Thinking About Inking: the role of comic book inkers

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.

Batman inking examples

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.

Hulk inking examples

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.

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36 thoughts on “Thinking About Inking: the role of comic book inkers

  1. Great article. The comparison of inkers on the same penciled piece is always very enlightening. I really like the Hulk image in the article and wish a scan of the pencils were around to see how each of the artists varied as compared to the pencils. The Inkwell inker events are really fun to see as well.

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  2. A small nitpick. That line in Chasing Amy was from somebody who was not well versed in the art of inking. It was pointing out that inkers are not in fact “tracers”. Kevin knows this, having worked in the comic industry and having been a life long appreciator of the medium.

    That being said, I love the article. Inking is as varied and nuanced as any art form and it should be recognized as such. Thank you.

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    • Yeah, if the “pencils” are really loose and unfinished, it’s rightly labeled “layouts” or “breakdowns.” That’s just putting the bulk of the illustration workload on the inker.

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  3. Great article, Ben. Thanks for posting the page of Mike Zeck’s Hulk inked by Layton, Janson, Palmer and Rubinstein. That page in Comics Scene was my introduction to how much inkers added their own styles to the pencils. I agree that comics printed from the penciled pages just don’t have the same effect as inked art.

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    • Thank you for the kind words. For myself, the first time I really began to understand the importance of an inker was that DC Comics editorial page from the early 1990s where the same Batman pencil panel was re-inked by three different artists. It was extremely enlightnening. Scott Hanna was one of those three inkers, and after he read this blog post, he posted a scan of that editorial piece on his Facebook page. As you say, the Hulk illustration is also extremely revealing & educational about the crucial role an inker plays in the finished look of the artwork.

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      • The “New Talent” editor at Marvel at the time, John Lewandowski, sent me a response to an inking submission that included a xerox of the DC Comics editorial page you reference, along with an excerpt from the “Marvel Comics Tryout Book” covering inking. I had the latter, but not the former. I’ve still got it in my records and just pulled it from my old editor’s correspondence file from when I was trying to break into the biz. It really did drive the point home. I remember figuring out what an inker brought to the page as a kid, and to this day I can look at just about any Marvel comic from the ’80s and identify at a glance who pencilled it and who inked it. I have since found that this is a rare skill. No wonder, then, that I became a comics inker! You want me to email you a scan of the xeroxed DC editorial page so you can append it to this post?

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      • A big “thank you” to Steve Bird for his comments, sharing his experiences, as well as providing a link to a scan of the exact editorial piece from DC Comics where the same Batman panel penciled by Jim Balent was inked by three different artists, Scott Hanna, Gerry Fernandez, and Ted Hotchkiss, with very different results. This really shows the importance of the inker on the finished look of the artwork.

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  4. Pingback: The Inkredible Hulk | I Am Not Me
  5. Hey, Ben!
    Wonderful article. I linked to it on my FB page.

    Just an FYI, the Hulk art you show is from COMICS SCENE magazine (#3 or #4?)…that was one of the first to really open my eyes as well to what an inker can add (or subtract), enhance (or detract) from good and poor pencils.
    (Something I learned even more so when I had four guys help me ink an issue of my old NASTI: MONSTER HUNTER mini-series back in the 20th century.) 🙂

    Another wonderful and highly recommended source for such comparisons is Gary Martin’s two excellent books, The Art Of Comic-Book Inking 1 and 2.

    Thanks again!

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    • It is more of an American thing, actually. Throughout Europe, Asia, and South America, many artists on graphic novels & comic books do create the full artwork, both pencils and inks. The separation of penciler and inker grew out of the “assembly line” approach of American comics in the 1930s and 40s, where you would have entire studios of creators literally churning out entire issues in a matter of days, all to meet the demand of the then-tremendous marketplace. In the 1950s and 60s, you still had a lot of that compartmentalization at big publishers such as DC and Marvel, where the editors wanted their star artists (such as Jack Kirby, John Romita, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Curt Swan) to be able to pencil as many issues as possible, which meant that the inking was assigned to others. In more recent years, with the rise of more independent publishers and creator-owned books here in the States, you now see many artists who now have both the time & opportunity to do the full artwork, and take advantage of that to both pencil & ink.

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  6. It may have begun in the USA but was by no means confined there. English and UK artists used separate pencillers and inkers with DAN DARE and 2000 A.D. (Frank Hampson had an entire studio to help out.) Many Asian companies also used a studio system, especially with the gorgeous Jademan titles.

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  7. Was the Hulk with four inkers image later printed in Marvel Age? Because it was former editor Tim Touhy who resent the file to me and I recall him saying how he printed it there.

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  8. Reblogged this on docinks and commented:
    I found this post from Benjamin Herman and I like to share it with you. It’s good to read articles about inking from another bloggers.
    ©https://benjaminherman.wordpress.com Dated March 27th 2013.

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. Thanks for the lovely post. Inking is something I wish I understood better, if only to be able to articulate why a certain inker’s style does or doesn’t work for me. Well, it’s easier to put my finger on why I love Klaus Janson’s work (the rough, expressive quality gives so much personality and energy to everything he does) than it is to figure out why Danny Miki’s inks rub me the wrong way. I have a hunch that Miki tends to stick with a thin, light line too often, which tends to sap the energy from the pencils. But, like I said, I would really like to have the critical vocabulary to articulate why, and not just guess. “Danny Miki sucks” is just juvenile, and disrespectful of a gifted craftsman (regardless of how I feel about his style, he has chops). Do you have any tips of books or sites to check out to learn more about inking (and pencilling too, I guess)?

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