Updated: Aug 23, 2021
30 covers from across thousands of X-books
I recently started a new job tangentially related to comics and as a result have been revisiting many of the comics I loved so much growing up (and sporadically throughout adulthood). Undoubtedly, my favorite titles have always been those related to the X-Men and their many off-shoots, and I thought it would be a fun project to go back and catalog my own list of the greatest x-covers of all time.
First though, some guidelines...
What qualifies as an X-Men cover?
I took a wide view of things and included affiliated teams, characters, and mini-series including all X-Men series (Uncanny, Unlimited, Ultimate, Xtreme, Extraordinary, New, All-New, Amazing, Astonishing, or otherwise), New Mutants, X-Factor, X-Force, Excalibur (though no Excalibur covers made the list), Wolverine, Cable, Generation X, etc., etc. times a thousand. I drew the line at Alpha Flight though, which I didn't include in the consideration set (once again Canada gets the short end of the stick!).
Have I seen every one of the thousands (tens of thousands?) of covers that technically qualifies? Probably not, but I did go on comixology and do some serious reviewing.
What qualifies as "great"?
Roughly, I looked at 4 factors:
Iconic-ness: is this cover recognized by a large number of comic fans and been homaged, imitated and referenced?
Issue importance: is this a critical issue for some reason, raising the significance of the cover that accompanies it?
Composition, illustration & design quality: taken in a vacuum, is this cover a great piece of comic art on its own?
My subjective opinion/ wild card: is there something else that makes this cover special/ do I like it (since this is my list after all)?
Okay, so without further delay, here's the list:
Uncanny X-Men #207 (1986)
A straightforward, classic John Romita Jr. cover during the stretch run where the X-Men were making their ascent towards being the most popular comic book characters in the world. 'Nuff said.
X-Men: Legacy #1 (2012)
This is the most recent cover on the list and at first seems a relatively unremarkable depiction of Legion, the important, but certainly not top-tier, character upon which FX most recently based a TV show. Upon closer examination though, what you realize is that Legion's face is placed together from tear-outs of other X-Men characters. This is particularly appropriate given that Legion is known to have multiple personalities. Adding to the interest of the cover, the tear-outs themselves appear to be from other famous X-Men covers.
As far as I can tell:
Upper left: Wolverine from Wolverine Limited Series #1 (on the list)
Upper right: Cable (source unknown)
Bottom right: Magneto from X-Men vol. 2 #1 (also on the list)
Bottom left: either Cyclops or Professor Xavier (source unknown)
New Mutants vol. 3 #13 (2010)
For the 2010 X-book crossover, Second Coming, all the covers featured a similar design and art by Bosnian artist and designer Adi Granov. They were all amazing, but I felt this one particularly captured the bleak tone of the story arc.
X-Factor vol. 3 #1 (2006)
More and more it seems that mainstream comics (i.e. Marvel & DC) are less about creating truly new characters and worlds and more about the endless reimagining of characters and worlds that have been around for decades. Such was the case with this version of X-Factor where Jamie Madrox, aka Multiple Man, leads a team of tier-3 X-characters in a noir tinged reboot. The Ryan Sook cover perfectly captures the mood of the Peter David book.
Uncanny X-Men #493 (2008)
Like with Second Coming, 2008's Messiah Complex crossover used a single design style for all the included books. This David Finch cover, with its amazing juxtaposition of the big-gun-toting, robot-arm-having Cable and baby Hope, is the best of the lot.
Uncanny X-Men #198 (1985)
As a kid, I wasn't a big fan of Barry Windsor-Smith's art. It was moody, less prototypically "comic-booky" and not as fun as some of my favorites like Jim Lee or Marc Silvestri. As an adult, I love Windsor-Smith's art for the same reasons--and his style is perfectly suited for the more mature Life-Death story arc where Ororo embarks on a spiritual journey in order to come to terms with the loss of her powers.
Cable vol. 2 #2 (2008)
I was a big fan of the various storylines surrounding Hope Summers (in fact, it's what brought me back to Marvel comics after many years of not reading) and you see several covers from those story arcs featured on this list. Some of my favorite among those books were part of the Cable volume 2 run penciled by Ariel Olivetti, where Cable raises Hope in the dystopian future while being hunted by a zealous Bishop. This cover, depicting an old-west-style standoff between Cable and Bishop, perfectly encapsulates the mood of those book.
Uncanny X-Men #213 (1987)
Wolverine and Sabretooth technically first locked claws one issue earlier in Uncanny X-Men #212, but this is the iconic image by Alan Davis we all remember from that first set of encounters during the Mutant Massacre story arc. The issue also featured an early appearance by Psylocke (captured in the upper left corner on this cover).
Wolverine vol. 3 #66 (2008)
I recently realized why it is that many of my favorite comic story arcs are of the future/ alternate timeline variety: characters can actually die (and stay dead) because the timeline doesn't need to go on indefinitely. On account of this, the story can have real stakes. The Old Man Logan storyline is one of the best of these and this cover does a great job of portraying the story's dark, western vibe, after which the movie Logan was loosely based.
Uncanny X-Men #401 (2002)
Back in 2002, Marvel did a slate of "Nuff Said" books or "silent issues" that had no words throughout. Ironically enough, the Uncanny X-Men silent issue cover by Ron Garney featured famed wailer, Banshee, literally screaming away the words that make up the title of the book.
Uncanny X-Men #28 (1967)
Speaking of Banshee... here begins a string of covers prominently featuring the first appearances of important characters. The Werner Roth cover and its contrast of bright colors is a great example of a certain 60s design aesthetic that I really like.
New Mutants #98 (1991)
Three new characters (two of which went on to be quite important) are introduced right on the cover--including the incredibly popular "merc with a mouth," Deadpool, who started as a villain and only developed a personality later during his mini-series run. And it wasn't just Deadpool's personality, which was popular. His Rob Liefeld costume design inspired more than a few knockoffs:
Uncanny X-Men #266 (1990)
Gambit is probably the most "canonical" X-Man to be introduced in the last thirty-five years (maybe Cable could compete?) and was forever immortalized on the team by holding one of the roster spots (and the world's worst accent) on the Fox animated series:
And though I personally loved the early work Jim Lee did with Gambit better, this Andy Kubert cover has become the iconic image comic fans remember when thinking about the first appearance of the beloved Cajun.
Uncanny X-Men #58 (1969)
Another great 60s cover--this one introducing Scott Summers' brother, Havok (for the first time in costume)--with bold color contrast and a great composition. Created by Neal Adams, one of the true legends of comic art.
New Mutants #26 (1985)
Like the work of Barry Windsor-Smith, the work of Bill Sienkiewicz was the kind of stuff that I didn't really appreciate when I was a kid, but has really grown on me as an adult. It's mature, not comic-y in the traditional sense, and oozes emotion. I could have selected any of the amazing New Mutants work he's done, though this cover is particularly noteworthy for introducing readers to Legion, Professor X's schizophrenic son.
New Mutants #87 (1990)
Cable is probably the most important character to come out of the entire New Mutants vol. 1 run (Deadpool may be more popular, but he's a minor character to the overall history of the X-Men), and New Mutants #87 was his first full appearance. Additionally, this issue really marks the ascent of Rob Liefeld (later maligned for his over-use of pouches) towards becoming one of the most popular artists in comics.
Wolverine Limited Series #1 (1982)
I started collecting comics in the late 80s/ early 90s and I remember going to the local comic shop and seeing this book hanging on the wall for probably thirty or fifty bucks and wanting it desperately even though I wasn't about to shell out that kind of cash for a single book. In retrospect, this Frank Miller cover is a bit cheesy, but that's only because in retrospect it's such an obvious cover. Or in other words, due to covers like this and work by creators like Frank Miller, it's now so ingrained in comic book fans' heads that Wolverine is an unabashed badass, that a cover that depicts him overtly as an unabashed badass now lacks subtlety. At the time though, kids like me loved this cover.
Also of note, I believe this cover was the first place where we saw the iconic Wolverine typography that followed the character for decades.
X-Men vol. 2 #203 (2007)
As a kid reading Uncanny X-Men in the late 80s, Mr. Sinister and the Marauders were among my favorite x-villains. They were the one group who seemed to go toe to toe with the X-Men and really give them a thumping. Sadly, many of the Marauders were killed off in the late 80s/ early 90s as well.
Luckily, no one ever stays dead in the comics.
Here you have an amazing, moody cover of Mr. Sinister and his team of bad mutants from one of my favorite artists Humberto Ramos.
The cover does a great job playing with light and shadow and gives a nod to this classic Uncanny cover from when the the X-Men first faced the Marauders during the Mutant Massacre:
X-Men Alpha #1 (1995)
The Age of Apocalypse crossover depicted an alternate timeline set into motion when Legion went back in time and accidentally killed Professor X--and was one of the biggest X-Men story events during my time collecting. For four months, all the x-books paused and were instead replaced by new books set in this dystopian world. In the Age of Apocalypse heroes became villains, villains became heroes and dead characters came back to life--and this Joe Madureira cover is what kicked it all off. In addition to being simply a cool wraparound cover, the book was also one of the first chromium/ metallic ones and I can remember how awesome it felt holding this book in my hands as a fourteen year old.
Uncanny X-Men #136 (1980)
The Dark Phoenix Saga is usually considered the greatest story arc in the long history of the X-Men. Perhaps surprisingly though, none of the covers from that run (generally thought to be #129-#138, all by John Byrne) cracked the top ten. There are some good covers from among the group, but none of them truly transcended to reach iconic status. In the end, I chose to include this cover because to me, the story arc was always about sacrifice and loss and this cover--complete with Scott Summers's look of anguish--best captured that essence.
Uncanny X-Men #50 (1968)
You might be surprised to see this cover so high on the list. While it's a cool cover and is the first to feature Polaris (who's first appearance was one issue earlier), it's hardly one of the most memorable by fans of the X-Men. What makes this cover truly unique though is that it was the first one to feature the iconic X-men typography, which is still recognizable more than fifty years later.
Uncanny X-Men #268 (1990)
This is simply an awesome, iconic cover of an awesome, fun issue by an artist (Jim Lee) really hitting his stride. Captain America and Logan fighting Nazis during WWII... Black Widow, Wolverine, ninja Psylocke and Jubilee fighting Hand ninjas in the present... what more could you want?
Uncanny X-Men #4 (1964)
This Jack Kirby cover introduced readers to a host of characters (Toad, Mastermind, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) that wouldn't just be important to the X-Men comics but to the Marvel Universe in general.
Uncanny X-Men #251 (1989)
This run was a dark time for the X-Men. Many of the team were (temporarily) dead or scattered and the lone survivor was crucified by the Reavers on a giant X. From strictly an aesthetic standpoint, this Marc Silvestri cover may be the greatest of them all.
Uncanny X-Men #1 (1963)
The cover that started it all! It's a bit tricky judging this cover in that it is clearly very influential/ important, yet in my opinion, from an aesthetic standpoint isn't among the best X-Men covers. In the end, I placed it outside the top 5, but still relatively high on the list.
Btw, where is Iceman spatially in this shot and where is he throwing his snowballs? Also, what the heck is Jean Grey doing in the back? She sort of reminds one of Elaine dancing from Seinfeld:
Still, an iconic cover nonetheless.
Giant-Sized X-Men #1 (1975)
This is probably the most important issue of X-Men of all time in that it marked the introduction of the team that ushered in the X-Men's rise to the stratospheric heights they would eventually climb to. In a lot of ways, this new team was quite a bold move by Marvel in that they were essentially completely rebooting the comic and moving from a team full of WASPS to a diverse cast featuring an African woman, a Russian, a German, a Native American, and everyone's favorite Canadian. The cover composition itself is relatively standard fare, but the characters depicted would guarantee that the X-Men would never be the same.
X-Men (vol. 2) #1 (1991)
The four connected covers issued for the release of the first new ongoing X-Men title since 1963 represented a lot... They were a coronation of sorts for the X-Men as the undisputed most popular comic characters in the world... They represent some of the best work by a legendary artist (Jim Lee) at the height of his powers... They were a bellwether for the rise and subsequent collapse of the comic bubble of the early 90s... They were the covers for the best selling comic of all time.
All reasons why this belongs in the pantheon of X-Men covers.
Classic X-Men #1 (1986)
If there ever was a platonic ideal of an X-Men illustration, this would be it. All of the core members from the first two decades of the team are here--and they're all drawn amazingly in Art Adams' signature style. The entire run of covers for the Classic X-Men reprints are great, but this one is the most iconic by far.
Uncanny X-Men #141 (1981)
From a single glance of the white hair at Logan's temple, you can tell that this is not the cover of your everyday X-Men comic. Add to that the roster of slain and apprehended X-Men in the background and readers knew they were in for something new and something dark. What readers ended up getting was the canonical X-Men story arc, Days of Future Past.
I recently revisited the two comics making up the story and, to be honest, I wasn't that blown away. Like with a lot of extremely influential things though, the reason was that the time travel plot line first introduced here has been so imitated, riffed on, and expanded over the years (Age of Apocalypse, Age of X, everything involving Cable and Bishop) that it now felt a little quaint by comparison. Still, this is a super iconic X-Men story arc with a John Byrne cover that is, judging by the numbers of homages and references, even more iconic.
Uncanny X-Men #101 (1976)
The Jean Grey/ Phoenix story arc (starting with this issue and going through the Dark Phoenix Saga) is the most important storyline in X-Men history and a big part of how the X-Men went from middling comic franchise to the most popular comic book characters in the world. The story was unparalleled in comic history for its depth of emotion and its scope (it stretched for over three years) and changed comics forever. And when people think of the Phoenix story arc the image they undoubtedly see is of this Dave Cockrum cover--Jean Grey, a new power coursing through her, flying up out of the water.
The Days of Future Past cover may be slightly ahead in terms of number of homages, but X-Men #101 has no shortage either:
The iconic of the iconic, and truly, the greatest X-Men cover of all time.
Disagree with this list? Leave a comment below about what I got wrong.