When Evangelical Outpost began this “Expert Witness” series he started with Bill Wallo of Wallo World on graphic novels. Bill did a great job, and I, in a vain attempt at humor, left a trackback to my usual Saturday post on “Comic Art,” with a rather petulant link back to that post. As a result, Joe has quite kindly and needlessly offered to allow me to do this post on comic books — but given how I love the medium, I cannot turn the opportunity down.
So first I should address the difference between graphic novels and comic books. The short answer is often not much. If you go to a book store these days you will generally find a section dedicated to graphic novels; however, most of what you will find there is soft cover compilations of the numerous comic books that comprise a story arc. It’s kind of like someone took the old RKO serials and put them on a single real, editing out only the credits associated with each episode.
Comic books are stories, told graphically and episodically. A graphic novel is also a story told graphically, but when well done, it has a different narrative structure, lacking the numerous cliffhangers and gimmicks designed pull you back for the next episode. It’s a subtle differentiation that obviously most people are oblivious to since so much of what is sold as graphic novels is really just a compilation.
Here I am addressing comic books, and most importantly, art in comic books. I am concentrating on the graphical part of the medium for one very good reason — I buy comics far more because of how they look than the story they tell. So what do I look for?
Far and away the most important element of comic art is storytelling. The art should tell the story and the narration, dialogue and thought balloons should just embellish it. To my way of thinking that line is what differentiates a comic from an illustrated short story or novel. Where that line is is argued often and loudly, but it’s in there somewhere.
The next thing I look for is what I call “richness.” In this day and age most kids come to comics through animation, when I was a kid, it was the opposite. That has created some changes I am not real happy with. Animation involves thousands of images, so an artist endeavors to render that art with as few lines and as simple backgrounds as possible. Comics, by contrast, involve only hundred of images and should give the artist more opportunity to add detail and emphasis to the art. Unfortunately, as kids buy comics because they look like their TV cousins, youth oriented comics are now appearing with that same simplistic art. I understand the need to capture the kids as a market, but I hope they do not end up finding the richer stuff ugly as they grow.
Finally, I want to discuss how the art is produced. The evolution of printing technology has resulted in the color palette for comics growing to infinity — to the point that some high end books are now completely painted, lacking the traditional pencil and ink lines that comics have had since their inception. Alex Ross is a paint artist in huge demand and very popular. Mostly he does covers, because to do a whole book that way is very expensive. I realize I am a bit of a curmudgeon here, but I don’t love it. As I start to cite those that I consider the best artists below, they are defined by their ink lines. To my way of thinking, the ink line is the essence of comic art, a painting of a comic character may be beautiful (which many of Ross’ are), but it is not, in my never to be humble opinion, comic art.
So now I want to turn to notable artists. First I want to present the “Honorable Mentions.” these are some very good artists, presented in no particular order. I will link each name to some related material, mostly without comment. Some of these people are most prolific and many influential. I like all of them, but in the end one must decide some better and best. Gene Colan — John Buscema — Jim Steranko — Joe Kubert — Gil Kane — Neal Adams — Mike Mignola — Carmine Infantino — John Romita Sr. — John Romita Jr. — George Perez (his recent work on Justice League*Avengers was spectacular) — Bill Sienkiewicz (best known for “Elektra: Assassin,” my favorite was his creation of the character Warlock in “The New Mutants”) — John Byrne (his reinvention of Superman “Man of Steel” is one of the more important comic miniseries ever done) — Steve Ditko (the man that designed Spider-man — ‘Nuff Said!)
Now I’ll turn my attention to my top twelve with comments and illustration, leading up to my personal #1.
Peter, and his partner in crime Kevin Eastman, got very greedy with their breakout creation – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Those characters have been commoditized, infantilized, cartoonized, and merchandised to the point of non-recognition. But the original small, black-and-white, parody-of-other-comics was quite good. If you can get them, and it’s not easy, a look at TMNT #1, first printing, is a wonderful look at how comics should be done.
Burden’s creation – The Flaming Carrot – is the silliest superhero ever invented. Burden’s art somehow matches the character perfectly. The somewhat offbeat appearance, the scratchy lines, the muted colors just fit.
Cerebus, Sim’s creation, has had some color mutations lately, but was in it’s origin a grayscale comic. That made it somewhat unique and quite enjoyable. Using grays to indicate depth and shadows and so forth, Sim combined the great storytelling of just pen lines and the richness of color.
When allowed, Howard is nearly pornographic, and he is a neighbor. He is best known for his signature title “American Flagg,” my personal favorite is his 1985 miniseries of the classic radio character “The Shadow.” His art is some of the more easily recognizable out there, and he has been quite prolific over the years, even doing illustrations for TV show “Tales From The Crypt.”
Will Eisner is certainly one of the three or four most influential comic creators ever. I’ve never heard any other creator pass out kudos that did not include Eisner. He is best known for his long running book “The Spirit.” He may be the most generous creator ever. You just cannot talk about great comic artists without talking about Will Eisner.
Gibbons is the artist half of the creative team (writer: Alan Moore) that created what is likely the second most influential comic miniseries of all time — “The Watchmen.” The series was ground-breaking in its depiction of heroes as people with problems like all of us — divorce, unfaithfulness, alcoholism…. Gibbons dark and shadow filled art perfectly matched the tone of the work. This series changed comic books, likely forever.
Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” is the most influential comic miniseries ever done. It has spawned two movies, and reset the character firmly back into the night from which he sprang. I’ll be honest, I don’t love Miller’s art — it’s ugly, but it’s purposefully ugly. He writes about the darkest and ugliest our world has to offer, and the art reflects that. His “Sin City” series (and the incredibly faithful movie) reflect that even more than his Batman stuff.
Todd is probably best known at this point for his maverick ways, how he has transformed compensation in the comics industry and “Spawn.” But his best work was on Spiderman. He revolutionized the character, and he came to my notice by one simple visual innovation — those little knots on Spidey’s webbing. So good was he at the webbing, that I am convinced it is the origin of Spawn’s chains — they are similar visual elements and add just a great amount of drama to the image.
Considered by many to be the definitive Thor artist, I have to modify that to say he was the best to draw the character, but not necessarily the book — more on that later. He did indeed make a huge splash with his run on Thor and they are among some of the best books ever done. His introduction of Thor’s superpower doppleganger “Beta Ray Bill” almost stole the title from its decades long lead and title character, and Bill did look awfully good.
Jim Lee has, to my mind, become the definitive renderer of the Batman. He has done marvelous work on many titles for a long time now, but his recent work with writer Jeff Loeb, on the “Hush” run in Batman was stupendous. He managed to capture the darkness of the character without the ugliness of Miller. The results were pleasant to look at and very enjoyable to read. I think it will be a long time before anyone does Batman better.
I came very close to making Mr. Kojima number 1. He is the master story teller. The Japanese manga series “Lone Wolf and Cub” was serialized in American by First Comics and it absolutely blew me away. Bold black-and-white, and virtually without dialogue, narrations, or thought balloons, one never struggled to understand the story or the impact of the moments depicted. He could communicate more with his pen than most artists can with a full battery of tools from brushes to computers.
Jack “King” Kirby
Jack Kirby, creator (with Stan Lee, though Jack did a lot more than most people think) of virtually the entire Marvel Universe, he is the standard by which all other comic art is measured. The bold ink lines, and the amazing backgrounds are his trademark. Most people think his best work was the Fantastic Four, but I an not so sure. I love his Captain America, especially because he was able to draw Cap in both the Gold and Silver age of comics, an incredible feat. But it is his Thor that caught my eye when I was but a child. As I said above, Walt Simonson draws Thor himself better than almost anyone, but Kirby’s books were just spectacular. No one has ever drawn the fabled kingdom of Asgard like Kirby, and no one ever will. He did similar things when the FF would travel to places like the Negative Zone, but it is Asgard and the Rainbow Bridge that is cemented in my memory.
As Wallo pointed out, graphic storytelling long ago left behind it’s childishness. I have concentrated on art here, not only because of it’s appeal, but because when one learns to appreciate the telling of the story as much as the story itself, comics can really open up to you. Anytime anyone decides who are and are not “the best” artists, debate will rage. I have no doubt I will be called a fool and an idiot. In the end this comes down to taste. This is about who I like and think is good. My goal is to give people who do not necessarily have an opinion about these things some pointers on where it might be good to start. So those of you that disagree, by all means, I encourage you to do so, but please try to be courteous about it. If we do not draw new fans of all ages into comics, this great medium could die. If we argue to hard, we just look geeky and exclusive.
Thanks Joe for this marvelous opportunity. I try to write something about Comic Art every Saturday on Blogotional. Maybe you’d like to drop by some time and see more.