by Molly Jane KremerClyde Hall, Brendan Hodgdon and Jarrod Jones. Undercover is our opportunity to lovingly gaze upon gorgeous works from magnificent artists. From Francis Manapul’s festive variant for ‘Action Comics’ #1005 to Karl Kerschl’s variant for ‘The Flash’, here’s what we’re loving this week.

Undercover: Superman subs for Santa as Noe-El, Last Elf of Krypton, in Manapul's 'Action' variant

Batgirl #29 by Joshua Middleton (DC)

MJ: There are only so many accolades left for me to heap upon cover artist Joshua Middleton. And yet here I am again, after months and months and months of his multiple, breathtaking variants, about to write about his, er, breathtaking variant for Batgirl #29. It’s enough to severely tax a writer in finding yet more ways to say “magnificent.” (Resplendent? Splendiferous?)

This month, Middleton does a literal riff on the Batgirl storyline “Art of the Crime” with a grand painting knocked askew just within our frame, replete with a not-so-discrete spatter of blood along the bottom edge. The painting itself (of course) captures Batgirl, and Middleton again utilizes his impressive realism chops in the depiction. His use of lighting here is meticulous, resulting in another incredibly life-like representation of Babs who, despite the usual costume duds, also sports a casual cosplay of Lady Justice. The scales hang delicately between thumb and middle finger — pinky up — contrasting with her stout and able hold on the sword below. Perhaps her domino mask is a not-so-apt substitute for the blindfold. Who can say?

The irony of a vigilante caught in the trappings of Justice notwithstanding, this is a piece of artwork resplendent (see what I did there?) in both detail and subtext, proving yet again that Joshua Middleton is the one to beat when it comes to this ol’ cover game.

Undercover: Superman subs for Santa as Noe-El, Last Elf of Krypton, in Manapul's 'Action' variant

Amazing Spider-Man #10 by Phil Jimenez (Marvel)

BFH: Yes, this is indeed an Amazing Spider-Man cover. Nope, he’s not anywhere to be found on it. But what you will find is a tremendous homage to a top-tier X-Men run from one of its artists, Phil Jimenez. It is a stunning tableau, one that captures so many of the grace notes that made the Grant Morrison New X-Men era such a delight for so many. There are glimpses of many fan-favorite characters from Morrison’s run, and not just the central team members like Wolverine and Beast (both of whom Jimenez succinctly and beautifully represents here). Even newer characters like Fantomex and Xorn are winked at, along with the imposing Magneto statue signifying the doomed nation of Genosha.

Of course, all of these details are built around one central element, perhaps the most significant of Morrison’s run. A Phoenix-powered Jean Grey looms with great malevolence over the regal, couture-friendly Emma Frost, who has a fallen Cyclops literally brought to heel beneath her. This relationship dynamic, one that shaped the X-Men for over a decade after, is one of Morrison’s great legacies with the Merry Mutants. It’s fitting that Jimenez gave it central billing on this cover. That Jimenez also continues to be one of the all-time greats when it comes to illustrating beautiful people also reminds us of the subliminal sex appeal of this particular love triangle.

But even with all the imposing nods to tragedy and relationship psychodrama, there is one other detail that Jimenez chose to use that I find very satisfying. It’s the long line of mutants, the actual new X-Men, mustering in the background behind Emma and Scott. They serve as a reminder of Morrison’s other major X-legacy, of his expansion of the mutant world and his emphasis on them as a collective and a community. And Jimenez, even amongst all the fire and anguish, has made sure to keep that aspect alive in this piece.

Undercover: Superman subs for Santa as Noe-El, Last Elf of Krypton, in Manapul's 'Action' variant

Action Comics #1005 by Francis Manapul. (DC)

CH: Superman subs for Santa as Noe-El, Last Elf of Krypton in an endearing holiday variant from artist Francis Manapul. You can virtually bask in the hearth-warmed Rebirth: Trinity glow emanating from this composition. His approach is traditional cool, making visions of Cardy, Byrne, and Nguyen seasonal cover plums dance in our heads.

Manapul’s signature outlines are reserved for delineating the Man of Steel, his sack full of toys, and the two framing foreground kids. This contrasts the almost lineless Superman uniform itself. There he allows the colors to claim their own familiar fields and creates not only an iconic image, but an ornamental one. This would make the best Hallmark Keepsake decoration ever.

The spatter technique is convincing, depicting the sort of floating, feathery snowfalls which add enchantment to holiday photos. The children’s faces reflect the emotions of the moment, ranging from excited to awestruck, while Kal-El is pleasingly pensive. He’s caught savoring this rare moment in a day filled with more harrowing fare but wishing there was no need for him to be the bearer of gifts for kids who would otherwise go without. His features mirror those of the season: Kindly, forgiving, charitable.

And look, even the snowman’s waving! Wait. That may be one of the kid’s arms, given the other snowman limb we can see is, fittingly, made from tree limbs. Doesn’t matter, because the effect of the beckoning Frosty fits the feels this cover delivers. Snugly, like your little brother trapped in a snowsuit that won’t let him put his arms down.

Undercover: Superman subs for Santa as Noe-El, Last Elf of Krypton, in Manapul's 'Action' variant

The Flash #59 by Karl Kerschl. (DC)

JJ: The Fastest Man Alive, here, there, and everywhere. With elongated limbs and impossible angles, Karl Kerschl’s variant for The Flash #59 is a magnificent manga blast of energy. The Flash zooms beyond panels, beyond reason, towards some horrifying calamity. Does he have a plan? Check the details: Kerschl sneaks in a single ‘u’, a sweat droplet, on our hero’s cheek that betrays his mask of stoic confidence. The Flash is running towards a future that even he might not be able to outrun.

But don’t confuse reticence with cowardice. This is still The Flash we’re dealing with. And whether he’s caught zipping along on a glossy DC page or this absolute beauty of a manga sheet, Barry Allen thrives. It’s his power that drives him to delirious speeds — Kerschl’s Ben-Day dots work overtime to contain the temporal furnace that is the Speed Force — but it’s bravery that makes him a hero. The cover itself tilts this dream-fuel page, as if it were we who were holding this imaginary manga askew in pure astonishment, bringing this fantasy variant to a newfound life. It’s Kerschl. It’s brilliant.

Don’t forget to share your favorite covers from this week in the comments section below.

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