The Art of Inking Jim Lee

The art of inking is the process of making a million little decisions and it appears to be a completely maddening task.

I thought this as I read "Batman: Hush Unwrapped," the hardcover reprinting of the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee "Batman" story from almost a decade ago. The twist is, this is reprinted straight from Lee's original pencils, adding only the lettering on for readability's sake. But the real star of the book is the person whose work is unseen, inker Scott Williams. Sure, he provides an introduction, but seeing what he has to work with in comparison to what the final product was, you have to appreciate his artistry and his patience.

Yes, Jim Lee draws a lot of lines -- textures, speedlines, feathered lines, shaded lines, gentle curves, harsh edges, wispy lines, etc. They show up on every page. It's Scott Williams' job to make sense of them all. Somehow, he manages to not just redraw every line in India ink, but also add a few in, spot some solid black areas and clean everything up.

I opened the book up to my favorite chapter of the story, the one set in the opera house, starring Harley Quinn. The backgrounds are ornate. Lee spared not an inch of white space to show the decorations along the crowded opera house's interior. And when the action moves outside, there's plenty of rain and graffiti and debris to keep things interesting. But let's look at the kinds of choices Williams had to make along the way

A group of men in black suits are holding the crowd at gunpoint. Half of the suits are shaded in with the pencil, while the rest is an open white area with an "X" drawn inside, to indicate solid back. What's the difference between a solid black area and a solid black suit with no detail lines penciled inside? That's up to Williams to decide.

Harley Quinn is seen jumping through a panel multiple times. Even in pencil, Lee knows to give her thin lines where she's been and draw her completely in her final position. But it's up to Williams to decide whether to add extra weight to those thin inks to indicate any weight at all to Quinn's body, or just leave them as ghostly figures, as if projected into thin air. Lack of detail is one thing, but line weight is another completely.

The facade along the front of the balcony seats is filled with a ridiculous amount of detail. Lee has drawn every crack and every flourish into them, but clearly done so by hand, without a ruler or a French curve or anything to make the lines architecturally pure. Should Williams ink straight over the lines and leave the looser feeling to the art? Or should he go in with "proper" tools to make things seem more pure? From this example, it looks like Williams was fairly faithful to Lee's design sense, but did straighten things out a tad to make things look more solid and less sketched. The flourishes along the top, for example, still look hand-drawn and uneven, but they radiate out better and look more repetitive than Lee's initial pencils.

We also have to stop here to give out some praise to the colorist, Alex Sinclair. Back in the old days, this whole background would have been shaded a singular shade of blue and been done with. Sinclair keeps the background in muted shades of blue, but differentiates levels with subtle color shifts. The curtains in the far background are a darker purple color, while the railings closer to the reader are lighter, but with shadows following along the detail work in the façade. The people at the bottom of the panel who you want to show standing out from that background get the opposite treatment with a brighter yellow color, again with a darker yellow/brown to indicate shading. So the bold color strokes do their jobs, but then Sinclair goes in to provide all the finishing touches that the art leaves for him.

Here's the catch to the whole thing: This panel is the bottom corner of a two page spread with Batman leaping at the reader from one side and Harley Quinn's butt featured on the facing page. All of those people crowded on the floor and all of those details in the architecture of the opera house is ultimately background noise to the 99% of comic fans who are looking for a quick read and a nice bit of creative action/violence. Nobody's analyzing that part of the page except the editors and the critics.

There are also things that change from pencils to inks, but that you'd have to be anal retentive to notice -- or working on a review for a column and stumble upon along the way. In the opening of the issue, Lee has a two page sequence where the far left panel mirrors the far right, basically. Originally, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle can be seen looking down in Jim Lee's pencils. In the final inks, they're looking across the page at each other. Was this Williams' doing? Or was this a conversation had along the way and a quick change made after the final pencil scan was made? I don't know. But I do know that Williams definitely smoothed out the opera glasses Selina is holding in this panel. He's helped round them off appropriately, though you'd have to really zoom in on the image to see it here. Lee's original pencils look a little flat and incomplete by comparison, even though it looks detailed and fully worked out at first glance.

Selina's chair is solidified by Williams' inks. It looks like Lee did use a French curve to draw the front edge of the chair, but the freehand drawing underneath Selina's left arm is loose and off in its perspective. Williams fixed that along the way and used line weights to help mold the chair on the page. Williams also finished off the white shirt of Bruce Wayne's tuxedo and makes Selina's right heel look less inflated. One's heel should not stick back out that far from one's ankle unless one's in a lot of pain.

You can't see it in the scan, but Williams even added a little hint of texture to the wall behind the four characters. A million choices on every page, right?

These all seem like such little things to us, as the end readers. We see the results and we like them and we never give much thought to how much work goes into them. How many choices have to be made with every line? It's mind-numbing. Imagine redrawing every one of Jim Lee's penciled pages in permanent ink.

And then, just when you've finished so carefully inking every last millimeter of the page, the word balloons and caption boxes and sound effects hide a percentage of them. You know it's going to happen going in, but I imagine you can't help your ego from being deflated by some of those choices.

There are also panels like this, where we see Harley Quinn running away with a background jam packed full of detail, from the patterns on the ceiling to the shadows on the pipes. It's almost a line-for-line duplicate of the original pencils, with a few minor additions. About the only real change I can see is some extra shadows being added to the light cans hanging off the ceiling along the left edge of the panel.

The point is, the art of inking is still an unknown thing to a great many people. And while different art teams will have different styles of working together, it's interesting to pull the curtain back on this high profile pairing to get a better feel for how they work off of each other. Along the way, we get to see some of the many things an inker has to take into account with every job. And, of course, there's a lot of very nice art to look at along the way.


Next week: The recent layoffs at Marvel have me thinking in a number of directions about the state of the company these days. I'm not sure I have a defensible position on it yet, but I'm working towards that. I hope to write more about it next week. I can't help but get the feeling, though, that this isn't the last we've heard of this round of cost-cutting. As stupid an idea as it is to drag these things out, so many companies do it over and over again, killing morale and shooting themselves in the foot in the meantime. 
In the meantime, I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I'm mostly posting pictures from a recent Rick Springfield concert these days. VariousandSundry.com hasn't been updated in a little while, but that's where I go to vent on all the other topics in my life. I seem to be more partial to Google+ these days.

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