On the one hand, this list is a joy, because I love comic book art more than almost anything. Seriously. The things that make comic book art good are myriad, and not always easy to put your finger on. You’ll know when it’s working, but might not know exactly why. The artists might not know exactly why, but you will know that it is working. But maybe it’s working because you’re thinking about it, or maybe it’s because reading is effortless. It’s not a science. Now on the other hand, I know of and know a lot of comic book artists, and I just can’t include them all on this list. There are folks that are some of my personal favorite comic book artists, unappreciated geniuses in their time, who didn’t make this list for 2012. But we have to make choices, and here we are. That is my cross to bear. In the meantime, there’s something to learn from everyone on this list, and a lot to savor.
Harren is still flying under the radar. I can’t tell if he’s going to blow up, or just remain one of those guys who artists and pros know about, but the general readership doesn’t really appreciate. He’s already the latter though. Pros I’ve talked to all year have sung Harren’s praises, and every time I see his work I find something else to be impressed with. If the only thing you read this year was the fight sequences from Conan the Barbarian, you’d have seen top of the line sequential art. Keep your eyes on James Harren.
We lost a legend this year. We actually lost a whole bunch of legends, but when you’re talking about comic book artists who have been working since the Golden Age, you’ll rarely find one who was working right up until the end of his life. And if you do find someone like that, the work at the end probably won’t be as good as anything they’ve ever done. Yet, this is exactly the case with Joe Kubert. The pages on which he’d collaborated with his son on Before Watchmen: Nite Owl were magnificent. He wasn’t even close to done working, but he passed away before he had time to finish. That’s the real tragedy.
Earlier this year, I was in my comic shop, and the owner, a friend of mine, asked where Nick Bradshaw’s work was going to show up. I told him he’d be doing an arc on Wolverine and the X-Men, and the look that came over his face was one of joy. I think of Bradshaw’s art as lively. It’s a treat to look at. It also has the sense of someone just about to break through, where people are reading it, and opening their eyes, and thinking “hey, this is something new,” which is one of the most fun parts of comic book reading.
Chris Burnham has always been good. There’s no doubt about that. His work has a natural energy that recalls many of the greats who came before him. This was the year that Burnham arrived. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you he would be the guy to competently replace Frank Quitely, but with Batman: Incorporated, that’s exactly what’s happened. I will always have an eye on any project Burnham takes on.
Stegman is another guy who earned his chair at the big table this year. He kicked around Marvel for a while, where they put him on projects that, just by the nature of the market, were tough to sell. But they were all beautiful. He put his all into pages of Scarlet Spider, and then changed things up, and brought a different luck to Fantastic Four, all this a prelude to his finally taking over a Superior Spider-Man, for what many Stegman fans hope will be a long run. In the middle of that, he also released I Draw Comics, an instructional volume for aspiring comic artists.
Superstar. That’s the word that will accompany Jerome Opeña’s name from just about here on out. From the first time I saw his art, I knew it was something special, and this year, he wowed people yet more on Uncanny X-Force, and then moved over the big big league, helming Avengers written by Jonathan Hickman. The guy can do it all, and while he evokes something I can’t put my finger on, it’s 100% original, and always dynamic.
The saddest thing about Amanda Conner’s art is that we don’t get nearly enough of Amanda Conner’s art. But this year, we were treated to several issues worth of her best stuff on Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre. Working with Darwyn Cooke, Conner quite simply outdid every single expectation, building something that actually adds to what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did. She worked within the confines of the nine panel grid, and then added her own flavor to it. She’s an amazing cartoonist, and every project looks better than the one that came before it.
It’s too early to call Darwyn Cooke a legend, because he’s still in the prime of his working life. And yet, the term feels like it fits. While writing for Amanda Conner, as listed above, Darwyn also wrote and drew Before Watchmen: Minutemen, which was almost enough to get him on this list alone. But in 2012, he also released Parker: The Score, which topped excellent on top of excellent, where he exceeded the previous volumes in both design and cartooning. The Parker books are already some of the best works of the past decade, and in the middle of all the Before Watchmen hoopla, he managed to release the best of them. His place in history is already assured.
Fiona Staples didn’t quite come out of nowhere, but once again, Brian K. Vaughan is working with an artist who couldn’t be more perfect for the project. With Saga we have what is probably the best new series of the year. Vaughan tends to get a lot of credit for the series, but make no mistake about how important Staples’ incredibly evocative art is to the success. When you look at Saga, you don’t see anything that looks like anything else out there. You see a world that doesn’t exist anywhere else. You see characters who are so realistic and well formed that they feel real, regardless of the horns and wings. She found exactly the project she should be doing, and she ran the ball with exceptional flair.
Sean Murphy is one hell of a comic book artist. This year saw the publication of Punk Rock Jesus, his first major creator owned work, through Vertigo Comics. For some reason, they decided to do it as a black and white book, and with a lot of artists, they lose something when presented in the more raw inked form, but with Murphy’s art, it only let the work sing. In a world that’s more and more committed to digital work, Murphy is a pen and ink man. He used a brush. The pages look handmade, and they crackle with excitement. He wanted to draw a motorcyle and a polar bear, so he did, among other things. Sean Murphy is another one of those guys whose work I will check out every time, and if he keeps doing such beautiful work, that’s going to be true for a lot of people.
David Aja is simply an amazing artist. That he happens to do comics is just a bonus. There isn’t a thing that looks like Hawkeye in the history of comics. It’s a strange mix for a superhero comic, especially considering that there’s hardly a costume to be found. For some reason, Aja can cram a page with 20-30 panels, and it doesn’t feel overdone. It’s a kind of magic. The book is a piece of design that also functions as sequential art. Against all reasoning, it doesn’t come off as stiff, but incredibly lively and human. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen elements of Chris Ware in a Marvel comic book, but David Aja makes it work. Like a lot of the others on this list, we don’t see enough of Aja’s work, but this year it’s been a huge treat.
Capullo was a left field choice for the main Batman title, or so it seemed. Since relaunching, Scott Snyder and Capullo have ignited a fervor for a DC book that I haven’t seen since Blackest Night. Every month, with only one fill in so far, Capullo pushes the limits of what he’d done before. In issue #5, he gave us a twisting maze that should have been annoying, but was instead masterfully executed. When Joker returned, he gave us a new design that added so much to the terror of the written words. You get the sense that Capullo is trying to prove himself with every panel, telling the industry that he’s among the best there is, and if you don’t believe it yet, just watch. It’s working.
I love the word cartoonist. It’s more specific than comic book artist, and denotes a treasured and varied artistic history. Obviously they’re not mutually exclusive. With Pérez, we get a wonderful combination of both. Pérez brings a style and wittiness to his art. It moves. It breathes. It lives. Between the much lauded Tale of Sand and the criminally under read John Carter: The Gods of Mars, Pérez made an exceptional mark on comics in 2012. If they didn’t see him on that, he’s got a run coming up on Wolverine and the X-Men that will gain him even more fans, if the Eisner wasn’t good enough.
And the Best Comic Artist of 2012 is…
He’s won a fan for life. All year when anyone asked me if I’d read anything good lately, my response was always A Tale of Sand. It was an artistic feat that moved effortlessly through panels and a dense surreal landscape. Pérez got to draw a little of everything in this story, and there wasn’t a single bit of it that wasn’t beautiful. From pulpy heroes to gorgeous dames, to insane football teams, the pages were jam packed with smooth, perfect lines. It was pure sequential art of the finest kind, and I was smitten. When I picked up John Carter: The Gods of Mars, I expected an enjoyable, but forgettable licensed property, but got the same level of craft and artistry, but just in a different setting. 2012 was the year most people got to know Ramón Pérez, and comics are better off for having him. I sincerely can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.