As we said when we published our mid-year list, ranking artists, or simply trying to choose the “best,” is a bizarre task. Art is subjective, and comics—a medium that allows or even encourages picking specific styles and sticking to them—invites nonstop debate over talent and skill. Certain fans find comfort in open, colorful cartooning, while others get giddy over crammed pages of intricate ink work. Photo-realism may drive some readers batty while communicating a cinematic experience to others. For every artist we might consider the “best,” you’ll find just as many fans looking for their antithesis.
The list below, ordered alphabetically, highlights 10 new and veteran artists who’ve impressed us throughout 2017. Looking over the whole year, we ended up replacing some extremely impressive talents to make room for others whose work came out in the latter half of 2017, or who simply flew under our radar until recently. Their styles vary from obsessively jam-packed widescreen storytelling to minimalist ink slashes and restrained color palettes—and everything in between. We invite you to debate our selections on Twitter and Facebook, and to sound off on any egregious exemptions.
Lorena Alvarez, Nightlights
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 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
Geof Darrow, Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign?, Lead Poisoning
“Every drawing I start looks really mundane and kind of boring,” master artist Geof Darrow explained recently in a creator chat with Brian Michael Bendis. “Somewhere along the line, I get this thing where I go, What the fuck? and I draw a dog crapping in the corner. It liberates me. I say, I screwed this one up, so whatever I do from here doesn’t really matter.” Behold the words of a man constantly at war with his own boredom, restless and compelled to transcend normalcy. This entire blurb could simply list the auteur’s bizarre creations, most recently seen in Shaolin Monk: Who’ll Stop the Reign: giant pigs with weapon-pierced nipples, mind-possessing crabs, a portly zen warrior attempting to navigate this parade of absurd atrocities. The art doesn’t just specialize in sucker-punch character designs, but in their ballet-like fights and fully-realized backgrounds, reveling in dense detail.
Foreground/background/midground all receive equal attention under the widescreen aspirations of Darrow. That blistering scope of attention found a new home in Lead Poisoning, a hardback collection of Darrow’s most batshit sketches sans ink or color, including concept art for The Matrix. Each portrait and landscape is an exercise in awe, disturbed and amazing projections of a veteran who worked alongside Jack Kirby and Moebius and remains unafraid to escort his legacy into more daring extremes. Sean Edgar
Nick Derington, Doom Patrol, Mister Miracle Covers
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 (along with colorist Tamra Bonvillain) deserves much of the credit for just how well that book is doing. Derington entered the second half of 2017 with an additional gig: illustrating the pitch-perfect covers for surprise smash-hit Mister Miracle.
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
Emil Ferris, 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
Mitch Gerads, Mister Miracle, Batman
Mitch Gerads built his style with a documentarian’s objectivity, rendering realpolitik claustrophobia in his and Tom King’s post-war epic, The Sheriff of Babylon. His grasp of place is absolute, channeling the palaces and back-alleys of Baghdad with meticulous dedication. That approach has served the artist well in Mister Miracle, a project that reunites Gerads with King in a weirder, brighter arena. The new comic volleys the reader into the life (afterlife?) of a ‘70s sci-fi god after he attempts suicide, unsure of whether he’s fallen under an “anti-life equation” that renders him a slave to an absolute evil. The comic constructs a vision of reality so tangible that the surreal quirks almost seem like subliminal anomalies. Gerads mimics tube-TV distortion, creates fluctuating color palettes and uses other subversive tricks to make us feel isolated, bewildered and alone in a wind tunnel of anxiety. Offsetting that distress, Mister Miracle offers fleeting respite with some of the most endearing, emotional chemistry between the titular lead and his wife, Big Barda. Gerads employed the same skill on Batman #14 and #15, starring the Dark Knight and Catwoman doing things people more commonly expect from adults in rubber body suits, but with a grace and humanity that few artists can convey. Sean Edgar
Daniel Warren Johnson, Extremity
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 has only built on its stunning March debut. Jakob Free
Hayden Sherman, The Few
Perhaps fitting for a book called The Few, newcomer Hayden Sherman did the most with the least. Armed with sketchy black lines, sparse off-white backgrounds and a restrained use of desaturated blue-gray and red, Sherman brought to life a harsh, snow-blanketed post-apocalyptic tale of survival for his creator-owned debut alongside writer Sean Lewis. Sherman’s Ben-Day dot fills and blocky figures feel at once fresh for the 2017 and a callback to previous comic eras—most notably Frank Miller’s late-‘80s/early-‘90s highs. And while biographical information takes a backseat to pure skill, Sherman began The Few and a John Carter mini-series for Dynamite while finishing his undergrad. If this is what Sherman can accomplish while wrapping up a college education, the years ahead hold untold promise for this new artistic powerhouse. Steve Foxe
Sana Takeda, Monstress
When we asked for feedback on our mid-year ranking, Sana Takeda was one of the most frequently cited omissions. We’re humble enough to admit when we’re wrong, and leaving Takeda off of a list of 2017’s best artists is pretty darn wrong. Working with writer Marjorie Liu, Takeda spent the first half of 2017 brilliantly expanding the dark fantasy world of Monstress, marrying the whimsical impishness of magical cats with the nigh-Lovecraftian dark beasts that populate the Image standout. Takeda, who digitally colors her own work, seeps the series in golds and bronzes so that each page practically shimmers, contrasting the shadows cast across the book’s cast by monsters both human and inhuman. Monstress proves, page in and page out, that Takeda has much more to offer comics than slightly manga-inspired takes on Big Two superheroes—she has whole worlds to create. Steve Foxe
Tillie Walden, Spinning
Under a duo-chrome palette of purple and yellow, Tillie Walden’s somber coming-of-age epiphany reveals a full spectrum of emotion. The autobiography dissects the painful hurdles that the cartoonist overcame to arrive at her present self. Those near-400 pages primarily focus on ice-skating, which Walden captures with natural finesse; she freezes every lithe pose and absurd uniform, but more impressively articulates the emotion behind the performance. Rendering the shape of a spread eagle or counter is one thing, but showing the nuances of a skater bored and complicit with the routines she’s undergone her entire youth adds a new paradigm. Those feelings heighten as Walden discovers the fear and delight of finding a fellow queer partner, only to have their parents strip their romance away. Even without its dialogue, Spinning is a book that can be read entirely through body language, and watching the cartoonist’s younger incarnation awaken from apathy into her own agency remains an indisputable high point of storytelling this year. Sean Edgar
Christian Ward, Black Bolt
We named Christian Ward to our mid-year list with only one issue of his and Saladin Ahmed’s Black Bolt solo series on stands, and now we’re only more 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 ongoing 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’s influential maxi-series with writer Paul Jenkins. Black Bolt is still holding strong in today’s turbulent marketplace, and every mind-altering panel makes sure readers hear Ward loud and clear. Steve Foxe