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This is the second and final part of Comic Foundry’s exclusive interview with inking legend Klaus Janson, a veteran of comics industry for 35 years and part of the art team for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. For part one, click here.
How has the role of inkers changed, or has it?
Inking has become less important, much to my chagrin and disappointment. Inking has become less important, and color has become more important. And a lot of color dominates and overpowers the art, both penciling and inking. One of the comic companies called a few weeks ago and they were coming out with a black and white horror magazine, looking for artists. And they asked me to do a story. I jumped at it because it was an opportunity to do a complete pencil and ink job and have that work be the final product. Just for fun. I’m not saying that the coloring is horrible by any means — I think I’ve been pretty lucky to work with some amazingly talented people, Steve Buccellato on Batman: Death and the Maidens and Dean White on Black Panther for instance, but I’ve had to adjust my style as a result of the coloring, and to not do so would be naïve and dumb.
How have you adjusted your style?
The combination of Photoshop, the paper and the printing is so powerful, it can overwhelm the line work pretty easily. The color saturates the panels and seems to coat the art. On the plus side, in a general way, I don’t need to do as much work anymore in terms of communicating shape, volume, depth or form. I used to be very, very brutal in trying to communicate those things on paper, and I don’t need to do that anymore as much. I put in less lines because the colorist does what the lines used to do. One of the first things I always ask when I’m asked to do a job is who is the colorist, and I will adjust my inking according to the colorist, because they are all different with different approaches. And if the colorist is very heavy-handed, I will pull back and let the colorist do the heavy-handed approach they want to do.
And if the colorist has some artistic ability of their own, which means they have some art background, I’ll work with the colorist in tandem — we’ll work on scenes together. The color process is great if the colorist has some art education and is an artist in their own right. I think the days when you can pull someone off the street and let them color a comic are long gone. You have to know what you are doing. And you have to know what you are doing not only technically with the software, but theoretically with color theory. But it definitely affects my inking, and anyone who doesn’t adjust because of Photoshop or the coloring is being naïve. You have to adjust as time goes by.
Do you think inkers will be around in 10 years?
Yeah, but I think probably not as many. I suspect that there will be more books published with only pencils. But inkers will never be eliminated entirely because in order for a penciler to have his pencil shot (from the pencils) and colored, it has to be very, very tight, can’t be loose, and no gray lines. It’s gotta be crisp and sharp — and pencilers will tell you that takes extra time, and I think purely from an economic point of view, inkers won’t be eliminated. Because there will always be some pencilers who will not want to spend twice as much or one-and-a-half as much time doing a page when clearly they could be doing another page entirely and getting another page rate for it. So not from a technological but from an economic point of view, inkers won’t be eliminated.
What do you have yet to learn as an artist?
I would like to be able to draw better. That’s really a source of constant irritation. I walk down the street and think, “You stupid fuck, you should be able to draw better,” you know, just torturing myself. I think I have a decent understanding when it comes to the theoretical underpinning of art and storytelling but I really would like to be able to draw better. I’ve never had any formal training; never gone to art school, almost never take classes. I feel like I am undereducated in terms of technique, especially. And the flip side of that, of course, is that I’d love to be less critical of my own work. I think the better word might be “tortured.” I’d love to be less tortured about my work.
Have you had goal setting in the past?
I’ve always been goal-driven. It’s funny that being an inker was not my first choice. My first choice was penciling, and I remember going to one of the early conventions in New York when I was still living in Connecticut with mom and dad, and showing Gil Kane some of my pages and asking him, “For God’s sake, how much longer do I have?” And I was 19 or 18, and I said, “How much longer before I can break in?” The stuff was horrible. You look at it back then and it was sincere, honest but just totally uninformed. It’s very difficult for an 18, 19, or 20-year-old to be informed about the medium. But Gil, in his gracious way, said “About a year or two,” and I thought, “God, I can’t wait that long.” And the he said, “Eh, but your inking is good.” So I started picking up Xeroxes at Marvel and DC and inking them on vellum, which immediately makes the work look horrible. There’s no way you can make it look good on vellum. So I did inking for economic reasons: I wanted to get out on my own and move to New York and be an artist and live in the East Village and do the bohemian artist living in the cold water flat thing. I couldn’t wait.
But my goals have always been, in a general way: more. I wanted more. When I thought I had inking fairly well in control, although looking back that was naïve too, I would go and learn how to color. And then I got interested in coloring, and theory of color and how to use it in this medium. And after that I started focusing back on the penciling, which was really risky for me at the time. I had already established myself in one way as an inker and to switch gears is a bit of a mind fuck for the people who are hiring you. And after I started getting penciling work, I started writing a little bit. But I’ve always been goal-driven and I always want to do the next thing. I have to say, though, that this is the first time in my life that the goals are not as clear. The goal that keeps on coming up for me at this point falls more in the “don’t torture yourself” category. I’ve worked so hard for the entire duration of my career that I’d like to sit back and enjoy it and have fun playing with the skills that I have developed rather than being so goal-driven. The problem with that is I deeply feel that I have not achieved my full potential and that there is more that I can do. I think finding the balance between those opposing forces is the trick.
Do you ever consider retirement?
When I think about retirement, I always assume I’ll be working on my own non-commercial material, whether for publication or not. So If I’m gonna retire, which I don’t think I really will, I would still be working on my own stuff — and it would certainly involve comics and storytelling. I’m not sure I could turn it off, so to speak. Creativity is pretty hard-wired into my system. I might be able to transfer it to another medium, but I couldn’t turn it off. I’d love to have been an architect or graphic designer or landscaper, or musician. It’s always about design, you see. It’s always about figuring out how things fit together and look next to each other. But I can’t imagine turning off that curiosity. I really enjoy this medium; it’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do since I was 5-years-old. I’m still ferociously ambitious. I certainly haven’t explored everything there is to do in this medium. And I’m still hungry; I still want to do it. I still think I have more to say and more to enjoy.
How has your art evolved during your career?
I wouldn’t even know how to answer that, Tim. I don’t know. I think the thing that’s helped me a lot is teaching at SVA, so I have a solid theoretical, intellectual base for a lot of decisions I make on the page. Maybe somebody else could answer that for me. I’ve become simpler, more direct. It takes me less lines to say something than it did 20 years ago. That’s a simplistic description of it. That’s a tough question for me to answer because I’m really too close. People have always said to me that they recognize my work pretty immediately when they see it and that surprises me. I don’t see that — I’m just too close. I think I’ve become more direct and I would say most artists follow that trend. The work becomes simpler. You can see it in music, for instance. You could mention anybody: Miles Davis, Steven Spielberg, John Lennon, Matisse. You can make a pretty good argument that they all stripped away a lot of the stuff that gets in the way. There’s something to be said about shortening the line between the artist and viewer/reader/listener, and that’s intriguing. Getting rid of the detritus to achieve a more immediate connection between the artist and the audience.
What is it like with inkers, as far as credit and recognition? Is the inker the odd man out? How do you deal with that?
In one of his many interviews, Gil Kane was once asked, “Why are you doing this?” And he said, “For the love.” You know, I want to be recognized. And anyone who denies that recognition is not a need is foolish, uncredible. The inker is the odd man out in a lot of ways. What’s even funnier is that the royalties used to be divided in a certain percentage – writer, pencil, inker. Now it’s writer, pencil, inker, colorist. But they didn’t expand the incentive pool, they took the money out of the pockets of the inker and gave that part to the colorist. I certainly think that colorists deserve that recognition, but they decreased the amount of money the inker gets, and so you think, “Okay, what are they actually saying here?”
And they’re saying exactly that you’re work is worth less now than it was before. And they didn’t think it was worth that much in the first place! It’s absurd. It’s irritating, honestly, to have that sort of stigma. It’s like being a stepchild or non-citizen or something. I comfort myself with the fact that I have the ability, if I wanted to, to do other things besides inking. So that even though in theory inkers are an odd man out, I find a certain amount of security in that people do ask for my work and as an artist, I think I have a pretty good reputation. Maybe at some point I’ll find out that’s not true, but I console myself with that right now.
What about when you were first starting out and you didn’t have that reputation?
I really railed against the status of second-class citizens. I was very angry, very indignant at the whole notion of second-class status. It’s ignorant and uninformed. It doesn’t bother me as much these days because to a large degree I am past it. I save my indignation for other things like the utter incompetence of our political leaders. There is still a lot of second-class status reserved for inkers but it just doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. As long as I can bring something to the work, which I think I always do, and make a living at it, I think I’m doing okay.
You’ve worked with incredible people throughout your career. What have you learned from, say, Dick Giordano?
I learned a lot of very fundamental things from Dick. He was my mentor and a very pivotal and important influence on me. He still is today. But because he was the first professional with whom I shared discussions about comics, he laid the groundwork for everything that was to follow. In addition to learning about how to do comics, I learned a lot about personal responsibility and work ethic from him. And though I later picked up other theories about art and storytelling, the personal work ethic that I learned from him remained the same. It was a very, very good lesson to learn and one that I think has served me well.
What about Frank Miller?
What I learned from Frank? (Laughs) I admire Frank’s ability to realize his dreams. When we were hanging out, if that’s the correct phrase, when we were doing “Daredevil,” he was always interested in film, for instance. I don’t know if he ever said, “I want to direct,” but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did. I don’t have a clear memory of that. But what I admire about Frank and what I learned, though I suspect too late, was his ability to make his dreams and fantasies and goals a reality. A lot of people will say, “I want to direct,” and not even come close. He was able to do it. That’s something that you cannot take away from him. That’s a real accomplishment on his part. Not the directing part, but the fact that he was able to make it happen. It’s not an accident. It’s a very integral part of his personality, to make these things real. The ability to make real your dreams is something that not everybody can do.
We’ve been talking about the industry for a little while now — Where do you see it going in the next few decades?
In terms of business, it’s going to go into bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Target, whatever. The graphic novel department will get bigger. Mainstream comics will be more homogenized. Comics for a younger audience will develop. The connection between Hollywood and comics will become permanent. I think that to some degree comics will become more corporate and more business-like, certainly Marvel and DC in the last 30 years have traveled down that road already. Both have become bigger businesses. Twenty-five years ago, it was like working in a circus. Comics were a bit more under the radar, a lot more fun and a lot less serious. So I think in business, the characters will be owned by and dictated by a much stronger business sense, rather than a story or character sense. That old Stan Lee mythology of him getting up on the table and acting a story out for Jack Kirby, stuff like that really doesn’t happen too much anymore. I mean it happens between creators, writers and artists, but it doesn’t happen on a higher level. People are much more serious about this business. What I’d like to see happen is a greater recognition, which I think is inevitable, of the medium as a legitimate art-form. I’d like to see the alternative press become healthier financially. And I think a lot of people are going to be doing comics in their basement. A lot of non-corporate, non-business, non-Marvel, non-DC publications. Because the technology is so cheap, people are going to be printing comics in their basement, which I think is good. Just in the same way that people are making movies in their basement.
You mentioned this serious aspect in the industry. Do you think that’s a good thing?
I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing. I think it’s inevitable. Similar to Batman, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, all those characters, it’s branding. It’s inevitable, it’s like IBM. I think that those fun or looser publications will emerge from someone’s basement, or smaller publishing houses. There are tons of publishers in this country that publish comic books — some of them just regional — and something will emerge from those publishers. Whether it’s IDW in San Diego or Moonstone in Chicago, or some guy in Podunk in his basement. When Marvel and DC business people sit down to consider a story or event, their concern is revenue. They think, “How many sales is this going to generate, how is this going to platform into something else, something bigger. How are we going to get an event out for the summer of 2005, or whatever.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. It is what it is. Smaller publishers don’t really think like that and people in their basements don’t have to think like that. So that particular kind of energy that used to be Marvel and DC will be taken up by other publishers. And it’s okay that Marvel and DC are more business minded these days than they perhaps were in the past. It can even be quite beneficial.
Do you think it’s the kind of thing where you have to take yourself seriously if you want other people to take you seriously?
Well it depends on what your criteria is for being taken seriously. There’s at least two different benchmarks we can use. Certainly the fact that Hollywood has had success with comic book characters on a level never experienced before means that they are taking comics seriously. So if your criteria is box-office receipts then we are being taken seriously. The other standard might be one of being taken seriously as an art form. Although I think we’ve made inroads in that area, too, we’re further away, I think, from achieving any real artistic validation. If we compare comics to another American art-form like jazz, for instance, you can see that comics doesn’t even come close to that level of respect. Although, interestingly enough, both are respected more abroad than they are here in America, where they more or less originated. But have we made some progress in shedding our reputation as “juvenile disposable entertainment?” Very incrementally, yes. And I think we are picking up steam. So I expect much more progress in the immediate future.
hat is the most important thing you’ve learned since entering the industry?
You know that’s a really tough question for me to answer. I have to really think about that one and honestly I don’t know if I have a good answer. I don’t know if it’s the most important thing I’ve learned but I can tell you the thing that surprised me the most, I guess. When I think back on my fantasies I had as a kid about what it would be like working in comics, I never anticipated how important the economics of the business were. I guess when you’re young you have no concept of business or money or that kind of stuff. So the fantasy was always a bit more innocent than the reality. And the reality is that so much of the decision-making is motivated by economics. There’s a constant tension and struggle between the creative side of the business and the money side. And maybe that’s the most important thing I’ve learned, too. Coming to terms with that is probably a healthy thing. Oh yeah, that and the fact that the industry is just like high school. (Laughs)
—Interview by Tim Leong