It's currently 5AM in the morning, I've been awake for nineteen hours, and I'm buzzed off a cup of warm french roast. So I figured there's no better way to convert this caffeinated energy into something productive than to write yet another superhero comic-book blog list!
Now as some of you may know, I'm an amateur/aspiring comic-book penciller. It's something I've always wanted to pursue, ever since I picked up that fateful copy of Moon Knight Vol. 1 The Bottom as a kid--a decision I made solely because of the awesome David Finch cover. I loved to write (as evidenced by my many rambling blogs on CV), I had some modicum of artistic talent, and I loved superheroes. So drawing superhero comics always seemed like an ideal, no-brainer career path for me.
I've only recently started taking this dream of drawing superhero comics seriously. I've begun to do research on the business, to work on my portfolio, and the realization of just how difficult it is to break into mainstream American comics is definitely hitting me me hard. Truth be told, it's all a little overwhelming and I'm doubtful I'll ever reach a professional level. That said, it hasn't stopped me from trying yet, and a big part of improving my craft is to study the art of superhero comics...
Or rather, to study the superhero comic artists whose work I admire and appreciate; the creators who have brought some of the finest stories of our chosen genre to life with their panels and pencils. These are the artistic greats whose work I try to emulate, the guys who inspire me to pursue my creative passion.
Superhero comic artists aren't just artists, you have to realize. They're costume designers, and architects, and engineers, and directors...but above all else, they're storytellers. Here are my top ten favorite superhero comic artists of all-time:
10: Howard Porter
In truth, tenth place could have been filled by any number of wonderful artists working in the industry today. Tim Sale, Greg Capullo, David Finch--I considered many of my longtime favorites. In the end though, I had to give it to Howard Porter just off the strength of a single book, Grant Morrison's defining 90s run on JLA.
I'll be the first to admit that Porter's work has many obvious flaws; he doesn't draw the best faces and expressions, his perspective and anatomy can be wonky, and his particular style of art has not aged like fine wine. But when paired with John Dell on inks, and given an insane high-octane script by Morrison, Porter shines. Howard Porter, for all his technical pitfalls, is a talented raconteur. With his art, he's able to translate the energy and excitement of Morrison's grand "big-picture" stories, and I don't think JLA would've been half as innovative and groundbreaking as it was without Porter.
Most of Porter's work outside JLA has been mediocre in my experience (Justice League 3000 from the New 52 comes to mind), but I think his work on the 40+ issues of JLA is enough to earn him the last spot in my shortlist.
9: Joe Bennett
Meet the most underrated penciller working in the industry today. You may know him from Marvel's current Immortal Hulk book (for which he's doing fantastic work), but my first encounter with Señor Bennett came in #5 of a little-known series called Captain America and the Falcon. Now, while I loved the book's story by Christopher Priest, the art by Bart Sears in the first four issues were goddamn near-unreadable. That goofy giant Cap head that I use as my iconic ComicVine avatar? Bart Sears, ladies and gents. So when Bennett finally hopped on Captain America and the Falcon with the fifth issue, I immediately fell in love with the man's work.
Bennett is the definition of a no-frills artist. There's nothing overtly flashy about his art, which is probably why he never gets greater recognition, but the man can communicate a story to the reader with a clean, crisp style that is unmatched. Every little detail and shadow is right where it needs to be in service of the comic's plot. There's no redundant cross-hatching or clutter in Bennett's panels; he uses simple, strong lines and lighting to convey exactly what the script demands. Joe Bennett's art is a masterclass in how to draw comics efficiently, and why less is often more in this visual medium.
Bennett is frequently paired with Christopher Priest (aka the most underrated writer working in the industry today), and besides Captain America and the Falcon, other fine examples of this awesome creative team's work include Deathstroke (vol. 4) with DC and The Crewwith Marvel.
8: Jack Kirby
It might seem sacrilegious to put the King so close to the bottom of the list, but while I adore the man's work, his low rank is largely because his art is such a far cry from my own personal style. My pencils tend to veer towards photorealism and verisimilitude, while Kirby's throws all that out the window for the bombastic, uber-dramatic style that we all recognize and love. Jack Kirby is not necessarily an artist whom I emulate in my work (and really, who can truly copy the inimitable King?), but I've still included him on my list for one simple reason...
I learned how to draw comics from Jack Kirby. As an introverted nine-year-old (yes, we're doing the origin story again), I discovered a copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 in my school library, and upon looking at Kirby's pencils, something immediately clicked inside me. It's like I learned the language of superhero comics from Kirby. Perspective: how to frame and angle a shot for maximum dynamism. Form: how to exaggerate and foreshorten figures to make them pop out the panels. It was like Kirby's art taught some primal part of my brain how superhero comics worked, and I'll always be indebted to the King for sparking that desire to draw comics of my own.
Kirby's work and legacy speaks for itself, and I doubt I need to recommend his work to any comic-book aficionado, but my personal favorite will always be his run on Fantastic Four (vol. 1)with Stan Lee. To me, that will always be Kirby's artistic peak, and reading cheap black-and-white reprints of his work on that book will always be a happy childhood memory.
Thanks to Jack (and Stan, as well!) for all the great stories over the years. You'll always be a hero to me.
7: Mike Mignola
Speaking of Kirby, if there's someone with the most sui generis art style in the industry today, it's undoubtedly our man Mike Mignola. This man doesn't even have an art style, he has an aesthetic. Everything that he draws is so uniquely rendered that it resembles nothing else in mainstream superhero comics. Nothing about Mignola's pencils look like it should work; from his angular, distorted figures to his heavy expressionist shadows, and yet it does. Mignola is proof that there's room in superhero comics for art styles beyond your usual Jim Lees and David Finches.
Much like Jack Kirby, I don't see too much of my own art reflected in Mignola's. We're obviously poles apart artistically. But I read Mignola's Hellboy at an impressionable age, and I remember being so taken by his work that I even went through a phase trying to imitate his distinct, abstract style. There's no mistaking a Mignola piece. He effortlessly draws comics in his own uncompromising M.O., and it's not hyperbole to say that Mignola's art is likely 90% the reason why Hellboy has become one of the most popular indie superheroes today.
You really can't go wrong with any Mignola-drawn volume of Hellboyor B.P.R.D., but my personal favorite is a short story in the Vol. 3 trade entitled The Wolves of Saint August (pictured above). Hellboy fights a giant werewolf...'nuff said.
6: John Cassaday
John Cassaday's artwork is just mesmerizing to look at. It is, in short, aesthetically-pleasing on every level. I can't count the number of times I've lost my train of thought in an Cassaday issue, all because I was so entranced by his art, I lingered on a panel long enough to disrupt the flow of the story. If I could summarize my take on Cassaday's art in one word, it would be balance. His work strikes that perfect balance between photorealism and sensationalism. Everything seems deceptively basic, but every line and shadow has been carefully crafted to give you a beautiful superhero story.
If Bennett is economic, Cassaday is minimalistic; not a single aspect of his linework feels wasted or vestigial. "Perfectly balanced," as the Mad Titan would say. Admittedly, Cassaday's work has hit a bit of a slump in recent years, but when he's on top of his game, there aren't many artists who can compete. He can do it all; from the loud, action-packed splash pages to the quiet, reflective character moments and conversations.
Cassaday's magnum opus is the beloved Astonishing X-Men (vol. 3)with Joss Whedon (goddamn, no one draws a finer Beast), but I've always loved his rendition of Cap in the Marvel Knights Captain America (vol. 4)run with John Ney Rieber too. I think later depictions of Cap's costume, with more practical features, owe a lot to how Cassaday drew Steve Rogers.
5: Steve Epting
And speaking of Captain America artists...next up on my list is none other than Steve Epting, the Shark's favorite Cap artist himself! It goes without saying that Brubaker's Captain America run is one of my most cherished superhero comics in existence (I've written like three separate blogs about it, after all...), but Brubaker's tale of Cold War espionage would not have been possible without Steve Epting's gritty and real-world art style.
Epting's debut issue was the first Captain America comic I'd ever read in my life, and his art played a crucial role in establishing my lifelong love for Steve Rogers. I used to view Steve as your typical Silver Age boy scout. But Epting's pencils sold the character as a soldier to me, establishing the Living Legend in a realistically-rendered world that matched Brubaker's more grounded take on the Marvel Universe. To date, I still hold Epting as the artistic metric for all Captain America comics.
Naturally, I view Captain America (vol. 5)to be my favorite comic by Epting. The first ten issues of the Winter Soldier story-arc feature some of his tightest, cleanest work; I mean, just read that opening train hijacking scene. But I do have to give a special mention to Sara, Epting's recent six-issue miniseries with Garth Ennis about Russian women snipers in WWII. I realize it's not about superheroes...but Sara really might be the best damn thing Epting's ever drawn.
No surprise that he could draw a great WWII comic after all that time with Cap, eh?
4: Gary Frank
Geoff Johns once referred to Gary Frank as the finest Superman artist of our generation, and I'm inclined to wholeheartedly agree. I first fell in love with Frank's art during his Action Comics run with Johns, specifically the Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes story-arc (pictured above). In it, Frank depicts all the titular action of Johns' narrative with artistic aplomb, but what really cemented Legion as one of my favorite comics was how Frank drew an icon like Superman.
It wasn't him referencing Christopher Reeve's face that solidified Frank's Superman as my definitive depiction of the character. Rather, it was how Frank drew Superman's face. Frank's pencils captured all the emotional range of Kal-El; from his confident inspiration, to his disarming warmth and charm, to even his righteous fury in battle. In essence, he made a godlike character feel relatable and human, and if that isn't the very definition of Superman, what is?
Frank has always done stellar work, from his early days drawing The Incredible Hulk (vol. 1) with Peter David, but his 2000s work is on a whole other plateau. His recent art has evolved into a precise style that's equal parts comic-book-loud as it is hyper-detailed-realism. Any of his Action Comics (vol. 1) or Superman work with Johns is superb (ha!), but I would also recommend his Supreme Power (vol. 1)MAX run with J. Michael Straczynski.
It's a damn shame that DC decided to can Gary Frank's Graphic Ink artbook, but best believe I'll preorder my copy if it ever comes out!
3: Alex Ross
I mean, is there anything else that hasn't already been said about the archetypal Alex Ross? I don't think I even need to justify Ross' inclusion on my list, in all honesty. Short of Jim Lee, there's maybe no single modern superhero comic artist who has had this much of an artistic impact on our chosen genre.
It's not just that Ross can paint, because there have been painted superhero comics before him. But rather, it's that Ross' Rockwell-esque style is rendered so beautifully and authentically that these bigger-than-life superheroes become truly mythic. There's just a certain je ne sais quoi about Ross' paintings that elevates his subjects. His depiction of the Justice League and the Avengers, for instance, are some of the most iconic versions of these pop-culture icons. I'm sure that every superhero fan can think of at least one seminal Ross image off the top of their head.
Now I know Ross has faced criticism in the past about his characters being too akin to still-life, which doesn't translate well into the momentum and energy of superhero comics (a fair and sensible critique). But personally, I've always viewed that to be more of an artistic strength than a shortcoming. Ross' greatest asset is that he remains leagues above most of his contemporaries in terms of sheer technical draftsmanship. His mastery of the fundamentals (anatomy, lighting, depth of field, perspective etc.) is what makes his painted style so believable, after all.
And Ross' proficiency is hardly limited to pretty covers alone. Just look at any of his interiors, and you can see ready evidence that this is an artist who understands sequential storytelling. Kingdom Comewith Mark Waid remains his crowning achievement (while also showcasing Ross' masterful eye for costume design), but Marvelswith Kurt Busiek is a close second.
2: Frank Quitely
Hoo boy. And now we've arrived at what I'm certain will be the most polarizing and controversial entry on my list. I know I'll get some flak for this (you know who you are) but I'm saying it anyway: I love Frank Quitely's art.
I understand that Quitely's idiosyncratic, quirky style is not everyone's proverbial cup of tea. Quitely is certainly the definition of an acquired taste. But goddamn, this man can draw superhero comics. His aesthetics are delightful (I love the way he uses detailed linework to layer the textures of clothing and characters, for instance), but what I'm talking about is his sheer mastery of the comic-book medium and what it can do. Notice the way he manipulates the medium's conventions; how he distorts panels to play with time and space in We3 or Authority, how he reshapes background elements into organic SFX in Batman and Robin, how he utilizes chicken fat to ensure not a single panel is wasted in All-Star Superman...
It's subtle and not immediately obvious to the unseasoned eye, but Quitely is clearly an artist who understands the comic-book as a storytelling format, as well as all the possibilities that it implies.
Suffice to say, my favorite superhero comic in this universe is also my favorite Frank Quitely comic: All-Star Superman. I truly believe that these twelve issues encapsulate not just everything great about the character of Superman, but also everything great about superhero comics on a technical and visual level. That said, almost anything drawn by Quitely is worth checking out; there's no such thing as a half-assed comic in this man's bibliography. Every panel is seamlessly planned and curated, and Quitely is a true artist in every sense of the term.
1: Bryan Hitch
And finally, three hours after I started writing this blog post, we have arrived at the inevitable conclusion. I guess I won't bury the lede, and instead start with the obvious: Bryan Hitch is who I wish I could draw like.
Everything about Hitch's style and craft is exactly what I strive to accomplish in my own work. More than any other penciller working in the industry today, Hitch's entire art is built on one all-encompassing principle: verisimilitude. I.e., the belief that the more realistic and believable you make the mundane elements of your world, the more contrasting and larger-than-life your fantastical elements become.
Hitch takes zero shortcuts. He's taken a heavy bruising in the past for his slow rate of work, but I think the sheer quality of his pencils speak for themselves. Everything that Hitch draws is on point and as true-to-life as he can make it. Anatomy and figures and apparel? Check. Perspective and lighting? Check. Character work and facial expressions? Double-page spreads and large-scale action? Check, check. In his prime, Hitch never compromised his belief in verisimilitude for expediency, and there's a reason why this man is considered to be the progenitor of cinematic "widescreen" comics.
Much like Cassaday, I'll concede that Hitch's work in the last few years have not been up to par (although I have heard good things about his stuff in Robert Venditti's recent Hawkman book). But frankly, Hitch could have retired after Ultimates 2 and still cemented his place in the superhero artist pantheon. Words can't adequately convey how much of an artistic influence this man has been on my own amateur work. I remember reading The Ultimates in my younger days and being blown away page after page, always thinking that Hitch would not be able to top himself in the next issue, only to find he always did.
I can't tell you how many hours I've spent studying and poring over this man's pages in my own quest for comic-book legendom. How he draws detailed cityscapes and believable skylines. How he doesn't rely on SFX or speed lines to convey motion, rather relying instead on diegetic elements like debris or blood. How he combines photo-reference to ground mythic characters in a believable setting. I even bought Ultimate Comics Studio, Hitch's own how-to guide for comics, which has proven to be an immeasurable treasure trove of knowledge about his artistic style and work ethic.
I'm going to stop verbally fellating the man now at this point because I think I've gotten the overall sentiment across. But if you ever want to witness the greatest superhero art in the history of the medium (yeah, I said it), pick up Mark Millar's runs on The Ultimates (vol. 1)and The Ultimates 2 (vol. 1). While I love Hitch's work on earlier titles like Millar's The Authority (vol. 1)and Waid's JLAas well, Hitch hit his artistic pinnacle with his work on The Ultimates. It's a literal masterpiece.
Muhammad Ali was born to fight, Michael Jackson was born to sing, and Bryan Hitch was born to draw superhero comics.
With that said, I hope you guys enjoyed this blog and as always, thanks for reading my caffeine-fueled rantings. Sound off in the comments below about your own favorite superhero comic artists, or drag me about my undying love for Frank Quitely.