Nothing But Comics has hit our three year mark and in observance of the site’s anniversary, every Tuesday from now until we finish, one of our staff members will list off their favorite comics creators all time. Last week was Patrick, this week is Cosmo’s.
Honorable Mentions: Grant Morrison, William Moulton Marston, Mike W. Barr, Mike Zulli, Charles Vess, P. Craig Russell, Marjane Satrapi, Alan Brennert, Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, George Perez (honestly, I could simply list people all day). . .
15. Bill Mantlo:
While at Washington DC’s Awesome Con this summer, I was struck with a common thread which ran through the comments of creators Tom King, Skottie Young and Rafael Roberts. They each professed a belief that superhero comics are inherently surreal and part of the fun of writing them is embracing that absurdly. If there was ever a comics writer readers could count on for four-color lunacy it was Bill Mantlo. Perhaps best remembered for his work on licensed properties such as Rom and Micronauts, Mantlo drifted towards some of the zanier concepts residing within the House of Ideas. He co-created Captain Universe, which allowed any ordinary individual to suddenly wield power cosmic. Tasked with scripting a limited series featuring newlyweds Scarlet Witch and Vision moving to suburbia, Mantlo embraced the oddity of the situation. During his Hulk run, he had an alien documentary crew follow the Hulk’s adventures, a plot thread which seems a little less outrageous in the era of reality television. Yet, there was more to Mantlo than goofy hijinks. There is a real sweetness to his scripting of Wanda and Vision; the scene in which Magneto reveals himself as Wanda and Piotr’s father still conveys poignancy despite all the revisionism of later decades. The Captain Universe tales often served as a framework for exploring social issues. All of these tendencies came together for his four issue Rocket Raccoon limited series. Overflowing with ingenious concepts and prickly satire, Mantlo spins an exhilarating journey through a crazy world, which like our own, may very well have been mad from the start. It is a charming tale which remains one of the highlights of 1980s Marvel, as well as ample proof on what can be accomplished when creators embrace the full potential of the medium’s more peculiar traits.
14. Brian Bolland:
Yes, Brian Bolland provided the art for The Killing Joke, one of the most controversial Batman tales ever told. However, under his pen, it is also one of the most visually striking chapters in Batman’s career. Bolland’s darkly brooding and menacing images are key to the staying power of Killing Joke over two decades later. Less discussed, though arguably casting nearly as long a shadow, is the extensive cover work he did for DC starting in the late 80s. Of particular note is his 63(!) issue run of covers for Animal Man. His stunning images mixed horrific elements with a sense of the absurd, while never losing sight of the humanity which made Buddy Baker such an engaging character. So associated is Bolland with this era of DC’s mature readers titles that it only seemed natural that his covers would grace the New 52 revision of Dial H, as well as reinforce the belief that the book would have been more at home over at Vertigo. At the same time, he never entirely strayed from superheroes, covering such high-profile titles as Wonder Woman and Batman: Gotham Knights. And finally for something completely different, there is charming whimsy of his The Actress and the Bishop strip . . .
13. Norm Breyfogle:
For an entire generation of fans, Norm Breyfogle was the Batman artist. Starting on Detective Comics with writers Alan Grant and John Wagner, he followed Grant to Batman, before joining Grant in launching a brand new Batman ongoing: Shadow of the Bat (back when the idea a new Batman series was still a really big deal). Breyfogle’s work fit the zeitgeist of the late 80s/90s combining dark shadows with stylist flairs not dissimilar to what Tim Burton was doing with the character onscreen. Breyfogle’s Dark Knight was a lithe, limber creature who easily leaped across the rooftops of Gotham. Breyfogle’s pages are steeped in expressionistic atmosphere, which give the comics a distinct personality even when the writer is having an off-month. As such. Breyfogle crafted a portrait of Batman’s Gotham which remains one of the most striking in the character’s long history.
12. Keith Giffen:
Keith Giffen has had a long and varied career. He is best known for his humor tinged works, starting with 1985’s satirical classic Ambush Bug, which he illustrated and co-wrote with Robert Loren Fleming. A couple years later, DC matched him with J.M. DeMatteis for a revamp of the Justice League. The title immediately claimed its own quirky corner of the DC Universe, generating a spinoff book and remaining decades later as one of the highlights of the period. More than simply a collection of gags, its loving character work endeared heroes such as Martian Manhunter, Blue Beetle/Booster Gold, Mister Miracle/Big Barda and many more to an entire generation of readers. Yet, Giffen was also capable of more serious work as well. In the early 90s, Giffen and Fleming reteamed for Ragman’s post-Crisis debut, reinventing the character with roots in Jewish mysticism. In the mid-00s, Marvel more or less made him the primarily writer of their cosmic line. He replaced Jim Starlin on the second half of the 12 issue Thanos series. From there he oversaw Marvel’s cosmic event Annihilation, writing the main series which is generally credited with reviving interest in that corner of the Marvel Universe. His best contribution to the Event, however, was a four issue Drax tie-in which is quite possibly the best Drax story written. Annihilation’s sequel, Conquest, was overseen by others (two rising two stars, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning). However, Giffen still left his mark in a Star-Lord tie-in book. It was Giffen who first plucked Peter Quill from obscurity, using him as a supporting character in Thanos. In his Conquest tie-in, Giffen revisits his League days forming around Quill a team of quasi-misfits whose story is full of humor and sharp character work. It is a template that would serve Abnett and Lanning well when they inherited the team post-Conquest and newly christened the Guardians of the Galaxy. More recently, his full-throttle Jack Kirby-esque art for the New 52 O.M.A.C. revival was a key component in the short-lived series’ success. Throughout the years, Giffen’s sketchy illustrative style and nine-panel layouts have suited him well over a variety of projects. This wide diversity of output demonstrates that both in collaboration and on his own, Giffen has proven himself one of the more versatile voices in comics.
11. Matt Wagner:
Matt Wagner’s first published work was also one of his most important: the debut of Grendel. Originally conceived as a roguish anti-hero, Grendel was a criminal mastermind, who committed crimes partially for the sheer thrill of it. His alter-ego was Hunter Rose, a brilliant, yet troubled author, bored by wealthy privilege. At the same time, Rose was genuinely devoted to Stacy, a young girl he adopted (after murdering her gangster father). Meanwhile he was being tracked by Argent, a Native-American wolf-creature, thirsting for justice. From this supernatural crime story would blossom a multi-generational, centuries spanning epic on the legacy of evil. Throughout, Wagner would work with a host of artists who added their own distinct visual touches to the characters. However, the strongest imprint remained Wagner’s own. Wagner’s art for the initial Grendel tale is full of elaborate arc deco details with layouts that often evoke stained glass windows. This artist flair has only strengthened over the years as Wagner has matured into a stunningly dynamic artist. Wagner is often most at home in the shadows of noir, which has led him to successful projects for Batman and The Dark Knight’s predecessor The Shadow. It also served him well as the co-writer of Vertigo’s Sandman: Mystery Theater series, which brilliantly dropped The Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, into pulpy adventures typical of the period. They were tales as memorable for the superb chemistry between Wesley and his girlfriend Dian, as they were for the thrills of the chase. Speaking of Vertigo, Wagner was a guest artist for the issue ofNeil Gaiman’s Sandman which introduced The Dead Boy Detectives. He will not be the last illustrator connected with that iconic series to appear on this list.
- Ed Brubaker:
The past is never far away in the work of Ed Brubaker. For example, revisit his two most ambitious superhero sagas, Captain America and The Immortal Iron Fist (the latter co-written with Matt Fraction). Both of these series revolve around the concept of legacy as figures from the past haunt the hero’s present. Old wounds reopen and never quite heal properly afterwards. Yet, the heroes endure as exactly that: heroes who rise to the occasion, reminding readers not only what was originally inspiring about a man such as Steve Rogers but how he remains so all these decades of disillusionment later. At the same time, Brubaker’s vision of the past is far from rose-tinged. This is even clearer in his creator owned work with artist Sean Phillips. Masterful titles such as Criminal, Incognito, Fatale and The Fade Out offer a cleared eye view of past times without any misguided sense of lost innocence. Depravity has already been gnawing at society and the (sometimes literal) monsters are ever-present. Brubaker combines this rich thematic material with a superb sense of characterization. Often it only takes a page of narration for a reader to be swept up in the protagonist’s tale. Even in genre stories such as Fatale where the sacrificial victim is clear from the first pages, the reader cares about the characters, hoping against hope for a brighter ending. This talent has allowed Brubaker to revitalize his share of formerly B-characters for the Big Two. Finally there was work on Catwoman where he and artist Darwyn Cooke castoff years of 90s excess in order to give readers one of, if not the, most memorable Catwoman ever. It is a long list of accolades, which given the strong debut of his and Phillips most recent collaboration Kill or Be Killed, will surely only grow longer in the years to come.
9. Jill Thompson:
As I have remarked previously, one of the most striking elements of Sandman is the staggering amount of artistic talent which contributed to the series over the course of 76 chapters. When compiling this list, it was tempting to turn nearly half of it over to Neil Gaiman’s collaborators in The Dreaming. However, as I narrowed my choices, I found myself continually returning to Jill Thompson. Thompson’s big break came illustrating Wonder Woman during the final stretch of George Perez’s run as writer. From there she moved to Sandman, drawing the standalone “Parliament of Rooks” issue, followed by the nine part Brief Lives arc. Her loose lines and sketchy style were well suited to a segment of the narrative which featured Dream in one of his more melancholy moods. However, while the somberness begins as self-absorbed, it gradually grows more sincere as the storyline reflects on how mortality stalks even the divine. Thompson’s art shifts with the writing, taking on more somber tones and providing the series with some of its most poignant images. At the same time, Thompson has her playful side, as glimpsed in “Rooks” when she depicted Abel’s tale of “The Li’l Endless,” a concept she would spin out into its own book. Lately she has been combining the goofy with the solemn for Beasts of Burden. For this ongoing project, she lushly illustrates Evan Dorkin’s scripts about a group of supernatural problem solving dogs and cats. Most impressive is her ability to render the animals’ expressions with a natural clarity that never suggests anthropomorphic. It is stellar work which puts on display her full range of talents.
8. Jack Kirby:
What is there left to say about The King of Comics? Jack Kirby is a legend who was present at the beginning of superhero comics, where he co-created Captain America with Joe Simon and he continued working until the last years of his life. During that time, he produced a wide-ranging body of work which helped shape what comic art was and still is. His initial stint at Marvel remains his most celebrated period and for me the most representative segment of that stage of his career was The Fantastic Four. In this series, Stan Lee and Kirby truly embraced the potential of comics to tell epic, boundary pushing narratives which retained strong human elements. Kirby’s dynamic art maintains the breakneck speed of Lee’s writing continually hurtling the story forward. Over fifty years later it has not lost any of its propulsive energy or thrilling sense of imagination. At the same time, Kirby kept an eye on the character beats, letting none of them slip through his fingers. These strengths stayed with him over the years, as demonstrated in his O.M.A.C. series for DC. Kirby both wrote and illustrated this short-lived title set in one of those seeming idyllic futures where things still have a habit of going quite wrong. Downright surreal at some moments while rather prophetic at others, it is one of those comic experiments which has only grown richer with the passing of time. And when you think about it, is not that the simplest expression of The King’s contribution to the art form?
7. Steve Gerber:
Steve Gerber was one of the most distinct voices in comics. He possessed a rare gift for writing absurd, even surreal scripts, while often not bothering to sketch out his plots more than a month ahead of time. Yet, as with every great improvisator, his audience never caught on to how much he was flying by the seat of his pants. This style of writing allowed Gerber to freely experiment with the form, most famously in Howard the Duck #16, “Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing,” Gerber took his mistakes, i.e. miscalculating how long it would take to drive to his new home cross country, and stirred them into a free-form mediation on life, the universe and funny book writing. Working with several artists, he tossed out the panel format for a series of double page tableaus with accompanying text. The final product to this day scarcely resembles anything else in comics. And the truly brilliant part is not only does it work, but it entertains at the same time. In the end, that was the key to Gerber’s success. In series such as Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown, he fully embraced the four-color lunacy of the medium, while investing his stories with a sophisticated social awareness. His work may lack the grit of his 1970s contemporary Dennis O’Neil, yet Gerber was just as important in the evolution of comics. Gerber compiled the randomness of life, celebrating its humor, pondering its failings and trying to reach some sort of lesson from all of it about how we should live our day to day lives. Which, more or less, is what all of us do on a daily basis. You know, the unexamined life and all that . . .
6. Dave McKean
Few artists’ images are as closely associated with one writer’s words as McKean’s are with Neil Gaiman’s. The pair first gained acclaim together through their original graphic novel Violent Cases. DC paid attention hiring both for a limited series revitalizing Black Orchid in the tradition of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. What truly set the project apart, though, was McKean’s lush fully painted interior art, which brought a sheer luminosity to Gaiman’s twisty botanical tale. And that was simply the warmup. McKean provided the covers for every issue of Gaiman’s seminal Sandman series, defining the ambiance of the title as much as any of the interior artists. (The same could be argued for the covers McKean contributed to Gaiman’s Miracleman run). McKean’s fingerprints are all over the darker corners of the DCU of this era, such as his covers for the initial issues of Hellblazer. Meanwhile, he produced with Grant Morrison the iconic graphic novel Arkham Asylum, which further abstracted the style of Black Orchid. Much of his work in this period increasingly featured elements of collage and/or photo montages which would largely define McKean’s style going forward, as demonstrated in his next two graphic novel projects with Gaiman: Signal to Noise and The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch. By this point, McKean had a distinct style all his own. Like the music of The Doors, his art is instantly recognizable, much admired, yet rarely imitated. It is a voice which has been absent from comics for too long. However, his recent short contribution to the Prometheus Eternal anthology, along with his upcoming Black Dog graphic novel offer hints that fans will be seeing more of his stunning work in the near future.
5. Neal Adams:
As with Dave McKean, Neal Adams’ reputation is largely tied to that of a single writer, in this case Dennis O’Neil. While neither Adams nor O’Neil started the process of stripping the camp from The Caped Crusader, their names are the most representative of the trend. Much of this is connected to Adams’ visual reinvention of The Dark Knight. Other artists had nudged him back into the shadows, yet, they had kept The Silver Age’s generic muscular build which did little to differentiate Batman from Superman. Adams changed all that, giving Batman a more streamlined frame appropriate for a man of his acrobatic skill and prowess at close quarters fighting, including the recent addition of martial arts. He did this without any expense to the grandeur of Batman, retaining all of the character’s larger than life impressions. Indeed, “larger than life” is a good description of much of Adams’ art. His bold figures often tower on the page, pushing at the edges of the panels. As with Jack Kirby, Adams is a master of dynamic movement, portraying the flowing grace of an action sequence. One subtle variation on this motif can be found in the pages of his and O’Neil’s iconic Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. During these stories, Green Lantern and Green Arrow often found themselves tangled up in the problems not of invading aliens but of everyday people. Adams would often lend these regular citizens the same nobility he granted the hero. For example, a group of disenchanted miners gather and sing together as a show of strength. Adams grants them the same scale, and thus dignity, as the superheroes. As such, it serves as a visual reminder of Green Lantern and Green Arrow’s quest to discover the “true” America. In addition, Adams was a master of atmosphere, producing a stream of memorably moody covers for DC various horror anthologies.
4. Dennis O’Neil:
Dennis O’Neil first gained fame as a writer for Batman. There, along with his frequent collaborator Neal Adams, he was one of several creators executing editor Julius Schwartz’s mandate to return The Dark Knight to his gritty roots in noir and the pulps. O’Neil even went a step beyond Schwartz by rehabilitating a character the editor thought beyond saving: The Joker. In “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge”, O’Neil revived The Clown Prince of Crime’s own darker roots, making him once more a sinister, deadly force. Combined with some of Adams career best art, it may simply be the greatest Joker story ever told. However, O’Neil did more than slather his Bat-tales with a grim ambiance. He delved into topics such as political corruption and the Holocaust without providing any neat, tidy lessons for readers. This continues into his work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, where there were times when the heroes’ “win” hardly felt like a victory. Any superhero can defeat a bunch of strike breakers, but, how about solving the endemic poverty which made those miners such easy prey in the first place? O’Neil brought all these themes together for his late 80s series, The Question. This dark, cynical look at crime, corruption and general urban decay remains vivid due to its resistance to accept any of the easy choices. Yet, at the same time, there is a heart which beats at its center. Despite all else, good souls remain, even if their good deeds appear foolish at times. Perhaps, in the end, all to which a hero can cling is the belief that a single life saved is a win, regardless of anything else?
3. Will Eisner
Dennis O’Neil did not invent the idea of investing comics with social awareness, as the idea is more or less in their very DNA. In The Golden Age, heroes such as Batman would provide tutorials for readers in the ways that crime never pays. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman as a political statement. However, the most refined explorations of this period were from the pen of Will Eisner. In his iconic The Spirit strips he poignantly explored the hardships of life in the 1930s/40s America. Which is not to say that The Spirit was never fun to read; at times it could be an absolute delight. Much of this had to do with Eisner’s ingenious art. Eisner was the first master of comic book layouts, often dissolving the boarders between panels. His cartoonish illustrations were always bursting with energy and personality. However, Eisner did more than rest on his reputation as a first-class purveyor of colorful adventures. His Contract with God (1978) is not only significant for its format, it is one of the earliest graphic novels, but also the content. Contract was a portrait of everyday New Yorkers struggling with the trails and disappoints of life. “Tenement Life” as the book’s subtitle would have it. Its final chapter is a satirical look at the then rapid trend of urban flight. As Eisner grew older and the accolades kept coming, he increasingly turned his focus to non-fictional material, including an expose of the anti-Semantic text the Elders of Zion. As such, his work not only blazed a trail for the four-color heroes who would come after The Spirit, but also the Art Spiegelmans and Marjane Satrapis who believed that comics could encompass so much more than tights and fisticuffs. It is little wonder that the medium’s most prestigious award is named after him.
2. Alan Moore:
Last year, Nothing But Comics celebrated our anniversary with staff lists of their favorite comic books. Six separate lists were compiled. Each sited an Alan Moore work, and yet only once did anything repeat. And that still left out some of his career highlights. The amount of iconic comics Moore has produced can be staggering: Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, From Hell and Miracleman. Then, there are America’s Best Comics and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Yes, there are some more dubious projects in the oeuvre as well (Lost Girls, anyone?) but the triumphs far outweigh the stumbles. Not everything is to everyone’s taste, but rare is the fan who does not love something Moore has produced during his long career. Perhaps because Moore found such a success at uniting grand philosophical themes with compelling characters. Watchmen would have fallen apart, if the reader could not care what happened to any of these individuals. Even the minor figures, such as a troubled couple, are given sufficient weight so that when their tragedy arrives, the reader feels it. Ozymandias’ plot does not consist of a bunch of abstract numbers but a flesh and blood humanity. The dilemma is made concrete and thus more perplexing. Many of Moore’s imitators would be rightly accused of missing this lesson from their idol’s output. Moore often left his readers in very dark places, indeed few comics are as harrowing as Miracleman’s Battle of London, yet the carnage is earned. Moore often has something cosmic in mind with his writing. Cycles endlessly repeat. Humanity keeps struggling, the darkness keeps descending and some of us fight through it the best we can. Even if it is fruitless at times. As the man said, “Nothing ever ends.”
- Neil Gaiman:
If there is one quality that unites all the creators on this list, it is an overabundance of imagination. Whether through words or images, these are all individuals who have demonstrated an ability to shape new, believable worlds to delight and inspire readers. The same can be said of Neil Gaiman’s long career. From the early work of Violent Cases and Black Orchid to the masterpiece that is Sandman along with the intricate human drama of Miracleman’s Golden Age, which leads into the more abstracted storytelling of Signal to Noise and Mr. Punch and the huge canvasses of more recent work such as What Ever Happened to the Caped Crusader? and Sandman Overture, Gaiman continually has demonstrated a keen sense of creativity. Repeatedly he has invented new cosmologies, while refashioning more ancient ones. In the process, he keeps returning to questions about the nature of humanity. What are our freedoms? Our limits? Is it possible to truly live without either? With adulthood comes responsibility, yet we are always free to reinvent ourselves. “You don’t have to stay anywhere forever.” “I will never leave my island.” Gaiman is fascinated by dualities, perhaps on account of his awareness of the complexities of life. The singer Momus once urged his listeners to celebrate “the contradictory beauty of you” and through his writing Gaiman does much the same, which is why each of The Endless have a dual purpose. Is there anyone who can claim not to have felt the twin pulls of Desire/Hate? Destruction/Creativity? In the end, how could anyone comprehend their dreams if there was no reality standing in opposition?
At the center of all this, is Gaiman’s profound sense of compassion, seeking out the relatable in even the most depraved. He does not wish to punish his reader, as Alan Moore might be excused of, but to elevate them. He offers hope. Perhaps the best demonstration of this is the contrast between his run on Miracleman and Moore’s. Moore ended his run with a godlike dictator building a new paradise on a foundation of ruin and slaughter. The implication is that the time of humanity is over, not only for Miracleman who has literally abandoned any trace of grounding, but for the race itself. Gaiman declines to follow this thread. His first arc for the series is an empathetic examination of mostly everyday people trying their best to adapt to this brave new world. Indeed, he invests these tales with a gentle lyricism. Gaiman’s work on the title was cut short by the publisher’s bankruptcy, so readers remain unsure what exactly his proposed “Dark Age” would have wrought. However, it is hard to believe the Gaiman who championed hope as the greatest power imaginable backtracking on the issue. Time will tell. In the meantime, as fans wait for the new Miracleman material to finally appear, readers can savor what has already been published. Gaiman’s body of comic work may not be as extensive as some of the others’ on this list, but the totality of its brilliance and emotional depth places him above the others in this readers opinion.