10 Influential Marvel Comic Book Artists

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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 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

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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

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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

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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

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

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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.

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4. Jack Kirby

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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

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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

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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.

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50 Comments

  1. OK, i don’t understand why kirby is not number 1, but i can understand that.
    What i fail to understand is the selection of artists…. Ever heard of John Byrne, Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Jim Steranko, Dave cockrum, Frank Miller, Jim Starlin?
    I’m not even talking about artists i personaly like, but the guys listed above pretty much built the marvel universe.
    The influence of Adams on X-Men was huge and frankly, without Byrne nobody would know who the X-Men are and particularly Wolverine.
    Gene Colan and Frank Miller led the way in all things “Daredevil” art Marvel.
    Without Starlin there probably wouldn’t be a galactic Marvel Universe, when you think Thanos, Captain Marvel or Adam Warlock you think Starlin.

    I do agree that the artists listed here are pretty good, but in terms of influence on the Marvel Universe, they’re not there yet.

    • I totally agree with the omission of John Byrne. But these type of lists are always personal so I understand there will always be “glaring omissions”.

      On second thought, listing artists by the decade would have been a better idea. Hard to compare different eras.

      I really think Alex Schomburg should be listed here: http://www.samuelsdesign.com/comics/schomburg_gallery.html

      I accept full blame on this list missing the mark. I didn’t give good direction.

      • Just realized i wrote in the same sentence that i “don’t understand why Kirby is not number 1” and that “i understand that” which clearly makes no sense 🙂
        Well english is not my first language so try answering me in french and we’ll debate grammatical errors 🙂

        To your point, i understand these lists are personal that’s the reason why they generate so many comments but in that case, shouldn’t it be something like “My Top 10 lists of…”
        The list of artists mentioned in my previous post are not necessarily my favorite artists but nobody can deny they didn’t built the Marvel Universe and, as much as i enjoy McFarlane, he’s no Jack kirby.

        We could argue about Neal Adams and Frank Miller since they did have more impact on DC then Marvel but we’re talking about the guy who created Elektra and it’s my personal opinion that Miller was much more readable when is was working with Janson.

        Dave Cockrum may not be known by some readers but he did participate in the relaunch of X-Men in 1975. Let’s not forget that X-Men were previously canceled because of low sales.

        Don’t even get me started on Colan and Starlin, 1st one being the guy who defined Daredevil as an urban noir hero; the latter being the artist who pretty much created all things cosmic, like, i don’t know Thanos 🙂

  2. Uh, Jim Lee anybody? Artist for the best-selling comic of all time (X-Men #1)? John Byrne? Marc Silvestri? Heck, where’s Rob Lifield? They guy is a grade-A chode, but he’s one of the definitive artists of the 90s in Marvel. I understand these lists are subjective and therein lies the joy of reading them (the debates) but come on. You guys missed some big names.

    • To TopTenz Master’s point, maybe the “Top ten influential artists of the 60’s/70’s/80’s” etc. would probably have been better…..
      It would very much hurt my eyes to see Liefeld listed as one of the 10 most influentials Marvel of all times….. But i agree that he did influence the 90’s, probably not in the best way but it’s still an influence 🙂

  3. Ditko drew everything Spidey inside of Amazing Fantasy 15 but, the cover was drawn by none other than Jack King Kirby – who should have been number 1 on the list by the way

    • Ugh, you are right. Totally my fault. How can I call myself comic fanboy. Marvel confirms this, “The cover ultimately published for Amazing Fantasy #15 was not the one originally planned. Originally, Steve Ditko both penciled and inked the cover, but at the last minute Stan Lee decided to have Jack Kirby come in and redo it.” I have removed the famous Amazing Fantasy 15 cover and put in the one Ditko did draw. Thank you for correcting me.

  4. It’s tempting to write this list off to personal bias, but it’s hard when there’s so much fail in it.

    First, Jack Kirby should be no lower than 2nd. Second, the only ones that could rate higher than Kirby areDitto, Strrankp, or possibly Miller. If talent, influence, and popularity are considerations, McFarlane may make the top teen but not in the top five. Third, this list omits Steranko, Miller, Byrne, and (i can’t believe no one else mentioned this one) George Perez. How many other artists could have pulled off the JLA/Avengers teamup?

    • I agree with you and mentioned most of those in my 1st post, don’t know who “Strrankp” so i can’t really agree or disagree with you 🙂
      I’m not sure i would put George Perez in here, i’m a big fan of his work but, let’s face it, he’s much more a DC guy than a Marvel. I do agree that his work on Avengers and, of course Infinity Gauntlet was great, but i can’t hardly dissociate his name from Teen Titans or Wonder Woman.

  5. John Byrne was the ultimate Marvel artist for about 20 years. I grew up on him. His run on X-Men was incredible. I actually loved what he did with the Fantastic Four too. He is my all-time favorite… I know this list is personal, but he should be in there. He SHOULD be in the Marvel Hall of Fame!

  6. Nice list idea, terrible execution. Here is the only choices;
    1) Jack Kirby (The King forever)
    2) Steve Ditko
    3) John Buscema
    4) John Romita
    5) Barry Windsor Smith
    6) Gene Colan
    7) John Byrne
    8} Joe Sinnott Primarily an inker but key to look at Marvel)
    9) Herb Trimpe (not the most talented but his work on the Hulk is iconic)
    10) Jim Lee (not a big fan but his influence is undeniable)

  7. curtis martin on

    1. Kirby BELOW McFarlane?!! You have GOT to be kidding me! McF doesn’t belong on the list.
    2. Neither does Ross. He’s a great painter and illustrator, but he’s not a comic artist. Comic artists draw.
    3. None of the artists whose drawings are obfuscated by computer paint coloring should count either. If I can’t see the line they drew, it doesn’t count in my book.
    4. And seriously, no Gene Colan? No Wally “Daredevil” Wood? And I could go on and on about the artists who used pencil, pen, and brush to actually TELL THE STORY instead of statically tickle the eyeballs with overkill and “technique”.
    please!

  8. I too think this should have been multiple lists divided by periods. The way it is, this list seems to have some glaring omissions, while some otherwise exceptional artists seem to be hogging spots unfairly. For example David Finch and Steve McNiven are amazing artists, but I can’t help but think that they shouldn’t be on the list just so someone like Jim Lee or Joe Madureira could be included, whose omission from the list in baffling considering how influential they have been and how their work was received with both critical and commercial success.

  9. Kirby should be number 1…..I honestly don’t know how he’s below Ditko to start with BUT ROSS???????. Ross hasn’t done enough Marvel stuff to be qualified. He is one of my favorites but he DOES NOT belong on a list of Marvel Artists or if he does he should be 10. He did 1 comic (please correct me b/c I’m going off the top of my head) and a bunch of covers for Marvel. It should be Kirby, Romita Sr., Ditko……the rest don’t matter. Those 3 are the Tri-force of Marvel awesomeness. Also a side-note even Stan Lee couldn’t draw stick-figures he’s so important to the Marvel look and feel that he needs an honorable mention or something. When you plot and come up with stories/characters you need to explain what they will look like so in that way he’s def. a Marvel artist or conceptualizer (possibly not a real word) in my opinion. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on Stan Lee getting a mention….

  10. I’m a fossil. And maybe I don’t know diddly squat. But IMHO, Kirby is God, Ditko is Jesus, and Jim Steranko is the holy ghost. I still have Ditko panels from Strange Tales that I haven’t re-read in 50 years burned into my brain. Steranko was the bridge from the silver age to now. And as a side note, and perhaps a bit off topic, the next time you see a photo of current NRA leader Wayne LaPierre spouting off, tell me that he could not be a supervillain from a Kirby drawn comic shouting “Noooooooo!” after the FF foiled his plan for world domination

  11. Putting Kirby at 4 seems like troll bait, and wtf was up with the author trashing half the guys on here? If he thinks Finch’s characters are too exaggerated and Lee relies on shadow too much and all, why are they in the top 10? Surely there were 10 marvel artists who the author actually liked???

  12. Honestly, Stefano Caselli should be on this least. His doesn’t have much quantity, but his quality makes up for it. Romita Junior is a horrible artist.

  13. David Lawrence on

    You ranked Jack Kirby #4?

    The most important and influential artist in the history of the American comic book. The man whose artwork defined not only the Marvel house style but the look of an entire industry?

    The man who is at LEAST half responsible for the creation of virtually every one of Marvel Comic’s bread and butter characters?

    And in fairness I would suggest MORE than half responsible.

    The many who drew more pages for Marvel than any other artist?

    Even if we judge Jack simply as an artist…and he was not, as he was writing stories for himself and others that Lee dialogued throughout the 1960s…there is no way he does not rank #1.

  14. Todd Hostager on

    My favorites reflect the comic book collecting years of my youth:

    – Jim Steranko
    – Jack Kirby
    – Neal Adams
    – Frank Frazetta
    – Barry W. Smith
    – Berni Wrightson
    – Gene Colan
    – Mike Kaluta
    – Mike Ploog
    – Murphy Anderson
    – John Buscema
    – Alex Raymond
    – Jim Aparo
    – Wally Wood

    Favorite Inkers: Tom Palmer, Joe Sinnott

    I got back into comics for a while during the Early 90’s, but as you can tell, my favorites are from the late 60’s through the early 70’s, so I’ll defer to the judgment of others regarding who’s good after that time.

  15. Justin Thunnderfart Stauffer on

    Can’t believe that Jim Lee, Romita Jr, and Whilce Portacio aren’t on this list!

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