Category Archives: Tributes

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 Stan Lee (1922-2018)

A sad day. Numerous sources have confirmed the passing, this morning, of legendary Marvel Comics writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee (b. Stanley Martin Lieber, 1922-2018). My condolences to his loved ones and friends, and to his colleagues and fans, who were legion.

It appears that TMZ.com and The Hollywood Reporter were among the first to break the news publicly; other sources, for example the Associated PressNew York TimesLos Angeles Times, and CNN, have followed suit.

Stan Lee in the US Army, c. 1942-45

Stan Lee served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1945. Website DoDLive (www.dodlive.mil) identifies this image as simply a “U.S. Army photo.”

Lee was 95 years old. Anyone who has been following coverage of his life over roughly the past year, since the death of his beloved wife Joan Lee in July 2017, probably knows how tumultuous his final days were, marked by rumors of frailty, vulnerability, and domestic chaos. Recent images of Lee on the convention circuit have sometimes been disconcerting, as the almost mythically peppy, seemingly indefatigable Lee finally began showing signs of age and dependency. Until very recently, Lee played the part of a Pop icon with gusto, getting out in the world, engaging his fans, and burnishing his legend.

Speaking personally, I had somewhat expected Lee’s passing, as the last few months have been filled with nerve-wracking, if sometimes contradictory, reports about his status. Yet I was surprised at how shocked, and saddened, I was to hear of his death today. The news brought tears to my eyes, and I am hard pressed to say why.

I have been critical of Lee, both in my book Hand of Fire and especially since his testimony in the Marvel v. Kirby legal case. I have also been critical of his hagiographers, those who tend to describe Lee as a real-life “superhero.” When I see the usual inaccurate coverage of Lee’s career, creative work, and relationships with other creators who worked under his editorship – and I have seen that sort of glancing, thinly researched coverage this very day – I confess I seethe with frustration. What Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon say at the start of their 2003 book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (which I consider the best single book about Lee) still applies:

Stan Lee is one of the most important figures in American popular culture. He is also one of the least understood. […]

Here is the truth about Stan Lee: he didn’t create Spider-Man or any of Marvel’s most famous characters. He cocreated them. The distinction matters, because in that distinction lies the essence of his considerable accomplishments. (ix)

This seemingly simple yet crucial caveat is still routinely swept aside when reporters reach for superlatives to put Lee’s work into context. Just what is meant by “cocreated” is something I tried to wrestle with, too tentatively perhaps, in Hand of Fire – and that is indeed a question that continues to bear upon Lee’s reputation, one that has implications for the breadth and nature of his accomplishments.

Hand of Fire seeks to split the difference between praising Lee as Marvel’s editorial architect and criticizing him for his untrustworthy, often self-aggrandizing accounts of how Marvel actually worked in its 1960s heyday. Here’s a key passage:

Of course “Stan Lee” has long served various author-functions for fans, not least the conferral of a single tone or attitude on what is, really, a shapeless amassing of decades’ worth of inconsistent, heterogeneous work. But though Lee was Marvel’s impresario and publicist par excellence in the sixties and early seventies, and though at first he contributed to the comics’ content as a scripter, polishing if not steering the work of various narrative artists, he did not solely create any enduring Marvel properties. Nor did he, in fact, serve as scenarist for many of the most celebrated Marvel comics of the mid to late sixties. By the same token, Kirby – though he provided the conceptual material, the character designs, the unmistakable graphic style, the pacing, and, eventually, the plotting and overall direction of the Marvel books with which he was linked – did not solely author any of the seminal Marvels of the period. His work was constrained and subliminally altered at the editorial level, with text that reshaped and at times redirected his plots. Furthermore, Lee’s vitalizing influence saturated Marvel and determined its editorial ethos. Kirby worked harder, but, commercially, Lee made things happen. (94-95)

This passage, which has been quoted and talked about, is one that I’m proud of, for its preciseness, its refusal to take things too simply, and its distance from the angry, intemperate things I would have said had I written Hand of Fire at a younger age. Yet during the Marvel v. Kirby case, and even since, I have not been able to convince myself that an “angry, intemperate” response was wholly uncalled-for. I tried to write the book more or less dispassionately, but since then I’ve often been passionately angry about Lee’s continued prevarications when it comes to the question of who did what at Marvel back in the sixties. It has been easy to blame Lee, or rather, hard not to blame him. He has been, after all, a Grand Old Man of American comic books (as Raphael and Spurgeon put it), a totemic figure, and one with the power to shape the way people view history. I wish he had been more forthcoming.

Some readers have told me that Hand of Fire goes too easy on Lee, or on the official Marvel history, that Lee did not contribute substantially to the comics’ content – or if he did so, then only negatively – and that he emphatically did not “steer” the work of Jack Kirby. I remain unsure of quite how to tell the story, but am convinced that Lee added considerable pizzazz, spirit, and warmth to those comics; his voice mattered. Of course I’m equally convinced of what the above says about Kirby: that Kirby provided the concepts, designs, storytelling, pacing, style, and eventually, though perhaps to some degree even at the outset, the plots of the Marvel comics he drew. The same is emphatically true of the work that the late Steve Ditko did under Lee’s editorship. The record is murky, but we do know that Lee expected Marvel’s artists to plot and to make fine decisions about pacing and storytelling, and we do know that stalwart artists Kirby and Ditko had proven their ability to create comics stories from scratch again and again prior to the Marvel explosion. Obviously, they didn’t need Lee in order to make comics – though they did need Lee to create Marvel Comics. What Lee himself had to say about the working arrangement at Marvel shifted over the years, from (sometimes) frank acknowledgment of the artists’ contributions to (sometimes) insistence that he himself had provided what was most important about the characters. In any case, the “Marvel method” of production has permanently clouded the question of who did what, who inspired what, and to what extent Lee and his artists truly worked together.

Back cover to Stan Lee's "Secrets Behind the Comics" (1947).

The back cover to Stan Lee’s 1947 book, “Secrets Behind the Comics.” As reproduced in “The Secret History of Marvel Comics,” by Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo (2013), page 156.

I’ve worried over these things, and felt these conflicted feelings, for quite a while, and will surely continue to feel them. Anyone paying close attention to Kirby’s career story must think about the gap between the official history (even the history adopted by Marvel in the wake of the Marvel v. Kirby settlement) and what must really have happened among the disparate talents and personalities that made possible the massively multi-authored vast narrative that is Marvel. Anyone who has delved deeply into Kirby’s story must also be have a version of Stan Lee’s story on their mind, even if that version is, like mine, conflicted.

When I was a kid, though, ah, Stan Lee’s name was one to conjure with, and his voice became as familiar as my own. I read more comics than I can count that started with this claim:Stan Lee presents

Lee’s name became part of a reading ritual; he was the figurehead of figureheads, a magic character. And to this day I have a feeling for the idea of “Stan Lee” that no amount of research has been able to quell. I was reminded of that this morning, and the feeling, oddly, hurt. Having spent the last few days pawing through some too-long-neglected boxes of comic books and reliving some of my long-ago days as a fan and collector, I may have been too-perfectly primed to be shocked by the news of his passing. News of his death sent me into a fog.

Words like charlatan and huckster cling to Lee, and comparisons to carnival barkers, or even P.T. Barnum, are never far away when Lee is the topic of talk. I understand why; frankly, those words are deserved. Lee knew this well, but he wasn’t simply a shill. A shill would have had his hour, but then faded, and fast. Lee, though, was something else. He combined the larger-than-life qualities of a Marvel hero with the affability of a beloved neighborhood character and the approachability of an old friend. Sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of his seeming mendacity and conveniently porous memory. I’ve had that version of Lee in my head for nearly thirty years and counting. But sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of being a kid with a comic book in front of him, with a whole great big world spreading out before him, and I feel, still, a certain awe and gratitude at the whole crazy business.

RIP Stan Lee. I cannot imagine my life as a reader and thinker, nor my coming of age as a comics scholar and critic, without him. As editor-impresario, Lee brought the work of Kirby and a gaggle of other disparate artists to market under one colorful banner, and in so doing enriched my life and the whole American comic book field. I don’t know if I can call Lee one of my cultural heroes – I suppose Hand of Fire tells the story of my loss of faith – but at one time he surely was, and I cannot but thank him for that. Working in tandem with other singular talents, Lee helped transform the comic book, and though his greatest period as a writer-editor spanned just a decade – only a fraction of his long career – what he helped bring to the newsstands in those days, the heady days of Kirby and of Ditko, and of the dawning Marvel Universe, was stupendous.

PS. Among the several obituaries I’ve read today, I would recommend  Jonathan Kandell and Andy Webster’s careful one for the New York Times, and Michael Dean’s excellent one at The Comics Journal. (I don’t agree with Dean’s assessment of Lee’s skill as a writer, versus Kirby’s, but it’s a lovely, insightful piece, with a ringing conclusion.)

Stan Lee at Stan Lee Day, 2016

Oct. 7, 2016: Lee enjoys “Stan Lee Day” in NYC, at Madison Square Garden (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images, obtained from the Los Angeles Times).

PPS. I just rediscovered this odd, ambivalent poem I wrote about Stan Lee years ago. I think it captures both my gratitude and my ambivalence. ‘Nuff said.

RIP Stan Goldberg (1932-2014)

Stan Goldberg, Addanaccity, 2012

Stan Goldberg at the Cincinnati Comic Expo, 2012. Photo by Bearman, from George Ford’s addanaccity.com.

I’m saddened to report that veteran cartoonist and colorist Stan Goldberg has passed away. Mark Evanier has the news, here. As I reported on August 20, Mr. Goldberg suffered a stroke about two weeks back and had entered hospice care.

I met Stan only once, on the dais at the San Diego Comic-Con a couple of years back. He was a charming, affable man with deep, sweet memories of working in the comic book biz. His work is important to the history of comics, and graced many, many comic books, particularly at Archie and Marvel. I am sorry to learn of his passing, and extend my condolences to his loved ones.

RIP, Stan Goldberg, comics artist. If in my mind I see the world in Marvel Comics colors, what I see is because of him.

RIP Dick Ayers (1924-2014)

Ayers Cartoonist Profile

I’m sorry to report the passing of Dick Ayers, the Eisner Hall of Fame cartoonist, who is best known as a longtime Marvel artist and prolific Jack Kirby inker but did quite a bit of other work as well—in penciling, inking, lettering, coloring, basically in just about every aspect of comics production. He did all this not just for Marvel, but for many other publishers too. His historic career in comic books and comic strips made him, for fans, a living link to the fondly remembered roots of the business.

Ghost Rider #6 (1951)

Ghost Rider #6 (Magazine Enterprises, 1951)

Ayers’ full-time comics career spanned from about 1947-48 to the mid-80s, tapering off after that, but he continued to cartoon into the 2000s. From his early work for Magazine Enterprises, for which he co-created the horror-tinged Western character Ghost Rider, to his late-career work for DC, Archie, and Bill Black’s AC, Ayers was a jack-of-all-trades comics artist who put his hand to many different genres and trends. He had a particular yen for Western and war comics.

Avengers #1 (1963)

The Avengers #1 (Marvel, 1963), cover by Kirby, Ayers, and letterer Artie Simek

It is Ayers’ Silver Age work for Marvel that fans are most likely to remember today: he penciled Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos (co-created by Kirby) for a heroic ten-year run (1964-1974), and inked Kirby on scads of comics, including Westerns, monster tales, and, most famously, seminal superhero comics such as The Fantastic Four, “The Human Torch” (in Strange Tales), and The Avengers. Whenever I think of Ayers, I see comic books like The Avengers #1 and Fantastic Four Annual #1 (both 1963) in my mind’s eye.

By all accounts, Ayers loved being a comics artist. He was said to be an easygoing and generous man, and took great pride in revisiting his accomplishments and recalling old times (an interview between Ayers and Roy Thomas in Alter Ego #10, from 2001, gives a glimpse into his very early days). In recent years he had been an enthusiastic comics convention-goer as well as commission artist, often recreating iconic covers from his comic book heyday.

My condolences to Mr. Ayers’ family, friends, and fans. I am sorry to know that he is gone.

Links: I recommend my readers visit comics historian Blake Bell’s blog for a touching reminiscence of visiting Ayers at his home back in 2001-2002 (the photo at the bottom of this post comes from there).

Tense Suspense #2 (1959)

Tense Suspense #2 (Fago Magazines, 1959)

Sgt Fury #38 (1967)

Sgt Fury #38 (Marvel, 1967)

Mighty Marvel Western #11 (1970)

Mighty Marvel Western #11 (Marvel, 1970)

Fantastic Four #10 (1963)

Original page by Kirby, Ayers, and letterer Artie Simek for Fantastic Four #10 (Marvel, 1963)

Strange Tales #89 (1961)

Original page by Kirby, Ayers, and letterer Artie Simek [?] for “Fin Fang Foom” (Strange Tales #89, Marvel, 1961)

Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)

Splash from Fantastic Four Annual #1 (Marvel, 1963), by Kirby, Ayers, and Simek

Ayers in his studio, by Blake Bell

Dick Ayers at home in his studio, photographed by Blake Bell c. 2001

A Birthday Bonanza!

A moment of joy and optimism, from Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976)

Today is the 96th birthday of the great Jack Kirby, and it’s wonderful to see the online outpouring of interest, affection, and commentary that this event has inspired!

There’s so much about Kirby on the Web today that knowing where to go could be a right challenge. Me, I recommend:

Or you could just turn off your computer, pick up and read a vintage Kirby comic, and get your mind blown all over again. 🙂

Hail Kirby!!!