As a long-time comic book reader, I have come to recognize that one of the most important aspects of the creation of comic artwork is inking. It is also, unfortunately, one of the least understood.
Some people make the mistake of thinking that all inking is the same, that it is little more than going over the penciler’s work with a pen (I sometimes think that Kevin Smith should be dunked in a giant vat of India Ink for that line he wrote about “tracers” from his movie Chasing Amy). But the reality is that no two inkers are the same. The difference between one inker and another is often the difference between a very polished finish and a rough, gritty mood. Therefore, it is important to recognize the vital role that inkers have in the crafting of the final, finished look of a comic book story.
I think that the major reason why inkers often do not receive their due credit is that is usually difficult for the casual reader to recognize what, precisely, the inker has brought to the finished artwork. True, there are certain inkers with easily spotted styles, among them Terry Austin, Klaus Janson, and Tom Palmer. But the majority of inkers have work that is of a more subtle sort. John Beatty, Scott Hanna, Mark McKenna, Josef Rubinstein, and Bob Wiacek are all excellent inkers. But when looking at their work, to my unfortunately untrained eye, there isn’t often an occasion where a particular stylistic signature leaps out at me so that I can readily identify them at a casual glance.
Certainly, when a reader only sees the finished, inked work, it can be difficult to discern who did what. And unfortunately most of the time if the reader sees something he really likes in the artwork he is more than likely to ascribe this to the penciler. You really need to be able to view a “before and after” piece, with the raw, uninked pencils side by side with the finished, inked work, in order to fully appreciate who did what.
Bob McLeod is an extremely talented artist, both as a penciler and an inker. He is often at the forefront of the voices rightfully proclaiming that inkers do not receive the credit due them. To that end, on his Facebook page he has posted scans of a number of before and after examples of his inks over other artists’ pencils. Below, reproduced with his kind permission, is one of these (click to enlarge).
This is a page from Spider-Man #34, cover dated May 1993. Lee Weeks provided the pencil layouts on this page, and McLeod the inks / finishes. As you can clearly see by viewing these two pages side-by-side, while Weeks is responsible for the storytelling & pacing, the majority of the important details found in the finished artwork are courtesy of McLeod’s inking.
It can be even more informative when one is able to see how the same penciled piece is inked by several different individuals. I remember that in the early 1990s DC Comics on one of their editorial pages had reproduced a panel of pencil art from a then-recent Batman story. They had three different artists re-ink this panel. Looking at these next to one another, it was readily apparent how each inker brought a very different mood & sensibility to their work, resulting in several very different pieces of art. I really wish I could find that so I could post an image here. It was extremely enlightening, and must have been one of the very first occasions when I realized the importance of the inker.
UPDATE: Here is a scan of that DC Universe piece “What exactly does an inker do?” Thanks to Steve Bird for locating a pic of this and passing along a link in the comments section below.
This clearly demonstrates that Scott Hanna, Gerry Fernandez and Jed Hotchkiss have their own individual styles, and utilized different approaches to when it came to inking Jim Balent’s pencils. This has resulted in three distinctive finished images.
Another earlier example of this sort is equally useful. This was posted on Facebook in January 2013. Originally published in Comics Scene #5 in 1982, a Mike Zeck pencil drawing of the Hulk was inked by four different artists.
As is readily apparent from the images below, Bob Layton, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, and Josef Rubinstein each bring something very different to the final look of the artwork. (My personal favorite is the one by Rubinstein.) If you were an editor who was going to hire Zeck to pencil a story, and if you had any common sense, you would not just randomly pick a name out of a hat to choose who was going to ink it. Hopefully, if you were doing your job and knew the styles of the various inkers in your rolodex, you’d give some consideration as to which one would be the best match-up for Zeck’s style, and would bring the desired finished look to the story that you were seeking.
Bob Almond, a very talented inker, is responsible for setting up the Inkwell Awards, which recognize excellence in inking. One of the great things about the Inkwells is that they have helped to demonstrate the importance of inking by putting out various examples of both “before and after” pieces and penciled artwork that have been inked by different artists to demonstrate what each illustrator brings to the table. I encourage everyone to look through their website and Facebook page. There’s a great deal of beautiful artwork on display that really puts the spotlight on the crucial role inking plays.
One last indication of the importance of inking is the rise in prevalence over the last decade of comic books that have been printed from uninked pencil artwork. I first noticed this in 2001 when Marvel began publishing X-Treme X-Men, featuring the art of Salvador Larroca. The book was shot directly from Larroca’s extremely tight, finished pencils. I was never a huge fan of this, because however detailed the penciling may have been it still seemed to be missing something, and the printed comics just looked rather faint and, well, blurry. It’s a bit difficult to describe. But I would have much preferred it if there had been an inker on the book.
Art wise, I felt X-Treme X-Men was much improved in its third year, when the art team of penciler Igor Kordey & inker Scott Hanna came on board. And, again, that also demonstrated the importance of an inker. Anyone who is familiar with Kordey’s work will probably know that when he inks his own pencils, it has a rough, gritty style a bit reminiscent of Joe Kubert. In contract, when he was inked by Hanna, the result is a more polished, slick look. Kordey is usually his own best inker, but he and Hanna definitely did make a very good art team.
In any case, as far as the practice of printing from uninked pencils goes, one of the main publishers to use this is Dynamite Entertainment. They have many talented artists working for them, but the uninked art has its drawbacks, the same I cited concerning Larroca’s work. This especially stood out for me when Mike Lilly was working at Dynamite. I love Lilly’s art, and he did nice stuff for Dynamite. But it would have been even stronger if he had been paired up an inker. Someone like Bob Almond, who had worked very well with Lilly in the past, would have given it a very polished heft, making it more substantive. The lack of inkers on so many of Dynamite’s titles is the major reason why I do not purchase more of their books.
In conclusion, inkers play an extremely vital part of the creative process in the production of comic books. I hope that this blog entry has helped to shed a little bit of light on the role that they play, and leads to a greater appreciation for their talents & efforts.