This month’s top 5 will be listed alphabetically by the artist’s first name, if only because I don’t want anyone to ever know who, in my opinion, is the most underrated cartoonist of all time [Maniacal laugh maniacal laugh maniacal laugh].
- Alex Toth
-Warren Ellis once wrote that the real tragedy of Alex Toth’s career is that he was never given a script that was as good as his art. Which is true, and is why s such , Toth is revered as one of the finest artists to ever work in the medium but most people have only ever seen his work on TV (he designed Space Ghost, and a dozen other Hanna-Barbera characters). It’s unfortunate, because Toth’s ability to lay out a page, to compose a panel, to render shadows and light: it’s incredible. Nexus co-creator Steve Rude once had Toth critique a short Johnny Quest comic that Rude penciled and boy was Toth harsh. In Do Anything—the same book in which Ellis calls Toth’s career a tragedy—Warren Ellis notes Toth’s critique as a masterclass in storytelling, and it really is. (It’s online, and worth finding) The critique reveals Toth’s genius-like obsession with clarity, with focus, with ensuring that everything the reader needs to understand the story is right there in the artist’s ink work. Fortunately, Toth brought this obsession to his own work—making each of his stories superbly well drawn.
IDW is putting together a terrific three-volume biography of Toth—the first two volumes, Genius, Isolated and Genius, Illustrated are out now—and they reproduce a ton of Toth’s work and unseen backmatter with incredibly quality.
- Bernard Krigstein
-Comics’ very own Arthur Rimbaud, Krigstein is an incredibly underappreciated artist whose career was remarkably short. Before he left the medium after the witch hunts of the ‘50s, Krigstein produced some of the most potent and influential pre-code comics that are almost all but forgotten. He actually left comics to become a gallery artist, and his fine art influences are apparent in comics, with no one since being able to replicate his unique ability to manipulate the flow of time within his narrative.
He focused his talents on perfecting the pacing of comics, something that too few modern cartoonists devote time to, and it’s what makes Krigstein a cartoonist worth paying attention to. Like I said before, his career in comics was brief, but in that short time he produced a number of the greatest comics of the ‘50s, such as “Master Race,” a comic that artist Eddie Campbell used as an example of a perfect comic—noting the page layouts, the pacing, and Krigstein’s ability to keep the axiomatic drama of the story apparent in every single panel.
- Bruno Premiani
-Unlike Toth, Premiani’s isn’t a story of going unnoticed because of the projects he worked on, and unlike Krigstein, Premiani’s isn’t the story of an underappreciated genius who fled censorship in comics to the fine arts. No, Premiani is just a forgotten master—which I theorize is largely due to the fact the work he’s most often associated with isn’t a comic that most people care about. His biggest claim-to-fame is that he’s the co-creator of the Doom Patrol, which is a group of characters that usually gets the short shrift, in spite of the fact that they’re far more interesting than almost every other character DC owns. But people are more interested in Batman than in who at DC is the best artist, sadly.
The most noteworthy component of Premiani’s comics is that he lacks the stylistic flourish of the other’s on the list, though his is inarguably the strongest draftsman. It’s this technical precision which sets him apart from his peers and makes him a stellar cartoonist.
- Carl Barks
-More than anything else, Barks is a victim of the content of his comics. Most often associated with the sweetest Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comics of all-time, Barks got royally screwed by the “Walt Disney does all things always, and he does them singlehandedly” ethos that permeated the Disney corporation for decades, and lost out on money from the European sales of his Duck comics—the Barks Duck comics consistently sell so well in Central Europe that the numbers would make Walking Dead #100’s “record breaking” figures crap their pants. But most modern readers are either not familiar with Carl Barks, or don’t take his work seriously, because who wants to be the first guy to refer to a Donald Duck comic as the work of a master artist? Well, I will: every Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comic is a masterpiece.
Barks’ mastery of body-language and of facial expressions puts most modern comics to shame, and his knack for humor is exceptional. The cleanliness of his storytelling is impressive, and is proof positive of the high levels of cartooning that he’s capable of. Fantagraphics is doing a good job of keeping those Duck comics in print, and I recommend them all incredibly highly.
- Sergio Toppi
-The only real European cartoonist on the list—Premiani and Krigstein are Italian and French, respectively, but only ever produced work in America—Toppi’s work has only recently become available in English. Less well-known than his peers—Moebius, Pratt, Manara, Nino, Bernet, Font—Toppi’s work is no less spectacular.
Like Kirgstein, Toppi loved to play with the layouts of his pages; but Toppi favored a less conventional, linear aesthetic, and instead incorporated surrealist imagery and put a premium on the “collage”—the comics page is composed of the individual panels, each a single image; and a collage, a composite image composed of all the panels taken as a whole. This influence can be seen in the work of artists like JH Williams III. There’s also a distinct cubist influence on Toppi’s work, and a woodcut texture, both revealing an obvious fine arts influence on Toppi.
The fact that his work has largely been unavailable in English is probably the largest contributor to Toppi’s relatively-unknown status among American readers, but the phenomenal quality of his pages make his work well worth seeking out.
~ Shea ~