The SKTCHIES: Favorite Creators of 2015 (Part Three)

Welcome back to The SKTCHIES,’s first annual year-end awards. With The SKTCHIES, it’s less about defining the best in comics. Instead, it’s more about sharing our favorites, and the ones that helped make this year a great one for the medium. And today, our creator-centric section comes to a close.

As established in Tuesday’s first part, historically I’d break these lists between roles, but honestly, there’s enough delineating out there already without me doing it too. My favorite creators list will be going beyond just writers and artists, and will be celebrating the colorists, designers, letterers and even the occasional cartoonist that made the comics I love this year as well. Each will receive a completely made up award that is meant to celebrate the very real work they did. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list – overall, thirty creators are talked about – but it is meant to be a look at the people whose work we’ll remember first when we think back to 2015.

Also, the list is in alphabetical order by first name. These lists return on Monday, except next week is all about the comics I loved in 2015.

Drifter #5
From Drifter #5, art by Nic Klein

The Underrated Genius Award: Nic Klein (Drifter)

If you’ve been paying attention to SKTCHD, you may have noticed that I really like Drifter. It’s an excellent book, and Ivan Brandon’s writing is a big part of it. But the biggest for me is artist Nic Klein, a guy who is doing industry best work under the radar with every issue he does. He was the focus on one of my first art features here, and we highlighted a lot of the things I love about his work here. The exceptional and unique coloring. His thick, bold lines that give the book a pop to its art. His stellar character work and how interactive his panel layouts are. And I can never forget to mention that his SFX work is the best in the business.

If I was doing a list of some variety this year, Klein would be #2 for my favorite artists, and it’s with good reason. Every issue of Drifter is like an event comic for me, as I pour over each page and panel drinking in the details Klein brings to the page. His work packs a hell of a punch, and it pairs perfectly with Brandon’s scripts to bring the immersive vibe of the book to life. Simply put, it’s a great artist at the peak of his powers, and he has been all year.

The Valiant #3
From The Valiant #3, art by Paolo and Joe Rivera

The Gravitas Award: Paolo Rivera (The Valiant)

Paolo Rivera didn’t do a whole lot of published this year, I believe. The Valiant – which was the only thing I read from him this year – only had three SKTCHIE eligible issues this year, and that’s pretty limited. But any work from Rivera is worth celebrating, as he’s one of the most talented artists in comics. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I want to talk about something in specific: his character work.

Just look at Kay – the blonde woman in the above three panel section – and the changes she makes in her face as Bloodshot cruelly taunts her with beef jerky. Those faces are hot lava. Just perfect character work. Panel sequences like that make it slightly cruel that he has spent so much of his time drawing characters who wear masks, as I’d love to read a book filled with ordinary people drawn by Rivera. I mean, he’s so exceptional at bringing people to life that he can make a conversation about dried meats the most exciting part of what is ostensibly the flagship action book for a major publisher.

So yeah, not a lot of work this year for Rivera, but every bit of it was exemplary. Quality, not quantity, is what we ultimately remember as comic readers, and he brought it hard.

Outcast #11
From Outcast #11, art by Paul Azaceta and Elizabeth Breitweiser

The Mood Duo Award: Paul Azaceta and Elizabeth Breitweiser (Outcast)

There are many impressive collaborations between artists and colorists in comics today. Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson. Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire. Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but that partnership can be a very fruitful one in our more creator-centric era. However, my favorite duo working today – Paul Azaceta and Elizabeth Breitwieser – is crafting a book that not that many people talk about, despite the apparent high sales and the big names working on it. I’m talking about Robert Kirkman and Azaceta’s Outcast.

Ostensibly a horror book, it’s more of a study of a man whose life is falling apart and has been for a long time. The horror part comes from the demonic possessions that surround and involve him, but really, it’s a fascinating look at a man named Kyle Barnes as he tries to figure out what the point of his existence is. It can be a haunting, terrifying and tragic book, and while Kirkman does his thing well, this artistic partnership is the showstopper.

Azaceta and Breitweiser’s work pairs together stunningly well, and their ability to evoke a mood and feeling in each and every panel, page and issue makes the comic. Azaceta’s clever use of inset panels and subtle yet effective character work are two of its greatest strengths, but Breitweiser’s contributions shouldn’t go unmentioned. She’s doing fantastic work beyond this – The Fade Out’s another notable success for her – but the way she can set the tone with her colors, using faded, dark blues and moonlit hues to up the creep factor pairs perfectly with Azaceta’s heavy inks. It’s two fantastic creators whose abilities complement each other perfectly on a project that fits them to a tee.

Outcast #13
From Outcast #13, art by Paul Azaceta and Elizabeth Breitweiser

The “Oh Yeah, That Guy” Award: Robert Kirkman (Outcast, The Walking Dead)

I don’t think anyone’s going to cry their eyes out for Robert Kirkman, as the guy’s probably the most successful person in comics. But in a weird way, I feel like Kirkman’s writing has gotten underrated in recent years. I’m not sure if that’s because of the general aversion many have for those who work heavily in Hollywood (think: Mark Millar) or because his books have been around for so long, but the comic world doesn’t talk about him very often these days.

Which is a shame, as he’s quietly helped make The Walking Dead as good as it’s been in years and his latest book, Outcast, is sneaky great. He’s doing the things he’s always done – great character work, big twists, shock and awe tactics – but he’s grown savvier as his career has moved along. He takes his time to let stories develop, especially in Outcast. That book has been a slow burn, and he’s built up the world and its characters before delivering too many big revelations. Some may not enjoy that, but for me, it’s helped me become more invested in the book overall.

So yeah, I don’t think anyone feels too badly for the guy, but good work is good work. And Robert Kirkman has had a quietly excellent year that deserves recognition.

The Mighty Thor #1
From The Mighty Thor #1, art by Russell Dauterman and Matt Wilson

The Next Superstar Award: Russell Dauterman (Thor, The Mighty Thor)

I already went off about Dauterman’s absurd talent in the Breakouts section of The SKTCHIES, so I’m not going to go too deep here. Here’s what I will say:

I don’t know if there is anyone in superhero comics today that is doing better work. Flat out. The guy’s a beast that is made for the scope and scale of superheroics. I’m sure he’s capable of a lot of different types of story – and hopefully we’ll see that from him in the years going forward – but the 2015 version of Russell Dauterman is already one of the best in the business at drawing superhero comics. That’s incredible considering how early in his career he is, and why I think his destiny is to be the next big superstar in comics.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4
From The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4, art by Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi

The Squirrel People Award: Ryan Q. North and Erica Henderson (The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl)

There’s more to come next week about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, but I just wanted to celebrate the apparent chemistry between these two. The partnership between Ryan Q. North and Erica Henderson is seemingly so simpatico that they are peak faux cartoonist in my book (hat tip: Kieron Gillen). When you read Squirrel Girl, the storytelling is so cohesive and the art and writing plays off each other so well that it really feels like it’s one super rad creator on the book. But it isn’t. It’s just North, Henderson and the rest of the team forming a Voltron of comic book awesomeness.

So yeah. This is a good comic, and North and Henderson’s work is amongst my very favorite of the year. It just felt wrong to separate them, as they’re such a superb partnership that they belong together. If I were to do that, though, I’d say Henderson formed another, slightly shorter Voltron on Jughead with Chip Zdarsky. But I’m not going to say that. This is all about the Squirrel People and the funny, surprising and perpetually excellent work they do. It might just be the best partnership in any Marvel comic today, but I’ll say no more. I don’t want to spoil anything for next week.

Fantasy Sports
From Fantasy Sports No. 1, art by Sam Bosma

The Fantasy Superstar Award: Sam Bosma (Fantasy Sports No. 1)

In a way, this is cheating, as much of Sam Bosma’s work in this book was done in years past. It’s been colored and released in a shiny new package, but it’s mostly not new. But I don’t care, because this is my show and I call the shots. I’ve written a fair bit about Bosma’s work in both my review of Fantasy Sports No. 1 and an art feature, but as you may have guessed, I’m a fan.

I suppose I was predisposed to liking Bosma’s work, as the book is a deadly mashup of dungeon crawling video games with basketball. But I really want to get down in the nitty gritty of the hoops talk to emphasize how good of a cartoonist Bosma is.

As any regular at SKTCHD has figured out, the NBA might be one of the only things I like more than comics. I watch a lot of it, and that means I know the tendencies and moves of a lot of players. When I read this book, I saw characters like Wiz and He of the Giant Steps play hoops in a medium that has no actual motion to it and immediately knew who their game was designed off of. I knew Wiz had some Steph Curry in her. He of the Giant Steps used Kareem’s Skyhook. I was off base on Mug’s game, as I thought he played like a bulky Russell Westbrook, but two out of three ain’t bad.

What I’m trying to say isn’t that I’m good at guessing or know a lot about hoops. It’s that Bosma’s such a gifted cartoonist, you can actually see the game of real basketball players in his fictional ones. That’s impressive, and a subtle payoff for this hoops fan in a book full of big ones.

There are a lot of other reasons why he’s an exceptional talent, but I may get into that later. For now, just know this: he’s one of the best cartoonists in comics and he shows those skills off in a big way in this book.

Drifter #3 Muller
From Drifter #3, design by Tom Muller, art by Marko Djurdjevic

The Designer to the Stars Award: Tom Muller (Drifter, Zero, Wolf, plenty of design gigs seen in big and small ways)

In my design longform earlier this year, Jonathan Hickman said something that really resonated with me: “make beautiful things because they matter.” That’s an important consideration in a visual medium like comics, but one that often goes forgotten in some corners. Which is a shame. Comics should be beautiful relics that beg you to be picked up and read. They just don’t always do that, much to my chagrin.

Thankfully, designer Tom Muller has made a dent in making comics a little more beautiful in 2015. Most notably for me, his work on Drifter that utilizes dot and grid patterns to give each cover and arc its own distinct look has blown me away. Again, that’s one of my favorite books, but his design elements throughout each issue help give it a unified look that enhances its deeply immersive feel. You live in that book, and Muller’s a big reason for that.

It’s not just that book of course. He does the same things in his collaborations with Ales Kot, and he’s gotten even more gigs redesigning logos and creating covers for publishers like Valiant and DC. Muller’s out there more than ever, and it’s weird: comics just seem like they look better these days. It’s almost like there’s a correlation between those two events?

The last thing I’ll say about Muller is his existence and prominence in comics is a good thing for comics in general – not just the ones he works on. His work getting greater attention and inspiring others ups the ante for publishers to factor quality, cohesive design into their comics. He’s not the only one pushing the needle on that front, but he’s leading the pack for sure. That influence is important, and he’s helping comics look better just by being a part of them. That’s a good thing.

Deadly Class #12
From Deadly Class #12, art by Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge

The Best Artist, Straight Up Award: Wes Craig (Deadly Class)

I mentioned earlier that Nic Klein was my definitive #2 artist for the year, and you may have wondered who I ranked at the top. For the second year in a row, it’s Wes Craig, and as long as Deadly Class is running, I find it hard to imagine anyone else topping him.

Craig is incredible at everything I love in comics. All of his characters have unique physical profiles and mannerisms and identities. He uses panels and layouts to convey the passage of time and location better than anyone. The softest of touch and the hardest of punches feel even more significant when he’s the one bringing them to life. Honestly, this is a great book, but I don’t know how much I’d truly love it if it weren’t for Craig’s absurdly great art and storytelling.

Like with Klein, reading any issue of Deadly Class is a more prolonged process than other books simply because I spend so much more time taking in Craig’s art. Lately, the book’s been in an incredibly dark place (well, most of the time it has), but with Craig, you know even the most vile and brutal looks at the world will still be beautiful. He’s my favorite artist in comics right now, bar none.

From Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax

The “Why You Gotta Hurt Me?” Award: Zander Cannon (Kaijumax)

What Zander Cannon is accomplishing in Kaijumax is maybe the most underrated work in comics today. Put simply, Zander Cannon is somehow crafting a comic that is hilarious, tragic, brutal, heartbreaking, bizarre and utterly original – all at the same time! – and doing it entirely himself. That’s incredible.

I couldn’t love it more, but I can’t stress this enough, either: Cannon’s work may look “cartoony” but it will straight up break you. Seriously. You might look at it and see the characters and world and think “yay, happy!” but no. No. Just writing about the book I’m filled with weirdly complex emotions, but that’s part of the reason Cannon’s such an incredible cartoonist. His work as the writer-artist-colorist-letterer-letters column emcee of Kaijumax is filled with the type of nuance and complexity most can only dream of, and what he’s doing this is amongst the very best work in the business today.

But more on this next week, as I can promise you this: Kaijumax will be back.

That’s it for the creator-centric awards. Stay tuned for next week when we share our 25 favorite comics of the year, in no particular order.