One Fan's Opinion

Fri, May 9th, 2008 at 1:14pm PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

1974's "Marvel Treasury Edition" #3 featuring The Mighty Thor

Vince Colletta was one of the most prolific inkers in the history of comics.

Colletta entered the funnybook field in 1952 as a penciller and inker, doing mostly romance comics. He worked at Better Comics for a short while before making his way to Atlas comics (later to be called Marvel) and then DC Comics and Charlton. By the late ‘50s, Colletta had stopped penciling altogether and was making a living as an inker.

At Marvel, Vinnie inked whatever was put in front of him. He inked Don Heck, he inked Steve Ditko, he inked Bob Powell, he inked Joe Orlando, he inked Gene Colan, he inked John and Sal Buscema and he inked Jack Kirby-- pages and pages of Jack Kirby. Colletta inked Kirby’s pencils on the Mighty Thor.

And Colletta would soften Kirby's often-mannish woman and he would add texture to figures and backgrounds that worked especially well on “Thor.” There was a period where it seemed to click and the work, as printed, looked amazing -- and his inks were ideally suited to the book -- it worked. As much as I liked Joe Sinnott's incredible inks on the “Fantastic Four,” I think that line on “Thor” would have been too slick. Colletta's inks gave it an almost etching-like quality, which suited it perfectly.

But Colletta was a hack.

Vinnie erased background figures and simplified backgrounds and turned fully realized drawings into silhouettes. I have quite a few pages of original art from Kirby’s run on “Thor” and Vinnie erased or whited out incidental figures or details frequently -- in one case, Vinnie whited out an entire train.

Like all artists, Vinnie was paid by the page, and Vinnie was paid poorly. There were no royalties or reprint money -- the original art was not returned, so there was no incentive to do good work. As long as editors gave him work, he'd take the money and spit back the work as quickly as possible. Doing that meant taking shortcuts and Vinnie took shortcuts aplenty. A trick Vinnie utilized often was to scribble in excessive skinny lines in a frantic random pattern, which gave the illusion of pages being worked over, while simplifying or eliminated elements that needed to be inked with care. This made it appear as though he was bringing a lot to the page even though he was taking away as much as he was adding.

The first Marvel job I ever did was a fill-in on “Thor” and Vinnie inked it. When I saw the photocopies of the finished art I had trouble breathing for two days. I was just appalled by what it had become.

Years later,I look back and get a kick out of it. It was the last issue of “Thor” that Vinnie Colletta ever inked and the last issue Stan Lee ever scripted,so it was like I was filling in for Jack Kirby as part of the classic “Thor” creative team. In retrospect, it really wasn't as bad as I seemed to think it was. And it one case, what I took to be a shortcut on Vinnie’s part aided the storytelling. Vinnie had made an incidental foreground figure bald, which, in retrospect, eliminated a distraction that helped focus the readers’ attention on what it should have been focused on: the battle, which raged behind him. This foreground figure was unimportant -- the battle was.

Vinnie's work varied. Sometimes he was fine -- other times he was lousy. Like a lot of people, Vinnie had trouble adjusting to the new paper size. When the size of the original art went from 12 x 18 (often referred to as “twice up”) to 10 x 15 in 1967, Vinnie’s inks went from detailed to crude. “Thor” #145 is drawn on the larger art and #146 is on the smaller paper and it shows. Both Jack and Vinnie had trouble adjusting to the new size initially. Looking through the Essential books you can see the quality of the work deteriorate as it goes along. Vinnie’s work on the later “Thor” issues looks especially simple and clumsy.

When I started reading comics, Jack’s run on “Thor” was long over. In fact, Jack had long departed from Marvel and was a couple years from coming back. When I started buying back issues of books that I missed I bought mostly the “Fantastic Four,” finding the Colletta-inked “Thor” comics objectionable.

But a funny thing happened.

I bought a copy of “Marvel Treasury Edition” #3, which reprinted the classic Lee/Kirby/Colletta Thor/Hercules epic from “Journey Into Mystery” and “Thor” and it was sitting around the house and a friend of mine who was not too taken with Kirby’s work took an immediate liking to it. He responded to all of the scratchy lines Colletta had added to the pages and since Vinnie softened a lot of Kirby’s more impressionistic elements -- square knees and fingers and such -- he likened the end result to the more labored over efforts of Barry Smith.

And it’s grown on me. I don't necessarily seek out his work, but on “Thor” -- at least much of the time -- I don't hate it.

Vince Colletta’s name has become synonymous with bad inking.

"Thor" #126, March 1966, art by Kirby and Colletta.

For many, Vinnie is the gold standard of bad inking -- a veritable poster boy for hacking. To many he is the worst inker to ever put pen to paper.

But that’s overstating it, I think.

Yes, Vinnie took a few, liberties but one could argue that those liberties should have been taken. In the case of the train example mentioned earlier, its absence made the panel a better composition. The train was an unnecessary distraction. One could argue that Jack’s women needed a little prettying up and that simplifying backgrounds pushed them back and made readers focus on the more important components of those panels.

But that argument only goes so far.

In many cases, Vinnie’s omissions were detrimental to the final product. By erasing secondary figures, the once bustling Asgard seemed like a ghost town. And there were numerous times where Vince did the work an incredible disservice, the reader was shortchanged and left to wonder why Kirby was knocking himself out on “Fantastic Four” while taking so many shortcuts on “Thor.”

The problem is that the reader never got to see the pages before they were inked -- they just saw what it looked like after the fact. If pages looked empty and simple, there was no way for the fan to know what details the inker omitted. And Vinnie omitted plenty of details.

The late, great Gil Kane once told a buddy of mine that Vinnie Colletta was his second favorite inker. My pal asked him who his first favorite inker was and Gil replied, "Anybody else."

The advent of publications like Twomorrows’ “The Jack Kirby Collector” have made it possible for fans to see for themselves what effect Colletta had on Kirby’s pencils. Un-inked Kirby pencils, reproduced from stats taken at the time are often printed side-by-side with the pages as they saw print and often it’s pretty appalling to see what damage Vinnie inflicted.

And thanks to books and articles we can read what others had to say and it’s seldom flattering.

Mark Evanier went on about Vinnie Colletta on a few occasions and he was relatively fair about it. Mark was hired as Kirby’s assistant back in the ‘70s. Now, Kirby needed an assistant about as much as he needed a third butt cheek, but Mark and Steve Sherman were hired nevertheless to run errands and write letter columns and so forth. It was Mark who pointed out to Jack what Vince Colletta was up to.

Kirby had not paid a hell of a lot of attention to the printed page. He thought that an inker was an inker and they were all pretty much the same. When it was pointed out that Vinnie was taking incredible liberties with his work and omitting details that Kirby thought were important -- well, let’s just say that Mr. Colletta finally found himself working on other assignments.

And, as much as a vocal few might think there’s a vast conspiracy at work out to harm the legacy of Vinnie Colletta, I don't think for a minute that Evanier is putting words in Kirby's mouth when it comes to the guy. This was an inker that many artists dreaded. Mike Grell even wrote Colletta into an issue of “Warlord” (#44, "The Gamble") in which Warlord cut off a thinly disguised Colletta's hand. Warlord didn't object so much to the Gambler being a cheat, but rather that his actions made others become cheats as well and Colletta inked that issue.

The real tragedy of Colletta was not that he was a hack, but rather that he turned others into hacks. Pencillers who had been putting in long hours at the drawing board and who were appalled to have their work butchered would start cutting corners themselves. Often it resulted in them slacking off because, as they'd say, "Vinnie will just ruin it anyway."

But I do think it's gotten to a point where it's almost gruesome the way this man has been vilified. Vinnie was often the go-to guy when books were running late because he could work so fast. Editors knew he took shortcuts and gave him assignments with such tight deadlines that he couldn't possibly do good work. Vinnie often did rush jobs and they often looked hastily executed because they were hastily executed. But Vinnie was a pro and he batted it out. He had to have known how much his work was reviled yet he carried on, saving the day (and many editors’ asses) time after time.

Vinnie was a hack, but he was hired because he was a hack. There would be jobs that needed to get done overnight and Vinnie would get the job done in the time that it needed to get done, hang the quality.

The willingness to sign your name to substandard work is where you separate the hacks from the artists. It's also where many old timers might separate the professionals from the amateurs.

There are few pros left.

Colletta employed assistants, especially in his later years. That issue of “Thor” I drew had a background guy on all but a few pages in the beginning. I've known several artists who assisted Vinnie, including “Special Forces” and “Plastic Man” artist Kyle Baker.

Kirby & Colletta on August, 1971's "Mr. Miracle" #3

Kyle told me a story about working for Vinnie. He was hired to ink all the backgrounds, but not the figures. Kyle had brought in the finished pages to Vinnie and he looked through them, stopping at a panel with a dead guy lying on the ground. Colletta asked Kyle why he didn’t ink the person on the ground. Kyle said he was supposed to ink the backgrounds -- not the figures. Colletta responded by saying, “the guy’s dead -- he’s a background.”

This used to be a job -- and writers, pencillers and inkers used to be professionals -- not prima donnas. This was commercial art. It was a way of earning a living and providing for ones family. For generations, artists did the work, got their paycheck and didn't raise a stink. That doesn't mean that they loved the end results.

Hacking was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Making the deadline was of utmost importance. And that's where Vinnie shined. It wasn't that everybody thought he was outstanding, it's that they could count on him to get the job done.

Period.

Pencillers -- until very recently -- had no say in regard to who inks their pencils. Hell, I specifically asked for Vinnie not to ink my “Thor” fill-in and he ended up inking it.

And years later, I’m glad he did.

I wish I still had a few pages from that “Thor” job he inked over my pencils.

Most readers liked Vinnie’s inking well enough. Given the choice, many preferred the slicker inks of Sinnott and Giacoia, but given their control over things they took what was served to them. When a comic book cost 12¢, it didn’t have to be very good in order for a reader to feel as though they’d gotten their money’s worth.

A number of readers have disliked Vinnie’s work for decades. And it's not simply because of seeing what Jack's pencils look like in the “Kirby Collector” -- readers could see and compare artists inked by other inkers side-by-side with those inked by Colletta and determine for themselves which ones they preferred.

As a kid I hated his inks -- and that was long before the “Kirby Collector.”

As an adult it's grown on me, but as a kid there was nobody worse.

Few professionals asked to work with Vinnie. I've talked with numerous pencillers who absolutely dreaded working with him. Editors used him because he was fast -- and certainly Stan Lee didn't love him enough to keep him on the “Fantastic Four.”

Which, again, is not to say Vinnie was universally loathed -- because he wasn't. The top brass at DC liked him enough to make him art director for a time, but the scales tipped very much in the direction of "dislike" for the majority of pencillers.

A good chunk of the readers were unaware of what an inker did and simply didn't notice or care who inked the pages. Of the readers who did notice or care, a decent chunk loved him and a good-sized chunk hated him. On books where he was the regular inker, readers generally put up with him and often liked what he did. In cases where he did fill-ins, generally the reaction was quite negative.

I can't think of many pencillers who requested working with him (I can name only two off the top of my head, Paul Smith and John Byrne, and in both cases he inked only a single issue) but I know of a bunch of them who actively lobbied to try and get him off of their books.

The bottom line is this -- those that hate him generally cut him no slack. The truth is that he was not the worst inker in comics by any means, but the shortcuts he took really get a lot of people fired up. He was a man with more talent than he generally put to good use, often paired with pencillers whose work he was unsuited to ink. When it clicked -- and when he was on -- he was pretty good. But he's likely to be remembered more as a guy who hacked it out and erased backgrounds, because he was a guy who hacked it out and erased backgrounds and nothing anybody can say or do is going to change that.

"Mediocre professional standards" was what was expected of creators and what Vinnie most often delivered. That one-time page rate was the only revenue a creator was likely to see. They didn't get art back so there was no financial incentive to having it be an awesome piece of work. True, a person didn't want to do work that was so bad that they couldn't get their next assignment, but this was a job and the primary goal was to get the job done and have it turned in on schedule. The brass wanted artists that were quick and reliable and able to produce work that met "mediocre professional standards." Creators able to deliver that did cut it for a long time in this publishing business.

Marvel's "Love Romances" #98, one of the possibilities for Colletta's first inking of Jack Kirby.

And look around, that's the world we live in.

Most businesses are comprised of people numbly going through the motions. Mediocre work is as common as dirt.

The fact that Vinnie did an incredible amount of books in his 40+ years is not proof that Vinnie wasn’t a hack -- it's proof that he was a hack. He had to cut corners in order to produce that body of work and cutting corners -- erasing backgrounds and eliminating details -- is hard evidence that he was hacking it out.

And, again, this was both encouraged and expected. The comics needed to ship on time.

To make it in comics you need to be either:

1. Very fast

2. Very good

3. Very nice

And to last, you need to be two of the above. Vinnie was both 1 and 3 -- and every so often, number 2.

Vinnie has his defenders, but they are few and far between. One particularly prolific troll has been going all over the web and registering as multiple people and singing Colletta’s praises with the same poor grammar, tired catch phrases, bad spelling and typos again and again, much to the annoyance of everyone around.

But the thing about taste is that no matter how much you argue, you're not going to win people over to your side. People like what they like and as much as you might argue that everybody should enjoy Brussels sprouts they're not going to enjoy Brussels sprouts unless they like Brussels sprouts. No argument is going to convert somebody that dislikes Brussels sprouts into liking Brussels sprouts. It doesn't work that way.

But there are people that like Brussels sprouts. And stores stock those nasty little things and people buy them. There’s no accounting for taste.

I like the Knack. I liked their later CDs after the band reunited. I like their CD "Zoom" -- I think it's great. The rest of the world could not care less about the Knack beyond "My Sharona" and possibly "Good Girls Don't." That's reality. I can face up to reality and enjoy the music I enjoy or I could become a raving douche bag berating people and telling them they're wrong for disliking a band that they couldn't care less about.

I choose to sit back and enjoy the music.

We’re all entitled to our opinion. This is mine. If you don’t like it, go out and get one of your own.

TAGS:  vince colletta, jack kirby, thor, inkers

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