Superhero Artists: Ranking the Top 5

A Panel is Worth 1,000 Words

Charles Schultz:If I were a better artist, I’d be a painter, and if I was a better writer, I’d write books… But I’m not, so I draw cartoons!

Peanuts

Pictures make comic books stand out from the literary crowd. An author can write reams of paragraphs describing a location, but an illustrated landscape is more likely to stick in the reader’s mind. Reading about a war-torn battlefield doesn’t have the same impact as seeing hundreds of soldiers fight and die. The same is true for superheroes.

Many comic book artists put their all into elevating stories with their illustrations. Some shots are so iconic that they carry over one-to-one into blockbuster movies. So who are the top 5 Superhero Artists? Let’s find out.

#5 Osamu Tezuka

Known For: Astro Boy, Princess Knight, Kimba: the White Lion

Tezuka:Comics are an international language. They can cross boundaries and generations. Comics are a bridge between all cultures.”

Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives

You’re doing something right when an entire country nicknames you “The God of Comics.” He may not be as well known as DC and Marvel’s cadre of illustrators, but give it up for the Number 5 Superhero Artist: Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was a young artist who was inspired by Japanese theater and Disney movies. He released several manga before striking gold with the android superhero Astro Boy. He went on to pen over seven hundred stories, was a major player in several early anime, and helped create the shōjo genre aimed at teenage girls.

Tezuka’s artwork featured characters with expressive faces and large eyes. His anime art helped develop the cinema style of drawing, where a single action shown over several panels conveys motion or builds tension. His art was criticized at first, but grew wildly popular over time.

Fun Facts: Walt Disney and Stanley Kubrick were fans of Tezuka’s work and wanted to collaborate with him. Tezuka was approached by Kubrick to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but could not afford to spend a year in England. Tezuka continued drawing until his death, using his last words to scold a nurse for taking away his equipment.

#4 Steve Ditko

Known For: Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Mr. A, Eerie

Alan Moore:Steve Ditko is completely at the other end of the political spectrum from me…But I have a great deal of respect for the man, and certainly respect for his artwork, and the fact that there’s something about his uncompromising attitude that I have a great deal of sympathy with.”

Comic Book Artists #9 

There are three people who are almost single-handedly responsible for Marvel’s success and Stan Lee isn’t an artist. We’ll get to the other one soon, but for now, let’s shine a light on the number four Superhero Artist: Steve Ditko.

Ditko got his start by drawing comics for an army newspaper in post-WWII Germany. Following his discharge, he studied art under Jerry Robinson, co-creator of The Joker. Ditko used his newfound skills to get a job at Atlas Comics, later known as Marvel Comics.

Ditko was responsible for creating many of Spider-Man’s enemies and adding defining features to Iron Man and The Hulk. He was famously part of the “Marvel Method” of publishing, where Lee would give him a short synopsis, Ditko would draw the comic, and Lee would add dialogue to finish it. This style was successful, but sometimes floundered when Lee added bits that Ditko disagreed with.

Aside from normal superhero fare, Ditko’s art for Doctor Strange was somewhere between a fever dream and a drug trip. He switched over to more stylized black and white drawings after leaving Marvel, focusing on his superhero mouthpiece Mr. A or horror stories for EC Comics.

Fun Facts: Steve Ditko was an Objectivist who always inserted those themes into stories whenever he was given a chance. He was also a notorious recluse who refused to be filmed or photographed.

#3 Jack Kirby

Known For: The Fantastic Four, The New Gods, Captain America

Invisible Woman:Hush, you two! Show proper respect for… Reed, why am I taller than The Almighty?
The One-Above-All: [in Jack Kirby’s form] “What you see is what I am to you. Don’t worry, it’s a compliment, not an insult. That’s what my creations do: they find the humanity in God.

Fantastic Four #511

Stan Lee received the lion’s share of credit for creating the Marvel Universe, but his stories wouldn’t have gone far without Marvel’s King. Meet the number three Superhero Artist: Jack Kirby.

Jack “The King” Kirby began working for Timely Comics in the 1940s. Working alongside Joe Simon, Kirby created Captain America and the romance comic genre. He spent the ’50’s creating monsters for sci-fi anthologies before partnering with Stan Lee to create half of the Marvel Universe in the 60’s.

After Kirby and Lee ended their partnership, Kirby jumped ship to DC Comics. He created the popular Fourth World series and many new characters, but returned to Marvel because he felt that DC’s editors were interfering with his stories.

Kirby’s art was not subtle. Critics call it grandiose, bombastic, and dripping with color. Every character moves with energy, and locations are intricately designed. His most famous technique was drawing black dots around energy sources to make it seem like they were rippling. This trick was later named “Kirby Krackle” and remains a staple of every superhero artist’s palette.

Fun Facts: Following Kirby’s death, Superman: the Animated Series killed off his avatar, Dan Turpin. The showrunners used Turpin’s death to give Jack Kirby a funeral in absentia. Superman provided a eulogy while The Fantastic Four, Nick Fury, and Stan Lee were visible in a crowd shot of the mourners. Marvel made a less subtle gesture by making Kirby the preferred form of The One-Above-All, their stand-in for God.

#2 George Pérez

Known For: The Infinity Gauntlet, Crisis on Infinite Earths, JLA/Avengers

[Being interviewed about the Crisis on Infinite Earths]
Perez:I was like “How many characters can I draw? I want to draw everyone I can get my hands on.” So for me, it was an absolute joy.  I had already done the Titans, I had done the Justice League, but now I got to draw everybody, even very obscure characters. I had never drawn The Metal Men professionally.

Syfy Wire, “DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths: Talking With George Perez

Event comics tend to be huge storylines involving dozens of characters. Any artist working on one needs to be able to draw many characters clearly and without just shoving them into a drawing. Our penultimate Superhero Artist is a master of that technique: George Pérez (shown above).

George Pérez got his start as an assistant at Marvel and later worked at DC. He drew critically acclaimed series for Wonder Woman and the Teen Titans. He was tapped to draw The Infinity Gauntlet saga and DC’s massive relaunch, the Crisis on Infinite Earths.

JLA/Avengers was his magnum opus. Alongside Kurt Buseik, Pérez had to draw almost every major character in Marvel and DC’s stable. The final battle featured hundreds of characters fighting while anomalies cause their appearances and costumes to constantly shift. At one point, the book had to be delayed because Pérez sprained his wrist getting every character in there, but the extra time was worth it.

Pérez is the man you call when you need to cram dozens, if not hundreds of characters into a two-page spread. Despite the sheer amount of heroes and villains, they are always drawn in full detail instead of as a vague background character.

Not So Fun Facts: George Pérez announced in December 2021 that he has inoperable pancreatic cancer with a life expectancy of six to twelve months. This announcement prompted DC and Marvel to release a limited run of JLA/Avengers and donate the proceeds to Perez.

#1 Alex Ross

Known For: Marvels, Justice, Kingdom Come, Astro City

Ross: “There have always been naysayers. People who absolutely thought painting superheroes wasn’t going to work. I had to try to prove those people wrong.”

The Art of Painted Comics

All five of these Superhero Artists are masters of their craft, but only one gets our top ranking. Introducing the number one Superhero Artist: Alex Ross.

Alex Ross dreamed of drawing superheroes after seeing Spider-Man on The Electric Company. He struggled to imitate Pérez, but switched to painting after being inspired by the works of Norman Rockwell.

Ross’ superhero paintings led to him work with Marvel and DC. He was tapped to paint the award-winning series Marvels, Kingdom Come, and Justice. Ross also worked with Kurt Buseik to create the critically-acclaimed series, Astro City.

Ross paints watercolors with heavy ink washing. This allows the characters to look realistic and more human than in most illustrations. The style mixes vivid color and washed-out backdrops to phenomenal effect. Many cover blurbs for the aforementioned books spend more time discussing the artwork than the stories.

Fun Facts: Ross doesn’t use digital tools to make his paintings, so his work tends to be slower than other artists. He primarily works on variant covers and special projects instead of ongoing series.

Who is your favorite Superhero Artist? Is there one even better than these? Tell us in the comments.

Image; “File:Dragon Con 2013 – George Perez & Metamorpho” by Pat Loika is marked with CC BY 2.0.

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