There are still people who really don’t get the power an excellent inker has to take good art and make it amazing. Terry Austin makes everyone look better. Cockrum, Byrne, Smith, Davis, he elevates incredible art to something sublime. Austin has a great eye for line weight, shadows, face. John Byrne basically inks his own work now, and it shows. For one thing he is doubling his working time and that can lead to less than stellar art, for another his lines are too thin, it is close to literal tracing.
Gerry Ordway and Dick Giordano are also favs.
Inkers are the unsung heroes in the comic book industry, in part because if they do their job right it goes unnoticed, and all kudos go to the artist. (Colorists have the same problem: Inks and color are only “noticed” when it is so bad it diminishes the art.) For years there as been has been a belief/opinion/murmur-of-dissatisfaction that Vince Colletta’s inks “ruined” Jack Kirby’s art. Now, with an artist of Kirby’s talent, even a bad inker can’t obscure that well-known Kirby look. So what is the objective truth and what is the subjective conventional wisdom?
Jack Kirby’s art is classic and he often did is own inking. Where that is, I think, a mistake for Byrne, whose line weights aren’t great and without Austin or another high caliber inker, the art is very flat, Kirby’s inks are excellent. As for Kirby, people may think his style is dated, but they also don’t understand how his style permeates the psyche of young artists. Also, they don’t get just how many characters he created, or that they still appear in a form recognizable as influenced by Kirby.
Finding verifiable Kirby inks on Kirby art on the internet is a challenge, because back in the day, inkers rarely, meaning almost never, were credited. By the 60s, Jack Kirby was too busy building classic Marvel character to do his own inking, although when deadlines allowed, he still inked his work here and there throughout his career. I continue to pursue other avenues to find examples of his inks over his pencils, and I invite any readers with ideas where to look or who know examples to let me know in the Comments. I will add any art I find that is Kirby inks over Kirby art and add any relevant text.
This is Mike Royer on Kirby. Royer does a great job, as you can see when you compare the pencils to the inked page.
This exhibits the point about a talented inker showcasing the amazing work of a talented artist.
Vince Colletta was an ok inker, but his style was not a good fit for Kirby’s art. He seemed to either lack the patience or the skill to ink the original art as rendered. For example, you can see he clearly removed elements, styles and altered facial expressions:
He is rather heavy handed and is very reductive. You can see not only has he removed detail (and people) from the scene, but he has also actually altered the facial expressions, the feeling of movement and his source of light creating the shadows is all over the place.
Colletta was simply a very bad fit with Kirby.
Kirby’s pencils, before inking:
And after Colletta’s inks:
Kirby is hardly the only artist whose detail and grace was eradicated by an inker. Jim Aparo, who ties with Neal Adams as my favorite Batman artist (what can I say, I kick it old school), had his final Batman work savaged by the inker. Now, Jim was older by this point, but the level of awful can’t be attributed to age. It’s so traumatizing I can’t bring myself to fetch a panel of it.
Well. Darn it. Here is an example. Let me just say for the record, Jim Aparo was amazing. This? This is the worst. The inker was John Cebollero.
There is no excuse for this butchery in inking (and coloring). None.
Not over the pencils of the artist who gave us these moments in Death in the Family:
The inker here is Mike DeCarlo. He knew how to add shadow, movement, and depth, with subtlety and grace.
So, did Vince Colletta ruin Jack Kirby’s art? Well, he didn’t do it any favors, but it’s hard to truly ruin Kirby art.
People who don’t value inkers because they think they just “trace stuff” are missing a very important step in the creation of the final image. When you have the right artist, inker, and colorist, you are golden. Some artists can ink themselves and are the best people for the job (Kirby) other are passable but not at their best (Byrne, Smith). Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single panel of Byrne’s DC work, which was lovely, I’m a big fan of his, that matches the depth, beauty, and gut-punch of his run on the X-Men.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. (Except and unless I am corrected!)
If you are interested in learning more about inking and what it brings to the page, there are many good books out there. For most people, I recommend The Art of Comic Book Inking, Third Edition by Gary Martin, with Steve Rude and Vitali Iakovlev (2019 expanded edition).
Note 1. This essay originated as my reply to a Quora question specific to Vince Colletta and Jack Kirby.
Note 2. On August 15, 2021, found a Comic Tropes episode on this very issue, which I now assume is what inspired the Quora question. It is a GREAT breakdown, as usual, and can be viewed here. I always learn something new and fun when I watch Comic Tropes, you will, too!