They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. That's why a comic's most powerful images usually appear on the cover. After all, when a kid's standing at a newsstand (or today, the comic book store) clutching his hard-earned quarter (or today...what...twenty bucks?!), he's gonna go for the most eye-catching cover he sees.

When I was that kid, the most alluring, "gotta have it" covers always seemed drawn by the same guy: Nick Cardy. In fact, Cardy was one of the first artists whose name I ever bothered to learn, after my idol Neal Adams. Other kids collected every comic with a particular character, or everything put out by a certain publisher, but I was pretty open minded. I just had two rules: if Neal Adams drew the story, I had to buy the book, and if Nick Cardy drew the cover, even of a book I usually didn't like, I was at least going to pick it up and check it out.

This was back in the early 70s, and Cardy had taken on -- officially or not -- the role of DC's primary cover artist. He illustrated with equal efficiency the terror-filled tableaus of the horror comics, the "he doesn't even know I'm alive" misery of the romance books and, of course, the supreme melodrama of the superhero books.

Cardy had a particular flair for Superman, possibly because in a genre populated by masked mystery men wearing cowls, masks and helmets, Supes had a recognizably human face, and a rather handsome one at that. There was a degree of glamour and polish to Nick's style that brought out Superman's good looks. His cape, for instance, looked regal and dressy, fit for a night at the Opera. But the bottom line was, Nick was able to make Superman look like a real person juggling locomotives or breaking the sound barrier on foot. In contrast, Nick's Batman usually looked like...well, like a real person wearing a silly Halloween costume with big bat ears.

Nick's mastery of facial expressions and his carefully composed, uncluttered layouts helped milk the last drop of drama out of all sorts of predicaments. On one memorable cover, Kal-El's lower body was stretched out like silly putty and sucked through the Earth while his arms clung to the comic's masthead, the letters in "Superman" crumbling in his desperate grip. Other covers captured our hero in the ultimate moment of despair, fury or terror from each story (or, in the time-honored tradition of comics, in a situation that never really appeared in the story at all!). Whatever the scene, the message was the same: Trust us, kids, you can't live without this book!

Together with Curt Swan, Cardy evolved a 70s "house style" for Superman, Superboy, Action Comics, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen and World's Finest. That "style" was one of clean lines and understated good looks. None of the muscle-bound freaks you find in today's books, none of the dripping gore, hopeless clutter or copious prose that ruined so many covers from Marvel and other competitors in Cardy's heyday..

Cardy's original cover art for Superman #261...kinky!

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and by the late 70s Nick had left comics for the world of advertising. Less inspiring artists (for my tastes, anyway) took over the covers for Action and Superman, guys like Ross Andru, Ernie Chua and Rich Buckler. Eventually there was some interesting work from talents like Jose Luis Garcia- Lopez and a short-lived return for Neal Adams, but for the most part, my days of buying Superman comics based on the covers was long gone. In fact, I think the lackluster covers of the 80s accounted in part for declining sales of the Superman books, hastening the character's now (in)famous "reboot" by artist/writer John Byrne.

As far as I know, Nick never did illustrate interiors on a Superman story in the 70s, though he was invited back to DC in the 90s to draw a couple of pages for the "Wedding Album" special wherein Lois and Clark tie the knot. Today he's a regular at several conventions and keeps busy recreating his covers for fans who can afford them.

Of course the real bargains were to be found all those years ago, when those splashy, colorful covers, wrapped around 32 pages of story could be yours for a mere twenty cents. Those covers kept drawing me back into Superman's world month after month, and introduced me to the 30th century adventures of Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes. Fun stories I might have missed if it hadn't been for the talents of Nick Cardy and his canny mix of glamour and melodrama. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but like it or not, its often the cover that sells the book. By that reckoning, Nick Cardy has to rate as one of the best salesmen DC Comics ever had.

BONUS: Nick Cardy Wallpaper

Decorate your desktop with my home-made Nick Cardy wallpaper, featuring some of the best covers from the Superman comics of the early 70s.

800x600 version

1024x768 verson

Related Link:

The Official Nick Cardy Website: