A Million Little Decisions
The art of inking is the process of making a million little decisions.
It also appears to be a completely maddening task.
I thought this as I read “Batman: Hush Unwrapped,” the hardcover reprinting of the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee “Batman” story from 15 years ago.
The twist is, the book is reprinted straight from Lee’s original pencils, adding only the lettering for readability’s sake. The real star of the book is the person whose work is unseen, inker Scott Williams. Sure, he provides an introduction, but seeing what he has to work with in comparison to what the final product was, you have to appreciate his artistry and his patience.
Jim Lee draws a lot of lines: textures, speedlines, feathered lines, shaded lines, gentle curves, harsh edges, wispy lines, etc. They show up on every page. It’s Scott Williams’ job to make sense of them all. Somehow, he manages to not just redraw every line in India ink, but also add a few in, spot some solid black areas, and clean everything up.
The Opera of Inks
I opened the book up to my favorite chapter of the story, “Batman” #613, the one set in the opera house and featuring Harley Quinn.
The backgrounds are ornate. Lee spared not an inch of white space to show the decorations along the crowded opera house’s interior. And when the action moves outside, there’s plenty of rain and graffiti and debris to keep things interesting. It feels like a very European book to me.
Let’s look at the kinds of choices Williams had to make along the way.
Line Weight in Motion
Harley Quinn jumps through a panel multiple times. Even in pencil, Lee knows to give her thin lines where she’s been and draw her completely in her final position. But it’s up to Williams to decide whether to add extra weight to those thin inks to indicate any weight at all to Quinn’s body, or just leave them as ghostly figures, as if projected into thin air. Lack of detail is one thing, but line weight is another completely.
Lee’s art gives a ghostly appearance to Quinn’s earlier movements, with fewer details and no solid black areas. That creates something almost like a negative space in the middle of some very busy panels. It’s an effective way of drawing the reader’s eye to the action of the moment.
In the final result, colorist Alex Sinclair added his touch, keeping the ghostly figures in a desaturated coloring style with a slight flat shade cut into the art. Only the final figures return to the more saturated, darker color style that’s the norm in the series.
Defining a Black Suit with Inks
A group of men in black suits are holding the crowd at gunpoint. Half of the suits are shaded in with the pencil, while the rest is an open white area with an “X” drawn inside, to indicate solid back.
What’s the difference between a solid black area and a solid black suit with no detail lines penciled inside? That’s up to Williams to decide.
There’s no difference, really. It was likely just Jim Lee working out the panel on the page, using some extra pencil work to give himself a visual of the weight of the panel.
It’s also such a small part of a larger panel that’s dominated by Harley Quinn’s acrobatics that you don’t need a lot of detail.
The facade along the front of the balcony seats is filled with a ridiculous amount of detail. Lee has drawn every crack and every flourish into them, but clearly done so by hand, without a ruler or a French curve or anything to make the lines architecturally pure.
Should Williams ink straight over the lines and leave the looser feeling to the art? Or should he go in with “proper” tools to make things seem more pure?
From this example, it looks like Williams was fairly faithful to Lee’s design sense, but did straighten things out a tad to make things look more solid and less sketched. The flourishes along the top, for example, still look hand-drawn and uneven, but they radiate out better and look more repetitive than Lee’s initial pencils.
A Moment for the Colorist
We also have to stop here to give out some praise to the colorist, Alex Sinclair. Back in the old days, that whole background in the panel above would have been shaded a singular shade of blue. Period.
Thanks to better tools to color with, better printing technology to publish with, and the growing expectations of the readers, such a flat background color on a big Batman book would not have worked.
Sinclair keeps the background in muted shades of blue, but differentiates levels with subtle color shifts. The curtains in the far background are a darker purple color, while the railings closer to the reader are lighter, but with shadows following along the detail work in the facade.
The people at the bottom of the panel who you want to show standing out from that background get the opposite treatment with a brighter yellow color, again with a darker yellow/brown to indicate shading.
The bold color strokes do their jobs, but then Sinclair goes in to provide all the finishing touches that the art leaves for him.
Here’s the catch to the whole thing: This panel is the bottom corner of a two page spread with Batman leaping at the reader from one side and Harley Quinn’s butt featured on the facing page. All of those people crowded on the floor and all of those details in the architecture of the opera house is ultimately background noise to the 99% of comic fans who are looking for a quick read and a nice bit of creative action/violence. Nobody’s analyzing that part of the page except the editors and the critics. (Ahem. Hello!)
Yet the inker is going over all of it with a fine tooth comb. If he didn’t, it would jump right out to readers who would claim “hackery” for the artist being too lazy to draw backgrounds.
This can be a thankless job, sometimes.
Things That Change: The Details
There are also things that change from pencils to inks, but that you’d have to be anal retentive to notice — or working on a review for a column and stumble upon along the way.
In the opening of the issue, Lee has a two page sequence where the far left panel mirrors the far right, basically.
Originally, Jim Lee’s pencils show Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle looking down. In the final inks, they’re looking across the page at each other. Was this Williams’ doing? Or was this a conversation had along the way and a quick change made after the final pencil scan was made? I don’t know.
The Opera Glasses
But I do know that Williams definitely smoothed out the opera glasses Selina is holding in this panel. He’s helped round them off appropriately, and put the shadows in places that make sense. You have to zoom far into the image to see it, though. But every detail counts.
Lee’s original pencils look a little flat and incomplete by comparison, even though it looks detailed and fully worked out at first glance.
Credit also has to go, of course, to Sinclair’s coloring. Look at how much work he puts into those glasses, including the blue shine on the outside and the highlights in the glass fronts. Check out how carefully every pixel is colored, with a little golden glow along the outside of the lenses to set it off from the rest of the glasses.
Part of me looks this carefully at this panel and thinks that Jim Lee drew Catwoman holding up Wall-E’s head to her face to watch an opera. “Hush” predated “Wall-E” by a few years.
Selina’s chair is solidified by Williams’ inks. It looks like Lee did use a French curve to draw the front edge of the chair, but the freehand drawing underneath Selina’s left arm is loose and off in its perspective. Williams fixed that along the way and used line weights to help mold the chair on the page.
There’s a tricky engraving, almost, on the chair that Lee draws here. Unless there was some specific photo reference, I can only imagine Williams working to decipher it all and render it properly.
Take a look at the shadows underneath the chair, also, to see how the inks are inverted.
Here’s where years of working together can lead to a successful final pairing. You can see how Jim Lee shades in the hair of both Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in this panel. He doesn’t outline an area and then throw in some “X” marks to indicate they’re black areas. He sketches in the hair, never filling the areas up completely.
Williams comes in, then, and knows how to balance out the solid black areas with the more sketchy parts. He adds in graceful curves and careful brush strokes to mimic the look Lee is going for in his pencils.
All the Small Things
These all seem like such little things to us, as the end readers. We see the results and we like them and we never give much thought to how much work goes into them. How many choices have to be made with every line? It’s mind-numbing. Imagine redrawing every one of Jim Lee’s penciled pages in permanent ink.
And then, just when you’ve finished so carefully inking every last millimeter of the page, the word balloons and caption boxes and sound effects hide a percentage of them. You know it’s going to happen going in, but I imagine you can’t help your ego from being deflated by some of those choices.
There are also panels like this. Look at how Lee packed the backgrounds full of detail, from the patterns on the ceiling to the shadows on the pipes. It’s almost a line-for-line duplicate of the original pencils, with a few minor additions.
About the only real change I can see is Williams adding some extra shadows to the light cans hanging off the ceiling along the left edge of the panel.
Inking: A Million Decisions, Two Minds
While different art teams will have different styles of working together, it’s interesting to pull the curtain back on this high profile pairing to get a better feel for how they work off of each other.
How much information does the penciler give the inker? How much does he need to give the inker? How much of his own flair (for lack of a better term) does the inker add to the art?
These are all things that need to be balanced out and decided between two creative minds as each has to make an enormous number of choices to get their own job done.
Along the way, we get to see some of the many things an inker has to take into account with every job. With every page. With every panel.
And, of course, there’s a lot of very nice art to look at, too.
This HyperAnalysis originally saw print as a column on CBR. I’ve added more examples, cleaned it up, and reformatted it for this presentation. Happy #BatmanDay, everyone!