The comics market is, paradoxically, both broad and shallow. Thanks to the mainstreaming of geek culture and the serious bank drawn in by movie adaptations of comic book properties, there has been an increase in investment in and audience for sequential art. Besides the Big Two, there are dozens of other publishers of varying sizes offering paid work of various types. Indie creators have found it even easier to disseminate work widely, thanks to online stores and webcomics. At the same time, with so many people jostling for attention, the market gets crowded.
Before long, things start to slip through the cracks. It’s sensory overload: with so many comics to choose from, how do you begin? Where’s the good stuff? Who are the best creators? It’s tempting to stick with what you know, but then you risk missing out on the really innovative, creative, and just plain fun stuff comics have to offer. Gathering creators on the scripting and art sides, from both the small and big press, we present to you the underclass: 15 underrated creators to watch in 2017.
15. RICH TOMMASO
One of the hardest-working men in comic books, Rich Tommaso is more than past due his time in the spotlight. Like the D.I.Y. indie band who have been plugging away for a decade, only to suddenly be labeled an “overnight success,” Tommaso finally started racking up some column inches with the one-two punch of his crime anthology book “Dark Corridor” and then “She-Wolf,” both for Image Comics, the latter pushing his art style (like a pulpier Dan Clowes or Charles Burns) into experimental new heights.
The second “season” of “She-Wolf” began at the start of this year, moving the action from lycanthrope devil-botherer Gabrielle to her younger sister, Lizzie. The new storyline, “Black Baptism,” pushes further into esoteric occult territory, with Tommaso pulling not only on trashy horror cinema and the historical Satanic panic of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but also stranger parts of genre fiction. The plotting is pacy and the dialogue knowingly overwrought, but the real strength of the series, and of Tommaso generally, is his stylized, watercolor artwork.
14. JULIA GFRÖER
There are horror movies, the sort you see with a crowd on a Friday night where you cower behind your fingers and hope the teens avoid the masked slasher, and then there are horror movies like Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession,” which forgo cathartic ghost-ride narratives and instead plumb the genuinely dark, aberrant parts of the human psyche. If stuff like “Nailbiter” is the comics equivalent of the former, then Julia Gfrörer is the latter.
Working with an unhurried, freehand .03 ink pen, an encyclopedic knowledge of occult history and a realist’s view on human relationships, Gfrörer has self-published a number of brilliant, disturbing and often pretty funny short comics that have explored Roman gladiatorial arenas, devil worship, and an erotic retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Last year saw the release of her typically unsparing, grim Black Plague graphic novel “Laid to Waste,” and in 2017 she will co-edit and feature in horror anthology “Mirror, Mirror 2” (along with Clive Barker!) for 2D Cloud.
13. KELLY THOMPSON
Who on Earth would take on the challenge of following a flawless run on a comic series by Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez, which itself was following a flawless run by Matt Fraction, David Aja and Annie Wu? The fearless Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero, that’s who. The current “Hawkeye” creative team have settled their sights on Kate Bishop, rather than Clint Barton, in a breezy private eye narrative that picks up where the characterization in previous series and “Young Avengers” left off.
Romero’s style was a brilliant fit following Aja, Wu and Perez, but Thompson’s irreverent, politically switched-on writing stands out a mile from the quippy bathos of Fraction and the epic sweeps of Lemire. Having cut her teeth on collaborations with Kelly Sue Deconnick and G. Willow Wilson on “Captain Marvel” and “A-Force,” respectively, Thompson’s current Marvel work is entirely her own and entirely brilliant. Here’s hoping she might re-team with her “Jem and the Holograms” artist Sophie Campbell sometime this year, too.
12. FAITH ERIN HICKS
If Rich Tommaso is the hardest working man in comics, then Faith Erin Hicks is his female counterpart. Readers have been able to follow Hicks’s evolution, from talented but untrained webcomic artist on “Demonology 101” (which she wrote and drew while working a day job as an animator on “George of the Jungle”) through her breakout First Second graphic novel “Friends with Boys” and to her current project, the epic and exciting “Nameless City.”
Paired with superstar colorist Jordie Bellaire, the first volume of “Nameless City” was a showcase for both Hicks’s pacy, pulse-raising and manga-indebted action sequences and her grasp of character drama. She’s relatively well known to some, thanks in part to scripting and illustrating the a “Last of Us” spinoff comic, but hopefully 2017 is the year she is given the credit she deserves. With the second volume of “Nameless City,” “The Stone Heart,” out in April, and the series just optioned for an adaptation by the makers of “Adventure Time,” there’s a good chance she might.
11. LESLIE HUNG
Following the career-making “Scott Pilgrim” and the award-winning “Seconds,” fans are crying out for more Bryan Lee O’Malley. While he preps his next book, however, the Canadian cartoonist — recently transplanted to Los Angeles — has been solely on writing duties for “Snotgirl,” a dark, satirical take on beauty bloggers and the fashion industry published by Image. His co-conspirator on this series, which simultaneously nods to Ai Yazawa and Naoki Urasawa, is California native Leslie Hung in her serialized comic book debut. You couldn’t ask for a better coming out party.
The writing features a lot of O’Malley’s recognizable foibles, skewering hipster solipsism and lingo with withering caption box asides, but it would have been a very different book had he drawn it. Hung’s art, beautifully ink brushed and vividly colored, is full of willowy proportions, over-the-top reactions and gorgeous people. She is one of the few working comic artists to actually dress her characters stylishly, even when they’re covered in snot. Or blood. Regardless of the situation or the bodily fluid, she nails it, every time.
10. CECIL CASTELLUCCI
DC’s “Young Animal” imprint may be the brainchild of musician and “Umbrella Academy” creator Gerard Way, but the stand-out talent in that line’s roster is not one the former My Chemical Romance frontman wrote. His bizarre, brilliant takes on “Doom Patrol” and “Cave Carson” aside, “Shade The Changing Girl” is the undoubted highlight of the line’s output so far. Credit to Cecil Castellucci, novelist and comic writer extraordinaire for paying homage to the classic Vertigo series and penning the weirdest teen soap opera this side of “Riverdale.”
Castellucci’s lyrical, psychedelic take on the character — and on the fraught psyches of adolescents — looks to continue through 2017, but that’s not the only iron she’s got in the fire. Also due for release in the next 12 months is “Soupy Leaves Home,” a graphic novel about boxcar drifters with artist Jose Pimienta, and decade-spanning cosmic “Fresh Romance” one-shot “The Only One” with the brilliant Irene Koh, both of which should show off her empathetic knack for human psychology.
9. MARLEY ZARCONE
The other key figure behind the success of “Shade The Changing Girl” is, of course, artist Marley Zarcone. The revived book certainly relies to some degree, narratively and otherwise, the iconic run on “Shade the Changing Man” by Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo in the early ‘90s. As Castellucci forgoes adhering to the plot beats of the original, Zacrone doesn’t even attempt to recreate either the style or any of the stand-out images Bachalo drew, and is all the better for it.
The Canadian artist used to share a studio with countrymen Brandon Graham, James Stokoe and Corey Lewis, and it’s easy to see the cross-contamination in the group’s respective art style. In “Shade,” owing to the source material, there’s a lot of Ditko-indebted psychedelia to Zarcone’s art, while the long-limbed teens and thin lines are reminiscent of shoujo manga (the manga genre “Sailor Moon” is a part of) and “Gorillaz” artist Jamie Hewlett. Unlike other artists working in a similar style, however, there’s never any confusion of what’s going on with a Marley Zarcone page. Unless you’re supposed to be confused, anyway.
8. MARIKO TAMAKI
Not only did 2014’s “This One Summer” win two of the most prestigious awards in comics — an Eisner and an Ignatz — it also secured gongs from the mainstream literary establishment, earning a Michael L. Printz Award for “best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit” and a Caldecott Medal for “most distinguished American picture book for children.” Cousins Mario and Jillian Tamaki collaborated on the book, but have since gone off in two very different directions.
Jillian returned to indie books like “SuperMutant Magic Academy,” while Mariko has broken through to the comics mainstream. Her “Tomb Raider II” series, with artist Phillip Sevy, for Dark Horse managed to retain some of her skill for character, conflict and dialogue in a much more epic, traditional action-adventure narrative. Hopefully she can keep that up and get more recognition as a result, for both her Jennifer Walters-starring relaunched “Hulk” (with artist Nico Leon) and “Supergirl: Being Super” (with Joëlle Jones!).
7. JOE QUINONES
Sadly, his time on “Howard the Duck” with Chip Zdarsky has come to an end, but it’s encouraging to see artist Joe Quinones locked into another regular gig so quickly. Once again with Marvel, he has teamed with feted Y.A. author Gabby Rivera on the long-awaited America Chavez solo book, titled simply “America.” On the basis of the first couple of issues, the “Young Avengers” breakout star is a perfect fit for Quinones’s refreshingly bold, solid and distinctive style of superhero cartooning.
“Howard the Duck” allowed him to be a little more broad, with the rubber-faced expressions of his characters comparable to the inimitable Kevin Maguire. Besides proving his worth as a master stager of comic dialogue on that series, and with a plethora of brilliantly-composed cover work under his belt for both Marvel and DC, “America” has allowed the artist to spread his wings a little when it comes to full-bore superhero wrasslin’, his action scenes having a similar clarity and dynamism as the rest of the clear-lined work in his portfolio.
6. CHYNNA CLUGSTON FLORES
Before there was “Scott Pilgrim,” there was “Blue Monday.” That’s not to disparage Bryan Lee O’Malley’s stellar series of one dork’s journey towards emotional maturity, featuring video games; O’Malley himself has acknowledged the influence Chynna Clugston’s Flores’s Oni Press series was an influence on his own attempt to harness the broad brush of indie rock into sequential art. Inspired heavily by John Hughes films, Britpop and “Quadrophenia,” “Blue Monday” followed the romantic ups and downs of a group of American high schoolers.
Following the fourth miniseries, “Painted Moon,” Flores took an extended hiatus from the spotlight, ostensibly to finish up the scripts for its follow up, “Thieves Like Us.” 2017 is the year when said follow up is slated to, at last, be released. It will be accompanied by a re-release of every previous “Blue Monday” story in a collection called “Germfree Adolescents,” so, really, there couldn’t be a better time to get into Flores’s work.
5. EVAN “DOC” SHANER
Jeff Parker and Evan “Doc” Shaner have taken on some of the most thankless tasks in comic books. In 2015, Dynamite tasked them with creating a new “Flash Gordon” series which managed to dispel the camp reputation the character was lumbered with by the ‘80s film adaptation, honored the original newspaper strips and movie serials, and also be accessible to newbies. They managed to pull it off and are currently undertaking a similar feat with DC’s “Future Quest,” where they dismiss decades of ironic takes on Hanna-Barbera’s classic adventure characters from Adult Swim series like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast.”
His writing partner has a light, breezy and fun scripting style which makes it easy to get back on board with a non-attorney Harvey Birdman, but Shaner just edges ahead in the underrated genius stakes. A student of classic comic book illustration, Shaner draws square-jawed heroes with a simple, clean line akin to that of classic DC artists (or, to the similarly-influenced and dearly missed Darwyn Cooke). It’s a style out of step with a lot of modern superhero books, which makes it all the more important to cherish.
4. HOPE LARSON
A big-screen adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” is currently in production, due to hit cinemas sometime in 2018. If you can’t wait that long, there’s already a top-notch visual translation of the book you can pick up right now. Just glance over at that neighboring section in Borders, and there’s beautiful, lucid comic book adaptation, published in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who also put out last year’s “Compass South.”
That was the fifth full-length graphic novel, written and drawn by Larson, in as many years. At the same time, she’s taken on the unenviable task of following up the fan-favorite “Batgirl of Burnside” series with her own take on Barbara Gordon, writing a globe-trotting series for DC with artist Rafael Albuquerque. Sheer volume of output doesn’t necessarily denote quality — else Uwe Boll would be the greatest filmmaker since Fellini — but Larson’s work ethic is matched only by the dreamy, nostalgic quality of her writing and heavily-inked art.
3. RAMON VILLALOBOS
The most common comparison made with regards to the art of Ramon Villalobos is Frank Quitely, and there’s certainly some of the reclusive Scottish penciller — and the work of other look-a-likes, like Chris Burnham — to the chunky, detailed-but-no-less-direct style the young American artist works in. Quietly would probably never think to throw a pair of Yeezy Boosts on Dazzler, or pen a series of illustrations of costumed heroes demonstrating classic wrestling moves.
The stellar work he shares on his blog aside, Villalobos has started to pick up some steady work as both a cover artist (including one for the novel “Memoirs of a Crimefighter”) and interiors, beginning with the fantastic “What if…? Age of Ultron” #2 with Joe Keatinge and a “Young Avengers” story with Ryan North. Last year, his self-consciously “ugly” style and stellar fight choreography was the main draw of the hyper-relevant, hyper-violent “Nighthawk” series, and we can’t wait to see what he’s got for us in 2017.
2. AL EWING
The mainstream American comics industry isn’t exactly lacking for witty, intelligent British writers who worked they way up through the indie circuit and “2000 A.D.,” but Al Ewing has a particular approach to scripting which stands head and shoulders above his peers. Clearly raised on a diet of classic, Kirby Marvel super-science, but with a healthy dose of cynicism and progressive politics from a garnish of “Judge Dredd” and the like, Ewing has been quietly but confidently putting out interesting work for Marvel for a few years now.
Whether he’s writing the gloriously intelligent, rollicking meta-narrative of “Loki: Agent of Asgard” or smartphone game tie-in “Contest of Champions,” Ewing is capable of deep dives from the 616’s storied history, genuinely laugh-out-loud humor, pathos, and a satirical touch that manages not to be at odds with his reverence for Marvel past. “U.S.Avengers,” his latest spin on the team book concept with Paco Medina, skews closest to straight-up parody he’s gotten since “Zombo,” and it’s a blast.
1. JAMES STOKOE
Being a comic book fan of any kind of consistency, you learn to have some understanding of how illustration works. Even if you couldn’t replicate the art you look at, you can at least somewhat puzzle out how it got put together. As with Geoff Darrow and Frank Quitely before him, how James Stokoe produces his work is completely inexplicable. It’s impossible to figure out. He’s simply a genius, one of those natural visionaries who has bolstered his gifts with some solid, diligent hard graft.
Stokoe’s work, amazingly detailed and dense in a similar manner to Darrow but with a personality and sense of cartoonish mischief which is all his own, has so far mainly flown beneath the radar. Owing to the time it takes to produce work of that quality, his “Orc Stain” series has an erratic release schedule, and any more mainstream work has been confined to one-shots like his brilliant “Avengers 100th Anniversary Special” for Marvel or “Godzilla in Hell.” 2017 could change all that, with his forthcoming “Aliens: Dead Orbit” book for Dark Horse.
Are there any other underrated comics writers who you feel need to have a spotlight shone on them? Let us know who in the comments!