Category Archives: Eulogies

Joe Sinnott (1926-2020)

A guest post by Craig Fischer (sequel to an earlier post on the passing of Joe Sinnott). Thanks, Craig!

This is a revised version of an earlier essay I wrote about Joe Sinnott in 2008.

Kirby and Joe Sinnott, 1975

Joe Sinnott and Jack Kirby, 1975.

Although my parents bought me my first Joe Sinnott comic, Fantastic Four #80, in August 1968, I didn’t become a devoted Marvel reader until 1970. I missed the original Kirby-Stan Lee comics altogether, and reconnected with the FF again with issue #104, art by John Romita and John Verpoorten. I’d only see Sinnott inks again in FF #106 (“The Monster’s Secret!”), over Romita’s pencils. I found something compelling there, though, because I read The Fantastic Four every month for the next three-and-a-half years, up to the wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver in #150. Then I drifted away, but never completely: I’d occasionally check in with the title and Sinnott. As a young teen, I loved Sinnott’s inks over George Perez’s impossibly detailed pages in FF #172, and the John Byrne / Sinnott FF #287 re-ignited my interest in comic books after a period of giving them up—I’d entered graduate school in English and felt it was time to “get serious” about literature. Didn’t take.

FF cover collage

Even as a kid, I recognized that Sinnott was the best of all Fantastic Four inkers. In the ’70s, as I read the contemporary post-Kirby FFs, I caught up on past issues through the reprints in Marvel’s Greatest Comics. (A sad irony: I eventually became a Kirby devotee by collecting Marvel’s avalanche of early-1970s Kirby reprints, even though these reprints forced Kirby to compete with himself on the newsstands as he produced his new, innovative DC Fourth World work.) For a while, I believed that Rich Buckler inked by Sinnott was more accomplished than Kirby inked by Vince Colletta. This was before I realized how much Buckler ripped off from Kirby, though even today Colletta’s inking in issues like FF #40 (“The Battle of the Baxter Building!”) still looks exceedingly rushed and shoddy to me.

I wasn’t the only one who found fault with the Kirby/Colletta Fantastic Four issues. According to Mark Evanier, Colletta lost the FF assignment when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman looked over Colletta’s work and asked Stan Lee, “How come our lead book looks like shit?” When production manager Sol Brodsky mentioned that with more money, he could find a better, more appropriate inker, Goodman coughed up a few extra dollars per page, and journeyman artist Joe Sinnott was hired to embellish Kirby’s pencils.

Sinnott was born in Saugerties, New York on October 16, 1926, and like many comics artists of his generation, he fell hard for newspaper adventure strips like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, and Lyman Young’s Tim Tyler’s Luck. After serving in the Navy in World War II and working for three years at the rock quarry of a cement plant, Sinnott enrolled in the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and was encouraged by Tarzan artist and SVA Dean Burne Hogarth to specialize in cartooning. One of Sinnott’s teachers was Tom Gill, a freelancer for Fawcett Publications and artist of the Lone Ranger comic strip. Gill liked Sinnott’s art and hired him as one of his assistants.

In 1950, Sinnott asked Lee, then editor at the company that would later become Marvel (and was at the time called either Timely or Atlas Comics), for work, and received crime and western stories to illustrate. When the downturn of the comics industry in the mid-1950s prompted Lee (and publisher Martin Goodman) to fire artists and reduce the page rates of the still-employed, Sinnott left ur-Marvel and found work with the Gilberton Company, the publisher of Classics Illustrated, and with Treasure Chest (1946-1972), a comic book published by George A. Pflaum distributed exclusively to Catholic schools. In 1958, with Atlas’ finances marginally improved, Lee rehired Sinnott to draw pre-Marvel monster comics, and until the mid-1960s Sinnott labored for several clients simultaneously, including Marvel, Charlton, Dell, and Treasure Chest. Although Sinnott both penciled and inked many of these assignments, he also began inking other artists’ pencils for Stan Lee. As Sinnott explained in an interview with Jim Amash published in Alter Ego #26 (2003):

Stan called me out of the blue and said, “I got a western story here that Jack [Kirby] can’t ink. Can you fit it into your schedule?” I told him to send it up; I wasn’t going into the city [NYC] anymore. I did everything by phone. A couple of weeks later, Stan called me and asked me to ink another Kirby story. Jack didn’t want to ink his stuff, and Stan needed someone to do it. Of course, you know Jack didn’t ink the way he penciled. Not to belittle his inking, but it detracted from his pencils. Those pencils were so good, but his inking wasn’t–at least, not in my opinion. Jack needed good inkers to make his work look the way it should.

The first Fantastic Four comic Sinnott inked was issue #5 (July 1962), featuring the first appearance of Dr. Doom, although this would be Sinnott’s only real work on the title for the next three years. He returned with #44 (November 1965), replacing Colletta, stayed on for almost all the remaining issues of the Lee-Kirby run (through #102, September 1970), and continued to ink FF for several years after both Lee and Kirby left the comic.

Sinnott’s only penciling for Marvel in the 1960s is a handful of undistinguished stories that he drew and inked for Journey into Mystery starring Thor. In 1963, Marvel paid some of the worst rates in the industry, so it’s not surprising that Sinnott drew the Thor tales as fast as he could. When the money was reasonable, however, Sinnott slowed down and displayed several artistic strengths, particularly a detailed naturalism and textured inking style, that were best on display in his low-key stories for Treasure Chest. Below is a page he penciled and inked for a biography of Benjamin Banneker published in Treasure Chest in January 1969:

Sinnott Banneker page from Treasure Chest

Most notable about the art is Sinnott’s brush inking. In the first panel, Banneker’s coat is mostly a pool of solid black, but Sinnott’s brush teases out thin lines from the darkness, guiding the reader’s eyes towards the center of the panel. The same feathery inking is in panel two, where Sinnott renders Banneker’s lower leg as a silhouette, and finishes off the shadow with lines that become thinner as they travel upward and end around Banneker’s waist. Sinnott’s facility with ink is also clear from his stippling with the brush in panels two and four. In panel two, the tree next to the cabin is a dense arrangement of short, thick ink marks, while the plants in panel four combine representational shapes (black silhouettes of leaves) with amorphous ink blobs that signify tree foliage.

Sinnott brings this set of skills to his inking of Kirby’s FF pencils. Here are the original pencils and the final inked version of the first panel of page 19 of FF #89 (August 1969):

FF 89, page 19, panel one, pencils

FF 89, page 19, panel one, inks

Sinnott adds details and softens Kirby’s pencils. Kirby draws Sue’s hair with uniform wavy lines; Sinnott inks in a fatter, more undulating line around the hair’s outline that identifies a definitive shape for the colorist and adds lines of various width and length to indicate individual strands, making Sue’s hair flow more. Sinnott also adds texture to fabric. The line that begins on Reed’s chest (near Sue’s finger) and extends to his shoulder is, in Kirby’s pencils, unbroken and of consistent width, but Sinnott inks the line as a band of razor-thin brush marks that culminate in a thick loop curving around Reed’s collar.

In a craft talk with Amash in The Jack Kirby Collector #38 (2003), Sinnott refers to these panels and explains his reasons for some of these embellishments:

The pages should always hold up in black-&-white. It’s not enough to have two “colors,” meaning black-&-white. You need to have midtones, which is why I’d feather out of black areas, turn slashes into feathering, and vary my line weights so much. Using thin lines and thick lines for wrinkles creates a gray area. Using thin groups of lines in Reed’s hair, then spotting a few black places makes a great contrast to the lower half, where Reed’s hair is white.

The thinner lines in Sue’s hair, then, show (even in black-and-white) that she is blonde rather than brown-haired like Reed. Techniques like this–and Sinnott’s overall attention to craft and his cultivation of realistic textures and marks–are legacies of his affection for newspaper adventure cartoonists, and his training as a realistic illustrator at SVA.

Ironically, the signature visual effect the Kirby-Sinnott team brought to The Fantastic Four is neither realistic nor rendered in midtones. “Kirby Krackle” is the term fans have coined to describe the thick black dots, surrounded by white space, in Kirby’s superhero and science-fiction comics (or in Kirby’s later comics, period). Kirby and Sinnott sometimes pepper their drawings of outer space with these dots, to emphasize the alien nature of their celestial vistas, but their most common use is in situations where a character or object is releasing unusual and powerful energy. In the following panel from Fantastic Four #61 (April 1967, as reprinted in The Essential Fantastic Four volume 3), the dots serve both functions, as Reed Richards plunges through a gateway of streaming energy into the other-worldly Negative Zone:

FF 61, Reed thru dimension barrier

The origins of Kirby Krackle are elusive. Some see it in Blue Bolt Comics, a Kirby/Joe Simon superhero comic book published in 1940, while Ger Apeldoorn traces the technique back to an obscure science fiction story penciled and inked by Kirby in 1959. Sinnott claims that he used the dots even before he inked Kirby, but his solo crackle typically denotes real-life textures and objects, like the surface of water or the cluster of marks in Benjamin Banneker’s tree. Shane Foley points out that the amount of Kirby Krackle in FF increases exponentially beginning in late 1966, and from this moment on, both Kirby and Sinnott made the dots a permanent part of their visual vocabularies, even when they weren’t a pen-and-ink team.

Kirby’s great gifts as an artist were his dynamic compositions, his visual invention, and his uncanny ability to visualize people and objects from any angle in 360-degree space. His pencils, however, were never pretty in a conventional sense. Kirby never seemed interested in realistic depictions of the human form; both Sinnott and inker Mike Royer note that Kirby would usually draw faces with eyes askew from each other, and it was up to them to fix this mistake. Sinnott’s supple brush line, however, made Kirby’s characters human, and I wonder if Kirby himself fully realized this. Although he always said kind words about Sinnott, Kirby could be uncomfortable with inkers who changed too much of his source material. During his last tenure at DC (1970-75), Kirby’s resented that his drawings were retouched by other artists to resemble DC’s “official” version of Superman, and he also requested that Colletta be removed from his Fourth World titles. When Mike Royer inked his first Mister Miracle comic, he tried to “pretty up” the face of Kirby’s female powerhouse Big Barda. Kirby took an X-Acto knife, cut the face out of the surface of the paper, and instructed Royer to remain faithful to his pencils. I hope, though, that Kirby appreciated how Sinnott’s inks complimented his art in flattering ways.

In the past, I’ve been guilty myself of underestimating or misunderstanding Sinnott. After I resumed collecting comics in graduate school, I migrated from Marvel and DC Comics to black-and white alternatives: the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets, Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff, the stray late-’80s issues of the underground anthology title Snarf from Kitchen Sink Press. Only later, after striking up friendships with comics academics more perceptive than I and more tune with Kirby’s aesthetics (one of whom runs this blog) did I return to my worn copies of Marvel’s Greatest Comics, where I found power, grace, and profound memories of my evolving literacy. Joe Sinnott was part of all that.

RIP Joltin’ Joe Sinnott

Longtime comic-book artist and revered Jack Kirby inker Joe Sinnott (1926-2020) passed away peacefully on June 25. His family reported that the 93-year-old Joe “enjoyed life and was drawing up until the end.” Mr. Sinnott is such a beloved artist and essential part of the legend of Kirby (and of Marvel Comics) that I wanted to note his importance and passing here on kirbystudies.org. Sincerest condolences to all of his loved ones, colleagues, and fans.

Joe Sinnott at work

Joe Sinnott, 1975 (sourced from his Facebook page). Photographer unknown.

What follows are brief remembrances; in a coming post, my friend and colleague Craig Fischer will share a detailed essay about Mr. Sinnott’s work.

My friend and colleague Tony Puryear (co-creator of Concrete Park) posted the following to Facebook on the morning of June 25, and I reproduce it here with Tony’s kind permission:

Joe Sinnott was the comic book inker par excellence and a pro’s pro. Because of the poor reproduction of early comics publishing, printing comics art from pencil drawings was impossible. It was, and is, the inker’s job to turn those sometimes rough, sometimes rushed, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes awful pencils into crisp, clean black and white. The inker also must bring something to the party, their own style. Joe Sinnott did this as well as anyone who ever picked up a brush.

His work with Jack Kirby on their legendary run on Fantastic Four (and “with” is almost a misnomer in this case; the two men never met till after their run was done), remains a comics gold standard. Kirby’s work, his ultra-dynamic figures, his insane, bio-psychedelic machinery, his explosive …explosions, bloomed to mind-blowing life as embellished by Sinnott’s unbelievably sure, clean line. Hair looked like hair, metal looked like metal, stone looked like stone, The Human Torch looked like The Human Torch, and The Thing, with every issue, looked more and more like the platonic ideal of The Thing. This stuff is way, way harder than it sounds, but it is of the essence of the comic book experience.

Sinnott went on to ink John Buscema, a genius in his own right but a different kind of animal from Kirby, when he took over Fantastic Four. To me, that’s when you saw just how good Sinnott was. He didn’t miss a beat. Fantastic Four still looked like a million bucks, the crazy machines, the outer space vistas and The Ever-lovin’ Thing still looked just as they should, and you realized that if the great age of Marvel Comics had a house style, it lived in Joe Sinnott’s right hand.

RIP Joe Sinnott, one of the greats.

FF 55 page inked by Sinnott

Original art for a page from Fantastic Four #55 (Oct. 1966), inked by Joe Sinnott. © Marvel.

On June 30, my friend and colleague Geoff Grogan, cartoonist and teacher, who created the cover for Hand of Fire and a mural for our 2015 Kirby exhibition, sent me this note, which, again, I reproduce with his kind permission:

So much to say, but I’m struggling to find the words.

My three favorite inkers on Jack Kirby were Chic Stone, Mike Royer, and Joe Sinnott. Chic Stone’s brush, I think, brought an elegance to Jack’s line. If Mike Royer revealed the earthiness in Jack’s work, Joe Sinnott revealed the grandeur—or maybe a better way to say that is: Mike Royer revealed the Earth and Joe Sinnott the Stars.

Joe Sinnott''s last sketch: a cowboy

Joe Sinnott’s last sketch, according to his family (from his Facebook page).

FF 81 page inked by Sinnott

Original art, opening splash, Fantastic Four #81 (Dec. 1968), inked by Joe Sinnott. © Marvel. Image from Heritage Auctions.

Finally, I posted the following to Facebook on the morning of June 25:

RIP Joe Sinnott, whose exquisite inked lines limn the images in my dreams. Deepest condolences to his loved ones, colleagues, and fans everywhere.

Mr. Sinnott had a long and varied career in comic books as both penciller and inker. He is best known for setting the look of Marvel’s Fantastic Four through his long tenure as the inker on that title—and in fact his dynamic yet graceful inking, fluid, sensitive and adaptable, defined the Marvel house style for years. His inflected brush lines were impeccable, solidifying form, creating texture, imparting wholeness to pages touched by many hands. When paired with the intense, hyper-dramatic compositions of Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four, Sinnott’s work could be enticingly slick and yet mind-boggling. That was truly a felicitous combination of artists.

When Sinnott returned to Fantastic Four in 1965 and became its regular inker (starting with issue #44), everything about that title clicked, and, for my money, the very best run of Marvel comics began. Sinnott brought an extra touch of grace and fluidity to Kirby’s wild geometry and explosive action, and Kirby pushed himself to the limit too, gifting Sinnott with some of his best work to embellish. Rugged yet lovely, the book defined the best in superhero world-building for a long, long time.

Do yourself a favor and go search the Grand Comics Database (comics.org) for Mr. Sinnott’s work as both penciller and inker. He was an accomplished and delightful artist.

FF 62 page inked by Sinnott

Original art for a page from Fantastic Four #62 (May 1967), inked by Joe Sinnott. © Marvel. Image from Heritage Auctions.

For more online information about Joe Sinnott’s career, I recommend the overview by Steve Ringgenberg at The Comics Journal, http://www.tcj.com/joe-sinnott-1926-2020/, and the interview with Sinnott by Bill G. Wilson, Duffy Vohland, and Gary Groth at the New York Comic Art Convention in 1970 (fifty years ago!), posted to The Comics Journal by Groth, http://www.tcj.com/1970-joe-sinnott-interview/[.] The Seamon-Wilsey Funeral Home of Mr. Sinnott’s home town, Saugerties, New York, has his obituary.

Joe Sinnott lived a storied life, with grace and class, and man did he make comics look good. RIP, sir.

Joe Sinnott at his drawing board

Joe Sinnott, at home at his drawing board, Saugerties, NY. (Date and photographer unknown.)

RIP Greg Theakston (1953-2019)

Sad news: Greg Theakston—publisher, artist, former convention organizer (The Detroit Triple Fan Fair), longtime member of Neal Adams’s Continuity Studios, Kirby inker (The Hunger Dogs; Super Powers) and Kirby scholar—has passed away at the age of 65. My condolences to his colleagues and loved ones.

Theakston published, under his Pure Imagination imprint, a great many books of vintage comics and of comics history. For me, especially early on, his books on Kirby were valuable compendiums of comics and lore, anecdote and example. Especially important to me were the two volumes of his biographical  Jack Kirby Treasury (1982; 1991), the several volumes in his Complete Jack Kirby reprint project, and the second edition (2000) of his reprint of Kirby’s classic comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force. While the artwork in Theakston’s comic book reprints was typically drawn from published comics that had been stripped of color through a destructive chemical process nicknamed “Theakstonizing,” and thus did not quite do justice to the comics as originally printed, these collections did the great service of filling in what had been only vague outlines in my mind before. I got a hands-on feeling for Kirby’s early work from these tomes. In addition, Theakston’s two-volume biography of Kirby, Jack Magic (2011), is well worth seeking out, peppered as it is with insights and quoted remarks drawn from his personal acquaintance with Kirby. Along with biographers Mark Evanier, Ronin Ro, the late Stan Taylor, and Ray Wyman, Jr., Theakston sought to make sense of Kirby’s life and career, even as he sought to bring evidence of that career before our eyes via reprints. Beyond Kirby, too, Theakston provided such resources as his Pure Image magazine and various “readers” devoted to generally public-domain material by classic cartoonists like Jack Cole, Lou Fine, and Wally Wood. So, Theakston did a lot, and taught me and other readers a fair amount.

True, I learned to be critical of Theakston’s books. As I see them now, they tend to be haphazardly edited and aesthetically barren; the Pure Imagination “house style” is functional but graceless. Further, the books were high-priced, and aimed strictly at a captive audience of specialists. Most vanished quickly. Theakston moved on, his books seemingly a random scattering rather than any sort of coherent pattern. (His Complete Jack Kirby was anything but.) Moreover, Theakston became a vexing figure in recent years; in 2014, he publicly accused the Jack Kirby Museum of stealing more than 3000 photocopies of Kirby’s art from him (a claim disputed by the Kirby estate itself). That dustup caused some Kirby devotees to turn away from him, shaking their heads. I was one.

I never “got” Theakston artistically. Despite his enthusiasm for Kirby, aesthetically he seemed worlds away from what excited me about Kirby’s art. I gather that Theakston was a prolific magazine and paperback cover illustrator, but the samples of his work I’ve seen strike me as beholden to pulp nostalgia in ways that interest me no longer. He inked Kirby in ways that struck me as more tame than dynamic. What’s more, I have to admit I’m a skeptic when it comes to the brand of retro glam-cheesecake-pinup art that seemed to hold him in thrall and fueled some of his longest-lived publishing efforts (The Bettie Pages; Tease). Theakston’s way with paint seemed to have more to do with that kind of Vargas/Elvgren aesthetic than the rowdy cartooning of Kirby, and, well, I’m no convert. But it would be mean and foolish of me to deny that I benefited from his nostalgia, his enthusiasm, his immersion in vintage comic and pulp art. There was a time when I snagged every Pure Imagination book on Kirby that I could, and I see a bunch of them on my shelves, right here.

My one brief meeting with Greg Theakston (which convention was that at?) led to nothing; he seemed uninterested. But that makes no difference; the important thing to me is that he showed me aspects of Kirby I had never seen before, and helped me get a clearer picture. In particular, his 1982 Kirby Treasury meant a lot to me. So, thanks to Mr. Theakston for being a Kirby studies pioneer. RIP.