In the age before elaborately painted comic book covers (and interiors, for that matter), seeing "realistically" rendered versions of your favorite comic book characters was an incredibly rare treat. In fact, due to the no-frills budgets of the average comic book, the only place you were likely to see the magic of multiple light sources was on the covers of more expensive magazines and paperback books.
Some of the most fondly remembered of these painted covers were Marvel's series of origin reprints, published by Fireside Books (click on the covers for a larger view). Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) featured the first stories of Marvel's biggest stars paired with one of their modern adventures, along with Stan Lee's reflections. It's sequel, Son of Origins (1975) stuck to the same format as it explored the beginnings of Marvel's second-tier heroes, while The Superhero Women (1977) focused on...well, you can probably figure it out.
However, as great as these covers are (all illustrated by jazzy John Romita Sr), my absolute favorite remains the third volume of the origin series:
BRING ON THE BAD GUYS (1976)
It's title obviously the inspiration for my looks at lousy comic book supervillains, this cover celebrated all that was good about being bad in the Marvel Universe. Looking like the poster of a movie I'd likely never see (at least until relatively recently), Bring On The Bad Guys reminded me why I loved these villains (and their heroic opponents) so much. Yeah, the "by Stan Lee" tag is poorly placed, but that minor nitpick is more Fireside's doing than Romita's...and easily overlooked when surrounded by such slick, cinematic artwork.
Of course, something this good doesn't always jump right out of the pencil and onto the page. Click on the image to the left to check out Romita's initial sketch for the cover. Still cool, of course, but obviously a bit too "Doom-centered" to show off the other evildoers effectively. For more interesting "behind the scenes" stuff from Romita's spectacular career, be sure to add John Romita, And All That Jazz! to your Christmas list. I can't recommend it high enough.