Top 10 Artists of 2013

A column article, Top Ten by: Taylor Lilley and the Comics Bulletin All-Stars

Ross Campbell

Ross Campbell draws with love in his inkwell. His work for consideration in 2013 is pretty limited, including the final issues of Glory, an Alopex one-shot for the TMNT: Villains Micro-series, and probably some covers and indie stuff I don’t know about. It isn’t a lengthy catalogue. But it is a soulful one. Campbell makes art with feeling, which is not to say that he’s a vibe merchant, trading off of feels. No, Campbell has serious sequential chops, but his greatest gift is the soft weight lurking within his lines.

Ross Campbell

Whether it’s a mutant Arctic Fox trash-talking Hand ninjas, or a Warrior Goddess schooling superheroes, supervillains, or her parents, Campbell invests his characters with a heft that belies their 2D existence. His lines tend toward curves, with rounded cheeks, mouths expressive but small in their faces, and physicality that can be immensely powerful but never strays into striation. The definition Campbell is interested in has nothing to do with veins or biceps, and everything to do with relationships, the in-the-moment intensity of the lived panel, and the cost to his characters of their journeys.

That’s not to say he can’t kick ass.

Ross Campbell

Campbell has absorbed enough manga to get the crucial velocity of a well-placed fist, the importance of showing blows to be thrown with urgency. Like any great artist, Campbell’s appeal lies in the contrasts he can create, soft versus impermeable, expressive versus explosive; contrasts without which warrior women, odd-looking aliens, and ninja fighters are just so many more clich├ęs. That’s the love I’m talking about here, a genuine passion that leaps off Campbell’s pages, whether they’re double page splashes of Glory’s full cast, silent embraces in the afterlife, or offbeat deflations of everything you’re expecting from a TMNT book. Campbell cannot erase the tenderness from his pulchritudinous pencils, and amongst the production-line titles that greet us every Wednesday, this loving touch just rings truer.

- Taylor Lilley

Michael DeForge

A quick glance at Ant Comic (online in its entirety for free, but also soon to be appearing in your LCS as Ant Colony courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly) will confirm the futility of trying to describe DeForge by comparison. There isn’t one that does him justice. See for yourself.

DeForge comes across as a true original, despite working some familiar ground. Much of his work trades on the juxtaposition of outlandish visuals with simple, relatable character motivations, while within the visuals themselves a frenzied back and forth goes on, between the clean, sure DeForge line and the resolute oddness it delineates. Even the page above brings to mind the fluorescence of psychedelia, images of body horror, and the composure of a Chris Ware design, but it isn’t really comparable with any of them. It’s something new.

What’s wonderful about DeForge is this talent for creative recombination. Here are no “x meets y” elevator pitches, no relocations dressed up as subversions, he’s beyond even the simple mash-up, making stories whose noodled origins are rapidly outgrown, sloughed off like so much skin. Whether he’s working in Ant Comic’s full colour, Kid Mafia’s black and white, or the pink-tinged weekly instalments of Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero, DeForge carves out a space between realism and surrealism, where stripped-down characters are often dead-pan stooges to their surroundings, cyphers inked into passivity while panels form around them.

It’s this anchoring in some fundamentally recognisable human-ness that lets DeForge’s freakier pieces breathe, almost like a certificate of authenticity. He doesn’t seem to be affecting an attitude, or trying to bamboozle. In fact, perhaps his truest, closest comparator is Jim Woodring, another creator whose works are near-infinitely interpretable, sometimes difficult, but always, unmistakeably worthwhile. Of all the artists whose work I followed in 2013, DeForge consistently surprised me. I’d almost forgotten comics could do that.

- Taylor Lilley

Francesco Francavilla

Francesco Francavilla opened 2013 with his creator-owned Dark Horse mini, Black Beetle, and closed it with back to back Guardians of the Galaxy issues. Pretty good year. That’s without mentioning the Tumblr phenomena: Batman 1972 and Captain America 1976, or possibly the most colourful feather in his cap, Afterlife with Archie.

Afterlife with Archie

Francavilla was one of the dominant comics flavours of 2013, prolific, much-reblogged, seemingly the definitive purveyor of “pulp” stylings, and if there’s a Pulp Hall of Fame he’s earned a spot for loyal service to a much abused genre. That’s not to say everything he touched was golden. His Guardians work seemed rushed in places, such that his breathtaking spacebound splashes resembled overcompensation. Afterlife with Archie certainly showcased his horror chops, but for anyone not already into horror as a genre or Riverdale as a locale, it could be hard to see what the fuss was about. For me, Black Beetle was the showstopper.

The Black Beetle

It was obvious from the get-go that this was 100% Francavilla, unbound by other people’s plots, or the requirements of licensees, most obvious signified by his exuberant use of the two page spread. What with the complications of advertising and page turn reveals, all too often the double page becomes the preserve of leaden action friezes, decisive blows heroically struck, or calamitous detonations caught mid-blast. What a waste of storytelling real estate, when instead we could journey through evidence, hunches, and smokey encounters in classic American motorcars; follow a man with nothing but a strong chin, his two fists, and an arsenal of improbable lo-fi tech. Francavilla wasted nothing, reinvigorating the hoary old vigilante archetype with his elegant line and unmistakeable palette of umbers, yellows, reds and blacks. If the story itself was solid pulp, no more no less, the telling was truly transcendent, a reminder of just how much space there is to be claimed in a monthly funny book.

With Black Beetle, Francavilla went back to a well I’d long thought dry, and proved there was still plenty to draw on. Taken alongside his best work on licenced products (the 1970’s riffs, of course), he gave some beloved tropes a much needed touch-up. Nice to know someone’s looking out for the old timers.

- Taylor Lilley

Tomas Giorello

Have you seen the artwork on King Conan: Hour of the Dragon?—It’s phenomenal. Honestly, I don’t understand why every reviewer isn’t running around banging the drum about Tomas Giorello. His work on the series is unique and powerful.

King Conan by Tomas Giorello

Giorello combines traditional comic book art with fine art techniques—such as rendering the legs of a moving horse is lesser detail than the head and body, bringing focus and depth to the image. His figures have a Pre-Raphaelite beauty with classic features. Some of his work is reminiscent another great Conan artist, Barry Windsor-Smith, who was also influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. 

His panel work is some of the best in the business. Giorello has this wonderful panel balance between busy action scenes and intimate portraits assembled on a single page. His art gives this outstanding effect of being both huge and intimate at the same time. The only person I know who constructs panels like Giorello is Tony Harris, both building a complete image on a single page that also shows movement and pacing. You can see the care and craftsmanship that goes into every line, delivering in a way only sequential art can. 

King Conan by Tomas Giorello

Granted, you have to have a taste for the classic for Tomas Giorello—he’s not faddish or fun. But for me, he serves up some of the best art in the business. His pages look like they are chiseled instead of drawn, like temple friezes instead of paper pages. And that’s what makes him my pick for the Best of 2013.

- Zack Davisson

Nic Klein

Depending on your level of cynicism, Nic Klein either got two big breaks or two poison chalices in 2013. First, along with scribe Jason Latour, he took over Winter Soldier from the Brubaker & Guice dream team. Second, he got a standalone Thor: God of Thunder issue, following an arc illustrated by a peaking Esad Ribic. No pressure, right?

Winter Soldier by Nic Klein

Nah, no pressure at all. See, however long Klein’s been doing this, and however under the radar he may have been, he’s here now, and he’s come heavy. Under Latour’s pen, Winter Soldier was an odyssey of blood-stained humanity and redemption, giving Klein plenty of room to experiment with iced-over flashbacks like the one above, kinetic splash pages, and the fusion of espionage framing devices with the warped perspective of trauma. We’re talking killing schools as seen through infra-red, bar brawls as primary colour page grids ending in inky melancholy, and love as a plunge from the heavens into deepest, coldest blue. Klein was divine before he ever touched the Gods.

Thor God of Thunder by Nic Klein

But when he did, the result was one of the most satisfying single issues of the year. Coming after the exquisite torture of the God Butcher and God Bomb arcs, Klein was able to flex a different set of muscles, draping Thor’s rich red cape atop a dance floor instead of Ribic’s cosmic abattoir. Through a whistle-stop tour of Aaron’s dangling threads, Klein exercised a smoother, polished style more befitting a deity (and hot Marvel movie property), without losing the poetry he mined from more tarnished protagonists. Thor: God of Thunder #12 was unashamedly heart-warming, a feel-good book that gleamed and twinkled on every page, thanks in large part to colours that lent past, present and future Thor distinctive visuals, but an unmistakeable Asgardian glow. Klein gave the faithful respite from horror, and reassured them that their prayers were heard, whether uttered from Death Row, or just beside the punch bowl. But then, that’s a minor task for someone who in 2013 took a tortured soul to the stars and back, and brought a God down to Earth.

- Taylor Lilley

Steve Lieber

This list of the year's best artists could easily be 75 entries long, but alas, we must adhere to own self-imposed restraints. Comics has taken us many great, grandiose  places in the past twelve months, so it's surprising  that one of the very best art efforts came from little book about the times and struggles of street-level super villains.

Steve Lieber

Everyone already knows that Steve Lieber is a great artist, he's an Eisner winner after all, but what many discovered in 2013 is that he's also one the industry's best storytellers. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man is an unanimous critical hit, and much of that is due to the craftsmanship and detail that Lieber inserts into every issue, page and frame. Writer Nick Spencer has repeatedly lauded his collaborator with praise, noting that his scripts are often enhanced and refined with care and smarts.  Humor and physical comedy are huge part of the book's allure, and there a no missed opportunities for gags and creative details. It's one of those works that rewards in the reread.

What makes Superior Foes great is it's humanity. We see the nuances of everyday action in the character's faces and poses. The boorish  Speed Demon portrays cockiness and flippancy in small mannerisms;  lead man Boomerang shows the self-doubt behind his confident veneer through facial tics and minute actions; Shocker broadcasts his trepidation and worry via bad posture and a constant half smile of complacency. 

Lieber's work is grounded and thought out. He's not afraid to add an extra panel for explanatory or digressive reasons. While Spencer's  plot has just only started to congeal in the most recent issues it has been the art that has carried the book through the early stages. This is a piece of work absolutely deserving of its early acclamations.

- Jamil Scalese

Jamie McKelvie

Some have found the latest iteration of the Young Avengers a bit twee. This was the group that grew out of Disassembled, a next generation that banded together to replace fallen heroes. Who are all back now, years later. So what better time to stop thinking about their legacy and start thinking about boys, girls, cars and parties? Not that they’re shallow, they’re just young, even the seemingly mature super powerful ones.

Art by Jamie McKelvie

This version has coped with losing all their guiding moral forces (Patriot and Young Kang), being haunted by a Not-Patriot, quite reasonable relationship doubts creeping into the intense affair of Wiccan and Hulkling, Marvel Boy’s storied sexual past (he is part voracious roach, after all), and the complexities that new characters like Miss America and Child Loki bring to the team.  They’ve also had one major villain, an inter-dimensional parasite who has turned their parents and all adults against them.

Art by Jamie McKelvie

So what we needed here in this energetic sci-fi soap opera was someone to make everyone beautiful, while selling the teen angst angle hard. And that someone was Jamie McKelvie, who also latched on to the heavily sci-fi nature of Kieron Gillen’s stories, coming up with especially amusing ways of depicting multi-dimensional and time travel. McKelvie has a lot of fun with all of Scott McCloud’s ideas about the guideposts of comics storytelling, especially using the gutter and the potential blank white areas of the page to break the fourth wall while always staying perfectly clear as to plot and character. He sticks all of the Gillen’s emotional moments, but the alternate worlds have something more than backgrounds to keep them interesting: they have space-time, the perfect backdrop for all the ray guns, space suits, magic spells and broken hearts on display.

- Shawn Hill

Mike Mignola

By now we're all so familiar with the cartooning of Mike Mignola that he's become a bit comfortable, a bit old hat. That happens when they make movies and cartoons of your characters, when your name is the keystone for a whole sub-line of comics, when you are in some ways a figurehead, the latter day "Stan Lee Presents" of the comics industry.

But all that familiarity and popularity leaves aside the fact that Mignola earns all the love and respect that he receives. And this year's epochal Hellboy in Hell proves that.

Hellboy in Hell

From the initial page in the first issue of the series, readers are thrust into an impossibly bleak world, a landscape suffused with the deepest black that anyone can imagine, in which the most evil possible menaces are lurking, waiting to destroy your own mortal soul. But of course the worst threats to our souls are inside ourselves, lurking in our minds and hearts, and Mignola is equally adept at drawing people as he is supernatural creatures we see elsewhere in the saga.

Hellboy in Hell

Mignola has long been one of our finest cartoonists, but in Hellboy in Hell he shows himself a cartooning master, a man whose work is getting both simpler and more idiosyncratic; he's creating more fear and more atmosphere with fewer brushstrokes than he ever has before. At this point  Mignola's style hits the perfect sweet spot of simply having exactly the right amount of lines that it needs – any more and the composition would fall apart; any less and Dave Stewart's magnificent coloring wouldn't be contained well. It's the sort of juggling act that cartooning masters like Mike Mignola handle beautifully.

- Jason Sacks

Paul Pope

One of the most amazing things an artist can do is when they take familiar story elements, the sorts of things you've seen every day of your life reading comic books, and deliver them back to you with a feeling that they are exciting and new.

Paul Pope's Battling Boy

Paul Pope's Battling Boy traffics in familiar ideas and concepts, in scenes and characters and moments and powers that are well established in our collective fan zeitgeist from Jack Kirby up to Jamie McKelvie. But there's magic in the manner in which Pope explores those ideas, a brilliance inherent in his ever-moving line and in how he creates scenes. Whether it's part of how he so playfully twists his line from thick to thin to thick again in constructing an image in a way that nobody else does, or in the inquisitive and probing eye that he brings to his work, Pope has the uncanny ability to render the familiar new, to start the heart beating quickly to anticipate greatness – and then to present something that makes adult men laugh and giggle like they're children all over again.

Paul Pope's Battling Boy

There's such a genuine joy in Pope's artwork, such a thrilling sense of the auteur Pope enjoying the plumbing of great new insights inside his genre trappings, that I felt I was reintroduced in Battling Boy to tropes that I love with a panache that feels fresh, original and thrilling.

Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.

- Jason Sacks

Jeff Stokely

I've been crazy crazy insane about Jeff Stokely's cartooning on Six-Gun Gorilla since the book came out this past June. So, when I scrolled past this tweet from Becky Cloonan (my pick for best artist of 2012), I knew I wasn't alone.

Cartoonists, I'm sure, commission other cartoonists all the time. What strikes me about Cloonan's tweet is she asked Stokely for a commission of one of her own characters. Cloonan cares deeply for the characters she creates. She often says an artist has to be madly in love with their characters in order to draw them. So Cloonan must think Stokely of virtue true and an ink slinging samurai to lend him one of her beloveds.

Does all of this mean Jeff Stokely is in love with a twin-six-shooter-wielding-bulky-hulk-of-a-gorilla? Yes. Yes it does.

Jeff Stokley on Six-Gun Gorilla

Six-Gun Gorilla is a love story. Part oater, part Star Wars, part Planet of the ApesS-GG ticks off all the boxes for ol' fashioned rootin'-tootin' sci-fi adventure. It wears these influences on its hirsute forearm because it's about exactly that: the importance, the need and the love we all have for 'fiction' in our lives. 'Big Ideas' don't come bigger. There are (probably) a lot of cartoonists who could ape a good Gorilla Grodd and have given Six-Gun Gorilla its Gorilla gorilla. Stokely goes one better. He groks what writer Simon Spurrier needs: soul.

Jeff Stokley on Six-Gun Gorilla

It's in the faces where the character of this story stands. The gorilla and Blue (whose is whose sidekick matters little) bullshit as much as they cap banditos. And so it falls to Stokely to make the reader believe what the monkey (and the man) say carries the weight. It's in these quieter moments when this series elevates itself and it happens because Jeff Stokely loves him some Six-Gun Gorilla.

- Keith Silva

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