Carla Speed McNeil

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

McNeil’s career is almost entirely defined by a single work: Finder. Since 1996, Finder has been self-published, become a webcomic, and been printed in great, thick library editions by Dark Horse. It’s excellent science fiction, picking at ideas of gender and class that big-budget sci-fi has always been afraid of. And despite its density of world-building, it’s a rollicking tale with action, romance, and humor. But what I really love is McNeil’s lettering.

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From Finder: Talisman

From placement to texture to size and shape, McNeil is constantly flexing muscles that other cartoonists are willing to let lay unexercised.

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Walt Simonson

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

For all my indie comic navel-gazing, I still love a well-told superhero story: if someone (and it’s usually just a single someone, not a team) can take their time to tell me about hope, power, responsibility, and morality writ large without resorting to a physical fight or a fist-clenching theater of self-destruction, I’m there. And hey, that’s Walt Simonson.

Coming out of a studio that he shared with Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller, Simonson seems somehow free of the bombast that accompanies the other two. He seems to revel in a tale well-told; he pulls the trigger on plots instead of holding mysteries and plot twists over readers’ heads.

Compared to most mainstream American superhero books, Simonson’s work is almost strangely seamless. He doesn’t seem like an artist who’s trying to write or a writer who’s learning to draw; he’s a storyteller, and the pacing of the art, placement of the dialogue (often with cohort John Workman), and structure of the plot are all inextricable from each other. For an example of this, see Orion‘s 5 x 5 mythic structure (somewhat hindered by the way it’s printed in the omnibus) and Thor‘s self-contained meandering as a hero learns of himself.

And I’ll forever be impressed by his bold (in superhero comics) adoption of shapes and vectors, realism be damned. If the Image Comics founders had stolen Simonson’s storytelling chops along with his “lots of lines” approach, the ’90s would’ve been a lot different.* His work stealthily prepared my brain for more abstract work, such as Margot Ferrick’s Sec (see below).

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Walt Simonson, from Orion #8.

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From Margot Ferrick’s Sec.

* No offense meant to the Image founders. Thanks to Sarah Horrocks, I’m a fervent Rob Liefeld apologist.

Seth Fisher

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I think I first found Fischer’s work in an issue of Doom Patrol (2001 series) that I bought for $0.50 from a bin in Shinders. I was instantly entranced. I spotted the maybe-influences of Mike Allred, Moebius, and Katsuhiro Otomo, but there was a gonzo sensibility that made it stand out all on its own.

I found some older works of his, standalone graphic novels or the “Prestige” formats from DC that represented a sort of ghetto for artists who were too slow for monthly work or otherwise occupied.

Then it seemed like Fisher’s star was rising. There was a five-part Batman story with the famed JH Williams III. He got a Spider-Man short and a Fantastic Four/Iron Man series. I had stars in my eyes as I imagined him using these mainstream works as a basis for taking off on his own, publishing a creator-owned series or art book or video game.

But it never happened. Fisher died suddenly in 2006, leaving behind a small collection of bright, intricate, and strange comics.

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In heaven, you get to see all of Fisher’s work without the lettering pasted over it.

Jillian Tamaki

[Originally collected as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I don’t know that I can say anything about Tamaki that hasn’t said better by others. Her rhythm is perfect, her characters are emotive, her approach is flexible, and, well, she’s really really good. Read all about it:

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George Herriman

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

It seems like there’s recently been a large and important uptick in comics that intentionally and forcefully reject the idea of narrative. See, for instance, Kim Jooha’s blog or the “surreal” section of CBLOM (a section heading that I’m not entirely happy with). Non-narrative comics—comics as abstraction, as poetry, as mix tape, and more—make great strides in breaking down the ghetto of comics as a home for genre fiction and memoir.

George Herriman was an early pioneer in tossing narrative verisimilitude out the window. Krazy and Ignatz literally grew out of a previous strip, moving from the basement of a sitcom house into a strip of their own. Editors initially deemed it as unfit for comics sections, so editor William Randolph Hearst put it in his Art & Drama section, giving Herriman a lifetime contract.

It’s a tale as old as time: nonbinary Krazy, a cat, is in love with Ignatz, a mouse. Ignatz seeks to bean Krazy with a brick, which Krazy reads as a “missile of affection.” Ofissa Bull Pupp, a police dog, wants to keep Krazy safe, perhaps out of duty or perhaps out of love.

Across almost 30 years of shifting formats and shapes, the strip iterated around these three like a jazz ballet, developing the mythological symbolism of Coconino County and its dozens of inhabitants. From panel to panel, backgrounds shifted and switched: night became day, urbanity turns to desert, and sun shifts to moon shaped like a dollop of ice cream. Nonsequiter panels sat obstinately in the center of Sunday spreads, and characters spoke in thick regionalisms (maybe descended from Herriman’s Creole heritage); it’s almost as though Krazy Kat defied readability, aiming instead for a state of graceful rhythm.

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Cathy G Johnson

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Johnson’s smeary graphite comics echo with the act of recall, with an attempt to see a thing despite intervening time, emotion, and means. Gorgeous, her (I think) longest work to date, seems to set up a typical white punk’s coming-of-age story before swerving, figuratively and literally, into a heart-breaking examination of privilege and future-making. It’s a delicate, concise story about youth and an important step away from self-important dude comics.

Johnson’s not just a cartoonist, though; she’s also an educator. Check out Drawing a Dialogue, a podcast she cohosts that is “scholarship-driven and student-centered, discussing comics as an artistic medium and educational tool.”

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Stan Sakai

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Sakai’s been making Usagi Yojimbo on a near-monthly basis since 1984. I’ve read them all, and it remains one of my favorite long-form comic narrative. Usagi is a Medieval Japanese samurai story with the occasional fantasy element. Sakai does heavy research to accurately portray everyday life, from how soy sauce gets made to what ceremonies people perform. It’s also a rollicking adventure, an reiterative travel story, and a slow-burn cultural apocalypse. Oh, and everyone’s an anthropomorphic animal.

But what’s most impressive is Sakai’s consistent clarity. It’s always perfectly clear what’s happening in a panel, but it’s in no way plain; his inks are textured and emotive, and his characters have layers that emerge naturally and slowly. It’s been amazing to see his skill develop across over 200 issues, and I’m always excited when a new single issue rolls in.

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From Usage Yojimbo #150.