Comic Culture: Joe Rubinstein
Artist and inker Joe Rubinstein discusses line weight, doing no harm, and inking different pencilers.
[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.
- 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.
- [Joe] With those stupid power packs on him.
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]