Without artists, all of your favorite characters, scenes, costumes, and locations would just be words on a page. In short, they’re the ones that make comics comics. That’s a lot of responsibility, yet the best artists manage to juggle all of those tasks and inject some meaningful art and style into the proceedings. Whether its a subtle expression or a jaw-dropping action sequence, our favorite artists add the requisite magic to make their worlds and characters real. These are our top 14 artists of 2014.
14. Fiona Staples
This year’s arc of Saga started with telling us that Marko and Alana — the central couple we’d all spent the previous 18 issues pulling for — would split up. It turns out that may not be the whole story, but that presumption gave Staples plenty of space to shade in a slowly disintegrating marriage. Staples has always had an eye for just the right expression, but the smaller, domestic drama of this arc put those skills front and center, showing off just how impeccable her acting truly is.
13. Francis Manapul
2014 found Manapul pulled in some new directions, as he traded in the bright optimism of the Gem Cities for the shadowy grime of Gotham. We never doubted that his Detective Comics would look great, but we didn’t quite expect the noirish details that started creeping in at the fringes. A dramatic lighting cue or canted camera angle goes a long way to differentiating his work here from is art on The Flash (which we also loved), giving the series a mood that was distinctly its own. He’d always been a great director, but this year showed that he can do “detective procedural” just as well as he does “action thriller.”
12. Nick Dragotta
The world of East of West is massive — a given issue could feature any (or all) of the seven nations, each with their own distinct style of dress and architecture. Dragotta manages to juggle all of these details — plus whatever monsters or technologies don’t fit within those seven nations — all without losing his own signature look that so defines the series. This year found the factions of the series butting heads, making Dragotta’s designs all the more important to understanding the conflicts at play, whether they be those between old world and new, north and south — even east and west.
11. Steve Epting
Exotic locations, huge action set-pieces, seduction, intrigue. These are the spectacles we expect of a spy thriller, but in the case of Velvet all of those production values fall on the shoulders of Epting. Fortunately, Epting’s range covers every situation this series can throw at him, from a stealthy extraction mission to the baccarat tables of Monaco. Epting’s flair for dramatic shadows give every scene the look of a classic spy thriller, codifying our expectations just before the blot subverts them. It’s a clever effect the series has relied on again and again, but only works because Epting sells it so perfectly.
10. Jamie McKelvie
Choice of moment is a key skill for a comic book artist, and it might just be Jamie McKelvie’s strongest. That’s not to say that he’s a slouch when it comes to staging, blocking, character design, or acting — indeed, he can hang with the best when it comes to any of those skills — but that they’re all enhanced because he always manages to select the right expression and posture to convey all of the emotion and momentum that his stories call for. It makes him just as adept with talking heads as he is with an action sequence, which might just be why Kieron Gillen likes collaborating with him so much.
It was a banner year for Dauterman, who kicked things off with a stellar two-issue stint pencilling Kyle Higgins’ emotional farewell to Nightwing. From there Dauterman pencilled the beautiful first arc of Cyclops, before being tapped to headline with Jason Aaron on his new volume of Thor. As if vaulting to one of Marvel’s premiere titles wasn’t enough, that new volume featured a controversial new female character wielding Mjolnir. Dauterman’s gorgeous art transcended that controversy, crackling with all the confidence of a newly minted star in the comics world.
Sorrentino and Lemire shook up Green Arrow in 2013, jettisoning virtually everything in that series that wasn’t absolutely central, and changing many things that were. 2014 found them setting their sights even higher, as they embarked on their epic “Outsiders War”, building on their own mythology, and upending even more assumptions about the series. After wrapping up that run this summer, Sorrentino’s skills at slowing down a scene to bullet time became the central motif of his dual X-Men annuals, as Sorrentino imbued Eva Bell’s secret history with all of the style and maturity he brought to Green Arrow.
7. Chris Samnee
From smartphones to door signs, the past two volumes of Daredevil have been full of little reminders of Matt’s blindness — important reminders of the value of a sense we might otherwise take for granted. That raised awareness of sight pairs beautifully with Samnee’s nuanced art, which is so subtle as to be easily taken for granted, too. Samnee’s style is deceptively simple, but don’t let the efficacy of his bold lines confuse just how much storytelling he packs into every panel. The first issue of the new volume is a standout, establishing the who, what, where, and why of Daredevil into 20 breathtaking pages.
6. Cliff Chiang
Chiang’s intelligent, mature storytelling had long made him the perfect fit for the equally intelligent and mature Wonder Woman, but as Chiang and Brian Azzarello’s three-year long epic accelerated into its conclusion, Chiang was tasked with ever more superlative images — from the most chaotic battle to the most emotionally wrenching reunion. That he was able to deliver is a testament to his skills, but more impressive is that his art got even better as the end approached, wringing even more depth and meaning out of every line.
5. Greg Capullo
Batman is routinely one of the biggest sellers in all of comicdom, so between sales numbers, fan expectations, and over 75 years of history, there is plenty of ideals for the creative team to live up to. Add to that the treacherousness of a brand-new continuity (to change too much is sacrilege, to change too little is boring), and you have a veritable tightrope act on top of trying to tell a meaningful story. Impossibly, Capullo blows all of those expectations out of the water every single month. This year in particular found Capullo recreating some of the most iconic Batman images, yet somehow retaining his own style and sensibilities, emphasizing the “by fans, for fans” feel that makes this creative team so exciting.
4. David Aja
David Aja’s dense, incredibly graphic style has come to represent everything that’s so compelling about Hawkeye, and the uniquely damaged character of Clint Barton. It may have been a slower year for the series (Aja only did the artwork for three issues, along with a couple pages in the holiday issue), but every single page is loaded with visual information. It is fitting, then, that it all drove toward the famous ‘deaf issue’, which took the idea of having to express thoughts visually to its often frustrating conclusion. What could have felt like a gimmick — albeit, a meaningful gimmick — actually reveals itself to be a perfect fit for the talent Aja’s displayed since the very first issue.
3. Chip Zdarsky
Sex Criminals tends to keep a lot of balls in the air. (Pause for snickering.) The second arc moved away from strictly being about the sexual confessions of our protagonists and out into the world of intimate confessions of everyone around them. Layers upon layers of therapy, fighting, disease, mistrust, and memories half-remembered and half-imaged stack up to tell emotionally coherent stories that — by all rights — should be absolutely dizzying to the eye. Zdarsky funnels the mad wit of Matt Fraction through a lens so personable, funny and clear that every single moment lands, even when the emotional revelations are popping in every panel. Tragedy can shift perspective all it wants, Zdarsky’s got his eyes fixed on the tragedy.
When it comes to depicting action on the still page, Mateus Santolouco is a master-craftsman. And action is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ bread and butter. Once our heroes returned from Northampton (an arc that we loved, but was much more quiet and subdued), it was time to kick back and have some fun, for crying out-loud. Santolouco borrowed some of Sophie Campbell’s more charming character details and set to the hugely gratifying business of pitting mutant animals against each other. Every page is packed with personality, movement and weight.
Declan Shalvey’s work on Moon Knight proved that a character could be completely, 100% comic booky and meaningfully interact with a more realistic word, without trivializing either. Moon Knight’s totally white design made him one with the gutter, a literal and transparent part of the page. Each of Shalvey’s six issues are absolutely breathless, ably expressing what’s so compelling about a character that simply cannot be expressed any other way. Shalvey never lets the core simplicity of the issues — Moon Knight rescues a child, Moon Knight fights punk rock ghosts, Moon Knight trips on mushrooms — diminish the intricacy of detail he brings to every page. It is at once graphic, simple, complex and completely mesmerizing.