After writing articles on the greatest Sci-Fi, Horror, and Fantasy writers, it’s time to turn our attention to the 20 greatest comic book writers of all-time. This was by far the most difficult of the four lists for me to compile. That’s why I sought the aid of fellow Mania staffers Chad Derdowski and Chris Smits, as well as you, our loyal Mania readers. I have been a comic fan for 35 years. I was reading comics before Little Golden books thanks to having two older brothers who had tons of comics. I spent two years working in one of the Detroit area’s largest comic book stores from 1989 – 1990. I published my own comic fanzine for three years. I did comic book shows for several years, selling off most of the 15,000 comics I had amassed over the years. Before joining Mania two years ago, I wrote for Newsarama, Komikwerks, The Comics Review, and Silver Bullet Comics. That’s my credentials, for better or worse!
I’ll reiterate the criteria from the earlier article. I like to think of this as a lifetime achievement award. I want writers to have at least 10 – 15 years in the business to even be considered. Thus, while they may make the list one day, current fan favorites like Brian Bendis and Brian K. Vaughn aren’t quite there yet. The writers who make this list should have made significant contributions in terms of memorable storylines, lengthy runs, created popular characters, etc…and winning awards doesn’t hurt either!
A few names presented a problem right off the bat. The first was Jack Kirby. It’s difficult to know how much credit to give Kirby for his collaborations with Stan Lee in the 1960s. We know that Jack sometimes plotted the stories and sometimes they co-plotted. Stan then provided the script. I would have to agree with Chad on this one…I think Kirby was a great idea man but wasn’t great at expressing those ideas on his own. I think he needed a Stan Lee to focus his ideas. I think the proof is when Kirby was on his own for the New Gods and other titles at DC and his return to Marvel on Captain America in the mid-70s. His dialogue was often very stiff and outdated. Thus, while Kirby would make our greatest artists list (God! Don’t get me started!) I couldn’t put him on the greatest writers.
The next two writers who posed a problem were Will Eisner and Jeff Sim. They created distinctive characters (The Spirit and Cerebus) and went about publishing them in their own unique way…Eisner through a pull-out section in syndicated newspapers and Sim by publishing his comic independently. But they are essentially known for a single creation and for that reason I did not include either of them in the Top 20.
I think the final list is well balanced by the old and the new. The fact is the bottom five writers on the list could be easily replaced by a number of the honorable mentions…it was that close and the tough to call. Undoubtedly some of you will be disappointed that your favorite did not make the list so please feel free to leave a message and tell me why your guy should have made it. And with that…on to the list!
OK, so I decided to cheat on the last choice because I really couldn’t come to a decisive choice. Millar just qualifies in terms of his years in the business and his body of work. He’s certainly become one of the most popular writers of the last decade with works like Civil War, The Ultimates, Ultimate X-Men, Wanted, Wolverine, and The Fantastic Four. While I was not a big fan of Civil War one can’t deny the reverberations it caused throughout the Marvel Universe. He’s been nominated three times for the Eisner award.
As far as Jim Starlin, some might accuse him of single-mindedness but Starlin is the master of the cosmic storyline. His 1970s work on Captain Marvel and Warlock was years ahead of its time. His Dreadstar series was the first title from Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint and was a cosmic space opera of the highest level. Before it became fashionable to try and destroy the universe, Starlin was doing it with the Infinity Gauntlet/War/Crusade limited series, and later with The End. Starlin has won a Shazam Award and two eagle awards. Not to be forgotten is that he is also one of the great comic artists of all-time as well. A true dual threat!
Englehart was one of the most prolific comic writers of the 70’s and 80s. During his 40 years in the business he has written just about every major title for Marvel and DC. Among his more notable works was a run on Captain America which saw Steve Rogers quit in a dispute with the U.S. Government and become Nomad. With artist Frank Brunner Steve’s Doctor Strange stories in Marvel Premiere and later Doc’s own title set a new standard in Lovecraft-influenced psychedelic horror. Steve’s run with artist Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics and Batman: Dark Detective II were a blueprint for several of the Batman films including The Dark Knight. Steve also had lengthy runs on the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The Silver Surfer. Steve has won an Eagle Award as Favorite Comic Writer in 1978 and been nominated numerous other times.
Unlike a lot of British writers, Ellis did not hone his skills doing the 2000 AD comics. His first work in the U.S. was for Marvel’s Hellstorm and then had a lengthy run on Excalibur. His most famous work is the groundbreaking futuristic series Transmetropolitan. Writing the entire 60 issue run, it was the only Helix title to survive the imprints cancellation and switch over to the Vertigo imprint. If you can afford to buy all 10 volumes that collect the 60 issues, it is a tremendous read! These days, most of Ellis’ work is being done for independent publisher Avatar press including Anna Mercury and Doktor Sleepless. Avatar is only too willing to let Ellis have total creative freedom to tell the tales he wants to tell. He won the 2007 Eagle Award for Favorite Writer.
Mark Waid is probably the least appreciated writer on the list. Waid’s first big break in comics was writing The Flash for an acclaimed eight year run. That alone tells you how good he is…very few writers have ever remained on a single title for that length of time. Waid wrote a number of runs on Captain America including the brilliant Sentinel of Liberty mini-series. Superman: Birthright was Waid’s take on Superman for the 21st century and once again rebooted the Man of Steel’s origin. Waid’s Kingdom Come with art by Alan Ross, was one of the best mini-series of the 1990s. With his diverse resume, Waid is no doubt one of the best comic book writers of the past 15 years. Waid is currently serving as Editor-In-Chief for Boom Studios.
Wolfman is another of those great 1970s writers whose name seemed to be in the credits of about every other title. Wolfman first came to prominence by writing Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula, easily the best horror title of the 1970s. With artist Gene Colan, Wolfman created a gothic masterpiece but with a modern flair. During his six years on the title Wolfman created numerous supporting characters including Blade and Hannibal King. With artist George Perez he re-booted the Teen Titans in the 80s making it one of the top-selling comic books. Wolfman’s most well-known series is the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. So momentous was this series that nearly 25 years later DC still cannot escape its prodigious shadow. Wolfman has created many characters over the years including: Starfire, Tim Drake, Deathstroke, Cyborg, Raven, Nova, The Black Cat, Bullseye, and Vigilante. He’s won numerous industry awards: The Jack Kirby Award for Best Series (Teen Titans) in 1985 & 1986; A Shazam award for Best Writer in 1973, and he’s been nominated for numerous Eagle awards as Best Writer.
Peter David is perhaps the most outspoken name on the list and that’s quite an achievement considering some of the other names in the Top 20. Over his 25 years in comics he’s had run-ins with numerous other creators including Todd McFarlane, John Byrne, and Frank Miller. David is best known for taking the lackluster Incredible Hulk and making it readable during a decade-long run that saw the creation of the “Mr. Fixit” Grey Hulk persona. Besides the Hulk David had long runs on X-Factor, Dreadstar (taking over for Jim Starlin), Supergirl and Young Justice. He’s had a regular column in the Comic Buyer’s Guide since 1990 called “But I digress…” He’s won an Eisner and CBG award for Best Writer and been nominated four other times for Eisners.
Busiek seems like a new name but he’s been around for over 25 years. Kurt belongs to a rich heritage of writers who had long stints on The Avengers. Teaming with the great George Perez, Busiek produced some of the best Avengers stories since Roy Thomas helmed the book in the 1960s. He teamed again with Perez for the landmark JLA/Avengers crossover. Kurt followed in Roy Thomas’ footsteps yet again with a long stink on Conan for Dark Horse comics. Other runs on Kurt’s Resume include The Thunderbolts, Iron Man, Marvels, and Untold Tales of Spider-Man. All this would be great but Busiek’s true masterpiece is his Astro City series co-created with Brent Anderson. This long-running title, now at Wildstorm Comics is one of the best recent takes on superheroes. Busiek awards list includes: Eisner for Best Writer in 1999, The CBG for Best writer in 1998 & 1999 (and he was nominated each year from 2000 – 2004), an Eisner for Best Limited series for Marvels in 1994, and won Eisners for Best Single Issue/Story three years in a row from 1996 – 1998.
John Byrne burst onto the comics scene in the 1970s working on several minor titles for Marvel before teaming with writer Chris Claremont on the X-Men as the artist during arguably that title’s most important run. Byrne joined the Fantastic Four first as artist and then as writer/artist with a six year run that most experts consider the greatest era of that title next to only the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby era of the 1960s. Byrne also was the writer and artist on Alpha Flight for that title’s first two years. In the mid-80s, DC hired Byrne to revamp Superman with the six issue mini-series The Man of Steel. The Series was one of the top-selling titles of the decade and Byrne carried over the momentum into a new Superman #1. Byrne also enjoyed popular runs on Wonder Woman, The She-Hulk, and his creator owned series, The Next Men. Byrne was nominated for the CBG Best Writer six times and won several CBG awards as an artist.
Fox is the grand old man of our list and probably the most prolific comic book writer in history. Fox wrote over 4,000 comic book stories in his career that spanned nearly 50 years. Fox was a machine for DC during the Golden Age, creating or co-creating many of DC’s best known characters including The Flash, Sandman, Hawkman, Doctor Fate, and Starman. He wrote several early Batman tales and introduced such gimmicks as the Batarang and the Batplane. Fox wrote for EC comics during the 1950s and returned to DC in the early 60s to help reinvent the Golden Age heroes into their new modern Silver Age looks and identities. It was Fox who created the concept of “Earth Two” back in Flash #123 which paired the Golden and Silver Age Flash’s together for the first time. Fox wrote the Justice League of America from 1960 – 1968. Fox briefly worked for Marvel in the 1970s and did his last comic work for Eclipse in 1985. Fox passed away in 1986. Fox was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1998.
Ennis is regarded as one of the best comic book writers when it comes to more adult themes. Like many writers from the British Isles, Ennis did his time for 2000 AD working on characters such as Judge Dredd. His first big break came when he took over Vertigo’s Hellblazer in 1991. During his near four years on the book he wrote some of its best story arcs including “Blood Lines”, “Fear and Loathing” and “Tainted Love”. Bigger things were to come for Ennis with Preacher, another Vertigo title. Ennis wrote the entire 66 issue run as well as annuals and specials. This series would produce numerous awards for Ennis and is currently in film development. Ennis wrote the definitive Punisher for Marvel with a 60 issue gritty run that many consider his finest work. He also wrote the entire 60 issue run of Hitman. Ennis has won two Eisner Awards, an Eagle as Best Writer to go along with numerous nominations. This guy is so good it’s scary!
If there is one writer in comics today who really seems to “get” superheroes, it is Geoff Johns. Johns is a throwback to writers like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and Gardner Fox. He respects superheroes and doesn’t feel the need to deconstruct, disassemble, or have them fight in civil wars. He simply writes great stories and commits himself to every title he works on. The Justice Society of America kicked around DC for decades with numerous attempts to revive the Golden Age team but it wasn’t until Johns took over JSA with a six-year run that it became a hit among fans. John’s then became the writer for the first 26 issues when the series rebooted as Justice Society of America. Johns proved he’s one of the best writers of “team” books with a four year run on Teen Titans and a two year stint on the Avengers. Among his other notable works are: A five year run on The Flash, Infinite Crisis, and co-writer of 52. Johns won the Wizard Magazine award as Best Writer four years in a row from 2005 – 2008. He also won the Project Fanboy award as best writer for 2008. This is one guy who will definitely crack the top 10 very soon.
Fans have long had a love/hate relationship with Chris Claremont but there’s no disputing his importance in comic history. He took a title that was near cancellation and re-printing old stories and turned it into the most popular book AND franchise in comics. Claremont’s 17 year run on The Uncanny X-Men encompassed over 200 issues of the regular title not to mention various annuals, specials, limited series, and graphic novels. Storylines such as “Days of Future Past” are some of the most well-known tales in the history of comics. Claremont brought brilliant characterization and some of the most complex plotting ever scene in the industry. I feel safe in saying that we will never see another run on a comic title of that length and magnitude…ever! Claremont has hundreds of other credits to his name but he will be forever linked with the X-Men. He has won five CBG Awards as Favorite Writer. He also won a whopping SEVENTEEN Eagle Awards in various categories.
Honestly, what has Len Wein NOT written in his forty-year career in comics? The JLA, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Batman, The Green Lantern, Marvel Team-Up, Thor, The Defenders…just about every title of the 70s and 80s was touched by Len at one time or another. With Berni Wrightson he created Swamp Thing in 1971 and it was Wein who picked a then unknown writer named Alan Moore to take over in the second run of Swamp Thing when the title was near cancellation. Wein also created a character who has gone on to have a FAIR amount of popularity…WOLVERINE! It was Wein who resurrected the X-Men in the landmark Giant-Sized X-Men #1 before turning the reins of the new team over to Chris Claremont. Wein also served as editor for the groundbreaking Watchmen limited series. Wein won the Shazam award as best writer in 1972. He was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2008. At Age 60, Wein continues to be going strong.
I had to pause before putting Gaiman on the list. He would either be on ranked quite high…or not make it at all. Gaiman nearly fell into the same category as Eisner and Dave Sim as being primarily known for one thing but ultimately I felt there was more than enough there to include him. Gaiman, of course, wrote the entire 75 issue run of The Sandman for DC’s Vertigo line. This was not your gas-mask wearing noir hero of the golden age but rather an ethereal dark fantasy character, Morpheus The Lord of Dreams. This epic title included storylines like Season of Mists wherein Morpheus is given the key to Hell from Lucifer who no longer wishes to rule the realm. Gaiman also wrote the Sandman spin-off series Death: The High Cost of Living, The Four-issue series The Books of Magic. Gaiman also wrote several issues of Miracleman for Eclipse, taking over for Alan Moore. Gaiman won the CBG Award as Favorite Writer from 1991 – 1993. Gaiman also won an incredible 19 Eisner Awards for various comic book works. Since turning his attention to writing novels he’s won several Hugo, Nebula, Locus Awards.
There are not many writers on this list who are more important than Denny O’Neil. Perhaps more than any other comic book writer, O’Neil did more to make the industry “grow up” and mature. O’Neil worked on a number of titles for DC like The Creeper, Justice League of America, and Wonder Woman. But in 1970 he paired with Legendary artist Neal Adams on one of the most important comics runs in history on Green Lantern/Green Arrow. The 14 issue run tackled subjects that were previously off limits to comics such as drug abuse when Arrow’s sidekick Speedy was discovered to be a heroin addict. The run also took on other taboo subjects such as racism, religion, and politics. The two stars of the book were often ideologically opposed on these subjects with Hal Jordan being conservative and Oliver Queen a radical Liberal. O’Neil then worked on both Batman and Detective Comics (often teaming with Adams again) to take Batman out of the silly slapstick of the 60s era and back to his darker roots. Among O’Neil’s best creations was Batman’s arch-Villain Ra’s al Ghul. O’Neil has won a handful of Shazam Awards for Best Writer, Best individual Story, and Best Title.
After working for an assortment of British publishers Morrison caught his big break on Vertigo’s Animal Man in 1998. This title would highlight his ability to take minor, relatively unknown characters and revamp them for a more mature audience. DC was so impressed that they next turned over the reins of Doom Patrol in 1989. Again Morrison took characters who were barely a blip on the comic map and infused them with new elements and new takes on heroes and villains. His revamping success would continue with the Kid Eternity mini-series as he completely changed everything that the character new about himself. To prove he wasn’t all about just reshaping characters others had created Morrison introduced The Invisibles, another Vertigo title that he remained on from 1994 – 2000. Morrison also has written JLA, Final Crisis, The New X-Men, and was co-writer of 52. He’s next slated to tackle the new Batman & Robin book this June. Morrison has won numerous Eisner, CBG and Harvey awards. In 1997, he was the first comic book writer to be included as one of Entertainment Weekly's top 100 creative people in America.
Thomas came to New York to work for DC but lasted only about a week before accepting an offer from Stan Lee to become a writer. Thomas wrote early stories for The X-Men and Sgt. Fury before taking over The Avengers on issue #35 in 1966. Thomas would remain on the title for six years, delivering by far the greatest run on that title, and one of the most creative runs of all-time. During his tenure Thomas created the Vision, masterfully using his love for the Golden Age comics to have the Vision created from the android body of the original Human Torch. He created Yellow Jacket and the Avengers Arch-Villain Ultron. Thomas wrote the legendary “Kree-Skrull War” in Avengers 89 – 97, still one of the greatest story arcs ever. He later teamed with artist Neal Adams on The X-Men for one of that titles best arcs including the most famous battle against the robotic Sentinels. Thomas created or co-created numerous other characters including Man-Thing, Iron Fist, and Ghost Rider. In 1970 he convinced Marvel to buy the rights to Conan the Barbarian. Thomas would write the title for ten years from 1970 – 1980 as well as dozens of issues of Savage Sword of Conan. At DC he brought back the JSA in the All-Star Squadron and created The Young All-Stars and Infinity Inc. Roy has won three Shazam Awards and several Eagle Awards.
Like several others on the list, Miller made his name first as an artist before going on to even bigger things as a writer. Miller joined Daredevil as artist on issue #158 in 1979 and took over as writer on issue #168. Miller took the rather bland character and introduced violent and grittier plots that saw the introduction of Elektra the assassin and her eventual murder at the hands of Bullseye. In 1986, Miller wrote and drew one of the great series in comics history Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This “what-if” future story of an older Batman helped get comics to a more mature and mainstream audience and garnered national press stories. It is one of the 10 most important stories ever written in comics. Miller then went in the opposite direction by writing Batman: Year One. Miller would move over to Dark Horse in the early 90’s where he wrote Sin City, the lush, crime noir epic, later adapted into film. His epic tale of the Spartans was told in 300, also adapted into film. Miller would return to DC to write Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the long anticipated sequel to Dark Knight Returns. His awards are too numerous to list but include six Eisners, four Kirbys, and three Harveys.
I admire Stan Lee. He’s never had to hold a “real” job. He’s been in the comic business since he was 18 years old. His first story, a text feature, appeared in Captain America #3 in 1971. He worked through name changes from Timely, to Atlas Comics, to eventually Marvel. He created or co-created virtually every major character at Marvel including The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, The X-Men, The Hulk, The Avengers, Iron Man, and countless others. He helped revolutionize the comic industry in the 60’s by making stories that were more character driven. He lifted the veil on superheroes personal lives which were often as compelling as their alter egos. While never trying to be too controversial, Lee dealt indirectly with themes like racism and bigotry through his characters like The Thing and Hulk. His 10 year run on Fantastic Four is widely considered one the best runs on any title. It saw the creation of the Silver Surfer, The Black Panther, Galactus, Adam Warlock, and countless others. Stan wrote Spider-Man for 10 years, Thor for 9 years, The Hulk for 7 years, Captain America for 7 years, and Daredevil for 5 years. Lee has become an icon…the living Godfather of comic books. He’s been in inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame and been given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and been awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Well my heart wanted to go with Stan Lee but my head says Alan Moore deserves the top spot and really, who can argue? Moore began working for Britain’s 2000AD in 1980 working on Judge Dredd, The Ballad of halo Jones and Marvelman. Editor Len Wein handpicked Moore to take over Swamp Thing which was struggling. Moore turned the comic world on its ear with his revamping of the character into an elemental and creating a southern gothic masterpiece that culminated in the “American Gothic” story arc that introduced John Constantine. In 1986 Moore wrote which most consider the finest limited series and perhaps finest comic story ever, The Watchmen. Watchmen was the only graphic novel to appear on Time's 2005 "All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels" list. Moore wrote the critically acclaimed 1988 one-shot Batman: The Killing Joke with artist Brian Bolland. The story saw the Joker shoot and paralyze Batgirl and also suggest that Batman is as crazy as the Joker. Some of Moore’s best work was on Eclipse Comics’ Miracleman, a modern re-envisioning of a 1950s character. The complex and violent work has been tied up in legal wrangling between Todd McFarlane (who purchased Eclipse’s assets) Writer Neil Gaiman who claims the rights are his, and original creator Mick Anglo. Moore is notorious for his disputes with both Marvel and DC and has steadfastedly refused to have his name associated with any films based on his works including Watchmen. Moore’s vast list of awards including 7 CBG Awards, 8 Kirby Awards, and 9 Eisner Awards.
So here is where I get to say that a lot of these guys could be interchangeable with some of the bottom guys on the list. It’s really that close. Some just need a few more years under their belt and they very easy make the list the next time some foolhardy chap decides to write a new one.
Dave Sim – Creator of Cerebus the Aardvark
Carl Barks – longtime writer of writer of Donald Duck stories for Disney
Gilbert Hernandez – creator of acclaimed independent series Love & Rockets
Will Eisner – creator of the Spirit
Bill Finger – early writer of the Golden Age Batman and Green Lantern stories
J.M. DeMatteis – one of comics more underrated writers. Wrote “Kraven’s Last Hunt”
James Robinson – One of today’s best comic writers and a guy I can see making the list one day
Steve Gerber – One of Marvels best of the 70s and creator of Howard the Duck
Jim Shooter – The former controversial Marvel Editor-in-Chief was also a very accomplished writer.
Chuck Dixon – Long time writer of the Punisher and Detective Comics among others. One of the better writers when it comes to gritty crime tales
Keith Giffen – writer of the post-crisis more humorous Justice Leage, Legion of Super Heroes and many others.
Mike Mignola – Creator of Hellboy
Jack Kirby – Co-creator with Stan Lee on many of Marvels greatest characters. Created Kamandi, OMAC, and the New Gods titles at DC.
Roger Stern – Longtime writer on the Avengers, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Action Comics, etc…
So that’s it! Who did we miss? Who shouldn’t be on there? Now is the time to speak now or forever…well, you get the picture!