Monday, March 21, 2011

My Short-Lived Inking Career

I worked at Marvel for a short time back in late 1969. Stan hired me as a "staff writer," but I never actually got to write anything. There weren't very many staff people, there was a lot of work and most of it needed to be done in a hurry -- all hands on deck! So, I ended up helping out with whatever the crisis of the moment was, doing a little of everything -- editing, proofreading, paste-ups, lettering corrections and sometimes even minor art corrections.  Sometimes, Stan would gather everyone, and I mean everyone in his office -- the only space where, as few as we were, we'd all fit -- and we'd brainstorm plots for whichever books were next in the queue. He'd ask "Where did we leave Iron Man." Someone would remember. People would voice ideas. Stan, it must be said, did most of the heavy lifting. With all of the above going on, things got frantic sometimes, but I loved it.

Anyway....

I wanted to make more money. No, make that I needed to make more money. New York was and is a far more expensive place to live than hometown Pittsburgh. I asked about freelance work. There wasn't any freelance writing available. At DC, I'd been taught to color, but coloring at Marvel paid very little -- my rate would have been under a dollar a page. I knew I couldn't color fast enough to make the money I needed. Lettering? No. Making a small correction is one thing, but lettering a whole book...? I don't know. I think I could have done it, but it would have taken a lot of practice time even to get ready to try out. Penciling? I'd always done layouts for the stories I wrote for DC, and in fact, in his very first letter to me, my DC editor, Mort Weisinger suggested that I might want to someday "draw features for DC." But there's a long way between sketchy layouts and finished pencils. The only finished drawings I'd done up until that time were in art school in a very non-comics style. Again, it would take lots of practice, at minimum, to even make a credible try. 

That left inking.

I'd done a lot of pen and brushwork in my art classes at Carnegie Mellon. I had a steady hand. I'd been taught a lot about inking by experts at DC. It seemed worth a try.

I asked Stan about trying out and he sent me to Sol Brodsky's office. Sol was the production manager. He handled production and basically, anything else Stan didn't want to deal with.  Sol had this stack of rejected, or for some reason, unused, penciled pages -- it looked like a ream's worth -- on a shelf. He also had several large stacks of finished pages from already-printed books, pages that had been returned to Marvel by Chemical Color Plate, the separator. They'd pile up for a while, then eventually he'd take them to the warehouse. Occasionally, when a visitor came to the office, Sol or Stan would give them a finished page or an unused penciled page as a souvenir. No one thought twice about it in those days. 

At any rate, Sol cheerfully paged through the ream of rejects, looking for some good ones for me to try inking. A lot of the pages, I'd say the majority, were Jack Kirby pencils. That was, I think, due to the fact that Jack simply did so many more pages than anyone else. Sol picked out a Fantastic Four splash page by Jack and a Daredevil splash page by Gene Colan for me.

I took them "home." I think at that time I was sleeping on the floor at a small, fifth-floor walk-up apartment shared by four guys, one of whom was an assistant at Marvel. Sitting on the floor, with a crowquill, a lettering pen and a borrowed, well-worn brush -- the only tools at my disposal -- I inked those pages.

A lot of would-be comics artists think, "Inking! I could be an inker. That looks easy."

It's not.

I showed the pages to Marie Severin first. She was very sweet and encouraging.  Especially about the Kirby page. Colan, who did all that fuzzy, side-of-the-pencil shading, was tougher. Maybe if I'd had some Zip-A-Tone....

Then I showed the Kirby page to Sol. He said, "This page was rejected because it was cluttered and hard to read. It's still cluttered and hard to read." In other words, I didn't fix it. Nobody told me to fix it. And the idea of "fixing" Jack's work frankly never occurred to me.

So, no inking work was offered me. 

I might have tried again, but I left Marvel shortly thereafter -- just couldn't make ends meet in NYC -- and got involved in other things back in the 'Burgh. Mostly advertising and custom comics.  Some of which I inked, by the way. 

Maybe things would have gone differently if I had uncluttered that Kirby page. Who knows?


RE:  Kirby Spider-Man pages: I saw, and held in my hand, exactly one such page. It was a page of design drawings. I remember that his version of Spider-Man had a "Web-Gun" and wore trunks, I think, like Captain America's. He was far bigger and bulkier than Ditko's version. There were no similarities to Ditko's Spider-Man costume. I think he had boots with flaps. There were notes in he margin that described the character, again, nothing like the Ditko version. I think there was something about him being related to, or having some connection with a police official, which was how he'd find out about trouble going on.  It was a long time ago, I can't swear to that last item, but I can swear to the fact that it wasn't similar to the Ditko version. I remember thinking, "This isn't at all like Ditko's."

P.S.  I must have seen that page when I was in Sol's office and he was going through the rejects stack looking for pages for me to try inking.  I don't think I ever got to look through those pages again.

P.P.S.  Years later, 1986, I had occasion to talk with Jack at the San Diego Con. He insisted that he created Spider-Man. I told him that I'd spoken to Steve Ditko, Sol, and other people who were there at the time, including Stan, obviously, and that they all agreed that Steve's version was the one that was used, though Jack did his version first. I reported everything I'd seen and heard. We talked about the costume -- the bib and belt combo, the stripes down the arms, the mask, the symbols, a very Ditko-esque design. Jack was having some problems with his memory by then, but he thought about it for a minute, then said that maybe Steve should get the credit. He'd be okay with that. A little later, he was onstage and clearly had forgotten our conversation. He and Roz did, however, come to Marvel's 25th Anniversary Party that evening, which made me very happy. There's a story about that, too, but it will wait for another time.

9 comments:

Marc Miyake said...

Jim,

Did you attend an "art school" in addition to Carnegie Mellon, or are you referring to classes you took at Carnegie Mellon? Did you take art classes while still in high school, and/or in the summer between graduation and your brief stay at Marvel?

I've heard the "Jim Shooter saw Kirby's Spider-Man" story many times, but this is the first time I've heard it directly from you with details absent from secondhand reports. Thanks for answering Mr. Eddie's question - and the San Diego anecdote! I imagine discovering a Kirby Spider-Man must have been quite a surprise for you back in 1969.

KlausNordby said...

More fascinating history tidbits, Jim, thank you!

If it's of any comfort to you, it might be worth recalling what Descartes so famously said -- namely "I ink, therefore I am." But it didn't work out so well for him, either.

And there is no easy to cure for Kirby Klutter!

uncannyderek.com said...

That little tidbit at the end with Kirby's story literally left me saying, "What?!" outloud. I've always heard about the Kirby/Ditko dilemma, but it's so great to hear it from someone who was there (to a degree).

I am awed by the idea of little stories - arguably meaningless back then can amount to be life-changing afterwards.

Thank you, Jim!

Harry Candelario said...

I was 18 in 1980, I came to Marvel through a friend that already worked there and he took me to see you. You checked out my portfolio, you were very kind but firm and told me what I was doing wrong but also made me feel like I had a chance. In fact you told me that if I stuck around I could learn from all the Pros that worked there. THEN you went and found an opening in another department the very next day.

Long story short-
I worked for Marvel for the next 22 years and most of them as an inker...
Thanks to you

mr ed said...

Jim, Did you ever see any other Kirby character sheets, or hear talk of them?
Kirby seemed to have always used that method of pitching new characters going back to the 50's.
To date I've only seen one from the Marvel era.
It was a character sheet for "The Boomerang" and was very much like the Spiderman sheet you mention in that it had not only a costume design, but a suggested background, personality traits, and origin story for the character.
Mr. Eddie

Will said...

uhhhhm errrr.

So where exactly IS this Marvel Warehouse?
The one filled with silver age goodies..

I've been looking for that place like Indiana Jones after a relic..

Bobby P. said...

Hi Mr. Shooter,

Great blog. I just found it recently.

Great topic at the end. This is the first time I ever recall someone say they saw some of Kirby's original proposed Spiderman idea.

Your description of Jack's spider costume sounds just like what Steve Ditko talked about and saw. (Ditko drew an example picture of what Jack made in his Avenging World book.)

I always wondered what Jack Kirby's Peter Parker looked like? I heard a rumor it sort of looked like Steve Rodgers? The blonde, wavy haired teen type. But that's could be hearsay.

If you remember can you give any details about it?

I'm no art expert (far from it) but I always thought Peter Parker looked wholly like a Steve Ditko creation.

Thanks for getting around to possibly reading this at some point in the future.

Bobby

jimshooter said...

Dear Bobby P.,

I don't remember what the civilian identity Kirby planned looked like. When I discussed who should receive credit for creating Spider-Man with Kirby in San Diego in 1986, I pointed out the very Ditko-esque features of Spider-Man and Peter Parker -- the hockey stripes down the arms, the bib/belt as one piece, the sleek overall silhouette, PP's face, hair, clothes, and more. Jack thought for a minute, then conceded that the version that was used was certainly Steve's.

Bobby P. said...

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question Mr. Shooter. Great to know all that. As I read this blog I'm learning a lot of interesting stuff about comic books, writing and all the behind the scenes things that go and went on in the industry. Bobby