I began picking up GREEN LANTERN CORPS back in the '80s not because I was a fan of Hal Jordon, or because i was following the creative team on the book, or because I had heard good things about it. No, I picked it up because of an artistic in-joke.
The cover of GREEN LANTERN CORPS #208 was rendered in the style of a 1930s Soviet propaganda poster. It depicted an alien in a GL uniform carrying a red banner bearing a revolutionary slogan in Russian and leading a group of heroic proletariat up a hill.
This was back during the Reagan Era, remember, and the image was not something I expected to see on an American comic book. The reason for it made sense, though. The story involved the alien Green Lantern, Kilowog, who had come to Earth and was having difficulty adjusting to American culture. He was persuaded by a smarmy Russian agent to visit the Soviet Union, where he was tricked into helping the Soviet super-hero program and creating the Rocket Red Brigade.
The cover of this issue, by artist Joe Staton, was a spot-on pastiche of the kind of stylized poster art produced in Russia before Stalin decided that Modern Art was Western and Decadent. I had seen that kind of artwork when I studied Art History in college, but had never expected to see it on a comic book cover. I don't know how many other comics fans got the reference.
That cover led me to look for other artistic homages. CAPTAIN ATOM #8 was based by the Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, the Pietà , depicting Mary, the mother of Christ, cradling his lifeless body in her arms. Except this version had Captain Atom being held by a Canadian terrorist named Plastique, which come to think of it, is probably kind of blasphemous. They ran a similar cover with issue #44 with Captain Atom and Plastique’s roles reversed..
SECRET ORIGINS #10 was devoted the the Phantom Stranger, a mysterious, mystical character in the DC Universe whose origin – even his real name – had never been revealed. So this issue featured four different possible origins, each by a different writer and artist. The cover, based on an M. C. Escher print, had four Strangers standing on different faces of a strange architectural form in space.
Homages to specific artistic works tend to work better as comic book covers than stylistic ones. GREEN LANTERN CORPS #208 worked for me because the artist could easily capture the stylized art and limited palette of that type of poster. A couple issues later, in #210, they tried to give the Red White and Blue equal time by featuring Green Lantern Guy Gardner on a patriotic-themed cover that was supposed to be in the style of Norman Rockwell, but to my eye it didn’t quite come off as Rockwellian.
About a decade later, the JSA comic did better with its cover to issue #54 depicting Superman and Power Girl serving up a Thanksgiving dinner at a table where members of the Justice League and the Justice Society are gathered. This cover worked, partially because it was based on a recognizable, iconic Rockwell painting, his “Freedom from Want” from his “Four Freedoms” series; and because advances in printing and coloring techniques permitted a more painterly approach to the cover, which better evoked Rockwell’s illustration style.
Since the main theme of the comic was heroes from the 1940s acting as mentors to a new generation of heroes, Norman Rockwell is a natural source of inspiration. We see something similar in following issue, JSA #55 featuring the hero Wildcat sitting on the lap of a department store Santa. I don’t think this was based on a specific Norman Rockwell painting, but Rockwell did plenty of Santa illustrations. The circular background motif evokes the covers to the Saturday Evening Post. An earlier issue, JSA #34, does the same thing, depicting Golden Age character Johnny Thunder and his Magic Thunderbolt along with his present day successor, Jakeem, in the kind of folksy, slice-of-life vignette that Rockwell excelled at.
Usually, when comic book creators reference other artists, they limit themselves to iconic images from other comics, such as the cover to ACTION COMICS #1, or the image of an anguished Superman holding the lifeless Supergirl in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, or the dejected Peter Parker walking away from a trash can in which he’s tossed his costume from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN; and these are all classic, recognizable images, worthy of homage. But I love it when these artist go back to the Masters.