In such a great decade for comics, you always hear an awful lot of praise for the writers. When you hear people talk about Watchmen, a great deal of attention is paid to Alan Moore; when you hear people talk about Wanted, lovers and haters all talk about Mark Millar. But a comic book is primarily a visual medium, and a talented artist can make a so-so book better, a good book great… or a great book only average. Witness the art problems that plagued, for example, Grant Morrison’s ground-breaking run on New X-Men.
But this decade had its fair number of stars, art-wise, artists whose style and intensity nearly defined the titles they worked on. These are our picks for the Top 10 interior artists of the 2000’s.
10. Stuart Immonen
Stuart Immonen’s stylistic variety is impressive. Ably following Mark Bagley on Bendis’ beloved Ultimate Spider-Man, Bagley built up a little mainstream recognition, but a few of his other vast stylistic shifts would make it difficult to even recognize that was him. On Kurt Busiek’s excellent Superman: Secret Identity, Immonen provided low-key, realistic art that captured the slow, quiet spirit of the book. A year or so later, we saw him working with Warren Ellis on Nextwave, where he proved an inspired choice. If Nextwave was, at least in part, a satirization of the widescreen, summer blockbuster action comics that Ellis had pioneered in The Authority, then Immonen’s heavily stylized, cartoonish art made a perfect counterpoint to the movie-star inspired realism of Bryan Hitch. Despite the exaggerated style, however, Immonen breathed more life into those characters than most artists are capable of, giving each a physical personality that comics often lack. Here’s to hoping next decade lets Immonen cut loose like that again.
9. Tim Sale
Sale’s produced a lot this decade, and nearly all of it was with Internet-monster, Jeph Loeb. However, Loeb & Sale always bring out the best in each other. Starting the decade with the conclusion of Dark Victory, Sale’s Batman looked better than ever. Sale next labored on the entire color series: Yellow, Blue, and Grey. Whatever your stance on those stories’ merit, Sale rendered some of the most memorable images of characters like Gwen Stacy, Karen Page, and even the Hulk himself. I still vividly recall the Hulk perched on a cliff, a recently squashed rabbit in his monstrous hands. Within those stories, Sale began experimenting with a lovely ink wash technique, making his output even more striking. Beyond his comic achievements, it’s important to note that Tim Sale’s art is one of the most recognizable in the industry. Heroes fans were treated to a near-weekly dose of it. And, indeed, some of the most memorable images from that show were Sale’s creation.
8. Bryan Hitch
Hitch is, without a doubt, the most influential artist of the decade. His Authority work in the late 90’s shook the industry to its core. That, coupled with the success of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies, made the 00’s more cinematic than ever, and Hitch was on the frontlines, leading the charge. He’s the quintessential widescreen artist, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of it than his Ultimates work. In the conclusion of Ultimates 2, Hitch created the widest panel in comics history. A pencil’s budget is endless, and Hitch renders panels that would cost a fortune. However, he is slow, so his amount of output is small. And some of the Hitch apprentices have actually surpassed the master. Still, Hitch was the poster boy of this decade, and his work always feels larger than life.
7. Michael Lark
Michael Lark, like three other artists who very nearly appeared on this list (David Aja, Sean Phillips and Alex Maleev) has a style that works best in a few specific subgenres. While Lark has illustrated a bit more versatility than the other two, he excels in the modern pulp/noir revival field. Look, after all, at his excellent work on Daredevil – combining gripping action segments, like the jailhouse riot featured early in Brubaker’s run, with an excellent sense of pacing, angle and design, Lark’s dark, scratchy pencils were a perfect fit for the book. But you can also look at his work on Gotham Central, or at least on the recent Siege: The Cabal one-shot. The action scenes are slower, slightly more mannered, but Lark still manages to keep the extensive dialogue deeply engaging. Lark is a rare dramatic artist, creating arresting images without taking you out of the story. You’ll rarely find yourself stopping mid-issue to admire the design, or a particularly arresting panel or page, but you’ll never leave disappointed, and many of his scenes will stick with you for some time.
6. Doug Mahnke
For some time, it didn’t seem like the talented Doug Mahnke would really break out this decade. Despite his work on high-profile books Batman, Batman: The Man Who Laughs, Superman: The Man of Steel or JLA, he still wasn’t really becoming a familiar (and welcome) name for fans to see on the cover until around 2008. After turning in stellar work on Morrison’s little-read, much-respected Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein and Tomasi’s cult-success Black Adam: The Dark Ages, Mahnke reunited with both for the 08/09 Final Crisis books, working on both Final Crisis: Requiem and the exceptional Superman Beyond. When Jones fell behind during Final Crisis proper, it was largely Mahnke who stepped in and completed the last two issues of the mini, delivering some of the most thrilling action sequences the book had seen. DC has apparently recognized his talent, putting him on the book around which their entire current event is built: Green Lantern. Mahnke delivers lightly stylized, extremely exciting action with a keen sense of pacing, design and drama.
Robertson isn’t the first name that pops in your head when you think of great artists. He’s not very flashy, and he tends to stay away from the mainstream. Still, Robertson’s produced a mountain-high amount of work this decade, and some of the most memorable images to boot. His work looks better than ever in the 00’s, mostly because he always inks his own work now. Robertson uses dark, striking inks that help a scene really pop. Most artists have weaknesses, but Robertson can do it all. His comedy shines in The Boys, rendering ridiculous superheroes and sexual humor. Robertson’s also responsible for one of the funniest versions of Wolverine, with his face blown off by the Punisher. Robertson also excelled in Punisher: Born, using numerous photo references to recapture the harsh jungles of Vietnam perfectly. And, of course, let’s not forget Robertson’s contribution to the second half of Ellis’ magnum opus, Transmetropolitan. Robertson’s an all-around master, producing highly expressive work, easily handling intense scenes of gore and drama, as well as hilarious visual antics.
4. J.G. Jones
Much like the above-mentioned Bryan Hitch, J.G. Jones specializes in a particularly cinematic artistic style, rendering the same wide-screen action that has so dominated this decade, artistically. Much like Hitch, Jones is capable of delivering stellar, large-scale visuals that would break the bank of most major motion picture studios but which provide us with some first-class sci-fi. Jones, however, has taken things a little further, honing the craft to levels Hitch is still working up to. Using a keen eye for design and layout, Jones may not often compete with Hitch on the size of his panels, but his sense of flow and pacing is superb. His action sequences flow naturally and quickly, whether it’s the large-scale group-battles of Final Crisis or the quick, close-combat fight between Wonder Woman and Batman in Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia. Meanwhile, his design work is fearless, as illustrated in the degenerate future of the Marvel Universe in Marvel Boy or in the brutal apocalypse of Final Crisis. And all that without mentioning his absolutely gorgeous cover art on books like 52.
3. Darwyn Cooke
It’s hard to imagine a time without Darwyn Cooke, but he’s only produced work in the 00’s. Cooke’s art is timeless, an homage to the works of old, while remaining fresh, distinctive, and original. His early work on Batman and Catwoman were promising, but it was with New Frontier that Cooke really made a name for himself. That work was brilliant, capturing the splendor of the Silver Age. Cooke seemingly rendered half of the DC Universe, and he gave many of them the Cooke touch. Grant Morrison as Captain Cold, a hooded, Klan-fighting John Henry, and the reinvigoration of forgotten Kirby characters are a few examples. New Frontier looked gorgeous, but Cooke wasn’t done yet. He next moved to a similar assignment, bringing the magic back to Eisner’s classic character, The Spirit. Denny looked new again, and embarked on many visually compelling adventures, even getting a chance to team up with another Golden Age favorite, Batman. And finally, to close out the decade, Cooke produced an adaptation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter. Here was Cooke doing something different. It still had magic, but it was cold, bleak magic. And, in a decade of great-looking comic noir, Cooke’s noir is arguably the best looking of the bunch.
Frank Quitely is slow. There’s no denying that. He is also, however, an inordinately gifted artist capable of impressive design work – especially when paired with a writer who will push his limits, like frequent partner Grant Morrison – and expressing body language like few other artists working today. Every artist on this list has their particular strengths (and weaknesses). Quitely is often tagged by detractors for the bulky, not-quite-misshapen appearance of his people, but his detractors unfortunately miss the most humanizing element of his work: posture, movement and bearing. There aren’t many artists you could trust to believably portray arrogant disregard from nothing more than how someone is standing. Quitely is one of them.
Williams honed his work in the 90’s, and, in the 00’s, achieved perfection. There are two major reasons why Williams is so great. One, he’s the most original artist in the business. His comics never look conventional unless they want to, and even then, Williams’ skill will make the page beautiful. Williams uses brilliant layout techniques, demanding that you gaze for hours, while still maintaining excellent storytelling. Two, not only is Williams’ own style wonderful, but he’s able to mimic the styles of other great artists. Read his Detective Comics run to see a pitch perfect David Mazzucchelli. Read his Batman run to see numerous styles, from Howard Chaykin to Ed McGuinness. Williams uses this technique, not to copy them, not even to pay homage. His main motivation is to add another layer to the art, providing additional substance to his characters. Williams is an artist who can literally draw anything, while always maintaining his own strong, artistic voice. His current Detective Comics run is a legend in the making, and the masses are finally starting to realize what they’ve been missing. But all of William’s output this decade, from Promethea to Seven Soldiers, deserves immense appreciation and love. Truly, Williams is the best artist working in comics today.
And there you have it! Another week, another list down. Join us again shortly as we finish our last list of the ’00s and present you with the TOP 20 COMICS OF THE DECADE (in totally non-judgmental, alphabetical order). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hate our guts when we leave out your five favorite comics in favor of some indie crap you’ve never heard of (but should totally go read, trust us).
And until then? Have a great week, and a Happy New Year!