Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eighties August 8 part VI: Best Artists Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (

It's the sixth installment of Eighties August 8. After listing the best writers of the 1980s, how could we not do the same for the eight best pencillers and inkers of the decade*. Bear in mind, I'm a writer not an art critic. So, the following won't include any knowledgeable comments on technique, style and form. Basically, it's a long winded way of saying "Oh look, pretty pictures!"

8) - Sal Buscema (Incredible Hulk, Rom, Spider-Man et al)

If you were to pick any title Marvel published in the late 60s, 70s, 80s and even through most of the 90s, chances are pretty decent at least one issue was produced by Sal Buscema (Brooklyn, 1936). His bibliography is basically a list of everything Marvel ever put out. Among his 1980s highlights are lengthy runs on Rom (issues 1 through 58, minus one fill in) and Incredible Hulk. Sal was the jolly green giant's principle artist for an astonishing 16 years, starting in 1970, both pencilling and inking the title until 1986. And oh yeah, he missed 6 issues along the way. Damn slacker.

After leaving Hulk alone in 1986, Sal soon moved to Spectacular Spider-Man, again pulling double duty as penciller and inker from January 1988's #134 all the way to September 1996's #238. He left right in the middle of the Clone Saga which, if nothing else, proves the man has impeccable timing.

Sal's work was instinctly recognizable, clear and he could draw freakishly looking monsters just as easily as he could portray tender character moments.  Yet, he never became quite as popular as his older brother, the late great John Buscema. Still, Sal's dedication to his craft and chosen profession remain both awe inspiring and humbling.

7) - Paul Ryan (Squadron Supreme, D.P.7, Quasar)

It's hard to make simple look easy.

One of the complaints most often heard about Paul Ryan's art style, is that it looks too simple, too comic-y... If you can believe such a ridiculous statement. Ryan's clear, crisp and well defined style made him a shoe-in for the medium and allowed him to work continuously from the mid-1980s on.

He first partnered with writer Mark Gruenwald on the final issues of the 1985-1986 Squadron Supreme limited series. The two of them obviously hit it off, seeing as they paired off to do the thoroughly enjoyable D.P.7, part of the short lived New Universe line envisioned by editor in chief Jim Shooter to celebrate Marvel's 25th anniversary in 1986.

Ryan and Gruenwald produced 32 issues of D.P.7 together and also collaborated on the  1989 Squadron Supreme graphic novel Death Of A Universe. He once again partnered with Gru to help launch the Quasar solo series later that same year. He followed that up with a lengthy run on Fantastic Four that lasted two issues shy of Onslaught in the Summer of 1996.

Yours truly grew up on Paul Ryan's Fantastic Four, seeing his work always evokes memories of those seemingly endless Summer days when all you were supposed to do was read comics.

6) - John Romita Jr. (Iron Man, Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men)

It's tough to make it in the family business.

Though some might say that in the case of John Romita Junior, it was pretty much inevitable. His parents after all, were John and Victoria Romita. His father was Marvel's art director for an extended period of time. But before that, he was already a legendary artist in his own right, taking over Amazing Spider-Man after Steve Ditko quit. John's mother Virginia serving as the Bullpen's traffic manager, making sure all the proverbial trains ran on time and the books made it to press well before the deadline.

John Junior showed he had what it took, when he dreamed up the Prowler in 1969, at the tender age of 13. His first regular assignment as a penciler was Invincible Iron Man in the late 70s, where he helped create lasting characters such as Bethany Cabe and Justin Hammer. In the early 80s, he joined Denny O'Neill  on 'his dad's book', Amazing Spider-Man. During this particular run, he gave life to Marvel mainstays like Madame Webb, Hydro-Man and Hobgoblin. He also made his mark with a three year stint (1983-1986) on Uncanny X-Men, where he was essential in creating Forge. Moving to Daredevil with writerAnn Nocenti in the late 80s, he was partly responsible for Typhoid Mary. As the decade came to a close, John Romita Junior had quite clearly stepped out of his father's shadow and come into his own.

As for the picture, well... Back when Jim Shooter was still writing the Bullpen Bulletins himself, he struck upon the notion of showcasing Marvel's good looking creative staff in a segment he called "Marvel Hunk Of The Month?". John "two tickets to the gunshow, please" Romita Jr. got roped into participating as the first and as it turned out only hunk... Oh yeah, he allegedly hated the idea of being paraded like a piece of meat. Can't say I blame him.

5) - Art Adams (Longshot, Uncanny X-Men)

There's something about the art of Art Adams that just makes you want to smile. Maybe that's because his first name already tells you what he does? Nevertheless, he has somehow mastered the ability to deliver work that is intricately detailed without looking overly complicated or crowded. Yet, his chosen style is rather labor intensive, making it impossible for Adams to hold down a monthly title for more than a brief fill in arc at best.

Yet, that might be part of his lasting appeal. A little really goes a long way, and one can only imagine the sheer joy and excitement it generated back in the day when one discovered a new Art Adams comic on the newsstand. Perhaps his most noteable work for Marvel was the 1986 Longshot limited series with Ann Nocenti, that allowed him to show off his prowess.

He also worked with Chris Claremont on the X-Men, most notably the Asgardian Wars storyline. But what really speaks to Adams' lasting appeal is the cover he did for the premiere issue of Classic X-Men. Art never pencilled those X-Men, yet he managed to nail iconic versions of those characters in that one single image.

Almost makes you feel sad he couldn't have been a bit faster...

4) - Mike Mignola (Alpha Flight, Doctor Strange Rocket Raccoon)

The creator of such popular, enduring franchises like Hellboy and B.P.R.D. enjoyed a brief but undeniably unforgettable tenure at Marvel during the 1980s. He took over Alpha Flight with Bill Mantlo after John Byrne had agreed to switch titles, moving to Mantlo's Incredible Hulk. Mignola's art was immediately noticed.

He also joined with Bill Mantlo to do the limited series no one ever expected: Rocket Raccoon... To do a four issue limited series on a throwaway joke character like a raccoon with a laser gun showed how devil-may-care Marvel was during the early 80s.

But Mignola's crowning achievement has to be the 1989 graphic novel Doctor Strange: Triumph And Torment. Bringing to life one of Roger Stern's most inspired stories, Mignola helped tell the tale of Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom banding together in an attempt to save the soul of Doom's mother Cynthia, a gypsy witch trapped in Mephisto's realm. It perfectly suited Mignola's sensibilities as an artist and, in retrospect, provided a sneak peak into the kind of hell he'd later draw... Oh, boy!

3) - Barry Windsor Smith (Machineman, Uncanny X-Men)

It'd be unfair to call Windsor-Smith an icon of the 1980s.

Well, he is... But the British artist has been a valued member of the comics scene since the late 1960s, his one of a kind style makes every issue he does a special event. In the 1980s, he only sporadically worked for Marvel, most notably when he did the 1984 limited series Machineman, a character created by Jack Kirby but fully fleshed out thanks in no small part to Smith's artistic vision.

However, what makes Smith so memorable to me, are his contributions to both Invincible  Iron Man and Uncanny X-Men. Windsor-Smith drew Invincible Iron Man I#236, the issue immediately following the first Armor Wars that had the remorseful, guilt ridden Tony Stark catching up on a little sleep, experiencing horrific nightmares all the way. Stark found himself chased by a monstrous version of his armor, which made him question his identity and his actions. Powerful stuff.

It is his work with Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men that earns him the bronze in this particular list, though. The Life/Death saga, originally intended to be a trilogy, stands the test of time and is a powerful examination of Storm and the ways and customs of the worlds she moves in. Windsor-Smith brought out the best in Claremont as a writer, inspiring him to transcend the medium, delivering powerful prose that defined the character.

When Windsor-Smith is behind the board, these pages aren't necessarily funny anymore.

2) - Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra Assassin, Fantastic Four, Moon Knight, New Mutants)

Ah, to live in the mind of Sienkiewicz.

It's almost impossible... no, it *is* impossible to describe the artistry of Bill Sienkiewicz. So, I won't even attempt for fear of disgracing both myself and the legacy of his work. Suffice it to say, the definition of art is the work's innate ability to invoke something in those who witness it.
Art appreciation is mostly subjective, of course... But it's safe to say a Sienkiewicz piece will stirs something in you.

The 1980s proved to be the defining decade of Bill's career. He finally came into his own, evolving from trying to emulate Neal Adams during his early days on Fantastic Four. By 1983, he started some interesting experiments into abstraction. Unjustly, some early detractors called his work "ugly" and "unsuited for the medium", others wondered why he kept knocking over the ink well while he was working.

And yes, while his one of a kind, abstract style worked for experimental books like Moon Knight, when he moved to the straight laced, bright 'n happy New Mutants in 1985, one can imagine it did raise some eyebrows. But do yourself a favor and check out Sienkiewicz's work on the book. It is literally out of  this world, from the menace of the Demon Bear to the way he portrayed the madness inside the autistic teenager Legion's mind, it's a wonder to behold.

And oh yeah, he also did a little Elektra oneshot called Assassin. Wonder whatever became of that?

1) - John Byrne (Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, Sensational She-Hulk, Uncanny X-Men) 

Is there an all round artist who did more for the medium in the 1980s than John Lyndley Byrne?

Writer, penciller, inker... Byrne could do it all, and he did for both Marvel and DC. It's not hard to recognize a John Byrne comic. Even though he continuously kept trying to evolve his style, it was always unmistakably a Byrne book, which ensured a comforting level of quality.

I could waste space and time regurgitating Byrne's bio, but let's assume you're familiar with most of it or you wouldn't be here. John Byrne singlehandedly helped restore Fantastic Four to its former glory, writing and drawing the book for five consecutive years. The book showcased what he brought to all the titles he took on: a love for established continuity, combined with a sense of tradition and tempered with adventurous, sometimes even slightly sadistic tendencies. A Byrne comic might look bright, cheerful and happy, but the dark and creepy always lurked right around the corner. Drama was never far away. Just ask the Invisible Woman.

In an interview, Byrne once rather eloquently explained his mantra when it came to doing a Marvel comic: "Do what Stan and Jack did... and try and do it better if you can."

Amen to that.

0) - Jack Kirby (August 28th, 1917 - February 6, 1994)

A bit of a cheat, considering Jack Kirby didn't do any actual work for Marvel in the 1980s.
But really.... How can anyone do a retrospective like this without acknowledging the fact this man is responsible for creating the foundation of the Marvel Universe? Without 'King Kirby', there wouldn't be a Marvel 1980s to celebrate, so including him is only fitting.

If only because his mind birthed so many of the characters we still love to this very day... his birthday. Gone, but never forgotten... Thanks for helping our childhood seem magical, Jack!

*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!


  1. Can't argue with the list, but for Honorable Mention I'd add Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith.

  2. Yes to Byrne, Billy the Sink, and Big Sal.

    But my 80s list has got to have Mike Zeck (Cap, Secret Wars, Kraven's Last Hunt, Punisher mini...too much good stuff!).

    Also, shout-outs to David Mazzuchelli (Daredevil) and Frank Miller (Daredevil and Wolverine mini) are in order as well.

    Enjoying these countdowns immensely.

    david p.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. It's nice to see Sal Buscema on a list like this. A really underrated workhorse. LOVED his Rom, Hulk and his work on Thor. mention of Frank Miller on the list? And, ummm...Walt Simonson? But good lists to get conversations going. :)

  5. Great list. I assume Simonson was excluded perhaps because most of his focus was on one title, alone. But I would agree that Zeck absolutely needs to be included... the Punisher LS, Kraven's Last Hunt & Cap Annual #8 are 80's classics IMO - this, without even touching upon his extensive cover output that almost certainly guaranteed my buying the book regardless of its inner contents (notably G.I. Joe).

  6. Fantastic list, even better blog. I'd agree with EJK and have Paul Smith on there. Keep up the good work - I really appreciate what you're doing.

  7. Excellent blog! Your list and notes brought back many wonderful memories. I respect your choices and my personal list is very similar, however I would have (in no particular order) Michael Golden, Walter Simonson and Alan Davis replace JRjr, Paul Ryan and Sal Buscema. No disrespect intended to those fine artists, that's just who I would choose for my top 8 artists of the 80s. I completely agree with your encouragement to check out Bill Sienkiewicz's work on The New Mutants! In my opinion the New Mutants never looked better.

  8. Nice list! I am also glad to see Sal recognized and would have him higher on the list but that is a biased perspective for sure as he is my favorite artist. I would have Sal higher and the Zeck argument has me in the same camp - he should be here. Great article - well done.



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