(The following is but one article, part of a series about stages comic book production, this one on INKING, and other personal experiences that writer/colorist/former Marvel editor Gregory Wright has been posting on his Facebook account. It is amazing the amount of details he recalls going back decades. I would enthusiastically recommend reading all of his articles in this series if you are on Facebook and friends with him. This article was originally posted on 5/23/2020 and is being used with permission. It is TM & (c) 2020 Gregory Wright. Thanks, Greg!)
True tales of appreciation and condemnation of INKERS behind the lines of Marvel Comics…or any comic company really. Inkers. Inkers are frequently misunderstood. Fans don’t always know exactly what it is they really do. Pencillers blame them for not inking every detail exactly as they envisioned it. Editors will shift the blame for a book being late onto them. They will be labeled as TRACERS. They may be considered disposable, because they aren’t as “important” as the penciller. They will be labeled as HACKS because they frequently have to make up time on the schedule and spend days without sleep in order to get a book finished on time. Since they are able to deliver fast, they must be a hack, right? Some inkers employ assistants or background inkers. Some have a strong style, some are nearly invisible. The one thing they have in common is that they are under-appreciated.
There is a difference between an inker…and an artist who inks their own work. Let’s clarify that. Some pencillers do extremely tight pencils that they then also ink. Some pencillers do incredibly loose pencils and then proceed to do most of the drawing in ink. The end results can be quite different from having a separate inker. So as I am writing about inkers, I am referencing a separate person inking someone else pencils. Artists who ink their own work frequently produce their BEST work…it’s their work they way they really intend it to look. Some…are not their own best inker. They may think they are…but many fellow creators and fans will disagree and you can read all about those arguments elsewhere.
I love inkers. I love seeing talented inkers adding their own personal style to pencils and getting this brand new look, this collaboration that no single artist could get. The trick of course, is to not go too far. But occasionally…the penciller wants the inker to impose more of their style onto their pencils. One does not request Bill Sienkiewicz as an inker believing it will look like the very tight pencils that were handed to Bill. No. It will have distinct style added on top without redrawing the figures or the faces or anything that might be upsetting to the penciller. There are several inkers with styles that are so distinct that they might actually be preferred over the pencillers style. And sometimes…that is the point. Sometimes a penciller wants to shake up their work.
At times, an editor has a penciller that has a style that is too..old fashioned, or just seems dull…so the solution (instead of encouraging the penciller to do better or become more relevant) is to have the inker do all the work. Some inkers are happy to do it. Others are not interested in FIXING pencils that were not up to par. Some inkers think they know better than the penciller and take it upon themselves to “fix” various things they were not asked to do. This does not go well. Pencillers notice and complain. Editors will then sometimes fire the inker. Sometimes the inker gets blamed for doing this when they were TOLD to do it by the editor. And then they get fired anyway. Not fair. Nobody who wasn’t part of the process has any idea what really happened. But the inker will get blamed.
There are really two kinds of inkers. The first is what we simply call…the INKER. An inker puts an inked line on top of finished tight pencils. The definition of tight pencils will vary from penciller to penciller…some are so tight (John Byrne, Jack Kirby, Ron Frenz) that the pencils themselves could easily not be inked and used as they are. Sometimes the pencils are less tight…and the inker will have to make a lot more decisions regarding line weights and rendering style.
The second is called a FINISHER, or finishing inker. This inker is given pencils that are not…finished. There is usually no lighting, no indication of black, sketchy backgrounds and little detail. This inker is paid MORE to do this type of work. And not every inker is really great at doing finishing inks. Some inkers do their absolute BEST work as a finisher. The pencils for this inker are called breakdowns. All breakdowns are not considered equal. Some are very loose…but everything you need to do a great job structure wise is there. John Buscema is the one artist who provided loose breakdowns that most talented finishing inked loved to work over and would say…everything they needed was there. Others would try to do the minimal amount that Buscema would provide and fail. Some would provide breakdowns that were pretty tight and neat…just without lighting and indications of black. Sometimes I’ve seen breakdowns that were closer to full pencils. I’ve also seen full pencils that were closer to breakdowns. There were occasions where a penciller claimed to be doing full pencils and the inker felt they were more like breakdowns and we’d have to have John Romita Sr. decide. It wasn’t always pretty…