Joe Sinnott is one of the great living legends in comics today. A World War II veteran who studied at Burne Hogarth’s Cartoonists and Illustrators School, Sinnott is perhaps best known for inking comics for Marvel Comics for more than 60 years. In fact, Sinnott has inked the Sunday page of “The Amazing Spider-Man” comic strip since he officially “retired” in 1991.
Sinnott’s run inking Jack Kirby on “Fantastic Four” is considered one of the highlights of the Silver Age, but despite his name being synonymous with the House of Ideas, Sinnott drew comics for nearly every company and every genre for many years. In the days of comic book tie-ins, his gift for likenesses was an enviable skill to have and he drew biographical comics for everyone from Babe Ruth to Pope John XXIII to The Beatles in addition to album covers, movie posters and much more.
Last weekend, the Tri-City ValleyCats, the Houston Astros’ single-A affiliate in Troy, New York, held a Super Hero night honoring “Joltin'” Joe Sinnott. Sponsored by the Albany Comic Con, the event raised money for the Ronald McDonald House and everyone who bought a ticket to that night’s game received a baseball card featuring Sinnott, who also threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
CBR News spoke with Sinnott during the event about his long and storied career in comics, his experience studying to become a cartoonist, his time at Marvel, inking “The Amazing Spider-Man” comic strip and more.
CBR News: Joe, you’re being honored this weekend by the ValleyCats —
Joe Sinnott: Yes, I’m supposed to throw out the first ball, and they made me a baseball card with me batting in my uniform. They’re going to give the cards out to everyone who buys a ticket to the ball game. We’ve had rain, as you know, for the past two weeks, and it’s supposed to rain up until Friday, so I hope the rain stops by then.
Are you a big baseball fan?
Ever since 1936. I rooted for the New York Giants, and when they moved to San Francisco, I still rooted for them. I live and die with them. They gave me an authentic jersey, so I’m going to wear that at the game and my Giants hat, naturally.
The team in Troy is an Astros affiliate — will they let you wear the Giants jersey?
Well, I don’t know who they’re playing that night. It’s a single-A team but they’re not playing a Giants team. No matter who they play, it’s going to be interesting.
That’s Saturday, and Sunday I’m supposed to go somewhere locally and do some sketches for the kids. I’m always doing that it seems. They’re always asking me to exhibit my work and I’ll do sketches and give out prints at these events. We have a lot of events going on around Saugerties. It’s a very active little town and they ask me occasionally to come help out. It’s just amazing what this town does.
You served in the Navy during World War II, and afterwards you studied at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, which later became the School of Visuals Arts. What was the school like when you were a student?
It was very interesting, very informative and a lot of fun. It was the first time I ever met a cartoonist! Of course, today the young guys can go to conventions and meet cartoonists first hand and see them actually draw. But going down to the Burne Hogarth School and seeing Burne Hogarth — who, of course, was a great Tarzan artist — [was great]. Occasionally, he would have some of his friends like Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff come in and give “chalk talks” [a monologue presentation done while the speaker draws] to us. You can imagine how we students were in awe of Raymond and Caniff. These were our idols and to see them up in front of the class drawing on the easel was just mind-boggling. Today, it’d be an everyday occurrence, but back then it was really unique and exciting.
One of the instructors was Tom Gill, who was a very important figure in your career.
Other than being a great artist, he was a nice man. He gave me my start, no question about it. He liked my work and asked me to come out to his studio on weekends. He lived in Rockville Center and had a lot of accounts. Other than being an instructor at the school, he worked on “The Lone Ranger” and other westerns. He has an account at Marvel — well, it was Timely [Comics] in those days. He did so many adventure stories and detective stories. He gave me my start and I learned more from Tom than I actually did at the school because I was drawing the actual comic books.
Back then, you were drawing every story genre. Did you have a favorite?
I liked to draw all the adventure stories. I loved westerns, of course. I loved the war stories we did during the Korean War. If I had to put my finger on one, I loved doing biographies. I was fairly good at doing likenesses and some of the other companies saw that. Dell, for example, wanted me to do the life of The Beatles in 1964, which I did when they first came over to America. I did “Twelve O’Clock High.” You might remember, it was a great TV show about B-17 bombers. It was patterned after the movie that Gregory Peck played in. I had to do likenesses for that story. Treasure Chest used to give me all the biographical stories. I did the life of Babe Ruth and the Popes and John Kennedy and MacArthur and Eisenhower — the list is endless. I think it was because they knew I could do good likenesses and they liked my work on the biographies.
Most modern fans and readers know you mostly as an inker, but you also did a lot of work as a penciller.
The first twelve years that I was in comics, I penciled and inked my own stories. Most artists did at that time. It was in the sixties that Stan thought we could get more work done if one person pencilled and the other person inked. He had a problem with Jack Kirby. Jack was not a great inker. He couldn’t really ink his own stuff. He was the greatest fantasy artist that ever came down the pipe, but his inking didn’t look the same as when he pencilled it. So Stan asked me if I would ink this story that Jack did, and Stan loved it so much that he asked me if I would stay on with Jack for a while. He was easy to work with.
At the beginning, some of my own work came through, but then I got to doing it just the way Jack had pencilled it. I made it a little slicker, picked it up here and there — maybe make the girls a little prettier or the men a little handsomer — but Kirby didn’t need too many fixes on his work because he was the best. He was just the greatest. Of course, John Buscema was the greatest artist we had. No one could draw like John. He could draw everything. But Kirby could tell a great story and he was just fantastic.
How did you end up shifting to primarily inking comics? Was that simply what you were being offered?
It’s because I thought I was doing a favor to Stan and the company, but as you probably know, we were a very good combination, Jack and I, on the “Fantastic Four” book. I did #5, originally. Jack couldn’t ink it and Stan asked if I could, which I did, and then I started #6. I did a couple panels, but Treasure Chest had called me a month or so before and I committed myself to signing up for a couple of biography books that were 65 pages long where I was to pencil and ink them. I loved doing biographies, so I called Stan and told him I won’t be able to do “Fantastic Four” [because] I promised Treasure Chest I would do a couple of biographies for them. I was off of the “Fantastic Four” until #44 when Stan called me up again and said, “We have a problem. I’ve got to get somebody to ink Jack’s work. Would you ink another story?” Stan loved it and said, “Joe, will you please stay with us on Jack Kirby’s work. We think it’s a terrific combination.” So I stayed with them, but I still did work for Treasure Chest. I don’t know how I did it in those days. I still knocked out stories for Dell Comics and a couple others. I was a lot younger then in the early sixties. I burned the midnight oil and burned the candle at both ends.
What can you tell us about the biography of The Beatles you drew?
That was for Dell. It was 64 pages, and I did the pencils and the inks on that. I think was probably one of the best things that I ever did. Again, I was good at likenesses and the Beatles were new at the time. They weren’t too well known, so I knocked myself out on that 64-page story. I did the 64 pages in a month’s time. They wanted the book out before the Beatles arrived in America to be on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” so I burned the midnight oil to get it done. It was quite successful.
Do you have a favorite Marvel character?
People always ask me that, and I always say the Fantastic Four was the first superheroes I worked on and I always loved The Thing — he was unique, he was different. I also liked drawing Thor. I worked with Jack Kirby on the first couple of Thor stories, and then Stan wanted me to pencil and ink some Thor, which I did for about five issues. Like I said, I was up to my ears in all kinds of work.
You’ve been incredibly prolific over the years. How did you manage such a high level of productivity?
I would never turn anything down. I was doing record covers and billboards. If someone called me, I couldn’t say no to them. I felt I owed them something for being interested and liking my work, so I did an awful lot of work, especially in the ’60s and ’70s, but I did a lot of work all through my life. I ghosted a lot of people, friends of mine. In ’58-’59, Vince Colletta called me — everybody was scrounging around looking for work, and he had an account up at Charlton doing romance books. He would ink them and I would pencil them. I worked through Vince because it was his account, but he would send the scripts to me and I would pencil them, I would mail them back down to him in New Jersey and he would ink them. I pencilled 2,700 romance pages. People don’t realize that I did an awful lot of romance pages, too. I was doing this when Stan called us back to work after about six months. When I was working for Stan, I was working for Dell, and at night, I would do work for Colletta on these romance pages.
You’ve also drawn a lot of other things besides comics like album covers and so much more. I know that you’ve drawn a number of Bing Crosby covers and images.
In fact, I just did one this week. Ever since I was twelve years old, I was a Bing fan. I became a collector. I have everything he ever recorded, whether it’s on record or tape or whatever. I’ve got his old radio shows. People wanted me to draw record covers and magazine covers and caricatures. I’ve done so many things down through my life.
You’re officially retired, but you’ve been inking “The Amazing Spider-Man” comic strip for many years now.
Since 1991. I told Stan that I was burnt out and I wanted to retire. I had worked 45 years for him, give or take a year, so he asked me if I would stay on and just ink the Sunday page. I’ve gone through six different pencillers. Alex Saviuk is doing it now, and doing a fine job. I’ve been inking Spider-Man since 1991, almost 23 years, I guess, so I’ve probably done close to a thousand Sunday pages. I just finished yesterday two more strips that won’t be out until August.
Do you work differently just because the comic strip is so much smaller than a comic book page?
I have to use a lot of pen, now. For years, especially on the Kirby stuff, I inked probably eighty-five percent [with a] brush. I love working with a brush. With the big panels and big drawings that Kirby gave me, I could do that. With the “Spider-Man” strip, there’s six panels to every Sunday strip and everything is small. I have to use a lot of pen, but I do make the pen look like a brushstroke. That’s no problem for me.
Many artists and inkers have said that after using a brush, they couldn’t go back to using a pen.
Well, there’s so much you can do with a brush, but a lot of things have changed in brush inking in the past 10-15 years. It’s hard to find a good brush. I used to use a Winsor Newton 7 — it was a great brush, but now it’s terrible. You can barely ink with it. Like I said, I can get the effect I want with a pen. I use a Hunt 102; that’s the nib I use. I can get some nice effects with it. The brush is quicker, of course. You can cover a larger area and it held more ink naturally. With the pen, you’re always dipping it into the bottle.
Other than Kirby, do you have any favorite artists with whom you’ve worked over the years?
I’ve worked with almost every artist you can think of: Gil Kane, John Romita, Ron Frenz, Vince Colletta. I did so much with Walt Simonson. The list is endless, really. You name the artist and I worked with him. There’s one artist I wish I could have worked with, but we never got together. That was John Severin. I always loved his work.
I know that you get enlisted to draw or ink a cover now and again.
My son Mark has a complete list of everything that I ever did in comics, and it mind-boggles me sometimes when I look to see how many covers I’ve done, all the different characters. They used to send me as many covers as I could handle at one time. Usually the artist working on the book does the cover. It’s amazing really — I did so many covers over the years, but actually, I prefer just doing the books because when you’re drawing covers you can lose track of what you’re doing in the books. It sort of sidetracks you
Is that because you enjoyed the storytelling aspect of drawing a book as opposed to a cover image?
I think so. No question, covers are nice. I like the old days when I did a lot of covers, back in the ’50s. Westerns and war stories and science fiction. I used to love science fiction. The ’50s were a great time for drawing because the stories were only 5-6 pages long. One week you’d do a western, the next week, a war story, the next week, horror, the next week, romance. You never got bored with the stories. They were simple stories back then, but they were a lot of fun and a lot of good art. The only problem was that you probably know that Marvel — or Timely, in those days — didn’t save the artwork. They burned it and tore it up instead of giving it back to the artists. I would have loved some of the artwork I did back in those days.
I interviewed Sal Buscema last year, and when I asked about his favorite inkers he said that you were a master who always made him look good.
I worked a lot with Sal. I worked on “The Incredible Hulk” and a lot of the “Rom” books. Sal is a great penciler and he’s also a great inker. He does mostly inking now. He works a lot with Ron Frenz, who’s a great penciler. Ron is not an inker but he does beautiful covers. He and I did so many covers of “Fantastic Four,” “The Mighty Thor” and a lot of others. I liked working with Ron. His stuff is very clean, simple, well-drawn. Sal was the same way. He wasn’t in a class with his brother John, but he was close. John was the best. There was nobody even close to John, but Sal did a great job on so many different characters.
Thanks to Mark Sinnott and Ron Marz for helping to arrange this interview.