Inking: A Perilous Prospect in 2009

Hello, CBR readers! If you've picked up any DC comics over the past 15 years, you may recognize my name. My job description is Inker, which for the uninitiated means reproducing pencil drawings with careful rendering using the medium of black ink.

Thanks to Kevin Smith and his film "Chasing Amy," inking has been forever trivialized as "tracing." (I don't know which is worse at conventions, being called the T-word, or the follow-up backpeddle, having my job justified to me by a well-meaning comics fan assuring me that they "know inkers do more than that."). Thanks, Kev. Nonetheless, I stand before you a proud inker who is steadily employed in an uncertain economy, so I count my blessings.

CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland has been kind enough to allow me some precious CBR space to air my insider opinions about the state of the comics industry as it relates to inkers. The germ of this idea came after answering a spate of recent emails about this subject.

I cannot in good conscience encourage someone to make inking a career goal in the year 2009.

You may have the chops, but the odds of finding paying work have never been lower than now. While I will always appreciate good inking, I have accepted the distasteful truth that I'm a practitioner of a dwindling (if not dying) art form. Aside from writing and pencilling, every other aspect of the comics-making process is considered "production," no matter how we romanticize it.

A casual study of mainstream comic books supports these findings:

  • Today's comics have a strong coloring presence. Once reserved for the inker, textures and light sources are now mainly the colorist's jurisdiction. We now see special effects undreamt of years ago. Very cool for the new breed of comics readers, bad for inkers.
  • Look at Marvel's line of comics. I'd estimate that half of them use digital inking direct-from-pencil color art with no detriment to sales, such as Ron Garney's new Wolverine title, or Marvel/Dynamite's "Avengers/Invaders."

    The remaining Marvel titles that still use inked art already employ top inkers such as Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, Danny Miki, Dexter Vines, Mark Farmer and Tim Townsend, to name just a few. DC has an even longer list of top talents filling their inking roster: Bob Wiacek, John Dell, Norm Rapmund, Wayne Faucher, Christian Alamy, Karl Story, Tom Nguyen, Andy Owens, Dave Meikis and others.

    In many cases, an inker can do more than one monthly comic. When there are (rare) openings for inkers, there's a legion of established pros ready to step in.

  • Fan-favorite artists such as Steve Epting, Butch Guice, Ethan Van Sciver, John Cassaday and Barry Kitson now enjoy the fruits of inking themselves after years of being subjected to less-than-satisfying inks delivered Russian Roulette-style.
  • Other top artists such as Kevin Nowlan, Bill Sienkiewicz, Butch Guice (him again!), and Sal Buscema find inking a more comfortable exercise compared to the (let's all admit it) hardest job in comics, storytelling in pencil.
  • More than ever, we're competing on an international level, thanks to modern technology, Photoshop, scanners, you name it. A flood of incredible new talented artists as well as specialists (i.e. inkers) has entered DC and Marvel's universes courtesy of South America, Europe, Canada, Asia and beyond. For the first six decades of comic books, living in New York City gave you a great edge over competition. That rule no longer applies. Heck, I've never set foot in NYC in my life, even though I could justify the pilgrimage on my taxes! Frankly, I've been too busy making deadlines to do so. Now that I have a scanner, I almost never leave the house (not necessarily a source of pride)! If there's a business relation to be maintained, I go to comic book conventions.

I'd like to put my head in the sand about my profession, having grown up admiring Joe Sinnott, Terry Austin, Rudy Nebres and Wally Wood, but I'm not commenting on the comics field circa 1978. Or even 1992. For good or ill, all things change. I would love to ink Silver Age-style comics, but I have to stay current and competitive. That means delivering what my editors and pencillers request, and save my "old school" indulgences for private commissions.

If you're shaking your head at your monitor right now (or at your iPhone or Blackberry) and insist that I impart some glimmer of hope to aspiring inkers, all I can think of is this: find a "hot" or up-and-coming penciller who can groom you to ink the way he/she wants. There have been some great new pencil/ink teams popping up, more so than new inkers alone. In recent years, I've given up trying to usher newbie inkers into the big time. It's disheartening to see impressive ink samples, only to pass them on to editors who'll agree that, while the newbie's inking looks professional, there's no work to offer the inker.

Only one factor can possibly change the odds: economics may cause publishers who want to sustain the same amount of output of comics to fully embrace the black & white format of Anime. "Scott Pilgrim" is the biggest North American success story, so lets not rule that out. I had read some article stating this concept before, with more popular stories being reprinted in full color collections, similar to British album collections. You can dismiss this cautionary diatribe and soldier on, but know that as a new inker, you'll be facing the same harsh odds as opening an indie record store. Or making a living as an extra in movies. I guess I'm lucky, being "grandfathered in." If I was breaking in today, I would sharpen my pencilling or coloring skills. And don't think I'm not doing so in my spare time.

Drew Geraci has inked for all the major publishers. His latest assignment, "Wildcats" #13-18 for WildStorm, starts this July. Despite his cranky demeanor, he still loves inking as you can tell from his blog www.drewgeraci.com . Drew will be attending Megacon August 22 & 23.

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