Hip-hop has always been a mix of the real and the fantastical, with MC’s blending their harsh realities with unforgettable rhymes that amaze and, at times, exaggerate. It’s no surprise that these sensibilities mesh well with the world of comics, and why rappers like Wu-Tang Clan, Logic, and many others have been fans since childhood.
Before becoming a box office juggernaut in its own right, Marvel was responsible for broadening the imagination of children and adults alike with characters like Spider-Man and the sprawling X-Men universe. The stories of these heroes are firmly rooted in many of the same tropes of our favorite rappers; it feels like they were cut from the same cloth. In celebration of Marvel and Urban Legends’ new collaboration of bringing hip-hop variant covers to life on vinyl, here’s a breakdown of the comics that inspired the covers.
Curtis Jackson may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth like Tony Stark – but his reputation for being cutthroat inside and out of the boardroom is enough to inspire this cover based on his multi-platinum-selling album Get Rich Or Die Tryin. Drawn by Brian Stelfreeze (Black Panther, Shadow Of The Bat), this variant cover for The Invincible Iron Man’s first issue was a homage to hip-hop’s real Iron Man: 50 Cent. The Invincible Iron Man was a reboot of sorts for the character, reflecting a lot of the characterization of Tony Stark’s movie counterpart (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and introducing a few new villians in his rogue’s gallery. Though 50 and Stark’s backstories couldn’t be more dissimilar, this cover connects very deeply to the one constant in both of their lives; the amount of foes they’ve gained throughout their careers, and how that’s defined the people they became. The Invincible Iron Man’s major storylines involve Stark facing the demons of his past – and the threats of present-day; 50 Cent’s motto is crushing anyone who has ever slighted him, which has become one of hip-hop’s most riveting revenge stories.
After being hit with a booby trap that left a hole in his chest, Stark was kidnapped and forced to create weapons of mass destruction. After creating a reactor within his own chest to stop the shrapnel and donning a suit of armor to escape, Stark took on the mantle of Iron Man – vowing to curtail the development of dangerous weapons from the people he used to sell them to. 50 Cent’s feuds with rappers like Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Jay-Z, Diddy, and even boxer Floyd Mayweather, have come to define his run, but are also rooted in his life before rap. As a trash-talker from Jamaica, Queens, 50 burned a lot of bridges during his early days as a rapper – calling out rivals on songs like “Ghetto Quran.” His rhymes caught up to his reality, and he was shot nine times. 50 survived and was inspired to change his life by taking his rap career more seriously; soon after, he was signed to a label deal by rap legends Dr. Dre and Eminem. Their rises to the top were marred by tragedy, but Iron Man became one of the most recognizable superheroes of all time, and 50 Cent is a bonafide rap legend who has shattered records on the charts.
Replacing LL Cool J’s gold rings with a fitting pair of brass knuckles, Tim Bradstreet’s (Punisher, Hellblazer, Blade) homage to Queens-born MC’s fourth album is a statement piece for Frank Castle, also known as the vigilante named The Punisher. Spanning over dozens of different books and interpretations – one thing remains constant about The Punisher: his strict adherence to eliminating mobsters and criminals from all walks of life. After his family was murdered and he was left for dead, Castle used his various skills as an accomplished martial artist, military veteran, and weapons expert to brutally extract revenge on his foes. The Punisher, as a series, was a novel title during its inception in the 70s because of the titular character’s willingness to torture, maim, and kill people – which was a far cry from Spider-Man apprehending criminals with webs, or Captain America knocking them out until the authorities arrived. Audiences and critics balked at the violence in the books, which attempted to connect the grief and PTSD of a man struck by tragedy and the lengths he would go to in order to protect the innocent. How does this connect to the man that has “Ladies Love” in his initials? Because like the pure mayhem that emblazoned the pages of The Punisher, the lyrical brutality of Mama Said Knock You Out signaled a stark change in the way LL Cool J was received by his peers.
LL Cool J’s career began to decline in the early ’90s as rap started to move onto a new generation. His inspiration for Mama Said Knock You Out came from within his own family – his grandmother, to be exact – who told him to “knock out” his critics. Much like the cover that pays homage to this period in his career – Castle, like LL, faced a reintroduction to his character that was a brutal and sometimes self reflective twist on a classic story. While LL implored us to not call this album “a comeback” on the album’s title track – it served the same purpose, waving a middle finger at critics, providing more hit records, and most of all, reinstalling the narrative that he could murder any rapper in the game, lyrically. Even if their overall viewpoints on punishment are… a bit different, LL Cool J and The Punisher are staples in their respective genres for being at the top of their games at all times, regardless of what the critics say.
GZA’s seminal album Liquid Swords is a special piece for artist Denys Cowan (Wolverine, Silver Surfer) – he’s behind the original cover art. It was only right to bring him back on board with longtime collaborator Bill Sienkiewicz (Moon Knight, New Mutants) to provide their flip of the cover for Marvel’s Contest of Champions. Recreating the artwork using Iron Man in the place of GZA, this variant depicts the desolate remnants of Dr. Doom’s Doomworld from 2015’s Secret Wars story arc as the background for a brand new Contest of Champions. This series, an updated version from an earlier arc from 1982, has intergalactic antagonists named The Collector and Grandmaster making some of the greatest superheroes and villains face off for the right to return home. If this sounds like a plot from a sci fi meets kung-fu epic, then you’ll know it’s right up the alley of GZA and his Wu-Tang Clan cohorts. This limited 10 issue series was the ultimate team-up arc – continuing the rich narrative from the well-received Secret Wars plot and extending the lore that was developed there.
GZA’s Liquid Swords doesn’t stray too far from the broad beats of the Contest of Champions arc, which is why the Cowan and Sienkiewicz flip of it works so well. Heavily inspired by Kung Fu and the different philosophies he had studied, GZA’s iconic solo album will always be remembered for its distinct sound, which was produced almost entirely by RZA. With stories about survival in the inner-city over beats layered with martial arts samples, Liquid Swords has a legacy of being the quintessential Wu Tang Clan solo album – a deft, lyrically hefty foray with one of hip-hop’s greatest minds.