Reinventing the pencil: 21 artists who changed mainstream comics (for better or worse)

Reinventing the pencil: 21 artists who changed mainstream comics (for better or worse)

Inventory. The book.

1. Jack Kirby
Simply put, no artist had more of an influence on American comics this century than Jack Kirby. The former Jacob Kurtzberg was a restless self-improver, a workaholic, and a veteran idea man who created an art style that was highly distinctive and a massive influence on the rest of the industry. It’s easy to forget that by the time he and Stan Lee transformed Marvel Comics into a culture-shifting powerhouse, he’d already been in the business for more than 25 years. Though Kirby is rightly remembered for the miracles he worked in superhero comics, with his exciting fight-staging, efficient storytelling, cosmic scope, and love of crackling energy and unthinkable technology, he also drew everything from sports comics to romance tales to Westerns. Whether they embraced his style or deliberately forsook it, every comic artist for decades was defined by the lessons they learned from the man called “The King Of Comics.” Constantly pushing himself further (among other pioneering developments, he was one of the first comics artists to incorporate collage and photographic backgrounds into his work), Kirby’s value to the medium is incalculable. The modern comics industry simply wouldn’t be the same without him.

2. Steve Ditko
Stan Lee may have introduced adolescent angst to the superhero genre (he certainly claims he did), but it took Steve Ditko to create a hero whose civilian life was as compelling as his crime fighting. In addition to designing the famous red-and-blue Spidey suit that debuted in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, Ditko created a world around Spider-Man that wasn’t the mythical Metropolis or Gotham, but a recognizable version of New York, a city whose towering skyscrapers loomed as implacably over Peter Parker as they did over any other mild-mannered teen. He also worked the fantastic end of the spectrum on Dr. Strange, introducing the character of Eternity, a cosmic personification of the universe whose body was an outline filled with galaxies. (No wonder the acidheads who tripped to 2001 took him, apparently incorrectly, for a fellow stoner.) The famously press-averse Ditko, who might be the comics world’s right-wing answer to Chris Marker, has never detailed his reasons for splitting with Marvel—a dispute over the profits from his creations is a plausible surmise—but the books that followed were heavily influenced by his conversion to Randian Objectivism, whose two-tone morality spawned the speechifying vigilante The Question, the explicit inspiration for Watchmen’s Rorschach. In recent decades, the elusive artist has largely been dormant, although he’s returned to comics several times, most recently in 2008.

3. George Pérez
The 1980s ushered in a new Golden Age of superhero comics, and no one did more to define their look and style than George Pérez. After a wobbly start (his early work bore a too-obvious debt to Jack Kirby), he fully came into his own when he became the regular artist for Marvel’s The Avengers. An industry star at 26, he accepted an offer from DC to work with Marv Wolfman on The New Teen Titans, and from there, they paired for the first big “event” comic, Crisis On Infinite Earths. In these two books, the elements that made Pérez such a fan favorite became clearest to the eye: His was a vivid world, with detailed costume work, glittering metal, elaborate technology, and dynamic musculature—but with the rough edges of his idol Kirby polished into ultra-clean lines, fresh and colorful surroundings, and a penchant for group shots. He had his flaws—in particular, the tendency to draw everyone with the same face, as Crisis #5 shows. He was so technically flawless as to seem somewhat soulless. But Pérez did more than anyone to formalize what modern superheroes were “supposed” to look like.

4. Alex Ross
Unassuming, modest Alex Ross—still a young man in spite of being one of the most recognizable names in comics—became a superstar artist at a time when many thought that concept was a thing of the past. His visual trademarks (many learned from his mother, a commercial artist) are instantly recognizable: photorealistic drawing finished with painted colors, iconic poses, and a Norman-Rockwell-meets-George-Pérez vibe that grabbed a lot of fans in the 1990s. Ross became one of the richest men in the business, and sparked interest in the comics medium from new fans, which is a wonderful thing; he’s also a flawless draughtsman, and can’t be slighted for his innovative painting style. But as an artist, Ross has been less than the figure of perfection his fans often champion. He’s a pioneer of the dull, unimaginative craze for giving superheroes celebrity faces, and with his shaky layouts and mediocre visual storytelling, he almost seems more interested in product design than comics art—his most celebrated pieces are excessively posed single-shot images. He’s an impeccable craftsman, to be sure, but do people really want their superheroes to look more realistic?


5. Mike Mignola
Starting out as a talented but not exceptional penciler for DC Comics in the 1980s, Mike Mignola made the risky choice in the early ’90s to jump ship to Dark Horse Comics and sink everything he had into Hellboy, a character of his own creation. The result was not only a huge commercial success—Hellboy was the most popular independent title of the era, next to Spawn—but highly influential. As he let his imagination run rampant, his artwork grew darker, more experimental, and more daring: abstract backgrounds, rough faces, exaggerated anatomy, and impenetrable pools of shadow became his hallmarks. Though he’s spawned an unpleasantly large number of inferior imitators, Mignola has continued to refine and improve this moody, dreamlike feel, and has passed it on to a hand-picked successor, Duncan Fegredo. Mignola’s dark, spooky art set off one of the major revolutions in 1990s comics—and one of the few worth preserving.

6. Carmine Infantino
Carmine Infantino is one of the less celebrated artists of comics’ Silver Age, but it’s hard to figure out why. His personal style isn’t for everyone—his angular, jutting bodies and meaty Curt Swan-style faces turn some readers off—but there’s no question that he was a massive influence on the way comics developed in the ’50s and ’60s. Not only was he the editorial director of DC in the late ’60s (a post he was offered to keep him from jumping ship to Marvel), he was also an incredibly forward-looking artist: His work on the Adam Strange series incorporated forbidding alien landscapes that he drew under the influence of ancient Japanese art, and his years-long stint on The Flash found him making innovative use of speed lines, warping effects, and other visual shorthand that became standard operating procedures in the comic-book industry. The echoes of his work can be found in almost every mainstream title on the market today.

7. Greg Land
Land was part of a wave of artists (including Bryan Hitch and Gary Frank) who came to prominence in the 2000s, notable for their intense expressions, exaggerated musculature, and “widescreen” storytelling sensibilities. Ultimate Fantastic Four was Land’s first big success, followed by Ultimate Power—but they also made him a controversial figure. Using photographs as models is nothing new; comics artists have been doing it for decades, and it’s become even more common since the rise of the Internet. But Land’s layouts and poses were so distinctive—and so repetitive—that people began to get suspicious, and ultimately, Land was accused of lifting from hardcore pornography. What’s more, the details were so precise that some claimed that Land wasn’t simply using the porn actors as body models; he was lifting them into his pages outright and doing the bare minimum of work required with Photoshop to make it look like his own drawing. (He has since admitted to using a great deal of photo sourcing, and to using porn as a common reference, but he denies outright stealing.) The whole scandal raised difficult questions about the nature of “original” art in the digital era.

8. George Tuska
Pity poor George Tuska. By all accounts a likeable, pleasant man, versatile and eager to please, he started out in the 1930s, and worked for every big publisher of the era, from Will Eisner to Lou Fine to Lev Gleason. It’s hard to find anyone who would say a bad word against him as a man. But as an artist, his Silver Age work for Marvel Comics… Well, it wasn’t exactly bad; Tuska was perfectly competent, and his art for titles like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk is decent, though unspectacular. But his drawing was so quickly assayed, and so essentially flavorless, that he became the King Of The Fill-In Issue, hopping in to provide bland, forgettable work whenever someone else blew a deadline. He thus played an inadvertent part in setting up the Big Two’s creed of speed over quality, and helped establish the Marvel house style, which nurtured some young artists, but acted as an artistic straitjacket for others. A respectable journeyman, Tuska nonetheless played the fall guy for what would become an ugly, largely detrimental tendency from the 1960s until the birth of the miniseries in the ’80s.

9. Jim Lee
Possibly the best, and definitely the biggest, of the wave of Korean-American artists who came to prominence in the 1990s, Jim Lee is another good example of an artist whose work is problematic less for what it is than for what it represents. Lee has worked on a dozen prominent titles since the late ’80s, from Uncanny X-Men for Marvel to Batman for DC to his own WildC.A.T.s for Image. His visual style is immediately recognizable, with exaggerated muscle structure, keenly detailed costumes, and a thick, brusque line rooted in his choice of F lead, which creates a sense of chaos and energy. However, while Lee himself has improved with age and is capable of reining in his worst tendencies when he wants to, his success led to the appearance of dozens of biters who sharked his style and rifled through his catalog for tricks and tips. Lacking their inspiration’s patience and talent, they possess only his surface qualities of busyness, thickness, and roughness of line, and texture at the expense of composition. Lee isn’t not responsible for these bad imitators, but he has to swim in the same pool with them.

10. Carl Barks
Other than Jack Kirby, no one has had more of a lasting influence on modern cartoon art than the late Carl Barks. More responsible than anyone, up to and including Walt Disney, for the universally recognizable Disney look, Barks worked for the company in animation, comic books, and comic strips, establishing not only a visual style based on his mastery of simple form and rich facial expression, but also a storytelling style that helped establish everything from the character of the most famous Disney properties (he created Duckburg and most of its characters) to their style of humor. His work is routinely cited as among the greatest the medium has yet produced, and in Europe, where there’s less emphasis on superhero comics than in America, he’s widely considered the most important comics artist the U.S. has ever produced. Even in modern Disney animation, his presence can still be felt, in the clearly delineated pen lines and the rich colors that permeate every scene. Not just the globally known Disney style, but the whole field of funny-animal cartooning, owes its existence to Carl Barks above anyone else.

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11. Dan DeCarlo
The studio system in the comics industry takes a bad rap for its insistence on house style at the expense of developing young and idiosyncratic talents. But the development of house styles had its advantages, and no one is a better example of that than Dan DeCarlo. The creator of Millie The Model, Josie And The Pussycats, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch, DeCarlo also was the major force in standardizing the house style of Archie Comics. Though nowhere near as successful as it was in the ’50s and ’60s, the Archie line is still a huge international publishing powerhouse, and much of its appeal remains rooted in DeCarlo’s simple, clean lines and appealing, easy-to-recognize characters. Readers—especially young women, a demographic that American comics once thought it worthwhile to pursue—could pick up any Archie book and know it would feature a particular look and style, and would be familiar and comfortable. His elegant, easy linework went on to inspire generations of comics fans, including Jaime Hernandez, whose “Locas” strips are deeply influenced by DeCarlo’s Archie work. 

12. Steve Rude
A virtual unknown when he teamed up with fellow Wisconsinite Mike Baron in the early 1980s, Steve “The Dude” Rude came upon the comics scene at just the right time. His art style was gorgeous enough on its own—a blend of Jack Kirby’s strong faces, Alex Toth’s thick linework, the classical illustrations of Andrew Loomis, and his own exceptionally strong sense of pacing, timing, and design—but what really caught the attention of readers at the time was his use of “realistic anatomy.” While Marvel and DC were turning all their characters into monstrous pituitary cases who looked like they’d been abusing steroids in the crib, Rude toned everything down, portraying characters who were fit, but whose clothes didn’t cling to their abdominal muscles. His men were beefy and rugged, not chiseled; his women were ’50s curvy instead of ’80s emaciated; and his combination of practical design and fantastic exaggeration made the many wondrous occurrences in Nexus seem natural. The end result was a sort of artistic magical realism that had never been seen in comics before—and has rarely been seen since, save from the Dude himself.

13. Will Eisner
Look at almost any innovation in the first 75 years of American comic-book history, and odds are that Will Eisner got there first. He was an early advocate of creators’ rights, and a canny businessman who turned his character The Spirit into a big moneymaker, with no backing from the big companies or distributors. He was one of the first to advocate that comics develop “adult” storytelling sensibilities, and he beat Scott McCloud to the punch by nearly a decade, writing the hugely influential Comics & Sequential Art in 1985. The Spirit was published as a full-sized comic included in Sunday newspapers, which hasn’t been successfully tried before or since, and his habit of incorporating a comic’s cover art with its logo is now commonplace, but was nearly unheard of when he started doing it. He wrote what some (himself included) believe to be the first graphic novel, pioneered the kind of personal storytelling that later fueled the indie revolution, and was one of the first people to teach comic art in an academic context. Eisner was beyond a pioneer, and it’s quite apt that the biggest annual award for cartooning is named for him.

14. Joe Kubert
One way to ensure you’ll change the future of comics is to found a school dedicated to teaching drawing the way you think it should be done. Another way is to have kids and teach them to draw right. Joe Kubert did both. Kubert, whose career started in the 1940s, and who is still active and productive at age 82, was more than good enough to become a game-changer just on his own; his lean, shadowy figures, mastery of body language, stark poses and expressions, and meticulous research marked him as a major talent on books like Enemy Ace, Hawkman, and Sgt. Rock. But what really ensured his legacy was the founding, in 1976, of the Joe Kubert School Of Cartoon And Graphic Art, the country’s only fully accredited school devoted to cartooning. Its more prominent alums include Alex Maleev, Steve Lieber, Tom Mandrake, Rick Veitch, and Adam and Andy Kubert, Joe’s sons and prominent comic artists on their own. 

15. Rob Liefeld 
One of the most polarizing figures in the modern comics industry, Rob Liefeld is the punching bag of choice for many discerning comics fans. But he’s also the man who defined what the 1990s looked like in superhero books, so he’s crying all the way to the bank. For every detractor who thinks he’s the worst thing to happen to comic books since Fredric Wertham, there are a dozen ravenous fanboys ready to snatch up whatever he does next. Liefeld burst onto the scene in the late 1980s, and became a star with his distinctive work on several X-titles; his visual style was so recognizable it instantly became self-parody, with tiny feet and heads, gargantuan muscles that had no analogue on the actual human body, and pouches, pouches, pouches. He had legions of fans, even though he couldn’t actually draw; when he—along with Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and other controversial artists—helped form the creator-owned Image Comics in 1992, the world learned that he couldn’t write, either. Since then, it’s been revealed that he can’t do much of anything else. Still, there’s no denying that the guy owned the 1990s. It was a strange decade.

16. Todd McFarlane
Figuring out whether Todd McFarlane has been, on balance, a good or bad influence on the comics industry is enough to make your head hurt. Pro: He proved that creator-owned comics could be highly profitable. Con: He did it with Spawn, one of the most unreadable comics of its era. Pro: He turned a profit in the collector’s market at a time when it was collapsing. Con: That kept the collector’s market going, instead of letting it die a well-deserved death. Pro: He’s multi-faceted—an artist, writer (sort of), businessman, publisher, toymaker, and developer. Con: He spends all his money on baseballs. Pro: He’s relentlessly individualistic and uses his company to do what he wants to do. Con: What he wants to do is publish terrible comics. Pro: He helps lots of young cartoonists launch their careers. Con: Young cartoonists like Rob Liefeld. The debate will still be going about a million years after he dies, but not up for debate is the fact that he’s been one of the most influential people in the industry for more than a decade.

17. Chris Ware
Though he’s philosophically more in line with the alt-comics community, Chris Ware draws so much media attention, and his books sell so well, that his work is arguably more mainstream than any current superhero title. Ware’s innovations in comic-page design—which include temporal shifts conveyed by complex diagrams and frames within frames—were inspired by Art Spiegelman’s ’70s experiments and by Richard McGuire’s seminal Raw story “Here.” But Ware marries his fetish for design with a singularly sardonic voice and a God’s-eye perspective on his characters, creating an overall tone that’s like a turn-of-the-century circus poster crossed with the post-war angst of literary lions like John Updike and Richard Yates. Ware’s influence is mostly seen among the younger alternative crowd and contemporary commercial artists, but his use of staccato pacing and visual repetition has popped up in a number of superhero comics over the past decade as well.


18. Basil Wolverton
Given the limitless possibilities of pen and paper, it’s surprising—and somewhat disappointing—that so many artists strive for outright realism, or at least for the stability that comes from repetition. Not so Basil Wolverton. More Tex Avery than Milton Caniff, Wolverton used his stints at Mad magazine and Topps Trading Cards to create characters with rubber faces and rubber limbs, often grotesque in appearance and nearly always unpredictable. Wolverton’s cartoony exaggeration has its closest modern analogue in the comics of Peter Bagge, who also draws dynamic figures with multiple moving parts.


19. Harvey Kurtzman
EC Comics anchorman Harvey Kurtzman gave a burgeoning generation of smart-asses a sense of belonging when he helped create Mad magazine, and he continued to build a bridge between underground comedy and mainstream success via positions of authority at magazines like Help!, Humbug, and even Playboy. For that alone, he’s a legend. But Kurtzman first rose to prominence with his playful, form-bending gag cartoons, and he later helped revolutionize war comics with the grittily realistic, bitingly cynical Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Kurtzman influenced a generation of funnymen and had an impact on Joe Kubert and the adventure-comics artists who followed him. Kurtzman was the Babe Ruth of comics: a slugger with clout who could also throw a hell of a curveball.

20. Neal Adams
Neal Adams’ comics career began to attract attention in the late ’60s with his classic work on DC’s Deadman. But its impact wouldn’t be fully felt until the following decade, when his combination of dynamism and classic illustration became the comic-book style of the Bronze Age. Adams was the right artist at the right time, infusing shadows and heft into superhero titles like X-Men and especially Batman at a time when the titles began to turn their attention to gritty, real-world concerns. Some of Adams’ most famous work remains a Dennis O’Neil-penned run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow from the early ’70s in which the hard-traveling superpals tackle issues from racism to drug addiction. The crest of a rising tide that included veterans Gene Colan and John Romita, Adams helped make even brightly colored superhero comics look a little more like the darker corners of the world at large.

21. Bill Sienkiewicz
Bill Sienkiewicz began his career as a first-rate Neal Adams acolyte, most memorably in a long run as the artist for the perpetual second-string Marvel hero Moon Knight. He had other tricks he needed to try, as evidenced by his work on New Mutants, particularly its covers, which wildly mixed pencil work, painting, collage, and other unorthodox techniques. Sienkiewicz’s new style found its fullest expression in the 1986 Frank Miller miniseries Elektra: Assassin. The book found Sienkiewicz taking Miller’s wildest notions to their expressionistic extremes to create action-packed, reality-bending, darkly comic, and occasionally moving pages. Today, Sienkiewicz’s influence can be seen more in cover art—particularly the work of Dave McKean—than in interior pages, though Ben Templesmith and David Mack don’t really hide their debt.