It was 80 years ago this month that National Allied Publications printed the first issue of a pulpy anthology comic book called Detective Comics. The series was moderately successful at first, featuring a variety of — as the title would suggest — mystery and detective stories, before it struck gold a couple of years after its debut with a little character called Batman.
Detective Comics has been considered the de facto flagship title of DC Comics for decades, seeing as the company eventually named itself after it (though not officially until 1977), and it served as the home of one of their most iconic and enduring characters. Detective — colloquially known to fans as 'Tec — is one of the longest continuously published titles in American comic books, along with its fellow DC title Action Comics, which it predates by a year but is behind on the issue count. As of next week, there will have been 952 issues of Detective Comics, and I'm no mathematician, but I think that means there have been a whole lot of incredible covers as well.
'Tec has had some of the most iconic covers in the comic book canon, from haunting images of the Dark Knight to wacky hijinks of the Dynamic Duo to terrifying portrayals of Gotham's deadliest villains and much more. From the pop-art weirdness of the '50s to modern feats of digital art mastery, there are more notable works of cover art masterpieces in the series' last 80 years than we could stuff into one article, but that won't stop us from trying! In honor of the octogenarian occasion, we've assembled 27 of the most historic, most unique and most inspired covers from the past eight decades and presented them here in chronological order to give you an idea of how we got from 1937 to today.
Of course 27 out of nearly a thousand doesn't begin to scratch the surface of all of the legendary artists whose work has graced the cover of this historic publication, so please be sure to let us know what your personal favorite issues, story arcs, and artists of 'Tec are in the comments below!
#004, June 1937, by Creig Flessel
The first 26 issues of Detective were completely Bat-less and featured a number of different sleuths, and the covers reflected that, with some wonderfully pulpy images of fist fights, bodies being pulled out of rivers and the like. But my favorite cover of the pre-Batman era is from issue four, featuring a detective who may be Slam Bradley, Bruce Nelsom or neither of them (trenchcoat with a gun doesn't help narrow it down here), having recently helped a ne'er-do-well exit through the window pane, and straight out of the comic! It's a striking image with a great design that you can't help but love.
#027, May 1939, by Bob Kane
The cover you knew would be here! The very first appearance of Bill Finger and Bob Kane's Batman is one of the most well-known images in all of comics and gets homaged constantly. Heck, this cover is so good that when Steve Ditko needed a cover to debut Spider-Man for Amazing Fantasy #15, he almost directly ripped this one off. It's mysterious, it's dynamic, and if you were a kid in 1939, it was guaranteed to have you begging Ma to cough up a dime.
#031, September 1939, by Bob Kane
Batman actually alternated cover duty with his more traditional co-stars at first before taking the covers full-time with #35, so this was only the third Batman cover, but after #27, this is almost certainly the most recognizable image of Golden Age Batman there is. He's very otherworldly in this image, leaning heavily into the vampire imagery that inspired him, with the cover not making it clear if you should be afraid of Batman or not. It's a beautifully composed image that stands in stark contrast tonally to our next cover, just a few issues later …
#038, April 1940, by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson
The arrival of Robin was a big turning point for the types of stories Batman would tell, with the character bringing a levity to the series that was meant to appeal directly to kids, unlike the more dark and mature stories of previous issues. Batman now had someone to talk to and got a bit of a makeover himself, with a less intense cowl and ears, a dark blue rather than black cape, and — weirdly enough — a smile. This was also an early example of the "bursting out of the cover" trope that would go on to be repeated by many other comic books, perhaps most notably on Giant-Size X-Men #1.
#065, July 1942, by Jerry Robinson and Jack Kirby
Holy child soldiers Batman! With the war effort in full swing, superhero comics largely went into full-blown propaganda mode, and 'Tec was no exception. Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby debuted their new kid combat squadron "The Boy Commandos" in #64, and in #65, the red carpet was rolled out for the characters. Their cover appearance is notable because it features the Jack Kirby-drawn Commandos and the Jerry Robinson-drawn Batman and Robin all in the same image, an artistic collaboration that is a truly titanic team-up of two all-time-great comic artists, though it probably didn't seem like anything special at the time.
#069, November 1942, by Jerry Robinson
Drawn by his co-creator Jerry Robinson, this cover is one of the most well-known images of the Joker ever, though this isn't his first Detective Comics cover appearance (that was #62). Much of the early Joker imagery was very supernatural and spectral, especially on the covers (see #76 or #388 for other good examples), and this is one of the earliest examples of Joker being portrayed in such a strange and surreal way.
#073, March 1943, by Bob Kane
I love this cover not just because Scarecrow is one of my favorite Bat-villains but also because it's a bit of an outlier for this era of Batman. While the Dynamic Duo had been departing on increasingly colorful and whimsical adventures, this cover is actually a bit darker, with Scarecrow looking menacing and actually a bit creepy. This is thanks to the return of Batman co-creator Bob Kane for the cover, who brought his darker sensibilities from the early covers to it.
#103, September 1945, by Dick Sprang
Of all the early Batman artists who contributed to the character (initially anonymously, all credited as Bob Kane), none were quite so definitive or bold as Dick Sprang. This cover is Sprang at his best, with thick, considered lines, expertly-placed shadows — just look at the way the duo's shadows creep up those stairs — and an unparalleled sense of dynamism and adventure. This may not be a particularly well-known cover, but it's a perfect encapsulation of what Sprang — and this era of Batman — was all about.
#142, December 1948, by Dick Sprang and Charles Paris
Another Sprang masterpiece, this cover is a groundbreaking piece of design for the time. The cover is all about the typography and composition rather than simply Batman and Robin in a villain's clutches or another typical cover scenario for the time. The Riddler's expression, his back practically arcing into a question mark itself, everything about this cover is intentional and makes for an enthralling image. You can imagine the person who wrote the 1966 show's theme being inspired by this cover. "Batman, Batman, Batman" indeed …
#150, August 1949, by Jim Mooney
In an era filled with bright colors and contrived deathtraps, I can't help but find the minimalism of this cover refreshing and forward-thinking. We're used to seeing Batman in silhouette now, but at the time, this was a very unique image, especially for a cover, which rarely featured Batman and Robin in any way but front-and-center. Simple, effective, iconic.
#203, January 1954, by Win Mortimer
The further into the 1950s you go, the weirder comics get, and Batman and Robin's adventures are textbook examples. As the Comics Code Authority started preventing superhero comics from directly acknowledging crime, the adventures started to get even more outlandish than they had already been. This cover has everything: Catwoman in her wildly impractical green and purple costume, the BDSM undertones you'd expect from an early Wonder Woman and that Frederic Wertham warned us all about, and literally every color printers were capable of printing.
#241, March 1957, by Sheldon Moldoff and Ira Schnapp
Remember one entry ago when I said comics got weird in the '50? Let me introduce you to peak weird for Detective Comics. This cover is about as far away from a modern reader's idea of a Batman story as you can get, and even trying to look at it objectively, it's still utterly bizarre. What reason could Batman possibly have for this? Why do the blue and purple costumes have grey? Why is Robin being easy on Batman by calling that costume red and not hideously pink? So many questions.
#353, July 1966, by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella
Hollywood may be messing their collective pants over the idea of shared universes now, but comics have been doing it since the '40s, and they saw a particular resurgence in the early-to-mid-'60, thanks mostly to the burgeoning Marvel Universe being created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the rest of the Bullpen. Not to be outdone, DC started crossing over and teaming up their characters as well, and this cover is an adorably literal illustration of the idea, with Weather Wizard physically jumping out of an issue of The Flash and into Detective. It's also a treat to see the legendary Carmine Infantino draw his creation Barry Allen on the cover of DC's flagship book.
#359, January 1967, by Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson and Ira Schnapp
Another entry that simply had to be on this list, it's the first appearance of Batgirl! It's an iconic image to be sure, and Batgirl's costume is particularly striking with the all-black against the rest of the brightly colored cover, but it also makes me laugh as being a prime example of a cover over-explaining. A simple "Who is Batgirl?" probably would have worked just as well.
#399, May 1970, by Neal Adams
Neal Adams had a pretty profound impact on not just Batman but comic book art as a whole when he arrived on the scene. This cover is a great example of the reasons for both. The sense of movement communicated by the cape is incredible, the perspective and composition are unusual but effective in ratcheting up the tension, and tonally it's the beginning of a return to darker, more crime-oriented Batman. And in contrast to the previous cover, there's definitely no unnecessary text. The image and two words tell a story that makes you want to open the book all on their own.
#475, February 1978, by Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin, and Tatjana Wood
One of the most infamous Joker stories ever features on the most subtly disturbing Joker covers ever. Joker's insane look of confidence that he's got Batman dead-to-rights while holding two incredibly ugly fish is so weird and nonsensical that it's scary. In other words, it's perfect Joker. Batman's look of bewilderment even matches the look on the audience's face as he tries to figure out what the hell's going on.
#535, February 1984, by Gene Colan, Dick Giordano and Anthony Tollin
You can't go wrong with Gene Colan, no matter what title his artwork is improving, but this psychedelic cover is on a whole other level, thanks to a great design concept and electrifying colors from Anthony Tollin. Who knew Crazy Quilt could be so cool?
#566, September 1986, by Dick Giordano and Anthony Tollin
Get it? A rogues gallery? Too good. This visual pun of a cover is a wonderfully executed concept that pays tribute to the greatest foes of Gotham — though God knows how Killer Moth snuck in there. It's a beautifully symmetrical image, with the shadow on the ground going so far as to reflect the Batman logo at the top, the greens of Ra's and Ivy's outfits mirroring each other, and the Penguin and Mad Hatter's Hats standing across the hall from one another. This is also a notable issue as it is the final 'Tec of the "pre-Crisis" era, before the massive Crisis on Infinite Earths would rewrite DC's continuity.
#577, August 1987, by Todd McFarlane
Following the success of stories The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, Batman once again became a darker character, and the visuals on his titles began to reflect that. No longer was he colorful and smiling; he was now brooding, shadowy and an often somewhat hulking, demonic figure. And as any Spawn fan knows, no one does demonic and shadowy like Todd McFarlane. This is a dark, somber image, with Batman's cape billowing out in impossible ways that make him seem more like a phantom haunting this graveyard than a man visiting his parents' grave. It's a quiet, eerie cover that signals a shift in the way the character would be portrayed going into the 1990s.
#630, June 1991, by Michael Golden
This cover is such a lovely snapshot of a moment in a bigger story: Batman, in mid-dive through a tenement stairwell, singularly focused on some unfortunate prey below. The sickly green lighting, that wispy, tattered cape, claw-like hands and obscured face give the reader the sense that Batman may be something supernatural. This is certainly what the man hidden to the left is thinking. But is he hiding from the Bat, letting a comrade take the fall downstairs? Is he a terrified tenant, not sure what he's witnessing? There's so much going on in this image, it's impossible not to just sit and soak it in.
#765, February 2002, by John McCrea, James Hodgkins and Nathan Eyring
It’s often said that Gotham is "a character of its own" in Batman comics, and it's certainly true on many covers. The sometimes modern, sometimes art deco, sometimes Victorian, sometimes gothic look of Gotham evolves and morphs as different artist add their twists to the cityscapes, and so the city has become a prominent element in the design of many covers. Gotham often takes visual precedence over Batman himself, as in covers like #626, #745 and this John McCrea cover that seems ripped from Will Eisner's The Spirit while also clearly being influenced by Batman: The Animated Series from the previous decade.
#779, April 2003, by Tim Sale and Mark Chiarello
Tim Sale is one of the defining modern Batman artists, having worked on landmark stories like The Long Halloween and was one of the driving forces behind the trend of more spectral and otherworldly portrayals of the Dark Knight. That's on clear display in this cover, as is his design sense as he fits iconic portrayals of arguably the three main characters of the Batman mythos — Jim Gordon, Batman and Gotham, in the fore, mid and backgrounds — all into one image. The lush paints of Mark Chiarello tie the whole thing together in a moody and timeless cover.
#828, April 2007, by Simone Bianchi
Simone Bianchi had a decently long stint as the cover artist of Detective Comics, pumping out cover after cover that looked like they'd be just as at home as Renaissance paintings or cut into stone reliefs as they would be on the front of a comic book. That's most evident in this cover, which lets readers in on a silent, private moment for the Dark Knight who is lost in deep thought, slumped in exhaustion in the darkness of his cave, with a single beam of light sneaking through in the background. A masterful manipulation of lighting and texture makes for an immediately iconic image.
#841, April 2008, by Dustin Nguyen
Dustin Nguyen certainly left his mark on Gotham with runs on 'Tec, Streets of Gotham, Batman Lil Gotham, and more, and in the process created a number of wonderful covers. But the most masterful of them was this cover featuring the first appearance of the Wonderland Gang. Rogues gallery mainstays Mad Hatter and Tweedles Dee and Dum have never looked better than they do in this dreamlike scene. The color palette is a gorgeous collection of autumn hues, with Batman sticking out like a hilariously sore thumb that clearly has no love of tea parties. The watercolors that Nguyen used for his covers would eventually lead him to utilizing them on interiors for his series Descender, which won him an Eisner Award last year.
#855, September 2009, by J.H. Williams III
There have only been a handful of times since issue 27 that Bruce Wayne wasn't headlining Detective Comics, but when he was 'dead' (he got better, don't worry), he couldn't exactly star in a comic book, could he? Luckily, Batwoman was ready to step up to the plate, and it's a good thing she did, because the run that resulted was flawless, thanks in no small part to the incredible J.H. Williams III. The artwork he provided for the series was transcendent, with his ability to shift between styles on a dime and provide layouts unlike anything readers had seen before. His eye for intricately designed composition and lush colors are displayed in full on this cover, the second issue of the story.
#880, September 2011, by Jock
As soon as I saw this cover, I knew it was going to be one that I would be seeing over and over again, and I was right. This haunting image of the Joker made of bats was an instant classic and has already been all over T-shirts and Batman merchandise. It's from Dick Grayson's time as Batman immediately preceding the title's renumbering with the New 52, and the creative team from this storyline recently reunited in the pages of All-Star Batman for a Mr. Freeze tale. This cover is going to be spending its time in the halls of hallowed Bat-imagery for a long time to come.
#33, September 2014, by Francis Manapul
The New 52 era was a controversial one for 'Tec, as DC upset many fans when they reset the title back to #1 and kicked it all off with a story about the Joker cutting off his own face. Nevertheless, the title eventually found its footing and writer-artist Francis Manapul produced several stunning covers for the title, deftly utilizing color palettes that were fairly unconventional for a modern Bat-book. This gorgeous rainbow-on-white cover is a perfect example of his style. The gun outline, Harvey Bullock putting up his dukes, Batman examining an unseen clue -- it's all perfectly suited to the most historic title in the DC roster.