(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…
I was incredibly lucky when I began working as an assistant editor in Mark Gruenwald’s office. The main inkers we worked with were Tom Palmer, Joe Sinnott, Bob Layton and Josef Rubinstein. Let that sink in. Tom and Joe did finishes. Bob and Joe did inks…although Bob would sometimes do finishes. All four were insanely talented. All four were always on time even when the schedule wasn’t working as well as it should and they were put into a crunch. All four were wonderful to work with and I was thrilled to become friends with them all. They were also great teachers. They taught me so much about the art of inking, the art of pencilling, and also…how to use COLOR properly over the finished art. Tom Palmer especially taught me more about color theory than anyone else. Joe Rubinstein helped me understand what the hell various artists MEANT with their rendering on a page. And guess what? Not every artist meant the same thing with their rendering. Fun fact…some pencillers and inkers don’t seem to understand how light works. They will ask for the color to uplight a figure. However they will have drawn the figure specifically with shadows under the nose and chin. Or they change the lighting on the figure on different parts of the anatomy. Oh yes..as a colorist you find a LOT of this. Joe showed me how to spot these things. He taught me how to make sure that when the artist put effort into lighting a figure, you pay attention to that in the color and not just drop a flat tone over everything. He’d give me little color notes for other colorists just to help them out. Some colorists would get really annoyed with that. Too bad. No one was telling you what color to use, just where highlights and shadows were that you’ve been ignoring. The inkers in our office saved the day with schedules and produced amazing finished art that the pencillers loved. We had steady streams of editors and creators coming into out offices to see the lates pages inked by these guys, especially Palmer. They look at the xeroxes of Buscema’s breakdowns and see what Tom did with them. People were in AWE. Honestly…one of the BEST parts of being on staff as an editor or assist was getting to see the actual pencils and the actual inks and getting to compare them. Very few people get to see that. We were all so lucky.
Inkers are accused on occasion of just being tracers. Looking at excruciatingly tight pencils and the final inks, many people can’t see what the inker actually did. I was one of those people. Anyone can ink those tight pencils. Right? Wrong. Having an abrasive personality and a big mouth would get me into trouble. So of course…when I said a stupid thing like this…I was going to be challenged. I wish I could remember who it was. It might have been Allen Milgrom. Al was really good at explaining things properly to know-it-alls like me. But I was given a pen, a brush and a rapidiograph. A Xerox of tight pencils was put on a lightbox and a piece of nice drawing paper put on top. I was told to ink it. “Let’s see you ink it.” Now…I was being given good instruction on what to do, how to use the pen or the brush, so it wasn’t like I just had to go for it on my own. Nope. I couldn’t figure out how to use the pen without splattering ink everywhere and no part of a line I drew looked like anything underneath. The brush was better, but…nowhere close. Finally I grabbed the rapidograph and was able to use a ruler to do some straight lines and a couple of little details, but my tracing looked horrible. Now Al…or whoever it really was, took that same pen and brush a quickly inked a part of the page and it looked beautiful. And…I could see the subtle differences made to the original drawing. Lesson well learned.
Now, having Joe Rubinstein inking Marvel Universe figures was another exercise in understanding how important inkers are. Joe had to ink hundreds of figures all done by different artists. All of the figure drawings were VERY tightly done. Joe had enormous respect for the pencillers work and tried to do his best to ink them so they would like it. (spoiler…you can’t please everyone) But Joe liked to talk about his work. So he would go over various figures with me explaining why he chose to do what he did with the figures and explain why a particular penciller was so great…it was like a really great art class.
Now…if inkers are tracers…then why do pencillers who do full tight pencils care who inks them? Won’t they just look the SAME if they are being inked faithfully? Nope. You can find all kinds of people arguing about who was the best inker over various people. John Byrne is a good example. Terry Austin or Joe Rubinstein? I actually prefer Joe. Jack Kirby…people will argue about who inked him best forever. Michael J Zeck? Bob McLeod or John Beatty? It matters. No matter how faithful…inkers are NOT tracers. They are highly skilled artists who transform a pencilled image into a final piece of art in a subtle manner…when they are purposely being faithful. Some inkers have their own distinctive style that makes their work stand out of any penciller, without changing the drawing itself. Some pencillers love this type of inking, some do not. It’s easier to not be labeled a TRACER when you have a style. Great examples are Klaus Janson, Scott Williams, Bill Sienkiewicz, Tom Palmer and Al Williamson… I include a lousy pic of the HULK inked by four different inkers. You can see how different they look. No tracing. A special nod to Tom Palmer for his inking of Gene Colan. Colan’s pencils were very difficult to ink…they had shades of gray in them and it took tremendous effort for an inker to figure out how to translate his gorgeous pencils into finished ink art. Tom Palmer figured it out and no one will ever dispute it. Tracers. What load of bullshit.
Finishing inkers generally don’t get accused of tracing because when you see what it is they are starting with, it’s obvious how much work they put in. The big talent here, aside from all the extra work is how to add so much…while still having it look like the penciller’s art. At least four inkers I’ve mentioned here, Tom Palmer, Bob McLeod, Klaus Janson and Bill Sienkiewicz have all done finishing inks on the same penciller…John Buscema. All have done brilliant work. The one thing that is common between them…it all looks like John Buscema. Every face, every figure, everything. But the end result is VERY different. Four different and distinct styles and a result of the penciller shining through. That takes a lot of skill. Look around online and you can find Bob and Tom posting some examples of their finished work with the pencils they started with. It’s fascinating to look at. On the other hand… there have been some finishing inkers who…just took over and the penciller disappears entirely. Sometimes they were asked to do that…
Regarding HACKS. I have grown to hate that negative term. Oh sure, I know I used it to describe some people back in my younger days…I regret that. How does an inker get labeled…a HACK? I’ll tell you. They take on impossible jobs and deliver the goods and save the editor’s ass. By doing this more often than not…they become that inker you only call for emergencies. Now…when you have to ink a job in 1/4 of the time you normally would need…you probably have to take a few shortcuts, or bring in an assistant or two to help get that job done on time. Hurray, you saved the editor. Some editors remembered this and gave you some work that WASN’T late so you could really do your best. Other editors just kept you in the reserve slot..for emergencies…because your work wasn’t as good as their regular inker…you’re a hack who just hacks it out fast. Some inkers (and other creators as well) wound up filling this need often and wound up in the hack pile. Sure you saved peoples schedules, but behind your back they mock you to other editors and cause them to think of you as a hack instead of the talented pro you are. Several of these so-called HACKS saved my schedule on several occasions. I hope I returned the favor to them. I hate the term. I hate that it was applied to people who worked their tail off to save my schedule. I hate that they endured complaints from pencillers who didn’t like the work they did over them when the penciller was the reason for the lateness. Now…there were a few who really were hacks. I’ll define it my way. A hack is someone who doesn’t care about the work at all, and will take any shortcuts they can to get the work done faster so they can take on more work than they should have in the first place. And we all used one of them at least once…we all got into that bind.
Hey…that inker ruined my stuff!!! There’s a complaint we would hear from a penciller on occasion. They weren’t always wrong. Not every inker is good over every penciller. Sometime you don’t know that until you see it. But the reality is that you can’t always GET your dream inker to ink a specific penciller. They may be busy. They may hate the penciller’s work. They may hate me as the editor. Once upon a time the editor made the decisions about who inked who, period. Some good, some bad. Nobody really had a choice. As time went by certain parings worked out really well, and some artists gravitated towards each other and would become a team. But some editors would still just decide to put whoever they wanted on the penciller. Sometimes, I thought a penciller was nuts for disliking a particular inker. Everyone else loved it. Just not the penciller. Sometimes changes would be made. Sometimes we’d tell the penciller to talk to the inker…sometimes that went well…and…sometimes not.
What exactly does a talented inker do that a penciller might not like? This will vary from penciller to penciller. Some is easy…too heavy handed, line weight is too thick, or too thin, their style clashes with my intent…sometimes it’s all about the rendering style or the addition or subtraction of black. Sometimes it’s something that was removed or added to the panel. (That might actually be something the editor requested). But the thing I was able to nail down the most was FACES. Little subtle changes to a face would drive a penciller crazy. HANDS. Hands are really tough, and the wrong flick of a brush and the hand can look awkward. Next was line style. There’s probably a better term but that’s what I call it. Some inkers have a very SLICK line, some a more JAGGED or ROUGH style that makes the entire image look…different. Different pencillers prefer different line styles.
What makes one inker better than others? There’s a lot of answers here, but for me the best inkers can really DRAW. They can draw as well as any penciller, they just choose to ink instead, or maybe they do both. They also have to have respect for the pencils they are inking. The end result always looks like a combination of the two, not just one overpowering the the other I was once told…not by an inker…that I should learn to ink. I didn’t have to really be able to draw, I just had to be able to put down a clean ink line. I wish I knew who told me that. That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve been told as a comics pro…and I’ve been told a LOT of stupid things.
Most pencillers have their favorite inkers. If you get a chance, ask them why they really like a specific inker. The answers are fascinating.
Hailing form New Castle, PA, Gregory went on to NYU Film School and found himself working in a different visual storytelling medium upon graduation.
Former Marvel/Epic comic editor 1986-1990
Freelance Writer/Color Artist 1986-present
Writing Credits include Deathlok, Daredevil, Silver Sable, Nick Fury, The Squeeg
Colorist credits include Ghost Rider, Deathlok, Punisher, X-men. Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Titans, Savage Dragon, Elephantmen, Joe Frankenstein
And a two-time CBG Fan Awards award recipient in 1990 & 1996.