Annual Power Ranking: The 30 best comic book artists of 2016

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Dec 8, 2016, 6:23 PM EST

Much like how a director takes a script and makes it into a film, the artist takes the words from the writer and projects story to the reader in the form of a comic. It's a close personal bond and the best comics have an excellent symbiosis between the script and the image on the page. For this list, our first comic book artist power report, we're focusing on the artwork, the quality and quantity of the work combined with how it relates to the overall atmosphere of the story and the mood it suggests. These artist are the best comic book artists of the year. And lastly, big thanks to Declan Shalvey, Cully Hamner, Nick Spencer, and David Harper for reaching out to request an artist power list to accompany our writers one. Our conversations opened my eyes and I'm forever thankful. Comments below people! Tell me if I'm right or wrong!


30. Max Sarin

There’s a wonderful flamboyance in Max Sarin’s work that amplifies John Alison’s writing on Giant Days so brilliantly that I can't imagine the characters with any other artist. Thankfully I'm blessed with the brilliance of Max Sarin's wonderful extremes of Daisy, Susan and Esther and all their ridiculously fun idiosyncrasies that make me miss college so much. Simply the fashion alone (especially Esther's) is enough to make me delight at the quirks of those three friends. Giant Days is a young adult book that easily draws you in with a loving friendship that's hard to match elsewhere. Whether it’s laying around the dorm or riffing off each other, Sarin’s artwork brings the craziness of the hijinks up to eleven and makes Giant Days one of the best comics on the shelves today.  


29. Jeremy Haun

Creating a world of beauty, where STDs turn people beautiful but then lead them to die in a way that makes them look like they are hollowed out, is not only deeply symbolic; it’s pretty trippy to watch. Jeremy Haun’s Beauty is not only a satire of the world around us; it’s a compelling mystery with a diabolical killer in one hell of a haunting mask. With its first story arc ending in 2016, the comic took an interesting turn with artists Mike Huddleston, Brett Weldele and Stephen Green taking over to create a different environment with new characters and, while that story was also excellent in its own right, the first story arc is the one that still follows me as I enter the subway each day. Haun’s images, the carved out beautiful figure and the masked man who grotesquely murders prostitutes, marks a lasting impression on the memory of anyone that reads it. It’s haunting and, yes, strangely beautiful.


28. Erica Henderson

There’s no better artist to match Ryan North’s words than the wit and jubilation of Erica Henderson, whose Squirrel Girl shows just as much expression, if not more, with her looks and style as she does with her words. Henderson’s style perfectly matches up with the playfulness and positivity displayed in the comic where Deadpool cards about characters are frequently used to introduce villains, tweets are highlighted from across the Marvel Universe, and a hidden tail makes for a good caboose in our hero Doreen Green. Whether Squirrel Girl is getting nuts or simply on a trip to Canada with her mom, Henderson’s art leaps off the page each issue.


27.  Skottie Young

Madness, thy name is Skottie Young. The I Hate Fairyland artist’s absolute brilliance comes from his ability to continually conjure up the most crazy situations and images to fill the delightfully R-rated comic about a little brat named Gertrude. Each issue is a cascade of different backgrounds combined with an overindulgence of detail in facial expressions and scenarios. Young is the person that makes you continually say "How did you think of THAT?" over and over again. And it totally pays off for this style of comic, which matches the insane actions of the characters one to one with the madness of what is around them. The word Fairyland has so many meanings to so many people but none is so creative and wonderfully demented as Young’s and we are blessed to have him.


26. Humberto Ramos

I have a small confession to make. Whenever I go to a convention and see Huberto Ramos is there I immediately try to get to the Artist Alley so I can get a commission by him, and each time he’s already met his quota. And the worst part is...that it completely makes sense. Ramos' comics exhibit the poses and personality of what the characters have in my head when I close my eyes. They seem to always embody the characters they portray in their action. They ooze sex appeal, scream pain, and flirt endlessly with the reader. His X-Men this year were my favorite part of the comic as his young versions of Storm and Cyclops especially embody a slicker combination of past iterations of the comic and cartoons I grew up watching on Saturday morning. I could go on and on (don’t get me started on the hair) but the most amazing thing about Ramos is that the images so accurately carry the emotions of the characters with such an understanding that the story could easily be told with the art alone.


25. Steve Lieber

The first time Steve Lieber worked with Nick Spencer was Superior Foes of Spider-Man, a hilarious and absurd look at some B-list villains of Spider-Man who...were a little bit on the loser side. This go round, they pick some real winners in Roy, Mac and Pretzels the dog. The Fix, quite plainly, is the best style of low brow humor, full of completely brilliant tasteless jokes that cause you to laugh out loud. So many of these jokes come in the facial expressions and artistic storytelling abilities of Lieber, who must really delight at all the R-rated mayhem he puts in the pages. Possibly the greatest new series of 2016, The Fix reminds us why a Lieber and Spencer combination of dirty jokes is the guilty indulgence we all wanted in comics. I mean, reading Superman is fun and all, but it just simply doesn't tell the same d*ck jokes.


24. Rafael Albuquerque

With his gas station uniform and perfect blond hair, Huck is an all-American blue collar super-hero with a heart of gold. The blond hair is reminiscent of the other all-American hero, Steve Rogers, and, with Mark Millar, Albuquerque’s hero encapsulates the goodness that lies within main street America. Huck’s pages are absolutely beautiful as he explores the wide open American terrain, diving into lakes, and sitting on a truck as America passed by. We’ve all seen Albuquerque do evil before with American Vampire, but his foray into goodness this year with Huck and later Batgirl shows a wonderful range in characters different from the blood-spattered vampire pages.


23. Andrei Bressan

I always have a soft spot in my heart for the artists that draw fantasy. The background alone is worth re-reading the comic to see all the intricate details that go into creating a fully fleshed out new world that the characters reside in. Birthright skips between worlds  frequently (Earth and Terrenos) as Mikey and his family struggle against Lore. The comic threads a very small needle between destiny, heroes and family but Bressan is able to cast a magic that looks distinct from all the other books out there, placing Mikey in a fantastical place with enemies that are distinctive in their horror and goodness. And Lore, the evil presence that infects Mikey, is haunting; a part demon, part biological entity feeding upon its host. It’s an incredible fantasy and Bressan's art makes the comic, and the world, come alive.


22. Steven Cummings

With influences of Japanese manga to coincide with the story’s connection to Japanese mythology and folklore, Steven Cummings created one of the best depictions of Tokyo I’ve ever read in a comic. From the vending machines, to the fashion, to even the look of the street corners, Cummings nails it, building a complete city with an incredible amount of detail and precision. Then, he takes the mystical elements of the city --- like the Goshiki Fudo, for example, which is such an important part of Japanese culture -- and expands them into a story that many critics have called a “Buffy in Japan”. Wayward is an exploration of another culture, a mystical adventure that Cummings dances the reader around in with danger and mystery located around each turn.


21. Mike Norton

Whether Archer is getting nervous about asking Faith on a date or diving deep within Armstrong’s bag, Mike Norton draws images that expand the adventure of the surroundings while binding the characters in a way that tugs the heartstrings. Writing a buddy story is difficult; the characters must have a chemistry that works in a way that the reader must also want to become a part of the group. Norton, through Armstrong’s lovable drunk behavior and Archer’s innocence (and, sometimes, uptightness), brings about two characters that have become comic book icons like Jughead and Archie or Batman and Robin. It’s a wonderful combination of heroes and Mike Norton composes the adventures into one of the best comics on the shelves today and a favorite in the Valiant Universe.


20. Dustin Nguyen

I must admit, I have a major soft spot for comics drawn in watercolors, and the lush landscape of Dustin Nguyen’s Descender frequently makes me swoon. Machinery in comics can sometimes be overbearing and suffocating, but through Nguyen’s watercolors they look futuristic, as if light is manipulated to the create objects and images. And it’s this celestial approach that seems to humanize all the characters, especially Tim-21 and the robot friends that he makes. It’s only fitting that the iconic image of the comic is the original cover of the first issue of Tim-21 looking up at the stars with the moonlight behind him. Nguyen’s future, and the humanity he instills in his characters, really bring Descender to life and create one of the best comics in the Image line.


19. Valentine De Landro

Taking its cue from exploitation films of the sixties and seventies, Valentine De Landro has developed a style for Bitch Planet that is part Caged Heat and part '80s-style science fiction. Unlike those films, Bitch Planet is largely a character driven story. Each of the inmates stories, how they got to where they now reside and how they are fighting against the authority, has a strong vision behind it, allowing the reader to easily follow the story and bond with the characters. Also the brash look of the surroundings and the old science fiction layout lends itself to the former notions of an imposing societal control like we found in movies like Logan’s Run or the industrial complex of early Ridley Scott films. It’s an aesthetic that tells the story of oppression and rebellion so well and, in a time when it seems like the power is being taken away more and more, a tale of rebellion might just be what we all need.


18. Matteo Scalera

The grandiose expanse that comes with Matteo Scalera’s multi-dimensional work within Black Science has nods to Lang’s Metropolis, as well as old shows of the 1950’s like Lost in Space, where travel to distant worlds seemed magnificent in its scope and presentation. Each wonderfully drawn world or culture is paired with characters that are thin and muscular, many times in an active motion. It’s an incredible pairing with Rick Remender’s words, as this comic not only surprises the reader with unique settings, but also the storyline, both in the art and the language, is so plain fast. So much happens that the reader, at times, must hang on for dear life, and Matteo’s art on this comic makes the journey of Black Science so damn fun. I mean, look at this world in the image above. How incredibly awesome is that???


17. Chip Zdarsky

Every time I read a Chip Zdarsky comic I wonder how much I've missed the first go around. Whether it's an easter egg in the background or a small facial aside, there's no better comic book artist worth revisiting over and over to get new meanings (especially with everyone's favorite, Sex Criminals). Also, more than anyone in comics today, Zdarsky plays with his reader, drawing Matt Fraction and himself talking on the phone (him using a little recreational drugs) and, at times, blacks out the box entirely to comment on the process. The “meta-ness” of it is a perfect fit with the hilarious, absurd nature of the comic and showcases an artist that has no boundaries.


16.  Tyler Crook

I’ll tell you a secret: Horror comics give me nightmares and it’s the main reason I like to read them. And nothing gives me nightmares like Tyler Crook’s Harrow County. There’s something about these woods, a mystery that lies within them that Crook does so well at exploiting. His use of darkness and those that lurk in the dark, especially the skinless boy, has made me look twice when I’m walking on hikes on numerous occasions. Also it’s his use of fear and anger especially, creating an atmosphere of panic at times that is contagious, infecting the reader directly and shocking the nerves, that’s so deliciously wonderful. If fear is your game, then Harrow County’s the best game in town.


15. Jason Latour

Two of the most influential comics in the past two years came from the brilliant mind of Jason Latour: Southern Bastards and Spider-Gwen (the latter with another master of the craft, Robbi Rodriguez). Each comic has their own style, but the down and dirty South, full of hard reds and knuckle clenching, teeth baring power is high school football incarnate, ripping right out of the page with pain, redemption and fear. Within those pages tattoos, dirt, and curse words are as common as bbq and the depiction of Southern life put to extreme has no equal. It’s one of the best comics written today and a main reason is that the art throws you head first into the mud of the South; a taste that is hard to get rid of and always worth a second helping.


14. Wes Craig

There’s a lot of punk in Wes Craig’s vision of Deadly Class. The characters, many drawn with tattoos and markings on their bodies as well as outwardly grotesque faces that match their current predicament (mood or otherwise), works so incredibly well with Rick Remender’s 0 to 60 style of ramping up the action or withering down the drain. Wes Craig’s characters have a dirtiness to them, a sweaty, often frantic style that strains the nerves and creates an ambience of tense fortitude.


13. Sean Phillips

Nobody really gets Ed Brubaker comics in the same way as Sean Phillips does. His ultra-realistic style sometimes borders on the grotesque, mirroring the characters of Brubaker, who frequently battle themselves over morality and inner peace. After exposing Los Angeles in The Fade Out, Phillips and Brubaker moved towards a different kind of murder in Kill or Be Killed, a tale of a man who must kill in order to stay alive. It’s a brilliant comic, dealing with love, sex, death, and psychology, and Phillips’s characters -- brash in their style and dark in their minds -- weave an atmospheric mood for the story that makes it one of the most pulled books in Image's repertoire.


12. Declan Shalvey

There’s a coldness within Injection that’s hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because the first story arc started so slowly, brooding along at a crawl to a satisfying lush conclusion, or it could be the characters themselves that frequently act more calculative than emotive. But there’s a bit of a haunt there, like the start of a ghost story, from the often silent, placid covers to the rich yet sterile environments. It’s a comic with a firm hand on mood, and Declan Shalvey’s artwork, as well as Jordie Bellaire's incredible coloring, casts an ominous pace to the story that defines it by that pace and structure. It’s one of the best Image offers and a nice change of cadence from comics that believe success only comes at white knuckle speed.


11. Chris Samnee

The combined force of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee is now, with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo currently seeing other people, the greatest pair in comics. Daredevil was a beautiful revelation of a comic that followed a hero that simply burst off the page with its depiction of color (the colorists for the series were Javier Rodriguez and Matthew Wilson). The humor and a happiness for life within those pages were carefully imbued in the character of Matt Murdock, a marked difference from the brooding, dark figure in the Netflix series. Now, with Black Widow, Samnee is drawing some of the most intense action scenes in comics as Natasha Romanova smashes through windows and screams through the horizon on her motorcycle. Samnee’s art explodes off the page, and hopefully the combined work of Samnee and Waid will be on shelves for a long time to come.


10. Rob Guillory

The cartoony tone of Chew that highlights in the absurd and, often, hilarious even when it gets serious at times (I don’t think it’s ever got too, too serious though) wouldn’t be obtainable without the genius of Rob Guillory. His ability to take the dark comedic aspects of Chew, a comic that is always somewhat gross but never Walking Dead gross, is integral to a story that really has expanded its world from the opening issues. There’s so much brilliant exaggeration in the comic that, while the violence is there, it’s almost like Chuck Jones violence; strangely laughable and soft in its presentation. As Chew ends its incredible run, Rob Guillory should be praised for creating one of the best, most original series in recent years.


9. Nick Dragotta

The wild west has never looked as apocalyptical as through Nick Dragotta’s pen. It’s a gorgeous blend of Clint Eastwood meets Battlestar Galactica and has one of the most distinctive layouts in comics. From the ultra-machinery of Death’s child learning room to the militaristic Asian landscape of Xiaolin’s kingdom, Dragotta has built multiple empires and then destroyed them in the 3 years and 29 issues of East of West. Each East of West story arc has an air of confidence, where the characters, even when the world looks like its crumbling around them, have a sense of control. Dragotta’s artwork, from diplomatic conference rooms to bloody wartorn battlefields, displays a range in scope, allowing his readers to explore a multi-dimensionality to his characters. Also, more than other comics, the environments act like characters themselves; they draw the reader in with their incredible magnitude and cold exterior. Dragotta has formed a world that encompasses the reader, acting on its own with the story and, with East of West, has created one of the most epic comics in the Image line.


8. Fiona Staples

Fiona Staples might be the most breathtaking artist of the bunch. Whether in Riverdale for Archie or in some remote galaxy bordello with Saga, Staples conjures up a creative brilliance that has kept the long running tale of Saga fresh throughout the years and built an intensely loyal following. Television-headed people roam around lying cats with no fur amongst badass battle seals riding on walruses. Each issue is filled with characters more brilliant than the last, making Saga the best ongoing series since 2012.


7. Javier Rodriguez

I first got to know Javier Rodriguez through She-Hulk but I fell in love with his style through Spider-Woman. No other artist frames their characters better to me than Rodriguez, especially in two page features of the character, like when Jessica was trapped on the spaceship and had to find her way around. Each issue, from the pregnant Jessica Drew flexing her muscle to the images of Hobgoblin waiting to consume Porcupine, describes the story as well as provides an iconic image that is impossible to forget. There are few artists that I will buy whatever I see their name on and Rodriguez is one of them.


6. Jamie McKelvie

Oh what fools these gods be. The Wicked + The Divine is such a departure from the regular comic format. For instance, it feeds off cool. The music depicted within the comic, the songs discussed and the influences subtly, and not so subtly (how wonderful was that purple rain with Inanna?), planted within the story, and the fashion within, display a sexiness to the characters that make each and every reader turn into Laura, the girl that was overcome by fandom, following the gods in awe. It’s only fitting that Laura led the charge against Ananke, a revolt that was one of the most anticipated in comics, as one of the great villains of the year met her end in one of the best culminations of a story in years. Jaime McKelvie introduced a style within these pages, from the first cover of Laura’s headshot, staring straight at the reader, to the Pantheon of gods which we all embraced as they sang a different tune. While Kieron Gillen provided the words, McKelvie brought the melody, making The Wicked + The Divine one of the best comics of the year and definitely the coolest comic ever published.


5. Cliff Chiang

From tardigrades to conversations with oneself, Paper Girl’s Cliff Chiang’s beautiful and ambitious artwork on the best ongoing series of 2016 has no equal. Chiang accurately depicts both small town life as well as the 1980’s in this amazingly perplexing story that is as heartbreaking as it is addicting. He takes the challenge of drawing out distinctive styles, personalities and motivations in some of the best comic book characters of 2016. And did I mention the monsters? Whether they’re pterodactyls or weird bearded men, Chiang’s creations are wonderful and a perfect accompaniment to Brian K. Vaughan’s script.


4. Fabio Moon/Gabriel Ba

To me there’s no better artwork depicting sexiness and style than that of Brazilian sibling artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. So when the Neil Gaiman short story adaptation How to Talk to Girls at Parties appeared in my pull, I was pretty much overcome by the cover alone. It’s no surprise that they took Gaiman’s material to pair with their artwork, as magic and innocence seem to work so wonderfully in the brothers’ work. While their work isn’t published as often as I would like, their artwork is stunning and they;re one of the few creative teams that I will automatically purchase whatever they create. This holiday season, give the gift of their latest masterpiece, Two Brothers. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful, complex example of two of the best comic book artists working today.


3. Gabriel Hernandez Walta

The best comic of the summer not only had the best writing but also one of the best artists in Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Walta accurately showed the dire bleakness of the Vision family while still embracing them with hope and muted joy. The love and darkness that they shared was exhibited in their expressions, many of optimistic hope, even up to the end. The story was ultimately one of the most devastating comics in the Marvel canon and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s work was a sensation to return to month after month.


2.  Sana Takeda

It’s fitting that the most wonderfully beautiful and dense storyline in comics for 2016 also has artwork that must be seen and reseen to be fully appreciated. A reading of Monstress takes me two, maybe three times as long as a regular comic book, as Sana Takeda’s artwork is stunning in its detail and precision. The artwork wonderfully expands on a world that feels endless in its breadth, asin  each issue there are not only new characters that await the reader but also jaw-dropping background depictions, showcasing a world that continues to amaze in the way that fantasy books should. This is one of the most beautiful books published today and a shining example of how to draw fantasy.


1. Greg Capullo

Greg Capullo’s art on Batman was one of the greatest achievements by any artist on an iconic character ever. When I close my eyes and see Batman, it’s probably always going to be Capullo’s Batman I see. The villains he created during his run, from Mr. Bloom to the Court of Owls (especially in the scene with Batman in the underground labyrinth), are legendary and, as he puts down his Batpen this year and gets Reborn with Mark Millar, it’s good to take a moment and reflect on the brilliance of the era we witnessed. Reborn will be a great series, Capullo’s artwork is already top notch and I'm particularly excited about him drawing a female character as his protagonist in a world that already has more light than Gotham ever had. But 2016 will be known as a crossover year for Batman with Capullo exiting, and fans of comics should recognize the achievement that was made by one of its greatest stars.


*There's a correction in the above text. We originally used an image from Bitch Planet #3 by mistake, which was drawn by Robert Wilson IV, and a variant cover of Archer & Armstrong by Joe Eisma. Both are incredible artists in their own right. Thank you to Evan Bryce and Steve Foxe  for spotting this for me.