How strange is it that we live in a world where the very first book devoted to an individual comicbook inker is devoted to Vince Colletta, widely regarded as one of, if not the, worst inker in comics history?
When I was first beginning to recognize individual artistic styles in the comics I was reading, Colletta’s name was the first one that, when I saw it in the credits, I knew the art would not be as good as it otherwise could have been. I knew nothing of the reasons for this fact, but at 9, 10, 11 years of age, I knew that it was, indeed, a fact.
Now, time and experience are kind to the reputations of many “bad” comics artists. In my youth I strongly disliked the work of not only Colletta, but Jack Abel (another inker, and one who shared a certain insubstantiality of line with Colletta), Don Heck, George Tuska and Alex Saviuk. There were others whose styles I disliked, but these were the big ones. Not that I didn’t buy the comics they worked on — in my earliest comics-reading days I bought pretty much every comic book I could lay my hands on — but I always felt something was missing when these guys were in the credits boxes. And there were in them a lot.
Of course, that’s probably because they were all quick, reliable journeymen who could get the job done, if not well, at least on time. And as I say, my perspective on many “bad” artists has changed. I’ve come to appreciate the breezy style Heck brought to the stories he illustrated, so very much of their time (or perhaps five or ten years behind the times, come to think of it). But no matter how time has moderated my views on the artists I disliked in my youth, Vince Colletta’s inking is one thing that still, to this day, makes me unable to immerse myself in a story and wish that someone, anyone else had worked over the pencils that Colletta obliterated.
(In the spirit of Seinfeld’s “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” it should be noted that I do see why some feel Colletta’s work on Thorwas actually appropriate to the material, but there’s enough evidence here that he was erasing backgrounds and blacking out fully delineated characters that it’s hard to forgive whatever charms his thin, scratchy, efficient and speedy line lent the series.)
I don’t mean to be mean — the late Colletta’s family defends him to the best of their ability in The Thin Black Line: Perspectives on Vince Colletta (TwoMorrows Publishing), and I am sure he was a wonderful father and grandfather. But nothing in the book changes my mind about Colletta’s techniques (which often involved eliminating details like backgrounds and even actual people from panels), and no matter who defends him (Eddie Campbell is a fan) or how they do so (he was the go-to guy for material that was at or beyond its deadline), nothing changes the fact that his inking by and large detracted from the final artwork. That he was frequently tasked with finishing Jack Kirby’s pencil work is all the more tragic, and really at the heart of the debate. If Colletta had always inked Alex Saviuk and no one else, I don’t think anyone would care, and certainly The Thin Black Line would not exist.
As to the book itself, it reads like an expanded magazine article, which I discovered at the end of the book is exactly what it is. Writer Robert Bryant interviewed many comics creators, and their opinions on all sides of the issue are clearly illustrated, both in prose and in panel-to-panel examinations of Kirby’s pencils in the rough and what Colletta did to them.
But Bryant serves more as host than author, here, introducing hundreds of quotes from others but never really finding the strong authorial voice this subject seems to demand. I understand trying to be fair and letting all points of view be expressed, but at no time did I feel that Bryant was really in charge of what I was reading, or that he was even passionate about what he was talking about.
Ultimately, the book will be of interest to anyone fascinated by the process of creating corporate superhero comics in their 1960s heyday, but whatever opinion you bring to the table on the subject of Colletta’s work is unlikely to be changed, and the only real enlightenment here is found in examining the (admittedly invaluable) panel-to-panel examples of raw pencils versus Colletta’s deadline-meeting, gravitas-destroying destruction of same.
Inking, as noted in The Thin Black Line, is an artificial creation of the corporate comics production line method, designed to speed up the process and get the pages finished and ready to print. In recent years, it’s a skill that digital techniques have made almost irrelevant. And that is too bad, because the very best inkers — Klaus Janson and Terry Austin spring immediately to mind — brought enormous talent to their best creative partnerships. There’s not an inker working regularly today in superhero comics that I can think of that does for their penciling partners what Austin did for Byrne, or Janson for Miller, or hell, Dick Giordano for Neal Adams.
I would dearly love to read a book of perspectives on any of those inkers. I’d love to see an in-depth exploration of how Janson brought mood and an organic dynamism to Miller’s Daredevil work; I’d love to see what the experts would say about Austin’s contributions to Uncanny X-Men (and some other Byrne work) in the 1970s and early ’80s.
But for the moment, comics-lovers, here’s the first book ever about an inker and his techniques. It’s fascinating more for the subject than its execution, but it is, nonetheless, fascinating and informative. Just the sort of history readers need to have to give them perspective on the industry and how it works, a peek behind the curtain that was undreamed of in the hyperbolic, whitewashed days of Stan’s Soapbox.
— Alan David Doane