Fantastic Four #249, 1982, Marvel Comics, Cover by John Byrne.
The POP Retro Cover Of The Week continues its celebration and examination of iconic comic covers from the 1970s through the 2000s, this week returning to the Eighties, the Bronze Age of Comics, when John Byrne was riding high as the most popular and in-demand artist in comics. Last week, John Byrne turned 70, so let’s wish him a Happy Milestone Birthday, and talk about another one of his iconic covers.
In 1982, Byrne left his superstar-making run on The Uncanny X-Men to take over Fantastic Four, Marvel’s flagship title. Long self-proclaimed as THE WORLD’S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE, it had been many years since it felt like it lived up to that title, arguably since Jack Kirby left.
In what would become a reliable formula that Byrne would use to revitalize characters and titles over the decades to come, he went Back To Basics. His five year FF run would become legendary, producing some of the most imaginative and memorable stories since Stan and Jack’s heyday. It didn’t take long for Byrne to bring some characters from the X-Men over to the FF. In issue #249, Gladiator, the Praetor of the Imperial Guard of the Shi'ar Empire, made a violent visit to Earth to confront Marvel’s First Family, believing them to be shape-shifting Skrulls.
If you’ve ever wondered "What If the Fantastic Four battled Superman," then this is pretty much what it would be like. Gladiator was purposefully conceived as another alien Superman, with similar powers and uniform, to lead the Imperial Guard against the X-Men. Even this story’s title didn’t hide that fact, adapting the George Bernard Shaw play title: “Man And Super-Man!” and perhaps adding the hyphen to avoid a cease-and-desist letter from DC.
Byrne’s cover was an instantly iconic one, and has been homaged many times since then, even by Byrne himself. Gladiator effortlessly holds a defeated Thing overhead with one arm, and grasps a stretched out, limp-as-a-noodle Mr. Fantastic with the other. The coloring on the cover is especially satisfying on a subconscious level; covers like this one that use all the colors in the spectrum get a more satisfactory reaction.
Happy 70th Birthday John Byrne from the POP Retro Cover Of The Week!
Next week: A cover from the image-over-substance, cross-hatchy Nineties!