What’s Wrong With this Picture?
by Dan Nadel
Friday, August 6, 2010
Well here we are in 2010 and there is a new book called The Thin Black Line: Perspectives on Vince Colletta, Comics’ Most Controversial Inker, by Robert L. Bryant, Jr. One hundred and twenty-eight pages full of decent black-and-white reproductions of Colletta-inked artwork, a good bit of Kirby pencils, and some very astute before-and-after comparisons.
For the uninitiated: In the wondrous world of superhero, etc., comic books there were and are pencillers and inkers. The pencillers drew the story in pencil, rendering to greater or lesser degrees. The inkers would then draw on top of those pencils in ink, thus preparing the page for photography. Inkers overlaid their own drawing style on whomever they were working over. Some inkers faithfully executed, in ink, the intentions of the penciller; others rendered those intentions in their own style. And still others just drew what they viewed as most essential and moved on as quickly as possible. Inking is no mean feat.
Anyhow, Vince Colletta (1923-1991) was a nearly life-long toiler in the comic-book trade, moving through multiple publishers during his long tenure. He drew some fine romance books, but most famously inked the bulk of Jack Kirby’s long run on Thor. And therein lies the controversy. Colletta usually drew with a thin line closest in feel to, say, Hal Foster, while Kirby’s artwork was far more about broad strokes and high-finish sheen. So over Kirby’s dynamism Colletta laid down a sketchy, hatch-driven line. So there’s that, which is a matter of taste. Me, I like his approach. He gives Thor an old-timey feel that I enjoy, and ties it nicely to Foster, who both men worshiped. He grounds Kirby’s art with grit in a way not entirely dissimilar to how someone like Mort Meskin did in the 1950s. But there’s a second issue. As fandom rose in the 1970s, Kirby’s personal xeroxes of his pencils began to emerge, and it quickly became apparent that Colletta was omitting figures, buildings, and all sorts of details from Kirby’s art. Compositions were clearly made wonky and in some cases misread all together. And the rumor was that this was common for him. Under tremendous financial and editorial pressure to keep the pages flying out of his studio, Colletta inked what he wanted to ink and erased the rest, sometimes embarrassing the penciller with the finished product. Well, that’s a trickier thing. And that is where Bryant’s book really excels.
After a brief biography, the bulk of the book is taken up with pencil-to-ink comparisons. Bryant is a sober, fair guide to this stuff and provides the best analysis I’ve seen of where the problems might lie. He also nicely demonstrates Colletta’s talents as a draftsman, highlighting a beautiful Gil Kane job, among others. What works so well about this short volume is that Bryant does not appear to wish either deification or demonization on Colletta, and does not treat Kirby as untouchable either.
As Bryant explains, the controversy itself is interesting as a sociological study. The fact is, for a lot of fans Kirby served as an abstract father figure, and so reactions to any perceived desecration of his artwork can spiral into a virulent kind of hatred. There are certainly aesthetic issues (what is inking? What is the inker’s responsibility?) here, but I don’t think there are moral issues, as is often the implication. There’s nothing morally offensive about what Colletta did. Colletta was a highly competent production man: He got the books in on time, and kept the presses rolling, and in doing so he sometimes did a disservice to the artist he was inking (in the comic-book business that was more the rule than the exception. More “faithful” guys like Joe Sinnott, who inked The Fantastic Four, were unusual). When that artist happened to be Jack Kirby it’s a damn shame. Kirby was great. But Kirby knew the game and entered into it willingly. And he also knew that guys like Colletta, were, like him, doing a job. Kirby happened to transcend the job, while Colletta did not, but nevertheless, when Kirby sent off those pencils, he was done. He had no choice, and that in itself is sad, but it was a condition of doing business at the time. It’s not remotely comparable to how Kirby was compensated as an artist, or any of those issues. It’s simply unfortunate that market conditions conspired against both men. It should also be noted that when Kirby went to D.C. and began work on his “Fourth World” stories he demanded and received control over who would ink his work. So, he was clearly aware of the difference.
Right up front, Bryant says his book is not a full biography, so I don’t blame him for keeping it focused. Overall it’s a good study, if sometimes a little meandering, but it’s the only one I can think of that really dissects the oddities of an antiquated production process.
Bryant’s stated limitations also made me realize what I’d like to know more about: namely the context of all of this. Colletta is said to have had numerous assistants. Who were they? How many? What did they do, exactly? And more importantly, what did they see? There’s a fair amount of discussion here of Colletta the raconteur. He apparently shot a lot of photos in his Manhattan studio for publication and for “model’s portfolios.” Where are those photos? What I’m getting at is: Colletta, who refused to be interviewed by the press and had no interest in fandom, clearly existed in a broader publishing milieu. It might’ve been C-grade pulp or men’s mags, or… well, I don’t know. But I’d like to know more about that. This was a guy who produced, who published. Kirby was one part of that. What were the other parts? How did they impact him? And what can we extrapolate from Colletta’s experiences to better understand the art and industry?
There is so much shit stirred up about Colletta on the glorious internet, that an anonymous blog popped up that sought to defend Colletta (and, uh, post photos of attractive women? That’s comics for you.) and attack Kirby biographer Mark Evanier. An odd thing, but taken out of context very useful for looking at a ton of Colletta art. Eddie Campbell has the most nuanced take on Colletta, though it spawned a nasty comments section best left unread. And then there is Colletta’s infamous retirement letter and phone call, both of which seem more or less an emotionally fair reaction to a lifetime in the comics biz. Except for the part about Jim Shooter. That’s kinda creepy.