When I read manga, usually a big factor in my enjoyment of it is the artwork. Of course, a lot of the time a fantastic story can completely forgive terrible and basic artwork, but usually that is not the case. What I look for in manga artwork is just awe-inspiring amounts of detail, realism, or if not realism then innovation. Below are some of the best artists and their masterpieces that are landing them the title of "great manga artist" left and right.
Do not expect to see the authors of the big Shonen Three (Bleach, Naruto, One Piece) on here or anything with generic manga style artwork either. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of good art found in every manga, but the following artists are true masters of the craft.
Kentarou Muira is best known for creating the Berserk manga. While his attention to detail is nothing short of legendary, many manga fans dislike his art for being too dark. However, a factor they do not seem to realize is that Berserk is a dark manga. Berserk follows the story of the black swordsman Gutts throughout his life as he fights for a mercenary band then later fights monstrous demons after the world has suffered an apocalypse of sorts. It is a dark manga that merits dark artwork. Muira's previous works have been dark themed as well and thus darkly drawn.
Because his artwork is so utterly heart-stoppingly detailed, it often takes him over a month to pump out a 20 page chapter. Comparatively, the authors of Naruto and Bleach can pump out a chapter every week. Muira often takes long breaks in which fans assume he is trying to create the next few chapters ahead of time so they do not have to wait a month or two (or six) between releases. Though to be fair, a lot of fans believe he takes breaks to play a game called IdolM@ster that Muira has confessed to be addicted to.
Crying Freeman, Strain, Sanctuary, Heat, Lord
I can guarantee that if you bring up a 'who is the best manga artist?' conversation among manga fans, Ryoichi Ikegami will never get mentioned. Not because he is bad, far from it, but he is an ARTIST and not an AUTHOR. Usually the author of the story will take the credit for the manga rather than the artist. Ikegami has done a lot of work with the manga artist Buronson, who is the master of intriguing story telling so I cannot hate him for getting all the credit. Honestly, I can respect these two men as they both know what they are good at and stick to it.
What makes Ryoichi ikegami's art top notch is the extreme realism. Everything about his stories looks incredibly realistic, especially the shading which is not done in tones like many other mangas but in traditional pencil lines.
Hiroya Oku tends to not make the list of great manga artists anymore because his great masterpiece, Gantz, is not as popular as it once was. It had gained a large following for awhile because of its brutal and utterly devastating deaths of fan favorite characters. Hiroya Oku is like the George R.R. Martin of Japan in that way. Gantz follows a group of people who have "died" in various ways (car crash, cancer, gang war, ect) and are transported to a room in which they equip themselves with super suits and sci-fi weapons to hunt aliens for points to escape the cruel game. What Hiroya Oku does best is drawing different races. A beef I have with manga at times is that Japanese characters look nothing like a Japanese person. A perfect example of this is the Battle Royale manga where all the Japanese high schoolers look like muscular Americans in their late 20's.
In Gantz and the other works of Hiroya Oku, the Japanese characters look Japanese. The western characters look western and the African American character look very much like real African Americans. This is refreshing as most African American characters in manga look like those racist white men in black face you would see on television in the 1950's.
The only thing that makes me sad about Hiroya Oku and the Gantz manga is that he does a lot of computer rendered work. He has brilliant and realistic looking backgrounds of Tokyo, but they are all "manga-fied' and placed in via computer. So his manga is not all hand drawn.
Vagabond, Slam Dunk
Takehiko Inoue is not only known for his historical samurai epic Vagabond but the basketball manga Slam Dunk. Both of which are incredibly well drawn and packed with really quite gripping stories. What makes the artwork of Takehiko Inoue stand out, especially in Vagabond, is the realism and really traditional look it carries.
Many people recognize traditional Japanese art with bold ink lines and surprisingly detailed watercolor painting. These traditional Japanese art values are present throughout Takehiko Inoue's work. When he colors his manga, he does so with rich and beautiful watercolors, and the inking throughout Vagabond gives it a very historical feel which matches the genre of the manga. Considering it is a semi-fictional retelling of the life of the great samurai Musashi Miyamoto, the style fits right in.
Like Hiroya Oku, Takehiko Inoue is a master of drawing race. There are not many other races other than Japanese in his mangas, but thankfully they at least look Japanese.
Blame, NOiSE, Abara, Biomega
Nihei Tsutomu is a relatively unknown manga artist, much like Ryoichi ikegami. Unlike Ikegami, he is not just an artist overshadowed by an author. It is just that his mangas usually target a specific sect of manga readers. Nihei Tsutomu's work like Blame! NOiSE, Abara, and Biomega are all fairly science fiction genre mangas, and little known ones at that.
It is too bad because the artwork in each is top notch. Though the biggest downfall is that his story telling can be a bit confusing, probably turning off a lot of readers. Like Kentarou Muira, Nihei Tsutomu's artwork is very dark and it is often criticized for being so. It's dark and sketchy, like a very detailed sketch board for a movie (without all the technical bits a sketch board has). What really makes him a master of the craft is not his character designs, which other than the outfits are fairly bland, but the detail of the background. His background are so breath-takingly beautiful that you almost do not care about the characters sometime. Besides his backgrounds, he is also praised highly for his depiction of cybernetics and science fiction bits like that. A lot of artists just phone it in, but in Nihei Tsutomu's artwork, the science fiction machinery actually looks like it is meant to do stuff.