From that body rocking moment in time back in 1979, when Sugar Hill Gang rapper Big Bank Hank waxed poetic about the mack game that he’d once spit to Superman’s girlfriend (reporter Lois Lane), the love affair the hip-hop generation has with comic books was pretty much set in stone.
Or, more accurately, etched into the grooves of black, 12” vinyl.
In the four-plus decades since record needles were first dropped onto Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, the technologies that we use to listen to music now have changed significantly. But the intersecting links that were forged between comic nerd culture and hip-hop music culture haven’t.
If anything, they’ve gotten deeper.
Today, publishers like Marvel Comics make generous use of genius promo gimmicks (see: the hip-hop homage variant covers series) to show the love that rap music fans have for comics isn’t an unrequited one. The comics industry sends its very own specially-priced-retail-love right back.
But the road from there to here was a long and winding courtship that was partly paved four decades ago with vintage verses about Lois Lane and her superhero boyfriend.
As destiny would have it, within a couple years fans of the comics medium working at record labels like Tommy Boy and Def Jam would even begin seeking out comic book artists to share their mastery of a valued aesthetic with a new wave of young music makers and their listeners.
Exhaustively curated here for your viewing pleasure is a senses-shattering list revealing 16 times comic book artists rocked hip-hop music cover art.
16. Man on the Moon: The End of Day (Bill Sienkiewicz), 2009
Bill Sienkiewicz (sin-KEV-itch) slowly exploded onto the comics scene in the early part of 1979, pencilling Moon Knight back-up stories featured in Marvel’s mature themed Hulk! magazine. But his art reached its full explosive power somewhere between his runs on New Mutants, issues #18–31, 37 & 39 (1984–86), and the eight-issue Elektra: Assassin limited series (1986–87). Since then, he’s somehow managed to continue exploding onto the comics scene for four whole decades now. And he’s done it wearing the hats of a virtuoso penciller, as an inker for artistic peers like Denys Cowan, Klaus Janson, Jim Aparo and many others, and as a painter of visually distinctive variant covers for comics like Dazzler, Detective Comics, Elektra, Fantastic Four, Harley Quinn, Immortal Hulk, The Walking Dead, and way too many others to list.
Since his asteroid-like entry into pop culture 40 years ago, “BS,” as he’s fondly known to friends and frienemies, has also managed to add to his extensive portfolio a hip-hop music album cover or two — or four. Shown above, placed opposite one of his covers for DC’s Deathstroke, is the cover Bill created in 2009 for rapper Kid Cudi’s double platinum debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day.
15. Collision Course (David Choe), 2004
David Choe is a f̶i̶l̶t̶h̶y̶ ̶r̶i̶c̶h world famous graphic novelist, graffiti artist, figure painter, muralist, lover, fighter, and gambler. Aside from his acclaimed self-published graphic novel Slow Jams (1999), comics related works created by Dave were featured in issues #3–5 of the indie comics anthology Non (1998–2001), in the small press graphic novel anthology Rosetta (2002), and in Ashley Wood’s Popbot Reader #1 (2005). Dave also created the cover art for issue #3 of the DC/Vertigo limited series Fight for Tomorrow (2005). If the comic book gods had been kind, he would’ve also been the artist on a Marvel mutants project featuring Nyx, Gambit and Rogue in 2011, teamed with acclaimed writer Brian Wood (Fight for Tomorrow).
Anyhow, Dave created both the cover and interior illustrations used on Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s double platinum collaborative album Collision Course (2004). None of the aforementioned made him f̶i̶l̶t̶h̶y̶ ̶r̶i̶c̶h handsomely wealthy though. In 2005 and again in ’07, he was commissioned to paint graffiti murals on the office walls of Facebook. Accepting company stock in lieu of cash (see: gambler), Dave hit the Stock Market Lotto™ in 2012. Now he probably has the same financial advisors as Jay-Z…and hot Victoria’s Secret® supermodels readin’ comics to him at bedtime.
14. Wu-Massacre (Chris Bachalo), 2010
Chris Bachalo, a Canadian-born and Cali-raised artist, crossed the border into comics in the early 1990s, establishing himself an illustrator with a gorgeously cartoony style. For five impressive years he was the penciller on some 40 issues of DC’s mature-minded series Shade the Changing Man (1990–94). The artist would follow that up with impressive runs on several Marvel titles, including Doctor Strange, Amazing Spider-Man, Generation X (which he co-created), Uncanny X-Men vol. 1, Uncanny X-Men vol. 2, Wolverine and the X-Men, and a few more Marvel books with a letter X in the title.
In 2010, Bachalo was commissioned by Def Jam to create a series of three collectible variant covers for Wu-Massacre, a collaboration album by Method Man, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, three members of rap group Wu-Tang Clan. The covers were pencilled by Bachalo and inked by his longtime partner-in-crime, inker Tim Townsend.
According to various sources, there was also a plan in place to publish a comic book with art by Bachalo, based on the Wu-Massacre character designs (co-created by Def Jam designer Alex Haldi). A few mind-blowing pages were even produced by the artist before work on the project came to an unfortunate and unexplained halt. Alas, in the immortal words of Wu-Tang’s Inspecktah Deck, it’s all quite sadly: “Neglected for now. But yo, it gots to be accepted (that what?) that life is hectic.”
13. Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (Mark Texiera), 1994
Despite Mark Texeira’s actually having entered the comics industry in the early 1980s, doing work primarily then for DC, it was in the early 1990s, while working for Marvel, that his remarkable visuals would find the drooling, testosterone-driven fan base they deserved. This was in large part because of what “Tex” brought, as both a penciller and a painter, to titles like Marvel Comics Presents (1990–91), Wolverine vol. 2 (1993), the Sabretooth miniseries (1993), Ghost Rider, vol. 2 (1990–92, 1997–98), Punisher War Journal (1990–93), Black Panther vol. 3 (1998–99), Space: Punisher (2012), and numerous others.
In ’94, Texeira created the cover and inside sleeve artwork for Public Enemy’s fifth studio album Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994). The album’s title was a clever stylisation of the phrase “music in our message,” and Tex’s stark imagery illustrates an overarching theme reflecting PE’s concern for and even resentment at the sharp turn that hip-hop music was taking then, trading rap’s often socio-political consciousness for guns-n-drug glorifying gansta stuff. ‘Nuff said.
12. Return of the SP1200 (Sanford Greene), 2019
For the past 15 years, the talented Sanford Greene has professionally straddled the not-so-distant lines between graphic design, video game animation and comic books. Listed among the books he’s illustrated since his entry into comics are Wonder Girl #1–6 (2007), The Batman Strikes! #30, 36, 38 (2007), Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man #47, 49, 50, 52 (2009), Ame-Comi Girls Featuring Batgirl #2 (2013), Runaways #1–4 (2015), Powerman and Iron Fist #1–15 (2016–17), the creator-owned title, Bitter Root #1–5 (2018–19), and more.
Sanford has also created visually dynamic comic book covers for various publishers, including a trio in 2015 for Marvel’s previously mentioned hip-hop variants series. His artwork for one of the three, All New Hawkeye #1 (2015), was an homage based on the 1992 Pete Rock and CL Smooth album Mecca and the Soul Brother. Four years later, the legendary producer Pete Rock would reach out to request that Greene produce the cover artwork for his then-upcoming instrumental hip-hop album Return of the SP1200 (2019). The end result’s a thoughtful commentary on recent events in America, filtered through the color palette of Marvel’s 2018 animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
11. Which Doobie U B? (Glen Barr), 1993
Glenn Barr’s paintings have been exhibited in shows held domestically from Los Angeles to New York, and internationally from Sidney to London. Between 1996 and 2000, Barr’s artistic stylings also graced the pages of comics with his illustration of books like Brooklyn Dreams #1–4 (1994–95), Seekers Into the Mystery #1–4 (1996), Cartoon Network Presents #5, 6, 10, 14 & 19 (1997–99), and the DC Comics graphic novel Realworlds: Justice League of America (2000).
Since 1985, Barr has also produced album cover illustrations for more than a dozen music acts whose genres run the gamut — from heavy metal, punk and glam rock to rocked out covers of Saturday morning cartoon theme songs, funk, soul, and hip-hop. An example of the latter, placed opposite the Realworlds: Justice League graphic novel, is the cover Barr created in 1993 for Which Doobie U B?, the debut album of the super funky Los Angeles Latin hip-hop group Funkdoobiest.
10. Trouble Man: Heavy Is the Head (Bill Sienkiewicz), 2009
As many fans of this man’s work will probably tell you, no one on the corner has swagger like Bill, swagger like Bill, swa-swa-swagger like Bill. This may be why the artist who helped to make Marvel’s Moon Knight (see above) the super cool superhero that he is today was sought to illustrate the cover of “Swagger Like Us” rapper T.I.’s 8th studio album, Trouble Man: Heavy is the Head (2012). The message heavy concept was likely no trouble at all (see what I did there?) for a skilled artist like Bill, whose work here deftly recalls the movie posters of the ’70s, among them the blaxploitation classic Trouble Man (1972) and its eponymous title track, composed by Marvin Gaye — which inspired T.I.’s album title.
In this meaning-infused image, T.I. clutches a long barrel firearm that the Grammy-winning emcee described as a “metaphorical, creative, conceptual gun that represents all of the things in life that can get a man in trouble — in the form of what one can consider a gun, however, not a real gun.” And while it may have sounded like a load of doublespeak, Tip had previously served ten months on federal weapons charges (May 2009 — March 2010). So one could say that heavy was the head of the man who was putting out this album.
9. Greatest Misses (Kent Williams), 1992
Upon first glance, you don’t realize that the cover image for the 1992 Public Enemy compilation album Greatest Misses isn’t a black and white photograph. You may not even realize it on the second, third or even the seventh glance. But that bullet-ridden surface with a stencil of the PE logo at its center is actually an illustration by the acclaimed painter and graphic novel artist Kent Williams.
From the early 1980s, when his first work in comics appeared in the black and white comics anthology Eclipse Magazine (1981–82), Williams amassed a wonderful body of work as an illustrator, inker and cover artist on a variety of titles for DC, Marvel, and other publishers. These include Blood: A Tale #1–4 (1987), Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown #1–4, (1988–89), Hellblazer #22–24, 28–39 (1989–91), Wolverine: Killing (1993), Destiny: A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold #1–3 (1996), inks over Denys Cowan’s pencils on Fight for Tomorrow #1–6 (2002–03), and the graphic novel The Fountain (2005), written by film director Darren Aronofsky.
8. Renegades of Funk (Bob Camp), 1983
Bob Camp is an Emmy Award-winning animator, cartoonist, comic book artist, writer, storyboard artist, producer, director and — in addition to all that — the co-founder of Spümcø, the famed animation studio that brought ‘toon connoisseurs The Ren & Stimpy Show. Bob’s TV and film credits include varying duties on productions like ThunderCats, Silverhawks, TigerSharks, Karate Kat and Street Frogs (1985–87), The Real Ghostbusters (1986), Tiny Toon Adventures (1990), The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991–95), Cow and Chicken (1997–99), Jackie Chan Adventures (2001–03), The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015), and a crap load of others. But it was near the very start of his impressive career that the eyeball-grabbing artwork for the Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force 12-inch single Renegades of Funk (1983) was created.
If you were a hip-hop fiendin’ tween when Renegades of Funk hit record shop shelves, you couldn’t help but be attracted to its cover, which was formatted almost exactly like a Marvel Comics cover. At the time, Bob had just started working for Marvel, having only Moonknight #21 (1982) and maybe G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #11 (1983) under his belt. But he’d promptly add to his future Wiki bibliography Conan the Barbarian #154, 160, 169, 170, 172–174, 175 (1984–85), Conan the Destroyer #1 & 2 (1985), six issues of the war comic The ‘Nam (1988), and several others. And the classic hip-hop song that he created the artwork for would go on to be remade in 2001 by rock band Rage Against the Machine, and featured as a playable tune in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories.
7. Business As Usual (Bill Sienkiewicz), 1990
Only three things are guaranteed in life, True Believer: death, taxes and the omnipresent artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz. After the previously listed artist Bob Camp, Bill’s probably the second artist from the comics industry to create artwork for hip-hop records. It’s also possible that — at four classics and counting — he has the most in his portfolio. The very first of these was his illustration of EPMD’s gold certified Business As Usual (1990), the rap duo’s third studio album but their first on the Def Jam label.
In a 2004 interview with Vibe Magazine, Bill revealed that while record cover art wasn’t a market he was looking to tap into, he was happy to answer the call when Def Jam reached out in 1990 about EPMD. When he talked with the rap duo, Erik and Parrish made it clear that they wanted to see themselves shown in a swamp somewhere pursued by law enforcement, hunting dogs, helicopters and whatnot. Bill also recalled trying to capture the aesthetic of a painted film poster. And from the look of it, the artist clearly hit his mark.
6. Jam On Revenge (Bob Camp), 1984
Shown above, opposite his cover for G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #11 (May 1983), is the cover illustration that Bob Camp created for Jam On Revenge (1984), the debut album of the old school electro-funk-rap group, Newcleus. This was the first of two covers Camp illustrated for the group, the second being for their 1985 album Space is the Place. The beauty of Camp’s work on that second project made it really difficult to choose between it and his work on the debut Newcleus album. But you kinda’ have to run with the album containing that jam of a song which tells of a tumultuous DJ battle against a braggadocios Superman: “And then he turned his power on and the ground began to move / And all the buildings for miles around were swayin’ to the groove / And just when he had pulled the crowd and swore he’d won the fight / We rocked his butt with a 12-inch cut called ‘Disco Kryptonite!’”
5. VV:2 Venomous Villain (Sanford Greene), 2004
Believe it or not, True Believer, Sanford Greene’s artwork for producer Pete Rock’s Return of the SP1200 wasn’t his first album cover for a hip-hop artist. Fifteen years ago, when he was a virtual unknown in comics, he was the artist who created the dark, futuristic-looking work that graces the front of the 2004 Viktor Vaughn (aka MF Doom) album VV:2 Venomous Villain.
Four years later, after he’d begun making a bit more of a name for himself on titles like The Batman Strikes! and Wonder Girl, Greene also got the chance to work with another hip-hop luminary. But it wasn’t on a music-related project. This time around, Greene was teamed with Method Man and writer David Atchison to illustrate the comic book lovin’ Wu-Tang member’s eponymous 2008 graphic novel Method Man.
4. Czarface (L’Amour Supreme), 2013
L’Amour Supreme (aka Joel Orbeta) is best known to fans across the land as an OG airbrush master, street art muralist, streetwear designer, painter, and custom toy designer — to name just a few of his many titles. This here geeky factoid doesn’t seem to be widely known, but for a short time in the mid-1990s, he was also making his mark in comics. So now hardcore collectors of L’Amour Supreme’s work can go diggin’ through long boxes at their friendly neighborhood comic shop to track down vintage copies of Zen Intergalactic Ninja Color #1 & 2 (1995), Manga Zen #1 (1996), and Zen: The New Adventures #1 (1997).
Since 2013, Joel has created more than a dozen works of art (sorry, Bill!) gracing the fronts of both albums and single releases by Czarface, the hip-hop group comprised of rap duo 7L & Esoteric and Wu-Tang Clan member Inspectah Deck. Featured above, placed opposite a minty fresh copy of Zen Intergalactic Ninja: The New Adventures #1 (from my own personal collection), is the cover created for the 2013 self-titled debut album Czarface.
3. You Only Live Twice: The Audio Graphic Novel (Jim Mahfood), 2010
If you lived in the Phoenix-metro in the late 1990s, it’s possible that you copped a copy of Jim Mahfood’s self-published comic zine Cosmic Toast #1 (1997) from the now-gone-but-never-forgotten Atomic Comics (whose name was immortalized in the 2010 film Kick Ass; based on the Mark Millar comic book). Then you watched in amazement as Mahfood made the leap — nearly with the proportionate strength of a spider — from self-published joints like Cosmic Toast and 40 Oz. Comics (1998) to pencilling Kevin Smith’s Clerks #1 (1998), Marvel’s Generation X Underground Special #1 (1998), and the Clerks Holiday Special #1 (1998).
In the 20-plus years since he first kicked in the door of the comics industry, going on to pencil Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #9 (2001), Peter Parker: Spider-Man #42 & 43 (2002), Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #19 (2002), Everybody Loves Tank Girl #1–4 (2012), Miami Vice: Remix #1–4 (2015), the creator-owned Grrl Scouts: Magic Socks #1–6 (2018) and others, Mahfood ‘s work has never lost its funky, underground comics vibe. What’s more, of the many artists featured here, Food’s one of the few with a legit link to hip-hop culture.
Shortly after his move to Phoenix from Kansas City, “Food One” could be found rockin’ live art performances at happenin’ hip-hop shows alongside the Bomb Shelter DJs (Emile, Z-Trip & Radar). This was almost before live art at shows was even a thing. Today, Z-Trip is one of the most well known DJ’s in the country and Food One’s a rock star comics creator. So it’s only natch that the latter would have hip-hop record covers in his portfolio — including a few for Z-Trip. But featured above is his cover art for MF Grimm’s You Only Live Twice: The Audio Graphic Novel (2010), which also included a 13-page comic book pencilled by the artist.
2. Bobby Digital in Stereo (Bill Sienkiewicz), 1998
Yup, him again.
Bobby Digital in Stereo is the certified gold-selling solo debut album by RZA, the genius producer, rapper, and founder of the hip-hop supergroup Wu-Tang Clan. The album dropped on November 24, 1998 and hit record shops — and the music sections at Target and Walmart — boasting spectacular blaxploitation film poster-type artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz.
After all that’s been said about him in this listicle, there really ain’t much more to add. Well, not without soundin’ like a total fanboy. But here’s a fun, Wu-related factoid: Did you know that when you enter Bill Sienkiewicz’s name into one of the Wu-Tang name generators, the alias it bestows is “Designer Goosey?” That’s almost as spot-on a Wu name as Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino.
1. Liquid Swords (Denys Cowan), 1995
The first two comic books that Denys Cowan pencilled, DC’s Weird War Tales #93 and Marvel’s The Spectacular Spider-Man #49, appeared on newspaper stands and old school spinner racks in November and December 1980. In the nearly 40 years since, Denys has worked as a penciller, inker and cover artist, building up an impressive body of work on titles like Black Panther, The Question, Power Man and Iron Fist, Deathlok, the DC/Milestone titles Hardware and Static (both of which he co-created), Steel, Batman Confidential, Fight For Tomorrow, Star Wars: Mace Windu, Prince: Alter Ego, and so many more.
In addition to his near endless list of work on comics titles for various publishers, Denys, who co-founded Milestone Media and its DC/Milestone comics imprint, is a television producer with credits on beloved animated shows like Static Shock (2000–2004), Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, season one (2005–06), and BET’s Black Panther (2010). Best of all, though — well, as far as we’re concerned — Denys is also the artist who gave us the razor sharp artwork on GZA’s now certified platinum album Liquid Swords (1995). So when you see this man at Comicon, feel free to throw up a ‘W’ hand gesture and yell out “Wu-Tang!” He’ll probably appreciate that.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.