Schools of comic book art: Unconventional artists

Following up on my article last week about the comic book artists who paint, (and generally create their comic book artwork using tools which are outside of the traditional comic book style), this week I’m going to talk about some of my favorite comic book artists from the who’re working within the medium, but with a very pronounced nod to self-expression to their work. Unlike the movement of painterly comic book artists we discussed last week, these artists work within the established scope of the traditional tools of the trade, but make their mark by expressing their own vision. Using the established mediums of pencils, inks and coloring as their stepping off point, these are the artists who break boundaries simply by dint of their own very personal style dominating their work. Still working within the classic constraints of the comic book medium, their unique vision manages to shine through on every page, taking the fore. This is just a small sampling of some of the artists I feel best represent this school of thought; The movement of Unconventional comic artists.

Paul Pope
I think I first saw a Paul Pope comic about ten or so years ago. His generous, lascivious brush strokes immediately jumped out at me. But this wasn’t the most remarkable aspect of his work, the subject matter was different, the people, their clothing, their homes, the buildings… It all seemed like something out of a rampantly eclectic future, where cultures clash and everyone is incredibly stylish. It wasn’t just about his technique, but about his vision. Then, I went to Tokyo a couple of years ago and it was like walking into a Paul Pope drawing. Every stylish young person I saw looked as if they’d been plucked whole from the pages of 100%, with their artfully feathered hair and oddly layered clothing. If you took the oldest, dirtiest parts of New York, and squashed them together with the strangest little back alleys of Tokyo, you’d probably have a Paul Pope book.

Ted McKeever
Before I ever saw a Ted McKeever drawing, I met him at a comic book convention. He’s probably the only person I met at that huge London convention, since it was my first comic con and I was a pretty shy 17 year old. But I felt safe approaching Mr. McKeever at a table all alone. He looked bored, and I thought I might be able to get this unknown (to me) young artist to draw me Elektra (my new favorite character at the time). He seemed amused by the request, and asked me “You mean Elektra Assassin?” “Yes please”, I answered hopefully. So he drew me a rather fabulously angular version of the ninja assassin and I have to say, I’d never seen comic book art like it. I was hooked. His lines had a straight and rugged feel, like the bold, harsh strokes of Franz Kline. Like the American abstract expressionist, McKeever’s stories are infused with a dark, aggressive quality, simply by dint of his characteristic line work.

Mobius (or Jean Giraud) has a marvelously detailed technique which I first stumbled across when I was living in Germany. There I found a few, very random old copies of the Incal. These disparate issues were too scattered to tell a coherent story, and they were in terrible condition, but I knew that I had to find more. Moebius’ gritty, down-to-earth drawing style is a fantastic contrast to his bizaare visions of the future, alien worlds, customs, and environments. As an avid science fiction reader, I quickly gravitated towards his strange depiction of the future as expressed in stories like Airtight Garage (which was published in Metal Hurlant), and fell in love with his marvelous drawings of the Silver Surfer in the award-winning Silver Surfer: Parable.

Kyle Baker
Kyle Baker is an artist who’s versatile and evolving art has definitely run the gamut. With each new project, he seems to enjoy experimenting with new techniques, creating an entirely new style for himself. Despite all of this potentially confusing technique, his inherent talent as an artist always shines through. With humor and aplomb, he depicts some of the most amusingly human characters of the medium. I might be one of his oldest works, but my favorite works of his will always be those first few which he wrote and drew; Why I Hate Saturn not only made me laugh my ass off, but the loosely drawn characters felt familiar and warm. His true humor lies in his talent for gentle (and yet somehow simultaneously, outrageous) exaggeration, as exhibited early on when he took over the Shadow from Sienkiewicz, or more recently, when he went all out on Plastic Man.

Seth Fisher
Did you ever hear of Peter Max? When I was an infant, apparently my parents put Peter Max posters around my crib. My mum always said that the psychedelic lines infused my aesthetic early on, like Obelix who was dropped in the potion at birth, it would always effect me. Seth Fisher must have had his own dose of psychedelic/art nouveau art potion at some point because it seemed to be the backbone of everything he did. Here is a man uniquely qualified to draw the most outlandish and beautifully choreographed line work in the vein of Max and Alphonse Mucha before him. I personally have a hard time remembering where I first stumbled across this fleeting bit of genius, but I remember picking up Fantastic Four: Big in Japan around the same time as Batman: Snow, (two books that I’d highly recommend). His perfect wave forms are the ideal choice to depict frost, mist, and cold air in all of it’s visible forms, while he’s intensely strange take on surrealism made him ideal for the pop art extravaganza that was this fictitious version of Japan.

Jack Kirby
Jack Kirby is really is the godfather of this entire genre, at least as far as I’m concerned. One of my earliest memories has to be my dad’s Kirby comics, and their incredibly dynamic lines of action that swept across page after page. With his bold, clean brush strokes, this man’s inks changed a genre, just as his intensely bold character depictions influenced an entire generation of pop artists. When Kirby drew a superhero battle in space, it felt like neither space nor superheroes had ever been depicted with such deft certainly as Kirby managed to infuse it with. With a clear nod to the dynamism of the deco styles of the 1950’s, this man reinvented a genre and altered an era.

This is just a sampling of Unconventional movement of comic book art. An increasing number of artists are choosing the comic book medium to infuse with their own distinct look and feel, far too many to list here. Some more of my favorites, who really dragged my attention to this school of art would be Alejandro Jodorowsky, who’s beautiful futuristic/noir reality has influenced fashion for decades. Or Eddie Campbell, who’s scratchy cartoon style can echo the most intimate and rough of Henry Moore‘s drawings of the people sheltering the underground in London in the second World War. Then you take an artist like Frank Quietly, (without whom I’m not sure I’d ever have picked up another Superman comic), who, like Geoff Darrow, leaves each panel of art saturated with delightful detail and an attention to each moment that simultaneously takes him into a very fictitious space, and also seems to depict a crisper, realer space.
Chris Ward, who plays with color, line and light to create a visual dance of movement across the page. Teddy Kristiansen clearly speaks with his own voice, adding his very pointed, angular and tragically lovely atmosphere to each line he draws. The list goes on and on, clearly the voice of the Unconventional artist is one that speaks very strongly to me. It seems to me that these are the artists who live in a little bit in each world, equally straddling the genres of art as a source self-expressionism, and art as a form of graphic communication. With a nod to both ways of thinking, these artists have given themselves two difficult jobs to do, and I think that these people do it rather elegantly.

Sonia Harris lives, works, and plays in San Francisco. She’s originally from London, and recently is having a hard time separating art, design and nature in her mind. Please email here at


  1. Kyle Baker will every category you have. From Saturn to The Bakers to his Wednesday Comics Hawkman story, the man is versatility personified.

    Great Article. Do you still have that Mckeever drawing? Care to share it? 🙂

  2. Really great analysis, Sonia.  I am a huge fan of many of these guys–I have an almost embarrassing obsession with Paul Pope, who is just killing it in Wednesday Comics–and I love that you included Kyle Baker here as well.  It’s really great to take a step back and consider comic art in this way…what a pleasure!  great article.

  3. I’m gonna have to disagree with Paul Pope. Now mind you my only exposure to him is Wednesday Comics so I’m not gonna judge his entire work. But with WC I can’t say I am a fan of his art style. It does look pretty massive and has a lot of detail in it. With the characters he actually has to draw though I find them pretty ugly. Maybe it’s more of a surrealist take with art then anything else but I can’t say his ‘Strange Adventures’ is making me go out and get his other work.

  4. I always find your articles incredibly entertaining Sonia!

    I too, am a fan of Paul Pope.  Quite a rock star, that guy.  This makes me want to go dig up that 100% trade I have lying around somewhere

  5. Wonderful series you’re writing for us! THX.

    Quick question: Where do you think of Ashley Wood’s inkiest of ink lines and gritty paintings fit into one of these categories? 


    P.S. The comic book logo posts was quite enjoyable too… they are what got me into brand identity way back when. Although… from my point of view several of the typographic executions might be considered editorial mastheads rather than logos because of their complexity and inability to reproduce at a puny scale (oh lord…sound the design-nerd alert) 

  6. wow, now I want all of my brush strokes to be lascivious.

    Great piece. Love all of these artists. So glad Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn got a mention! I love that book! 

    Somewhere around the age of 20, Why I Hate Saturn first introduced me to a very basic axiom that I have yet to disprove. There are beautiful women. There are intelligent women. But if they’re beautiful AND intelligent, they also must be crazy. 😉


    (I kid, I kid!)

  7. @mudi900 I wish I could find that sketch. Maybe it’s with all my missing single socks?

    @BatStewie: Covered Ashley Wood last week, as part of the more painterly movement of comic book artists. Have a read and you’ll see what I thought there.

    @daccampo: All the best people are crazy. Sane people can be so dull.

  8. Also: I’m totally with Mike on this one: Pope’s Adam Strange is easily the highlight of Wednesday Comics for me. The guy is amazing. THB, 100%, Heavy Liquid, One Trick Rip-off, Escapo — I highly recommend it all.

  9. @Sonia — this is also true. I do not deny it.

  10. I’ve only read Pope in Wednesday but he is amazing there. I always look forward to reading that strip.

  11. It’s interesting to compare McKeever’s color work like Plastic Forks or Metropol to the B&W books like Transit or Eddy Current. It’s strange to me that color seems to take a lot of the bite out of his work.


    i dunno i’m probably just talking out of my ass.

  12. I’d toss both Mike and Laura Allred up there. Amazing Pop Art from both of them Paul Pope’s 100 is incredible. J.G. Jones 52 covers are amxing pieces of work.

  13. You’ve seen the Heavy Metal movie, right? I think thats one of the most important comic movies ever, because the animation style so closely mimicked the artists who created the stories, like the aformentioned Mobius. All the animation beautifully depicted that European style that he was famous for.

  14. Thanks Sonia. If this article gets even one person to buy – or even read – FF: Big in Japan then you’ve done a public service. Seth Fisher was…words fail me. Just go get it people. 

  15. Love this article. I’d put Chris Ware and Tony Millionaire in this category as well. I think those guys have really tried in their own ways to push the medium of comics without taking it completely out of the realm altogether. Plus, their work is awesome.

    I’ve been a big fan of Kyle Baker since The Shadow and Dick Tracy, but wasn’t as a big a fan of his Plastic Man. I always thought the charm of his work was his tempering the cartoony exaggeration with a more grounded realistic style. The Shadow was probably the height of that, but all of his creator-owned stuff is proof he’s still got it.

    R.I.P. Seth Fisher 

  16. I’m just going to use the excuse of Seth Fisher being mentioned to once again give a shout out to Green Lantern: Willworld.  One of my favorite comics ever.

  17. Fab article part 2 🙂

    For some reason I misread paul Pope as Paul grist which would have been equally fitting. Mckeevers an excellent shout and I hope you find the image someday. I Qued for hours at my first con to get ian Gibson to sign something for me which is similarly lost 🙁

  18. This Article is complete Ashes style Bolocks. Just kidding, having Caey withdrawals

  19. I just bought Batman Year 100 and thought about Pope when I saw this.

  20. It’s great to see you highlighting the artists who have an idiosynchratic style. It’s a shame that the majority of mainstream books have a bland, homogenous look. I’ve heard people saying that they like that ‘neutral’ look since it stops the art ‘getting in the way’ of the story. Personally, I’d like to see more individual artwork out there with unique characteristics, contributing to the richness of book.

  21. I’ve only read From Hell from Eddie Campbell which was crazy good, the depiction of london was so intricate and beautiful. 

    I’ve read batman and robin from Quitely which was great, but We 3 was amazing. The layouts were perfect and the double page spreads were jaw-droppingly good (I literally did on i think the 1st spread)

    Would you consider Mike Mignola unconventional? Hellboy is like nothing else. 

  22. How is Jonathan Hickman not on this list?!? The Nightly News is amazing!

  23. Hickman doesn’t really have a long body of work from which to draw.  These other people have been around and done a lot of work. Hickman’s more of a designer anyway.  But either way, he’s a neophyte.

  24. I hope Sonia talks about Hickman’s art in the future. I just finished ‘Nightly News’ a couple of days ago and it was really good. It might be the most bold design choice for a comic I have seen.

  25. Agree on Hickman. Way to early.

    Sonia, thanks for reminding me about Mobius. One of the first guys where I was like "I don’t get it…Oh, now I get it…Wow!"

  26. Didn’t mention Hickman because 1) this isn’t a full list as I said in the article, there are TONS of good people, this is just a sampling, and 2) Because I’m not that familiar with his work. Some of the other people on this list haven’t done a lot, I just know their work.

    @Josh: Why are you talking for me?

  27. this is great. look forward to the next one. 

  28. what. no jim lee. 😛   kyle baker gets bonus point for being in a george clinton video. 

  29. also big in japans was all kind of fun. i reall can believe how technical he was and stillable to put books out on time.

  30. As much as I love Kyle Baker, he lost a lot of cred with me with the 4th issue of Special Forces. It was all 3D models twisted and lined (presumably by Baker) instead of being original drawings. It’s not clear wether this was done out of experimentation or, god forbid, laziness, but either way, it really seemed to betray what comic art should be, and not in a way that conveys innovation.

  31. Kyle Baker is probably one of the most underrated cartoonists out there.  I first heard of him when I read the Topps book Dick Tracy that went along with the movie.  The characters he did were so creepy, but, the amazing thing is even thought he made it cartoony, Dick retained Warren Beatty’s likeness, so much it was uncanny!

    My Favorite book of his HAS to be You Are Here.  A great use of the comic format, the thing reads like a silent animated movie, with the dialogue running under the panel.  Brilliant!!  If you haven’t, pick it up.  His Robert Mitchum character is spot on and all the more chilling for it!!

    I’ve love Paul Pope’s work for a while, and Mckeever killed it with his Batman Black and White story.

    Great article!!!!