Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: Who’s the best inker in comics history?

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!


    1. Greg Burgas

      Yeah, that’s who I suspected people would say. Well, Austin and another candidate. We’ll see. But Austin is terrific. His inks of Marshall Rogers in Detective are excellent, too.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Janson is the other name I was thinking people would name. I like Janson’s work, but I think it’s a bit too heavy-handed. He seems to work best with a really powerful penciler, otherwise he just overwhelms the line art. Sienkiewicz is the same way.

      I wouldn’t have thought of von Grawbadger, but he’s quite good.

      1. Eric van Schaik

        Sorry, but I have to disagree.
        I read this on vacation in Rhodes (the 2 absolute vision tpb’s which easely could be 1 trade) and it flipped from a Byrne page to a Ditko page. I had to check the credits halfway through the story to see who was the penciler.

  1. kdu2814

    I don’t know that I have a favorite inker, but Williamson is pretty good so I could probably go with him.

    The Larson/Ditko page is pretty interesting too.

    I do know that the first time I really noticed an inker’s work was Art Thibert over Dan Jurgens on Adventures of Superman.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Most of the Hembeck stuff I’ve read, he’s inking himself, so I can’t say Anderson’s inks are great or not. But your personal bias is allowed! 🙂

  2. This is a good question, as there are a lot of avenues to consider. What constitutes a great inker?

    Is it someone who adds their visual stylings to the work? You mention Kevin Nowlan, and he’s terrific, but everything he inks looks like a Kevin Nowlan drawing. Does that make him a “successful” inker? He’s certainly a transformative one.

    Is it someone who subsumes their style to best service the pencils? Or do we lose the creative spark if that occurs?

    Is it someone who produces a new synthesis of pencils and inks, where each brings out the best in one another? Just from how I wrote that, I suppose that would be my answer. I thought Tom Palmer worked wonders on Gene Colan and John Buscema.

    I also think we’d need a candidate who worked with a lot of different artists. So as much as I love Mike Royer and think his was the best brush to touch Kirby’s pencils, I think we need someone with a larger or more diverse body of inking work.

    I don’t think I can give a straight answer. Al Williamson is a great pick. You can identify his inks immediately, but he manages to elevate the pencils to a new level.

    My heart wants to say Klaus Janson. Recognizable, bold, chunky, inky. I like inky inks.

    And I haven’t mentioned Joe Sinnott yet, so here we go. Smooth like caramel.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I would definitely say someone who doesn’t overwhelm or subsume, but forms a nice synthesis. You mention Nowlan, and Sienkiewicz falls into that camp, as I mentioned above. When he inks something, you know it’s been inked by Sienkiewicz! The best inking jobs he’s done, as far as I’ve seen, are on someone like Denys Cowan, who has a similar but not identical style and has a strong enough line to resist Sienkiewicz’s work a bit. But I like Sienkiewicz, so I don’t mind if he overwhelms some pencilers!

      That’s why I picked Williamson, because he does such a nice job elevating the pencils. Romita’s work is the most “Romita” it can be when Williamson is inking him, if you get my drift.

      Sinnott is very good, too!

  3. tomfitz1

    BURGAS: Lots of good contenders mentioned here, but all this talk of intersection reminds me of a funny Kevin Smith story in one of his films, I forget which ones).

    There was a conversation about inkers being referred to as “tracers”, not “inkers” and the argument that followed.

    Thought it might have been funny to mention that here.

  4. humanbelly

    At a tiny convention in South Bend, IN in the summer of ’84, Mike Vosburg (who seemed in less than a good mood) declared Terry Austin the best inker ever. Period. The end. No other contestants. (He had been handed, like, a third Frank Miller Wolverine cover in a row to make a sketch from at that point. . . and no one was showing interest in his Sisterhood of Steel original pages that he was working on. . . ).

    But– I’m glad to see Joe Sinnott finally introduced into the list, above–! I really like Jansen & Austin especially. . . and the Herb Trimpe/John Severin combo is one of my favorites of all time. . . but my vote goes immediately to Joltin’ Joe. The two pillars supporting that decision? 1) His forever-long run on the FF– where the book ALWAYS LOOKED “RIGHT”, even as the penciling duties shifted across artists with incredibly distinctive styles– Kirby, Romita, John Buscema, Buckler, Bill S, John Byrne, and Perez (to name most of them-!). The book certainly had ups and downs during those years– but the visual consistency was never lost. It’s like stage-lighting— where you never notice it until it’s NOT there. And 2) It’s hard to put this diplomatically, but Al Milgrom’s long-ish writer/penciler run on The Avengers in the early 90’s wasn’t the strongest– and whenever I revisit those issues, I’m struck by the fact that Joe’s inks are what seem to be holding the book together. Which seems so unlikely, and yet. . . (and I have no beef with Al M whatsoever, believe me–)

    So, Joe Sinnott for me!


    1. Edo Bosnar

      On the topic of Vosburg, I read Sisterhood of Steel a few years ago. It’s a pretty solid series and his art in it is quite good. It’s too bad that it wasn’t more popular (and kind of sad that it’s almost completely forgotten).

  5. Darthratzinger

    Unoriginal late comment: Austin on Byrne. But what else did Austin ink? He didn´t do much other regular work, did he?
    I would have never thought Al Williamson but Your art examples make a pretty good case. Klaus Jansons inks were for me the weakest part of Millers Daredevil run, so his inclusion baffles me. Tom Palmers inks over Buscemas pencils on Avengers were great but his inks over Gene Colans Tomb of Dracula were even better. That is some of my favorite comic book artwork (plus their Black Panther run in Marvel Comics Presents).

    1. Greg Burgas

      As I noted, Austin inked Marshall Rogers on Detective Comics, and that’s really cool art. He also inked a lot of Camelot 3000, and Bolland/Austin on art is a treat.

      Yeah, that Colan art on Tomb of Dracula is sweet stuff.

    2. Bright-Raven

      Terry Austin’s longest runs as an interior inker on a series / character property:

      83 issues of SONIC THE HEDGEGOG (Ian Flynn)
      22 issues of SONIC X (Ian Flynn)
      33 issues of X-MEN / UNCANNY X-MEN (Byrne)
      40-43 issues combined works of CLOAK & DAGGER (Rick Leonardi between minis, the ongoing series, and STRANGE TALES)
      12 issues of DR. STRANGE (Marshall Rogers)
      11 issues of NEW MUTANTS (Rick Leonardi, Sal Buscema, June Brigman and Bret Blevins)
      25 issues combined of GREEN LANTERN during the Ron Marz era (Darryl Banks, Ron Lim,
      Jim Starlin, Paul Pelletier, and Dan Jurgens)

  6. Terrible-D

    I feel like, for as long as I’ve been a fan of comics, my art critique is amateur at best. With that said, Williamson was the first name that came to mind. Either his work on multiple Daredevil artists, with Buscema on Wolverine, or Blevins on late run New Mutants can be held up as examples of his craftsmanship. Can we count when he inked himself? His EC work obviously, and less obvious is the ’95 Flash Gordon he did at Marvel.
    I would echo Darthratzinger about Palmer’s work over Buscema on the Avengers.
    I would also have to mention John Totleben on Saga of the Swamp Thing.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I thought of Totleben, but his body of work is so limited, and I also am not positive how much penciling/inking he, Bissette, and Veitch did. When Totleben drew Miracleman, for instance, it looked so much like the art on Swamp Thing that I’m not positive how much Bissette actually drew, or if it was much more a collaborative effort between the three of them, like Williamson, Frazetta, Krenkel, and Angelo Torres used to do.

  7. Peter

    For me, it’s so hard to give a single answer because I think of “great” inkers as falling into several categories, as Bill said. John Totleben, Sienkiewicz, Janson – all great inkers who transform the pencillers’ art. Mike Royer – clearly a great artist who shows incredible reverence to the pencils. Mostly, I tend to think of great penciler/inker teams: I love Palmer on Colan and Buscema but not as much on guys like John Romita Jr. Sinnott/Kirby is my platonic ideal of superhero art, but Sinnott on Byrne isn’t necessarily bringing out the best of either artist.

    My top two do have to be Janson and Palmer, though. I understand why people may be critical of Janson’s later work, as I think he’s gotten a bit more overpowering with his style, but in the 70s and 80s he was just incredible at adding weight and shadow and grit to the figures he inked. Not to slight Sal Buscema, but his work was never even close to as interesting as it was when Janson inked it. Similarly, Palmer had a great understanding of how to add depth and shadow to less fleshed-out drawings and make them look the way they would have if the penciler had just inked him or herself. John Buscema obviously had a distinct style, but if you look at his pencils, they were often very minimalistic. Palmer turned them into fleshed-out illustrations similar to what you would see when Buscema inked himself (I think there’s an Avengers annual with Memphisto for a rare Buscema pencil/ink job). The same was true for the notoriously hard-to-ink Colan and the strong but vastly different stylist Neal Adams. Palmer really was one of the greats.

    Williamson, Bob McLeod, Nowlan, Austin, Mark Farmer, and Mick Gray all deserve honorable mentions. Also – Dan Green was always great. He was an expert at adding a little of his own flair to the inks but never upstaging or overpowering the penciler. I think I listened to a Frank Quitely interview where Quitely identified Green as his favorite inker of his own pencils; it seemed a little surprising at first that the guy who inked Silvestri could also ink Quitely so well but the guy was great.

  8. mike loughlin

    Tom Palmer could ink Gene Colan and Neal Adams and make both of their work look amazing. Colan was great with mood and shadows while Adams was as close to photorealistic as Bronze Age comics got. Anyone who can succeed with such disparate approaches to pencilling gets my vote.

    Runners-up: Al Williamson is, indeed, JR Jr.’s best inker. It’s cool that he was such an Alex Raymond guy when he also penciled but he still vibed with JR Jr.’s wildly different style.

    Terry Austin is one of the greats, but he once inked Alex Toth on an Annual (I forget if it was World’s Finest or Action Comics) and it looked off. He was great over Byrne, Smith, and Art Adams though.

    I’m a fan of Mark Farmer. He’s Alan Davis’s most sympatico inker, plus he worked with Adam Kubert on Hulk, my favorite period of Kubert’s art. He’s good without being overwhelming.

    Murphy Anderson and Bob Layton are two guys who made their collaborators’ work slicker and smoother. I’ve enjoyed their contributions on a number of projects.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Interesting that it’s taken this long for Layton to get mentioned. His work on the what we now call the Michelinie/Layton run on Iron Man was amazing – he ensured that the art was visually consistent all the way through.

  9. humanbelly

    Say, off on the (potential) Pencilers-who-I-Like-as-Inkers tangent. . .

    Joe Staton (of all folks) made an appearance at Marvel as the inker on The Incredible Hulk for the rather critical run where Herb Trimpe left the book after about 50 years, going right into Sal Buscema’s 75 year run. And darned if his style didn’t compliment both artists very nicely, and provided a very tangible sense of visual continuity during that seismic shift for us folks what loved Herb to the depths of our souls.

    And Bill Everett! There are at least a couple of issues of Tales to Astonish where he steps into one or the other of the features as the inker. . . and I recall even my old, unsophisticated eye being captured by his work. (As I mentioned above– I’ve always tended to not actively register the inks. . . unless they are outright distractingly bad— ha–!)


    1. Edo Bosnar

      Oh yeah, I’m always up for praising Staton, a personal favorite of mine. And yes, I loved his inking jobs on the Hulk (although we, of course, disagree on the best Hulk artist: I know you’re a Team Herb diehard, while I’m forever on Team Sal).

      As for the penciler-as-inker category, Sienkiewicz has already been mentioned, and I noted Byrne’s inks on Ditko, but there’s also Ditko himself, who did some solid inking jobs on Kirby’s pencils back in the 1960s.
      Another who comes to mind is Dave Cockrum, in three issues of the Avengers (124-126) – although in the first two I think he’s credited as ‘finisher’ as John Buscema only did the breakdowns. Still, it’s all nice work.

      1. mike loughlin

        Funny, I thought the best Hulk artist was Dale Keown! At least, that’s who I imprinted on when I was 12. Yes, I know, different generations and all…

        Anyway, I really liked Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe combo. They traded off pencil king & inking, and their few issues together looked good. Station was a great choice for both Trimpe & Buscema, much better than the likes of Mike Esposito of Frank McLaughlin.

        Speaking of Keown, though, I noticed that the comic looked better soon after Mark Farmer replaced the capable Bob McCloud on inks. It was the first time, very early in my comics reading, that I tuned in to the contribution of someone other than “penciller.” Granted, the paper stock also improved, but I noticed the characters looking like they had greater (physical) depth and a slightly more rounded appearance. I also noticed Dale Keown’s self-inked cover art was a little busier, with more jagged lines. I liked that effect, too.

  10. Darthratzinger

    Looking through the small easily accessible part of my collection I found one guy who should definitely be mentioned: Al Alcala. I loved his work over John Buscemas pencils on Conan. He also inked Don Newton and Gene Colan on Batman/Detective Comics giving two very different artists a common look during a high-point in the characters publication history.

  11. John King

    hard to come up with a definitive answer for this as…
    the extent of an inker’s work on a title can vary drastically from Terry Austin tidying up Brian Bolland’s derailed pencil art on Camelot 3000 up to Dave Gibbons drawing pages of Green Lantern based on Gil Kane’s thumbnail sketches
    and without comparing the original pencil art with the final inked version it’s not easy to know without detailed study the extent of the inker’s contribution.

    I get the impression that I may be in a minority but I always liked Danny Bullanadi’s work as he maintained the standard on the Micronauts through multiple pencillers (at least I don’t think he was responsible for Mari’s hair length in issue 44 – there were multiple inkers in that issue) and then there’s Daredevil, Submariner, DP7, Captain America and many others.

    and I really like some art inked by Romeo Tanghal

    Of course, I am not going to challenge the inking abilities of great artists such as Bill Everett, Terry Austin or Al Williamson

    …and then there’s Ernie Chan…

    1. Greg Burgas

      I always want to see the original pencil art without and then with inks, because you’re right. I’m always curious how many lines Scott Williams adds to Jim Lee’s pencils!

      Tanghal is another good choice, someone whose inks you can recognize but doesn’t overwhelm the pencil art.

    2. John King

      in case anyone spotted it and did not figure it out, there was a typo in my post
      it should have said “Brian Bolland’s DETAILED pencil art ”
      (only just spotted it myself)

      1. Greg Burgas

        John: I did see that, but I wasn’t positive it was a typo – I thought you didn’t love Bolland’s work that much and thought it actually did go off the rails! 🙂

  12. mike loughlin

    John Viscera may not have liked Ernie Chan’s inks on Conan, but I thought the end results were gorgeous. I don’t know if Terry Austin ever inked Buscema, but I imagine the results would be similar.

    You make a good point about how hard it is to know which artist contributed what. I compare pencillers as inked by different artists, but that can be imprecise. Sometimes it’s obvious (jagged, busy Bill Sinkiewicz inks vs. sleeker Romeo Tanghal lines), sometimes not, but I like trying to discern who did what in older comics.

    1. Bright-Raven

      “Ernie Chan’s inks on Conan. I don’t know if Terry Austin ever inked Buscema, but I imagine the results would be similar.”

      Terry Austin inked Buscema a lot on Thor and Conan, often uncredited as Dick Giordano’s assistant, circa 1975-76, IIRC. Mostly backgrounds and the background figures as he was learning the trade (I think the Thor stuff was Austin’s first pro assignment in 1975). I think the first full inks he did solo on Big John for Conan was the cover to #107. And no, his and Ernie Chan’s inking styles look NOTHING ALIKE whatsoever. LOL Terry was predominantly trained to ink with quill pens (102, 105, 107), and he also would take a liking to technical pens. Ernie’s technique was entirely brush, and his line weights are much thicker / heavier than Terry’s.

  13. mike loughlin

    Yes, the line weights are different when comparing Chan and Austin, and yes they used different tools. What they have in common, however, is laying on a good amount of lines to make the art both more detailed and prettier. I don’t think other major JB inkers (Sinnott, Palmer, Janson, Klein, Sal B… I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two) were as decorative in their approaches.

  14. In addition to the above mentioned (Williamson, Palmer, Sinnott, Anderson, ‘Billy Sink’, Janson, Giordano, S. Williams, Austin etc who all deserve a slot on Hall of Fame ink list), a shout out to Joe Rubinstein, another Continuity Studios alumnus/assistant like Austin?
    Rubinstein’s work over Byrne on Captain America was fabulous.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.