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2021 Year in Review: Best Cartoonist

By | December 20th, 2021
Posted in Columns | % Comments
Image by Mike Romeo

Welcome to the Multiversity Year in Review for 2021! To call this a weird year is a Hulk-sized understatement, but one thing that was a pleasant surprise was the sheer number of interesting and excellent comics that came out this year. We’ve got over 25 categories to get through, so make sure you’re checking out all of the articles by using our 2021 Year in Review tag.

Best Cartoonist
Some comics are a team effort, with various folks chipping in parts both large and small to make a comic get in front of you. But sometimes, there are folks who take on the lion’s share of the responsibility, writing and illustrating – and sometimes coloring and/or lettering – their own work. These are, in some ways, the purest expressions of creativity we see in comics. Today, we honor those doing the heavy lifting.

5 (tie). James Stokoe

The coolest thing about James Stokoe comics is that no matter what world he is drawing, you can always tell it’s James Stokoe. He’s drawn incredible Xenomorphs stalking across a spaceship and he’s drawn the King of Monsters. It was in 2021 that Stoke returned to creator-owned books with “Orphan and the Five Beasts,” a comic which combined martial arts fairy tale with Stokoe’s particular brand of body horror. His panels are stuffed with a nearly overwhelming amount of detail, but a strong sense of visual storytelling guides your eye clearly through the story. Then there are his designs, which are flat-out disgusting. The villains of this book obey Looney Tunes laws of physics, but with much gorier consequences. A cartoonist gets the chance to to visualize their story as they are writing it like few other creators can. Stokoe remains at the forefront of the cartooning game because he has an unmistakable individuality. – Jake Hill

5 (tie). Joëlle Jones

The late governor of the U.S. state of Texas Ann Richards once said about Ginger Rogers that she “did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” Such is a good maxim to describe the cartoonist who juggles the entire creative process of the comic, from writing to drawing to lettering. The job of four people becomes the job of one – – and when it’s a creator-owned work, that’s pretty easy. But what if you make the jump to something that isn’t your own? You have to combine bringing your own sense of style to the craft while blending what’s come before. That is a challenge Joëlle Jones saw in 2021, with the majority of her work on DC Comics.

One thing I noticed when I looked at Jones’s work in DC for 2021 is that her books were all focused on women – – Catwoman, Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl. It’s those last two where I felt she left the greatest impression on readers (including this one). She introduced readers to Yara Flor, blending strength, femininity, wonder, and heritage into one character. The artwork remains true to the Wonder Woman iconic look, but adds touches that incorporate Yara’s South American heritage. Shy looks and moments of wonder underscore Yara’s awe with humanity, showing that every superhero still has moments of discovery. Yara Flor may not be owned by Joëlle Jones, but her skill in both script and art help to make it all her own.

Over the years, one constant of Wonder Woman is her love of humanity. Joëlle Jones shows us new ways that the character expresses that love, and in a year where we celebrate eight decades of Diana Prince and Wonder Woman, I can’t think of a better successor to the Lasso of Truth, both in character and creator. – Kate Kosturski

4. Stan Sakai

The legendary cartoonist had a hell of a year, in 2021 he won both the Eisner and Ringo Awards for “Usagi Yojimbo” and a Ringo for Best Cartoonist and, if you think about it, he just did his thing: a straightforward samurai adventures book, but in that deceptively simple concept, “Usagi Yojimbo” keeps being, after 37 years, brilliant.

His art remains exceptional, and his stories continue to be both entertaining and moving. This year, he published the stories ‘The Tengu War’, ‘The master of Hebishima’, ‘Ransom’ and ‘Yukichi’, featuring a new character that will join Miyamoto in his musha shugyō (pilgrimage). And I think that all of these have been great, especially the standalone story of issue #19, I can even argue that he has been telling some of the best tales of the ongoing.

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But not only that, Sakai also worked on an OGN called “Chibi Usagi: Attack of the Hoobie Chibis” working with his wife Julie, this charming book with the same story format of the classic book: a town invaded by monsters, and Usagi and friends help them, given that this is a book for kids, it is faster paced, with shorter bits and more comedy. Sakai also took the time to make some variant covers and even write a short Deadpool story for the third issue of “Black, White and Blood” about how Wade got his swords, and it’s always cool to see him doing stories outside of his iconic character. – Ramon Piña

3. Daniel Warren Johnson

Daniel Warren Johnson’s cartooning style is best described as what if you took 90s excess, hair metal, and the saddest book you’ve ever written and put it all in a blender with “One Piece.” It’s loud, it’s highly detailed, it’s impressionistic, and if it’s not filling you with wicked adrenaline, it’s making you ugly cry. It’s a beautiful style but it’s not clean or shiny, though it’s not grimy either. It is, at least to me, what the world often feels like, even if it does not look like the idealized or the realized versions of other artists.

And it’s not just in the visuals. His writing and lettering captures this love of the human and the fiery, sad, but always strong, nature of people. 2021 saw Johnson apply his storytelling prowess to beloved Thor character Beta Ray Bill, as well as to a few short stories, all of which left an indelible mark on me. No matter how many days or weeks pass, the images of Bill struggling with the loss of his hammer to Thor’s or fighting Surtur, his arms stretching in impossible arcs, tiny in one panel and all-encompassing in the next, remains with me.

The tenderness with which Johnson creates is like no other, which may seem odd considering he has a series called “Murder Falcon,” but read any one of his stories, and you will know what I mean. Whether he’s telling a story in 5 pages or 100, Johnson will get you every single time, letting out a single tear as you whisper – metal. – Elias Rosner

2. Jeff Lemire

At the end of “Sweet Tooth: The Return,” Gus leaves the underground world behind, stepping from the digital color palettes of the book so far into a world of brushwork colors, visually expressing the new beginning he’s embarking on. In “Fishflies,” Franny wears a red jacket outside of her home, but inside she takes it off, visually blending into the background to avoid her father’s anger. In “Mazebook,” mazes are a part of the page layouts, creeping in around the gutters at first, then becoming more prominent as they prey on William’s mind. Colors are limited in “Mazebook,” associated with William’s lost daughter—tellingly, her prime association is with red, for pain, and an unraveling sweater which mirrors the unraveling of William’s life without her. The backgrounds of the real world are drawn in pencil, whereas the maze world is in inks, letting us know how much more substantial it is to William.

Anyone familiar with Lemire’s work knows he’s a masterful storyteller, but in works he both writes and draws, he pushes the side of himself that plays with how art can reflect themes and character in non-literal ways. It’s not just that he’s an excellent cartoonist, but that he’s always exploring how he can take an idea further—the art feeds the writing and vice versa—and it makes his comics feel boundless. ― Mark Tweedale

1. Cliff Chiang

There is no secret formula we can use to define what a “Best” cartoonist might look like. You just kind of know. Like when you get to hold an artist’s work in your hands and see the final product, and when you turn that last page and the comic still very much has you in its grasp. When the culmination of all of an artist’s thought, care, and talent are visible on the page, magic can happen. And while Cliff Chiang didn’t have a large number of books out this year, he had a release that opened our eyes to all that Cliff Chiang is capable of. As the writer, artist, letterer, and colorist for DC’S Black Label book “Catwoman: Lonely City,” Chiang opened his entire tool kit, went to work, and produced something truly great.

Chiang is no stranger to making good comics – getting his start as an editorial assistant at Vertigo over twenty years ago, he’s been in and around the industry as a creative for a long time. Most recently that took the form as an artist on Image Comics’ “Paper Girls,” a time-travelling coming of age story about four teenage girls – and Chiang’s expressive, engaging art (and colors) was just as important to the storytelling as writer Brian K. Vaughan’s intricate plotting and strong characterizations.

What we get, though, with “Lonely City,” is an uncompromised look at all that Chiang has to offer to the entire creative process in comics making. Studying the craft for decades now, Chiang knows that creative decisions being in one person’s hands can offer more nuance, and the specificity of vision is more complete. With his take on an older version of Catwoman, Chiang has the opportunity to add to the legacy of a character that is nearly as important to DC’s canon as even Batman himself, and the gravity of that does not seem lost on the artist. “Lonely City” feels like a personal journey for Chiang, presenting not only an exciting new chapter to Selina Kyle’s story in a way that only he can, but also as a commitment from the artist to pay respect to the Catwoman creators before him, and even the technical creative processes used in making comics (like lettering straight on the board!). It all feels like a momentous achievement for an artist we all knew might be capable of such a feat, and pleasantly surprised when our suspicions are confirmed. Thinking back on all of the artists who might fall under the “Best Cartoonist” moniker for me this year, nothing stands out to me more than the moment I closed that first issue of “Lonely City,” still wrapped up in the elation of seeing an artist succeed in their vision so fully. What a feeling. – Johnny Hall

//TAGS | 2021 Year in Review

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