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 2016.
What, at it’s heart, is Mighty Thor? A bold reimagining of mythology borrowed from ancient Norse cultures and Marvel comics? Maybe it’s a no-time-for-questions edge-of-your-seat thrill ride? Oh, maybe it’s a meditation on the strength of women. Or the superheroic struggle of fighting cancer. Those are all heady aims, and only Russell Dauterman can deliver the electric mix of bubblegum and gravity to hit all those targets at once. Dauterman’s work is almost exhausting in scope and scale, depicting wars between worlds with electric efficiency. But perhaps most impressive is Dauterman’s skillful handling of ageless iconography, pitting frailty against greed, normalcy against fantasy and always leaving us cheering for the most unlikely hero.
It’s fun to imagine Kieron Gillen’s scripts for his frequent collaborator. I like to think every page ends with “…and remember, all of this looks impossibly cool.” Somehow, McKelvie draws cool stories about cool characters and never comes off looking like a tool. Part of that lies in his ability to make the mundane iconic and the iconic mundane, essentially bringing all human and superhuman interaction down to a manageable level. His heroes, be they reincarnated gods or music-based magicians, are all disarmingly vulnerable and stylish at the same time.
8. Jesus Saiz
(Avengers Standoff: Assault on Pleasant Hill Alpha, Captain America: Steve Rogers)
Reality-altering sentient cosmic cubes, armies of invading aliens, a legacy turned on its head. Jesus Saiz was not tasked with drawing simple things this year, but it’s his stunning mastery of simplicity that sells every heart-breaking, mind-bending twist. Saiz elevates Steve Rogers’ legacy with statuesque figure-drawing and cinematic composition, while also revealing the fragility and mutability of the character with an arresting focus on his humanity. Saiz inks and often colors his own drawings, so every curve of Cap’s body and every splash of light and motion is uniquely his.
(Civil War II, Old Man Logan)
We’ve long known that Andrea Sorrentino’s striking approach to shadow and form lent itself to Noir — he made our best of list in 2014 for his collaboration with Jeff Lemire on their distinctly dark Green Arrow. What we didn’t know is how well that style would work on a Western. Re-teaming with Lemire, Sorrentino’s Old Man Logan was a revelation, capturing the darkness of Logan’s past in the harsh light of a high-noon sun (even as the series has taken the character far afield of his Western origins). Of course, Sorrentino also had a few new tricks up his sleeve, dazzling us with ever more inventive layouts that always packed a narrative punch.
6. Nicola Scott
(Black Magick, Wonder Woman)
Much of DC’s Rebirth has reset the visual aesthetic of the publisher to a now-predictable level of grit. Nicola Scott, however, is an irrepressible font of beauty, allowing all the implied majesty of Wonder Woman’s life on Paradise Island onto the page. Inking her own work, Scott’s drawings have a tenderness that could easily be perceived as naive if it weren’t so fucking convincing. With the legitimacy of Wonder Woman’s history in the balance, Scott provides an achingly heartfelt argument for love, simplicity and beauty.
5. Steve Lieber
Comedy comic artists have one hell of a job — not only to they have sell those odds ticks and pauses that have come to dominate the comedic landscape, but the sheer number of panels required for successful comedy has skyrocketed. Steve Lieber seems intimidated by neither and he expertly conveys personality, irony and crackerjack timing at an exhausting pace. Nick Spencer may be the one writing the jokes, but Lieber is the motherfucker telling them. And for as much detachment as Spencer’s deplorable characters and settling require, Lieber doubles down on sympathy, insisting on the reality of these people, this dog, and this city. It’s the kind of love/hate letter that only comes from truly letting these characters in.
4. Cliff Chiang
It makes sense that Cliff Chiang is such a prolific cover artist — everybody wants his dramatic, iconographic designs advertising their books. A skill-set that strong (and that in demand) has led many an artist away from interiors altogether, but Chiang has managed to redirect that specialty into a more generalized skill, turning in sequential pages that are every bit as iconic as his covers. That sounds like a recipe for stiff poses and an overemphasis of big moments, but Chiang’s true skill might lie in making the subtler moments every bit as iconic as his big action beats, hiding some beautifully authentic character moments in the midst of the high-flying sci-fi world of Paper Girls.
This guy’s made our Best Artist lists every year since we started this, and we always congratulate him on his balletic action sequences. There really isn’t anyone else in the industry that can do motion, movement and direction like Santoluoco. This year, however, we’re dazzled by his expert handle on character and atmosphere as he crafted a deft murder mystery on Burnow Island. It’s a tightly wound story that’s as surprising as it is genuinely unnerving. Santoluoco actually manages to introduce a monstrous crocodile-man, and convince us of his humanity, before pulling back the curtain and revealing his guilt.
(Doctor Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme, Spider-Woman)
If you had asked us back in 2015 how we felt about Javier Rodriguez’s departure from Daredevil — a series he had been coloring since 2011 — we might have been unhappy with the idea. Rodriguez was, after all, one of our favorite colorists. In our defense, we had no idea what he would do as the artist on Spider-Woman. His clever, heartfelt work on first volume of that series quickly put us in our place, but he only got better with the next volume, effortlessly flipping between the emotional highs and lows of parenthood while still nailing every action beat writer Dennis Hopeless could throw at him. That knack for action was essential for Doctor Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme, which gave Rodriguez a bigger cast, more outlandish action, and a regular outlet for his inventive character designs.
1. Chris Samnee
Chris Samnee’s work on Daredevil with Mark Waid was devoted to depicting exactly how Matt Murdock, with his unique senses, experienced the world around him. It seems fitting, then, that his work on Black Widow would similarly adopt Natasha Romanoff’s more sly, aloof perspective. Samnee can tell entire stories in the background of a scene, using clever layouts and misdirection to keep Natasha’s plans under wraps, even when they’re playing out in clear view of the reader. That said, Samnee’s work throughout 2016 will likely be best remembered for its stunning, breathless action. His masterful sense of pacing, space, and choreography means that each issue has at least one bravua sequence. Samnee’s action is graceful, hard-hitting, and beyond all, precise — just like Black Widow herself.