Welcome back to The SKTCHIES, SKTCHD.com’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 continues.
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. We’ll be back on Friday with part three bringing things to a close, before next week’s list looks at my favorite comics this year.
The JAMES HARREN! Award: James Harren (Rumble, B.P.R.D.)
Back in the glory years of Grantland, their NBA writer Zach Lowe – who is the greatest NBA writer in all the land – used to write about a Milwaukee Bucks player, Larry Sanders. Whenever he did, he was so pumped about his rare abilities as a rim protector that Lowe would always write his name as “LARRY SANDERS!” even in ordinary context. It was a sign of respect towards Sanders’ talents as an NBA player.
As a Lowe fan and someone who thinks the world of Harren’s gifts as an artist, I started writing the artist’s name as “JAMES HARREN!” a couple years back whenever I wrote about his work. And why not? JAMES HARREN! is such a singularly capable artist that he deserves the all caps treatment AND the exclamation point. JAMES HARREN! could draw damn near any book and I’d be into it because very few artists can hang with his abilities as a storyteller or his penchant for character acting. Oh, and he’s one of the most fiercely imaginative creators around when it comes to big damn monsters, and he worked on two of the great monster books in comics in Rumble and B.P.R.D.
In short, JAMES HARREN! is an absolute art monster, and someone whose work is always voraciously devoured by yours truly. The raw energy and surprising finesse he can bring to a page is unparalleled in many ways, and he showed that in not just one book this year, but two. That’s a hell of a thing.
The Pop Star Award: Jamie McKelvie (The Wicked + The Divine, Phonogram)
Not that long ago, McKelvie shared on Twitter that he wished he had started drawing comics before he was 21 so he’d be better than he is now, and that idea blew my mind. Not that he wished he would be better, as I’m sure most everyone in a creative medium wished they were better at what they did. Instead, what shocked me was he’d only been drawing since he was 21. Unless he’s currently 221 years old, that’s staggering, as McKelvie – at least to this outsider’s perspective – is one of the most confident and effective storytellers in comics, bar none.
His work on books like WicDiv and Phonogram showcase someone with firm control of all of his skills and abilities, and while he excels at the bombast and mega pop star moments that often come up, his greatest talent is how he brings the people behind the stars to life. The moments I love the most in WicDiv, for example, aren’t necessarily ones like the stunning debut of Urðr shown above (which IS amazing), but the smaller moments like the third panel on this page where Laura thinks of the possibilities. With McKelvie, something as simple as a smile can be a weapon, just like it is in real life.
Like a great pop song, there’s just something simple and real about McKelvie’s work, and he never puts more on a page than necessary. It makes the grandiose feel so much more momentous and the small feel so much more personal and haunting, and it’s why he’s one of my favorite artists, both this year and beyond.
The “How Could He do This to Us?” Award: Jason Aaron (Southern Bastards, Thor, The Goddamned)
I don’t often curse someone’s name, but Jason Aaron has the unique ability of bringing that out in me. I know creators want to bring emotion out in readers, but some of Aaron’s writing this year? It downright pissed me off. The biggest example?
HE MADE ME CARE ABOUT COACH BOSS!
Now, if you don’t read Southern Bastards, scroll down past this section and move on, because we’re going to get real spoilery. Euless Boss is the coach of Craw County’s Running Rebs football team, and he’s an absolute monster. The first arc of the book wrapped with Boss killing the ostensible lead and hero of the book – Earl Tubb – and at that point, I was near the stage of burning effigies of this villain if I thought it’d make a difference. So the team took a break, and I was like, cool, looking forward to how revenge comes Boss’ way. That’s going to be great, right?
The next arc is all about the backstory of Coach Boss and the path that led him where he is. And while I’d hardly say the guy’s all roses to me these days, it at least made me understand and even feel for where this man came from. Things like, “Poor Euless” would creep into my brain, and I’d silently seethe that Aaron and his compatriot Jason Latour made me feel that way.
That’s one of the most interesting things Aaron brings to a comic he works on though. He takes people in an obvious position of power and makes them feel as powerless as the rest of us. He can humanize anyone from Thunder Gods to power mad football coaches. So yeah, Aaron’s a bit evil himself when it comes to his writing. But he’s the type that makes us say “thank you sir, may I have another” as he’s doing it to us. He’s that good.
The Glue Guy Award: Jason Latour (Southern Bastards, Spider-Gwen)
Speaking of Latour – who deserves equal adoration and resentment for his role in making me empathize with Coach Boss – he’s had a banner year in his own right. Latour’s one of the most interesting creators in comics right now for me, and it’s because of the different hats he wears while making fantastic comics like Bastards and Spider-Gwen, all of which he wears oh so well. Take this recent four issue span, for example:
October 7: Latour provides art in Southern Bastards #11
October 14: Latour writes The Radioactive Spider-Gwen #1
November 11: Latour writes both Southern Bastards #12 (with Chris Brunner on art) and The Radioactive Spider-Gwen #2
I love how fluid Latour’s abilities are, and it’s wonderful seeing him shift from art to writing on Bastards and the book not slowing down one bit. It makes him feel like one of my favorite random types of professional athletes – a glue guy – who might not be the most touted person, but they secretly are the element that keeps the whole thing together. For example, I’m a big Indiana Pacers fan, and CJ Miles (a dude who is 6’6″, which is tall but not NBA tall) is playing power forward for the team. He doesn’t complain, he just goes out and bangs with guys way taller than him so the Pacers’ superstar (Paul George) doesn’t have to. Miles’ sacrifice opens up the floor for everyone, including himself. While that’s not precisely Latour – I can’t speak to his game – his versatility and willingness to do different things if the job calls for it (like Miles) can unlock greatness.
That may sound like I’m devaluing Latour’s work or making him sound like a secondary creator, but that’s not what I mean. His ability to do anything and succeed in any role is something I hold in the highest esteem. He’s an incredibly gifted artist and writer, and above all, he’s an exceptional storyteller regardless of his role. That’s important.
One other note: I generally like the cut of Latour’s jib as well. The whole Confederate flag charity cover thing they did, what he says on social media, and everything else I’ve seen from him makes him seem like a pretty alright guy. It’s not why he made my list, but it doesn’t hurt either.
The Big Comics Award: Jonathan Hickman (East of West, The Dying and the Dead, Secret Wars, Avengers, New Avengers, The Manhattan Projects)
One of the most interesting things about Jonathan Hickman is how big everything he does is. That’s not to say he isn’t good at character work – he’s phenomenal at it, which is why a lot of the big moments hit as hard as they do – but he’s simply operating on a scale that’s grander than what anyone else is doing these days.
Take yesterday’s Secret Wars #8, for example. That issue is straight flames. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s so freaking rad that I finished it and wanted to high five myself that I enjoyed it so much. What happens in that comic and the series as a whole is so damn good that I genuinely feel bad for Bendis and Marquez for tackling the next Marvel event: why even do Marvel events after Secret Wars? I could go on and on about that issue (GOD DOOM VS. THANOS!) but let’s be honest: this is just what Hickman does.
He can do it in an array of ways, too. Obviously everyone knows he’s the decompression master, and he can do labyrinthine plots that pay off months down the line with the best of them. But that’s not his only gear. Look at East of West #22, for example. It’s a done-in-one issue that’s mostly wordless and entirely badass, but it also has major ramifications for the series overall. Hickman’s always building towards something, even when the package it comes in is an action comic. And it’s always something big.
All I can say is this, though: no one makes comics like Jonathan Hickman. Not today, and not even in the past. I can’t say that about many creators, but for him, that’s absolutely true. He’s completely unique in the worlds he builds, even if the building is likely only coming before the destruction.
The Tastemaker Award: Jordie Bellaire (Injection, The Vision, The Autumnlands, They’re Not Like Us, etc.)
I’m about to give Jordie Bellaire the best compliment I can give a comic creator, or at least in my book. She may disagree and be like, “David, no,” but for me, it’s true. Here it is:
If her name is on a comic, I know – know – it will be a good comic.
I don’t know if I can say that about many other creators, but with Bellaire, it’s true. As an Eisner winning colorist and someone held in great esteem, she seemingly can pick and choose the jobs she works on, and when she takes a project, I know it will be a good one. That’s impressive, and something I think the best colorists have in common to a degree. They have the bandwidth to handle multiple jobs, and when the best finds something new you know you’re onto something potentially great.
That’s not why she makes this list though. There’s another reason the comics she works on are good, and it’s because she’s one of the best colorists in the business. She’s also one of the most prolific, and that allows her to showcase a versatility that few can match. Sure, she has her own aesthetic, but looking at the naturalistic, soft colors of The Autumnlands (except in magical moments) when paired with the looming darkness of Injection, you can see her flex as well as any colorist in the business. And she never sacrifices her own identity as a storyteller in the process.
And she is a storyteller. The little choices she makes throughout her work can manipulate your emotions or attention in powerful and unexpected ways. Every book she works on – every one – is better for her presence. How many creators can you honestly say that about? Not that many, and Bellaire’s reach is about as significant as anyone in comics. Of course, that just means I’m buying a whole lot of books with her name on it, but as I said, that’s hardly a bad thing.
The Great Expectations Award: Kate Beaton (Step Aside, Pops)
Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant webcomic is one I love, but one I – sadly – read entirely in print. It’s just the type of reader I am. However, 2015 was a good year for me because of that. Drawn & Quarterly released a second print collection – called Step Aside, Pops – and I devoured it at uncanny speeds. And oh did it make me laugh. Laugh and laugh and laugh. It’s not because Beaton is a stand up comedian in cartoonist form or something. It’s because she has such a unique perspective that the subjects and angles she approaches her strips with are so completely unexpected, they make me laugh once for humor and again for sheer disbelief.
Take the Nemesis series of strips in the book, for example. It’s a common tale: rival pirate boat captains who are continuously locked in battle with their nemesis. We’ve seen it in stories before, except never like this. Beaton fully embraces the obsessive side of this story, treating these classic archetypes as star-crossed lovers in their own way who will go to the edges of Earth to fight their nemesis, mostly just to be close to them. It’s genius.
Beaton is a maestro of subverting expectations and using careful research as her able partner in her quest to amuse and entertain. You can see that on each and every page of Step Aside, Pops, as well as the continuing strips online. Beaton’s brilliant, and whenever we get a new collection showcasing that, I couldn’t enjoy it more.
The Grounded Unreality Award: Leila del Duca (Shutter, The Wicked + The Divine)
One of the trickiest parts of comics that are collaborations is – if you’re trying to do an activity such as this – delineating between all parties on who did what. So for a book like Shutter – which I love – where does Joe Keatinge end and Leila del Duca, Owen Gieni and John Workman begin? Not that they’re some sort of weird ouroboros type person, but how much comes from each person in dictating what shows up on the final page? It’s tough, but whatever the answer is, I can tell you this: very few people can fill a world with so much brilliant, absurd detail while still telling a wonderful story in the process like del Duca does.
Yet she does, and does it well.
Shutter’s a fever dream at times, going to places where every denizen is a lion of some variety and others where insane crystal megamonsters rule the day. Yet even if she takes us to a nightmarish version of an Eyes Wide Shut party (or an even MORE nightmarish version, I guess), she keeps us engaged with what’s happening with characters like Kate, Cassius, Chris and beyond. She has a rare ability to go big and filling the page to the brim with insanity, but never losing focus on the small.
While it’s hard for me to say how much credit goes to each person for the greatness of that book – they all deserve applause – what I can say is del Duca has one of the greatest challenges in comics in bringing that world to life and making sense of it in the process. She does, and she does it incredibly well.
And bonus points for taking time off to tell an exceptional story in The Wicked + The Divine #16, delivering the story of The Morrigan and Baphomet with equal aplomb (and a lot more goth). Even though she’s seemingly busier than ever before, her work has only gotten better this year.
The Lifegiver Award: Lissa Treiman (Giant Days)
I’ve already written about Treiman’s art in my picks for the breakout creators of 2015, but I wanted to highlight her here again because her work in Giant Days is one of the things that will stand out the most for me when I look back on this year. The reason is simple: few artists can match her ability to give characters so much life and vitality.
The mannerisms and acting and gesticulation she brings to each and every character in Giant Days makes the book for me, in a lot of ways. That’s not to say I’m going to stop reading it once the second trade comes out and her art is no longer part of the equation, but she’s such a talented cartoonist that she increases my investment in each and every character, big time. And she makes me laugh. The expressions and expressiveness she brings to each of them is so wondrous that it enhances the book throughout.
The fact that she’s a character animator at Disney makes this all fairly logical, but it goes beyond logic: a lot of the feelings we have for the characters in this book are because of the life Treiman brings out in them. Every artist does that to a degree, but Treiman? She’s one of the best.
The Secret Conductor Award: Matt Wilson (The Wicked + The Divine, Phonogram, Daredevil, Thor, etc.)
I talked about this briefly when writing about Jordie Bellaire’s work, but colorists – when they’re as good as Matt Wilson – are all about subtly impacting your reading experience. You may read an entire comic and not actively think about the work they’ve done, but they change tone, mood, focal points and how deeply something resonates in ways that are primal and extraordinary.
That’s why someone like Wilson, whose work is being dropped on the regular on both for-hire jobs and creator-owned, is like a conductor. With both colorists and conductors, philistines like myself struggle to say exactly what their impact is. I mean, aren’t conductors just people who wave their arms about while talented musicians play their instruments? But to paraphrase Steve Jobs said in…well, Steve Jobs, conductors play the orchestra, and colorists? They play the reader.
There are little moments in Wilson’s work where he helps something resonate so much more, yet I don’t even notice it until the reread. It can be something a simple as a flare of color behind a character to indicate an emotion. An example I frequently bring up is when Erin in Paper Girls realizes Mack is THAT Mack – the first of the paper girls – and you can tell how much import there is to this revelation both because of the expression Cliff Chiang gives her and the color delivered. It adds a whole level to the power of the moment. And later in the issue, he does the same thing. It’s a tonal recurrence that means a lot, and it’s something you hardly even notice as you read it. You don’t think about it, but it changes your read in a positive way.
That’s the gift and the curse of a great colorist: they make you feel things you don’t expect in ways you don’t understand. And Wilson is one of the absolute best at it, showcasing those abilities across his array of gigs.
Plus, he just makes stuff look so cool in WicDiv. Not to go all “ooo! color pretty!” on you, but I want anything I do to look half as cool as how Baal does when he’s all lit up with that special neon purple Wilson brings to the table. And who doesn’t need a little bit of in your face cool from time to time?
Stay tuned for the third and final part of the creators section of the SKTCHIES, coming tomorrow.