Home Comics Art Whatever happened to the superstar artist?

Whatever happened to the superstar artist?


At iFanboy, Josh Flanagan brings up an issue that we often mention at BarCon:Are There Any Superstar Comic Artists Left?:

If this were ten years ago, the question would be easy. If it were twenty years ago, it would be even easier. But today? It’s tougher.

The first few names that come to mind are guys like Bryan Hitch or Steve McNiven. Those guys move units, but they’re not super huge in the marketplace anymore. John Cassaday has been away for too long, and sometimes I wonder if he’s devalued his work to a certain extent doing only covers for the last chunk of years. DC already tried to make a big deal of bringing David Finch over to do Batman, and that resulted in a Batman book that only David Finch fans buy. Anyone else even close is already working with Mark Millar.

It may be hard for you kidlings to believe, but starting with, probably Neal Adams, there were many artists who were so popular and groundbreaking that a) artists everywhere began drawing just like them and b) their names on a book meant instant sales. Frank Miller. John Byrne. George Perez. Bill Sienkiewicz. Art Adams. And, yes, Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, followed by such folks as Joe Madureira and J. Scott Campbell. Image Comics was formed when the superstars of the moment jumped ship. Perhaps it was the rise of creator-owned comics which meant that a talent such as, say Mike Mignola, would concentrate on his own creations. Bryan Hitch popularized the “Wide Screen look” but today’s homogenized house styles—and the rise of studios and agents in South America and Europe—have made it a lot harder for a signature talent to arise and totally dominate.

There’s another idea lurking around out there: the companies don’t really want the talent to get bigger than the characters. In their most recent comments on this month’s sales charts, DC’s Bob Wayne and John Cunningham are asked about reboots vs creations:

In defending the Before Watchmen project Dan Didio expressed the traditional view of the mainstream comic book industry saying that the industry’s strength lies in “building on other people’s legacies, enhancing them and making them stronger.”  How does this view square with the 21st Century comics industry when we are seeing the benefits of creator owned and controlled projects like Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead?

Bob Wayne:  I think you are blurring the passion that the writers and artist have when they are working on a property as not being creative unless they have an ownership stake in the property.  I think there is room for both models in our publishing plan, and certainly in comics overall. I don’t think one of them excludes the other from being successful.  I don’t think that the success of The Walking Dead means that Fables doesn’t work or vice versa.  They are just different ways for publishing companies, artists, writers, and creators to work together to maximize each property, and there’s no one way, no one-size-fits-all to do it.
John Cunningham:  I think that there is a tendency in the way the world works now to try to view everything as an “either or.”  It’s either this way or it’s that way.  I just don’t think that the world works in an “either or” fashion, and I certainly don’t think that this particular question functions in an “either or” fashion.  I think you see that great talent will be creative no matter what their environment.  As long as it speaks to their passion, and I think that you see that in creators all over the place whether they are doing books that they own, or they’re doing books as work for hire.  If you are a talented artist or writer and you bring that passion to the work, it’s going to shine through.

Wayne’s use of FABLES is ironic since it was begun under a more liberal “creator participation” model than is now offered. In an industry where “building on other people’s legacies, enhancing them and making them stronger” is seen as a job description, there isn’t as much incentive to become a game changer. At any rate, it’s also an example of who really matters at Marvel and DC these days: the writer is the guy who sells the book.

Finally, the Internet has also given consumers/readers much more to choose from. There are people out there who think Randall Munroe is a superstar artist.


  1. Randall Munroe *is* a superstar artist. I can’t think of any paradigm where he wouldn’t be.

    So is Penny Arcade’s artist, Mike Krahulik. There are a million Penny Arcade knock offs and they have their own convention that rivals SDCC.

    I’d definitely include some other webcomic people in that list, too.

    I had a conversation at a wedding over the weekend with a music guy and we were talking about how the web has changed both comics and music so an artist no longer needs a big company to spend money for production. He was really into the analogy and going on about how, when he was a kid, he would buy comics at a store but now his kids go online and read their favorites.

    We were talking about how there are no longer books made by Marvel or DC where the creators are taking huge risks and doing new things. Everything’s just very homogenized and bland.

    It was interesting to me how even non-readers think of comics as something you go find on-line rather than books you purchase.

  2. You guys left of Rob Liefeld who was a MAOR superstar in the same era that Toddy mac & Jim Lee were both moving millions of units for pre-Disney Marvel.

    Additionaly Whilce, Silvestri & Larsen moved monster sales in the same time frame.

    Joe Madureira did the work on X-men & garnered the sales to be in the list. Jeff Campbell drew a total of about 16 comic books when HOT (’95-’99) but was nevr close to the output of studio-head Jim Lee nor primary competitors: Michael Turner & Joe Mad.

  3. I think back in the old days, it was easier to recognize the impact of an Adams, a Kirby, a John Byrne, etc. because the general level of art quality was more mediocre and the production values of comics were such crap. These days, with digital coloring, Poser, photo-reference, better reproduction and paper quality, and a general level of Art Institute-level competence across most of the Big 2 titles, the value of an outstanding penciller means relatively less in the grand scheme of things. Back in the day, someone like Rags Morales or Ivan Reis (both fine artists who clearly know how to lay out an interesting page) would have been a revelation. Today they’re two of the millions who can draw pretty pictures of people in costume. When it’s harder to stand out from the crowd, there are fewer superstars.

    Also, as lots of other people are saying, artists with the vision and style to really turn heads are doing their own thing, not taking paychecks from the Big 2.

  4. How many “superstar” artists were only artists? Most that you mention, they also write/wrote the comics.

    Has style disappeared? Has the influx of talent caused the average to rise, so that someone spectacular has to be really spectacular? And is the only way to achieve that via webcomics or creator-owned material?

    Munroe is a superstar. When he can place a secret code in the strip, and have hundreds of people show up to a park, that’s amazing.

    (And I think Jim Steranko might be the one who started the whole shebang. But he didn’t last long enough, or didn’t exploit his fame, to become a Big Name.)

  5. If you want an honest answer, go to about five conventions at five different parts of the year in five different parts of the country. Look at where the long lines are: Tony Moore, George Perez, Greg Capullo because of his recent Batman stuff. Etc. That’s your superstar artist. All the rest is just idle speculation.

  6. Most of the superstar writer/artists (Liefeld, McFarlane,Lee, even Miller,Byrne and Perez) were exclusively artists before they became writer/artists. And they were superstars even then, which is why they were given the chance to write as well.

    Another reason why I think there aren’t as many superstar artists today as there were in past is the fact that it’s rare that artists today put out enough consecutive issues of any one comic book to gain a superstar following. You hardly have three issues of any series before another artist comes in to help the main artist out.

  7. There’s Howard Chaykin and Sergio Argones, who will always have an audience, but I agree the superstars have largely been replaced with smaller (but still very skilled) stars like Brandon Graham, James Stokoe, Leonardo Manco, and Frank Quitely.

  8. I’d say Dan Clowes is a superstar in my book. Jamie Hernandez stands the test of time. Robert Crumb is still breathing, these are the names that will be remembered years from now along with Wood, Kirby, Ditko, Wolverton, Kurtzman, Elder, Eisner, Toth, et al.

    There are fads and there are hacks, and sometimes people become popular for the strangest of reasons. And yes, thankfully we don’t have Wizard magazine to tell the impressionable what to like anymore.

  9. I think every generation has its Superstar artists, the difference now in my opinion is that because of computerized tools, the work looks more homogeneous. As someone said, with the use of Poser and photo reference, plus Photoshop plugins and so on, there is less variation in mainstream comic art.

  10. “Randall Munroe *is* a superstar artist. I can’t think of any paradigm where he wouldn’t be.”

    Randall Munroe draws stick figures. He is not a superstar artist. He’s barely an artist at all. If you want to argue he’s a superstar writer, or MAYBE superstar cartoonist, go ahead, but he is not by any means a superstar artist.

  11. What is the deal with Fables anyway? Does WIllingham actually want it to be a franchise or does he not have a say in the matter? Comparing it with Walking Dead makes me wonder, at least.

  12. A young upcoming “Superstar” artist today wouldn’t make nearly as much money working on high profile comic books as they did in the 80s and 90s height of superstar artists. Now In these young artists formative years of early drawings and self published books on their way to portfolio reviews they get plucked by video game companies and 3d animated movie studios as production artists. You get a shot at health insurance and a steady paycheck. But you don’t have nearly as much time to work on drawing buff superheroes and so fewer potential superstar artists make it into the mainstream. And there’s often more steady money in 3D work, so a lot of them move to that. Just go to an artist alley at a comic show in the bay area and ask them what their day jobs are. It’s a who’s who of production companies.

    Why take a shot at working freelance for Marvel or DC for years just to build your rep and then get spit out by the freelance system with no ownership and nothing but your name to show for it. You’ll just be a casual mention on a comic book blog when you need money for some surgery and everyone has to contribute.

    Except for the few big names listed above I have seen most of these guys at conventions doing signings with no one at their tables. Who wants to be 50 signing a book they did for marvel 30 years earlier? At conventions you’re going to see more people like Phil Foglio or Steam Crow who have strong niche followings and own all of the rights to their work. Maybe they’ll never be a household name like Jim Lee but with proper planning they’ll be reaping the benefits of a lifetime of producing comic books when they’re well into their sixties because they own everything they ever produced.

    The machine that created the superstar artist no longer exists and so while some people still go to portfolio review at SDCC and hope to be “discovered”, a smarter move would be just to get a good creative related day job and self publish. Marvel and DC will never have a shortage of artists who want to draw Spiderman or Batman so they don’t need the superstar artists. They can find up and coming artists and when their page rate gets to high, just go onto the next up and coming artist.

  13. @tekende

    I think you’re giving Munroe the short end of the stick regarding his drawing ability. Yes, he draws stick figures, but he conveys an awful lot with those figures. He has more copycats out there than Neal Adams ever did. And xkcd.com is one of the most visited sites on the planet.

    I can understand where people would be resistent to giving him his due based on a cursory reading of his work, but dude’s got story telling skills for days.

  14. I have to agree with Tekende. I love xkcd, but I consider that a more cerebral strip and the stick figure art is just a means for Munroe to get his point across without having to use an outside artist. His strip might be influential, his thoughts and ideas at sharp, but his art is not the thing that brings people in and keeps them there. Therefore, he’s not a “Superstar artist” in my opinion.

  15. @PRM
    “Now In these young artists formative years of early drawings and self published books on their way to portfolio reviews they get plucked by video game companies and 3d animated movie studios as production artists. You get a shot at health insurance and a steady paycheck. But you don’t have nearly as much time to work on drawing buff superheroes and so fewer potential superstar artists make it into the mainstream.”

    I think it’s interesting that you define a young artist going mainstream by whether they eventually break into comics.

    I guarantee that the guys working at Bungie and Blizzard have had more people admire their art than even superstar comics artists like Bryan Hitch can claim. And more people in their 20s and younger could probably tell you who Sam “Samwise” Didier is than Hitch or any other currently working comic artist.

    Young artists are not slumming it working for video game and movie companies until they can break into comics. Young artists are setting their sights on the video game and movie industries before they even get to high school. A career as a comic book artists isn’t even on the radar.

  16. @PRM – Yeah, I think you nailed it. I’ve lost two artists to the Game industry and two to animation studios in Canada. There are easier ways for talented artists to make money now.

    I also think the aforementioned homogenization is due to keeping a lot of artists from standing out. When I look at samples sent to me from artists around the globe (many of them superb draftsmen) time and time again I see what looks like knockoffs of Bryan Hitch, Rags Morales and Ed Benes. All very capable artists, but when everyone is turning out similar stuff, nothing really stands out. A great example of this is the initial artist on Birds of Prey Jesus Saiz. Fantastic art, but it didn’t really get tongues wagging did it? On two of the biggest comic podcasts, I don’t recall his name ever being mentioned.

    I think we are mostly looking at one of those perfect storm scenarios.
    No Wizard Magazine
    Outside competition (Indys, Games and Animation)
    Shrinking fan base for Superstar artists

  17. Lots of great comments here, especially the idea of short runs for creators, talent raising across the board, and the lack of OMG outlets like Wizard.

    I wonder if the larger publishers themselves may be contributing to this directly. The superstar names of the 90s, 80s, and 70s all gave their share of headaches, right or wrong. I wonder if non-disclosure agreements make things more difficult for individuals to really push their ideologies, as opposed to the inane inundation that the online social networking offers. Marvel cracking down on their properties used in convention sketches sounds to me like it may make awkward moments between direct meetings of fans and pros as well.

  18. @Ryan H

    Good points. Blizzard seems to be the home to the superstars.

    @Everyone who isn’t feeling Muroe

    OK. We differ on opinions. Thanks for your discussion, though.

  19. @Ryan H
    I meant Mainstream comics vs. indie or self publishing your own comics, Video Games and Movies are definitely mainstream entertainment. They’re Multi-billion dollar industries that give comic books away as freebies to promote their products.

  20. I think the idea that the companies don’t want superstars is a little off. They have been promoting superstar writers rather than artists.

    We have Bendis, Johns, Brubaker, and Morrison.

    We are just in the era of the superstar writer.

    Then we even have our non-corporate superstar Kirkman.

  21. The real question isn’t what happened to superstar artists. It’s why anyone would read the vile mass-marketed dreck Marvel and DC pump out these days! That’s akin to eating a Happy Meal every week and then complaining that there aren’t any great chefs anymore.

  22. Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez are superstar artists, at least among art collectors. Their work consistently sells for a high price at Heritage Auctions.

    In the world of comic strips, there are many superstars.

    Jon J. Muth is one comic book artist who became a superstar when he started making picture books. Raina Telgemeier is a superstar. As is Kazu Kibuishi. As is Shaun Tan.

    In comics, the most recent example is Bryan Lee O’Malley.

    Can a talented artist produce on a monthly schedule the high-quality art needed to garner attention today? Can they feed the machine every month? Or is the 28-day comic a bigger challenge than a 24-hour comic?

    Is there so much excellent product out there that it is hard to be noticed? There are many titles and series with strong fan followings, but nothing which could be considered gangbusters.

    Most call them “artists”, but they’re really “illustrators”. (Except for someone specializing in covers, and even then…) If they do words and pictures, they’re “cartoonists”.

    As for the argument regarding style and abstraction, I’ll let others debate. But consider this:

  23. Part of the decline of the superstar artists, mostly in superhero books, is 2 fold. Artists that can’t produce issues on a month to month basis and (big 2) companies not wanting to elevate talent over property.

    We’re in the superstar writer era but, like it is in music with the superstar producer, that seems to be in a bit of a decline.

    Superstar writers become more ingrained in the company as decision makers. ( Think Geoff Johns and Brian Bendis)

    Others remain “on call” but also work in other areas. (Think Morrison, Waid, Ellis, Ennis, Brubaker)

    Big 2 companies won’t promote creators unless they do big projects for them that see a return on their investment.

    Note that Amanda Conner, great artist, will have a hardcover collection of her work put out by DC. Funny how that happens, not after her celebrated ( though low selling) run on Power Girl but after she commits to 2 of the Before Watchmen books.

    If anything, the industry will see more attention paid to superstar creative teams and “indie” creators. Some examples already exist of both. (Think Morrison and Quietly for teams; Kirkman and Millar for “indies”)

  24. There are still comic book artists from the 90s who still get love, like Dale Keown, Gary Frank, and Ed McGuinness. Keown, in particular, was a highly-regarded Incredible Hulk artist who went on to do his own creator-owned book PITT and The Darkness for Top Cow. He flits in and out at Marvel, mainly doing more covers than anything. Gary Frank has firmly planted his roots at DC, but only after firmly establishing himself at Marvel. as for Ed McGuinness, he’s done some fine work at DC and Marvel. Oh, and let me not forget the great Alan Davis. He’s done some fine work at DC but the greater bulk of his output has been for Marvel since the 1980s. I generally look for trade paperbacks which feature the works of these and other favorite artists.

    I also love illustration and production art from movies, videogames, illustrated books, book covers, product covers, and art books. There is outstanding artwork in many different eras and genres I greatly enjoy. Much of it inspires me to create my own art. There will always be those who will rise to superstar status in the different areas of art and illustration, but there are also many more artists who are overlooked but no less talented. The areas of art and illustration are as diverse as their creators, and that’s as it should be.

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