It’s nice to see that some things stay the same; comic books are among the few art forms that have always maintained strict artistic integrity. Very rarely does the medium rely on digital technology, or anything more than a talented individual’s fine motor skills, and a clean sheet of paper to manifest the contents of their wildest imagination. And while artists may come and go, and constantly reinvent our beloved comic icons, the artwork has always been a source of inspiration. Here are ten best Marvel-ous comic book artists through the years, who’ve never failed to make sheer magic appear at the flick of their wrists.
10. Tim Bradstreet
Bradstreet, who started out in 1990 with a one-off comic book called Dragon Chiang, is mostly a cover artist. As such, he lends the unique ability to raise your expectations about the artfulness of a comic book series, only to have it immediately let down upon further delving in (much like a movie trailer, or a picture of food in a commercial.) His style is one of gritty, heavily-inked realism, with incredibly convincing uses of lighting and texture, resembling photographs around a midnight bonfire. He’s probably best known for his Punisher covers, illustrating several installments including “Noir”, “MAX”, and “Welcome Back, Frank”–which is in addition to the traditional series.
9. Steve McNiven
This Canadian artist, a penciller, cut his teeth at Crossgen Comics with such extra-dimensional, space-fantasy series as Meridian, Sigil, and Mystic, the former much more so than the latter two. In addition, he’s lent his pencil to the most notable masks and heavily-spandexed figures in the Marvel canon (on cover and page), including Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, and Captain America. His style is often slick and somewhat bulbous and round-looking, notable for a lack of textural and ligamental detail, and an abundance of tangible smoothness.
8. Jae Lee
At times, Jae Lee exhibits a literary prowess, animating adaptations of such literary giants as Bram Stoker (Dracula) and Steven King (Dark Tower). However, his understated, negatively-lit, shadow-clad portraits tell you much in what they leave out–which, at times, includes facial detail, pupils, and enough light to not make the subjects of his art look suspicious or menacing. For Marvel, he’s illustrated (master of both ink and pencil) such series as Inhumans, Captain America, Spider-Man, The Sentry, and Marvel Knights Fantastic Four: 1234.
7. David Finch
Finch–who left Marvel in 2010 to work exclusively for DC, on the Batman: Dark Knight series (as writer and artist)–started out at Image Comics in 1994, working on the Cyberforce series. In 2002, he set his sights on Marvel, where he mostly illustrated such series as the Avengers (“new: and classic), Ultimate X-Men, and Moon Knight. Probably the most salient fact about his style is how anatomically hyperbolic his subjects are: men have muscles upon muscles–the envy of even your most abusive steroid freaks–while the women are sultry, lustful objects of desire (keyword: objects, as in objectified,) with sculpted abs and unyielding bosoms, whose character traits are primarily their beauty. Nonetheless, as surreal as it all may be, his skill with ink and graphite mediums is unmistakably gorgeous.
6. John Buscema
Not to be confused with Sal Buscema (his younger brother who was also a gifted comic book artist for Marvel), or Steve Buscemi (the gangly-looking actor), or Steve Buscema (who doesn’t exist, but what Sal is often mistakenly called on the internet). John has a huge legacy in his name, as a key Marvel illustrator from the late sixties on through the nineties (truth be told, he’s been a comic book artist since the late forties). His style is of a classic vintage variety, where everything feels a little overdramatic and overstated, and the drawing doesn’t pretend to anything but cartoon-y. He pretty much took over the artistic duties for all the characters Jack Kirby conceptualized prior to his departure (including Thor, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four) as well as such major titles as The Amazing Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian.
5. John Romita and Son
Before Buscema (both of them), there was Romita Sr., who took on illustration duties most immediately after the departures of original artists Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America). And while he did draw for most of the major Marvel flagships, his work on The Amazing Spider-Man was arguably his best. Picking up where Ditko left off, he breathed fresh life into the series, somehow shaking loose some of the visible dating of the artwork, and maintaining the familiarity of your friendly neighborhood red-and-blue-tights-clad teenager. And proof that talent runs in the family is his son, John Jr., who has also taken his shot at animating the Webhead with great results–he’s also done Thor, X-Men, Iron Man, and Daredevil over the course of an incredibly prolific career–imbuing each with a sleek, modern, and highly-stylized sort of sexiness.
4. Jack Kirby
This artist deserves recognition for both visionary and artistic merit; after all, without him, there’d be no Hulk, Thor, Captain America, X-Men, Fantastic Four, or Avengers–amongst others–and consequently there’d be no midnight screenings to nerdgasm over. His style became the face of Marvel (Stan Lee being the voice) in that time. Interesting is the fact that, prior to his years of affluence at Marvel, he was drafted into war a few months after D-Day, honorably discharged with some awards of recognition a few years later. So it’s easy to see where those themes of unabashed patriotism and altruistic heroism would come into play.
3. Todd McFarlane
Most notable as the creator of the Hell-centric Spawn franchise, as well as the designer of those creepy, realistic movie action figures you see in adult novelty stores, McFarlane did a lot of illustration work for Marvel in the late eighties– about the time worshiping the Devil was gaining popularity–and most abundantly for Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. For each, he lent his distinct style–equal parts glossy, flashy, cartoon-y, and psychotically tormented.
2. Steve Ditko
Here’s a man without which we’d have no Spider-Man to craze over–no multi-stream, decade-spanning comic series, no movie franchises, no Saturday morning cartoons, no U2-scored Broadway musicals (i.e. no cracked ribs), no action figures, no “Spader-Man” or “Fisherman” knock-offs, no video games, no Halloween as we know it…Ditko’s original conception has created a lot of joy in this world (and a lot of mediocrity), and we owe a debt of gratitude. For anyone who grew up during the Ditko-Lee era, keeps those plastic-wrapped issues in a hyperbaric chamber, or picked up an anthology of the reprints at the local Barnes and Nobles, there is glorious, nostalgia-soaked joy in beholding the indelible pairing of such ironically-oblivious self-narration with artwork that screams “wish you were here.” There’s something wonderful about seeing Peter Parker flaring up a Bunsen burner in a yellow sweater vest and coke-bottle glasses.
1. Alex Ross
Ross may paint mythical superheroes, but he is among them; painting his subjects in unflatteringly life-like detail, Ross is the Michelangelo of comic book artists. He even bases his characters, in a completely unique variation of typical protocol, on living models, people he knows. In that way, all those endowed with flight, super-strength, x-ray vision, and other superhuman abilities are rendered as mere Everymen. And this is intentional; take a look at his brilliant work for 1994’s Marvels, wherein the biggest characters of the larger-than-life Marvel Universe are shown to be just as human as we are, in spite of how propped up they are (or how much they are put down). The whole thing has a very Norman Rockwellian hue, facial expressiveness and all, and the fact that it is set in old-time America (1939-1974) makes such a description all the more apt. While Ross has done considerably more work for D.C., giving love-handles and grimaces to Superman and company, his fleeting dalliances with Marvel are surely worth awing at, the Marvels they are.