Part A: Inking Defined
Inkers are, essentially, finishers. A penciler is the first person to touch the page. The penciler drafts and designs the look and lines of the page in graphite. The inker then gives the lines their “voice” in pure bitmap, a raw and unflinching black and white. Commitment, thy name is inker. The pencils are entirely erased by the inker and everything seen by the reader is the work of the inker. If the inker fails to comprehend what the penciler was indicating, you have an artistic Chernobyl. A sad little not-so-secret is that no inker, no matter how brilliant they might be, can ever completely encompass the full intent of any penciler. Essentially, all inkers are failures, the only question is of degree.
Part B: Personal Inking Terminology
An inker’s “style” breaks into two initial, overarching categories: Dominant or Transparent. I break inker “technique” into three grossly-oversimplified categories: Additive, Literal, and Detractive, done in either a pull or snap technique. Neither can (or should) account for what Hazlitt called “gusto,” that alchemical magic the best art accomplishes. This is simply a literal tool, with a literal tool’s implicit weaknesses in artistic critique.
DOMINANCE and TRANSPARENCY:
A dominant inker will change a penciler’s stylistic aesthetic to a distinct degree. This can include subtle things like changing hatch patterns or expand to revising anatomical articulation or even redrafting whole panels. This is always done to match the inker’s personal illustrative style and vision. Bill Seinkiewicz would be one of the best super-dominant inkers; also Kevin Nowlan or Klaus Janson.
A transparent inker will often stretch, alter, or even sacrifice their personal aesthetic or normal artistic direction in an attempt to better communicate the penciler’s exact vision. The transparent inker may have a signature look, but it will change radically when applied from penciler-to-penciler. A true transparent inker never alters their look. Karl Story, Mark Farmer, and Mike Royer often exemplify the best qualities of transparent inking.
ADDITIVE, LITERAL, DETRACTIVE:
A transparent inker will tend to be either literal (exact line-for-line) to the pencils they are given, or just slightly additive or detractive. A dominant inker will typically be very detractive (inking less than was indicated by the penciler) or, less often, very additive (inking more than was penciled), or just very different.
The older styles of inking were much more typically Dominant+Additive or Dominant+Detractive. Kirby-era pencilers were strongly encouraged (by their pay rates!) to pencil several books a month; that led to far looser indication work and demanded more overt stylization and articulation from the inker.
Current styles are more and more labor-intensive, at all stages of comics’ production. It’s rare to see pencilers do more than a book a month, and that often by the skins of their collective teeth. This intensive page-to-page focus tends to put far more pressure on the inker to tighten and refine the work in a transparent fashion. Doing this can often mean an inker actually spends more work hours on the page than the penciler themselves, particularly if they are working in a pull-inking style rather than a snap technique. And yes, since the inker makes, at best, 30% less than the penciler, those economics don’t work out brilliantly.
PULL INKING or SNAP INKING
This is pretty simple. Pull inkers very slowly drag their inking tool across each line, shaping each to an exact precision. Each line, small or large, is an individual shape, fit into a rigid pattern. The snap inker “pops” in the lines, with a sharp, fast motion of the wrist, making a more random, less exact series of shapes. Adam Hughes is a pull-inker, Klaus Janson is a snap-inker. If a penciler renders shapes out of the “weights” (the outlines of forms) and “hatches” (the render inside the forms) then he is indicating for a pull-inking finish. If a penciler expects pull-inking but does not indicate weights, that penciler becomes even more “inker-dependent” (reliant on the inker’s essential understanding of his implied artistic direction). This style of pencils can be a pull-inker’s ultimate challenge. A snap inker’s nightmare will be a very shaped pencil style, since their work cannot replicate these shapes and will force the inker into a Dominant+Non-Literal stance. Such pencilers and inkers should obviously *never* be matched up, but frustratingly, this remains a very common occurance.
There is no “best.” There are clear and obvious mistakes, certainly, but beyond that a good match between penciler and inker is never certain. In fact, one really strives for a “least bad” match, since no inker *is* the penciler and can fully understand their intent. The schizophrenic dichotomy in comic’s art leads to the ultimate in silliness: pencilers who ink their own indication pencils *incorrectly*, copying the style of another inker to the detriment of their own work.
Yes, the whole concept of indication pencils (my term) and inker-finishers is unique to comics. This strange process is often, in the hands of its many masters, oddly brilliant. And much fun, always.
Of course, this FAQs sums up an entire book on inking (that exists in my head only, much to the delight of readers everywhere), but it might serve as a slight and opinionated introduction to those who strive to know what inking is really all about...