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 2016 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
Nicola Scott (Wonder Woman, Black Magick). There’s always the chance in superhero comics that the one character you love and feel compelled to read about no matter what might get saddled with a creative team you just can’t stomach, either verbally or visually. It’s the curse of reading superhero comics only for characters: you never know what you’re gonna get. But adversely, sometimes a writer and/or artist is hired for a superhero book, and they are, simply put, perfect. Right now, Wonder Woman has that artist in Nicola Scott — and also that writer in Greg Rucka — and their “Year One” storyline (running through the even-numbered issues in Wonder Woman’s twice weekly schedule) has been nothing less than phenomenal.
Nicola Scott had previously stated — emphatically — that she still really, really wanted to work on the Wonder Woman title. This year she (and we) saw that wish fulfilled as Scott and colorist Romulo Fajardo, Jr. took over art duties for “Year One”, blowing us away with their artistry and beauty. Scott’s intrinsic knowledge and, yes, love of the character is communicated in every panel of Wonder Woman, imbuing Diana and her supporting cast with emotion, strength, agency, and determination. Characters’ expressiveness combines with gorgeous layouts and jaw-dropping splash pages (seriously, some of them will give you chills) for one of the most visually stunning comics out this year, superhero or otherwise. The only catch in all this is this storyline is limited, along with Scott’s time on the title. But that only means we’ll be seeing more Black Magick sooner rather than later. And that’s not for nothing. — MJ
Tomm Coker (The Black Monday Murders). When one collaborates with Jonathan Hickman, detail is key. The Black Monday Murders is about as detail-oriented as comic books get. It’s also about as sinister as comic books get. And with Tomm Coker’s staggering work on The Black Monday Murders, the devil is most certainly in the details.
Visit Detective James Dumas’ cluttered office, with his conspiracy wall littered with symbols and graphs and ancient runes. Watch as he rattles a cup of bones, and pay close attention to how they fall. Study the lines on Viktor Eresko’s face, and count the high cost of doing business in this world. See which beams of light filter through the blinds of Grigoria Rothschild’s office, and realize that only a few of them land on Det. Dumas’ face. Coker’s compositions ensure that we have all the information we need, but only when we need it. The rest of the time, we’re as much in the dark as Dumas. And that’s a horrifying thought.
Because there’s something else lurking in those shadows. It’s the Great Destructor, titanic and horrible and everlasting. Tomm Coker put it there. — JJ
Brian Stelfreeze (Black Panther). Instead of defying conventions, or redefining them, Brian Stelfreeze works with a master’s skill set, elevating superhero comics with his passionate and innovative use of shadows in Black Panther. Nobody in the industry can employ total darkness to paint a scene quite like Stelfreeze. Expressions soaked in ink, like European comic magazines or film noir. And when emotions are running the highest, the art gets the most daring.
Instead of seeing love in the eyes, we have to tease it out of the contour of a silhouette, the angle of a chin or the line that defines the lips in profile. It is thoughtful without ever hesitating. The definition of smooth. The costume design and gadgets in the book are all rich in cultural capital. The layouts are on point and the fight scenes are swift and make the tension in the book pop. The work crafting illustrations from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ dreams has become an inspiring collaboration for Stelfreeze.
2016 has also seen Marvel’s first title whose lead writer is a black woman, and it is about the characters Stelfreeze and Coates have created. Black Panther is a comic that sets out to prove the potential superhero stories have for greatness, and it is a resounding success. Without Stelfreeze’s dynamism, this wouldn’t be so. The guy is destined for cult devotion. His work is ice cold. And beautiful. — AOK
Kevin Wada (The Wicked + The Divine #23). Kevin Wada has produced some of the best comic book covers of the past few years. Seriously, there are many shockingly great and gorgeous pieces from him that listing them here would overwhelm the limits of my word count (but one of my favorites graced our Best Covers of 2016 list). All these beautiful images should have prepared us for the perfection that was his interior-artist debut, but the human mind can only imagine so much. Presented entirely in the style of a fashion magazine, ads, photo spreads, and interviews galore, was The Wicked + the Divine #23. There would never be a more perfect vehicle for the fashion-forward, pin-up-centric, eye-grabbingly beautiful work of Wada.
His pages are all pin-ups, painted versions of the fashion photography you’d see in Vogue or Vanity Fair, with the same sort of magnetic imagery and inspired attire typically contained within their phone-book width spines. Wada communicates as much about a character in one image as others take a page or two of panels to say. The images of Morrigan, Baal, and Amaterasu (yes, even Lucifer) vary between breathless, joyful, melancholy, and sexy as hell. Wada illustrated what is undoubtedly the best issue of the year in a very unconventional manner, and I can only dream we’ll get to see him do more issue interiors in the future. But if I have to be satisfied by simply more of his transcendent covers… well, I guess that will have to do. — MJ
Annie Wu (Black Canary, Scarlet Witch, Gotham Academy). Annie Wu is the future. She approaches the heroes of the DC Universe and sniffs, then reaches deep to reveal her science. The flattering, operatic renderings of muscular legends and fawning damsels are for the bookshelves. Wu tackles superheroic iconography and remixes it for our digital consumption.
In Annie Wu’s world, heroes don’t fly into the panel draped in the blankets of their ancestry. They kick in the doors decked out in their thrift store finds and duct taped boots, ready to do damage to those who would deny the world peace. Bask in the frenzy of her panel work. Thrill to the compositions of her covers, all of which are primed for the bedroom walls of dreamers, those brave multitudes who will look back on Wu’s work and define it as legend. — JJ
(Where we made room to love all over a couple more.)
Natalie Riess (Space Battle Lunchtime, Snarlbear). I think Natalie Riess embodies the comics of tomorrow. She has a delightful series from Oni Press called Space Battle Lunchtime, a trip through the cosmos, the fourth wall, and reality cooking television programming. Riess does every step of the process, from the rough draft to the inks and colors. Her style is modern and whimsical, versatile, bright, cute but not cutesy. Perfect for a comic that needs the wit and diversity of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as the exotic smorgasbord of Iron Chef.
Riess has a webcomic, Snarlbear, a no nonsense fantasy strip (there’s plenty of nonsense). Riess draws a lot of inspiration from playing Dungeons & Dragons, and turns it into minizines and anthology work and pin-ups, all manner of gaming session sketchbook monsters that get posted to social media. This is what I mean by tomorrow: she has a series or two, but if you really like her, you can pour over her doodles, you can commission her to do a drawing. A rising star. Her creativity is off the hinges. She’s got insane chops from constantly juggling a million projects. Natalie is driven, the hard work is making her better, and I can’t wait to see what she does next, be it comic book or napkin doodle. — AOK
Babs Tarr (Batgirl, Motor Crush). Batgirl has become a defining book for DC Comics. The success of their public post New 52 makeover can most certainly find roots in the groundbreaking work found in Batgirl. Give credit where credit’s due: Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr let loose all over Gotham City, and together this trio carved out their very own turf: Burnside. And Babs secured her footing as one of comic’s most important voices. From that foundation, she lept, and became one of the best artists of the year.
The sterling Batgirl run that began in late 2014 came to an end this year, but it set forth a tragectory that’s honored with glorious aplomb by Hope Larson and Raphael Albuquerque. And yet, whenever we see the Batgirl logo on stands, our hearts still swoon for Babs Tarr. With Fletcher, Stewart, and Tarr’s Motor Crush #1 released late in 2016, we find satisfaction in knowing that this artist is only warming up. Prepare for the Year of Babs. — JJ
Other artists we loved in 2016: Paulina Ganucheau, Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson, Joe Quinones, Bilquis Evely, Lee Bermejo, Sana Takeda, James Silvani, Tula Lotay, Niko Walter, Erica Henderson, Eduardo Risso, Marley Zarcone.
Who was YOUR favorite artist this year? Let us know in the comments section below.