In the waning days of a year which saw mainstream relaunches aplenty and an indie comics scene that’s seemingly stronger than ever, the staff of Comics Bulletin convened to select the finest the industry had to offer. Today, we’re counting down our top ten artists of 2011.
Scott Snyder took the world by storm in 2011 with the pulse-pounding second half to his run on Detective Comics, setting the scene for a number of memorable and wildly unsettling images. Quite a few of those images, however, owe their power to disturb to the incomparable artwork of Jock, Snyder’s perfect partner in his never-ending mission to haunt our thoughts when the lights go out. Whether they be severed limbs or human corpses stuffed into killer whale carcasses, who better than Jock to bring to life the gruesome underbelly of Gotham City?
Not to mention the way the guy draws Batman. Here’s a trick for making beautiful, beautiful funny books: take the character with the best silhouette in comics and turn him over to the industry’s preeminent master of shadow. We’ve all seen those squinty, white eye slits or a set of gritted teeth gazing out from within the dark outline of a pointy-eared cowl, but rarely have we seen them done so well.
With such a striking output from Jock in the past year, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why his name is absent from the current batch of DC Comics solicitations. Hey, um, DiDio, you wanna get on that sometime soon?
9. Skottie Young
This weekend’s box office numbers aside, Ethan Hunt’s got nothing on Skottie Young when it comes to taking on impossible missions. How else could you describe the task of drawing the characters of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories — whose likenesses as seen in the 1939 film have been burned permanently into the public consciousness with a Technicolor branding iron — and making them entirely your own? Yet that’s exactly what Young has done, along with writer Eric Shanower, for the better part of three years in Marvel’s adaptations of the classic Baum novels. In his hands, your memories of Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” are destined to become as fleeting as one of the actress’s many egregiously short marriages.
Crafting a colorful cast with an unlimited range of expressiveness, Young has proven himself a virtuoso at portraying personality on the page. In 2011’s Ozma of Oz and Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz — the third and fourth installments in the series — he’s shown no signs of slowing down, endearing generations new and old alike to those famous pedestrians on the yellow brick road. The same talent is regularly on display in a number of covers drawn for Marvel’s superhero line, an artistic effort that only disappoints upon the discovery that Young’s brilliant work often doesn’t adorn the interior pages as well.
8. Nate Simpson
This past summer I found myself rooting against Nate Simpson, and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant position to have to defend. Mr. Simpson, responsible for Image’s magnificent Nonplayer, was a nominee for the Russ Manning Award, comic art’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, and was up against my dear friend and collaborator David Marquez, nominated for his work on our book Syndrome. Honestly, I wanted my guy to win. But as Dave and I informally polled friends on the floor of the San Diego Comic-Con, it became quickly apparent that — despite the acclaim our book had generated in a year of release — there was no more convincing or promising debut in the previous twelve months than Nonplayer.
People — fans, industry veterans and skeptical upstarts alike — simply salivated at the prospect of more comics from this new creator, who managed across a mere 25 pages of artwork to build not one, but two distinct and fully formed worlds: the lush mindscape of an all-consuming, fantasy-skewing MMORPG and the futuresque city in which the game is played by a disaffected young tamale deliveryperson. Simpson caps the issue with a storytelling feat — an impossibly detailed double-page street scene giving way, literally polygon-by-polygon, to the virtual world, reminding the reader that the story’s stakes will straddle both universes.
Fittingly, at the Eisner ceremony, nobody was surprised to see Simpson take home the Manning, and the long wait for Nonplayer #2 officially began. There’s still no word on when that second issue will arrive, but I intend to be first in line when it does.
7. Paolo Rivera
Considering that his most high-profile work prior to this year was the Marvel Mythos one-shots with Paul Jenkins, Paolo Rivera isn’t exactly a household name in comics (yet!). But, GOD. DAMN. All it took was a few issues of the Daredevil relaunch for him to make his mark as a truly awesome artist.
So far, Mark Waid’s Daredevil has been about delivering a classic-style superhero storytelling — not some kind of throwback or nostalgia trip, but an enjoyable comic that doesn’t make readers beg their friends and loved ones to hide all the sharp objects in the house. Waid’s solid scripting is fully aided and abetted by Rivera, whose amazingly rendered characters are animatedly expressive and who adds his own stamp on the hero’s trademark “radar sense.” Moreover, he manages to convey mood, not just moodiness. In this month’s Daredevil #7 alone, he’s capable of, at one point, having Matt Murdock grinningly receive mistletoe kisses from two girls at once, and later having him emerge battered from the wreckage of a destroyed school bus — both with equal adeptness while still feeling like the work of the same artist.
So far, Rivera’s been exchanging Daredevil art duties with Marcos Martin, which would send me into a deep, dark depression to rival (the old) Matt Murdock’s, were I in Rivera’s place. That said, Paolo Rivera is capable of going toe-to-toe with Marcos Martin and still look good in the process, and that more than anything else is a sign of a great artist in the making.
6. Francis Manapul
For the first time since… possibly e
ver, Francis Manapul has me buying a comic primarily for the art. And not in one of those teenage-Image-Comics-reader-from-the-90’s ways where I’m experiencing mindless infatuation with the number of folds in Spawn’s cape or desperately holding out hope for a Caitlin Fairchild nip slip. No, Manapul is a straight-up artiste, bringing a classic superhero sensibility to a post-Frank Quitely world and making The Flash into one of the finest- and most intriguing-looking books on the market.
Having already solidified his status as an A-lister while producing panels for Geoff Johns, Manapul is turning even more heads now that he’s writing Flash himself, along with colorist Brian Buccellato. In fact, it’s tempting to think the pair took to job solely for the purpose of giving themselves awesome things to draw. From the mind-blowing visual representations of Barry Allen’s Speed Force-enhanced thought process to big budget action sequences like in the one in which Barry prevents a plane crash by vibrating an entire jumbo jet through a solid object, the only proper way to read The Flash these days is with your mouth agape.
5. Cliff Chiang
It’s never easy getting the Wonder Woman formula right. Many of the mighty have tried to scale that Olympus and rolled back down the hill faster than Sisyphus. Despite this, the character actually has a history of some really great art that is definitive of several eras, including greats like Ross Andru, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Giordano, George Perez, Mike Deodato, John Byrne (a lengthy run in which his stuff was past his prime but still pretty gorgeous), Phil Jiminez and now, Cliff Chiang.
Chiang always brings a fresh perspective to DC, a mix of dark humor with a level of cartoonishness that is slightly skewed and always fun. Who would have thought he’s be the ideal fit for Brian Azzarello’s new myth-heavy take on Diana? But these aren’t the same myths writers usually trot out for the embattled Amazon, and Chiang makes the capricious old gods deadly, majestic and outright bizarre in equal measure. Whether it’s an elfin Hermes, a sexualized (and gigantic) Strife, or a vengeful Hera, Chiang’s mix of poignant detail and graphic simplicity creates a new mythology for the divine princess. And while Diana’s world has changed utterly in the New 52, Chiang makes sure we recognize the familiar woman underneath her latest costume update. She remains the Amazonian warrior who holds her own with the Justice League, not to mention the very gods of Olympus.
4. Becky Cloonan
Despite being a critic myself, I tend to agree with Martin Mull’s famous proclamation that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s a sentiment that can be fit to every art form (and the odd history of the quote shows that it probably has) where critics are forced to convey emotional reactions and gut feelings via bothersome words, and comics are no different. But where Mull and I perhaps differ is in the negative implication of his statement; why can’t you dance about architecture?
Taking it from that angle, I like to cross contaminate my art forms as much as possible. I have no problem labeling David Lapham and Kyle Baker’s Deadpool MAX as Odd Future in superhero form or dubbing Nonplayer’s hyper-detail as the illustrative version of the lush soundscapes of Baths and the new wave of MPC heroes. And in my own weird little world of pop culture hybrids, Becky Cloonan is peak era Sebadoh, sharp and brittle but sturdy, personal and universal all at once.
Which would make 2011 Cloonan’s own 1993, with Wolves as her Bubble and Scrape, a work that merged together all the promise and ferocity of what she’d done before with a newfound clarity of vision and a sweet pop sensibility. Cloonan has been one of comics’ most underrated talents for some time, but Wolves appears to have broken down the doors of acknowledgment once and for all, leading to an eagerly anticipated new team-up with Brian Wood (Cloonan’s own J. Mascis?) on a new Conan series and landing her some of the best reviews of her career. Even Cloonan’s sadly cancelled Marvel mini, Victor Von Doom, which would have paired her with Nick Spencer, functioned as a sign of how much Cloonan’s star rose this year.
Cloonan made 2011 a breakout year, but what was perhaps most impressive was that, throughout, it was clear that it was just a warm-up for 2012. Rather than sticking within a comfort zone, Cloonan is a talent who’s only happy while moving, pursuing loftier ambitions and testing the limits of her aesthetic with each new project.
3. Marcos Martin
Helping reinvigorate a waning property, Marcos Martin injected the pages of Daredevil this year with an exuberance that perfectly matched the upbeat scripting of Mark Waid. Gone were the incessant shadows and downtrodden scenery that had long plagued the pages of Daredevil’s post-Miller world. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing and, for Matt Murdock, this meant decades worth of consuming shit sandwiches. Not even the Incredible Hulk himself could claim the mass on Daredevil’s shoulders, burdened by the weight of a thousand lives negatively impacted because of ol’ Hornhead’s very existence. The many resultant morose stories were reflected in shadowed dreariness, usually accompanied by lots of rain.
In 2011, Waid and Martin spray-washed the muck from Daredevil and made him grateful for his lot in life. Martin’s art showcased the graceful athleticism of a happy-go-lucky hero, enjoying his role as a superhero. Martin’s been turning heads with fabulous art for years, primarily on Batgirl: Year One, collaborations with Brian K. Vaughan and a dozen or so issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Elegance, composition and dynamics are Martin’s trademarks. With a keen eye for characterization, Martin has the ability to create beautiful, uncluttered eye candy. Daredevil hasn’t been in as good of hands since the beginning of Brubaker’s run.
2. Stuart Immonen
It wasn’t until 2004 that I got my first taste of the work of Stuart Immonen. I was reading Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four from the start and enjoying what was going on through issues 1-6. Suddenly,
a new creative team took over in issue #7 — Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen. When that happened, I thought to myself, “my isn’t this nice.” The next time I really paid attention to Stuart Immonen was when he and Ellis teamed up again, this time for a series called NextWave: Agents of H.A.T.E. It was during this 12-issue run that my love affair for all things Immonen really and truly began.
But this article is about 2011, and if we’re talking 2011 and Stuart Immonen, then we have to talk about Marvel’s big-event, Fear Itself. In that series, Immonen showed his incredible versatility, capturing expansive cosmic landscapes in a breathtaking manner that emphasized their vastness and beauty, while at the same time capturing the emotional breadth of the human face and its ability to convey fear, sadness, awe or disdain. The fact that he so deftly dealt with the huge number of characters involved in this companywide crossover alone should make him one of the top artists of 2011. Add to this the facts that his lines are always clean, his layouts are always spot-on, his pacing is always impeccable and his style is so distinctive, and you absolutely have to put Stuart Immonen in the top two of 2011.
1. J. H. Williams III
Batwoman #4 was one of the most shocking books of the year, and not even because of a sudden plot twist or story revelation. While it was a pretty good issue, I noticed it ended sooner than expected even though there still appeared to be a ton of pages left to go. Those ending pages, however, were nothing but ads. Then, I realized what happened — Batwoman #4 had so many beautiful double-page spreads that DC didn’t have any room to fit in the ads, so they just dropped them in the back.
J.H. Williams III is more than just a guy who can draw people (especially pretty girls in capes) really, really well. Over the past decade, he’s grown from the guy who drew a rockin’ “Cowboy Justice League” comic back in the day into a veritable master of page layouts, using both single and double pages to show off just what makes comic books special over other mediums in a time where so many comics are fully content just aping the style of movies. That is, when they’re not glorified pitches for movies themselves.
The double-page spread, in particular, has become Williams’ shtick. Too often, two-pagers feel like a writer running down the clock and giving himself a break by making the artist draw something really big, but Williams uses the spread as a canvas for more involved storytelling, conveying information through unconventional but often symmetrical layouts that arrange his panels in ways that involve more than just the basic ordering of rectangles. Williams’ pages are so good, he could release each of them as posters, sit back and watch the money roll in.
So, yeah, comics need J.H. Williams III more than J.H. Williams III needs comics, and we’re lucky to have him for as long as he’s willing to deal with us. As the best comic book artist of 2011, he provides a valuable example for anyone who draws stuff that goes in order — not that everyone needs to draw ornate pages where everything happens within the confines of a character’s logo, but that everyone should be thinking beyond rectangles and gutter space in order to really explore how to present art on the comic book page.
Agree with our picks? Or do they make you want to perform your own impression of Mr. Zsasz? Either way, let us know in the comments section, and don’t forget to check out the rest of our Best of 2011 selections, linked below!