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 10 artists of 2015.
10. Phil Noto
(Black Widow, Chewbacca)
The thru-line from Black Widow to Chewbacca might not be immediately obvious. They’re both strong, capable characters, but you’d be forgiven for saying that their similarities end there. One of the defining characteristics of either is the difficulty they have expressing themselves, both to their friends and to the audience. In both cases, charisma goes a long way. “Charisma.” That’s an enigmatic concept in life or on film, but it’s downright sorcery in a comic book, and Phil Noto demonstrated his charisma-craft repeatedly in 2015 on numerous necessarily copy-free sequences in Black Widow and Chewbacca. Writers Nathan Edmondson and Gerry Duggan always let the more impactful moments of their series play out with nothing more than Noto’s simple, expressive character-work to guide them. What his work lacks in innovative layouts or baroque details, it more than made up for in real pathos and a rare gift for genuine empathy.
(The Sandman Overture)
It was not a particularly prolific year for J.H. Williams III, but what he lacked in quantity, he more than made up for in quality, turning in his signature greytone washes and distinctive layouts on page after glorious page of The Sandman Overture. As that series rounded into its final issues, it turned ever more postmodern, calling on Williams to double down on the panels-within-panels that distinguished his early work on the series. It also called on him to modulate his style from panel to panel, from the ethereal otherworldliness of Dream and his siblings, to the sci-fi and fantasy worlds he was rescuing ideas from. The result was a tour de force of art, making the final two issues well worth the wait.
8. Greg Capullo
This year, Greg Capullo was tasked with rebranding Batman. This is, of course, after basically closing the book on the character. We’ve seen similar mic drops in the several couple years: Grant Morrison wrapping up his Batman Epic, Geoff Johns wrapping up his tenure on Green Lantern. In both instances, the artists could go for broke and there’d be nothing to follow-up on, but Capullo and writer Scott Snyder blew past anything so trite as “finale” to prove that excellence isn’t reserved solely for Bruce Wayne. Both the Endgame and Superheavy story lines continued to play with the expanded visual palette established by the brighter Zero Year, and by the end of the year, Capullo was deftly shifting gears between melancholy, joy, terror and excitement, with a constant undercurrent of unsettled danger. It goes without saying that Capullo is a master of action, but the Gotham he’s helped evolve over the last four years perpetually earns him a spot on this list.
7. David Aja
Precision isn’t necessarily the word that jumps to mind when thinking about David Aja’s chunky brushwork, but that seeming simplicity masks a precision unrivalled by just about anyone else in the business. That’s what allows Aja to make 19-panel pages look effortless, and what made all of the callbacks at the end of Hawkeye work. Every character, every prop, every setting was carefully selected, and that specificity was only legible because of Aja’s careful attention to detail. That precision carries over to Aja’s sense of narrative and pacing, which impeccably matches the story, building up all of the heartbreak, disappointment and even the triumphs that made Hawkeye‘s conclusion so powerful.
Fiona Staples’ skill at character design has been rightly celebrated since the moment Saga hit the stands, a skill she continues to flex as the series never ceases to introduce diverse characters and monsters full of personality, each more unusual than the last. Handling the first four issues of the relaunched Archie reminded us that she’s just as good at designing (or re-designing, as it were) human characters as she is alien ones. Her Riverdale is populated with believable modern-day teens, each with a lived in, albeit developing, sense of who they are. As always, her characters move and express themselves with moving subtlety, even when they have bug-eyes or televisions for faces.
5. Mikel Janin
The superspy genre sets some nearly impossible tasks for storytellers – the villains have to be super-smart, the good guys need to be even smarter, and everything from the cars to the tech to the spies themselves have to be sexy, confident and cool. Make that double when your main character is Dick Grayson and your artist is Mikel Janin. Janin lets Grayson’s inherent sexiness and confidence dictate just about everything on the page, from paneling driven by the character’s movements to pacing coming from Dick’s own powers of comprehension. Janin has no problem affecting specific styles or employing tricky page layouts if he thinks it’ll bring the reader closer to Dick’s unique perspective, which projects the character’s contagious enthusiasm right off the page. Every issue he touches is immediately, and appropriately elevated for his contributions.
4. Chris Samnee
Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s final volume on Daredevil started with an unbridled optimism — Matt had moved to sunny California, leaving his worst problems back in Hell’s Kitchen — and Samnee’s swashbuckling art matched that tone every step of the way. But as the series turned towards Matt’s own underlying depression and insecurities, Samnee ably modulated to a darker style — often literally, as inky blackness threatened to consume Matt and his closest allies. That darkness ran as a subtle counter-melody even when Matt seemed to be at his happiest, reminding us that Matt hasn’t really shed his demons.
3. Cliff Chiang
2015 found Cliff Chiang as a prolific cover artist, offering up variants for everything from Batgirl to Spider-Gwen (and a few non-variant covers for Ms. Marvel). It’s no coincidence that that list features so many female characters — Chiang’s celebrated run on Wonder Woman demonstrated just how deft he is at drawing strong, empowering heroines. In that way, his new series, Paper Girls, featuring a group of young paper delivery girls, is a perfect fit. Beyond empowering, his interior work affords him the space to flex his narrative muscles, showing off his skills with everything from expression and body language to staging and camera placement. We’ll never deny that his covers are incredible, but with sequential work this strong, how could we ever want him to do anything else?
(The Mighty Thor, Thor)
The oversized action of Thor allowed Russell Dauterman to flex his impressive abilities with huge, sprawling battles (perhaps best represented by the everyone-and-their-mother brawl that opens Thor 8), but its final set up a very different task: the tiny, dying woman at the center of all of this action. Dauterman never misses a beat, lavishing the same care and detail on Jane Foster’s visit to the chemo ward in The Mighty Thor 1 as he does with any of the fight scenes. That’s a dramatic range few artists could handle quite so deftly, but Dauterman makes it look easy — and, it goes without saying, gorgeous.
(Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a long history of bold, dynamic art, which is why Mateus Santolouco is such a perfect fit. Santolouco caught our eye with his kinetically (yet clearly) staged fight scenes, but talking head sequences are directed just as compellingly. Whether they feature punches or words, every panel emphasizes the importance of each moment on the story, giving Santolouco’s work a direction and urgency that makes him our favorite artist of 2015.