Expert Witness
John Schroeder on Comic Books

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 ColanJohn BuscemaJim SterankoJoe KubertGil KaneNeal AdamsMike MignolaCarmine InfantinoJohn 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 Laird

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.

Bob Burden

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.

Dave Sim

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.

Howard Chaykin

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

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.

Dave Gibbons

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.

Frank Miller

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 McFarlane

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.

Walt Simonson

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

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.

Goseki Kojima

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.

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • Phil Aldridge

    I had a copy of Eastman and Laird’s Ninja Turtles comic book/graphic novel containing three to five stories. It covered the origin of Shredder and the Rat (whose name escapes me), the first battle between the Turtles and Shredder, the scientist who created those little robots that hunted rats, and an alien-robot chair that tried to kill people.
    I remember, as a kid, being fairly disturbed by the artwork and themes in the graphic novel. It was nothing like the light-hearted cartoon that I loved. It was gritty, bloody, and raw.

  • John Schroeder (Blogotional)

    The rat’s name is “Splinter” and yes the early stuff was far more gritty. It really wasn’t kid stuff. I was an adult when they came out and really appreciated the art. Non-fans do not realize, but at the time the hottest selling comics in the mainstream featured ninja traditions (Frank Miller’s Ronin and the first Wolverine solo miniseries), teeenagers (Teen Titans, X-Men) and Mutants (X-Men, Thus the title. Gritty as it was, it as designed to be “playful” with themes that really were being taken far too seriously at the time.

  • Jon Rowe

    Great post.
    Like you I’m more of an art fan than a story fan (although I’d like a good story as well).
    I think Miller’s artwork in the first Dark Knight was better than the sequel.
    Although most artists’ work improves as they get older, some artists “phone it in,” elevate style over substance, or otherwise spread themselves too thin at certain points in their career.
    John Byrne too. He’s trying to be too much like Kirby. Kirby’s output was incredible in its volume, but his work wasn’t very anatomical or too detailed. I don’t think Kirby was that great of a drawer. Guys like Buscema and Adams were much better.
    Kirby’s strength was that he was and remains unparalleled as a creator of concepts, characters, and designs.
    Byrne draws incredibly fast, and while this style works with pencilling, it doesn’t with inking. For a while when Byrne was inking his own work, it looked a lot worse that his earlier stuff where other better inkers inked his work. Recently Byrne has begun to work with better inkers like Jerry Ordway, Tom Palmer, and now back at Action Comics with someone named “Nelson.” His work looks much better.

  • Jeremy Pierce

    It’s funny you didn’t mention Jim Lee’s role in revitalizing X-Men. I’ve always thought of that as his best-known work. His Captain America in the flashback issue when Wolverine met him in WWII was also notable.

  • Winsome

    A blog called The Evangelical Outpost does comic books. And without the slightest commentary on anything remotely resembling a Christian worldview. but rather self-indulgently. For a moment, I thought I was at Lilek’s, but even there it’d be done with sarcasm, instead of with such purile adoration.
    And the issue of the day is relegated to an out-take blurb.
    Joe, it’s your bandwidth, and you certainly can rule by fiat. But don’t you think this is small beer?

  • mynym

    I did a couple posts on comics. One on the trend from comics to movies and one on Captain Marvel. The second even mentions worldviews, for Winsome… ;-)

  • John Schroeder (Blogotional)

    Jon: Good analysis — dead nuts on as far as Byrne getting ‘Honorable Mention’ only — Kirby, despite the weaknesses you cite remains the standard, can;t be denied.
    Jeremy: You’re right about Lee’s great work on X-Men, but I wanted to pick what I thought was his absolute best work, and ‘Hush’ is just beautiful
    Winsome: Lighten up! — Can’t you just enjoy something for it’s own sake once in a while?

  • mynym

    I was ready for some serious E.O. though, something more about pneumatology and ID. As I recall, it’s either the study of spiritual phenomena or pneumatic tools.

  • Catez

    Hey John – good to see this! I’m afraid I’m not as scholarly on comic books as some other commenters. Ahem. I did read original Phantom comics as a kid though. Loved them – especially as he never grew old. Kojima looks interesting. I’d like to see some of those.

  • Donald S. Crankshaw

    Interesting. Now when is someone going to do webcomics?

  • John Schroeder (Blogotional)

    Web comics exist. Stan Lee did a grand experiment a few years ago and it fell flat. Marvel and DC both put up abridged comics at their sites for promotional purposes. They’re clunky and unenjoyable to read.
    Worse part — the get the art right they eat up so much server space and bandwidth, that no one does it right. Yuck

  • Mike Morrell

    At last! My second Great Love (besides Jesus and the church) getting wide coverage! Comics rule, they’re one of the great original American art forms, right up there with jazz. I’m glad to see that you recognized my friend Bob Burden, who is a legendary “translator” of the underground comix ethos to (slightly) more mainstream sensibilities. He’s publishing regularly again at Image, with the Atlanta-based Desperado.
    So what is the future of comics for people of faith? The relatively few Christian comics out there suck almightily, heavy-handed on the world-view (sorry Winsom) and extremely light on any genuine creative contribution. I have some ideas, of a historical-spiritual narrative a la Sandman–but to even approach that level of excellence is bewildering.
    For now, I monitor a few happenings here, and wish–and wonder…

  • Donald S. Crankshaw

    John, I don’t think you’re getting what I’m referring to. Yes, you can post comic books online, but that’s hardly what I have in mind. I’m referring to comic strips posted online daily, done as serial stories. Thus, they’re more akin to Mary Worth or Prince Valiant than either Dilbert daily strips or Spiderman comic books. They are their own genre, and need to be dealt with separately, although they do have some similarities to both those art forms. I refer you to the likes of Sluggy Freelance, College Roomies from Hell!!!, and It’s Walky!, all webcomics that started out as simple, gag-a-day comic strips, but which have grown into complex stories with intense drama, deep characters, and absorbing plotlines. But they still haven’t lost their essential humor, and just because the world’s about to end doesn’t mean you can’t have a plotline.

  • Donald S. Crankshaw

    Ugh… that last word was supposed to be punchline, not plotline. Dang, I wish I had an edit button.

  • David Marcoe

    Oddly enough, I am writing a comic book series now. Still in the earliest stages, though.

  • jay

    props for the tmnt reference, but does anyone remember the old ‘critters’ series? i loved the ‘birthright’ stories by steve gallacci. he had probably the most beautiful black and white style of anyone, with some very serious stories (think bosnia & kosovo).
    also, the early issues of usagi yojimbo (particularly the first summer special) were well done as well.
    my other favortite would have to be the appleseed series by shirow masamune. i stopped collecting comics before the series ended, or at least the american translation of it, but that’s one that i’d be curious to pick up again.