was made blonde in this adaptation or how Harold Ramis’ chocolate box up-doo turned into this bizarreness but any time he opened his mouth you still knew this was Egon. 

As for this cover, this one eschews the Silver Age comic elements for something drawn from classic cartoons, to the point it’s almost a direct riff on the Looney Tunes episode The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.  Obviously, they take the basic set-up of eyes somehow lighting up to stare intently out of the darkness and dress it up with plenty of great creepy elements like those floating razor teeth or all the different color eyeballs at hand.  It’s a great cover that draws on the cartoon origins of the property nicely, even fitting in the classic “feeling your being watched” gag that informed this same set-up on the Looney Tunes. 

Fun fact: did you know that cars are specifically made to have faces?  Yeah, most folks don’t know that but the design of the car with the two headlights and the bumpers creating the semblance of what’s called a neutral mask face is on purpose to give people a greater sense of connection and humanization to cars rather than seeing them as freaky soulless machines.  

That’s part of why it’s so easy to turn cars into monsters like this bad boy or Christine or Monster Motors.  What’s more, the cartoony style inherent to The Real Ghostbusters aesthetic is perfect for that kind of adaptation, so perfect, in fact, that the show would repeatedly pull the trick of various everyday objects being animated by some ghostly force.

As for this particular iteration of that idea, I like the anatomy of demon Ecto-1 that forms out of this image, the way its mouth is actually above its eyes.  It’s a weird set-up that manages to avoid making the demonic car design seem too overly familiar; it bucks the tendency just to adapt the face that’s already built into the car.  Additionally, we get plenty of hideous sharp teeth all over its mouth along with that gross giant tongue sticking out of its mouth, so that’s like a perfect collection of things to make me recoil in horror. 

Hey, another cover that features a fully realized background, that’s a nice change of pace.  In all honesty I love this cover, in fact, it’s one of my favorites from the run as a whole, mainly because of how incredibly well rendered this robot Ghostbuster is.  This is another good example of the way toy design informs character design, with the robots structure being predicated on how it might fit together for an actual figure.  

What I like about it, though, is the blend of color scheme and incredibly bizarre physicality of the creature.  Firstly, the color combination of green and bronze is pretty rare and striking, but then you start to take a look at the thing.  It’s got these giant green boot feet, and these bulgy bronze arms but it's got incredibly skinny legs with waste that looks like a giant toilet paper roll.

Though, with the super goofy looking giant smile and obviously crossed eyes this guy starts to look like something made out of junk and garbage the boys found down at the city dump.  I also really like the idea that the robot just has giant magenta Xs splattered all over it for, essentially, no reason.  Seriously, the X isn’t the Ghostbusters symbol, it’s not even close, they just stuck it on there for fun and because they probably didn’t think their garbage robot would function. 

I hope that speech balloon isn’t intended as a double entendre because if it is…I choose not to get it.  Incidentally, if this is some hollow sexual beast from that possessed ice cream cone, it makes total sense that it’d be directed at Venkman.  And not just any iteration of Venkman either, this is vacation Venkman, complete with dope sun glasses, a weird hat that says “kiss me quick” and a Ghostbusters sleeveless blue T-shirt.  

I wonder about that last part like did the GBs print up a ton of merchandise to try and pad the wallet during the days busting was a little dry?  That’d make a fair amount of sense with Pete’s current situation given that I don’t know who would be handling New York’s various hauntings and horror when the Ghostbusters go on vacation. 

As to the rest of the image, a lot of what makes it so great should be pretty clear by now.  There’s that standard blend of strong lines and protruding details that affords it a more dimensional depth than most cartoons while maintaining a level of clarity that ends up subsumed in a lot of heavily detailed imagery.  What’s more, the color palette on hand here is just incredible.  

The shading of skin tone across Peter’s body is incredibly well blended and the depth of field formed through the different colors on Pete’s hair, and the ice cream cone both work well at informing these images without overpowering them.  Also; yeah, it’s pretty funny to see Peter Venkman menaced by a deadly ghost ice cream cone while on vacation, that’s a good premise for a joke cover. 

Well, that’s just terrifying.  Seriously, I wouldn’t have thought that you could make the grim reaper, the specter of death, MORE horrifying but this guy is a great example of simple terror upgrade to incredible terror.  I also like that he’s saying “vengeance is mine” fitting in the old horror cliché of people deserving their fate and the idea that there’s something out there willing to seek gruesome vengeance for all the minor sins we commit without consideration.  My favorite thing about this monster design has to be the multiple arms.  I’m a sucker for that kind of power set-up, and this is a freaky realization of that made all the creepier by the mass collection of sickles this guy is throwing around. 

It’s like, just one scythe wasn’t nearly enough death to throw around, he needs four minor murder machines to come at you with to make extra sure you end up dead.  I also really like the way this monster manages to be skeletal without being a skeleton, with the exposed bones of the arms and freaky skull head.  Speaking of his freaky head, those are some terrifying teeth made all the worse by skull heads complete lack of lips.  Finally, that flowing red robe is damn freaky and thoroughly evocative, it reminds me of the Masque of the Red Death.  Overall it’s just a terrific example of monster design done expertly well.

For those unaware of this cover’s origin, it’s a reference to the ‘80s smash hit horror film Poltergeist.  In that movie, the central visual image of the film was a television used as a conduit between the world of the ghosts and the world of the living.  It was a great freaky concept that became iconic of the entire franchise that this cover pays homage to nicely.  

What I like about this visual is the unique blend of normalcy and horror that it evokes.  In the foreground closest to the audience things are relatively normal, with Slimer being the only out of place element and his mundanity for the Busters rendering him pretty harmless.  However, as soon as you cross the line of the television it’s this horrifying world of spectral laughing faces drifting upwards like a cloudbank of horror. 

I love that kind of illustration where hideous ghosts or faces are created out of vapor or smoke, and this is a superb example of it, especially with the freaky color palette of icy blues and sharp magentas.  Oh, and there are plenty of hideous crooked flat teeth right at eye level to be disturbing.  

Much like the last Slimer-centric cover, I showcased this is a good example of how well lighting can enhance an image.  See, all the light in this image is coming from the television set so it creates this spreading glow out towards the audience, which is why Slimer’s back is shrouded in darkness. It creates a much more closed in effect despite this being a relatively scaled out image; it’s well done.

Like I said, The Real Ghostbusters love their Silver Age comics inspirations, and it doesn’t get more Silver Age than this lovingly rendered tribute to the premiere of the Fantastic Four.  Yeah, in case you didn’t recognize it, this cover is a direct reference to that classic cover, with the characters all strategically placed to recreate the Fantastic Four’s debut perfectly.  

Egon, in the bottom right, is filling in for Mr. Fantastic, Slimer is taking the role of the human torch, Peter is the Invisible Woman, and Ray is standing in for The Thing.  That does leave poor Winston out in the cold but given that no one else could fly that was unfortunate to be expected. 

I’m not sure why this cover decided to pay loving and sincere tribute to one of the most iconic covers of all time, but it’s a nice tribute all the same, with the background images recreating the original down to a tee.  I’m also not totally on board with this particular parallel for the team.  

Egon would be Mr. Fantastic, but I see Peter as much more of a Human Torch, with maybe Winston as Invisible Woman given he’s usually the most serious and aware member of the group.  Still, I’m willing to make concessions in the name of recreation and having Slimer swoop around like the Human Torch is a pretty dynamic use for his character. 

This is my favorite Real Ghostbusters cover, even if it’s what I’d consider being the objective best.  See, as much as I like The Real Ghostbusters and the original film I grew up with the Extreme Ghostbusters, a follow-up show that featured a whole new team of busters. 

That’s always informed my view of who the Ghostbusters are ad how they operate, specifically the idea that being a Ghostbusters was a lot less about having a Venkman or an Egon than it was about having the guts to strap an unregulated nuclear weapon to your back and go blast monsters with lasers.  Janine Melnitz grabbing a proton pack to take down some menace is the living embodiment of that idea, the idea that someone doesn’t need to be a scientist to be a Ghostbuster, that anyone can do it so log as you’ve got the will to bust and my God does Janine have that here. 

The Real Ghostbusters show always did a great job with Janine, taking her from a fun side character to a series great that survived into Extreme Ghostbusters and heavily informed her adaptation in the more recent IDW Ghostbusters comics.  She’s spunky, take-charge, bad ass who wouldn’t take any lip, either from ghosts or the men who would bust them.  She even saved the Ghostbusters on some occasions in the show, so seeing her get ready for war here is great.

If you follow this blog at all you know by now, I have a real thing about meta-covers.  That’s because they’re honestly really rare and even more unlikely to be done well but when a cover pulls it off it does it great, and this is a perfect example of how good meta covers can be.  Honestly, this covers got everything I consider essential for Cover Story, you’ve got speech balloons, a highly detailed group shot with a lot of action, and the super meta idea of the Ghostbusters fighting to keep the hordes of horrors contained inside their magazine. 

This kind of the fourth wall breaking never happened on The Real Ghostbusters show, but I honestly wish it had as it’s a perfect fit for the cartoon universe of the show.  There’s just something about the knowing way the show parodied big, distinct elements of the horror world and the broad, slapstick comedy that punctuated most of it that perfectly combines with the winking self-awareness of meta comedy. 

Aside from actually adding to the concepts of the show with this cover, it’s also a thoroughly well rendered meta-visual, using the heavy detail and firm definition that has been the trademark of this comic so far to create a thoroughly persuasive image of the boys holding up their own cover.  It’s just a super fun and super funny image that encapsulates the tone and style of The Real Ghostbusters. 

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