These are the best artists of the year
By Molly Jane Kremer, Arpad Okay, and Jarrod Jones. Every minute of this job is an absolute pleasure, and that’s due in no small part to our ability to enjoy and scrutinize works from the finest artists living on this planet today. As 2017 walks out the door, we take a moment to tip our hat one last time to the incredible work these people put out this year. We are forever grateful.
THE BEST ARTISTS OF THE YEAR
Kerascoët. (Satania) The childish innocence of Kerascoët’s art only adds to the complicated, tangled emotions that come from the stories they illustrate. Broad mouths and dot eyes, squiggle hair and little chibi bodies. A total Moomin vibe. Sweet. Cute. Soft watercolors and spindled inks. A fresh, vibrant palette.
And yet the situations depicted aren’t that warm at all. Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, Kerascoët, work on books where morality and circumstance cross. What seems wrong, immoral, can become desirable when the surrounding world rots away. The little folks are always trying to kill each other. Never hurting because of malice, often because of madness, but don’t kids seem kind of crazy, anyway?
It’s not irony that pairs the childlike Kerascoët aesthetic with dark tales, it’s introspect. Human nature, they say, is to forget about it unless it is front of you, especially so in children. Quentin Blake and a snifter of laudanum. In Satania, Fabian Vehlmann has crafted a Sam Shepard Divine Comedy for Kerascoët to bring to life. A rescue mission into the depths of Hell peels away at the beliefs of all involved. Not just in the existence of another world or the course of history, but at their morals, the social contract.
Hell is something I’ve never seen Kerascoët attempt before. It is a cornucopia of colors and shifting states. Lava bubbles, viscous saps and dripping bubbles the color of tropical fruits, worlds of steam, grease, unusual creatures. The psychedelic world of Swamp Thing tubers, the bonkers found in jazz age newspaper strips, science fiction paperback covers, and La Planète Sauvage. Lisa Frank coloring in undersea creatures and microscopic human anatomy. Satania is captivating and gross in equal measure, complicated, beguiling, quirky, funny. Kerascoët employs youth and devastation to lay low any audience willing to take them seriously. — AOK
Maria Llovet. (There’s Nothing There) There’s Nothing There became one of my favorite books in 2017 due in no small part to the contributions of its artist. Maria Llovet is a revelation. Just flip through any issue of Nothing and you’ll find Llovet is about as experimental as a comics artist can get without causing an implosion of the entire enterprise. Expert precision, devil-may-care grace, cosmopolitan aesthetic.
Just look how Llovet tells a story. Professional grade, but on her own terms. The panel lines dance without rule, and she encourages her colors to bleed beyond them. Her characters are always consistent, but they move with a fluidity that causes our eyes to swim through the pages. And her sound effects are one for the books. They’re unmistakably her own, an extension of the action — a “SLURKT” screams across a page at the same angle as a knife slice; a “KREEEAK” splays across an opening door at the bottom of a page, just begging us to turn it. That’s storytelling.
Llovet is a wonder. Her craft? Strictly avant-garde. Let your eyes soak up her Impressionistic hues. Peter Chung’s animation, Monet’s palette, smashed together with a crisp new edition of Vogue Italia. That’s what Maria Llovet brings to comics: something new, fresh and exciting, executed with a patented elegance. That’s star quality. — JJ
Daniel Warren Johnson. (Extremity) One of the most breathtakingly gorgeous debuts this year was Extremity, a new Image series drawn (and written) by Daniel Warren Johnson, with colors by the excellent Mike Spicer. Though post-apocalyptic sci-fi action is everywhere in creator-owned comics (and in all media, let’s be honest), Johnson’s world feels fresh and new, and his detailed, dynamic art is a huge reason why.
Though Extremity has certainly expanded Johnson’s visibility and acclaim, he has been working in the industry for a few years now, on The Ghost Fleet with Donny Cates; the Brandon Graham-helmed relaunch of Prophet; and even Sinestro for DC. He also continues to write and draw his creator-owned webcomic Space Mullet, which has been a pet project since 2012. (A collection is currently available from Dark Horse.)
Johnson’s storytelling chops are undeniable, and the pathos he communicates is often contrasted with violence. He excels equally at rendering single panels that bleed emotion and constructing elaborate double-page spreads of massive bloody battle sequences. Character design throughout the series is flawless, and he manages the rare feat of making characters within a family actually look related—and making their arguments and squabbles look and feel ridiculously authentic.
Not many creators can both write and draw this well, and even fewer can manage to avoid delays in producing a full issue per month (not to mention updating an acclaimed webcomic on the side). Johnson has managed to release nine full issues in as many months (not many Image comics can boast that kind of punctuality) and Extremity is still full of jaw-droppingly good art and heart-achingly real interactions, every time. And ample time to appreciate each issue is a requirement, because beyond the innate brilliance of the story it’s telling, this is comic art where every line and expression deserves thought and study. — MJ
Hwei Lim. (Mirror) Why are you sleeping on the compelling, beautiful work of Hwei Lim? Her watercolors are the definition of lush. A collaboration between Virginia Sterrett and Leiji Matsumoto, genre tribute to fantasy and manga that exceeds its influences. Lim makes the art we dream about.
Her color choices are nature: blueberries, pomegranate, seaweed, undriven snow, heather, cream, jade. Her bodies angle action in a stance, draped in understated, distinct costumes from a Bauhaus circus. The architecture, interiors and maps, décor and agriculture, everything she brushes onto the page sings with a crystalline sacred geometry: all colors, no contours, somewhere between heavy jewels and ripe fruits. Every element is stunning, yet the characters find a way to lay on top, ever distinct, always the ultimate focus. Lim paints creatures I want to meet, worlds I want to explore, an RPG that doesn’t exist that I need to play, to live in. I cannot understate what a powerful creative force she has tamed in her work.
Beyond the chimeric mystery of her subjects and the pastoral cosmos they inhabit, Lim brings fresh vision to layouts and pacing. In Mirror, her book with Emma Ríos, the panels have disappeared into the ether, the structure of the page a magnificent experiment in space and placement. Their collaborative vision is spellbinding, shocking even, something that manages to be totally divorced from the familiar but clear as day in its reading. Everything about Mirror is avant-garde, and in no small way does Lim’s prodigious talent and vision allow it to be so. Hers is the stuff of pure wonder that catches heart in throat. — AOK
Mitch Gerads (Mister Miracle, Batman) We don’t deserve Mitch Gerads. He’s DC’s ace-in-the-hole. A maverick draftsman, a Hemingway with a stylus. His “Rooftops” arc on Batman set the tone for what the series has now become: a showcase for A-list talent, sure, but Gerads’ contributions also turned comics #1 selling book into the example of superhero storytelling sophistication. And Mister Miracle? Get the hell outta here.
Last year’s Sheriff of Babylon laid us flat, a collaboration of the highest order. “Let Gerads & King forever reign” etc etc. What came next, we weren’t ready for. We had no clue. Mister Miracle has exceeded expectations largely by being a book unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s intimate, visceral, frightening, lovely. All at once.
Gerads gets to the heart of Scott Free by peeling back the superhero artifice until all that’s left is an exposed nerve. His facial expressions emote melancholy, verve, euphoria. And it’s where Gerads decides to put these expressions that blows my mind. One moment Scott’s at home, staring off in middle distance, a vague smirk on his face. The next he’s on the scorched wastelands of Apokolips, waging war even though he’s emotionally spent. Gerads’ characterization in Mister Miracle is a gauntlet of emotion.
But I think issue #5 of Miracle might be the best example of Gerads’ work yet. As doom hangs back in the periphery for Scott and Barda, we experience what a “last day together” would look like for these two characters. And it’s just as devastating and affirming as you’d expect. Tom King puts Scott through the grinder, but it’s Mitch Gerads who makes us feel every crank. — JJ
(Where we made room to love all over a couple more.)
John Paul Leon. (Mother Panic, Batman: Creature of the Night) John Paul Leon is doing in the now what Dave Mazzucchelli did in the 80s. With European sensibilities and American style, Leon takes the paragon of the industry, the Bat Book, and turns what we know on its ear. John Paul Leon draws a superhero book so that you don’t need masks. Then, when the masks come out, bliss. Leon’s work is stark, a sumptuous mastery of ink, line, and brush, making art rendered with the tempered restraint of Michelin star entrees. The man is a master of the craft and you can see it, literally, in his work. Batman: Creature of the Night has texture to it that comes from the artist’s work on the page. He leaves the imperfections in, if you could even call them that, process proof that hands made what you are feasting on.
His environments are gorgeous, intricate, swaggering works of delicate intensity. His streets are real, the rooms his characters inhabit tell stories themselves, and Mother Panic’s Gotham takes his trademark powerhouse understatement to the next level. The half open drawers of desks and armoires spill the secret life of a busy mind. The simple outfits, the scars that lie beneath, the facial expressions that cut from negative space with the fewest possible marks, schematics, street corners, t-shirts, twisted brows, a page choked with a camp of bats, all of it is dynamic and lively and perfect.
Something about Leon’s style gives his silhouettes an impossible vantablack depth that takes the breath away. Every page, panel, every drop of ink is compelling. Leon’s instincts are some of the best in the industry, how he works them out onto the page is the definition of greatness. Baroque pulp. The Ivan Bilibin of capes and cowls. Peerless. — AOK
Kris Anka (Runaways, The Punisher, Star-Lord, The Wicked + The Divine Christmas Annual) This year, Kris Anka (with his partner in crime, colorist extraordinaire Matthew Wilson) quietly became one of Marvel’s art powerhouses. The series he’s worked on this year (Star-Lord with Chip Zdarsky, The Punisher with Becky Cloonan, Runaways with Rainbow Rowell, and a, er, revealing short story in The Wicked + The Divine with Kieron Gillen) have all been released to huge critical acclaim. Each example has somehow refined Anka’s already sharply impressive style further, turning him into an absolute beast of comic book art.
The time and research Anka puts into character design is apparent in everything he draws. When he draws a character, everything from their body shape to their hairstyle to their (possibly fabulous thigh-high) boots speaks to the reader about their personality. He frequently posts impressive character style guides on Twitter, spotlighting his training in animation and design. Fluid and creative layouts incorporate expressive linework and a knack for communicating subtle emotions. Reading Anka’s comics is a literal joy (or heartbreak, depending on the issue’s emotional contents, of course). And have I mentioned his talent at drawing incredibly fit and attractive men and women? (There’s a reason he’s internet-famous for drawing those hot abs, people.)
It’s apparent in everything he creates that Anka puts his whole self into his art, and the results have been gorgeous and affecting. And while I appreciate his hand in making superhero comics look this good (a rare occurrence, let’s be honest), my fondest wish for the future is to see his massive talents applied to his own certainly amazing creator-owned content. — MJ
Bilquis Evely. (Wonder Woman) Bilquis Evely slays me. It’s because her work sweats the small stuff. Detail is what defines her craft, from the layers of plating on an Amazon warrior to the wry crinkle of a character’s amused expression, Evely is aware of it all and it shows.
Her sequentials have a lived-in quality, a warmth that I find difficult to define. Spaces feel real because Evely puts thought into the negligible. When an artist might leave a space open, Evely fills it in with history. You can hear the tick of a clock in an Evely book. You feel time pass. That level of care works wonders with character.
In Wonder Woman, it was Evely’s time to shine. The big moments hit harder because she stepped up to meet them as fearlessly as the superhero she was tasked to draw. Her incarnation of Diana is a stunner. Grace, determination, resolve, beauty. Put that in a panel with the world-wearied wit of Steve Trevor and watch the sparks fly. What Evely did with the Cheetah, alongside Greg Rucka and Romulo Fajardo, Jr., should be taught in comics courses forever more. In the formative issues of a post-Rebirth Wonder Woman, when Nicola Scott and Liam Sharp went on to other things, Evely jumped down from the shoulders of legends and walked amongst them. Behold the Herculean might of her craft and thrill to the wonder of what will come next. — JJ
Who was YOUR favorite artist this year? Let us know in the comments section below.