TRIBUTE TO LEGENDS
The following is the last of a series of columns originally written for a proposed revival of the Comic Reader a couple years ago. But the magazine folded before ever putting an issue to press, and they’ve been languishing on my hard drive ever since. We’re running them here as originally written, so if they seem to be a tad dated, well, now you know why…
It’s been a particularly bad year for mortality among comic book professionals, and sadly it doesn’t look to get any better before 2000 runs its course. It seems like every week another classic talent passes: Gil Kane, George Roussos, Dick Sprang—the list goes on and on. Creators whose lives encompass the history of the medium we all love, who’ve lived through all the various ages and eras, and whose experiences can inform and enlighten us as we strive to take comics into the 21st century as a vibrant, living art form.
If I never went to another wake, another posthumous tribute, another memorial, that would suit me fine. And yet, the nature of life demands such a turnover. Men are finite, mortal. As much as anything, the limited lifespan given to us defines our lives and drives us to our accomplishments. It’s inevitable that one day in the near future, I’m going to hear word of the demise of another pillar of our history. And then, as always, the heartfelt tributes will flow from those who survive.
All of this is as it should be. And yet, I cannot help but feel that such tributes might carry greater meaning if they were given while their subjects were still alive, while they could bear witness to the impact they’ve had on the lives of others, and how much their work and their existence has meant to people. The undisputed giants of our field seem to receive a certain amount of this sort of attention as it stands—nobody can say, for example, that Neal Adams hasn’t been given due attention and due reverence. (Which isn’t to say that people shouldn’t continue to do so, of course.) But folks like George Roussos, who was ubiquitous yet often overlooked, don’t seem to get their due until after they’re no longer around to enjoy it. They’re so much a part of the landscape that we never stop to consider that there’ll come a time when they’ll no longer be available to us. And so I want to talk about one or two people here and now, with the stated hope that this’ll lead to other folks, both fans and pros, doing the same.
Joe Sinnott defined the look of the Marvel art style as much as anybody this side of John Romita, and more than any other inker in the business. His smooth linework and clean finish gave a pristine, sleek, modernistic flavor to any assignment he worked his brush over, regardless of the penciler. He’s absolutely my favorite inker of all time, a guy who improved the quality of any series he was working on. Additionally, Joe is an absolute professional, and a hell of a nice guy.
Sadly, I cannot remember the first time I spoke to Joe, or hired him to do a job for me. (With my interest in the history of comics, you would think that I’d have kept better records about my own dealings in the business. But I haven’t, counting on my imperfect memory to recall such events—a memory that’s already crowded with trivia such as who the villain was in Fantastic Four #21 (it was the Hate-Monger, in case anybody cares…) I expect it was something for Marvel’s Special Projects division, in which I worked for about four years. Special Projects encompassed everything that wasn’t actual monthly comics, specifically material that was being licensed either to or from others. We’d produce the artwork for Spider-Man bubble bath and Wolverine money banks and Captain America video game boxes, and so forth. In commissioning this sort of work, Joe was something of a mainstay of the department, since he’d give the final product that elusive “Marvel touch.” He was still inking Thor monthly at the time, but always made a few hours available if we had a hang-tag for Iron Man socks that needed to be inked.
I do remember the first time I met Joe in person, though. It was at his retirement lunch in 1991. After years at the monthly grind, Joe had decided to scale back on his workload and try to take it easy. Which didn’t really happen, since he was as much in demand as ever, but that was the idea at least. In honor of the occasion, Joe made one of his rare forays into the city from his home in upstate New York, and Marvel Editorial took him out for a celebratory lunch. It was a packed house, as I recall—and not just because of the free food. One of the most dispiriting things that can happen to a fan is meeting or communicating with a creator, and learning that they’re something of a jerk in real life. That wasn’t a problem in Joe’s case—he’s one of the true gentlemen in this business, and incredibly modest and self-effacing in the face of his many accomplishments.
He mentioned to me that he’d inked the first Thor story in Journey Into Mystery #83, but had never been credited for it (since it was done at a time before creator credits became standard.) I’d never thought about the question, but as soon as he mentioned it to me, it clicked in my head—Joe’s style is pretty easy to spot, after all. I made sure to correctly credit him for the job in the Marvel Masterworks volume which reprinted that story, as well as a string of Thor tales that Joe had both penciled and inked. Best known as an inker, it’s often forgotten that Joe was equally comfortable as a penciler, and he did both jobs on a regular basis when he started in the business. One of the most spectacular pieces he ever did for my office was an illustration for the cover of a Doctor Doom module for the Marvel Super-Heroes Role-Playing Game. Joe’s depiction of Doom looming over the Latverian countryside—inspired in part by the Jack Kirby cover he’d inked to Fantastic Four #84—captured both the menace and the regal power of the FF’s most implacable enemy. He combined the power of Kirby with the lyricism of John Buscema, and then draped it in his own clean, sleek polish.
Ultimately, Joe ended up doing as little penciling during the Marvel Age of Comics as he did both because he was quicker and more proficient as an inker, and because Stan Lee clearly valued his talents in that capacity. Put simply, Joe could make anyone, from the greenest newcomer to the most jaded veteran, look good. Often, he was called upon to raise the standards of the stories he was inking, where a new penciler, or one that wasn’t at ease with the subject matter of a given story, fell down. Over time, Joe ended up working mainly over breakdowns—looser pencils done more quickly, and with less detail in place—both because he could easily bridge the gaps and end up with a fully-finished piece, and because such work paid better.
The Stan Lee/Jack Kirby era of Fantastic Four is my favorite comic book run ever, and a fair portion of the credit belongs to Joe Sinnott as well. Not to take anything away from the inkers who came before him, but with Joe’s first regular issue (#44—he’d inked #5 years before, and it’s a standout among the earliest issues of the series) the artwork seemed to take a quantum leap. Even more fortuitous, Joe came on board right at the time when Stan and Jack were entering their most fertile period on the series ever—a string of issues that saw the introduction of the Inhumans, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, Klaw, Blastaar, Him, and Psycho-Man, among others. Joe’s finish crystallized the look of Fantastic Four, so much so that the one or two stories inked by the excellent Frank Giacoia looked wrong to my young eyes somehow, in a way I couldn’t quite define at the time. In recent years, Joe’s said that he regrets having changed Kirby’s art so much in the inking, particularly in the earlier stories. I’m afraid I have to disagree with him. Joe embellished exactly as much as was wise—more faithful Kirby inkers ended up with a result that always seemed “harsh” to me. Joe made the same artwork appealing, friendly and inviting, shaving off the harsh edges while maintaining the elemental power, and adding a shading of sensitivity. He took great art, and made it better.
Joe inked FANTASTIC FOUR regularly from #44 through issue #231, with only a handful of fill-in jobs by others. That’s a staggering run by today’s standards. He was the most consistent element on Marvel’s flagship series for almost twenty years. Thereafter, in addition to the occasional FF job, he plied his talents on Thor and West Coast Avengers and assorted other assignments. Every one was better for the work he did. It’s been my pleasure to work with Joe a number of times since his retirement—on the Untold Tales of Spider-Man ’96 Annual, and the Marvels Comics: Captain America book, to name two—and it’s also been my pleasure to read those stories he’s done that I wasn’t involved with. I sincerely hope that there are many, many more.
I’d intended to take some time to talk about Flo Steinberg as well, but I seem to have used up my space on Joe, so that’ll have to wait for another day. But as a final note, I’d like to encourage everybody to take a moment out and make an effort to tell a creator whose work you love just how much that work has meant to you over the years.
You never know when it’ll be too late.