Inking is sexy

India ink. How do I love thee, let me count the ways. Better, let me roll about and smear you freely. Swoop you with a brush, boldly line you where no [whoever] has gone before, feather you gently, let you spatter me all over, and spatter you back with white-out or just cake it on solid.

Comic book inking should technologically become a lost art, or so says at least one not-obviously-misguided perspective. After all, it’s totally an artifact of available materials, the constraint of crude mass-production methods, and crass management considerations of getting as many pages pumped out as possible. And, paradoxically for a mass-production cost-saving measure, it’s highly-skilled, finicky, genuinely hard work.

The current professional view is not to let that happen. Look across the top-shelf recent books on the matter, Marcos Mateu-Mestre’s Framed Ink, Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics, John Paul Lowe’s Foundations in Comic Book Art, and Klaus Janson’s The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics, for which Frank Miller wrote the intro, from which I lifted his quote of Will Eisner for this post’s title. You’ll see a lot of careful effort directed toward the young artist to identify the materials and to build skills, and also to inspire. Other sections presume the aspirant comics creator wants to do this, e.g. page construction, action flow, characterization, design aesthetics, but the inking sections are written not only to show how, but to convince to do it. (You should, by the way, get all those books. Fucking masterpieces with surprisingly little redundancy across them.)

And “it” ain’t for the faint of heart. Here, watch this. See especially how the starting greys in the first two minutes do not follow or fill in the pencilled lines. See also how the dilution of ink at any given point is juxtaposed with the specific tool being used (brush, pen, broken-stick end; inking is chock-full of improvised tools), and how each tool is sensitive to how much pressure is being applied. There are three kinds of white being employed, including what doesn’t receive ink at all and two kinds of applications.

Just blazed through an issue of Cerebus and tossed it aside, did you? Go look at it again and think about what Sim and Gerhard did to make it happen.

With crude colors on cheap newsprint, and not easily even given good paper, light is a difficult illusion. Inking solves the problem from the other direction, using black fills on figures. I think a lot of readers don’t even notice how much solid ink defines the shapes and even the whole credible space of the scene by showing where the light “must be.”

John Buscema pencils, Bob McLeod inks

“Kids these days …” Actually it was twenty years ago (he said, unconsciously adjusting his false teeth in that way that grosses everyone out), that coloring tech made glowy light and color-fades within fields possible, and comics printing produced reliable results. And there’s also the new role of grey, such that “black and white art” is now really a color process of its own using the nigh-infinite shades and textures of grey. All this is good, right?

I’m the wrong guy to ask. One of my favorite art-things ever is called spotting blacks – looking at whole pages as black-and-white patterns, Rorschach masks I suppose, composed for a whole textbook of reader effects which Mateau has presented so well in Framed Ink that I won’t even try. Run a search on the term if you don’t know much about it, just lovely stuff to see and learn about. Michela Da Sacco is the artist for my upcoming title Sword of God, instantly taking to the subject due to its rough-humanity Chicago-urban story. I said, “I want lots of ink” but it’s like spicy stuff at the Thai restaurant, they know you said it but are pretty sure you didn’t mean it. Patrons can see the first inked page she did, and then the second version after I said innnnkkk in a creepy way.

Rick Geary

Here’s another thing I like, non-naturalistic outlining. Yes, I know, there’s no imaginable subject-based reason to connect up the outer edge of the hair, skin, and clothes like that. But visually it’s incredible. A lot of artists vary the width of these lines, tapering them to generate a visual outline without calling attention to it, but I am fond of Geary’s uncompromising this is the shape of the thing method, and I’d like to see more people trying it.

I mentioned grey a bit ago and it’s too much to go into here – the whole pre-digital range of washes and mixes with colors and such recipes for madness as the thing called Zip-a-Tone, are best summarized as “gorgeous on the page, but God knows what in reproduction.” I’m pretty sure that Alfredo Alcala didn’t intend Conan’s hair to be plaid in that one Savage Sword panel (fellow readers thereof know exactly what I’m talking about.)

OK, back to those texts by people who really, really know what they’re doing. They are not simply old-school-is-best Luddites. Every author acknowledges and clearly loves digital tech at the same time as valuing precisely those artifactual features of actual ink + Bristol board. Collectively, they display a true quest for the Hegelian synthesis of old and new, and currently, it seems to be working. This …

… is by “Artistic323” whoever that is, using pure computer tech on Michael Turner’s pencils or rather an image file thereof. Here’s how:

See what I mean? It’s not actually ink and paper, but the artist is using it as if it were. All the old masters and the teachers are promoting doing exactly this, and if the incredible wealth of technique I’m seeing on webcomics and what seem to be thousands of similar Youtube videos are any indication, then it’s caught on hard.

Which only pleases me of course, but who cares about that. Isn’t this historical, technological madness? The equivalent of steering a motorcar with reins, or a thousand other examples. Everything we know about historical tech says that such an old-with-new activity must be mere generational lag, that sooner rather than later the new media and distribution methods will wholly cancel whatever aesthetic sentimentality we transitional types insist is “important.”

Shoot, I hope not.

Next: Lurking everywhere

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on May 15, 2016, in Xaos Comics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Using your computer as if it was a pen and India ink = everything I ever do.


    • And I remember the exact day you made the transition, too. Other readers, check out the “Mystic Crystal Revelations” story at the Trollbabe Comix page.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was thinking of that too! You were pretty worried about whether it was going to work as well as the real inks in Birthroot Bargain. But I had a Wacom tablet and whatever program I was using (GIMP? Painter?) did a credible ink imitation.

        I think it still might not measure up 100% to Birthroot Bargain but it’s damned close, and the medium has its advantages in terms of being forgiving of mistakes and being able to zoom in and do detailed work on small panels.


  2. When I was a kid and working my way through How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way, inking is absolutely where I hit a wall. My brain is missing the piece that might understand how it works. I just made deep, dark, shapeless pools on the page, and my desk, and my hands.

    I think the art has staying power because of its ability to guide the eye. There is still function to it.


    • When I first started seeing a lot of original art and handling it, I was surprised at how generally sturdy the boards were, and by how much material had been put onto them. The ink itself is a palpable physical object, soaked into the paper and sitting on top of it like a solid film. And sometimes the layers of multiple ink and white-out stuff were practically multi-media 3-D. It’s not just a “drawing.” I speculate that the finalizing talents and skills have more to do with sculpture or collage than with sketching.


  3. Yeesh – THE PROCESS – Inking Old-School. Remember, kids, they call this “junk” or “pop” or “commercial” art.


  4. For no earthly reason I often find that sketching on paper feels a lot more spontaneous and malleable than whipping out my cheapo tablet, even though all logic tells me ‘Undo! Undo!’ should be more forgiving. And yet I haven’t had the guts to colour/outline outside photoshop for years.

    Some day, when I am old and grey, after the robots scour this earth and a ‘Klaatu berada nicto’ returns it to humans hands, I will finally get the time to sit down, catch up on my life drawing, and learn how to shade things properly. And perhaps then I will break out the inkpots, stashed at the back of my folding drawer, memoirs of a simpler time.


  5. I could have included this in the post, especially to illustrate that pencilled feathered lines can become solid blacks, and pencilled solid blacks can become feathers, and plenty of inked lines can be laid down where there are no pencilled ones.


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