What a year!
2023 was a feast for comic readers, filled with comics, graphic novels, webcomics, webtoons, manga, and everything else you can imagine, all of which had wonderful examples of the form for us to enjoy. But who stood out amidst that sea of fine craft? Which writers, artists, colorists, letters, cover artists, and beyond made the year such a special one? That’s what we’re exploring in The SKTCHD AWRDS, as in this feature, you can find all of my Creators of 2023, with each receiving an award that highlights something about their contributions to comics. All in all, I handed out 25 awards to creators, with each focusing on something specific that stood out about a person’s work in the year that was.
Before we get into those winners, though, let’s break down the rules to The SKTCHD AWRDS so you’ll know what you can yell at me about and what you can’t, because it’s important to have guidelines when you do something like this.
- These aren’t the “best” creators of the year. I don’t feel as if I can speak to that. I can speak to my favorites, and precisely why they stood out. That’s what this is.
- This only considers work released in 2023, but if the material was published in print (or I read it in another format) before this year, it didn’t factor into my process. Apologies to all trade paperbacks released in 2023, basically, as well as reprints of graphic novels!
- Cartoonists were omitted from this if their only work of the year makes the cut next week…that is, unless they did other things I loved that ensured they’d make the list on those merits alone. So who was omitted for this reason, you might be wondering? Find out next week!
Without further ado, let’s get to my Creators of 2023, with the list organized in alphabetical order by first name. Also, if you enjoy this piece, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to SKTCHD for more like it.
The Skeleton Key Award: Al Ewing
2023 Work: X-Men Red, Storm & The Brotherhood of Mutants, Immortal Thor, Avengers Inc., Venom, Wasp, Fury
Why They Earned This Award: If you read each of those above releases without knowing who worked them, you’d be forgiven if you believed that there were at least four writers involved. While there is certainly overlap — X-Men Red, Storm & The Brotherhood of Mutants, and Immortal Thor feel as if they come from the same brain, while you could argue Venom fits somewhere in there too — there’s enough diversity in tone and style and structure that you’d probably read them and think, “Wow, Marvel has a number of great writers working for them these days!”
And yet, they all come from one person: Al Ewing. Not only that, but amongst that group, you’ll find nothing but quality, as Ewing’s approach and tone may shift but his talent does not. I don’t even think it’s a hot take in the slightest to say that Ewing is the best writer Marvel has working for them these days, even if Marvel itself rarely showcases his work in a way that’s reflective of that stature. But it’s true, and has been true, for a couple years now. A big part of that is what I talked about in the open. His versatile nature allows him to be a skeleton key that Marvel can use on any door. Need a history piece about Fury? A funky spy-ish book like Avengers Inc.? Something massive in scale like Immortal Thor? A miniseries that’s a mod take on one of Marvel’s most stylish superheroes? Ewing’s got that all in his bag.
With everything from that list besides Immortal Thor being almost certain to wrap next year — if they haven’t concluded already — I have no idea what the future has in store for Ewing as a writer. But I can tell you this: no matter what he does, I know it’ll be good, and he’ll find the right solution for whichever project he’s tackling. That’s one of his most unique gifts, and one readers benefit endlessly from.
Oh, and in case you missed it, Ewing joined me for an episode of Off Panel earlier this year where we talked about…well, all of this, pretty much.
The “Sheesh!” Award: Boulet
2023 Work: Bea Wolf
Why They Earned This Award: While there are a lot of ways to express how impressed people are by something that’s done by the most elite NBA players, there’s one word that’s taken over everyone’s vocabulary. “Sheesh!” you’ll hear or see after Tyrese Haliburton throws a half court alley oop to Obi Toppin, or “Sheesh!” will be exclaimed when LeBron James does something no soon-to-be 39-year-old should be able to do on a basketball court. It’s a shortcut to underlining just how incredible something was, like “Wow!” but for a modern era and with a lot more feeling behind it.
Anyways, the entire time I was reading Zach Weinersmith and Boulet’s Bea Wolf — a retelling of the epic poem Beowulf crafted for a younger audience that still follows the core plot and many of the rules of the original work — I kept finding my jaw ajar, recovering from a new “SHEESH!” that involuntarily came from my mouth as I turned to the next page. That was because of Boulet’s work, as the cartoonist put on a clinic throughout this graphic novel, delivering some of the most impressive visuals and dynamite storytelling you’ll find out of any comic in 2023.
The French cartoonist has always been a wonder, as his webcomics work pushed the boundaries of what that medium was capable of in fascinating and effective ways. But Bea Wolf was a big, tough idea, one that could have felt too much like a picture book that didn’t connect the visuals with the written word without the right artist. Boulet was that right artist, and he threaded the needle throughout, somehow grounding the story and making it feel as insane and unreal as it should at the same time. For many American readers, it’s a coming out party for Boulet, an effort that introduced them to a new talent. For others, it’s a fresh version of the same greatness, an execution that delivered what we’d hoped for and so much more. No matter what your familiarity with the cartoonist was, there was only one appropriate response to seeing his work in this tome.
The Master Cartoonist Award: Brahm Revel
2023 Work: Now Let Me Fly
Why They Earned This Award: While the quality of this book was undeniably because of the greatness of both of its contributors — downplay Ronald Wimberly’s contributions to anything at your own peril! — and the fascinating life of its subject in airman/renaissance man Eugene Bullard, it needed a gifted artist to bring it home. Thankfully, whoever cast this book made a very wise decision by bringing one of the most underrated talents in comics in as its artist.
Brahm Revel is someone who is probably most known to comic audiences as the cartoonist behind Marvel Knights: X-Men (he was also one of the storyboard artists of The Venture Bros.), but where I know him from is the Image-turned-Oni Press series Guerillas, one that followed a platoon of chimpanzees trained in the art of war during Vietnam. It’s an exemplary work, albeit one that slipped by…pretty much all the readers. Now Let Me Fly is a much more notable showcase, and it’s quite the coming out party for those unfamiliar with Revel’s work.
The entire book is filled with absolutely lovely cartooning, from the electric character work throughout to the ways he brings big moments from Bullard’s to life on the page. It’s all done in a simple palette, one limited to black, white, and an almost pancake batter like color, and its simplified mix of hues keeps the focus on the characters and the emotions in the story. Eugene Bullard was a remarkable man, someone who accomplished great things no matter where he went and what he was doing. This story needed someone who could execute that story and make us feel his journey along the way. Revel was the perfect choice to do so, and this entire graphic novel is a highlight reel of his qualities as a master cartoonist, one deserving of far more recognition than he’s earned to date.
The Peak of His Powers Award: Daniel Warren Johnson
2023 Work: Transformers, Darth Vader: Black, White & Red
Why They Earned This Award: While Transformers and his entry in the Darth Vader: Black, White & Red anthology were DWJ’s only sequential works that qualify for awards — Do a Powerbomb came out in its entirety in 2022, so it doesn’t fit even if its collection arrived this year — those three issues and that short story and his covers and the commissions the cartoonist did belie Johnson’s true impact in 2023. Even with somewhere around 70 pages of story, Daniel Warren Johnson felt like he owned the year. In just a few years, he elevated from a position of artist’s artist to superstar to maybe the surest bet in comics.
It of course helps that everything Johnson does is absolutely incendiary. Transformers is the banger we all expected, from the big moments we all are blown away by to the heart it wears on its sleeve — something that is in many ways DWJ’s true signature, outside of his art. It nails the characters and the energy we want from them, while grounding the story with its human cast and their reactions to this new world they’re faced with. It rules, shocking no one.
But in a weird way, his entry in Darth Vader: Black, White & Red might have been an even better showcase. It’s just a quick jaunt, one that barely features Vader at all. But while Transformers feels like DWJ fitting within a box — and maximizing that space as much as he can — that Vader story combined the raw energy of his commissions with the tight focus of his minicomics like Old Man Skywalker and Green Leader. It’s written, drawn, colored, and lettered by him, and it’s an almost impressionistic take on the character and his rampages, especially in how Johnson depicts the wrath of Vader’s red lightsaber. Few of the decisions are expected ones, but each feels like Johnson at his least restricted, as he annihilates the page just like Vader does to the rebel forces in the story.
Daniel Warren Johnson may not have delivered a ton of sequential work this year, but everything we’ve seen has found the cartoonist at the peak of his powers. Like Vader, when he’s delivering to that degree, there’s nothing you can do to stop him. You just have to sit and watch everything play out, in the very best of ways in this case.
Johnson joined me for a chat on Off Panel earlier this year, and while we didn’t talk about the Darth Vader of it all, we did get into everything else. It’s a good one.
The Vibes Award: Dewi Putri Megwati
2023 Work: Out of Style
Why They Earned This Award: In some ways, the cover to cartoonist Dewi Putri Megwati’s ShortBox debut tells you everything you need to know about the book. It’s going to be a book filled with style, joy, and lovely cartooning. But in other ways, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, because throughout this 150+ page collection of illustrations and stories that isn’t purely a comic but really is in its own way, we’re introduced to a rising star who contains multitudes.
Here’s what I love the most about this book: everything about it feels lived in. Each of Megwati’s original characters are three dimensional wonders, as real as you or me or anyone else. You know what they like and how they behave and what they respond to positively or negatively through vignettes about cooking or life or whatever, and each of them makes Out of Style’s three leads in Mila, Yul, and Hana come to life in an unbelievable way. This book is all about the vibes, with a fierce idea of character and their lives, but with the chops to match.
Honestly, it is shocking to me that this is the first published work of Megwati’s career. What you see in this book doesn’t feel like a debut, if only because of the cartoonist’s observational gifts and rare talent with breathing life into characters. It’s such a lovely work, one that I vacationed in as much as read. I suspect this won’t be the last time we’re hearing from Megwati. Fingers crossed we get a lot more in the future, because Out of Style is an exceptional work.
The Artist of the Year Award: Erica Henderson
2023 Work: Danger and Other Unknown Risks, Parasocial
Why They Earned This Award: If this award was just about published pages of comic art in a single year, I’m pretty sure Henderson would win. Between Danger and Other Unknown Risks and Parasocial alone, Henderson put up somewhere around 320 pages of comic art that she did the art for, as well as coloring both graphic novels and even co-writing Danger. Throw in a backup in Harley Quinn #28 and some cover work as well, and it was an almost incomprehensibly productive year for the artist, even though I know much of the work happened before the calendar even turned to 2023.
But this isn’t about productivity, at least not exclusively. Henderson wins the Artist of the Year award because no one surpasses her work this year in my mind. That’s for a number of reasons. One, the number of artists who could do a coming-of-age adventure story like Danger and an intimate horror tale like Parasocial and deliver at an equally high level is one: it’s Henderson. Two, there just aren’t that many better storytellers than her, as she makes small moments seem massive and big moments feel deeply personal. Three, she can offer different flavors without losing her identity as a storyteller, with the style and color choices of Parasocial and Danger both feeling dramatically different but as if they could only come from one artist.
They did. It was Erica Henderson, a singular talent, and someone who stood out above the rest this year. Henderson was already one of my favorite artists, but her constant improvement is genuinely staggering. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next, because she just keeps getting better and better.
Want to know how Henderson does what she does? I talked with her twice this year on Off Panel, once with her co-writer on Danger, Ryan North, and the other time in a solo appearance that’s all about her art and Parasocial.
The 😬 But Also 🤩 Award: Fernando Blanco
2023 Work: w0rldtr33
Why They Earned This Award: I vividly remember reading w0rldtr33 #1 for the first time. The reason for that is, quite simply, Fernando Blanco. In the early part of that issue, a young man is going door-to-door killing people, live streaming the experience throughout. Because of that, the sequence is depicted as a 12-panel grid all from a first person view, as this kid goes through the process of killing an older couple with a knife. It is absolutely horrific. It honestly made me want to stop reading, or at the very least do so through my thinly separated fingers, as if that might protect me from what was transpiring on the page.
While the events taking place in that scene came from writer James Tynion IV’s brain, it takes a heck of an artist to bring them to life, make me feel the way I did as I was reading, and then inspire me to keep turning the pages. But that’s what Blanco has been delivering throughout w0rldtr33 in a star-making turn, one that finds beauty in the depravity, depicting the horror of these scenes and this world in a way that’s utterly irresistible. We’ve seen Blanco’s work before over at DC, but never like this, and never unleashed in such a way. It really underlines the capabilities of artists, and how if they find the right project, it might change everything for them. This one did that for Blanco, emphasizing to me that he isn’t just a talent to watch, but one of the strongest artists in the game today.
The “Is Fiona Staples Somehow Underrated Now?!” Award: Fiona Staples
2023 Work: Saga
Why They Earned This Award: While I’ve heard little to suggest that Saga’s sales have cratered or anything since the series returned after its multi-year hiatus or its customary between arc one, it certainly feels like Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, and Fonografiks’ long-running Image series has a subdued air surrounding it — at least compared to its apex. It’s still Saga, but it hasn’t felt like it’s had that “SAGA!” like energy surrounding it in the broader comics conversation.
It’s a funny thing, because the comic is still great, and Staples? She’s undeniably one of the best in the art game today. It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard not to wonder whether Staples is somehow underrated these days, as she’s only continued to sharpen her skills throughout. Everything from the cover above — a nod in the direction of Amazon’s fulfillment services with a face on Alana that speaks volumes — to her interior work emphasizes that she’s someone who hasn’t rested on the deserved acclaim her art has earned. Staples has only continued to refine it and improve throughout, which is really saying a lot given the heights she has reached within its pages.
She’s tasked with a lot in Saga. She pencils, inks, and colors it. She even letters Hazel’s narration to the story. If one element is off, the passionate horde of readers would notice. And yet, she constantly delivers, bringing this series and world to life with her astonishing gifts throughout. Even if we aren’t talking about what she’s doing as often as we used to, she’s still there, crushing it while improving with each and every issue and arc. It takes a rare talent to do that.
It takes someone like Fiona Staples.
The Elevator Award: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
2023 Work: The Deviant, What’s the Furthest Place from Here?, Time Before Time, The Flash, The Cull, Kaptara: Universal Truths, Poison Ivy, Beneath the Trees Where Nobody Sees, All Against All, The Unlikely Story of Felix and Macabber
Why They Earned This Award: While it isn’t talked about as often as other aspects of comic craft, there’s a real artistry to lettering. Hire the right letterer for your comic and the overall work will be improved. Hire the wrong one and the entire project could be torpedoed. It’s a tough line to walk, because I’ve read projects where even gifted letterers make unusual decisions that negatively affect the read. Every letterer has that project where it’s just not agreeable with your approach for one reason or another. It happens.
Or, at least it does to everyone not named Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou.
That alone impresses me. Seemingly never having an off day is an incredible thing. But what impresses me the most about Otsmane-Elhaou’s work isn’t that. It’s how he doesn’t just participate, but elevate every project he’s on. There are few pure letterers out there that bring as much tailored style and panache to the work as he does, and he does so in a way that doesn’t just fit the project but perhaps more importantly the artist he’s teamed with. No lines feel out of place, and it isn’t style without purpose. It’s style that reinforces the work, creating a stronger overall project while fitting in.
That’s tough to do! Not everyone has that in their bag! Cartoonists can do that because they do everything in their books typically, but they’re usually publishing at most one book a year. Other pure letterers typically have such robust workloads that they bring their vibe but don’t always try to materially change the work with their efforts. It’s tough to have that big workload but also a style that is always shifting and befitting to whichever project you’re working on at the time. And yet, Otsmane-Elhaou is constantly delivering on that front, and he did so this year on a truly staggering list of releases.
The Vision Award: Hwei Lim
2023 Work: The Hawk and The Rabbit
Why They Earned This Award: While I was already familiar with her work thanks to Mirror at Image with Emma Ríos, that did not stop me from being completely blown away by Hwei Lim’s entry to the 2023 ShortBox Comics Fair, The Hawk and The Rabbit. While all of the SCF comics I read had real perspective to them, there was something about Lim’s work on this comic that just felt like it couldn’t have come from anyone besides her to an unusual degree. There was a purity of vision to her craft and storytelling, from the nature of its journey to the choices made from an execution standpoint. While Mirror was her collaborating to create something that was part her and part Ríos (and was also quite good), The Hawk and The Rabbit was completely Lim, and it soared because of it.
Each aspect of this book impressed, but the part I loved most was the clarity of Lim’s visual storytelling. Some comics thrive because of the complexity of the art, delivering rich tapestries for us to enjoy and discern. Lim’s art here was the opposite, as the black, white and tones approach combined with the liberal use of negative space and her sharp, clear character work made The Hawk and The Rabbit one of the most striking reads of the year. It was a wonder, something that was absolutely gorgeous and a joy to behold as Lim carefully walks the line between realistic characters and lively cartooning.
It takes someone with real vision to take on an idea like this and execute it in such a simple, almost spare way without it feeling lifeless. Instead, the opposite is true. The Hawk and The Rabbit is a remixed fairy tale that feels fully alive. That’s purely because of the gifts of its creator, someone whom I hope to read a lot more from going forward.
The Like a Glove Award: I.N.J. Culbard
2023 Work: Wild’s End
Why They Earned This Award: While there might be artists whose work I slightly preferred this year, I’ll say this: No one’s art better fits the project they’re working on than I.N.J. Culbard’s does with Wild’s End. It’s so perfect that if for some reason writer Dan Abnett decided to do another volume with someone else — anyone else, even personal favorites like Stuart Immonen, Faith Erin Hicks, or Daniel Warren Johnson — I wouldn’t just be confused. I’d be upset. I’m an Abnett fan, but Wild’s End wouldn’t be what it is with any other artist. Culbard is the heart and soul of the series to me.
The latest volume of this series, one that tells a story with different characters that takes place at roughly the same time as the first three volumes of this BOOM! title, proves that. It’s a new cast and new situation, to some degree — it’s the same alien invasion in the British countryside, but this group of anthropomorphic characters is a bit more action oriented than the gang focused on survival from the original tale — but the feelings of dread and atmosphere Culbard creates are still pervasive, as is his ability to get us deeply invested in it through his line art, colors, and lettering. I cannot even tell you how many brilliant decisions he makes throughout this volume, whether it’s subtle choices in his lettering, the ways he uses color and panel sequencing, or the character acting he delivers on the page. The guy is a genius, and Wild’s End is a constant showcase of how exceptional of a talent he is.
I have no idea what fate Wild’s End faces as a larger sandbox for stories. 2023’s six-issue mini ends in a place that suggests more could come. But will it? I’m not sure, but I certainly hope so. While Culbard is an elite artist on anything and everything he tackles, there’s just something about him and Wild’s End. It just fits him like a glove, and I’d love to live in this world with him a while longer.
The Welcome Return Award: Jamie McKelvie
2023 Work: Batman: One Bad Day – Catwoman, The Devil’s Cut
Why They Earned This Award: Welcome back to one of the greats, as artist (and sometimes writer/artist) Jamie McKelvie returned to the fray this year with a standout one-shot and one of the two strongest stories in an anthology loaded with A-list talent. That he was back in action by itself would make this a good year in comics for yours truly. But it wasn’t his mere presence in the pages of comics that made McKelvie a pick here. It’s that both projects were a reminder of everything that makes the artist such a remarkable talent.
Batman: One Bad Day – Catwoman was of course a lock to be a highlight reel for McKelvie. There are few artists who can bring more style and attitude to the page than he can, and style and attitude are constants in the life of Selina Kyle. But everything he did in this book took that to the next level, from turning Kyle into an athleisure icon (alongside writer G. Willow Wilson) to his remarkably expressive character work throughout. Selina’s faces alone are worth the price of admission, and you won’t find a more alluring Catwoman this side of Cliff Chiang’s Catwoman: Lonely City.
But we know all that. Saying McKelvie’s going to make a character come to life while being dressed to the nines is like saying I’m going to breathe today. It’s a constant. A fact of life. Something that’s just going to happen. But this year’s version of McKelvie showed off new tricks, whether it was his exquisite color work on both Catwoman and his The Devil’s Cut story, “What Happens Next…,” some of the textures he added that elevated his art in Catwoman, or writing his entry in The Devil’s Cut. McKelvie was still McKelvie, but he added enough to his repertoire that you look at the work and recognize who did it while knowing there’s something new and more here. While he may have been out of circulation for a minute, he wasn’t biding his time. He was cultivating skills and preparing for the next phase.
I suspect this year’s efforts were just a taste of what we’ll see from McKelvie in the future. I can’t wait, because there’s no version of his work that isn’t electric. To think that he’s still getting better, though? Watch out, other artists!
Oh, I talked with McKelvie about all this on Off Panel earlier this year. If you want insight into his evolution, that’s a good place to look.
The No One Else Award: Jesse Lonergan
2023 Work: Miss Truesdale and the Fall of Hyperborea
Why They Earned This Award: Chemistry is a funny thing, especially when it comes to comics. You wouldn’t think that a medium often defined by collaborative yet physically separated contributors would need time for everyone to get on the same page, metaphorically, but that can be the case on occasion. You won’t find a better example of that this year than in Miss Truesdale and the Fall of Hyperborea, a four-issue series from writer Mike Mignola and artist Jesse Lonergan. The former and the latter have considerably different approaches to visual storytelling, and as you read this series, it seems like the duo understands one another more and more as they go along. In the first issue, it feels more like a typical Mignolaverse read with some Lonergan flare, but by the end, it’s a stunning fusion of that approach refracted through a prism of the artist’s brilliance as a storyteller. The final issue of that volume is honestly one of the true visual tour de forces from the year in comics.
And there’s no one who could have gotten us there but Lonergan, someone whose gifts are so significant that it felt like even a legend like Mignola needed to adjust to him to ensure this series reached its potential. That’s not to say that the first three issues were chopped liver by any means. Lonergan can tell a story as well as anyone, no matter the approach. But as the final battle plays out and we see Lonergan merge different iterations of its titular lead throughout the sequence, it’s hard to not just repeatedly utter the word “wow” every time you look at a new panel. It’s a virtuoso stretch, one that fits the book it’s in while elevating it to heights that I don’t think anyone else would have gotten to.
That’s not to say he’s better than the rest of the Mignolaverse’s artist. I’m not going to downplay the work of legends like Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, or Guy Davis. But Lonergan’s flavor was a new one in this space, and I was prepared for anything — even it just not feeling right for these stories. But what we got from him impressed…until issue four. Then it became something else all together, as the artist delivered an all-time performance in this universe, one that no one else would have given us.
That’s a heck of a thing.
The Constant Award: Jordie Bellaire
2023 Work: w0rldtr33, Birds of Prey, Peacemaker Tries Hard!, Gotham City: Year One, Scrapper, World’s Finest: Teen Titans, Adventures of Superman: Jon Kent, Batman vs. Robin, Wonder Woman #800, quite possibly others I missed
Why They Earned This Award: I’m not saying that a great colorist can solve all of a comic’s problems, but I’ll say this: It really seems like every comic Jordie Bellaire colors is good. Maybe that’s because she’s selective with her work and has great taste. Maybe that’s because she really can solve all of a comic’s problems. I don’t know what the answer is. But it’s a thing.
One thing is certain, though. If Bellaire’s coloring it, a comic is going to look as good as humanly possible. Take her big three this year, which for me are w0rldtr33, Birds of Prey, and Peacemaker Tries Hard! Each has a wildly different look. w0rldtr33 is often cold tones and the green glow of a computer screen, until it’s not, when it’s on fire on the page. Birds of Prey has almost a pop vibe, with flatter colors and textured layers giving it a distinctive feel. Peacemaker Tries Hard! is the most standard of the three, as it goes for a more straightforward look, but even that Bellaire nails. Mix up those looks — say, w0rldtr33’s palette on Peacemaker — and it’d be a mess. But Bellaire always knows the right move for each project she takes on — and she never misses.
That makes her a comic book constant, someone whose selectivity I trust implicitly and whose work never ceases to amaze me. I know this isn’t exactly a hot take given that Bellaire won the Eisner Award this year for Best Coloring. But there’s a reason she did: she’s one of the best to ever do it, and someone who only continues to improve with the passage of time.
The Connections Award: Kelly Thompson
2023 Work: Birds of Prey, Black Cloak, The Cull
Why They Earned This Award: With apologies to the greatness of Kelly Thompson’s year, maybe her most lasting contribution to my 2023 will be that she introduced me to the New York Times’s Connections game in her email newsletter. I’ve played it almost daily ever since, addicted to the way it makes my mind turn and tumble. It’s a great game, one that’s all about finding connections in a disparate group of words, asking players to find four groups of four out of the 16. I’m a big fan.
It’s also not unlike Thompson’s writing work from the year, particularly Birds of Prey. That new series from Thompson, artist Leonardo Romero, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Clayton Cowles features an unusual cast for the book. While regulars like Black Canary and Cassandra Cain are there, so are slight oddballs like Harley Quinn and Big Barda as well as a complete wild card in Zealot of WildC.A.T.s fame. Some Birds fans reacted with puzzlement, unsure of the decisions that led to this cast being gathered together as the titular heroes. But Thompson saw connections where even we didn’t in forming a group out of that squad, Canary’s sister Sin, and an extremely unexpected adult version of Maps Mizoguchi of Gotham Academy fame. What could have been an incongruous lot of characters becomes something more, as Thompson delivered a group that complements one another and elevates each other in the process.
While Thompson is gifted at a lot of things — dialogue, character work, plotting, ensuring that there will be a cute animal of some variety in every story — finding connections in stories like Birds of Prey and Black Cloak is a huge part of how these titles prove to be as good as they are. They don’t just emphasize those relationships, but foster one between readers and the comics themselves. That’s a rare gift, and something Thompson had on full display throughout the year.
Want to learn more about Thompson’s approach as a writer? She joined me on Off Panel earlier this year, and it was an excellent conversation about how she does what she does.
The Writer of the Year Award: Kyle Starks
2023 Work: Peacemaker Tries Hard!, I Hate This Place, Where Monsters Lie, Marvel Unleashed
Why They Earned This Award: This should be no surprise to listeners of Off Panel, or Kyle Starks himself. I admitted that he was my favorite writer these days the last time he appeared on the podcast. But the predictable nature of this award doesn’t devalue it at all, if only because simply calling Starks 2023’s Writer of the Year doesn’t speak to the reasons why. That’s where the magic lies for Starks, and for the readers of his work.
Here’s the thing I like the most about his writing, though, and it’s quite simple: it’s never one thing. It might be a romantic horror story with family drama and comedic elements, or a slasher spoof that nails that vibe with funny insight into the genre, or a Pet Avengers comic that makes you laugh and hits you right in the heart. Or, in the case of Peacemaker Tries Hard!, my favorite comic from the writer this year, it’s a perfect storm of 1980s action sensibilities with big laughs, emotion, and superhero energy. Starks’ books have genre trappings, but they’re never one genre. Instead, they’re everything at once, pure entertainment delivered in a way that’s rare for comics.
Quite simply, no one is writing comics like Starks is these days. You never know what you’ll get from page to page, as he can make you laugh, cry, or pump your first in the same issue – sometimes on the same page, even! It’s a joy to read each and every project he works on, which makes him an easy pick for this vaunted award in 2023.
The Welcome Home Award: Leonardo Romero
2023 Work: Birds of Prey
Why They Earned This Award: Leonardo Romero is lowkey one of the best artists in comics, and he has been whenever active in the medium. That was especially true when he worked with Kelly Thompson and Jordie Bellaire before on Hawkeye. That team complemented each other so perfectly that it surpassed the lofty expectations I had for it going in. But then it went away, and so did he. As far as I could tell, Romero went off to do work in other fields, including character design for the upcoming Spider-Man: Freshman Year animated series. While he did a backup in the current Batman run with Chip Zdarsky, I wanted to see Romero on a book full time again.
The good news is, Romero’s done just that, and he’s working with that same Hawkeye team even. And you know what? They – and he – have only gotten even better since! I knew that would be true as soon as soon as the character model sheets, like the one above of Black Canary, Batgirl, and Big Barda, started to hit. They’re perfect bits of character in individual drawings, a vibe in singular images. It gets even better in his sequential art. There’s just something wonderfully precise about every choice Romero makes. Whether it’s his expressive characters, the action sequences, the clarity of his line, his storytelling, or anything else you can imagine, Romero choices always feel like the right ones. The artist is absolutely slaying each and every issue of Birds of Prey. Put his line art together with Bellaire’s colors, and my god. This book is unreal.
While it’s totally understandable he’d want to work in other spaces too, there’s just something that feels right when Romero’s sights are set on comics. He’s a perfect superhero comic artist for today in some ways, blending classic sensibilities with an energy that feels more modern. Birds of Prey is an ideal showcase of that. It may just be a matter of time until other fields draw his attention away from comics, but until that day, welcome home, Leonardo.
You were missed.
The Refiner Award: Marco Checchetto
2023 Work: Daredevil
Why They Earned This Award: This is an honest question: How does Marco Checchetto keep getting better?
I mean that both in his career and within individual projects. From the first time he worked on Daredevil with writer Andy Diggle (and co-writer Antony Johnston) — where I first saw his work — to the latest volume he wrapped with writer Chip Zdarsky, Checchetto went from a solid superhero artist to one of the best working at Marvel today. You could even see Checchetto improving from the open of his time with Zdarsky to the conclusion of their second volume together, always refining in ways both big and small. I mean, look at that sequence above, one that sees Daredevil and Elektra battling in the present but also echoing throughout time. It’s a stunning one that finds Checchetto blowing our minds and dropping the mic at the same time, delivering a tour of two characters’ tangled history while nailing a massive moment for this series. I’m not sure he would have had that in his bag when the series started!
But he just keeps getting better and better, as the artist grows in confidence and competence, to the point where he can maximize the impact of anything from a hopeless fight against demon-like creatures to a quiet scene where a friend is gifted a chess board. You feel the weight of everything Checchetto draws, whether it’s of the physical or emotional variety. It’s incredible, and given his adoration of Spider-Man and the potential of the upcoming Ultimate Spider-Man series he’s drawing, it might even just be the tip of the iceberg.
The Apex Award: Marcos Martín and Muntsa Vicente
2023 Work: Friday
Why They Earned This Award: Marcos Martín and Muntsa Vicente won an award together last year, and it was for good reason. They’re incredible at what they do. But for them to receive an award together again, they needed to do something even more impressive. I have impossible standards and unsaid rules like you wouldn’t believe. They needed to blow me away to make it here.
The above page is all the evidence you need to see how they did just that.
I suspect this is because they’re working on a surprise release comic that releases at an unpredictable cadence and only drops two to three issues a year, but the conversation surrounding that book and their work on it is shockingly muted for its quality. So, it’s worth saying officially: Martín and Vicente are doing the best work of their career on Friday, and it may not be close. I didn’t even think it was possible for the pair to find a new apex together, and yet here they are, building higher ceilings for themselves with each passing issue. I’m not sure if it’s because this project fits them well or if it’s because they just keep getting better and better or a little of both, but every panel, page, and issue is a staggering accomplishment that redefines their capabilities as artists. It’s been a heck of a run.
And now it’s ending. Only one issue remains. I’ll miss Friday when it ends, and everything this team – the artist and colorist alongside writer Ed Brubaker – has built in this dense, gorgeous, and impressive series. The one solace I have is that I know if anyone could have saved their best for last, it’s Martín and Vicente, a team that was already one of the finest there is, yet refuses to accept that as enough.
I talked with Martín about his art on Friday on SKTCHD. If you want insight into how they bring the magic of Friday to life, that’s a good place to start.
The Showstopper Challenge Award: Max Sarin
2023 Work: The Great British Bump Off
Why They Earned This Award: There’s a version of The Great British Bump Off that is a tonal mess, one where we don’t care for the characters or the situation. A lot of that would have depended on the art, no matter how gifted writer John Allison is. The majority of artists just wouldn’t have jived with it. What it really needed to become what it was is Max Sarin, the remarkable artist and oft-Allison-collaborator of Giant Days and Wicked Things fame.
Allison is almost invariably my favorite part of one of his projects, but this one? It’s a Sarin showcase, as they baked us one of the tastiest cakes of the year with their art. Everything about it soars, from the lively character work and the style shifts depending on whose perspective it was to the absolute glory of Primrose, the cat co-host of the competitive baking show at the heart of this story. You almost have to read each issue three times to capture all of its magic. Once to enjoy the whole issue, once to bask in Allison’s wit and dialogue, and finally, the finest of fine desserts, once to savor Sarin’s work that brings the whole series to life.
While there is truly nothing of Sarin’s I wouldn’t read, there’s just something about their collaborations with Allison that works in that sort of intangible, impossible to express sort of way. They complement each other perfectly. But this series seemed to be the one where Sarin became their fully realized self, a tour de force almost beyond compare. I have no idea what’s coming next for the artist, but I can tell you this: Whatever it is, I’ll be reading.
The Problem Solver Award: Nick Dragotta
2023 Work: Go Back, Fight Like Hell, Superman, Once Upon a Time at the End of the World
Why They Earned This Award: There’s a version of the above page from Go Back, the backup story writer David Brothers and Nick Dragotta are doing in Chip Zdarsky and Jacob Phillips’ Newburn, that looks like a nightmare straight out of Tetris. The blocks are dropping but you can’t quite find the right place to put them, and instead of amplifying the page it clutters it, weakening the page and comic in the process. But Dragotta is a great many things, and one is that he’s one of the finest problem solvers in comics. He sees every page and knows the right place to put those blocks each and every time, and in a way that doesn’t just ensure clarity of storytelling, but maxes out the coolness of the read in the process.
One element of that previous sentence is also important here. There are few artists who make cooler looking comics than Dragotta. I know that isn’t a technical statement about his craft and the choices he makes on the page, but it’s important too! You read Go Back and you can see it in the way he tells a story and gets you immersed in the moment. You can see it in Fight Like Hell in the attitude and energy he brings to the page. His collaborator in Brothers is a part of that – and I do want to say, Brothers is an essential part of this as well – but Dragotta just feels like he’s in a phase where he’s following his own muse and doing his thing in a singular way.
Dragotta comics just don’t look like what anyone else is doing. He isn’t following Wally Wood’s 22 panels that always work or the standard layouts you get from most comics. No matter the solution, Dragotta’s doing what works because he knows it does, and that’s all that matters. It’s always a joy to read a comic drawn by him for that reason. You never know what you’re going to get, beyond it being the exact right answer for the story being told.
The Master Chef Award: Ram V
2023 Work: Rare Flavours, Detective Comics, The Vigil, The Devil’s Cut
Why They Earned This Award: Cooking is a funny thing. While there’s the version of it that I do where I carefully and fastidiously follow recipes from cookbooks, making sure I get each step as close to correct as humanly possible, there’s another where it’s much more instinctual. Maybe a person knows exactly what to do, or maybe they just have a feeling something might work if they try it out, but they don’t follow a structure as much as invent one on the spot. 1 Neither answer is necessarily correct, they’re just two of the approaches you could take. But sometimes, the true magic comes from a blending of the two, one where you know how to make a great meal, but also correctly feel as if it could be made better with a slight tweak.
That’s kind of what writer Ram V does in his comics. It’s clear that Ram knows all the formal approaches and structural ideas there are in comics, but he always seems to have an addition to those accepted recipes that makes his work just a little tastier than we’re used to. He’s a master chef of the comic form, delivering feasts for readers who love classic flavors — but with a twist. You can see that in everything he does. Rare Flavours, his new BOOM! series with his The Many Deaths of Laila Starr partner Filipe Andrade, feels similar to that original collaboration in the way it’s executed, but with wrinkles like how recipes for meals are integrated into the narrative and storytelling. It grounds the story in its location and traditions, using food to open up the world’s palate and its denizens in a powerful way. Detective Comics does its own thing as well, delivering a classic Batman story but with the flare of a gothic opera, something that distinguishes it from other titles starring the character. Both work because they fit our idea of comic stories, but they are even better because of how they are distinguished from others in the form.
In a weird way, his story in DSTLRY’s debut anthology The Devil’s Cut — titled “Waiting to Die” — might be the best example of this. In that issue, Ram, artist Lee Garbett, colorist Lee Loughridge, and letterer Aditya Bidikar are given limited real estate to play with, and unlike their peers, they’re telling a one-off story. And yet, that brief, five-page story feels as impactful and complete as entire graphic novels I read this year, one that is about relationships and time and memory and so much more. Instead of jamming it with panel after panel of information to maximize the space, it’s incredibly deliberate, using eight of its 31 panels on a ticking clock or text on a simple background. It’s intentional to an atypical degree, as the team chooses to make us feel the story as much as they tell it to us. It’s so impressive, and a reflection of the writer’s unique approach.
All of Ram’s comics look and feel like other comics. But he (and his collaborators) always bring something special to the page that’s wholly unique to their book and their book alone. An ingredient you won’t find anywhere else, something that makes the work stand alone. Those flavors are a gift, and rare ones at that.
I talked with Ram about…well, some of this when he came on Off Panel last. It was a great chat, and if you’re interested in the headspace he’s been in while making these books, that’s a good place to find it.
The Perfect Fit Award: Ryan North
2023 Work: Fantastic Four, Danger and Other Unknown Risks
Why They Earned This Award: Sometimes a casting is announced and you know know it’s perfect. But even if you know it’s perfect, you don’t know until you know, you know? A good example of that hit in the latest volume of Fantastic Four, as Ryan North was brought on as that title’s writer. On the surface, it made way too much sense. Who gets the vibe of a found (and actual) family of smart, science-y superhero types better than the guy who wrote The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl? But the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding? Well, it’s only been increasingly delicious since launch, as North’s run has only gotten better and better with the passage of time, peaking with the recent issue #10, story that gave us a view of the FF from a much different point of view.
That’s one of North’s gifts as a writer. While he’s a perfect fit on paper, he’s an even better one because he can always find an unconventional path to getting a story just right. Fantastic Four being a series of largely one-and-dones is a charming change-of-pace in an era maxed out in serialized storytelling. Giving individual characters feature issues or finding ways to highlight different sides of them builds our understanding and connection to them. And then there’s something like Danger and Other Unknown Risks, the graphic novel he co-wrote with his former Squirrel Girl partner-in-crime Erica Henderson. While what is Henderson and what is North is difficult to tell, the ultimate result is perfecting the chosen one story structure by riffing on it.
It helps when North is cast on the right book, but his ability to always squeeze 10% more out of something he’s uniquely suited for is truly wonderful. 2023 was an ideal showcase of that idea, and on a pair of projects that he was a perfect fit for.
The Flex Award: Steve Pugh
2023 Work: Peacemaker Tries Hard!
Why They Earned This Award: While I haven’t put a ton of thought to it, I suspect if I did, the above four panel sequence would be my favorite stretch in comics art this year. It’s from Peacemaker Tries Hard! #1, and it finds Peacemaker driving home after a particularly hard day, one where he was again reminded of his failings as not just a hero but a person. No one likes him, no one cares for him, and maybe he doesn’t matter, the character is actively speaking about. And in that heartbreaking moment, a fork in the road for this fictional character’s life, a dog he just found climbs up on him, circles, and finds comfort and joy in the warmth of his lap, bringing a tear to his eye in the process.
It was the moment I realized that that this comic wasn’t just going to be funny or good or anything simple like that. It was going to be special. While writer Kyle Starks laid out that moment, it was artist Steve Pugh who nailed it, and turned a four panel sequence of a dog finding somewhere to sleep into a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. But that’s just kind of what we have grown to expect from the artist. This isn’t the first SKTCHD AWRD Pugh has won and I suspect it will not be his last. Every project he takes on is a constant showcase of his immeasurable talent for readers, as he always finds stunningly creative solutions — the coloring in Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass stands out, for one — to simple problems.
Peacemaker Tries Hard! was a highlight reel for Pugh, as per usual. The artist maximized every single panel, page, and issue there was in its run, pairing with colorist Jordie Bellaire to get the most out of this series about a big dumb oaf that means well but can never get things right (mostly because he makes electrically bad decisions, many of which involve ultraviolence). While there were big moments throughout, ones Pugh nailed, it was that four panel sequence that will stick with me, the flex that told me this guy can do anything and make it sing.
The Ascender Award: VER
2023 Work: Extinction, Gospel
Why They Earned This Award: VER was a newcomer to me in the past year, an artist who first stood out because of their cover for Will Morris’ Gospel #1. I saw that cover and instantly connected with it, as it had so much energy and life and story to it that it couldn’t be resisted. And that’s how VER’s covers for the entire series were, pictures that were worth a thousand words and made that series stand out from the rest. When I saw those, I was on notice: VER was someone to watch. 2
So, when I was digging through the ShortBox Comics Fair list and saw the above cover for Extinction and the name attached to it as the writer and artist — VER, once again — I had to get it. I was glad I did, because it was an unreal showcase for their talent, and an example that their cover work isn’t a misrepresentation of what you’ll get from the interiors but a mere taste of their capabilities. Spoiler alert, Extinction does not make my Comics of 2023 list, but I’ll say this: it was close, and that was entirely because the otherworldly gifts of the cartoonist behind it.
The covers of Gospel and the totality of Extinction underlines that VER is a cartoonist on an ascent, and someone to watch in the coming years. They’re working on an original graphic novel, something set in the same universe as Extinction. And if the latter is any indication, true greatness lies in that release. But it’s also an indication of a much more pressing concern, and that’s that VER isn’t an artist of the future, but one of the present — and someone whose work should not be missed.