This week, we’re handing out the Second Annual Comics Daily awards – one per day – between Christmas and New Year. Each award has been written up by a member of the Comics Daily team after a consensus was reached, and highlights what we feel have been the best of superhero comics this year.
Best Artist: J.H. Williams III
If there’s a major flaw in the majority of online criticism, it’s in the discussion of artists. Comics is a unique medium in which the two major creative halves (let’s not get into nitpicking over the equally significant crafts of lettering, design, colouring and so on) are entirely equal in terms of importance to the overall quality of a work. And yet if you read written reviews – or even simple message board discussion – about comics, it’s clear that the writing (whether plot, character, dialogue, basic narrative construction or anything else) is what people tend to focus on. It’s not hard to see why. Anyone can pick up a keyboard and type – and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a significant proportion of people writing about comics online are basically frustrated writers themselves. We all think we know how to write a good comic, and we think this gives us the critical faculties to discuss other peoples’ attempts. Far fewer of us, however, are artists. And when we don’t draw ourselves – or if we haven’t deeply studied the craft – then we don’t necessarily have the vocabulary with which to truly engage with comics artwork on a critical level. We can talk about whether we like something, and if we see some clever storytelling or good character work or just clearly lovely draftsmanship – but on the whole, artists will usually get done the disservice of a couple of perfunctory lines at the end of a review.
So it’s therefore incredibly telling to look up just about any piece of writing concerning the current run of Detective Comics, and find that in just about every case, it will lead off by talking about J.H. Williams’ art – with those perfunctory lines or paragraphs generally given over to Greg Rucka’s (actually pretty darned decent) story instead. (And I’m not saying, obviously, that the comics world revolves around online reviewers and forum posters, but I think they’re a pretty decent barometer of general opinion.) There have been plenty of spectacularly good artists turning in often-career-best work throughout 2009, but there’s no doubt that it’s been Williams’ year to capture the comics reading public’s collective imagination.
The spectacular work he’s turned in has been twofold in its merits – firstly, the simple matter of his figurework and style has been nothing short of phenomenal, a progression of work we’d seen before on the likes of Seven Soldiers and the “Club of Heroes” arc of Batman. His pages are simply, on their own merit, gorgeous to look at, as works of art – it’s perfectly possible to skim through an issue of Detective, drinking in the art like a fine wine without even tasting the meat of the story. But there’s something else about this work, too, that elevates it beyond many other lovely-looking books you might find. The page layout work (as seen above, click to see it big like) is generally phenomenal – it’s a different kind of storytelling from that which we tend to see in current superhero books, with action often suggestive rather than outright explicit. And it’s not as if many of the individual elements – disjointed chronology, large single images that still seem to dance chronologically from left-to-right, unique and symbolic panel shapes – have never been seen before, but the way that they’re all brought together makes it feel like something entirely new. Colorist Dave Stewart, meanwhile, deserves an enormous amount of credit for the use of a superb black-and-red colour scheme that slices through the page whenever Kate is in costume (although how much of that can be put down to stylistic edict from Williams, I’m not sure).
And then, when Williams has already been getting spectacular plaudits for the style of his work, he goes and turns in the “flashback” pages of Kate’s origin story, the book’s most recent arc. Here, the present-day scenes – using the style already seen – are intercut with scenes that use a beautiful, softer style, reminiscent of Mazzuchelli’s work on Batman: Year One. And the absolute tour de force came with last month’s issue #859, when the two styles were employed within the same panel, as the world of the Bat came crashing into Kate’s life for the first time. It’s rare that such experimental work is also so immediately accessible to the everyday reader, but when it does happen, it’s sheer delight to witness.
Runners-up: Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram: The Singles Club, SWORD, Cable), Frank Quitely (Batman & Robin), Gabriel Ba (The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, Daytripper), Jill Thompson (Beasts of Burden)
Previous winners: 2008 – Jamie McKelvie