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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cover Story - Top 15 Simpsons Comics Covers

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This year marks the 600th episode of The Simpsons, the little animated series that took the world by storm and then refused to lie down and die.  In all seriousness, I like The Simpsons, in fact I actually like well into the season most ground zero fans consider “past its prime.”  

Even while accepting the show has gone on far too long you still have to concede it’s become a massive pop cultural phenomena with really no equal save maybe the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of self-propagation.  

Naturally, that expansive media empire has crossed into the realm of comics, in particular during the mid to late ‘90s after the show runners realized their adult oriented prime time show had a massive audience of grade school kids.  

Matt Groening himself was involved in the production of Simpsons Comics owing to his own love of the medium and a desire to inject a greater amount of levity into a decade that’d become choked with joyless grit and today- we honor him, this is the top 15 Simpsons Comics covers.

Let’s start with a sobering reminder of the decade this was produced in.  As I said, most of these books came from the later ‘90s and hence references like this one to the Truman Show.  The same essential thing was also starting to happen on the show at the time as well, moving away from broad family sitcom satire and embracing a more random grab bag of pop cultural skewers.  The funny thing about Simpsons Comics covers like this one is how well they seem to work with limited detail.  

That’s something that sneaks up on you when dealing with characters designed for fluidity and clarity of movement rather than sequential storytelling.  As such, even though this cover is thoroughly stripped down it’s way more memorable than some of the more complex images you might see.  However, I do love the little detail of the flaming coolant towers; that’s a nice touch. 

Here’s another example of the ‘less is more’ principle of the Simpsons Comics in action.  With most comic covers the static character approach is usually just laziness, an excuse to throw together an easy pin-up without putting in much effort.  In the case of Simpsons Comics, the sparse detail is a major benefit and they actually find interesting ways to use their lone characters rather than just having them stare down the reader. 

Obviously this list is going to be a little tinged by my personal favorite characters and while Krusty may not take the cake he’s definitely up there and this cover’s a great example of how.  Krusty’s elaborate and often deadly branding and merchandise is one of The Simpsons’ best running jokes and this is a really fun spin on it, especially as I’m fairly sure he’s meant to be opening a clown hospital in this cover.  Side note- “Clown Hospital” sounds like the greatest horror movie never made. 

Now might be a good time to note I haven’t read any of these comics so if you’re wondering why Flanders and Homer have undergone some form of body swapping incident I can’t help you.  Much the same way I have no idea what about this comic was meant to be “new and improved,” though that stamp in the bottom right corner helpfully dates this 1999, which would place this somewhere in the midst of seasons 10 and 11. 

Anyway, this might be the height of Simpsons Covers’ trick of employing stylistic minimalism combined with their own lore and identity.  There’s almost nothing on this cover other than the two characters but the swapped clothes, donut, and speech balloons tell you everything you need to know about the story.  

It’s a very classical cover with shades of the Silver Age, the construction built around promising total craziness to the reader.  As I mentioned, Groening was a fan of comics and had worked in the medium before so this isn’t the last time we’ll see standard elements of comic construction in these covers.

For the unfamiliar, this cover is a reference to a famous Batman and Robin image with the same pose and structure.  Overall Simpsons Comics didn’t overtly reference comics all that often, though, don’t worry, all three instances of it are appearing on this list.  In this case, they’re swapping out Batman for Homer as Radioactive Man, who had his own comic for a time as well.  I’m honestly not sure who’s meant to be Fallout Boy here.  

In the show, Milhouse played Fallout Boy in the Radioactive Man movie, but that’s clearly not him.  The shaved head makes it look like Bart’s bully Kearney, but I can’t think of why he’d be hanging out with Homer.  My next guess would be Barney given the shape of his mouth, but honestly, I’m not sure.  I don’t know why Bart wasn’t the sidekick, but presumably they were saving that for the Pieman episode (that’s a season 15 reference for all the cool kids in my audience.)

We’ve got a tie with this entry but they’re linked by both using the phrase “second banana” which I think is notable. The cover on the right does a great job with the looming heads in the background complementing the foreground action and the font work captures a pulpy, ‘50s comic vibe excellently.  

Meanwhile, the cover on the left uses my favorite technique of characters bursting through the cover while also employing their own looming figure. Both covers are really interesting uses of the comic medium but really I just wanted to talk about the actual content on hand.

Like the cover says, pretty much everybody here is a second banana, with the blonde on the right being Cecil Terwilliger, Sideshow Bob’s brother who only appeared in 1 episode during this comic’s run.  On the right side, though the characters are standard their situation is in reference to the ‘Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase,’ an episode that pitched a Wiggum/Skinner cop show in New Orleans and a Moe/ghost of Grandpa Simpsons rom-com spin-off.  

Even though I wouldn’t say any of these folks were really great I do love how much they embrace the idea of lore the Simpsons has developed.  It’s such a unique entity in that it’s got a sprawling mythos that’s still wieldy enough to be accessible to the pop culture at large and references like this are a fun use of that. 

Here’s the second of the three superhero inspired Simpsons Comics covers.  The reference here is to the first appearance of the Legion of Superheroes, a group of super-powered teens from the future that Superman hung out with when he was a kid.  They were basically the X-Men before there was an X-Men and have been through a bunch of changes but their premiere issue stands as one of the most influential and visible comic covers there’s been, so it makes a lot of sense as parody material.  

I'm not even totally sure this is a parody in the strictest sense, I mean it’s actually made the absurdism of the original cover (Superboy being rejected from a superhero team) way more realistic.  I do note that having Ned Flanders take the place of Saturn Girl is delightful and the fact his super power is being left-handed is hilarious.  Also, I have no idea how this comic has 15% more Milhouse and am far too much of a coward to investigate that claim. 

And now you know how ‘Glavin’ is spelled.  What’s more impressive about this cover is how it manages to fit so much into a single scene without ever feeling cluttered or overcrowded.  Overall Simpsons Comics covers do a great job of keeping the proportions of their covers to a continuous standard, always framing the characters as just about large enough to fill up the predominance of the space.  

That’s a smart move for visuals like this one where the plethora of characters still feel defined and detailed, though the unique colorwork is another plus to helping the five men stand apart from one another.  I do wonder where the unemployment office is meant to be based on the very strange background detail of the nuclear plant, but I’m willing to overlook that bit of strangeness. 

Seymour Skinner’s another character like Krust I really enjoy and don’t think he honestly gets his due.  His sad sack shtick is always a delight and any time the show manages to give him ‘Nam flashbacks is an absolute joy.  

What’s more, he’s actually afforded a bit more definition in some of the early seasons that always stuck out to me so I’m glad I got to showcase him here.  As for this cover, it’s pretty much a perfect amalgamation of pulp referential greatness to earn a place in my heart. 

Firstly, that font work is just incredible- perfect blend of gradient and structure to evoke the EC and DC horror comics this is parodying.  Secondly, this is actually a great measuring stick for realizing how big the characters really are in these covers- Seymour is standing a bit off page yet fills up the entire cover.  

Finally, it’s impressive how well the color work here manages to make the very full background not feel cluttered.  Despite featuring a ton of characters mug shots the green paint job gives it a sense of consistency that amplifies the tone rather than distracting from it. 

There’s my favorite guy.  No fooling Mr. Burns is easily my favorite Simpsons character, he’s got that perfect blend of cartoon evil with an up for anything attitude that his millions allow him to indulge regularly.  He’s always getting up to bizarre situations and nearly always a delight to see pop up in a plot line so of course we had to get at least one of these covers dedicated to him and boy is this one a doozy.  

This is definitely one of those covers where the content makes up for its shortcomings as the actual construction is a bit lacking.  Burns, Frink, and Smithers are all shrunk down to accommodate the bizarre floating heads that are already cutting off the logo for no apparent reason.  

What’s more, the Smither clones don't get nearly enough space but none of that matters because there are freakish Smither clones hatched from the egg complete with glasses.  I assume this is a Jurassic Park reference but for the life of me I couldn’t say why, just that it’s amazing. 

I like that we managed to get two body swapping comic covers in this list and they both featured a switch-up involving archenemies.  This cover came out well into the Bob/Bart rivalry, which is one of the funnier if also more bizarre elements of the show’s history.  

Simpsonians will often talk about how the show started life as an absurdist parody of stock sitcom life as presented by the major networks during the ‘70s and ‘80s but “little boy vs. murderous super villain” doesn’t really fit that mold.  That’s because the Sideshow Bob saga was actually part of a response to The Simpsons unexpected success with grade school kids.

The show was intended for an adult audience but Bart’s bad little kid routine was so popular with kids and popped up right as Ninja Turtles was receding and Power Rangers wasn’t around yet that he became a massive phenomena.  

As such, the show had to find a place for its new viewers and that came with the reoccurring Sideshow Bob storylines.  Interestingly, this comic thoroughly predates the season 14 episode where Homer and Bob team-up, which I think nicely highlights how much the comics ended up a test kitchen for future ideas. 

Do they even still make the “For Dummies” books, or was that particular literary giant a victim of the information age?   In any event, this cover is a pretty solid parody of those books and an excellent example of how to use text in the cover format.  Unlike everything else I’ve showcased the majority of this cover is about text-based humor, from the big central title to the tiny blurbs at the top and bottom of the page but it does works.  

That’s because this cover is laid out to be more like a magazine or book jacket than a comic, which would normally be a problem but here they’ve nicely downsized how much stuff that would actually entail.  There are only three joke blurbs and, along with the title, that divides the cover into 4 unique rows of jokes that you can work through from top to bottom.  It’s all very balanced and even manages to keep from blending Homer into the background with the bold line and shadow work on display. 

And so we reach the final superhero reference cover, which is also the first cover of the entire comic.  For the un-heroically inclined this is a reference to the premiere of the Fantastic Four and is one of the most commonly referenced frames in the visual language of comics.  The entire cover gives you a pretty good sense of what to expect from the book going forward, especially given that blank white background they’re sporting.  

It’s a good way of telling the audience that this is going to be something closer to a comic strip with a blend of humor, irreverence, and cartoony visuals in the purest sense of the term.  Favorite visual cue here is the way Maggie is tangled in the length of that yo-yo, which is how Mr. Fantastic was positioned in the Fantastic Four cover.

We’ve seen a lot of jokey and irreverent humor so far involving weird situations and references but for the top three Simpsons Comics covers it’s all going to come down to self-deprecation.   Seriously, as much as I and everyone else likes The Simpsons the show has always felt at its best when it’s taking shots at itself, that’s why it eventually changed from a parody of sanitized sitcom life into a parody of its own absurdities.  We’re starting out soft in that department but trust me, we’ll be getting a lot tougher as we close in on number one. 

This is actually the 50th issue special for the series, which would place it right around ‘The Principal and the Pauper’ for all you Simpsons purists in the audience.  I had initially thought they were using the issues for fertilizer, which would’ve been funny in its own way, but based on the excellent use of “bumper crop” in the top blurb they’re meant to be harvesting them.  

That might not seem self-deprecating, but considering they’re framing this comic as something they just found in the ground somewhere and selling to you for $6 cause you don’t know how to make your own?  Yeah, I’d say that’s a shot at themselves.  

This might seem dated in the years to come but right now I can think of no greater metaphor for America than a family of five sitting on a couch made of garbage in a dump.  This and the previous entry are probably the most detailed the covers for this comic ever got, this one especially given how unique the various bits of trash actually are.  It’s actually a pretty good primer on how to create a non-cluttered background, with the blocks of generic “waste” creating a solid color palette that the more detailed things like pizza boxes and fish skeletons rest on top of.  

There’s such a good balance being struck here I don’t even care that the characters are being scaled down to achieve the desired impact.  It also helps that you need smaller characters to fully recreate the famous couch gag from the opening of the show.  Incidentally, bonus points for Homer being the only member of the family to not care that they’re living in filth, also for putting Bart in his blue costume from the four-player Simpsons arcade game. 

It’s pretty surprising that the first place pick for this list ends up entirely different from everything that’s followed it.  There’s no reference humor, no whacky character situations, not even that much art- it’s a text joke cover like the #5 pick.  But, even acknowledging all of that, this is honestly just the funniest and most spot-on accurate cover in the entire bunch. 

For context’s sake, the Simpsons episode I consider to be the best from their watchable eras is ‘Homer’s Enemy;’ an entire episode dedicated to dressing down and railing against their own identity as a show.  While this cover isn’t nearly as dark it’s every bit as uncompromised and blatant in its critique and it is glorious.  There’s no clown nose on the critique to soften the blow, just plain text on a white background- a middle finger to themselves as the ultimate act of unconcerned irreverence; pure Simpsons. 

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