The Top Ten Greatest Superman Artists of All Time

This is a post that really is long overdue. Comics are such a visual medium that the men who put pencils and ink to paper play a critical role in how these characters and stories come to life. The look and feel of the work of the talented men and women drawing Superman and company are the basis for the mythology, and which has taken root in a special way over the last eighty plus years. Be it in movies or television, video games and merchandise, art is what has carried the mythos through the contours of pop culture. Whenever any top ten list is made, there is a level of subjectivity that inevitably creeps in, and that is certainly the case here. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that I own that with this list, perhaps more so than any other I’ve made. We can all agree in the quality of an artist’s craftsmanship, but in the end art is all about how it impacts the viewer. This is a list of artists who have impacted me. On top of all that, if anyone wanted to rank the greatest Superman artists and basically made them a list of one, with either Joe Shuster or Curt Swan, I would totally respect that. Their contributions to the character, in particular, have few rivals, if any. With that said, here goes! 10. Jim Lee Superman Lee 3 I’ve said quite often that Jim is probably my favorite artist of all time. His 90s work on X-Men absolutely rocked my world as a kid, and he has grown as an artist quite a bit since then. By the time he came to DC in the late 90s/early 2000s, he brought his A game.  The art in all his Superman stories is always spectacular and worth the wait every month (often months). Superman Lee 4 The only thing keeping him lower on this list is that he hasn’t drawn a knock-your-socks-off Superman story, per se. I enjoyed “For Tomorrow” quite a bit, but his New 52 stuff, not so much. Even though Superman Unchained and “Justice League: Origin” looked gorgeous, I was good after reading them the first time.  As he has moved up the corporate ladder at DC, his interior art work gets more and more sporadic, so who knows how much he’ll do in the future. Still, he has already left an impression on the character, and his art graces a LOT of merch you see in stores now. Superman Lee 5 He is a phenomenal artist, and that will never change.  Even if he did give us Superman’s high collared New 52 costume… Superman Lee 1 9. Gary Frank “Modern Master” might be a good term to describe Mr. Frank, who has quickly risen to nearly Mount Rushmore comic artist status in the last 10-15 years. Although Frank has been in the industry since the 90s at least, and I enjoyed his work on Hulk and Birds of Prey then, his Superman projects with Geoff Johns have become classic takes on the Man of Steel. Action_Comics_868“Superman and the Legion of Superheroes,” “Brainiac,” “Secret Origin” and most recently Doomsday Clock have affirmed his reputation, and rightly so.  His art has a very clean, cinematic quality to it, and his action scenes are phenomenal. When Superman lands a punch, a kick, heat vision or anything, it smacks the reader right in the face and reverberates practically right off the page. His craft is really top notch, and he has found a partner for life in Geoff Johns, whose scripts mesh perfectly with Frank’s art.  Brainiac 1The only thing that prevents him from being higher on this list- and I’m probably in a minority here- is I don’t like how his Superman and Lois look like Chris Reeve and Margot Kidder. I’m all for adapting movies into comics, but I don’t need that adaptation to last forever. It’s hard to say whose call that is, since Geoff Johns was a disciple of Richard Donner in the film industry and could be telling Frank in his scripts to draw them that way. Either way, he’s a great artist who is now beloved by all. superman frank 1 8. Steve Rude Steve Rude Worlds Finest 1 I’ve written a post before about the brilliance of Steve Rude’s Superman, so no need to go into it again here.  I will simply add that that, like many others, the only thing that keeps Rude from being higher on this list is a relatively limited output. World’s Finest was great, as well as all the anthologies he’s been a part of, but that’s about it, unfortunately. Although I love him as an artist, I can’t go just on that and beautiful commissions. Too bad DC rejected his offer to draw a book in the style of Joe Shuster, as he is the perfect successor to that style today.  Hopefully he’ll be on a book again soon. IMG_0904 7. Neal Adams Adams 2 Neal Adams is easily one of the top five comic artists all time, maybe top three and even possibly higher than that. His work was so influential that he almost single handedly moved the trends in the industry from Jack Kirby to him. Some even say his work with Denny O’Neil ushered in the Bronze Age in the year 1970.  All of this is true.  FOR USE WITH STORY by Luis Torres de la Like Rude the Dude, he has drawn very few Superman stories, outside of the famous bout with Muhammad Ali, but people forget how many covers he drew in his career as well. If you add up all the times he drew Superman on a DC cover, between Action, Superman, Superboy, Superman’s Pal, Superman’s Girlfriend, World’s Finest and Justice League, by my count you have around 200!! That in itself is impressive enough, but how many of said covers have become iconic in the Man of Steel’s history?  “Kryptonite Nevermore” is considered the greatest reboot of the character until Byrne, and one of the greatest DC stories of the Bronze Age, period. Although Neal did not draw a single page inside the story, each of his covers for that story have made fans feel like he was just as much a part of it as anyone. Adams 4 Although he will always be most associated with Batman, yet his work with my favorite hero was no slouch, either. One can only wonder what a run on the Man of Tomorrow by him would have been like in the 70s. Adams 8 6. Jerry Ordway    Da Ordster was a feature of the Superman books for close to a decade, and his Supes has become iconic. His work to me always seemed to lend itself more to character moments than action, but he was a competent artist for any story. Ordway has drawn many iconic moments in the character’s history as well, most notably Clark’s proposal to Lois, and several iconic covers during the late 80s. He co-created Cat Grant, among others, and contributed a great deal to the mythos, most notably the suggestion to do a death of Superman story.   5. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez JLGL 5 It’s amazing to see Mr. Lopez on so many lists of greatest Superman artists of all time given how seldom he has drawn the Man of Steel. Yet his contribution to the mythos and influence on all who came after is undisputed.  JLGL 6 Like Rude and Adams, Garcia-Lopez’s work on Superman comics’ interiors is pretty sparse compared to others, aside from some DC Comics Presents issues in the 80s, some Elseworlds in the 90s and a smattering of issues here and there. Yet the fact that he single-handedly created the DC Comics style guide for all artists of his generation was huge to anyone who grew up in the 80s. He WAS the house style of DC similar to how John Romita was for Marvel. Something about his art just became part and parcel with the DC logo.  García-Lopez’s art was not only featured in the comics pages and ads, but merchandise, toys and animation, post-Superfriends. Growing up during that time, I may have never read a Superman comic, but I instantly could recognize his art.  JLGL 10 His influence began waning after the Byrne reboot (but not quickly enough to Byrne’s liking, who became disgruntled when his art did not supplant Garcia-Lopez’s in all areas when he was hired). Still, to this day for many fans his Superman is seen as the quintessential depiction of the character- clean, polished, lean but muscular, and always smiling.   Just like us, whenever we see his art. JLGL 3 4. John Byrne   Speaking of the aforementioned Mr. Byrne, no list of Superman’s greatest artists would be complete without him. In terms of influence, few artists can make the claim that all who followed drew from them, but Byrne can.  It’s hard to separate his contributions to the character as a writer from his contributions as an artist (a topic for another post), but I’ll try my best.  Byrne’s Superman was inspired primarily by the George Reeves’ show, which Byrne loved as a child. As such, his Clark Kent is a good-looking, desirable guy to women, not the bumbling goofball of the Donner movies and Bronze Age comics.  Superman himself in Byrne’s comics is also smiling like Garcia-Lopez’s version, but Byrne’s character just seems far bigger and buffer than anyone around him, more so than other depictions. Despite his size though, Byrne does not draw the Man of Steel as a blocky, circus strong man like Curt Swan or Wayne Boring. Byrne’s Supes looks like he could play football in the NFL or run a track meet and be the best at both.  IMG_8733Byrne is often credited as the first “superstar” in comics, given how he was wooed from Marvel to DC, and I can’t say I disagree with that approach. The man has literally had succeeded so much already with legendary runs on X-Men and Fantastic Four, plus many, many others. He is a rare example of an artist who can write and draw, and just know how to tell a story. IMG_8731I have always been a huge fan of John Byrne’s art.  While I don’t think his run on Superman was quite as strong as his Marvel work, it was still leaps and bounds beyond what Superman comics had been mired in for a long time. He is one of comics’ greatest creators of all time, plain and simple. 3.  Joe Shuster It feels silly to even have Joe Shuster on this list, or really make a list at all, when you think about it.  How can one rank artists along with the artist who himself created the most iconic superhero comics has ever seen?  If this were a list of “most influential Superman artists,” Joe Shuster would be number one, and in fact, it would probably just be a list of two or three artists, period, the other being Curt Swan and the third possibly being John Byrne.  At the risk of seeming disrespectful to Joe, I will include him in the top three of my personal favorite Superman artists, as well. IMG_0678Joe Shuster, the artist, was born out of a school that was very typical of the 20s and 30s. Newspaper strip artists, the biggest artists in pop culture during those days, often combined styles of comedy and action/adventure in an effort to (often quite successfully) bring in all ages of readers to their strips.  Shuster himself was a big fan of E.C. Siegler (Popeye), Roy Crane (Wash Tubbs), and Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon).  All three artists drew action and serious moments into their comics, without ever moving completely to photorealism (even Raymond’s early Flash, when Shuster was getting his start, was far different from his later, more realistic, Renaissance painting styles).  All three were also fabulously successful, and Shuster began his career with a character that reflected the gritty realism of his day, with a fun, whimsical approach to action.  Slightly jarring for a modern audience, perhaps, but a perfect fusion of the styles of his day in the mid-30s.   IMG_6738-0 Although impossible to completely determine today who in the Shuster studio was responsible for what, I’m going to give a lot of credit to Joe for Superman’s success in the Man of Steel’s first three or four years when the character exploded into all mediums and sold like gangbusters.  How could the incredible cover of Action Comics #1 become anything less than a sensation?  How could Shuster’s slightly chiaroscuro approach to his newspaper pages be any less of a smash than his full color comics?  And, on a personal note, the fact that Shuster sent models to the Fleischer Studios and flew to Florida to oversee work on the early animation segments might have produced the most incredible superhero work of the Golden Age, bar none.   It goes without saying that his work was highly influential, and we fans owe a great debt of gratitude to him and Jerry Siegel. 2. Dan Jurgens death-of-superman-1There is no artist who has been more associated with Superman in my lifetime than Mr. Dan Jurgens.  There is not enough space in this post to fully put into words how much I have loved Dan’s work on Supes over the years, as have many others the world over.  He has ben connected with countless Superman stories for the better part of four decades which have shaped the character in ways that have now become fundamental to who Superman is, and that is no easy feat!  I could go into cool action poses, iconic covers and panels, and specific stories that Dan has been a part of (and that doesn’t even include his fantastic work as a writer), but to support my point, I’ll just mention some of his contributions to Superman’s mythos that he had a hand in and which we now take for granted: Booster Gold/Time Masters/Vanishing Point, the Eradicator, Doomsday, the black costume, the Cyborg Superman, Superman and Lois’ wedding, Jonathan Kent, and Rebirth, and I could keep going! Death_of_Superman_TPB-160Through post-Crisis, post-Byrne, the “Triangle era,” New 52 and Rebirth, Dan Jurgens’ name has gone hand in hand with the character himself, period.  He absolutely deserves a place in anyone’s top five Superman creators of all time, and for a character that spans over eighty years, that’s saying something. 1. Alex Ross SupermanPeaceOnEarth Cover At a signing for his book, Mythology in 2003, Alex Ross included my college campus in the Pacific Northwest as part of his tour.  I brought with me three copies the tabloid size JLA: Liberty and Justice to be signed, a book I had become enamored with that same year.  My turn came and as I approached Alex’s desk and handed him my books, I also asked him who his favorite character to draw was.  He paused, and with sharpie in hand, pointed to the cover of a Mythology near him and said “Probably this guy.”  Kingdom_Come_4It’s difficult to put into words what kind of impact Alex Ross had on comic book fans when he first burst onto the scene in the 90s, first with Marvels and then on Kingdom Come two years later. His use of models, lighting, paint, and “camera” angles in each of his pages just makes every moment, every panel look like an epic battle for the universe without feeling crowded or cluttered.  These were the days when the best live action versions of our characters were the made-for-TV Generation X movie and Batman Forever, among other horrid adaptations that have long been consigned to history’s dustbin.  Fans are spoiled today with 7-10 mostly great superhero movies premiering each year, but back then Ross’ work was the closest thing we had.  PoE-5Irrespective of that, his work has a quality that is simply unparalleled in comics, and that of course includes Superman, who is the centerpiece of his magnum opus, and used brilliantly in other stories as well.  His burly, circus strongman look might seem like a confusing choice for the world’s strongest man, but Ross has often said that his greatest inspiration for drawing the character was Joe Shuster.  His Clark is also very classy, and seems to always put off a sense of strength and majesty, while at the same time vulnerability. The various moments of Superman: Peace of Earth where his mission is set back are breathtaking.  KC3In any good Superman story, there are great action moments and tender character moments. Because Alex Ross’ Superman does both extremely well, he gets the nod for me of GOAT.  That’s the list! The natural extension of this would be to do a top ten writers list next, and I will probably do that in the future. For now, please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts on the rankings! Thanks!

3 thoughts on “The Top Ten Greatest Superman Artists of All Time

  1. Gratifying to see many of my favorites on this list, especially since I’m pretty sure you’re a good bit younger than I am. I could never make a list like this that didn’t include Curt Swan, but that’s me.

    As far as slightly more recent artists, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen from Evan “Doc” Shaner and Mikel Janin. And of course the now sadly late Darwyn Cooke.

    I’m not always as keen on Alex Ross’ “photorealistic” approach as many fans seem to be, but I’ve got to admit that pose on top of the barn is wicked clever. It’s little touches like that that let you know he’s a real fan.

    Liked by 1 person

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