Comic Culture


Comic Culture: Joe Rubinstein

Artist and inker Joe Rubinstein discusses line weight, doing no harm, and inking different pencilers.

AIRED: September 12, 2017 | 0:26:46

[dramatic orchestra music]

- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.

I'm Terence Dollard, a professor

in the department of mass communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

My guest today is Joseph Rubinstein.

He is an artist and comic book inker.

Joe, welcome to Comic Culture.

- Hello, thanks for having me.

- Now Joe, I first came across your work

when you were working on The Amazing Spider-Man

on the Ron Franz era and

what always fascinated me about

reading the credits back in those days

when I first started reading comics

was all the different jobs that people do.

And we know what a penciler does

but we might not always know what an inker does,

so could you kind of explain what the job is?

- Well most people seem to think

that an inker is the guy who uses the colors,

which is not the case, that's the colorist.

An inker is somebody who, see because comic books

are a lot of work, it's very time intensive

and a monthly comic book takes about

three weeks to produce and that's 22 pages.

So while there are people who can do the entire process,

like Will Eisner or Joe Kubert, some of the greats.

They broke it down into an assembly line process

so that one person pencils with graphite,

with either tightly or loosely.

Another person uses ink, brush, pen, marker,

his fingers, whatever it takes

and then the next person colors it.

There's a letterer somewhere in between there

so you can read what's going on.

But nowadays because of computer technology,

a lot of the ink work is gone,

a lot of people are inking their own stuff digitally.

But basically it was made

so that the work could be reproduced.

Now, to understand a little better what an inker does,

it's sort of like a musician.

If a composer is presented with a blank piece of paper

he creates from nothing

then he hands it off, sometimes unwillingly I'm sure,

to a musician who then has to decide what to do with it

and then how to interpret it.

So let's say if I play, if I choose a guitar or a piano,

it'll be completely different

even though it's the same notes in the same order.

So let's say I pick a guitar, okay,

now am I doing it classic, flamenco, jazz, rock and roll,

so I'm putting my own spin on what's been handed to me.

Now hopefully the work that's been handed to me,

I have great respect for and I don't want to change a line.

Sometimes you have to change things,

sometimes you have to fix things,

and sometimes the editor gives you specific instructions,

this has to be altered and that's my job.

In the old days, artists like Sal Buscema, John Buscema,

would do layouts which were really rough, loose,

gave a lot of choices for the inker,

finisher, embellisher, to do.

Other times they were completely tight

and absolutely there was nothing left up to chance

and you knew what you were getting back.

That generally is the case

these days with comic book artists.

The editor wants to know what it's going to look like

Leinil Yu or Ivan Reis when it comes back.

- So, when we see some inkers like Jerry Ordway

on John Byrne's Fantastic Four

took great liberties with the figures and

is that something that you say that sometimes the editor

will ask you to do some changes to the figure

or is it just more that the inker has that liberty

that they can go and make changes?

I think we've all heard the stories of

Vince Colletta maybe erasing some backgrounds

to give more weight to a figure

or get a few more pages done.

- Well, there's liberty and there's mass destruction

and I think that Vinny was one

of the original weapons of mass destruction

that just people weren't paying attention to.

Jerry, by the way, who's an excellent, excellent draftsman,

he was given layouts on Byrne's work

so it was pretty understood

that Jerry was going to take over.

When Jack Kirby did layouts on

whatever that strip was called,

Space Masters or something, that Wally Wood inked,

he knew Woody was going to ink it

so he pretty much left it up to Woody

to do whatever he felt like.

Now, in the olden days, which is,

you know, before last Wednesday,

I think most inkers didn't really want to follow

what was in front of them.

Nobody asked them to do it, it was kind of understood

that if you gave Murphy Anderson a job,

it was Murphy Anderson when it was done,

and Greene, Sid Greene would take over.

If Joe Kubert ever inked anybody it was a Joe Kubert job.

And I think that was sort of understood.

Even Joe Sinnott who does a magnificent job over Jack Kirby,

you could tell that Sinnott was

imposing his style onto Jack's work.

Dick Giordano, who was my mentor and I think

one of the greatest inkers who ever lived,

his philosophy was to be a lot more

sensitive to what was in front of you

and alter your approach accordingly

so that when Dick inked a Neal Adams job,

he didn't do it the same way as a Dick Dillin job

that the same way as an Alex Toth job.

They were different and he changed

his approach accordingly, I'm the same way.

I pride myself on the fact that I'm as flexible as possible

and I want to accommodate what's in front of me.

The truth of the matter is

if you ink it the same way all the time it's really boring.

I mean inking can get really dull, really fast

unless you're challenged and you try a different approach.

Or look, if I'm given somebody as good as David Finch,

I have to do a considerably different job

than if I were inking Mark Bagley,

who's a wonderful artist in his own right

or even Kevin Noland.

It wouldn't be the same job.

Now, you have to ask yourself,

Kevin Noland is notorious

for taking over jobs and making them great,

as was Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Palmer.

You'll always get a great job when they're done.

But let's say you find a Frank Frazetta

drawing that was never inked.

Do you want it looking like Alfredo Alcala

when it comes back or would you

like it looking like Frazetta?

It'll be great if Tony DeZuniga inks it

but you kinda have your appetite

for a Frank Frazetta drawing

and it comes back something else.

I take pride in wanting you to

and giving you what it is you were expecting

when you read on the cover pencils by Mark Bagley

or whoever and it's gonna be

a Mark Bagley job when it's done.

- Now is this something, I know the inker is responsible

for obviously putting all of the ink on the page

and all the, everything that we see that was photographed,

I guess back in the day, maybe scanned now,

the inker would go over but when you're inking a job,

are you adding the thickness to the line

if a character is in the foreground

or is that something that's coming from the penciler?

- Well yeah, well firstly let me tell you that

because of the amount of work,

penciling was broken down too.

Very often somebody would get

a background guy to pencil his backgrounds.

Or the artist would draw the main heads

and hands and then somebody else did

everything else over their layouts.

Will Eisner when he did The Spirit,

he had magnificent artists like Lou Fine

and Jerry Grandenetti working for him

and he roughed it out and they did it.

John Prentice, who used to do the Rip Kirby strip,

he would have somebody do everything else

and then he'd do the head and hands.

Al Williamson was one of his assistance as a matter of fact.

And in inking terms, very often inkers have a background guy

and they don't want to do the trees

and the rocks and the planes,

they just want to do the figures.

And the truth of the matter is,

for the most of the time I think people just look

at the main, important stuff

and they don't pay attention to the other stuff.

The other stuff is important and should blend in

but very often that's given to other people to do

whether it's because the inker

feels that the other artist does

backgrounds better than he does

or because he's got so much work,

he's keeping the fun stuff for himself

and giving the rest away.

Now, what was your question again?

I'm sorry, I really long winded these things.

- Oh, that's okay.

So, I know the inker is responsible for I guess

the weight of the line. - Oh, right, right!

Well, it depends.

When I'm given a David Finch job,

I'm more than likely not going to change a line.

When I was given Kevin Maguire's work

on the Justice League of America

and all those other sequels,

Kevin is a really, really good draftsman

with a very monotone line.

I took it upon myself to add a little flourish

and a little weight, and little change to it.

Because you know, it's sort of like,

they say that a good facelift

you should look like you just got rested.

So when I ink something I want it to be Kevin Maguire

with a little bit more emphasis like,

there's thing a brush can do that a pencil

can't do, that a pen can't do.

Maybe I'm amplifying Hot-Man's wings

a little bit with a brush, maybe I'm being

a little bit more kinetic in my energy

the way I'm putting down the hair on some character.

Maybe some artists, they don't know

their anatomy as well as they should

and I'm going to push something a 16th of an inch further

so the insertion of the bicep works for me.

Now, you don't know that that's going on.

I don't particularly want you to know that that's going on

but because I spend the majority of my life

in this room alone doing this work,

I'd like to have some pride in it when it's done and not go,

"Oh, I should have fixed that arm" or some such.

Now in the case of...

I inked a Captain America series with John Byrne

which a lot of people consider

a career highlight for both of us.

John in a, or as I like to call him, little Johnny,

in a interview said that for the first 10 years of his life

he tried to look like Neil Adams

and for the second 10 years of his life he tried,

of his career, tried not to look like Neil Adams.

So when I got these pencils, they were really

wonderful, beautiful, cared for work,

and I said, well I'm gonna push them

like 10% more to get more of that Adams look out of it

because Dick Giordano was my mentor

and he was Neil Adams partner in his studio at the time.

So when I was assisting him,

I was around Neil, god help me,

and I was around lots of Neil's reference,

the things that Neil looked at,

the people that influenced Neil.

So I understood what it is Neil

was accomplishing by looking at these works

and I was pushing John's work to look more like that.

As I said, a lot of people say that it's a career highlight.

John has criticized me for doing exactly what I did

and felt that I went too far.

I disagree.

So, okay.

- Well it is a collaborative process

and having read that run on Captain America,

I picked up the hardcover a few years back.

It is one of those ones that people still talk about

so obviously you knew what you were doing.

- Well, so did John and Roger.

Those are really good stories and they look really good.

And you know, Terry Austin was inking John

at the time of the X-Men

and that had a very decorative quality

that everybody was very attracted to.

I looked at the pencils and like

the piece of music metaphor I did before,

I says, I don't want to go abstract, I wanna go classical.

And I think Terry was kind of a, and he does say it himself,

he's kind of a Popeye cartoonist.

He would push the work into a sort of more abstract way.

I don't think Terry knows medical anatomy, surface anatomy.

I do so I went, oh, this line has to come together.

And maybe Terry might have thought,

well this line would look prettier

if it stayed apart or something like that.

I think people would have loved

Captain America if Terry had inked it but I felt,

I felt the need to push it where I did.

Now, I did a job, I don't know, maybe 10 years ago

for the American Bible Society

which was a retelling of the crucifixion

and it was drawn by Rick Leonardi,

who's a wonderful cartoonist.

And everybody was inking like Scott Williams in those days.

And Scott's great!

And I touched my pen to the paper and went, I can't do it.

I went, ah no, I can't do it!

I spent a whole day not inking like Scott Williams

because I felt it wasn't true to the work.

And then finally I said, you know what,

if they hate this job, I can at least defend what I did.

If they hate it and say it looks like bad Scott Williams

I'd say, I can't defend that,

it does look like bad Scott Williams.

So I inked it as I felt and I think it's one of the

single best things I've ever done in my life.

As I said, if an editor said to me,

"We're paying you good money,

"you have to ink this like Joe Sinnott."

I would ink it like Joe Sinnott

because after all, we're all guns for hire here.

But being left alone, I had to be true

to what I believed the work should look like.

- Well let's see, that brings up another question.

Inking trends do kind of change.

I know in the 70s, early 70s, you had that Joe Sinnott look

with the heavy brushwork and the flourishes.

And then we see Neil Adams and Dick Giordano,

their run on Batman or Green Arrow

where you have a completely different line,

it's a very strong line, crisp line work.

So as we see the trends change,

are you going with those trends or are you

just you know, to thine own self be true?

- Well I'm not going with the trends exactly

but I am going with the penciler in front of me

and if they're going with the trend,

I'm going with the trend.

So that again, if I'm...

David Finch doesn't draw Batman like Neil Adams,

I'm not going to ink it like Neil,

I'm going to give it a whole other line.

And now if somebody hands me a job

and says, "Well this is kind of a dull job

"and we want you to do your Scott Williams imitation."

My first thought is, why would you ask me

to do a Scott Williams imitation?

I guess Scott's busy.

And two, I'll do the best I can and I will force

a square peg into a round hole but mostly...

I did a project, probably the best thing an ink,

a project an inker ever did,

which was the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

What spanned in one incarnation

and another over about 20 years.

And it was great because I get to ink everybody

and it was a full figure and it was a fun pinup shot

and I got to ink people that nobody else ever gets to ink.

Joe Kubert, and Brian Bolland,

and John Bolton, and John Severin,

you know, people like that.

And now Bill Sienkiewicz doesn't let anybody in his work

and I was, I guess, one of the last ones.

So I was sitting there and I inked pages simultaneously

because the ink's wet so I don't

wanna worry about smearing one spot.

I just throw it over, get another one,

throw it back, do another one.

Maybe I want to work with a brush

for an hour because I'm bored

so I'll pick up the pages that are more brush oriented.

So I was sitting there and I was inking

five pieces simultaneously,

it was something like John Buscema, Al Milgrom,

Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz,

and I'm going back to back, to back, to back

and I stop myself from going, how am I doing this?

How am I getting all these different styles

and I realized it's because I'm reacting

to what's in front of me immediately.

It's sorta like, I don't know,

if you're like in a laser tag game or something.

If something is there, you move there,

and if something comes back you move there.

And if Al Milgrom draws with a thick line,

I pick up a thick pen and Bill Sienkiewicz

draws with a thin line, I pick up a thin pen.

So I just keep responding to the stimuli,

again my emphasis being,

be true to what's in front of you but hopefully...

You see, a lot of amateur inkers think

it's their job to help the work.

I'm not trying to help anything.

I'm just like a doctor trying not to do any damage.

And if that hair needed a little extra flourish,

I pick up the tool I think will give it

a little extra flourish and you know.

So inking is a collaborative thing

but so often there's nobody there

to tell me how to collaborate.

And I think in the world of commercial art,

you still think about it in movies,

if somebody is making a 100 million dollar movie,

the studio is paying attention and giving lots of no's.

And if somebody is making a student film, nobody is talking.

So comic books pay relatively badly.

They really do not pay well at all per hour.

You probably make better money babysitting.

So nobody is giving you a hard time,

it's just can you get it in by Tuesday, sure just do it.

And sure, our editors know who's good and who's bad

and let's use him again or no that was a terrible job.

But rare, I mean I had an editor interfere with me once

where he told me to ink a job completely differently

than the way I thought it should have been done.

And I said, "All right but I don't think you're right."

He says, "No, no, no, this is the modern way to ink it."

And I did it and then the penciler let it be known

how much he detested the work I was doing

and we never worked together

because I followed the other guy.


- It's funny you mention the Marvel Handbook

and I think you hold the record

for the most characters inked

as a result of your association there.

- And artist collaborated with,

like somewhere between four and five hundred pencilers.

- And what's amazing is, you've inked I think the only

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez Marvel work

which I think was Wonder Man in a terrible green costume.

[both chuckle]

- [Joe] With those stupid power packs on him.

- Yes.

So I guess really, you mention that you use a brush,

you use a pen, so what type of tools are you using?

Are you using like the copic markers,

or is it the old quill brush?

- Well, oh by the way, as far as Jose's thing,

I just went, see it was,

it's a great, great job in Marvel universe history handbook

but it was also dull at the same time

because then you got your 22nd Ron Wilson figure to ink

and there's nothing wrong with Ron Wilson

but it's your 22nd figure.

So, I went around to the people I idolized

and like I called up Brian Boll, whoa!

I called up Brian, my lamp just fell on me.

I called Brian Bolland at three o'clock

in the morning his time by accident

because I didn't understand the time difference.

And I said, [glass shattering] hey I'm doing this project

and I want you to work on it and I talked him into it.

And I talked and I went to John, Joe Kubert,

and they went to Curt Swan, which as far as I know,

is the only Marvel work Curt Swan ever did.

He drew that Pseudo-Superman figure from

the X-Men, those space guys with the mohawk, right?

And it's like, what brilliant casting,

get Curt Swan to draw our Superman.

And I even got Alex Toth to agree to one

and then this idiot editor, not the editor on the project,

but this idiot editor just didn't get around

to mailing it to him so he went, "I don't want to do it."

And then I actually went to Will Eisner's class

at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan

with what I'd done was I copied a Will Eisner spirit head

and then I inked it, to show this is how I ink your work

so I'm sake if you wanna draw something for me.

And I showed it to me and he said,

"Well why would I wanna draw somebody I didn't create?"

I says, "Well, you know, it would be fun."

He says, "Well but I didn't create him."

And I said, "Yeah, but I would love to ink you."

and he went, "Oh, well then just ink this."

And he drew a spirit head for me

on the same piece of paper and gave it to me.

And I went, "I'm not gonna ink that." [chuckles]

See, pens evolve, sometimes the tools go bad.

Every generation of every artist

you'll ever talk to is going,

"Oh, the stuff was so much better when I was a kid.

"There was the Whatman board, I can't find Whatman anymore.

"There was this brush they made, it was the best brush!

"It was rolled on the thighs

"of Cuban women, now I can't find it."

Every generation loses the tools they love.

So I use the traditional, I use the height

of 13th century technology.

I use a pen and a brush dipped in ink.

It's usually a number three brush,

sometimes it's a number two.

Sometimes when it's a crazy job,

I will take an old brush with a couple of nose hairs

sticking out of it and just use that.

I will use, I used to use a pen point called a Gillott 170

which I'm not sure they manufacture anymore.

The Gillott 170 was used by myself,

Joe Sinnott, John Severin, and Neil Adams.

So that kind of proves that the tool doesn't do the style

because we have decided, well I'm closest to Adams style

but we have very different looks.

But if I were inking David Finch,

I wouldn't use the 170 because

it's too stiff for the process.

If I were inking Bill Sienkiewicz,

I wouldn't use a brush for a lot of it

because Bill has this very kinetic, energetic line

which just would work better that way.

Sometimes depending upon the look I'm after,

I may use a marker.

And I have a theory that if you've got

enough pages together of a particular inker

you could find enough DNA on it to clone him

because you spit on them and you know,

other bodily fluids wind up one way or another on the pages.

If you're working with a bottle of ink

and the thing just won't flow,

what you do is you grab a bottle of Windex or Fantastic

and you just give it a shot into the ink

and the alcohol will loosen it up.

But Vinny Colletta said he used to use like minestrone soup

and Dick Giordano said that occasionally

he put coffee into it for more flavor.

There used to be a website,

hundreds and hundreds of inkers

saying how they do their process

and you could get absolutely totally

conflicting information from everyone.

Never use a brush, always use a brush,

never use this ink, always use this ink,

I never use this, I always use this.

And then sometimes you look at the work

or the advise that the persons giving and go,

well they suck, let's not do that.

Sometimes I buy art books by bad artists

and I read how they do it and I go,

oh, I know why he's bad.

I know why he's going down the wrong path.

Let's not do that.

Because besides being a comic book inker

I also paint, and I draw, and I do portraits,

and I do everything else away from comics.

- So, I see we have about three minutes left

before we run out of time.

- [Joe] Would you say that to Don Rickles?

- Would I, no I would never say that to Don Rickles.

- Okay, fine. [chuckles]

- But the question I have, I remember reading in

How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,

John Buscema in the pages would explain

how he would ink with a brush to do panel borders

and I'm wondering is that something

that's even possible by a mere mortal?

- Yes, I don't know how mere I am,

but Leonard Starr, who great, great artist,

who did the comic strip On Stage for 25, 30 years,

he did absolutely everything with a brush.

Everything with a brush!

And he watered it down so much

that it was basically weak tea

and he would draw on his boards

with a nine inch pencil which is akin to a diamond.

It's the hardest thing you could draw with.

And the reason he did that was

because he didn't have to erase his pages afterwards

because if he did, the ink would just go away.

So if he does everything with a brush,

and all those straight lines,

and all those buildings, and all those cameras

I spent hundreds of hours with a ruler and a brush

just learning how to do straight lines,

straight lines, straight lines and I can do it.

And then I found a book where Leonard Starr said,

"And here's how I do everything with a brush.

"Oh, but my background man uses this pen."

I went, oh, okay, well at least

they know how to use a brush now.


But I mean that's not hard really.

Look at Bernie Wrightson, that's the,

a lot of Bernie's stuff was maybe 100% brush.

Jeff Jones, Dave Stevens, you know

some people just can't use a brush.

Jerry Ordway uses a pen to try and look like a brush.

I use a pen that can look like a brush

or a pen because it's so versatile.

And by the way, Leonard Starr came out of retirement

to draw something for me to ink

and when it was done he sent me

a wonderfully complimentary letter and he said,

"Where were you when I was working eight hours a week?"

and he said, "Where'd you get that brush?"

and I went, "It's a pen!" [Terence chuckles]

- Well Joe, we have run out of time.

I want to thank you so much for taking time out.

I know you've got a very busy schedule today and this week.

Thank you so much for speaking with us

and thank you at home for watching Comic Culture.

We will see you again next time.

[dramatic victorious music]


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