Friday, August 1, 2014

Batman - Top 10 Artists

Continuing on from my round up of the Top 10 Best BatmanWriters, I pulled together my personal favorite Bat artists and did my best to rank them based on skill, influence, with my own personal taste mixed in. Some of them had long extended stays in Gotham while others dropped by a handful of times but managed to leave a lasting impression. Having very limited drawing skills myself, I am in awe of these masters at their craft and would gladly pick up any book with their credit attached, no matter how poor the writing. Anyway, enough with this intro, on to the list:

10) Marshall Rogers

Together with frequent collaborator Steve Englehart, Rogers contributed to one of the best Joker stories of all time, The Laughing Fish. Under his pencil, the Joker never seemed more menacing. Rogers hits the perfect balance of scary and humorous. This story has stood the test of time and it’s in part due to the captivating imagery. One thing that sticks out to me is when Rogers drew Batman, his cape seemingly had a life of its own, very much emphasizing his bigger-than-life persona and adding a sense of movement that you rarely see in comics. In addition, Rogers teamed with comics legend Len Wein to reinterpret Batman’s foe Clayface. Rogers’ run on Detective Comics is still looked back on as one of the all time best and it’s easy to see why.

Notable Works: Strange Apparitions, Dark Detective

9) Dustin Nguyen

I initially discovered Dustin Nguyen (like I discovered most artists on this list) through his Batman work when he first collaborated with Paul Dini on their acclaimed Detective run. Nguyen's take on the character was unlike any art I've ever seen in connection with Batman. The closest comparison I could make is that of Mike Magnolia, but Dustin has a style all his own. I especially loved Nguyen’s version of Hush, even better than his character designer, Jim Lee’s take which is saying something. Nguyen currently still resides in Gotham working on the Li’l Gotham series, and while those are fun, I like to think of chibi versions of superheroes as being Scottie Young's area and I'd love to see Dustin back on a regular Batman book soon. Bonus points for his awesome Batman Beyond covers.

Notable works: Heart of Hush, Hush Money, Lil’ Gotham

8) Tim Sale

Sale’s Batman truly embodies ‘creature of the night’ in every way, as his version thrives on shadows and mood. You know how with iconic movie characters it’s hard to imagine any other actor filling that role? Similarly, it’s impossible to imagine any other artist working on such masterpieces as The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Certainly, Sale’s partner in crime, Jeph Loeb, deserves some of the credit, but it’s Sale’s contributions that elevate these essential Bat stories to the top of the pack. Not only do they showcase many of Batman’s colorful rogues gallery in unforgettable renderings, but they also add great depth and humanity to the characters of Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent and Dick Grayson. By illustrating their pain and suffering with subtlety and grace, oftentimes in just a single image, Sale proves to be a master at his craft. He is the artist Batman deserves. Let’s hope they reunite soon.

Notable Works: The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, Haunted Knight

7) Norm Breyfogle

Breyfogle’s take on Batman manages to stradle the line of being both classic yet also his own style all at once. His run with Alan Grant is a classic one that holds a special place for me since it introduced us to the underrated Scarface and the Ventriloquist (I know I’m in the minority here). Breyfogle also got in on the Knightfall saga, ensuring that the quality would be up to snuff for such an earthshattering event. More recently, Breyfogle has returned to Batman’s world in the Batman Beyond series, bringing his unique talents to the Gotham of the future.

Notable Works: Detective Comics #583-594 , Knightfall, Batman Beyond Unlimited

6) Jim Aparo

Following the lead of Neal Adams, Aparo’s style strived for realistic interpretations of the Dark
Knight with a great attention to detail. Although drawing inspiration from Adams, Aparo’s Batman was not a carbon copy and soon branched out with a style all his own, often inking and even lettering his own work. Aparo got his start on Batman with the classic Brave and the Bold series which he worked on for over a decade. Once that series ended, it was replaced with another landmark series in Batman’s history, Batman and the Outsiders which he co-created. Aparo’s most notable contributions to Batman would come later though as he contributed to some of the most impactful stories in Batman’s history including Death in the Family as well as Knightfall creating such iconic imagery as Batman cradling Jason Todd’s limp body and Bane breaking Batman’s back, respectively. Aparo certainly made his mark in Gotham and Batman rarely looked better under anyone else’s pencil.

Notable Works: The Brave and the Bold, Death in the Family, Knightfall

5) David Mazzuchelli

Mazzuchelli doesn’t have a ton of Bat credits to his name, but the one he does is enough to rank him on this list. His clean, crisp style was a perfect fit for the retelling of Batman’s origin, spotlighting the Caped Crusader’s shadowy persona while balancing emotional beats with cinematic flair. Mazzuchelli reteams with his Daredevil collaborator, Frank Miller, who sticks to writing duties on this one, giving his collaborator a chance to shine. I can’t imagine if Miller had taken this one on as an artist. I think it would have been good, but the art here is what elevates it to the status it has attained in the years since. This story is worth picking up for the art alone and there’s not much more praise you can lavish on an artist than that.

Notable Works: Year One

4) Greg Capullo

Prior to Capullo’s pairing with Snyder, I had yet to read a comic featuring his art so my only
awareness of his style was his album cover art. As good as that was, I could never have anticipated that he would rise so quickly in the ranks to become one of my all time favorite Batman artists. Under his skilled pencil, Batman looks as badass as, well, Capullo! Seriously, the guy is a beast. What these guys have created together is an all-star run that makes up some of the best comics on the shelves today and will no doubt be pointed to for years to come as essential reading for any Bat fan. Snyder loves to beat up Batman throughout and Capullo makes us feel his pain, reminding us again and again there’s a human being under the cape and cowl. Batman is a stand out series since the dawn of the New 52 and it’s in part thanks to the stellar artwork from this guy. I’m now a fan for life and will happily seek out his next project after Batman but hopefully that won’t be for a good, long while.

Notable Works: Court of Owls, Death in the Family, Zero Year

 3) Jim Lee

If this were a list of the top 10 X-Men artists, Lee would probably be number one. He redefined the X-Men in the ’90s and then when he got his shot to interpret Batman and his foes, it was like he'd been waiting to draw them his whole life with so many iconic images coming out of his yearlong stint on the Hush arc. Writer Jeph Loeb, known for writing epic ensemble pieces, managed to work numerous villains into the plot, unleashing Lee's pencils on all the major villains. Lee would later team with Frank Miller on All-Star Batman and Robin. Miller at his most unfiltered combined with Lee’s mainstream style makes for such a bizzare dichotomy that I’m still kind of amazed that this even happened. This one has to be read to be believed is all I can say.

Notable Works: Hush, All-Star Batman and Robin

2) Frank Miller

Didn't we just cover this guy in the writer's section? Well, in addition to altering Batman’s
personality, Miller also slapped a new coat of paint on the look of DC's most popular superhero. Miller's take on the suit has been so popular it's appeared in animation, video games and even serves as the inspiration for Ben Affleck's version of that character in the latest cinematic iteration. I mean this iteration has even been spoofed on Tiny Toons, which obviously is the measure for when you know you’ve made it. I’d go as far as to say that Miller’s Batman is just as widely recognized today as the Adam West version. Various panels and splash pages from his Dark Knight series have become so iconic and widely circulated that they are now seared into my brain. I’ve lost count of how many times Miller’s covers for the series have been paid homage to year after year. Not only is Miller now a filmmaker and practically a household name in his own right (thanks to his Sin City fame) he’s also got the ear and respect of one of the most influential directors working today in Zach Snyder, who has ripped several pages right out of Miller’s book for Batman’s upcoming trip to the big screen. How much more influential can you get than that?

Notable Works: The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again

1) Neal Adams

Often times when I picture Batman in my head, it’s the Neal Adams version that comes to mind. It is so classic and timeless that another 75 years from now, I still think it will feel fresh and exciting. Adams’ contributions to the look of Batman are an important landmark in that his unique take ushered in a new house style for Batman at that time, not only revitalizing the character but also creating a new blueprint for the uniform look of an iconic superhero. His Batman leapt from the page, crackling with life and creating a new, dynamic energy rarely seen in comics at that time. In addition, Adams was responsible for giving readers their first look at Ra’s Al Ghul and Man-Bat, two very distinct and innovative character designs which were conceived during the artist’s prime. Between his pencils and O’Neil’s writing, they formed a dream team rarely seen in comics and set a high standard for those following in their footsteps. His most recent stint on the character, Odyssey, proves that Adams has not lost his touch and is still one of the best living artists today.

Notable Works: Daughter of the Demon, The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, Odyssey

Honorable mentions - Bruce Timm and Alex Ross. While Timm defined the look of Batman for my generation, simplifying his look for animation while still remaining iconic and recognizable. Countless fans were introduced to the Dark Knight with this iteration and the design has aged well over two decades later (has it been that long?) Whereas Timm simplified Batman’s look, Ross took it in the complete opposite direction, depicting Batman and his world as being photo-realistic on countless covers and most notably in War on Crime, his oversized comic one-shot with Paul Dini. His depiction of Bruce Wayne in Kingdom Come undoubtedly had an impact on both Batman Beyond and The Dark Knight Rises.

Special shout out to cartoonists Matt Wagner and Darwyn Cooke who prove that Frank Miller isn’t the only one capable of writing and drawing captivating Batman stories. Wagner helped redefine Batman’s early days of crime fighting with the one two punch of Monster Men and Mad Monk plus his Two-Face story, Faces, shows early signs of brilliance. Cooke not only captured the spirit of Batman in Ego, he left his mark on Catwoman as well, flashing out one of Bats’ most notorious supporting characters. Your Batman collection will not be complete without their contributions lining your shelf.

That wraps it up. Did I miss your favorite Batman artist? Are my rankings way off? Leave a comment and let me know!

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