You have to acknowledge a certain futility in composing a “Best Comic Artists” list, especially as the comic market continues to expand outward like a gorgeous new universe being born. Art, of course, is extremely subjective, and comics—a medium that allows or even encourages picking specific styles and sticking to them—invites fiery debate over talent and skill. Photo-realism picks fights with abstract cartooning. Ink-drenched pages battle digital painting. And in the midst of it all, long-time fan-favorites from Fiona Staples to Doug Mahnke continue to produce high-quality work.
The list below, ordered alphabetically, highlights 10 new and veteran artists who’ve impressed us throughout the first half of 2017. Their styles run the gamut from jaggedly angular inkwork to vibrant cartooning—and everything in between. We invite you to debate our selections on Twitter and Facebook, and to sound off on any egregious exemptions. (And yes, we have a separate list for colorists on the way.)
Lorena Alvarez’s Nightlights, put out by Nobrow, is one of the most beautiful books by anyone put out this year, even if it’s probably going to be overlooked in favor of more adult or mainstream material. The story of a little girl who finds a spooky friend who isn’t as nice as she seems is fine, but it’s been done better elsewhere (e.g. Anya’s Ghost). Alvarez’s art, however, makes each page a joy to look at. She unfolds two-page spreads that feel like whole worlds, full of sea creatures and flowers, monsters and space things. There’s so much to look at on these pages, which don’t bother with panels but sometimes convey time nonetheless. They’re perfect for a book that is, in many ways, about the joy of drawing. Nearly as nice are the more conventionally paneled pages that come in between them and tell the majority of the story. Alvarez’s coloring is more restrained here, but with hints of fluorescence and chaos oozing in around the edges, to suggest the subconscious that awakens on the bigger pages. It’s a book that demands your eyeballs. Hillary Brown
Prowler, Vixen, Power Rangers Covers
Joshua Middleton rarely produces interior art these days, and CAFU stays busy at Valiant, which makes the seemingly sudden appearance of artist Jamal Campbell at both Marvel and DC a boon to fans of open, exact linework fleshed out by an expert application of colors. Campbell’s near-photo-realistic figure work might read as overly static were it not for his keen eye for color and tone, which gives depth to his figures and life to his visual sense of “acting.” The artist, whose breakout Power Rangers covers have helped explode the franchise at BOOM! Studios, gorgeously reintroduced Vixen to audiences early this year and elevated Prowler from the depths of tie-in obscurity. Thankfully, Campbell’s stunning work should reach a much wider audience when he joins the rotating art team on Steve Orlando’s JLA in the coming months. Steve Foxe
The Mighty Thor
Writer Jason Aaron’s long run on the Thor titles has been consistent and strong, but specific chapters have been defined and enhanced by the artists. Esad Ribic gave a painted cosmic beauty to “God Butcher” and “God Bomb.” Olivier Coipel lent a dingy, grim feel to The Unworthy Thor. And Russell Dauterman has made the story of Jane Foster as Thor one of the most beautiful comics from any modern publisher. Dauterman’s art—full of detail and epic in scope—is appropriate for a tale ranging from cancer treatment centers to the home of Shi’ar gods.
Much as Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” lent a heavy-metal power to the Thor: Ragnorak trailer, Dauterman’s intricate art gives The Mighty Thor the look and feel of the greatest fantasy story ever told. His clean lines and bold choreography make the cosmic spaceways come alive. In a superhero universe chock-full o’ gods and god-like humans, Dauterman (aided and enhanced by colorist Matt Wilson) makes the Asgardian gods feel new again—no easy task. Mark Peters
DC’s Young Animal imprint has flourished under the guidance of “curator” Gerard Way, earning the respect of both critics and readers, with flagship title Doom Patrol, in particular, breezing past initial resistance and concern that the book might somehow mar the legacy of the Grant Morrison/Richard Case heyday. Way himself takes the writing helm, but Nick Derington deserves much of the credit for just how well that book is doing. Derington doesn’t have many credits under his belt just yet, but he’s very clearly a fan of the medium, with geeky art all over the internet and several successful fan-art Kickstarters to prove it.
His work is crisp and clean without being sparse, and detailed enough to allow Way to lean away from unneeded dialog and let the art tell the story. There’s a lot of thought put into the texture and space on each panel, and Derington has a better handle on perspective and three-dimensional space than many more-seasoned artists. This helps lend an air of believability and realness to a story that is, at its heart, utterly absurd. Characters look familiar without feeling like Derington is aping someone else’s style, and are expressive beyond just their faces, with physical tics and body language cues that don’t often crop up in superhero books. Derington may be a relatively new name in the industry, but his attention to detail and skill with characterization has made him a fast fan-favorite. Caitlin Rosberg
Working on a flagship title comes with a lot of pressure. Tent-pole books are designed to keep the entire narrative machine of superhero publishers working, and fall under even more scrutiny than your average comic. Bilquis Evely faced more than just the typical weight of reader expectations when she began working on Wonder Woman—she followed in the titanic footsteps of Nicola Scott, a fan-favorite and a frequent collaborator of writer Greg Rucka. Evely slotted into the creative team like she was made for the job. Her style is classically superhero and graceful without feeling stale, a perfect fit for a Wonder Woman title that taps into the character’s long history. Wonder Woman is the kind of character that people heft a lot of visual expectations onto: she can’t be too skinny, she should have some muscle, but she can’t look “mannish.” Evely manages to draw a Diana that conveys all of what Wonder Woman should be, without looking forced or ungainly or too sexualized. Her skill has continued to grow and refine since her work on Shaft and DC Comics Bombshells. When it comes to detailed, refined, classic comic book art, readers would be hard-pressed to find a more promising rising star than Evely. Caitlin Rosberg
Ray Fawkes tread a unique path in comics: he taught himself to draw to further his goal of writing. Earlier efforts like Intersect showed rough-hewn promise, with a bent toward the abstract that occasionally complicated reading flow. Underwinter, his symphonic new Image horror series, represents a storytelling evolution for Fawkes that blends his Francis Bacon-meets-Bill Sienkiewicz mixed-media approach with a more intuitive sense of pacing and page construction. Fawkes’ tortured figures and striking use of color gives Underwinter an appropriate gothic, Giallo vibe that echoes the Italian horror that no doubt helped inspire this unsettling series. Fawkes is a welcome presence when contributing scripts to books like Gotham by Midnight, but Underwinter proves that he’s at his best when applying his entire varied skill set. Steve Foxe
My Favorite Thing is Monsters
This list is for artists, not writers, but Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing is Monsters would be among the best books of the year even if you took all the words out of it. Ferris’ intense, meditative, heavily crosshatched style, drawn with ballpoint pens, helps her work stand out from a crowd of folks who use fancier materials. It has a handmade quality (no Wacom here!) that makes it feel alive because she’s walking a tightrope. Things can’t be fixed easily when these are your methods, and it is, basically, crazy to choose them for a two-volume book that makes a big thunk when you set it down. More the better for us. Ferris has gambled and won. Sometimes she spends pages and pages redrawing famous (or just personally beloved) paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and although her renderings don’t surpass the originals, they make one see them anew. Hillary Brown
All Star Batman
At the risk of diminishing the prolificacy of the artist known as Mark Simpson in his personal life, we can’t do his work on All Star Batman #6 due justice with the mere handful of sentences allotted for a midyear best-of blurb. Almost 1000 miles away from the all-too-familiar angular squalor of Gotham City, the Caped Crusader tangles with Mr. Freeze and his new batch of cryo-zombies north of the Arctic Circle. Jock elevates an eloquent, if not exactly innovative, script by longtime collaborator Scott Snyder into an optical feast of emotional polarities. Like the erstwhile Dr. Fries’ pre-Schumacher glory in “Heart Of Ice,” the first chapter of “Ends Of The Earth” presents cold as a metaphor for loneliness and detachment, not simply a weapon or a gimmick. Most significantly, Jock draws Mr. Freeze unencumbered by a clunky mechanical suit, which makes him look a lot more vampiric and a lot less like a second-rate Robocop. Barry Thompson
Daniel Warren Johnson
Daniel Warren Johnson’s Space Mullet, the webcomic he’s been writing and drawing for several years now, represents a high watermark for the medium. Fledgling creators who want to break into comics are often told that the web is the best place to start pushing their work out into the world, the way a mother bird might push her babies out of the nest to see if they can fly. This results in more than a few avian skeletons. But scattered across the internet graveyard of lofty ambitions, there are gems glinting in the sun. Johnson is responsible for one such precious stone. And although Daniel Warren Johnson will admit that Space Mullet has been an education for him, it is also clear that he came to the web loaded for bear. Robots, starships and space stations abound in Space Mullet, but it is the beating heart at the core of it all that makes the work a standout. Johnson brings this same dedication to design, character and kinetic action to his newest endeavor: Extremity. A tale of family, revenge and the occasional robot (it seems that robots cannot be avoided), Extremity is this year’s big, bold, violent science-fiction adventure, and thank the Maker it’s just getting started. Jakob Free
Only one issue of Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward’s Black Bolt solo series has hit stands, but we’re confident in celebrating Ward’s elevation to an even higher plane of cosmic day-dream visual splendor. Ward’s earlier work, from Infinite Vacation to Ody-C, occasionally traded psychedelic style for easy readability, a balance the artist seems to have mastered in his portrayal of the imprisoned Inhumans king. Ward works within a silent medium to make Black Bolt feel loud, and his inventive cover designs stand out among Marvel’s current deluge of quickly relaunching titles. Before Marvel foisted the franchise into the spotlight, the Inhumans most often saw short runs from massively talented artists, from Jack Kirby’s original designs to Jae Lee and Frazer Irving’s contributions in more recent years. Black Bolt may not run for dozens of issues in the current marketplace, but every mind-altering panel will make sure readers hear Ward loud and clear. Steve Foxe