Aaaand, we’re back! Real life got in the way a bit last week, and so I didn’t get to the second round of the Dork Awards. But now I’ve chopped out a hollow spot in my schedule, so let’s get crackin’! This week, we’re shifting gears a bit, to discuss specific creators rather than specific books. Honestly, this whole thing was a lot easier last year, when we just did a “25 Best Comics” list. Hopefully, I’ll remember that next year. But, ah well. Live and learn.
But we’ve got two awards to hand out this time, so let’s stop dicking around…
Writer of the Year
I almost didn’t do this award. I read comics for the writing, primarily, so I was afraid that this award would wind up sounding an awful lot like the two “Best Comic” awards. But then I found my hook: discuss the writers’ work overall (their “oeuvre,” eef you weel), instead of specific stories they may have written. We’ll see how that works out. Plus, I’ve tossed in a ringer…
Honorable Mention: Jason Aaron
None of this guy’s books made it into my Best Comics lists this year (little spoiler there, I guess), and yet he’s one of the writers I think most fondly of when I think about funnybook writers (which, let’s face it, is far far more often than is entirely healthy). He’s a very masculine writer, specializing in complex tough guys and generally turning out work that smells of whiskey, gasoline, and Brut. He’s also that rare writer who can turn out corporate spandex work I enjoy (his epically stupid Thor), as well as regular writing that strikes a chord (the gloriously mean-spirited Southern Bastards). I really like his stuff. But to some extent, that’s the problem. I LIKE his work. I don’t LOVE it. That’s why he only rates Honorable Mention. But at least he got that.
Sort of the opposite of Jason Aaron is Ed Brubaker. He wrote multiple series I loved this year, but didn’t win because, well… His work’s not particularly deep. I mean, don’t get me wrong. He writes good, complex characters in the noir style. And god knows I love me some noir. But Brubaker’s work is stuff I get on the surface, on my first reading. And I’m always going to prefer something that makes me work a little.
Another writer whose work I enjoy primarily on the surface, and not as consistently as I like Ed Brubaker’s work. But Rucka gets the edge this year, because of the frankly incredible world-building he’s doing in the pages of Lazarus. Because, much as I like noir, I am a complete and total nerd for a well-conceived fantasy world. And the dystopian future Rucka’s constructing in Lazarus is one of the most well-realized near-futures I’ve read. Sure, it’s a liberal nightmare come to life. But it’s complex, detailed, and convincing. If the world winds up under corporate rule (okay, OVERT corporate rule), I wouldn’t be surprised if it wound up looking an awful lot like this. That’s impressive, and it’s what lands Greg Rucka a spot on this list.
In a lot of ways, 2014 was Jonathan Hickman’s year. His series East of West is one of the better sci-fi books on the stands, he wrapped up (after numerous delays) his espionage series Secret, and his tenure as lead writer on the Avengers titles started paying off on his long-term plot goals, to reportedly spectacular results. I say “reportedly” because I stopped reading those books when the amount of money it cost to follow them outstripped the amount of entertainment I was gaining from them. But I’m told they’ve been really good, and look forward to reading them on the cheap bastard plan when the digital price drops to something closer to reasonable. East of West has been so good, though, that it lands him his spot here all by its lonesome.
This one’s a no-brainer, right? I mean, of course the Funnybook Shakespeare’s on my Best Writers list. If he puts out a book in any given year, he’s most likely going to land a spot. He usually lands a higher spot than this, in fact, but Moore’s output was more limited this year than most. His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen OGN was pretty much it, except for the first chapter of a new Crossed mini-series that will most likely get consideration next year moreso than this. And that was good stuff, but for Writer of the Year, I wanted someone with a little more output.
Another shoe-in for Writer of the Year who ultimately didn’t quite take the top spot, in spite of writing what I’ve already called as the best single comic of 2014 (Pax Americana). And that’s because he’s starting to repeat himself. I mean… He’s always repeated himself. Other-dimensional incursions, transcendental awakenings, the inspirational power of the heroic ideal… About 95% of his work deals with one or all of those ideas. But in the past, he’s been better at disguising it, leaving a lot of that as subtext and keeping the details different and interesting enough that it didn’t feel like you were reading the same story over and over again. Here lately, though, that subtext is increasingly becoming text, with fewer and fewer layers of symbol and obfuscation hiding it. Unfortunately, the symbols and obfuscation, the grand mystery of it all, was easily half of what made his work so very interesting in the first place. Now, don’t get me wrong: he’s still turning out good stuff. I still consider any new Grant Morrison project a treat. But this year, at least, I couldn’t bring myself to give him the top spot.
It’s been one hell of a year for Matt Fraction. He’s handled a sudden departure from the work-for-hire trenches with grace and established a place for himself as a writer of things people want to read. And he did it with a comic about sex and relationships that appeals equally to both men and women, and features very little violence. That’s remarkable. And it doesn’t even take into account his final work-for-hire super hero writing, his other on-going series about the early days of television, or his dense, psychedelic, gender-bent take on the Odyssey, all of which have been stellar. So, yes. It’s been a very good year indeed for Matt Fraction.
But not quite good enough, because the Dork Award goes to…
The realization that this was really Warren Ellis’ year kind of crept up on me in the last month. I’ve been reading the guy for a long time, following him from Transmetropolitan through Stormwatch and The Authority, on to Planetary and Nextwave, and his recent forays into prose fiction with Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine. Through it all, I’ve come to expect intelligence, a finely-tuned sense of the outrageous, and an even-more-finely-tuned sense of righteous indignation. That was his thing. It was what he did.
But in recent years, it turned into schtick. The outrageousness came to seem forced. The righteous indignation, less called-for. And though his work was seldom less than intelligent, a lot of it began to feel rather pointless. After a number of mini-series with promising ideas that fell apart in the third act (Black Summer and Supergod among them), I got very picky about which Ellis projects I read and which ones I didn’t.
I never entirely discounted him, though, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because this year, the man reinvented himself, offering up artsy little pop culture bon-bons on Moon Knight, high weirdness in Supreme: Blue Rose, and some very quiet, very human near-future sci-fi in Trees. It’s all recognizably Ellis. He’s done things in these veins here and there before (except maybe Supreme). But none of it feels like his schtick. The bombast is mostly gone. He’s not straining to shock, nor is he populating these stories with characters who are right, dammit, and bitter about it to boot. It’s mature work, god help us all, and maybe the best of his career.
So for that, for reinventing himself, and for giving me three of my favorite funnybooks of the year… Warren Ellis gets the Dork Award for Writer of the Year.
And now, moving right along (this time with more pretty pictures)…
Artist of the Year
A tough category this year, but a fun one to write about. There was an abundance of great funnybook art in 2014, in a wide variety of styles. Such a wide variety that it’s like comparing apples and oranges at times. But whether you go in for classic illustration, solid storytelling, pretty pictures, or experimentation, this year offered something good for everyone.
Honorable Mention: James Stokoe
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Stokoe is one of my favorite artists working today. His style is cartoony and profane, and packed with great tiny detail that both fleshes out the worlds he creates in his work (he’s a writer-artist), and serves as fun comedy relief. He’d probably rank higher on this list, in fact, if he’d released more in the past year than the Avengers 100th Anniversary Special, a one-shot story about the super-team 100 years after their founding. Crazy fun and gorgeous, as all Stokoe’s work is, that single comic was enough to land him a spot here.
As artist on East of West, Nick Dragotta adds to that book’s appeal immeasurably, offering visuals and character design that’s at once original and pleasingly familiar, drawing on influences as wide as Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Jack Kirby, and Katsuhiro Otomo. And all while maintaining a style that’s recognizably his own.
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I’m not sure what it is about McKelvie’s work that I like so very much. He’s got a clean line, certainly, but his figures are, to be really honest, a little plastic-looking. Stiff. And because of that stiffness, he’s not great at drawing action, either. But he is good at character design, and his page layouts continue to be some of the more innovative in the industry, even on The Wicked + The Divine, a book on which McKelvie and writer Kieron Gillen are consciously trying to be less experimental than they’ve been in the past. The thing that really sells me on McKelvie, though, is that he’s genuinely great at quiet moments, making talking heads interesting and dynamic to read. That’s because he’s great at camera placement and “acting.” Which is to say, he handles expression and body language well, a shockingly rare talent in American comics. So for that, as much as anything, he deserves mention.
Another guy with clean lines and great acting ability, Chip Zdarsky also has another rare talent in American comics: he’s really good at drawing regular people. Fat people, skinny people, people of average looks and builds of the type you meet on the street every day. And, because he’s the artist of Sex Criminals, he often draws those regular people having sex. Which is great, and really refreshing.
Now, Zdarsky’s also good at other stuff, like page layout and camera angle and comedic timing. His pages are a pleasure to read. But the thing that always strikes me most about him is that ability to draw regular folks instead of the super-models and grotesqueries you usually get in funnybooks. That’s a rare talent, and one I’d love to see more of.
The artist on Warren Ellis’ Supreme: Blue Rose, Tula Lotay is someone whose work kind of snuck up on me. I found it unremarkable when I read the first issue. Kind of plain, even sketchy, life-drawing style figures, I thought, moving around in a sort of psychedelic haziness that wasn’t doing anything for me. But I think I was just being thrown by how different it is from the sort of comics art I’m used to. Because the more of it I read, the more brilliant it seems. Those figures I found so plain at first have started coming to life for me. She’s especially good at faces. I’ve pointed out her Doc Rocket before, but it bears repeating:
And that psychedelic haziness? While I initially found it distracting on what seemed to be “normal” scenes, it’s absolutely perfect for the reality-shifting weirdness going on elsewhere. Of course, as the story’s gone on, it’s become increasingly obvious that there is no “normal” anywhere here. This is a messed-up, ephemeral universe, and Tula Lotay is perfect to depict it. The right artist on the right book at the right time.
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Irving’s been one of my favorites for quite some time now. He has a unique style, with clean lines and acid colors that just seem to glow on the page.
Because, yes, he does his own color. He works in color, as I understand it, which… It’s only striking me just now, but isn’t it weird that more comics artists don’t? All part of the medium’s origins and historical printing processes, I suppose. But these days? You’d think there’d be more full color artists out there.
Anyway. Irving. He’s equally adept at the horrific, the cartoony, and the cosmic, and he’s another guy who knows his way around expression and body language. If he has a weakness, it’s in storytelling. His sequential art is occasionally hard to follow in action scenes. And, truth be told, his figures sometimes get a tad stiff in the action stuff, as well. Still and all, though, Irving art on a book is almost enough to get me to pick it up all by itself. And that’s a rare thing.
JH Williams III
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Is there a better comics artist working today than JH Williams III? I’m not sure there is. He’s a visionary, adding extra layers of meaning to a story by virtue of how he chooses to draw it. His page layouts alone can add depth. And what layouts! He’s become the master of the two-page spread, creating visual framing devices that reflect the action and still move the reader’s eye around the page in the proper order. At times it feels like he’s reinventing the language of comics storytelling with every turn of the page. He can also draw equally well in several different styles, and often does so all at once, on the same page, somehow making things fit together that really shouldn’t, and always to the betterment of the story. And that’s the thing that really makes Williams tops: he’s not about empty flash. No matter how out there his images and layouts may get, they always serve the story. In an era when many top artists (*coughJimLeecough*) insert pointless splash pages that impair story flow (but which will sell for top dollar on the original art market), JH Williams goes the extra mile to ensure that his work reads well rather than just looking pretty. Though it does that, too.
Having said all that, you may be wondering why, then, Williams didn’t take the Dork Award. Well… That’s because it’s “Artist of the Year,” and that implies a certain level of impact, as well as quality. And with only two issues of Sandman out in 2014… Williams didn’t have the impact of our winner.
Or winners, actually. Because we have a tie. I’m of two minds, you see, on comics art. On the one hand, I love classic illustration. Solid drawing skills and storytelling ability. But on the other, I’m also a huge fan of expressionism and experimentation. Art that captures the proper tone of a story, or that finds a new way to tell it. I wouldn’t say that these two loves are at odds in my head, exactly; I don’t think there’s any absolutely right or wrong way to tell a story. But I am hard-pressed to say which one I prefer. Especially when confronted with artists who are so very good at both approaches. So the Dork Award goes to…
Steve Epting and Matt Kindt
JH Williams may be a double threat, a guy who’s both technically skilled and an inspired innovator, but 2014 really belonged, for me, to these two guys. Epting is the classic illustrator, Kindt the expressionist. Both were the best at their respective approaches last year, and in the end I just couldn’t decide between them.
Epting’s work on Velvet is simply stunning, on par with past greats like Wally Wood, John Buscema, or Al Williamson. That’s high praise, I know, but I think Epting’s earned it. His skills are rock-solid in things like figure drawing, backgrounds, acting, and storytelling, as at-home drawing society parties as he is action. Plus, he has enough visual flair to lay some flash over all that technical skill, so his stuff’s also appealing to people who aren’t process junkies like myself. It’s gorgeous work, the best traditional comics art in the industry right now.
Kindt, meanwhile, innovates endlessly. His work on Mind MGMT (which he also writes) lacks Epting’s slickness, but it’s still captivating, visceral stuff that captures the proper mood, an important factor in a book that’s as much about what’s in the characters’ minds as it is what’s happening around them.
His storytelling innovations work to his advantage there, as well. Most obvious is the ongoing “Field Guide,” text snippets running in the margins that work as counterpoint to the action and even, at times, overrun the artwork as well:
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Both these men impressed me endlessly in 2014, with their professionalism and eye for detail. While not as flashy as some, their artwork went above and beyond to make their respective books better than they would have been otherwise. Reading their work is exciting. A pleasure. A treat. And for that, they take the win.