Best of 2011: Artist of the Year

This is both the easiest and the hardest piece (and longest!) I have had to write since…well, since the last time we discussed the “Best” Artists of the year. “Easy” because there were certainly no lack of artists who delivered masterful work, month after month, that truly pushed the boundaries of comic book art;  hard because the quality of the work was so incredible that it seems silly to try to judge one artist as “better” than another.

The words one might use to describe what a comic book artist does, how he or she “interprets the writer’s words and intentions and puts them on paper in a graphical form,” are laughably inadequate. I think about the weighty task of the writer, how no matter how much description might be in one’s prose, there is always room for the reader to make the scene his or her own. That’s the wonderful thing about reading prose: it’s an expression of an idea or scene that is only real once the reader interprets the words, bringing his or her own history and concepts to the words to create a unique and highly personal experience in the reader’s mind.

Not so the comic book artist. What he draws on paper is what the reader will see. That figure staring at the hulking minotaur charging at him is going to be that figure staring at the hulking minotaur, with the artist calling the shots when it comes to camera angles, character style, detail…the whole bit. Yes, the writer will often call out specifics, but just as often the writer will know what the artist is capable of and trust, nay, encourage the artist to bring their particular view to a scene. Often, the artist is under pressure to bring in the pages by a certain time, but it is up to her when it comes to how much time and effort she wants to bring to particular panel. And let us not forget that the art is the first impression of the moment — we see the page first and read it second.  For the most part, it is the art that builds the tension, it is the art the makes us gasp out loud, it is the art encourages us to linger on a particular scene.  It is the art that can force us to open up a new comic, and it is the art that we see behind our eyelids as we fall asleep, remembering a moment that could very well haunt us in our dreams.

Even if you can’t read, you can experience a comic.

Like many of you, it is the art that brought me into comics and it is the art that inspires me the most about the medium. When I space out during a meeting, I don’t write a page of dialogue, I sketch. Visual art is as much a part of me as my tastebuds! For me, the most personal aspect of the comic book is the art, because it shows me what is possible both from an imaginative and mechanical point of view. For these reasons and more, these artists have made my life just a bit better, and I am grateful.

So, without further ado, I give you the Best Artists of 2011:

The Honorable Mentions

Just a few sentences about the artists who delivered quality work, issue after issue. You are excited to bring these books home because you know the art is going to be top notch.

Jock – What can you say that hasn’t been said before?  His cover work on Scalped should be collected in a museum, and his pages on Detective was a fitting and triumphal way to close out that storied title. His spare, angular lines were a cutting example of how less truly is more.

Kev Walker – There are some artists who know how to make comics fun. No matter how dramatic and explosive or emotional the scene might get, there is this wonderful lightness that just adds to the moment and makes the story that much more memorable. I think Kev Walker’s work on Thunderbolts has just been fantastic all year — if I don’t see his name on the title, I put off reading it.  I hadn’t seen any of his work before Thunderbolts, and he’s a big reason why I am such a fan of the book (which I only read because of his art in the first place) today.

Rob Guillory – If you read Chew, you know why Guillory continues to be one of iFanboy’s favorite artists.  If you don’t, you really are missing out on one of the best books around, consistently entertaining and imaginative stories brought to life by Guillory’s characterizations. This guy is as skilled as he is funny, and there are some sequences that touch upon genius. Issue after issue, life is better because of Rob Guillory.

Gabriel Hardman – Sometimes an artist comes around and redefines the way you look at a character.  Hardman did this for me the moment he started drawing Hulk. Suddenly, everything I ever wanted in a Hulk comic was there. And if you ever told me I would be looking forward to a Planet of the Apes comic, I would throw dung at you—but with Hardman on Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes, well…I wouldn’t do that, unless you were trying to take my issues.  I cannot wait to see what he works on next.

Sara Pichelli – I’ll just say it: I wouldn’t be into the new Ultimate Spider-Man if it wasn’t for Pichelli’s art. She made it…okay for me to say goodbye to Peter and embrace Miles.  In fact, when I think about the book now, I realize that while I like the story fine, it is the art that makes me want to come back. It’s like seeing a band where the lead singer is so good that you think to yourself, “no matter what happens to the rest of them, that singer is going to be a star.”  I get the feeling she is just getting started on what promises to be a celebrated career in comics.

Francesco Francavilla – Another artist who was new to me this year, Francavilla was a wonderful counterpoint to Jock’s work in Detective, with his bold lines and haunting imagery.  I thought his work made Black Panther: The Man Without Fear better than it had any right to be, and while I can see his style turning off some readers, it was a welcome change of pace for me.

Cliff Chiang – Chiang’s sketchier style is very different than the smooth work he was doing in Green Arrow and Black Canary, and I like it even more. Like Darwyn Cooke, there’s this wonderful retro feeling in his characterizations —Wonder Woman and Zatanna are just beautiful works of art; it’s been a real pleasure to watch his work change over the years; I’m really glad he’s back doing comics!

The Semi-Finalists

A bit of discussion about the artists whose work you couldn’t tear you eyes from, whose work I would “reverse pinch” on my iPad to get a better look at their artistry, who raised the bar, issue after issue. These artists are the best in the business.

Travel Foreman – I might as well get what I consider the most controversial artist on my list out of the way first.  His work on Animal Man takes my breath away. His work completely surprised me, and I simply never thought that comics could look like that, you know? His viscerally creepy character work reminds me of a Cronenberg film. It just feels alien and nightmarish…and you can’t look away. What may have seemed like an unusual choice for a book titled Animal Man, seems like the perfect one, the way Jeff Lemire is penning it. Filled with elaborate environments and truly unsettling moments, Foreman’s uncompromising, utterly unique take on the nightmare that Buddy is experiencing is one of the most exciting revelations in DC’s revelation-filled new lineup.

Chris Samnee – It sounds trite, but Samnee’s work on Thor: The Mighty Avenger in 2010 was a revelation. On every page, every panel, you could feel this ardent joy, this love behind the work. So, when I heard that Samnee was working on Captain America & Bucky (which I had not noticed due to the Ed McGuinness covers and were not interesting to me), I was more than a little excited. While I am tempted to think about his art in terms of golden age goodness, it really strikes me as some of the most modern work the is being made today, giving a fond nod to the past while boldly defining what is possible in a contemporary comic book.  There’s an easy simplicity here, Samnee’s lines and shadows are deceivingly simple, creating energetic pages that I honestly cannot get enough of.  Samnee is another iFanboy favorite, and for good reason: this guy makes us love comics.

Greg Capullo – I admit it, I never saw a Capullo page before seeing his work in Scott Snyder’s excellent Batman book. I know he has a long history on other books, but whatever: his work on Batman is blowing me away. You get the sense that Capullo is having the time of his life drawing Batman, Robin and Gotham City. There’s a sharp, wicked sense of style in his lines, with some of his characterizations reminding me of the quick, clean lines in manga on one page, followed by another page nestled deep in inky black shadows that reminds me of Samnee’s work.  From layouts to character design to backgrounds to camera angles–Capullo’s take on Batman, along with Scott Snyder’s writing, is making it one of my most-recommended titles of 2011.

J.H. Williams III – Okay, so, I think we can all agree that Batwoman is one of the most visually arresting titles out there. I have this theory–Williams is basically creating this book for iPad users. It seems that almost every book is comprised of these two page spreads, these gorgeous paintings, that can be vastly confusing to figure out unless you have “Guided View” turned on. This is my main reason that I am not considering him for my top choice, despite his incredible character and environmental work. His pages just seem less like comic books and more like narrative landscapes, where you are viewing the action as opposed to following it. I dunno, it’s tough–Williams is taking comic book art to the level of fine art, and while I think it is extremely good, showing level of expertise and, well, grace, that makes his work utterly unique, it can seem almost overwrought in some cases. Still, all that being said, I welcome the fact that Williams is ripping our preconceptions of comic book art to pieces, and I consider it a privilege that I get to see his work month after month.

The Finalists

These are my top three contenders for Artist of the Year.  These are the modern masters of comic book art; their work somehow gets better with every issue, and show the world that comic books is home to some of the most profoundly creative visual artists on the planet. From character design to world building to camera work to visualizing time in ways we’ve never seen before, these artists defined the best of 2011.

Francis Manapul – Flash Fact: Manapul’s creating the best Flash comic in recent history, if not ever.  He was already doing a great job, but then, with the New 52 launch, the book just went into overdrive, with a new take on how the costume works to examining Barry’s cognitive powers – and illustrating them in a breathtakingly novel way. From character design to sound effects to the feeling of speed, Manapul is creating pages that astound, month after month. Of all the books I read digitally, it is Flash that I tend to “zoom in” on the most, so I can get a closer look at Manapul’s lines and designs. His work on the cover pages, where he sets the stage for the issue, reminds me of Darwn Cooke’s wonderful pages in The Spirit, and the pages that follow never disappoint.

Manapul has a wonderful take on page layouts too (I like the “punching” sequence in the fourth issue quite a bit–other pages seem inspired by JH Williams as well).  For me, his work has just been some of the most exciting that DC has produced; I really feel that he’s really cooking on all cylinders these days—whenever I get asked about comics, he’s one of the first people I mention, and his pages are the ones that I will show people to illustrate how comics have evolved,  expressing action and time in ways that I find truly groundbreaking. You get the feeling he loves working on The Flash as much as we enjoy reading it, which is all you can ask for.

Sean Murphy – I just finished the excellent Joe the Barbarian hardcover trade (I started on issues but understood almost immediately that this was a story that I needed to have in one volume) and I still have images from those pages floating in my noggin.  Murphy’s work on this (and his run on American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest) is truly exemplary. I find his character design totally enthralling, but it’s hard for me to figure out if I like his character work or his environmental work more. Whether it’s a gothic castle or an boy’s bedroom, his attention to detail and specifics is stunning.

There’s a wonderful discussion of how he approached pages for Joe in the trade, and it struck me just how effortless Murphy made all of this incredible work (which he would go to bed frustrated about, that it wasn’t up to par) sound, how he would come up with these incredible camera angles, with these wonderful mini sequences to denote important action, how he would sneak little things in the background that would take on greater significance later in the book…I mean, I am literally shaking my head right now–I just don’t know what more I can write. He seems just as comfortable with small, emotional moments as he is with full scale battle sequences, and there’s a freedom in his lines that just keeps everything so fluid and personal.  If you have not experienced his work, go out there and grab these books, go out on the web and look at the stuff he’s made this past year — it’s utterly unique.  Quite simply, Sean Murphy is one of those thrilling artists working today.

Jerome Opeña – I discussed Opeña last year but couldn’t really consider him for artist of the year because he just had not produced that much work in 2010. Well, he certainly made up for in 2011, creating what I would argue the most surprising book of the year, Uncanny X-Force.  Comic book artists are world builders by profession—Opeña designs universes. He designs dimensions. He designs dreamscapes and nightmares.  His work in Uncanny X-Force…when I opened the first page of that book, I literally sat up and took notice—I literally could not believe was I looking at.  Issue after issue, Opeña’s work was dramatically different than anything else on the shelves. His designs for the Four Horsemen (Death, Pestilence, War and Famine) are truly iconic, haunting images that, when introduced early in 2011, were just a hint of the incredible art to come.

When you look at his character design, you look at the detail in the work, the folds in the costumes, the expressions in the faces — even when the faces are wearing masks! – well, for me, it takes my breath away. His use of angles, of light sources, his integration of different architectural styles, his imaginings of technology–he is a perfect partner for writer Rick Remender. (I felt the same way about Sean Murphy, how he was a great match for Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, two very different writers who probably produced two very different styles of scripts!)  And for me, that’s what is most inspiring about his work, how Opeña created art that looked like pictures of another, fully realized reality.  There are just so many amazing scenes that come to mind: fighting on the moon, the shimmering blades of Dark Angel’s wings, the hulking figure of War with his mighty battleaxe, Pestilence attacking Wolverine…the list just goes on and on.  Uncanny X-Force was like the best kind of miniseries, something that needs to be collected a big, bold collection, with massive pages, so that this art can be seen up close and personal.  Issue after issue, it was the book that I treasured the most this year, and it had everything to do with Opeña’s incredible art (and let’s not forget, never forget, Dean White’s insane coloring, which is a big reason why the art is so stirring).

 

And the 2011 Artist of the Year is…

 

Jerome Opeña

So there you go, my picks for the most intriguing artists of the year, with Jerome Opeña taking top honors for 2011. Very curious to get your reactions on this! I know I left some folks out that have been great (Marcos Martin and Pablo Rivera come to mind immediately, I know), but I hope I have been able to do the ones I did select some justice.

 

Comments

  1. Ryan Ottley is my favorite artist and he continues to blow me away each year. Rob Guillory, Travel Foreman, Leinil Francis Yu, Mike Huddlestein, Jason Howard, and Sean Phillips are just some of the other artists I’ve loved this year.

  2. i just finished the trade of black mirror the other night and, as great as jock is, francesco francavilla blew my mind. i loved how his art is this mixture of pulp and (i think) french/belgian comics. and those two page layouts during skeleton case. and shot of james jr. looking up at gordon in the rain… my god…

    i got a big man-crush on him, i guess. so he’s my artist of the year.

  3. I’m most surprised, most looking forward to Capullo’s work on Batman. Those city scapes from that issue telling the history of Gotham’s architecture stand out in my mind along with his great Batman action scenes.

  4. Great list, Mike. As I was scrolling through your “honorable mentions’ and saw Jock, Hardman, and Francavilla (three of my favorites) I thought “if these are his honorable mentions, I’m probably gonna disagree with the rest of this list”. But then I kept going and realized how many spectacular artists we have working in the industry right now.

    As the son of an illustrator with some unrefined talent of my own, I like to think I have a pretty selective eye. In other words, I’m picky and opinionated with limited expertise to back it up. So I have my favorites, and I’ve always thought of it as a pretty short list. But this piece lined everything up in an orderly fashion, and made me realize just how many “favorites” I have.

    It’s been a great year for comics. All around. Thanks for doin’ this.

  5. Great article!

  6. The only reason I initally picked up Uncanny X-Force was because as soon as I opened the first issue I was blown away by the awesom art of Opena. Then it had a great story/writer on top of that? and amazing colors?
    Great win for us readers.
    While he drew 4 or 5 issues, I can’t remember of the top of my head, Paolo Rivera was amazing in Daredevil.
    Again another perfect union of writing, art and colors.

  7. I don’t think JH is drawing for the iPad. The screen is far too small to fully appreciate his art. And while I love Opena, his faces are a bit off too often for me to give him top honors. JH is my personal best artist of the year, but Manapul is right there along with him pushing the boundaries of how comics present information.

    • oh —
      I was kind of kidding that he was drawing FOR the iPad, not on it. I’ll edit to make sure that’s more clear..

  8. I can’t say that I can argue with any of the people on your list. There are a couple that I would add (including Rivera and Martin, who you mentioned). My finalists would be Samnee, Opena, and Jock or Francavilla, with Samnee winning the day. Also, I was in a similar boat with regards to Capullo. If there is an award for “Pleasant Artistic Suprise of the Year,” he’d win hands down. I knew that I liked the other artist’s work, I had never seen Capullo’s before he took over Batman. His table is going to be mobbed at the cons this year.

  9. Hell yes to Opena! His action scenes are dynamite, but his quiet scenes even leap off the page due to how striking they are. Plus, he draws the best Psylocke.

  10. There are names i could add to this list, but none i would take off. a great year for comic book art.

  11. I totally agree with all your picks here. These are all fantastic artists. I would, however, probably add…

    Duncan Fregedo (his Hellboy work this year was outstanding!)
    David Aja (He only drew like 2 or 3 issue this year but they were fantastic!)
    Yanick Paquette and Chris Burnham (Their work on Batman Inc. made that book magical; Paquette has been killing it on Swamp Thing)

  12. Pretty good list. I am especially glad that Capullo got notice. Help has been doing great work since help was reinvigorated one Haunt. Ottley was missed, as mentioned above.

  13. Has comic art ever been this amazing across the board? Damn these people are good.

  14. I like the list, but would like to throw my picks into the hat anyway. Attila Futaki (Severed) and Gabriel Rodriguez (Locke & Key) are just excellent. And of course, J.H. Williams, though its interesting that Romo’s criticism is about Williams art being done for the ipad. Wasn’t Romo one who switched to digital, so why nitpick an artists’ objective? I don’t think he draws for the ipad at all.

  15. Massive fan of Opena’s work on X-Force, the dynamics he gets are so on point. Fully back the decision to give him the number one spot.

  16. 100% agree with Opena being #1. I would also add Paolo Rivera for his Daredevil work, David Aja for his Wolverine one shot and Secret Avengers issue and Esad Ribic for Ultimates.

  17. Not disagreeing with anyone’s inclusion on this list- but I might’ve ranked JH Williams up a few notches…..Cheers!

    • Yep, his work is just lightyears ahead of everything else out there!

    • Last month I went back and read all the whole X-Force Dark Angel arc, and yes, Opena killed it. I just think WIlliams’ page layouts are a knockout! Who else can tell a visual story over a two page shattered spread with the action point being a back flip?

  18. Great list i have no complaints what so ever. I totally agree with Opena getting the #1 spot.

  19. I thought JH Williams III would bag this but you did make a pretty good arguement on how it is not only art we have to consider but how it serves the comic as a medium. Anyway this was a very good article.

  20. How can you not have JOE MADUREIRA. His art on Avenging Spider-man is great, also Chris Bachalo is awesome too.

  21. Rob Guillory is only an honorable mention!? Just an honorable mention!?

    I think I need to sit down….

    I mean these are all great choices but…..Guillory AND Francavilla AND Hardman are only nominees? That just doesn’t seem right even if this was a fantastic year for artists.

  22. hi all!

    thanks for the comments–glad you took the time to read it. I know, I know–there are going to be choices that will be frustrating–I literally have been obsessing about this article for at least a month, going through books and breaking things down. None of these choices were taken lightly, but, as always, some art will evoke more to an individual than another, which is what makes this so challenging—and why I changed the format this year.

    Regardless, what a great year for art, and aren’t we lucky to get a front row seat to all of this. I think about my friends who do not read comics but who do appreciate art, and I just feel like they are missing out on some truly groundbreaking stuff.

    thank you so much for the comments, guys. I think I speak for the rest of the staff that these are the hardest pieces of the year to write, and we take it very seriously–I was going back and forth with Josh about the picks and it was nigh on impossible to pick a single artist of the year, but I think it worked out in the end.

    I am REALLY curious to see how 2012 shapes up. This year was pretty momentous.

    take care!

  23. While I can’t stand Jock’s art, Francavilla’s was some of the best I’ve ever seen. That series would swing wildly for me! He reminded me so much of Mazuchelli.

    My top 5:

    1. Sean Murphy – wholly unique and wonderful. Came out of nowhere with Joe #1, and has only got better. Loved City of Demons & Survival of the Fittest. I will forever read everything this man does, he elevates everything.
    2. JH Williams III – Similarly, this man elevates everything to must read. Batwoman might not be as strongly written as before, but theres no way I’ll miss anything this man touches. He’s supremely dedicated and talented.
    3. Francavilla
    4. Frazer Irving on Xombi.
    5. Jeff Lemire for consistently killing it on Sweet Tooth as well as Jonah Hex 69.

  24. Jerome Opeña donig the impossible making painted style dynamic fast and cool.

  25. I’m very happy to see Francis Manapul on this list his work on the Flash is gonna go down in comics history when all is said and done.

  26. My top 5:
    5. Fransceco Frankavilla
    4. Jock
    3. Mark Bagley
    2. Rob Guillory
    1. Sean Murphy

    with honorable mention to: Nick Pitarra

  27. Great list. Opena is probably my number one as well. I also loved the work of Yanick Paquette on Swamp Thing . That’s about the only other artist I can think of that hasn’t been mentioned (others have already mentioned Asrar and Rocafort).