Who are the 50 greatest comic book artists of all-time? We could argue about it all day but we’re going to take a stab at it anyway. Let’s first talk about comic book art in general. Comic book art has changed tremendously over the past 20 – 25 years. Advances in paper and printing technologies have been a boon to modern comic artists for many reasons. Today, artists are able to take advantages of higher quality paper, high-tech printing processes, not to mention the advent of software programs like Photoshop and Corel Draw.
From the time that the earliest comic books of the mid-1930s came off the printing press until the mid to late 1980’s, the process of creating and printing a comic book hardly changed at all. They were printed on cheap, pulpy paper called newsprint. Newsprint does not hold up well over time. The paper was manufactured with acid. This is why older comics begin to become yellow or brown, as well as becoming brittle and rusty around the staples. Newsprint also begins to have that musty/mildew smell after many years. In the 1980s comics began to move to a higher quality, acid-free glossy paper known as “Baxter Paper”.
You could easily make the argument that coloring in many ways actually HURT the art of comics up until the mid-1980s. Comics used to be hand-inked, typically using Dr. Martin’s inks. Today, nearly all comics are colored by computer. But it wasn’t so much the coloring as it was the printing and the paper. Colors were printed using a series of tiny colored dots, early versions of computer pixels. As we all know, the more pixels, the higher the resolution. Pick up a comic today and look very close at the colors…you know what you don’t see? You don’t see dots anymore. Back in the day it was not unusual for the alignment to be off resulting in the color printing outside the lines of a figure. Today, the colorist is the artist’s best friend.
With today’s glossy, high quality paper, art is no longer bound to the confines of its panels and surrounded by white borders. Today’s comic book art literally bleeds right off the page. Colors are brighter and bolder than ever before. Photoshop means artists can render effects in seconds that used to require the careful and time consuming process of cutting and pasting zipatone to add shading and highlighting to the art.
In short, comic art looks better than ever and artists today don’t know how good they have it. One can only wonder how great the art of guys like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Alex Schomburg would have looked if they had the advantage of today’s technology. We’ve seen their work re-mastered with modern processes but it’s nothing like being created with those advances.
Now with all that out of the way we are talking about the greatest artists of ALL-TIME. Not the greatest artists currently and not the greatest artists of the 21st century. So those of you who might be wondering why you’re favorite current hot artists are not on the list, well, that’s the reason why. What criteria did we use? We looked at several aspects. First, was pure artistic ability; Second is the noteworthiness of their work. Did they work on stories that had an impact on the industry? Did they create famous, iconic characters? Did they have a unique style or come up with innovative designs? Third is their influence on the industry. It’s one thing to be good, but the greatest artists influence others and influence the business. Finally, the last bit of criteria is their longevity. Does their work stand the test of time and is it still relevant today?
Now, this isn’t just the project of one man…I polled not only our fine staff of writers here at Mania but also dozens of other industry professionals including professional artists and writers from past and present, comic historians, editors/publishers, various marketing pros, retailers, comic con promoters, as well as numerous long-time collectors and fans. Our age range went from as young as mid-twenties to those in their seventies. Early on we looked at whether to include those artists whose primary work was on newspaper strips rather than traditional comic books. We decided to include them because of their enormous talent and influence.
So with the disclaimers and introductions out of the way, Mania presents their countdown of the Top 50 comic artists of all-time! First up artists 50 to 41!
50. Mark Bagley
Mark Bagley is the American Idol of comic artists. In 1983, Marvel Comics published a book called The Marvel Try Out Book to give aspiring artists, letterers, colorists, and writers a chance to show their stuff. The book included a contest submission and Bagley one first in the penciling category, beating out thousands of others. Bagley’s first major ongoing assignment at Marvel came on New Warriors in 1990. He would go on to work on Amazing Spider-Man in the mid-1990s and then on Thunderbolts.
In 2000, Marvel wanted to find a way to attract new readers but without re-booting their whole line. Thus the Ultimate imprint was born featuring modernized re-takes on their characters. Leading the imprint off was Ultimate Spider-Man teaming Bagley with writer Brian Michael Bendis. The title was a huge hit and one of the most popular and best-selling titles of the 2000’s. The pair teamed together for a staggering 111 issues.
Bagley would move to DC in 2008 but return to Marvel in 2011 to wrap up the run of Ultimate Spider-Man, do the 12 issue limited series “Fear Itself: The Fearless” and later take over Fantastic Four.
Notable Works: Amazing Spider-Man, Thunderbolts, Ultimate Spider-Man, Fantastic Four
49. Lou Fine
Do you know who the favorite artist of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, co-creators of Captain America, was? Lou Fine, that’s who! Fine was one of the early greats of the Golden Age. Fine began his career in 1938 at the famous studio run by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger. Fine worked on some of the most popular non-DC/Timely-Marvel comics of the Golden Age including The Black Condor, Uncle Same, The Flame, and The Ray. He also worked on Blue Beetle drawing the cover for the first issue in 1939. Fine was also one of Will Eisner’s ghost artists to draw The Spirit newspaper strip during World War II. Fine was know especially for his bold and beautiful cover work that inspired many later artists.
Notable Works: Feature Comics, Hit Comics, Wonderworld Comics, National Comics, The Spirit newspaper strip
48. Art Adams
Few artists have ever had such an immediate impact with their debut work as Art Adams did when Longshot #1 was published in 1985. Adams’s art was raw and lacked finesse but his style was unlike anyone else’s at the time and in many ways Adams became the forerunner of many of today’s top artists. Adams was given the task of doing the cover to a 1985 book intended to benefit famine relief. His rendition of Wolverine on the cover would go onto become one of the character’s most iconic images, used in posters, standees, and marketing materials. Adams along with Frank Miller, John Byrne and Mike Mignola would form Legend, an imprint of creator-owned comics published by Dark Horse Comics, creating the series Monkeyman and O’Brien.
While Adams’s notoriously slow work has precluded him from doing many extended runs, he continues to be one of the most sought after cover artists in the business. His extensive cover work has included Classic X-Men, The New Mutants, The Fearless, Superman, Batman, Godzilla, and Carnage.
Notable Works: Longshot, Classic X-Men, Heroes for Hope
47. Marc Silvestri
Silvestri kicked around for a few years doing odd art chores at DC and at First Comics but got his big break at Marvel in the late 1980’s first working on Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine. In 1992, Silvestri, along with Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane and Jim Valentino, left Marvel to form Image Comics, forever changing the landscape of the industry. Image established the concept of creator-owned comics.
Silvestri founded Top Cow, an Image imprint whose first title was Cyberforce. Silvestri co-created Witchblade, and The Darkness. Witchblade has been adapted into a short-lived live action TV series as well as an Anime series. The Darkness has been adapted into two videogames. Top Cow has also published titles such as Rising Stars, Tomb Raider, Weapon Zero, Wanted, The Magdelena, and Ascension. Silvestri has recruited and given many of today’s top artists their starts in the industry including Brandon Peterson, David Finch, and Joe Benitez.
Notable Works: Top Cow imprint, Cyberforce, Witchblade, The Darkness, Uncanny X-Men
46. Paul Gulacy
Shang Chi: Master of Kung-Fu was just another disposable Marvel title in the 1970s, born out of the Kung-Fu craze of the era. But beginning with issue #20 in 1974, writer Doug Moench teamed with artist Paul Gulacy on a critically acclaimed run of nearly three years. In an era when little sold that didn’t feature superheroes, Master of Kung-Fu was an action/intrigue combination of James Bond and Kung-Fu film. Gulacy, heavily influenced by the cinematic art of Jim Steranko brought a level of depth and composition to his art rarely seen in the 1970s. It became one of the best and most underrated titles of the mid-1970s. Gulacy and writer Don McGregor created one of the very first graphic novels ever published in 1978 for Eclipse Comics, Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, featuring the swashbuckling Sci-fi adventurer, Sabre. In recent years, Gulacy has primarily worked for DC doing Catowman with Ed Brubaker, and JSA: Classified. He also worked for Dark Horse on Star Wars Crimson Empire I, II, and III, and Terminator: Secondary objectives. His style remains one of the most distinctive in comics today. Notable Works: Shang Chi: Master of Kung-Fu, Catowman, Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, Star Wars: Crimson Empire
Shang Chi: Master of Kung-Fu was just another disposable Marvel title in the 1970s, born out of the Kung-Fu craze of the era. But beginning with issue #20 in 1974, writer Doug Moench teamed with artist Paul Gulacy on a critically acclaimed run of nearly three years. In an era when little sold that didn’t feature superheroes, Master of Kung-Fu was an action/intrigue combination of James Bond and Kung-Fu film. Gulacy, heavily influenced by the cinematic art of Jim Steranko brought a level of depth and composition to his art rarely seen in the 1970s. It became one of the best and most underrated titles of the mid-1970s.
Gulacy and writer Don McGregor created one of the very first graphic novels ever published in 1978 for Eclipse Comics, Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, featuring the swashbuckling Sci-fi adventurer, Sabre. In recent years, Gulacy has primarily worked for DC doing Catowman with Ed Brubaker, and JSA: Classified. He also worked for Dark Horse on Star Wars Crimson Empire I, II, and III, and Terminator: Secondary objectives. His style remains one of the most distinctive in comics today.
Notable Works: Shang Chi: Master of Kung-Fu, Catowman, Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species, Star Wars: Crimson Empire
45. Frank Brunner
Frank Brunner was one of the young ‘rock stars’ of comic book art in the 1970s along with guys like Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor Smith, Jim Starlin, and Mike Kaluta. They brought unique sense of styles and flairs that was quite a change from a lot of the humdrum art we had seen during the 1960s. Brunner broke in doing work for Warren magazines like Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. Brunner and writer Steve Englehart had a critically acclaimed and controversial run on Doctor Strange in 1973 – 1974 in which a sorcerer named Cagliostro became God. As Brunner told me in a 2009 interview:
“Well, Stan Lee insisted we print a retraction about the whole story. He wanted us to say it wasn’t THE God it was just A God, and we didn’t want to do that. So Steve and I cooked up a little plot to have a certain reverend in Texas write to Marvel Comics about the story and say it was the best story he had ever read. And somehow the letter got to Stan and that one letter changed Stan’s mind about it. We got the message a few weeks later to print the letter instead of the retraction. And it was our own letter (laughter).”
Brunner did one of the most famous covers in the history of modern comics for Howard the Duck #1 in 1976. Brunner also provided the art for the adaption of the Conan story “The Scarlet Citadel” in Savage Sword of Conan #30 featuring a stunning fully painted cover. Brunner left comics in the 1980s to concentrate on film and TV work. He was the head character designed for the animated X-Men series. Recently Brunner has provided cover art for Dynamite Entertainment’s Red Sonja series.
44. P. Craig Russell
P. Craig Russell is likely the most literature conscious artist on the list. By that I mean that rather than concentrate on the typical comic book fare, Russell has used his exquisite art to adapt well-known literature into comic format. Russell broke in with Marvel during a run on Amazing Adventures and the Sci-Fi character Killraven. Russell has adapted several of Michael Moorcock’s tales featuring fantasy anti-hero Elric for Marvel, Dark Horse, and Pacific Comics. His adaptation of “The Dreaming City” was the second graphic novel that Marvel ever published.
He has adapted Richard Wagner’s famed operatic cycle , The Ring of the Nibelung for Dark Horse and the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde for NBM. He also did the art for Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel “Coraline”. Russell produced several hauntingly beautiful covers for the Spectre (Vol. 4). Few artists who work in comics have ever had Russell’s graceful and elaborate ability.
Notable Works: Amazing Adventures, Elric, The Ring of the Nibelung
43. Jim Aparo
Jim Aparo was DC’s version of Marvel’s John Buscema. He was an artist who worked quickly, and could handle any title. He broke into comics with Charlton in the 1960s and then got hired by DC in the late 60s. He is one of the most prolific artists in history with over 600 credits. Aparo is best known for his long association with Batman. He worked on some 125 issues of the various Batman titles but his longest run came on Brave and the Bold. From 1971 to 1983 he worked on over 80 issues of the title. Aparo was the artist during the “Death in the Family” and “A Lonely Place of Dying” storylines in the 1980s. he was also the artist on Batman during the “Knightfall” story which saw Bane break Batman’s back.
In the mid-70s, Aparo along with writer Michael Fleisher worked on a 10 issue run of Adventure Comics featuring the Spectre. The run became known for Aparo’s ghoulish covers and interior art which saw the Spectre meting out ruthless punishment to criminals. Aparo also had long runs on Green Arrow, The Phantom Stranger, The Outsiders, and Aquaman.
Notable Works: Batman, Detective Comics, Brave and the Bold, and Adventure Comics
42. Al Williamson
In a career that spanned seven decades, the late Al Williamson amassed nearly 800 credits. Willamson did various minor credits in the late 1940s and early 1950s with companies like Fawcett, Standard, and Avon but got his big break with legendary EC Comics. Williamson worked on EC’s Sci-Fi titles: Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, and Weird Science-Fantasy. When EC folded, he worked for Atlas, Harvey Comics, Dell Comics, and Gold Key.
While Williamson was an outstanding penciler, his most notable work came as an inker. Williamson won awards as best inker from 1988 – 1997. Working primarily for Marvel he inked such artists as John Buscema, Mike Mignola, Lee Weeks, and John Romita Sr. and Jr. Williamson worked with John Romita Jr. during a long stint on Daredevil in the late 1980s and early 1990s, inking over 50 consecutive issues and bringing a dramatic grittiness to the series, continuing what Frank Miller had started a few years earlier. He would also have long stints on Spider-Girl (75 issues); Spider-Man 2099 (25 issues); and Star Wars (Dark Horse)
Notable Work: EC comics, Daredevil, Spider-Girl, Star Wars, The Punisher
41. Alex Raymond
Alex Raymond may very well be the most influential comic artist in history. In 1933, Raymond was tasked by King Features Syndicate, a major distributor of comic strips and newspaper columns, to create a comic strip that could compete with Buck Rogers. Raymond created Flash Gordon, arguably the most popular Sci-fi character of all-time. The character would later be adapted into film and radio serials, live-action and animated TV series, and a 1980 theatrical film. Various comic books have also been published from the 1930s to present day either reprinting Raymond’s newspaper strips or presenting new material by other creators.
The Artists who have cited Raymond as an influence on their work include: Murphy Anderson, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Joe Shuster, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Alex Toth, and Joe Sinnott. George Lucas also cites Raymond and Flash Gordon as a major influence on his Star Wars series. In addition to Flash Gordon, Raymond created other comic strips including the adventure strip “Jungle Jim”, and the spy strip “Secret Agent X-9”, and the Detective strip “Rip Kirby”. Raymond would leave Flash Gordon in 1944 to join the Marines. The military utilized his skills to have Raymond create morale-boosting illustrations for the troops and for Americans back home. Tragically, Raymond was killed in an auto accident in 1956 but his work continues to influence pop culture over 50 years after his death.
Notable Works: Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9, Rip Kirby