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All the Comics in the World: Best Cartoonists
By Shaenon K. Garrity
Thursday January 19, 2012 09:00:00 pm
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
"Who do you think is the greatest cartoonist of our generation?" my friend Jason asked me. "Present company excluded."

That slowed me down right out of the gate, because Jason was on my short list.

"Who counts as our generation?" asked my husband Andrew. "Is Jeff Smith part of our generation?"

Jason thought about it. "A lot of cartoonists from our generation were influenced by Jeff Smith, so I'd say no, he's part of the previous generation. But the Flight artists are part of our generation."

Many of the Flight artists, I realized later, are younger than that. They were influenced by my generation.

"So," I said, "guys like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware are part of the older generation, too."

"Yes. All of those Fantagraphics artists, like Joe Matt and Renee French and Peter Bagge, are from the previous generation. Our generation is the people influenced by those guys."

"How about Adrian Tomine? Is he too old?"

"No, Adrian Tomine is part of our generation. In fact, I think it might come down to a contest between Adrian Tomine and Craig Thompson."

Wikipedia later confirmed that both Adrian Tomine and Craig Thompson are late Gen Xers, and left me with the sobering knowledge that Thompson is only three years older than I am.

Now that I'm solidly thirtysomething, I can start to hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near, or at least the measured step of cultural reckoning on the approach. My generation is the generation currently wallowing in nostalgia, pandered to with movies and TV shows and books about our childhoods. (Another sobering thought: whereas the nostalgia industry of our parents' thirtysomething years focused on things they did and historical changes they witnessed, ours is mostly about crap we watched on TV.) And the artists of our generation are starting to do their important work. Not their most important, maybe. Our Dan Clowes has done his Velvet Glove. Our Chris Ware is just getting out of his Quimby Mouse phase.

Crowning the greatest cartoonist is a pointless game at any time, and certainly so in this case, when the average thirtysomething cartoonist has another good 40 years of work in him; there's no pensions in cartooning, after all. But what the hell, let's play. Early in the race, first lap completed, here are fifteen (okay, sixteen) candidates for greatness among the cartoonists currently working in the American comics industry. Come back in a few decades and see how accurate I was.

To keep things simple, the list will include only cartoonists born in the 1970s. I HAVE DECREED IT SO. Apologies in advance to any cartoonists who were left off the list because I couldn't find out how old they are. Sorry, folks.

Adrian Tomine. Initially one of many '90s-era Dan Clowes imitators, Tomine soon staked his claim to an under-explored patch of comics territory: naturalistic, Raymond Carver-like short stories illustrated with photographic precision. It's no surprise that he often draws covers and illustrations for The New Yorker, as his comics are essentially the visual equivalent of New Yorker fiction. An old-school craftsman, he's one of the last indie cartoonists still doing traditional floppies; his series Optic Nerve doesn't come out often, but when it does, it's still a 32-page comic book.

Recently, Tomine's shown an interest in branching out into formalist experiments like the dryly funny "Horticulture," a story in the latest Optic Nerve presented as a series of comic strips from a newspaper that never existed. Then again, Dan Clowes' recent graphic novel Wilson used the same device. Maybe, despite his coolly deft writing and inhumanly clean linework, Tomine will never fully escape Clowes' long shadow.

Craig Thompson. Thompson's debut graphic novel, Good-bye, Chunky Rice, a sweet (if you enjoyed it) or saccharine (if you're me) fantasy about two gentle friends separated by cruel adventure, set the tone for his work. The polar opposite of Tomine's chilly metropolitan realism, Thompson's comics are the work of a messy Midwestern humanist who wears his heart on his sleeve. His gorgeously drawn memoir Blankets has become one of the comics most recommended to people who don't read comics.

There's nothing timid about Thompson's work: he crafts massive, sprawling doorstop graphic novels bursting with big ideas, raw emotion, and luxurious brushwork. In his early work, his art is much better than his writing, which tends toward unchecked purple prose. But his latest (and thickest) book, the immaculately researched Arabian fantasy Habibi, shows much more control of his storytelling gifts. It's not a work without flaws, but Thompson would always rather make a big statement than a perfect one.

Ariel Schrag. Not everyone gets Ariel Schrag, but the people who like her really like her. Witness Noah Berlatsky closing up the Hooded Utilitarian roundtable on Likewise (archived here), the final installment in Schrag's autobiographical coming-of-age series: "Schrag's Likewise, it seems to me, is about inflated rhetoric and desires, about embracing them and stepping away from them at the same time. It's also about being like and not being like, and about how somewhere between the two you find yourself." And this is a guy who thinks Chris Ware is jejune.

Schrag may never fully escape her reputation as the precocious child prodigy of comics, producing her first graphic novel about high-school life, Awkward, while still in high school. Indeed, some critics seem disappointed by her development from a chirpy teenager who doodles "lala girl stuff" into, well, a cartoonist. Over the course of four books, her draftsmanship advances from nigh-illegible to serviceable, but her strength emerges in her keen documentary eye, her subtle construction of layered narratives and themes, and her seemingly effortless experimentation with the comics form itself. Her work gives the impression of being constantly on the verge of breaking through into an entirely new type of art.

In recent years, Schrag has moved on to a career as a television writer, but she still produces occasional short comics and pops up in the comics world now and then to opine. Will she return to graphic novels someday? If it were me I'd stick with the cable gigs, but there's always hope.

Gene Yang. Yang's best-known work by far is American Born Chinese, his award-winning fantasy about growing up Asian-American, but he's an amazingly prolific creator who, in the last decade, has written and/or drawn a half-dozen graphic novels between his day job as a high-school math teacher. Particularly worthy of note are his short-story collection The Eternal Smile, drawn by Derek Kirk Kim, and his latest, Level Up, drawn by Thien Pham (another contender for this list). He's currently writing and drawing a historical graphic novel set during the Boxer Rebellion.

Yang specializes in allegorical fantasies with Shyamalan-esque plot twists and gentle if sometimes heavyhanded morals, often influenced by his devout Catholicism (one of his lesser-known projects, at least in comics circles, is a Rosary in graphic-novel form). His storytelling is clear and simple, his linework clean as a whistle. As appealing as his own art is, when he's only scripting he chooses great collaborators.

Lark Pien. For example, did you enjoy the glowing colors in American Born Chinese? Thank Lark Pien, the cartoonist, painter and architect who colored Yang's book. A careful crafter of minicomics and children's books, often featuring her signature character Long Tail Kitty, Pien has a delicate touch and a heartbreakingly adorable art style. Her color work is especially luminous. She's had gallery shows and drawn comics for top-tier anthologies like Flight and Scheherazade, but so far she has yet to produce a defining great work. Then again, Robert Crumb never did much of length until Genesis, which wasn't all that great, so maybe Pien just needs to keep producing little gems until the world notices.

In the meantime, visitors to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco can check out Pien's 2007 CAM installation piece "Small Destructions," in which she produces a comic about two furry monsters on a rampage by painting over the same set of canvases. Alternately, you can watch it here.

Gabrielle Bell. If Gabrielle Bell is remembered for nothing else, it will be for a single haunting short story, "Cecil and Jordan in New York," about a withdrawn young woman who turns into a chair. "Cecil and Jordan" was even adapted by Michael Gondry for a segment in the film Tokyo! But Bell's massive short-story output also includes her Book of… series, her semi-autobiographical collection Lucky, and a plethora of stories in Kramers Ergot, Orchid and especially Mome. Clean, direct, and stark in both story and line, Bell is the cartoonist on this list most directly influenced by the 1980s Fantagraphics school, but her particular blend of autobiography and symbolic fantasy is unique. She continues in this vein today, self-publishing her ongoing Diary series (Diary, L.A. Diary) and serializing her trademark autobio and semi-autobio stories on her website.

Derek Kirk Kim. In 2004, Derek Kirk Kim's first graphic novel, Same Difference and Other Stories, scored the Triple Crown of comics awards: a Harvey, and Ignatz and an Eisner. Over the next several years, Kim contributed short stories to Flight and Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, wrote the Minx graphic novel Good as Lily (drawn by Periscope Studio's Jesse Hamm, another Gen X great and a criminally underappreciated cartoonist) drew Gene Yang's The Eternal Smile, and serialized comics on his website, Lowbright. A glorious draftsman with a flexible but always charming style and an achingly clear line, Kim is also a witty writer whose wry, neurotic, Woody-Allen-when-he-was-still-funny persona comes through in all his comics.

From early in his career, Kim complained of finding the drawing process frustrating and difficult, and his comics output has often been slow and erratic. In the last few years he's turned his focus toward filmmaking, and has recently completed the first season of Mythomania, a web series inspired by his experiences in the indie cartooning communities of San Francisco and L.A. Fortunately, he's still making comics, writing the ongoing webcomic Tune, drawn by Les McClaine, another candidate for greatness, and dammit this column is already getting too long.

Jason Shiga. A Berkeley-educated mathematician and the mad genius of comics, Shiga is best known for interactive puzzle comics like his tab-and-line-based, head-throbbingly ingenious choose-your-own-adventure graphic novel Meanwhile. But he's also proven his chops on non-gimmick-based comics like the locked-room mystery Fleep (set entirely inside a phone booth), the '70s action-movie pastiche Bookhunter (inspired by Shiga's former day job at a library), and the cynical romcom Empire State. He's created choose-your-own-adventure Spongebob Squarepants comic strips and is the only cartoonist featured in the text-adventure-game documentary Get Lamp (although, weirdly, Charles Schulz's son Monte makes an appearance), and that's a resume shared by no other human being walking the earth.

Little is known about Shiga's current project, save that it's entitled Demon and will be by far his longest comic yet. Shiga's description, from an Unshelved interview:

The cover has Jimmy, the main character from Meanwhile. You open the book and there's Jimmy at a desk where he's writing. He's just writing and writing for eight panels. Then it looks like he's getting up, and then you see his feet moving off the ground. And you're like, "Wow, he's flying!" But then you turn the page and he's hanged himself. And you're like, "What? Jimmy!"

Kevin Huizenga. This generation of cartoonists hasn't produced a lot of formalists, but we still have Kevin Huizenga, doing low-key quasi-autobiographical comics that turn into panel-breaking deconstructions of the comics form. Another cartoonist who started in high school, Huizenga launched his career in the 1990s minicomics scene, then graduated to full-size floppies with series like Or Else and Ganges. The constant in much of his work is his suburban everyman protagonist, Glen Ganges, whose mundane adventures frequently open up into explorations of time, space, and the possibilities of the comics page. (My favorite of his comics, however, is his eerie adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu story "Green Tea.")
The announcement that Ganges #4 would be Huizenga's last direct-market comic book for the foreseeable future marked the end of an era in indie publishing; now only Adrian Tomine soldiers on. In recent years, Huizenga has published Curses, a hardcover collection of his work, and collaborated with Dan Zettwoch and Ted May on the weekly comic strip Amazing Facts and Beyond with Leon Beyond.

Chris Onstad. Is Chris Onstad's Achewood the greatest webcomic? There are many contenders, but Achewood deserves special attention for somehow being simultaneously the webcomic that is most and least representative of webcomics as a whole. From the raw materials of bad 2000s-era webcomics—unpolished cut-and-paste art, a lackadaisical update schedule, dark and surreal humor, cartoon animals saying naughty things—Onstad crafted something far more than the sum of its parts, a bizarre, brilliantly written, invariably hilarious dive into an alternate world called the Underground populated by cats, robots, and stuffed animals. Achewood is a typical webstrip in the same way that Vertigo is typical film noir. That is, it's a perfect example of the form, and classifying it as such also misses the point completely. Or, to put it another way, here's Wikipedia trying to explain an Achewood strip:

The first Achewood strip ("Philippe is standing on it"[1]) was released on October 1, 2001. The strip sets the tone for future strips with its nonsensical humor and flat visual punchline. In this particular strip, Mr. Bear and Téodor are discussing Téodor's confusion over a drum machine. Mr. Bear informs Téodor that there is an instruction manual. However, Philippe is standing on it.

Last year, after increasingly sporadic updates, Onstad announced he was taking a break from Achewood. Recently, he's quietly begun posting new strips.

Fábio Moon and Gabrial Bá. I don't have much to say about these terrifyingly gifted twins, except that their flowing brushwork is gorgeous and Daytripper was a sweet comic. More from these guys, please.

Bryan Lee O'Malley. The massive success of Bryan Lee O'Malley's blockbuster Scott Pilgrim series has so overshadowed his other work that it's easy to forget how versatile he is. His debut graphic novel, the more down-to-earth Lost at Sea, is a pensive young-adult story about a group of teenagers on a journey of self-discovery. Of course, said journey involves trying to catch the cat that one of the teenagers believes has been invested with her soul by the Devil, an early sign that O'Malley might not be your typical sad-autobio indie cartoonist. Then came Scott Pilgrim, a coming-of-age story told entirely in the language of video games, anime, alt-rock music, Canadian pop culture, and other obsessions of people who grew up in the 1980s. In Canada. He's married to the gifted Hope Larson, who has already published four graphic novels despite being too young for this list.

In his relentlessly energetic off-balance storytelling and simple but increasingly sophisticated art, O'Malley somehow hits the happy medium between American indie comics and mainstream Japanese manga, a medium that, before O'Malley, wasn't believed to exist. He's now reportedly working on Seconds, of which nothing is known except the title, which O'Malley posted on Twitter around Comic-Con season. Chances are it'll be something different all over again.

Raina Telgemeier. The stealth superstar of comics, Telgemeier is one of the bestselling and most beloved cartoonists today, thanks entirely to her popularity with the Scholastic Book Club set. Her junior-high memoir Smile and her adaptations of Ann M. Martin's Baby-sitters Club books have made her a grade-school staple and the idol of countless prepubescent readers. She and her husband, cartoonist Dave Roman (another great Gen Xer) also cowrote a Marvel comic, X-Men: Misfits. With a clean, cheerful style that recalls John Stanley—and, like Stanley's work, looks equally good in color or black and white—Telgemeier is one of the best pure children's cartoonists working today, if not the very best.

Charlie "Spike" Trotman. Although she's almost exactly my age, Spike is in spirit closer to the next generation of cartoonists, the kids born in the 1980s. She's one of the earliest major cartoonists to come out of online fan communities; tap any female cartoonist under 30, and you'll most likely find someone who spent her teenage years honing her craft on fanart or furries. After moving into the webcomics world with Sparkneedle, Blikada, and her wonderful but unfinished Girlamatic series Lucas and Odessa, Spike found an audience in 2005 with the still-ongoing Templar, Arizona, which follows a large cast of deeply eccentric characters through an alternate-universe version of Arizona just slightly off-kilter from our own.

Spike's cheerfully rude sense of humor (we're introduced to the city of Templar via a chic restaurant advertising its puppy-based dishes) is complemented by her bold, thick-lined brushwork. Her other recent work includes the Kickstarter-megafunded Poorcraft, a comic guide to frugal living created with Diana Nock. This is the future of comics, and it's a good, good place.

Johnny Ryan. Johnny Ryan abridged Blankets to a three-panel comic about piss fights. He is a national treasure.

Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.

All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010


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