by Robert Schnakenberg
This fall marks the 75th anniversary of DC Comics. The publisher is celebrating the occasion with the release of DC Comics: The 75th Anniversary Poster Book, a collection of more than 100 comic book covers featuring the best-loved, most iconic superhero characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. But comics creators have never been shy about reaching into the wider universe of pop culture for cover subjects. DC's main rival Marvel Comics has gotten in on the act on occasion as well. Here are 14 examples of surprising, unexpected, downright unusual celebrities who have found their way onto comic book covers through the years.
In 1949, United Artists released Black Magic, a big-screen adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas novel, starring Orson Welles as the 18th century Italian occultist Alessandro Cagliostro. Eager to help out with a little cross-promotion, National Periodicals Publications (later to be known as DC Comics) plopped the Citizen Kane auteur smack dab in the middle of a Superman adventure. "Black Magic on Mars" has Welles zooming off to the Red Planet after discovering an experimental rocket ship in the Italian countryside. There he must contend with The Great Martler, leader of the Solazis, a cadre of hydrocephalic aliens who model themselves on Nazi Germany. Naturally, Welles' broadcasts back to Earth warning of an imminent Martian invasion go unheeded—a consequence of his War of the Worlds hoax some years earlier—but he does hold the Martians at bay with swordplay and magic tricks. Soon enough, Superman arrives to set things right and return Welles to Earth in time for the Black Magic wrap party.
In the late 1940s, the declining popularity of superheroes prompted America's comics publishers to rely increasingly on movie and TV characters to populate its funny books. After bombing with The Adventures of Alan Ladd and a short-lived Ozzie and Harriet title in 1949, DC Comics struck gold in 1950 with The Adventures of Bob Hope, which followed the humorous adventures of the ski-nosed film comedian as he solved crimes, flirted with pretty "dames," and performed a series of odd and unlikely jobs over the course of an improbable eighteen-year run. In this issue, Hope becomes a private eye and helps a gorgeous blonde locate her lost dog. Storylines were submitted to Hope's "people" for approval, but for the most part DC creators had free reign to use the popular entertainer's lascivious coward persona however they saw fit. As the series wheezed on, the situations grew more fanciful. In the mid-1960s, Hope acquired a teenage sidekick—a nerdy nephew named Tadwallader Jutefruce—who could transform himself, Incredible Hulk-like, into an Austin Powers-attired rock 'n' roll alter ego named Super Hip. The first four issues of The Adventures of Bob Hope all featured photographic covers, like the one at left.
Long before he attempted to reinvent himself in the eyes of younger audiences with his headbanging 1997 album In a Metal Mood, America's avatar of wholesome family entertainment turned up on the cover of this 1959 issue of Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane. "Next to standing in front of an altar with Superman," the comic's unseen narrator informs us, "Lois Lane's wildest dream is to share a microphone with America's top singing star and idol of millions, Pat Boone!" (Shhh, don't tell Perry Como, whom she had previously crushed on in the pages of Superman #67 nine years earlier.) In the whimsical ten-page tale "Superman's Mystery Song," Lois gets to live out her dream by performing a duet with Boone honoring their mutual BFF, Superman. But a careless mental error on the part of lyricist Clark Kent nearly results in the public revelation of the Man of Steel's secret identity. Only some quick thinking by Pat Boone—and the awesome power of his celebrity—averts a musical catastrophe.
The strong sales of The Adventures of Bob Hope inspired a string of similar titles based on licensed TV properties and popular comedians. Thus was spawned Jackie Gleason and the Honeymooners in 1956, Sgt. Bilko in 1957 (with a separate series for the sitcom's Private Doberman character the following year), and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in 1960. Easily the most successful of all these "comic comics" was The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, which began life as The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but was recalibrated to focus solely on the Dumb Kid following the duo's breakup in 1957. The series ran for an incredible 14 years and 124 issues and featured plots even more outlandish than the movie clown's infamous Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried. In this issue from June of 1964, Jerry encounters a fire-breathing dragon on the grounds of a bucolic resort hotel.
Billed as “the creator of TV’s wildest half-hour,” Allen Funt was just wrapping up the original network run of his popular hidden camera series Candid Camera when Mort Weisinger, the editor on DC’s Superman line, dragooned him into an appearance on the cover of Action Comics. Weisinger, a proponent of using gimmicks and guest stars to boost comic book sales, had previously performed a similar trick with This Is Your Life host Ralph Edwards. Comedian Steve Allen, President John F. Kennedy, and actress Ann Blyth had also crossed paths with the Man of Steel at various points during Weisinger’s tenure. This 1967 issue, in which Funt’s prying lens nearly catches Clark Kent in the act of changing into his Superman costume, marked the end of the long parade of celebrities in Metropolis. Weisinger departed as editor three years later, taking his Rolodex of big-name guest stars with him.
Fresh off his directorial debut, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen was enjoying his first blush of national fame when writer E. Nelson Bridwell and artist Mike Sekowsky commandeered his likeness for the cover of Showcase #71 in December of 1967. In fact, Bridwell—a humor writer by trade who had once toiled for Mad magazine—was such a big fan of the Woodman that he had used him as the model for Merryman, a member of DC’s parody superhero team The Inferior Five, the previous year. Showcase was DC’s venerable tryout title, a place where new and unconventional characters were trotted out for “let’s throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks” auditions. Featured here are the Maniaks, a fictional rock band created to cash in on the success of the Monkees, and never seen again after this issue. The pop quartet gets snapped up by Woody to star in his new Civil War-themed stage musical, Confederate Yankees. The hastily drawn, heavily padded story consists almost entirely of “musical” excerpts from the play, proving that the magic of Broadway does not translate to the comic book page.
In 1971, DC handed the creative keys to Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen to legendary artist Jack Kirby. Kirby proved to be a somewhat erratic driver, to say the least, repopulating the title with a host of unusual new characters, bringing back old ones, and generally trying to shake things up. Some of Kirby’s changes were inspired; others were bizarre—like a two-issue story arc involving insult comedian Don Rickles and his lookalike, Goody Rickels. The idea for a Rickles guest spot originated with Kirby’s assistants, Mark Evanier and Steve Sherman who, like “the King,” were huge fans of the abrasive comic, then performing regularly before national audiences on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. Rickles’ appearance was at first going to consist of a brief cameo, but DC publicity people were so thrilled at the cross-promotional opportunities that they insisted that Kirby feature him on the cover and expand the storyline over two entire issues.
Not to be outdone by DC, Marvel Comics added some star power to its pages in 1976 with a cover appearance by renowned mentalist Uri Geller. The Israeli-born spoonbender was riding high at the time, having just published his bestselling autobiography My Story. Marvel Comics headman Stan Lee met Geller at a party in New York and became enamored with the idea of casting the charismatic paranormalist in a comic book. Daredevil writer Marv Wolfman was given with the unenviable task of shoehorning Geller into this issue of Daredevil, in which the titular hero turns to Geller for help defeating a mind-reading supervillain and his army of ESP-endowed henchmen. Geller, whose eyes glow an eerie yellow at various points, is given an extensive superheroic back story of his own. “Curse you, Geller! Curse you!” the villain spits, in a representative snippet of dialogue.
Strange as it may seem, there was a time when the future star of Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction was relegated to the background along with Ron “Horshack” Palillo, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and the other supporting characters on the cover of 1976’s Welcome Back, Kotter #1, which kicked off a ten-issue run for this DC Comics series based on the then-popular ABC sitcom. While Travolta capers with a coloring book, series star Gabe Kaplan takes center stage as Gabe Kotter, a former juvenile delinquent who takes a teaching job at his old Brooklyn high school. In the inaugural issue, Gabe’s application for a transfer to a cleaner, safer, less chaotic school in Manhattan is accepted. But will those conniving Sweathogs let him go so easily?
The Cast of Saturday Night Live
Back in the days when Saturday Night Live was the hippest show on television, Marvel Comics tried to glom on to some of the show’s countercultural cachet by having its marquee superhero crash a performance by the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players. The threadbare plot has a supervillain called the Silver Samurai coveting a ring that’s stuck on the finger of SNL cast member John Belushi. When chaos erupts during the live broadcast, Spider-Man must team up with the quick-thinking sketch comics to defeat the bad guy and his minions. Bill Murray gets to knock out henchmen with a giant rubber hammer. Garrett Morris gets to dress up as The Mighty Thor. Laraine Newman gets to do…very little, proving that Marvel scribe Chris Claremont had as much trouble coming up with material for her as Saturday Night Live’s writers did. Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Jane Curtin round out the cover cast for this 1977 issue of Marvel Team-Up, which also includes cameo appearances by SNL producer Lorne Michaels and Marvel honcho Stan Lee.
Sure, Superman could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but could he float like a butterfly and sting like a bee? In one of the most heavily hyped comic books in history, The Greatest of All Time took on The Man of Tomorrow in a 1978 single-issue “treasury sized” special. The blockbuster story has Supes and Ali slugging it out to determine who is Earth’s true champion and claim the right to take on an alien contender named Hun’Ya. (In an ironic twist, the comic arrived on stands so late that Ali was no longer even the champion of his own weight class anymore; he’d been dispatched by Leon Spinks several months earlier.) As it turns out, Ali wins the bout, but the comic’s lasting appeal lies in savoring every last detail of artist Neal Adams’ eye-popping wraparound cover, a Sgt. Pepper-ish tableau featuring the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Jimmy Carter, Frank Sinatra, and Jerry Garcia amid a host of other Disco Era celebrities.
In the summer of 1984, while its senior editors were off attending Comic-Con in San Diego, Marvel Comics turned control of its superhero titles over to its second string staff for one issue only. The “Assistant Editors’ Month” stunt generated some predictably zany stories, including this bizarre guest appearance by the gap-toothed host of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. In a plot inspired by Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, several of the auxiliary heroes from Marvel’s superteam flagship The Avengers get themselves booked on Letterman’s show. Unbeknownst to them, a clownish supervillain named the Mechano-Marauder has rigged the set with booby traps. After some leaden banter with the host, all manner of chaos erupts, until Letterman himself saves the day by bonking the fame-seeking baddie on the head with an enormous prop doorknob. Sadly, it wasn’t until 2002 that another late-night host turned up in the pages of a Marvel Comic, when Letterman’s rival Jay Leno joined forces with Spider-Man for a series of back-up stories entitled “One Night Only.”
When the trail goes cold on their search for the leader of a child slavery ring, the costumed superteam known as The Outsiders knows just the right man to call: John Walsh. The host of Fox TV’s long-running criminal manhunt program America’s Most Wanted turns up in photographic form on the cover of this 2004 issue, which earns extra celebrity bonus points because it was written by Judd Winick, star of MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco. In the following issue, a lead provided by an America’s Most Wanted viewer helps The Outsiders crack the case. This wasn’t the first time John Walsh had seen us in the funny pages. He’d previously done a three-month-long guest stint in the newspaper comic strip Dick Tracy, becoming the first real-life person ever to appear in its panels.
As regular Colbert Report watchers know, the Comedy Central host is an inveterate comics junkie. He regularly promotes Marvel Comics on his show, and Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada famously bequeathed him Captain America’s mighty shield during a Colbert Report appearance in 2007. So when Colbert needed help publicizing his farcical run for the presidency in 2008, he naturally turned to his friends at the House of Ideas. The result was “Colbert for President” signage liberally seeded throughout scores of Marvel titles, plus an eight-page backup story in Amazing Spider-Man #573. The variant cover, drawn by Quesada himself, mimics the famous first appearance of the web-slinger in Amazing Fantasy #15.