Thinking About Inking

There are those who would tell you that inking is a dying art. Or at least the use of a separate inker to embellish the pencils of another artist. Once upon a time, inks weren't a choice, but a necessity. In order for the artwork to be print-ready, you simply couldn't print from pencils. Churning out monthly content demanded an assembly-line process of pencils to inks, often with looser pencils handed to an inker for finishes.

Now more and more artists are inking themselves, be it digitally or traditionally, or even a combination of both. There are books that skip the inks altogether, and just print scanned pencils. Perhaps inking itself isn't a dying art, but artists who specialize in inking are becoming more of an endangered species.

However, somebody's doing something about preserving the skill, and recognizing the masters of the craft. The Inkwell Awards is a non-profit organization with a mission to "promote and educate about the art of comic book inking." Founded in 2008 by inker Bob Almond, the Inkwell Awards does indeed holds its own annual awards ceremony recognizing inkers, presents a scholarship in memory of inker Dave Simons, and maintains the Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame (which presently includes Joe himself, Wally Wood, Kevin Nowlan, Terry Austin, Klaus Janson, Dick Giordano and Al Williamson). The Inkwells also purchase and provide to inkers copies of collected editions containing their own work when publishers don't do so.

The organization raises funds through the sale of sketchbooks, original sketches, prints and T-shirts. Recently the Inkwells published its first project, called the "Joe Sinnott Challenge," for which a litany of inkers each inked a pair of pencil sketches by legendary inker (and nicest man on the planet) Joe Sinnott. Among the artists in the collection: Terry Austin, Michael Allred, Klaus Janson, Bob McLeod, Joe Rubinstein, Jose Marzan, Jr., Jay Leisten, Mark McKenna, Pablo Marcos and many more.

The pencil and ink versions are presented on facing pages, so you can compare the two. It's fascinating to see the range of styles, from extremely faithful to far more interpretive. A number of them are included here with the column.

The Introduction for the book is provided by my friend and legendary inker Terry Austin (probably the second nicest man on the planet), who is also "Unca Terry" to my kids. The intro is one of the more fun and clever pieces of writing I've come across recently, so with the kind permission of Terry and the Inkwells, it's presented here in its entirety.

Recently, after a hard day's slog in the service of Humanity, creating High Art for the unwashed masses to enjoy, I retired to the imposing brick edifice that serves as the local branch of the exclusive Gentlemen's Clubs that the influential Inkwell Organization maintains in most major hamlets across the globe for the benefit of the ink-stained wretches like myself who comprise its membership. Hardly had I entered the George Roussos Room in the expansive Jack Abel Wing and settled into my customary well-padded (and well-worn) armchair (which rests quite comfortably between the full-length portrait in oils of Murphy Anderson and the bronze bust of Bernard Sachs) when I (being the only grey-beard in the room at present) was approached by a motley assortment of some of the newer members. Following a brief consultation conducted in hurried whispers, one of their fellows was thrust forward by the rest and, eyes dancing with excitement and squeamishness (or perhaps it was just a touch of pinkeye), he nervously blurted out, "Prithee, Sir, tell us about -- The Legend!"

Well, I knew at once of whom he spoke, but I took a moment to adjust my cummerbund and to settle my fez at a rakish angle, allowing for a pause of the Variety Dramatique before I began to speak of my old comrade-at-arms, permitting just the smallest hint of a fond smile to fleetingly cross my lips before clearing my throat and beginning to speak in a hushed tone as the rabble drew near.

"Ah, you wish to hear tales of Joseph Sinnott," I intoned, invoking the name of one of our eldest and most respected members. In truth, I'd never formally been introduced to the man unless you counted the time he had caught me dealing seconds during a particularly spirited game of Whist at the Inkwell Club in Paris some years prior. I had avoided falling under Sinnott's gaze since that time in order to spare him the embarrassment of having to follow through on his threat uttered that day to "strike you about the head and shoulders like the cur that you are fully deserves!" Still, I swiftly realized, as I looked into the large, wet orbs of the moppets who now surrounded me (perhaps the pinkeye was contagious?), that it wouldn't do to crush the spirits of these energetic young bucks by denying them what would surely be the thrill of a lifetime in hearing me disclaim extemporaneously (with many a bold, dramatic gesture). So, I feverishly tried to gather together in my memory what little I half-remembered hearing about my tormentor, and plunged ahead, hoping thus to spin dross into gold!

"Those were the days when the He-Man Cartoonists walked the land, my boys!" I paused in my discourse and took a thoughtful pull at one of the Hookahs placed strategically around the chamber (in loving memory of Wallace Wood) for the use of our staunchest brethren. "Young Joseph, for example, would spend all day at his studies, pouring slavishly over the works of the True Giants who were abroad in those days, those who possessed such names to conjure with as Caniff, Raymond, Crane, Foster... and Rufus T. Firefly," I added hopefully, my memory pulling up unexpectedly lame in the listing of Old Timey Artistes. "Then, of an evening, Sinnott would engage the evil Germanic Nazis in fierce naval sorties, most of them taking place in or around some sort of body of water if I'm not mistaken," I declared somewhat knowledgeably (or so I prayed), fixing one of the members of my spellbound retinue (who had begun to squirm a little) solidly in place with a baleful glare.

"Why, one time on a family vacation in the Dry Tortugas, Joe single-handedly fought off a savage attack by a rabid band of roving Pirates who had become unnaturally intrigued when they heard that he was illustrating for 'Treasure Chest'," I added for emphasis... but mostly because a few of the younger members, whose attention span could be likened to the lifespan of a gnat, had begun to absently wander out of the room in search of sticky sweet things to gnaw on, of this I harbored little doubt.

"It was when he lent his two good fists in service to Mayor LaGuardia, to run the brutal gangsters out of New York City, that he met the fair Betty and claimed her hand in marriage," I improvised, warming to my subject. Leaping to my feet, I began to furiously pace the priceless Oriental carpet beneath my feet that had once graced the lavish studio that Frank Giacoia had sustained for his summers in Rome. "He refused an offer from his crooning idol, Bing Crosby, to team up and lend his rich Irish tenor to form The New Rhythm Boys after similarly turning down the chance to serve as Manager to his beloved New York Giants, preferring instead to gamble his future fortunes in the merciless arena of the Printed Page!"

I paused for a breath, glancing at the well-lit display of Dick Giordano's job-used pen points and brushes at my left. "It was then that the esteemed Sam Lee approached Joe and humbly asked him to lend his stalwart pencil and brush to illuminate his scripts for the legendary Charles Atlas Comics," I shouted triumphantly, all the while using one of the tails of my impeccably-tailored tuxedo jacket to wipe an errant bit of dust from the showcase containing the trousers said to have been worn by Tom Palmer when he had inked the saga of the "Kree/Skrull War" (and making a mental note to speak to the Club Secretary about the evident inadequacies of the present cleaning staff).

"He would soon seize pen and brush in hand and brilliantly improve the already flawless pencils of such artistic titans such as Colan, Kirby, Kane, Frenz, Byrne, Perez and Buscema during the extraordinary Marble Age of Comics," I declared (silently wondering once again how it came to pass that the Marble Age of Comics had followed the Silver Age, and immediately preceded the Bronze Age), while flamboyantly producing my imported silk handkerchief from my sleeve and utilizing it to manfully wipe away an imaginary tear in a calculated display for my rapidly dwindling audience.

Deciding to wrap things up while at least one wee lad yet remained, napping at rapt attention, I finished with a flourish: "Having entertained and inspired millions, Joseph humbly retired and, surrounded by his loving progeny in the town of his birth, continues to favor us with his Artistic Genius each Sunday in our nation's leading newspapers!" Or so I am told, as in actuality I haven't seen a newspaper since Dewey soundly trounced that unfortunate Truman chap.

It was at this point that, feigning exhaustion at the close of my rousing narrative, I leaned one elbow on the famous photograph (in its gilt-edged frame) of the fabled Arm-Wrestling Contest at the Canadian Inkwell Exposition of 1956 depicting Joe Giella and Syd Shores locked in savage combat; their faces contorted in frenzied concentration as each man tries to force the Inking Hand of the other to the table's rough-hewn surface. (I've never heard who won that contest, but legend has it that the baby borne in the arms of the woman in the feathered hat, residing in the first row of enraptured onlookers that fill the bleachers in the background of the photograph, is a young Bob Wiacek. Myself, I tend to disbelieve the tale, as the infant's ears aren't nearly large enough.) Discharging both nostrils loudly into the aforementioned handkerchief, I intoned in a voice choked with high emotion, "And that sainted man, Mr. Joe Sinnott, is my very great, good friend!!!"

It was at this point that someone entered the doorway at the back of the room with a clatter, apparently having been listening to my oration in the hallway, and rudely shouted, in quick succession in a rich Irish tenor, "Liar! Prevaricator! Montebank!" I looked up in shock to see the very man of whom I had been speaking, having evidently returned unexpectedly (by me, at least) from his perilous expedition up the Amazon River in search of the fabled Lost Carbon Mine of the Incas, said to contain minerals of such richness that, when ground and mixed with various arcane liquids, would produce ink of such an unparalleled Blackness that anyone who should be bold enough to utilize it ran the risk of opening a dimensional portal into the Inky Black Void where the Old Ones dwell.

I scarcely had time to register the sight of Sinnott -- still clad in his safari outfit, pith helmet askew on his head, glaring at me from the back of the room -- when he snatched the matched set of antique pistols donated by George Klein from their place of honor upon the wall (next to the autographed truss of Vincent Coletta) and began to discharge them at my head!

When I bravely raised my face from the carpet some minutes hence, the sound of his rapid fire still echoing loudly in my ears, I found that the veteran inker/raconteur had vanished, doubtless dashing off to some new adventure undreamt of by ordinary mortals such as you or I. However, upon shakily regaining my feet, I next observed two things in quick succession: one, a neat line of bullet holes in the wall behind me that perfectly mimicked the signature of the man that I had pretended to know; and two, the tassel of my fez had been permanently singed by the close passage of the bullets that Sinnott had expertly sent in my direction!

I think Terry might have made up some parts of that story. Maybe.

Copies of the "Joe Sinnott Challenge" can be obtained directly from the Inkwell Awards website, in both a standard edition ($10 donation), or a limited edition signed by Joe Sinnott ($20 donation), here:

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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