What a year 2012 was for comics. It became readily apparent as we were prepping these lists that yeah, this was one hell of a year, and it was impressive if only because the incredible diversity. We saw more titles showing up in all of the categories than ever before, which just speaks to the breadth of genres and types of comics everyone can experience if they just look in the right places these days.
Comics, inherently, are a visual medium, and the artists that work on them month-in and month-out are the ones who separate them from the other story based narratives you find in the world today. In my mind, we’re at a point where comic art has reached an all-time high, with the huge breadth of comic genres allowing for styles that touch on all kinds of different aesthetics. Our list touches on the diversity you can find today, as you can see below in our list of the top ten comic artists of 2012.
10. Jeff Lemire
Why he ranks (Brandon Burpee): I like an artist who pushes their own boundaries if not the industry as a whole. I love an artist who just does their own thing and doesn’t ape off another particular style. This is why I love Lemire’s work. Whether it’s his work on Sweet Tooth or his amazing OGN Underwater Welder, Lemire never compromises who he is as an artist by pandering to a target audience. The fact that the man writes and draws a lot of his own work only increases my respect for him. Sadly, Sweet Tooth and its issue by issue changes in format and art styling is coming to an end soon. Hopefully though Lemire will be on this list again next year for producing more gorgeous, unique and uncompromising masterpieces.
8 (tie). James Harren
Why he ranks (David Harper): James Harren did not work on a considerable amount of comics in 2012, but what he did work on – B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth: The Long Death and a few issues of Dark Horse’s Conan the Barbarian – highlighted the things that Harren does so well. Visceral, highly kinetic action sequences. Powerful character moments. Environments of huge scale and robust detail. The guy can fit as much into a panel as many artists can put on an entire page, and the crazy thing to think is he’s just started to scratch the surface of his talent. Not only was James Harren one of the best artists of 2012, he’s undoubtedly one of the greatest finds of the year, as evidenced by his repeated inclusion in our article a couple weeks back where creators picked their favorite artists of the year.
Given enough high profile work, I could see Harren topping this list in 2013.
8 (tie). Emma Rios
Why she ranks (David Henderson): I first saw Emma Rios’ art in the interiors of “Amazing Spider-Man” #677 and immediately after closing the issue I tried to find every other book she’d drawn ever. Her design work is astounding with superb character models that are not only diverse, but instantly recognisable. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen page design like hers (who can forget the top-down view of the prison cells in “Osborn”?) and just the fluidity of her line work, especially in action scenes, make her work just a joy to read. It’s not often that I’ll finish a book and think “This artist needs to draw everything.”
7. Chris Burnham
Why he ranks (Matt Meylikhov): The first time I ever remember seeing artwork by Chris Burnham, it was as a guest/filler artist in the “Batman and Robin” finale by Grant Morrison. I was blown away by Burnham’s Quitely-esque renderings of the characters and his great eye for stylistic comic book violence. Now at the end of 2012, with Burnham as the central artist on Morrison’s Batman Inc, it’s only gotten better; Burnham’s art is more grandiose, sharper, even more stylish than it was before. His characters are tremendous and wonderfully emotive, with his rendition of Damian is second to none right now in DC’s line. And you better believe that he’s only upped the gamut in terms of the action of the book, delivering a fun and fast-paced read that, combined with Morrison’s defining take on the Dark Knight, is quickly becoming as iconic as the bevy of fantastic artists that came before him. Looking at the artists who have graced Morrison’s Batman Epic so far, from Kubert to Quitely to Irving to Stewart and more, there’s no better person to close out the story than Burnham, and he proves it ten-fold with every issue released.
6. Sean Murphy
Why he ranks (David Harper): I think the first thing I have to say about Sean Murphy’s work in 2012 is it’s deserving a finishing much higher, or at least it is to me. On my list, he was #1, and it’s because of the way he’s taken his art to the next level working on Punk Rock Jesus. Working with his favorite collaborator, writer Sean Murphy, the storytelling of his work has been unparalleled in comics in 2012. He equally excels at moments at hugely disparate moments – powerful, emotional scenes like the introduction to Thomas McKael, huge action sequences like when an assault jeep attacked The Flak Jackets’ bus and McKael dealt with them, the solemn, dark flight to Jerusalem, Carl Sagan rocking out – you name it, Murphy crushed it.
My favorites though were the ones that allowed you to drink in the detail and the world Murphy was building. Sure, this is our world, but it’s so different in so many ways. Being able to see the albums and books that influenced Chris’ evolution in one fantastic two page splash allowed us to see what drove him in his mental, spiritual and emotional reawakening. On pages like that, we can clearly see that this truly is a labor of love for Murphy, and that’s why, to me, he’s the artist of the year.
5. Becky Cloonan
Why she ranks (Nathanial Perkins): It’s been a hell of a year for Becky Cloonan, who this year earned the distinction of being the first woman to draw an issue of the flagship “Batman” title, and quite deservedly so. She’s been knocking it out of the park with a non-stop stream of gorgeously drawn comics that could fill a textbook on sequential storytelling. She’s put out her own self-published comics, “Wolves” and “The Mire,” made up half of the team that brought “Conan the Barbarian” sales to the highest they’ve been in years, published a stunningly beautiful, fully-illustrated edition of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” done art for the New 52’s first “Swamp Thing Annual,” and much more. As if that wasn’t enough, she also co-launched the website Lounak Distribution with Andy Belanger and Karl Kerschl as a place for self-publishing comics artists to distribute their works and merchandise in one central location. With a fantastic 2012 under her belt, fans are already looking forward to 2013, as she’s begun working on the highly anticipated “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys,” written by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and keyboard player Shaun Simon.
4. Riley Rossmo
Why he ranks (Michelle White): Riley Rossmo was already wowing us in 2011 with his anarchic but endlessly interesting work on “Proof” and “Green Wake”. But this year marked a change of pace for Rossmo: we saw him cleaning up his lines and and emphasizing the compositions in “Debris” and “Wild Children”, while setting out “Rebel Blood” with an enthralling over-the-top messiness. His newest work, the Nick Spencer-penned “Bedlam”, may be his best yet: crafting a truly disturbing (and very recognizable) main motif by which we recognize the serial killer Madder Red, and setting out the rest of the world with precise but spontaneous-looking lines that always seem to quaver with energy, Rossmo has struck a wonderful balance between order and chaos. One of the most dynamic artists in comics today — and very likely the most productive — keeping up with Rossmo’s work has been a pleasure, and we look forward to more surprises from him.
3. JH Williams III
Why he ranks (Brandon Burpee): What can I say that those who are familiar with his art don’t already know? The man continues to have the most inventive, awe-inspiring and boundary pushing pages and panel layouts. The man is not only a comic artist but an artist whose work could be provided to the masses and understood as beautiful art. There is no one in the business who takes more chances with their layouts other than maybe Jeff Lemire. No two panels or page layouts are the same. How many comic artists can you say that about? Now how many artists working on Big Two books can you say that about? Yeah, I’ll give you all the time you need.
2. Dave Aja
Why he ranks (Walt Richardson): Much like when he earned his spot as one of our best cover artists, it only took David Aja a handful of issues to earn the title of one of our best artists of the year. How does he do it, folks? Well, perhaps it has something to do with his aesthetically pleasing style, which bears halmarks of different decades while remaining distinctly modern. Maybe, instead, it is because his pages are masterfully laid out, resulting in a read that is both smooth and full of motion. Or, more likely, it is the mixture of both. Aja studies sequential art like a science, and every page he turns in what he has learned as a reader of comics. Panels that wouldn’t work when illustrated by any other artist — that shouldn’t work no matter who draws them — are not merely possible under Aja’s pen, but astounding. To top it all, Aja doesn’t need flashy panel layouts to convey something as difficult as, say, a car chase; he knows that with the proper placement of figures and objects, one need not draw a panel any more complicated than a quadralateral. An artist for true fans of comics as a medium, Aja is nearly without peer in today’s medium, never disappointing, always surpassing expectations.
1. Fiona Staples
Why she ranks (Matt Meylikhov): When looking back on the year in terms of art, there’s one artist whose work – while relatively unknown a year ago – stands out to a great extent, and that’s Fiona Staples. After books like “Mystery Society” and “North 40″, Staples was already a talent to look out for, but her work with Brian K Vaughan on “Saga” went above and beyond this. Not only did she become an even more formidable cover artist, churning out great character pieces that gave “Saga” a unique aesthetic, but her interior work absolutely wowed. Staples’ sense of identity and the tiny aspects that make people real truly brought the out-of-this-world nature of “Saga” to life in a real way, and her ability to never skip the details (including the more gruesome ones, like with Sextillion) showed her unafraid to deliver a rather striking and unique vision of the future. Suffice it to say, with “Saga” standing as one of the best new books of the year, it should not at all be a surprise to anyone that Fiona wins Best Artist, because it’s her work that really makes the book what it is – and that’s fantastic.