Tom Palmer died a few days ago, in case you hadn’t heard yet. He was 81 years old, but he had been working at least until a few years ago – I don’t know how much work he’d done recently, but I’d see his name pop up every once in a while over the past 10-15 years. His heyday, of course, was the 1970s, and he specialized in something that is becoming increasingly anachronistic – inking someone else’s pencils. These days, artist prefer to ink themselves, it seems, plus a lot of comics are being colored directly from pencils, thanks to the vast array of technology artists have at their disposal. In some ways, that’s too bad – a good penciler/inker combination could work faster, obviously, which meant a bit more continuity on series instead of the arcs we have now, where one artist can only handle 3-5 issues of a monthly comic before the grind gets too much for them. I love artists who handle everything themselves, because then it’s completely their vision, but something is definitely lost when inkers are cut out of the equation, and I’m not just talking about parts of Jack Kirby’s work disappearing when Vince Colletta got a hold of it. Inkers could add something to a penciler’s work, and each inker could subtly (or not-so-subtly) change how a penciler’s work looked – at times for the worse, of course, but sometimes for the better, and many times, just in a weirdly different way. I’m thinking of Tony DeZuniga roughly inking John Byrne in the 1970s, making Byrne’s smooth lines something darker. I’m thinking of Erik Larsen inking Steve Ditko, making the work a weird and glorious amalgamation of two of the more idiosyncratic artists in mainstream comics history. Of course, I’m also thinking of Vince Colletta vanishing parts of Kirby’s work, or George Pratt butchering Colleen Doran’s work on Sandman. On the whole, I think the trend away from pure inkers is a good thing (although it sucks for the inkers, I know), but it’s still a bit sad. We all get nostalgic sometimes, right?
I’m not sure if Palmer was the best inker ever, but I doubt it. I think he was a good inker, but I can think of better ones, so that’s the Question this week: Who’s the best inker ever? You can name anyone you want, but they have to, you know, actually inked something (I know, it’s crazy, right?). They can be better known as pencilers, certainly – Bill Sienkiewicz is a good example of someone who inks quite well but is better known, probably, as a penciler/paint guy, and Kevin Nowlan probably falls into that category, as well – but they have to be inkers, too. I’d like to say you have to name someone who doesn’t ink their own pencils, but if you think a penciler who inks his own work is the best, feel free. I also suspect the list of best inkers is rather short, and I suspect I know the two names that will come up the most – if it’s not the person I think is the best, which we’re getting to! – but such is life. That’s the Question!
For me, the best inker ever is Al Williamson. I first became aware of Williamson, I think, when he inked Lee Weeks on Daredevil, which is beautiful work:
The blacks are amazing, making the chair in the first example crinkly and leathery, while the brush strokes on Fisk’s collar in the second example are terrific. Williamson’s use of the blacks adds such a superb depth of menace to Daredevil, as he slowly takes Fisk’s life apart. In the third example, we get more gorgeous spot blacks, making Ghost Rider’s jacket crackly, while Williamson makes the Hand soldier’s clothing softer than GR’s leather, simply by using his brush more lightly. Weeks is a good artist, certainly, but Williamson really adds nice nuance to his line work.
Of course, at that time I didn’t know that Williamson had been inking John Romita Jr. on Daredevil for quite some time. If you think, as I do, that Romita’s work on Daredevil might the best work of his long career, I think you have to admit Williamson had something to do with that:
He tends to soften Romita’s hard lines just a bit, and his own additions add a bit more subtlety to the pencils. It’s really superb work.
Williamson inked John Buscema very nicely, smoothing out his own rough edges:
He did some nice characterization work on Wolverine over Mark Bright’s pencils:
He adds a lot of tactile details to Conan’s world (this is either drawn by Judith Hunt or Mike Manley or both – it looks like Manley, but I don’t know Hunt’s work, so I can’t say it’s not hers):
And he grounds Gene Colan a bit, which isn’t something I would think would work, but it’s certainly interesting:
Williamson, of course, was a superb artist in his own right, but I’m not going to show any of his pencil work that he inked himself (see my self-imposed restriction above). But as I got to know more about Williamson, I tried to get as much of his earlier work as I could. Sadly, unlike his peer Wallace Wood, a lot of his work seems to be scattered around a bit, and, of course, back in the day he and his buddies like Frank Frazetta and Roy Krenkel often simply penciled and inked pages somewhat haphazardly to save time, so his work gets blended with theirs (it’s still lovely, of course, but harder to differentiate). I still like looking at it, though!
So that’s my answer. Who’s yours? Is it Palmer? Even if it isn’t, let’s raise a glass to a dude who never became a huge star but always put in the work and made some of your favorite comics look as good as they did. You know you love inkers!