5. Nate Powell
Nate Powell’s art is an absolute delight to look at, showcasing an artist whose speed and gentle hand navigate a host of complex scenes. His technique of hatching creates shadows and compositions that are dark, soft, and full of character. Most of all, Powell’s work serves and enhances the text, whether he’s written the script or not. His lettering and innovations with text are especially noteworthy. In a time when almost everyone uses computer lettering, Powell continues to do it by hand, which allows him to get the most out of the words. They float between panels, twirl around and ensnare figures, and represent sounds with emotional heft. When action overlaps two panels, it’s done so seamlessly that it hardly calls attention to itself. Powell’s influences, Depression Era WPA artists known for traveling the country to illustrate the spirit of the time, inspire working-class-hero gravity through the lens of the civil rights struggle. Hillary Brown
4. Paul Pope
Battling Boy was nothing short of a labor of love and, like most such labors, took an inordinate amount of time to actually reach the public. Originally slated for a 2006/2007 release, Pope continued to tweak the book well past its scheduled due date. Seven years later, the ultimate result finds Pope tossing all his beloved influences, from Jack Kirby to manga, into a blender and spewing out a proverbial smoothie that’s nothing short of glorious. Rather than being a messy glob of different pieces, Battling Boy stands as a meticulously-crafted adventure story that never once loses its sense of child-like spontaneity. With high-contrast hues (courtesy of Hilary Sycamore) that recall the Silver Age escapism of old, Pope is both giving an artistic education to his readers while enthralling them with his dynamically drawn action set pieces. Like the great films of Hayao Miyazaki, Pope has created a complex, yet instantly accessible, world of his own making. Besides being an exciting, alt-superhero tale, Battling Boy stands as a love letter to comic book art as well as an invitation to new readers to further explore the world of comics . Was it worth the wait? You’re damn right it was. Mark Rozeman
3. J.H. Williams III
Batwoman, Sandman: Overture
There’s a valid argument that three issues worth of art shouldn’t warrant enough praise to make it on a year-end list. There’s also a valid argument that when J.H. Williams III illustrates anything, it’s going to look awe-inspiringly superb. Williams paints, sketches and concocts like a renaissance artist melded with a puzzle-maker, layering textured blacks and reds into flowing panel configurations that are as arresting as the strata within them.
There’s a reason Neil Gaiman picked the former Batwoman helmer to collaborate on the feverishly anticipated Sandman prequel, Overture. Williams revels in the surreal, where music stanzas and nightmare teeth (see below) frame panels in blisteringly creative ways. These pages aren’t just a series of optical innovations designed to keep audiences coming back every month, but the work of an artist who’s just as committed to challenging himself as his readers. Sean Edgar
2. Jae Lee
DC’s Batman/Superman launched back in June with some killer pencils by Jae Lee. “Killer pencils by Jae Lee” sounds redundant, right? In the title, the artist doesn’t so much blur the line between realism and dreamscape, as he makes you forget there ever was one. From Gothic spires to gnarly tree branches, Lee offers us a Gotham as hellish as only Batman can see it. And, though it’s easy to be dramatic in the gloom of Gotham City, he achieves just as much moodiness in the flaxen prairies of Smallville.
Whether it’s Superman’s red eyes burning through an inky abyss or Pa Kent’s worry smudged across the creases in his face, Lee is a master of shadows. He’s no slouch when it comes to silhouettes either, employing them to great effect in all six panels on a particularly touching page in issue #2. Lee’s visual storytelling is so on point that even if his 4-issue run on Batman/Superman had no word balloons at all, it would still be a compelling read. (No offense, Greg Pak). Robert Tutton
1. Fiona Staples
Whether asked to draw humanoids with wings or horns, a genus of robot royalty with televisions for heads, a giant tree rocket ship, a spider-woman bounty hunter, or any number of other things that could easily be rendered with plenty of cheese, Staples executes with great style and elan. She also has the visual grace that lets her work serve the story rather than show it up. And her fashion sense, let it be said, is a fantastic addition to the book, making its characters more chic and believable than they would be otherwise; Staples has made capes cool again, and protagonist Alana, in particular, benefits from her badass designs. Hillary Brown