Stefano Gaudiano is one of the premier inkers in comics. Many readers may be familiar with his work because of his collaborations with Michael Lark as an inker for long runs on “Gotham Central” and “Daredevil.” Recently his work has been seen at Valiant Entertainment on “X-O Manowar,” “Bloodshot” and other titles.” In addition to his inking, Gaudiano has worked as a penciler on a number of projects and his very first professional comic work, “Kafka,” was re-released by Image Comics in a new edition this summer.
Gaudiano’s new project is Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s smash hit, “The Walking Dead.” For more than one hundred issues, Adlard has penciled and inked the book, but for the biweekly “All Out War” event, Gaudiano has joined the book and CBR News spoke with this longtime fan of Image’s long running zombie series about joining one of pop culture’s biggest franchises about how he is approaching the project and his philosophy about art and inking.
CBR News: What are you working on today?
Stefano Gaudiano: Today I’m working on “The Walking Dead” #120. I can’t believe this is my sixth issue. It’s going by fast.
How did you end up working on “The Walking Dead?”
Basically they decided to do this event, “All Out War,” which is twelve issues with one issue coming out every two weeks. As incredibly fast as Charlie is, penciling and inking two issues a month would have been daunting. They probably had a few people that they thought about and I was available. I did a test image for them that they liked and they offered me the stint. It worked out great for me. I’d been doing a lot of work for Valiant, which I really enjoyed, but it was a moment when I could step away without creating too much trouble over there. They gave me their blessing and it’s been a lot of fun for me to do this.
You’re signed on for the twelve issues of “All Out War,” not a more open-ended run, is that right?
Yes, and then presumably they’ll go back to a monthly schedule and Charlie is going to be able to do it again. If they asked me to stay on longer, I’d be happy to do it, but the agreement is for a twelve-issue run.
Given that Charlie Adlard has been inking himself for so long, what has it been like working with him?
It definitely presents a very particular challenge. Inking is something I’m very passionate about. It’s much, much easier than penciling, but it does involve an interplay of skill and creativity that I have always found enjoyable. Part of the fun is that every assignment requires an adjustment. Even just tracing, your own voice comes out to a certain degree no matter who you work with. Usually the fun of the job is finding out how the two voices are going to combine in an interesting way that doesn’t disrupt the vibe of the book.
The challenge of inking Charlie’s pencils is unique and different than what I expected. I thought, this guy has been inking himself, he’s been putting out a book every month, so he’s probably used to doing fairly loose pencils and then finishing the work in ink. He’ll be penciling two books a month, what I’m going to get are somewhat loose pencils and I’ll have to find some middle ground where basically I try to make the work look in keeping with what he’s been doing, but I’ll have to improvise a lot.
Instead, Charlie blew my mind, because the pencils that he’s been turning in are basically perfectly rendered. I mean everything is there. Everything is really well delineated: the black areas are all spotted, all the shading is done in pencils, he uses the line techniques that he uses in his inks. On the one hand, it makes my job a lot easier technically. The work is going faster than most other jobs that I’ve done. Because Charlie puts everything down on paper so neatly and so clearly, the job is absolutely easier and I can actually ink two issues a month without relying on any help. The challenge then becomes, what am I bringing to the table? [Laughs]
It’s been embarrassing because I feel like I’m a good inker, I’m a good artist, and it’s not like I’m doing a bad job but there’s no way that my work can be as pure as the original artist’s work. I’ve worked with a lot of artists that are great inkers on their own work like Butch Guice, Lee Weeks, Michael Lark, but In those collaborations i didn’t have one hundred issues already established in the style that Charlie perfected. There’s no way that I can absolutely imitate Charlie’s inking style — even if I’m using some of the tools he’s using. For one thing he works at a smaller size than I work. I’m not the kind of artist who can work that small. I need to work bigger, so my line weights are going to be different just because of that. It’s like handwriting. I can’t forge his handwriting and if I did, it would probably come out stilted anyway.
Even at its best, inking doesn’t involve the level of creativity that penciling does, but the most flattering thing I can say about an inker is that a good inker can be like a good singer who can pick a song and sing the hell out of it and bring new life to it. In Charlie’s case, he’s been singing his own songs for ten years now on “The Walking Dead” and I feel like I’m Sammy Hagar coming in for David Lee Roth. I’m doing my best, but Charlie just kills it. That’s been the Charlie experience. It’s humiliating trying to be as good as Charlie. [Laughs]
In practical terms, though, it’s been wonderful because I know exactly what he’s doing and how I can render that in ink. Charlie has been great about resolving every problem I could have had. That’s good for the book because there’s an obvious difference between my inking and Charlie’s inking, but the drawing flows pretty well from #114 to #115. I don’t think it was jarring for people because in the end, the inks are not something that is going to distract people from the fact that you’re looking at Rick Grimes as drawn by Charlie Adlard as he’s drawn him for the last hundred issues or so.
Have you and Charlie communicated much?
We don’t communicate extensively, but I’ve had the opportunity to ask him some questions in person at NYCC. Other than that, the process is that I always send the inks to Charlie, Robert [Kirkman] and Sean Mackiewicz, the editor, for review before they go to Cliff [Rathburn] for the graytones — which also has been a massive help and a lot off my shoulders because basically I’m sitting between Charlie and Cliff. Maybe it’s not so much like being a singer, but I’m replacing the bass guitar. It becomes a lot less noticeable. You’ve got Charlie doing his thing. You’ve got Cliff doing his thing — and Cliff does amazing work. When the first issue came out, the reviews were positive. Nobody was thrown off by the art. It was pretty seamless. Everybody seems to be happy.
Throughout the process Charlie and Robert have been very encouraging. Charlie has been great about saying, “Feel free to do your own thing. Bring in a little bit of what you do. Feel free to ink outside the lines a little bit.” Robert’s helped in pointing out a few spots in the first two issues where I was veering off model or missing nuances.
You mentioned that you wanted to study the originals. Is that to get a better sense of how the penciler works? Is that a big help?
It’s always helpful. I don’t always get a chance to do that, but it’s always helpful. When I started working with Michael Lark — which is basically when I jumped to inking as my full time profession — he sent me copies of the work that he’d been doing on his own and that was really helpful. Lee Weeks did the same when we worked on “Captain Marvel.” Seeing someone’s art printed and colored is a whole different thing. When you’re looking at the original or a good copy of the work in black and white you can absorb a lot more of what the person is trying to do.
The time this proved most helpful for me was in the final arc of “Gotham Central.” I don’t know if you read “Gotham Central” but it was a great series by DC. Michael Lark co-created and drew it for over two years and then Kano took over. On the first story arc penciled by Kano I worked very much in the same vein that I did with Michael and my inks took Kano’s art and made it look more like what Michael and I were doing. Then I got to go visit Kano in Barcelona where he lives and seeing his original art, stuff that he’d worked on himself, and that completely changed my approach. The second story arc we did together I felt like I was actually inking Kano’s art as it was intended to be inked instead of changing Kano’s art to make it fit in better with what Michael had been doing before that. That was a great transition for me. I don’t even know how noticeable it was for other people but for me it made a lot of difference and made the second arc a lot better than the first one.
I’m saying this as a non-professional, even though an inker has a style, even more than a penciler who changes their work or style, it seems as though an inker has to be very flexible about how they work and adapt to each project and collaborator.
You’re right. As an inker I think it’s more important in a way because a penciler is working in the service of a story but is also very much the co-creator of a book. Even while serving the story, pencilers need to let their own voice come through. To not necessarily think of themselves as a technical person who is illustrating a story, but more as an artist who is bringing a whole new creative voice to the work. As an inker, adapting to different pencilers is a more important aspect of each job. I think that it’s probably safe to say there are inkers out there who primarily work in their own style and there are other inkers that try to adapt to different styles. I’m not even sure what category I fall in because I know that mentally I’m always thinking about what this is going to require me to do and I try to adapt to the needs of the job, but it feels like my natural style is somewhat heavy-handed and imposes itself somewhat. I was very happy to learn what Kano’s work should look like as opposed to what “Gotham Central” should look like. I was happy to make that transition, but I’m not sure how successful I am on that front.
Of course there are times when a guest artist comes in and editorially my assignment as an inker is to not make it look like the artist’s work but to make it look like, say, every other issue of “Daredevil.” I remember when Paul Azaceta stepped in to help Michael on pencils for a few pages of “Daredevil.” He had also drawn a full issue that he inked himself, but when Paul did a few pages in the middle of a story, at that point, my job as an inker became to make his pages flow seamlessly with the rest of the book as much as I could. In that case I was the regular inker on the book and had an established approach, so that was fairly easy. I also worked with Lee Weeks on some “Daredevil” stuff and inked him in a style that was different than what I used to do with Michael, but still in the general vein of the series. we also collaborated on a “Winter Soldier” Christmas special where Lee had just done layouts and I took a different stylistic approach and got pretty loose with the inks. That was an interesting experiment. I liked a lot of what we did together on that issue. Then we did some “Captain Marvel” and I felt like because it’s a sci-fi book and more of a superhero book and less street level, I ended up really going out of my way to tailor my style so it looked more suited for the subject matter that he was drawing. All of these are considerations and every job has different demands.
I don’t think I succeed as much as I’d like in tailoring my style to a project. I think it’s difficult for me to divest myself of my general approach, which tends to be a little bit rougher, a little looser. It works pretty well with Charlie on “Walking Dead” because even though I lament the fact that I’m not as good as he is inking himself I still feel like it’s a zombie book and it suits my general textural line approach pretty well. Whereas if I were to ink someone like Jimmy Cheung, I couldn’t do it. Mark Morales does an insanely good job. There are guys who are technically capable of rising to the challenge of taking this very polished pencil style, and rendering it in ink and giving it life but still keeping all of the precision. I find that for myself, I have limits. I can try to work a little bit more in one way or another but my comfort zone is limited to a certain type of art. There are limits and you do the best you can.
How much do you work digitally?
The computer is always part of the process in that I get pencils as jpegs and it’s been like that for the past ten years. I usually don’t ink digitally. First I look at the pencils and print them out in a way that I think is going to make it easiest for me to actually finish the job, sometimes enlarging panels and that sort of thing. Then I’ll print out the pencils and ink on paper 95% of the time. There have been a few times where I’ll ink on the computer but I think the only times I did that extensively was on a couple short sequences that I penciled myself — partially for time reasons and partially as an exercise.
When I’m inking other people I prefer to work on paper. There’s a little bit of computer use, but it’s mostly in the production process where I clean up smudges and touch up a couple of figures. I usually don’t go very far beyond that. I don’t have a problem with digital inking. Like I said, I’ve inked my own work digitally. I think it’s interesting and it looks good but I’m so used to working on paper it’s easier to just print the page out. Plus it’s nice to have the original art, inked over blue line printouts of the pencils.
Can you just explain that briefly for readers who might not know. You get the pencils and them print them out in blue to ink over?
Yes. Even before the rise of the computer people would sometimes actually use a blue pencil to do their drawing and then they would ink in black. What would happen is in the printing process the blue dropped out and all you’d see is the black linework. With computers it’s the same concept basically but the art is drawn with regular pencils and I just print it out in blue on my 11×17 printer and then I ink it, and when I scan it the blue drops out. I like the system because it makes it possible to still have the pencils and still refer back to the pencils when I do a final pass after I’ve scanned in the inks. Maybe I’ll see that a face looks better in the pencils and needs to be re-inked. I like having that sort of control over the final product.
You’re mostly known for inking, but you’ve also done a lot of penciling and even some coloring.
I’ve done a fair amount of penciling, but very little coloring in comics. I’ve done color work for video games and color illustrations throughout my career. In comics there was one rare occasion: Gene Colan — who is one of my idols from when I was a child — was invited to do a three-page sequence in “Daredevil” #100 when Michael and I were on that series with Ed Brubaker. The editor, Warren Simons, asked Gene how he wanted the art reproduced and Gene basically said that he wanted the artwork reproduced from his pencils. My heart sank because I was dying to sink my teeth into some Gene Colan pencils. Basically I begged Warren to let me color it. I said if I can’t ink it, can I at least do the coloring? I was so excited about working with Gene and I got so overwhelmed that I ended up pushing the deadline and had to call for help and Matt Hollingsworth, who was the regular colorist on Daredevil, and Justin Norman — Moritat — came in and helped me out, gave me a pointers. I was so excited to have the chance to work with Gene Colan. It was one of those moments where childhood dreams come true. I’m really thankful to Warren for letting me do it. I think he regretted it because I pushed the deadline so far that the last page to come in for that issue was the last page in that sequence. He was there sweating bullets worried this whole issue was going to be pushed back because I was obsessing over coloring Gene Colan, but I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I’ll owe him that forever.
At Valiant you worked on “X-O Manowar,” which was their first big release, “Bloodshot” and “Harbinger.” Do you have any favorites?
“Harbinger” #10 was one of those situations where we had two different pencilers and I inked the whole book. They had to have two pencilers because of a deadline change at the last minute. I was so happy with that issue in the end. It was a really difficult job where I was working really long hours for like two weeks and in the end it came together. Part of the pleasure of it was everybody was clicking on that issue. I ended up doing some work on later issues with Trevor Hairsine. I was thrilled to have a chance to work with him. He inks himself brilliantly but the couple of times I worked with him have been a real pleasure. “Harbinger” is a book that I think is just top notch. I think Josh Dysart is one of those genius level writers and I can’t wait until “Harbinger” takes off.
“X-O Manowar” is something I’m really proud of. I think colorist Moose Baumann and I really feel very happy about what we brought to that book. Cary [Nord] did this beautiful art and it felt like we were able to do exactly what the inker and colorist are supposed to be able to do, which is just bring it to life and enhance it and make it sing. We made the difference between it being good and it just flowing well. Robert did a really great job of recreating that character and making it much more interesting for me and much more appropriate for the times we live in. It’s a great book and I look forward to seeing it continue. I’m waiting for “Unity” to come out to see how it all plays out. [Laughs]
I also wanted to ask you about “Kafka,” the book you did with Steven T. Seagle, which was republished by Image over the summer. Was that your first comic?
That takes me back. It was my first professional work. When I was sixteen I started self-publishing with a couple of other artists in the Denver, Colorado area where I was living. It was 1983 when we started, so basically you had “Cerebus,” “Elfquest,” “First Kingdom,” “American Splendor” and a handful of other independent comic books out. The black and white boom hadn’t hit yet. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” came out at exactly the same time I started self-publishing. A lot of people got the notion, “Hey, we have this distribution system” — at the time there were half dozen different distributors selling to comic book stores — and people started realizing what Dave Sim and Wendy Pini and Richard Pini were doing. You could make a comic book, send it out to distributors, bypassing publishers. Honestly, our book wasn’t very good but we sold some copies, maybe 1200 or something. After self-publishing for about two and a half years I met Steve Seagle and if you read the Image edition, we talked about that experience in the back of the book. I was in college and because I’d already had the experience of producing a quarterly comic book religiously, this black and white anthology, I felt confident going in and saying yeah I can handle drawing a miniseries. He’d already sold “Kafka” as a concept to Renegade and was just looking for an artist, and the editor liked my work. That was my first professional assignment where I made a little money drawing comic books. It was a pretty great experience, and I loved seeing it repackaged by Steve’s company, Man of Action, through Image. Marco Cinello added graytones to the black-and white art and did a brilliant job adding a new dimension to the work.
Just to wrap things up, I have to ask, can you tease a little about what will happen in “All Out War?”
I can tell you that I’m excited about seeing the stories. I’ve had moments where I gasp and go, “I can’t believe you’re doing this!” I can tell you this much, I’ve been really enjoying drawing zombies. That’s the most fun part of the job, getting to draw shambling, decaying things. I hope that’s not too much of a reveal — there are zombies in “The Walking Dead!” [Laughs] I was reading “The Walking Dead” before I came on board and I’m really happy to see where it’s going. I’m only a couple of months ahead of the audience so I wouldn’t be able to spoil too much, but what I’ve seen that you haven’t is going to be worth reading. I don’t know what more I can say that won’t leave Robert Kirkman really pissed off at me! [Laughs]
“The Walking Dead” #116 by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Stefano Gaudiano and Cliff Rathburn is on sale now.