Comics/Graphic Novels

The Lost Art of Comics Corner Boxes

If you’ve ever taken a gander at some older comics, particularly anything from Marvel from the 1960s to the ’80s, you might have noticed a little box in the upper left hand corner featuring at least one of the stars of the comic, or maybe even a whole batch of floating superhero heads. These boxes were probably also crammed full of additional information, like the publisher’s name, the price, the month and year of release, and possibly even the Comics Code Authority seal.

These boxes in the corner are called…corner boxes, logically enough, and they’re a longstanding comics tradition that has mostly vanished these days. But how did they get started in the first place, and where did they go?

To understand the point of the corner box, you need to picture comics being sold not on the beautifully spread-out display racks of your local comic book store — and certainly not online — but on newsstands and in spinner racks. When you can only see the top inch or so of the cover, that real estate becomes very valuable, and so of course the publisher wants to make it clear to the reader that Superman or Spider-Man is in this issue.

Comics are obsessed with minutiae, and so it’s not hard to track down the very first corner box, on 1939’s, uh, unfortunately problematic Action Comics #16.

The covers of Action Comics #16 and Detective Comics #38.

Action Comics shows a white soldier (French Foreign Legion? I'm not sure!) attacking an Arab soldier with a bayonet. There is a circle in the upper left hand corner with a drawing of Superman breaking free of chains.

Detective Comics shows Robin bursting through a frame that Batman is holding up. There is a circle in the upper lefthand corner with a drawing of Batman.
Detective Comics experimented with putting a little icon of Batman in the top center of the cover before finally putting him in the corner for the first time with #38.

At the time, Action Comics was an anthology; Superman was the lead feature, but there were multiple stories in the book, and sometimes National, the publisher that would eventually become DC, wanted to showcase them. But they still wanted readers to know that Superman was in the book. Hence the dawn of the corner box, or technically more like a corner ball at this point. This was gradually adopted by other anthologies, like Detective Comics, and used even when the star was featured on the cover already.

By the late ’40s, the corner box had been mostly dropped, though. And then, in the early ’60s, came Marvel, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man:

The covers to Fantastic Four #14 and The Amazing Spider-Man #2.

FF shows Namor from the back, squaring off against Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, and the Human Torch, with Invisible Girl tied up in the foreground. The corner box features the heads of all of the Fantastic Four.

Spider-Man shows Spidey fighting the Vulture, and an inset box shows him fighting the Tinkerer. The corner box features a closeup of his head.
We came so close to having a tradition of Namor’s butt front and center of every Marvel cover instead.

Fantastic Four #14, with a cover by Jack Kirby, featured the floating heads of its stars in the corner box, while The Amazing Spider-Man #2, with a cover by Steve Ditko, boasted a bust of ol’ Webhead. Both issues hit stands on February 12, 1963 and were cover dated May 1963 (comics were traditionally cover dated two to three months ahead so that they looked “new” for longer, and that tradition has stuck around), so there has been some debate over which artist came up with the idea, but when asked about it in the letter column of FF #18, Stan Lee attributed it to Ditko, and Kirby never contradicted him.

Part of a Marvel house ad featuring the Spider-Man corner box with a caption that reads: "Don't forget to look for one of the greatest trademarks in comics..."
Advertising how great your advertising is in your own comic is some real chutzpah.

Cover boxes thus became Marvel’s thing. Marvel was very, very savvy about branding right out of the gate, and they understood that these boxes could serve as branding both for the characters in the books, and for Marvel as a whole, since they were the only publisher consistently doing this. They even replicated that Spider-Man corner box in their house ads inside the books, reminding readers to “look for one of the greatest trademarks in comics.”

Marvel often used corner boxes to showcase the entire lineup for a team, which was probably why they used the floating heads gimmick so frequently — it was an easy way to show the entirety of the X-Men or the Avengers in a small space. They also used it to highlight the stars of anthology books, like Iron Man and Captain America in Tales of Suspense or Hulk and Namor in Tales to Astonish. Other times, they’d use it to feature the most popular character in a team book; the Thing, for example, gradually eclipsed his costars on Fantastic Four, which you’d think would make the guy a little less cranky.

Five corner boxes:

X-Men: Floating heads of Banshee, Colossus, Storm, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler.

Avengers: Floating heads of Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye.

Tales of Suspense: Full body shot of Iron Man and floating head of Captain America.

Tales to Astonish: Floating heads of Namor and Hulk.

Fantastic Four: Full body shot of the Thing.
Corner boxes from X-Men #101 (October 1976), Avengers #17 (June 1965), Tales of Suspense #95 (November 1967), Tales to Astonish #72 (October 1965), and Fantastic Four #116 (November 1971).

Once the tradition was firmly established, artists could play around with it. One of the most famous instances of this happened on the covers of The Incredible Hulk #292–300 in 1984. In the story, Bruce Banner started out in control of the Hulk’s body, only to gradually lose that control and grow increasingly wild. The corner boxes of those issues (drawn brilliantly by Al Milgrom) serve as a tiny flipbook that most readers picking it up on a monthly basis probably wouldn’t have noticed, but are incredible (zing!) when you look at them together.

Nine corner boxes from The Incredible Hulk. The first shows the Hulk in a lab coat, calmly pouring liquid from a vial into a beaker. Over the course of the following 8 corner boxes he spills the liquid, drops the containers, loses his temper, and tears off his coat and shirt until the last box shows a classic furious Hulk in tattered purple pants.
Hulk smash. Gradually, over a period of nine months.

A similar devolution happens to the title character on the corner boxes of the Magik miniseries in 1983, and even DC got into the game with an ever-shrinking hero on the corner boxes of Power of the Atom in 1989.

Four corner boxes from the Magik miniseries. The first shows Ilyana Rasputin as an innocent little girl. The second shows her still young, but wearing a superhero-esque outfit and holding a knife. The third shows her slightly older and more confident, and the fourth shows her as a teen, with a demon tail and unkempt hair, holding the knife aloft with a wicked smile.
These are objectively awesome but make me very sad at the same time. Poor Ilyana.

What’s that? Oh yeah, DC eventually got into corner boxes again, too…sort of. Though they spent the ’50s and most of the ’60s with just their logo in the corner, by the late ’60s they were experimenting with…let’s say corner iconography. Looking at Action Comics through the ’70s shows nearly a dozen different approaches, from various drawings of Superman to various logos to various combinations until they finally landed on the iconic “bullet logo” by itself, which I also have a lot of nostalgic love for in my heart, and which mostly stayed in place up to the 2000s. They’d also sometimes put Superman’s costar in the right hand corner, which is also perfectly good real estate.

Four corner "boxes" (really just areas) from Action Comics. The first shows a full-figure drawing of superman with a DC logo floating above his right shoulder. The second shows a much smaller Superman below a different DC logo. The third shows just Superman's head and chest below a third logo, and the fourth simply shows the DC "bullet logo," which is a circle with the letters "DC" inside at a 45 degree angle, surrounded by four evenly placed stars.
The upper left hand corner of Action Comics #381 (October 1969), #416 (September 1972), #424 (June 1973), and #481 (March 1978), featuring my beloved bullet logo. This is less than half of the different cover dresses DC used on this book alone over the course of the decade.

Other DC books flirted with corner boxes too: Adventure Comics charmingly showed off a few of Supergirl’s costumes during the period in the ’70s where she wore new reader-submitted outfits every issue, and Justice League America had some cute duos featured off and on in the late ’80s. But it was never really DC’s thing.

Five corner "areas," three from Adventure Comics and two from Justice League America.

The first Adventure Comics cover shows Supergirl in her classic Silver Age blue dress, with a DC logo over her right shoulder. The second shows her inside a circle and wearing a different blue dress with thigh high boots. The third shows her in the blue blouse and (miscolored on this cover) red shorts of her 1970s costume.

The first JLA cover shows Booster Gold and Blue Beetle standing below the DC bullet logo. The second shows Fire and Ice, also beneath the bullet.
Corner “boxes” from Adventure Comics #396 (August 1970), #400 (December 1970), and #413 (December 1971), and Justice League America #43 (October 1990) and #47 (February 1991).

Basically, Marvel took something DC pioneered during WWII that had faded from popularity, put a twist on it, went all in on some bombastic branding, and made the whole concept so iconically theirs that even when DC tried it again, it looked like they were copying Marvel. And then all of it fizzled anyway during the ’90s speculator boom and bust, and today it’s a nostalgic relic that a very niche audience loves passionately.

In other words, the history of corner boxes is basically the history of superhero comics, but only one inch tall. I’m so charmed by this, I can’t even tell you.

These days, corner boxes are a rare, nostalgic reference, though last summer artist Mark Brooks started campaigning to bring them back, sparking articles and YouTube videos homaging the tradition. (I am particularly indebted to this fascinating deep dive for this article.) Comics are so in love with their own history that I wouldn’t be surprised to see a return, or at the very least a month of themed covers from Marvel. But whether they come back for good or not, we’ll always have Spidey’s giant head.

Finally, I will leave you with what is unquestionably the greatest corner box art of all time, from the cover of Archie Meets Punisher, drawn by Stan Goldberg:

The cover of Archie Meets the Punisher, showing a school dance with the Archie gang and the Punisher looking comically out of place in the foreground. The corner box has both the Archie and Marvel logos, and a drawing that combines Archie's face, complete with freckles and cross-hatched hair, with the skull and elongated teeth of the Punisher's logo.
Honestly comics have gone straight downhill from here.

Beautiful.

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