Some of the biggest icons in the Marvel comic universe are undergoing an identity crisis. The Iron Man armor will soon pass from Tony Stark to an MIT student named Riri Williams this fall; metal-clad villain Dr. Doom is welding his own iron duds in Infamous Iron Man set for next month; and founding X-Men member Jean Gray is now a time-traveling incarnation of her younger self (don’t ask). But this is far from the first time superheroes have traded mantles.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah took the moniker Tony Starks to coincide with his 1996 solo album, Ironman, and British MC Daniel Dumile assumed the identity MF Doom in the late ‘80s along with an angular, metallic mask to pay homage to the Fantastic Four’s greatest adversary. Brooklyn MC Tsidi Ibrahim, better known as Jean Grae, found solace in the red-headed mutant’s message of empowerment in the throes of marginalization. Even RZA and his alter ego, Bobby Digital, cite cosmic extreme-sports enthusiast the Silver Surfer as a childhood inspiration.
These are just a few examples of a deep—if complicated—cultural rapport stretching back to the late ‘70s: hip-hop and comic books.
Last year, this connection inspired Marvel to launch a line of 50 variant covers with characters posing as luminaries like Ice Cube, Kool Moe Dee and Lauryn Hill from their game-changing album covers. Today, Playboy.com introduces six new entries for Marvel’s second wave launching this fall, with covers offering tribute to the Wu-Tang Clan, Salt N Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, Kevin Gates, Chance the Rapper and LL Cool J. (Scroll down to see side-by-side comparisons.) This art will debut on the covers for the comics Champions #1 by Rahzzah, Ultimates 2 #1 by Risa Hulett, Infamous Iron Man #1 by Anthony Piper, Jessica Jones #1 by Jeff Dekal, Nova #1 by Christian Ward and Cage! #1 by Marco D’Alfonso.
“Comics and hip-hop share a common narrative: They’re all about underdogs struggling, striving and persevering against overwhelming odds,” explained Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso over email. “So it’s no surprise that so many rappers have been influenced by the Marvel mythology or embraced the Marvel heroes over the decades. The hip-hop covers were our way of showing that the love is reciprocal. A lot of the writers, artists and editors that make Marvel Comics are inspired by hip-hop, and it shows in their work.”
The covers nicely illustrate the parallels between the musicians and the characters, either via wordplay or personality. A recent example transported Black Panther—the ruler of the African kingdom Wakanda—into King Mez’ Long Live the King album art. One of the new covers places Luke Cage, also the star of an upcoming Netflix series, in the shoes of LL Cool J from his 1987 LP, Bigger and Deffer (BAD). Like Cool J, Luke Cage has slowly evolved from a ripped streetwise badass to a ripped sentimentalist with a more nurturing demeanor; think of Cage’s current role as family man with Jessica Jones and daughter Danielle as his Todd Smith turning point.
Matching hero and team with musician and group, Alonso worked alongside his assistant Chris Robinson and Marvel artists Sanford Greene (Power Man and Iron Fist), Damion Scott (Ghost Rider and, no joke, comics written by Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels) and Juan Doe (Wolverines). The group strived to cover the entirety of the genre’s history—half of the six pieces displayed here draw inspiration from 1980s albums. The art for Chance the Rapper and Kevin Gates only debuted this year for their homages in the comics Nova and Ultimates. “We picked Kevin Gates’ Islah for Jessica Jones because his body language simply nails who she is,” Alonso explained. “Ditto for LL’s BAD—the stance, the attitude was all Luke Cage.”
On a larger scale, this project also introduces a degree of diversity that’s largely been absent from the comic industry’s perennial stable of white straight guys. The project’s first wave last year faced cultural-appropriation critiques. But for both rounds, Alonso and the editorial teams have assembled artists who span genders and ethnicities. The new lineup includes artists Afu Chan, Gyimah Gariba, Afua Richardson, Marco D’Alfonso and Brittany Holloway-Brown, who are making or made their Marvel debut with the Variant covers. The push has expanded to the publisher’s monthly titles as well. MacArthur Genius and Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates took over a Black Panther series alongside artist Brian Stelfreeze last April. (Read the Playboy Interview with Coates here.) Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay will join Coates and illustrator Alitha Martinez on a supplementary series, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, that focuses on the female warriors of the fiction, set to release this November.
Needless to say, there’s still a long way to go. Nighthawk, a comic featuring a black vigilante, penned by African American writer David F. Walker and drawn by Ramon Villalobos, was recently cancelled on its sixth issue due to weak sales, despite strong critical reception. The development raised questions of whether comic distribution and the pre-order system, which often dictates a book’s survival, are designed to invite new readers into the comic clubhouse. Marvel’s efforts to mirror the diversity of its readers—also evidenced by the Afro-Latino Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and the Muslim Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan—needs to extend into the DNA of the entire direct-market mainstream comic book ecosystem. It’s a massive undertaking, but with 39 percent of the retail market share in 2015, Marvel’s certainly in a position to make changes.
Killer Mike of Run the Jewels penned the intro for a collection of the variant covers’ first run. The publisher later released a series of trailers for Coates’ Black Panther comic, which has featured music by RTJ, Prodigy, Jean Grae and Kweku Collins thus far, with more collaborations “to announce soon.”
These variant covers embrace an underacknowledged legacy between two art forms while inviting new creators into a medium that’s remained overwhelmingly homogenous for decades. If Marvel can continue to expand its diversity with active support from hip-hip leaders and diverse creators, there’s no reason comics can’t rule the universe.
Marvel’s Hip-Hop Variant Covers will release throughout the fall.