Updated: Jan 31, 2020
Superman, Vol 1 #233, January 1971
Cover art by Neal Adams
This time, the POP: Retro Cover Of The Week features an iconic cover from 1971, when comics cost 15 cents, and while comics were still sold on newsstands, most people bought them off the spinner racks at their local convenience store or pharmacy.
Ask longtime Superman fans (like me) for their all-time favorite Superman covers, and Superman #233 is always at the top, or near the top of their list. This cover has so many things going for it, starting with the dramatic head-to-toe, iconic pose, and the explosive movement of the bursting chains. Superman stands out in the middle of the cover, surrounded by a bright yellow glow, shining like a beacon. The pose was meant to reinterpret a classic image from Action Comics #1, of Superman bursting iron chains by expanding his chest, but this time with a green-hued twist.
The story and cover of Superman #233 was intended to redefine Superman for the 1970s, and illustrate one of the major developments revealed in the story: the radioactivity in all Kryptonite on Earth is rendered inert. So the classic image is reinterpreted by having Superman bursting chains made of no-longer-radioactively-glowing Green Kryptonite, literally freeing himself from the burden of his chief weakness, and straddling the headline “KRYPTONITE NEVERMORE!” Who better to define Superman for a new decade, than the artist who himself best represented the new direction of comics in the Bronze Age…Neal Adams.
Full disclosure: Neal Adams is my all-time favorite comics artist, and this is my all-time favorite comics cover (a large reproduction of it hangs in our home). That being said, most Bronze Age comics experts would agree that no other artist represented the Bronze Age of comics or depicted Superman better than Neal Adams. Adams’ Superman was youthful, vibrant, powerful, charismatic, and illustrated in a realistic style that had never been seen before.
Superman's form is rendered with shadowy brushwork and solids for a 3D feel, and is set out from the cape with deep blacks. The use of tapered lines radiating out from Superman’s figure are flawlessly rendered, and are a work of art in themselves. They are time-consuming and notoriously difficult to draw consistently and evenly.
Just as much as the excellent illustration, what makes this cover such a favorite for me is the coloring. Adams handled the coloring on most of the covers he illustrated, pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished in that era, when color separations and printing capabilities were still very primitive. The traditional, kneejerk coloring style of the era used flat tones on everything. Adams rarely did so, as shown on this cover. Adams’ approach to coloring was much more painterly: using sidelighting, color gradations, and moodier, darker tones when appropriate. There is sidelighting from the right, casting a light blue highlight on Superman’s entire figure. Even his skin tones show variations in color. Adams also treated the comic title logos in a less traditionally primary colored fashion, instead using more secondary and tertiary colors, for a more mature, sophisticated feel. The cover is pure, colorful eye candy, with every hue in the spectrum represented, but without being trippy or chaotically kaleidoscopic.
One final note about Superman #233 is the controversy regarding Adams’ poor opinion of this iconic cover, still to this day. Adams was a prolific cover artist for DC in the late 1960-early 1970s, often cranking out multiple covers daily. One reason Adams balks at the continued adoration of this cover is that it didn’t require much time or thought; he recalls it took only a few hours from pencils to finished inks. I would argue that simplicity often makes the most iconic covers of all. Another reason for Adams’ frustration was the editor’s decision to have Superman straddle the headline, requiring Adams to redraw and lengthen one of his legs to accommodate. I have always felt that since Adams had drawn Superman facing slightly away from the viewer, and that leg is naturally closer to the viewer, that it therefore looks perfectly natural depicted larger than the other.
Now that I’ve gotten to write about MY favorite Retro Cover, what’s yours?