Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: "The Thin Black Line: Perspectives on Vince Colletta, Comics Most Controversial Inker"



In February of 2011, I stumbled upon this book while looking for something else on amazon.com, and immediately knew I had to read it.

Vince Colletta (1923-1991) was a prolific inker of comic books from the 1950's until his death in 1991, and I first became aware of his name and what he did when I was turned on to the Marvel Comics' work of Jack Kirby. I discovered these comics -- "Fantastic Four" and "Thor", particularly, in a used bookstore in my home town of North Adams. The store had a large shelf in one of its front windows upon which were piled a variety of secondhand comics which the store was selling for a nickel or a dime apiece. I found a lot of treasures there, but it was the Kirby stuff that really grabbed me… grabbed me, and held on until this very day.

One of those comics, "Thor", was regularly inked by Colletta, and it was apparent to me that there was something different about it, different from the other Kirby comics that I saw, like "Fantastic Four", which had -- for a long part of Kirby's run as penciler on it -- another inker, Joe Sinnott. The styles of the two inkers were very different, and I preferred Sinnott's… it just seemed to fit the boldness and strength of Kirby's drawing style. Colletta softened Kirby's lines and shapes a lot more than Sinnott.

But I didn't hate the work that Colletta had done on Kirby's "Thor", and that was because when you have pencils as unique and distinctive as Kirby's, it is hard (though not impossible) to ruin them with the inking, unless it is truly sub-par and nonprofessional. Colletta was a professional (something that is made clear in this book). I enjoyed the "Fantastic Four" comics because of Kirby's art, faithfully rendered in ink by Joe Sinnott… and I enjoyed the "Thor" comics in spite of Colletta's inking, because the distinctiveness and power of Kirby came through, even with the soft-focus filter of Colletta's "thin black line".

Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself in possession of an original Colletta-inked Jack Kirby page from "Thor", purchased at a New York City comic book convention. To own a page by my favorite comic artist -- awesome! And then, as I pored over it, looking at all the details not immediately apparent in the printed version, I started to see some disturbing things. When I tilted the page just so, and the surface of the bristol board caught the light just right, revealing the impressions Kirby's pencil point had made, in some panels I could see where detailed figures had been drawn… and then erased. In other panels, figures in silhouette -- outlines filled with solid black -- revealed themselves to have originally been drawn in fully-detailed costumes.

I was stunned. I could not fathom the audacity of anyone assigned to ink a comics page -- any comics page, let alone one of Jack Kirby's -- taking a penciler's detailed drawings and just filling them in with solid black ink… or erasing details on a whim. This was the beginning of my distaste for Vince Colletta's approach to inking, and it grew stronger as, over the years, more and more information became available, especially through the reproduction of Xeroxes of Kirby's penciled pages before Colletta inked them. It became abundantly clear that a great deal of what Kirby had created had vanished under the brush and pen (and eraser) of Vince Colletta.

And this book, "The Thin Black Line", makes it clear that this was not an isolated event -- Colletta did it with practically every pencil drawing he touched, every comics page he inked. Many different comics artists were interviewed for the book, and almost every one of them says the same thing, with varying degrees of vituperation: Colletta ruined the pencilers' work… or, at the very least, turned it into just another hacked-out example of the "assembly line" look that typified a lot of Marvel and DC comics in the decades during which he worked the most.

However, the book does very clearly explain why Vince Colletta got all the work he did -- he was FAST. He was reliable, and would take on almost any job, even last-minute ones which needed to be done over a weekend. And, truth be told, even at his worst, his work maintained a minimum level of the "professional" look required for a newsstand comic book.
And it does make a certain amount of sense that a guy who could throw down the ink so quickly -- sometimes inking a book in a few days -- would be appealing to those in charge of the business part of the world of comics. Those folks weren't always that concerned with maintaining a high level of artistry -- if they could get that, fine, but what they REALLY paid attention to was making printing and shipping schedules.

It had been a while since I had looked closely at Vince Colletta's work, and seeing all the examples in this book made me admit -- a bit grudgingly, I have to be honest here -- that the man did have talent, and -- as many of the interviewees in "The Thin Black Line" attest -- when he took his time, Colletta could turn out some nice work. He was far from the worst inker ever employed by Marvel or DC. And for some things, in some cases, his style improved, or at least didn't degrade, the work of the penciler.

"The Thin Black Line" is an interesting book, especially for those of us who came of age reading those wonderful Marvel and DC comics of the era in which Colletta did most of his work. It offers a fascinating behind the scenes look at the comics industry, and even if you have no interest in Colletta per se or any of the pencilers he inked, it's still an intriguing glimpse into the business of comics.

But… I know that when I'd finished reading it, and felt like I had a greater appreciation for what Vince Colletta did, why he did it, and -- perhaps even more important -- why he was ALLOWED to do it, I still felt cheated out of who knows how much great stuff, especially great Kirby stuff, that I never got to see… stuff that was there in the pencils, but when they got handed over to Vince Colletta, that stuff disappeared. If the publishers were so concerned with meeting deadlines, and they also preferred inkers who could be more faithful to the pencilers' intent, why didn't they spend a few more dollars and a little more time and go out and FIND good inkers? I mean, surely there were enough people out there who knew how to wield a brush and/or pen, and who would have done so without erasing important details, or obscuring them with solid black silhouettes, or simplifying them just to make the work go faster.

In the end, it comes down to this, at least for me -- as someone who has been both a penciler and an inker, I know that I would NEVER, to make my job easier, turn another penciler's detailed figure or building or vehicle or whatever into a silhouette, or erase them because I didn't think they needed to be there… and I would be furious if anyone who inked my pencils did that to them. It is just wrong. -- PL

4 comments:

Adam Riches said...

Really interesting post/review! I am quite familiar with Colletta's work and feel much the same way about it that you do. Though Colletta isn't alone, in that there are many other inkers guilty of similar dishonorable attributes.

It's always readily apparent to me when a book keeps the same penciler but switches inkers, and all of a sudden it looks like a different artist is drawing the book. Living in the era of photoshop, this is becoming less of a problem, but I do know first hand what it's like to hand your work off to be finished and have someone seemingly devalue it, and it is infuriating.

I would have to say though, Kirby himself while unbelievably talented, was probably just as revered for his speed as Colletta was, and because of that probably understood and accepted the big 2's assembly line art of the time better than we as his fans ever could.

My favorite illustrator is Drew Struzan, and over recent years some of his more notable posters like Star Wars episode 3 and Indiana Jones 4 both had his original work altered digitally after he had completed them, which I find personally offensive as a fan, but as you said, those in charge tend to not see things from that view, which is quite unfortunate.

usagiguy said...

I heard about this book but never got it, because, frankly, I already have stacks of "must read" books laying around. Thanks for your review. It backs up much of what I have heard and read elsewhere.

Like yourself, I grew up with Kirby comics (I even knew the great man), and to have his hard work disrespected as Colletta did is just deplorable. However, he was fast, so that endeared him to the powers above.

Did the book just cover his professional work, or did it also go into personal anecdotes and rumors, of which there are many?

Stan

PL said...

"‪usagiguy‬ said...
I heard about this book but never got it, because, frankly, I already have stacks of "must read" books laying around. Thanks for your review. It backs up much of what I have heard and read elsewhere. "

Stan, it is definitely worth the time spent reading it. It's not a very thick book, and there are lots of illustrations, so it goes by pretty quickly.



"Like yourself, I grew up with Kirby comics (I even knew the great man), and to have his hard work disrespected as Colletta did is just deplorable. However, he was fast, so that endeared him to the powers above. 

Did the book just cover his professional work, or did it also go into personal anecdotes and rumors, of which there are many?

Stan"

The book does go into quite a few personal stories, mostly to establish that Vince Colletta was a real "character", as they say. For example, there is a reproduction of a hand-written letter -- quite profane in spots -- which he wrote to the Marvel brass to criticize their treatment of Jim Shooter. -- PL

Don Smith said...

Erik Larsen did a column about Colletta some time ago that echos and expands on what you've written here (and with a great second-hand Gil Kane quote).

http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=16355