They simply don't make comic book artists like Gil Kane anymore. The man worked on everything. Whether it was horror, westerns, sci-fi, barbarian fantasy or pretty much any superhero you could imagine, Gil Kane did it, and did it well. And today, April 6, would have been his 91st birthday, so it's a perfect time to look back at the artist's amazing career.
Born in Latvia in 1926, Kane moved to the United States with his family when he was very young. He began working in comics as a teenager, quickly moving up the ranks to become a ghost artist for Jack Kirby before being sent overseas to fight in World War II.
When he returned he continued working on comics in nearly every genre. He co-created the Silver Age versions of The Atom and Green Lantern and drew a number of characters in their roster, redefining every one. He was mostly making his Marvel by the '70s, where he enjoyed a lengthy stint on The Amazing Spider-Man, where his work included the famous Harry Osborn drug addiction and Death of Gwen Stacy storylines.
He moved back to DC the following decade and continued to make his influence felt across a number of titles and publishers. If we sat here listing his credits there'd be no end to this article. If you know Gil Kane, you know why he's legendary. If you don't know his work, you really ought to fix that, and lucky for you I'm here with your first step.
Below, and in no particular order, is a collection of my 18 favorite Gil Kane covers, which is only an Atom-sized fraction of his massive body of work but should give you some idea of the innovation, versatility and draftsmanship that made him the legend he is today. I'm sure I missed many of your favorites, so be sure to get in on the comments as we celebrate of one comics' greatest artists.
Let's start off with one of Kane's most famous covers from 1959. This issue marks the first appearance of Hal Jordan, the reimagined Green Lantern that Kane co-created with John Broome. The cover is striking in its composition, with the sleek Lantern uniform contrasted against the details of the city below. It's also a great example of the Cold War era paranoia about missile attacks that — along with the space race and radiation — were prevalent themes in superhero comics of the time.
RAWHIDE KID #144
Kane drew a number of different western comics for Marvel and other publishers over the course of his career, so it was tough picking out a favorite gunslinger to feature here. I like this 1978 Rawhide Kid cover because of how effortlessly it tells a story, with the Kid up against a bar full of outlaws right at the moment the odds turned against him. He's outnumbered ... and does he know about the man approaching from the shadows on the left? Everything you want out of a western cover.
STRANGE ADVENTURES #110
I'd never seen this 1959 cover before researching this article, but I knew I had to include it as soon as I saw it. It's incredibly striking in its weirdness, detail and use of color. It immediately makes you both afraid and desperate to open the cover to find out what the heck is going on with "The Hand From Beyond." Kane was a master of the bizarre, and this is a prime example of that.
MARVEL PREMIERE #15
We've already hit on superheroes, westerns and science fiction, and here's yet another genre Kane left his mark on: martial arts comics. Gil Kane co-created the immortal Iron Fist with Roy Thomas in the pages of this 1974 issue amidst a wave of martial artist characters from numerous publishers. You have to love the sense of motion in this cover as Danny manages to beat up four guys — and break a support beam — all at the same time. In the hands of another artist, this cover would look ludicrous, but Kane somehow manages to make it work.
"Exaggeratedly giant super-villain towers over hero" is a tried and true template for superhero books, but Gil Kane made it feel fresh and intense with this 1983 Superman cover. This cover really shows how good Kane was at selling emotions with Luthor's rage being absolutely palpable here, as is Superman's uncomfortable helplessness.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #90
This was a landmark issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, featuring the tragic death of Gwen's father, George Stacy. Spider-Man's world is turned sideways in this issue and the cover brilliantly reflects that, with a dizzying composition that uses the ground as the background. Kane teamed with John Romita for this cover, both of whom are defining Spider-Man artists, and this cover makes it immediately apparent why.
THE ATOM #31
Kane's Atom covers were always particularly innovative, featuring him in all sorts of oddball situations, whether it was fighting a man riding a bat or being stuck in a light bulb. But this 1967 cover is a favorite as it's a great depiction of what became the classic duo of Hawkman and the Atom. Kane drawing Hawkman is fun because he's so good at the shirtless barbarian heroes, and the cover also paved the way for the equally classic "Ant-Man rides Hawkeye's arrow" cover at Marvel.
SUPERNATURAL THRILLERS #9
Personally, I think Kane was at his best drawing horror and this cover featuring The Living Mummy is a standout example. The detailing of the Mummy himself, the bisected colors of the cover, the curves of the water mirroring his wrappings and chains — it's a stunningly composed piece.
GREEN LANTERN #34
Look at the scales on that big lizard! Just look at them! Kane loved to use additional rendering and detail contrasted with a more classically comic book-y style to imply alien otherworldly-ness (see also the Strange Adventures cover above) and it works wonderfully here. How can you not want to open this book up and learn about the energy-hoop-iguana? It's impossible, I tell ya.
IRON MAN #47
This 1972 cover may be one of the most iconic Iron Man covers in the history of the armored avenger. It's bursting with energy as Iron breaks out of the chains and the frame, and Kane brilliantly uses ol' shellhead's limbs to divide up the box into panels in order to depict three separate images of the character's past.
DETECTIVE COMICS #369
While Kane may not be known primarily as a Batman artist, he certainly left an impression with this 1967 Detective Comics cover. Everything about the composition, anatomy and lighting oozes tension as the Bats go batty over who gets Robin. I also love the 'shadows' that they're casting that look more like the bat-signal is being emitted off of them. It's weird and makes no sense but it somehow totally works as a design element.
CONAN THE BARBARIAN #30
For those of you playing along at home, you can check off the box for "barbarian fantasy" on your "Can Gil Kane do anything?" bingo cards. Here, Kane gives you everything you want in a Conan cover: Conan, bloodied but still fighting wildly, a bunch of dudes whose collective butts he probably just kicked, a scantily-clad woman and a terrifying monster. This is another example of Kane using extreme detail to accentuate the 'otherness' with a monster, as if it's so horrifying your brain can't process the whole thing at once. And how great is that blood trail coming off of Conan's sword?
SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS #94
This powerful cover from 1972 is certainly a snapshot of its time, released at the height of the Vietnam War. The desperation of Fury as he rushes to save the child, the child's grief and the implied futility of it all make for a really emotional piece of anti-war imagery. The more you look at the image the more horrifying it gets, from the hand in the foreground to Dum Dum diving out of the way in the back to the bomb that breaks the panel border above Fury.
MYSTERY IN SPACE #35
The 1956 premise for this issue of DC's science fiction anthology Mystery In Space is ridiculously hokey but Kane's cover treats it with such a cold seriousness that you can't help but feel the spacemen's dread. I love all the detailing on the interior of the ship that's obscured by the logo, an area that a lesser artist may have simply left empty.
MASTER OF KUNG FU #38
The cover may say "hands," but it's really all about Shang-Chi's feet here. Kane's control over anatomy and composition are on display as he perfectly portrays the reflection and the movement in a wonderfully streamlined way. I get a real kick out of this 1976 cover!
SWORD OF THE ATOM #1
In 1983, Kane returned to the biggest tiny creation with Sword of the Atom, a four-issue mini-series that sent the Atom to the Amazon Jungle, stuck in his diminutive form. It's a ton of fun as it throws Ray Palmer into a sword-and-sorcery setting and you get everything you need to know about the book right from the cover: The Atom riding a frog into battle against a deadly snake. If you know of something cooler than that, I'd love to hear about it.
POWER MAN #17
With the 17th issue, Luke Cage went from being a "Hero for Hire" to Power Man and he got an explosive Gil Kane cover to mark the occasion. Kane doesn't slack off a bit on this cover with appropriate attention given to the crumbling wall, the hands in the foreground and Cage's tattered shirt as he seems to be ready to punch straight out of the cover.
LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #29
Kane's final work was published posthumously in June 2000 and appropriately was a team-up between the two characters most associated with the creator. To mark the occasion, Gil Kane drew a cover that was then painted over by Alex Ross, a fittingly glorious way for the legendary artist to end a career that spanned six decades and changed the medium forever.