Today’s Guest: Joe Sinnott, inker, Marvel Comics
You have to be pretty damn good at what you do for someone to name you Joltin’. The name stuck to Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, of course, and is also part of the eternal legend of Joltin’ Joe Sinnott.
Unless you’re a comic book fan, you may not know Sinnott. But if you recognize the names of Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby, Joltin’ Joe will be forever connected to their accomplishments. Lee wrote the stories, Kirby drew them, and Sinnott inked them, starting with the fifth issue of the Fantastic Four in 1961 on through the first appearance of the Silver Surfer and beyond. He’s also contributed his talents to Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America, to name just a few.
You can see Sinnott’s work on three new Marvel Super Hero postage stamps – two Silver Surfers and a Thing — that were released in late July by the United State Post Office.
Sinnott is the subject of a new oral history called Brush Strokes With Greatness, compiled and written by Tim Lasiuta. It’s packed with illustrations from his fifty- plus year career, starting with a Timely Comics story called “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die” on through the development of the legendary Marvel universe.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Let’s start with a general point of information. What on earth does a comic book inker actually do, and how do you explain your career to the layman?
JOE SINNOTT: Well, actually, it’s all I ever did. I drew from the time I was three years old, I can remember, and it’s the only thing I knew. All my brothers could build houses, they could do all that. I couldn’t drive a nail, but I could draw, and I drew all the time. I drew on paper bags, whatever I had. Things were tough growing up in the thirties, but we made the best of it, and it paid off in the long run, I guess.
ANDELMAN: What is the difference, for someone who doesn’t know, between someone who does pencils and someone who does inking?
SINNOTT: Well, there’s all types of penciling, Bob. Years ago, most of the artists used to pencil thoroughly and complete pencils, put the blacks in and everything, and it progressed down to the point where a lot of the artists would pencil very loosely like a thumbnail sketch, and the inker, if he was capable, was required to finish the art. So he really was a finisher. Not all artists can do this, but some can, and fortunately, I was able to. Of course, the first 12, 13 years I was with Marvel, I did my own pencils and inks, and that’s the way I used to like it. But that was a different world back then.
ANDELMAN: When did it change for you? When did you stop focusing on penciling?
SINNOTT: Well, I started at Marvel in 1950 with Stan Lee. It was Timely Comics back in those days. And around 1961, Jack Kirby didn’t do his own inking, and he asked me if I could fill in and do a Jack Kirby. He couldn’t find anyone to ink it, and so I inked it, and Stan liked it quite a bit. He liked the combination. So it progressed from there, and Stan just kept sending me more Jack Kirby stuff, and I felt I could make as much inking as I could penciling, so I proceeded to ink primarily for Stan. Of course, I had other accounts, Treasure Chest and Dell and whatever, and there I did my own pencils and inks.
ANDELMAN: I wondered if you could actually make as much inking as penciling. I would have guessed not, but from what you say, I guess you could.
SINNOTT: It seemed like I could, maybe because I was a faster inker than I was a penciler. A lot of times with penciling you had to research and do things like that that used up a little of your time, but it never seemed to be a problem with me. The inking came very easily.
ANDELMAN: How different is one man’s inks from another’s? Again, if we’re describing this for people who really aren’t that familiar with it, some people would just think oh, inking, you’re just taking an ink pen and going over someone’s pencils, but it’s more than that, right?
SINNOTT: Don’t I wish! No, I felt down through the years I’ve added a lot to whoever I was working on, and I’m sure a lot of my friends would tell you the same thing. Some inkers, I must say, do, so to speak, ink over the lines that the penciler has put down, and other inkers have to do a lot of what we call finished art. We have to finish the art. Some pencilers don’t put any blacks in whatsoever or details, and the inker has to do that. He’s primarily, like I said, finishing the art. He’s completing it. He’s adding to it. He’s an embellisher.
ANDELMAN: What do you think is the difference between the art you were inking in the early ’60s, the start of the real Marvel Age, and today? Has it changed?
SINNOTT: Oh, a great deal. Of course, being off in the old school, I prefer the old method. I feel things are too technical today and too slick, and they don’t look like a comic book should look. That’s my feeling. Of course, in the old days, everyone did this same type of art. Reproductions were basically the same, but it looked like a comic book. It had the classic look. I prefer the Kirby, the Buscemas, the Colan, the Romitas. It was just great. It was stylized, but it was realistic art, whereas today, it’s hard to say what the new method would be called. We’re influenced a lot by the Japanese today, as you know. Not my preference.
ANDELMAN: Have the changes had anything to do with improvements in printing technology? You get a finer printing today than obviously you did 40 years ago.
SINNOTT: I’m sure there has been a great change in printing obviously. Of course, we have better paper, but then again, here we go, the old comics had that old comic book feel to it. A lot of people that I know, especially people my age, certainly prefer the old classic comic style and reproduction.
ANDELMAN: I guess one of the things that I think of when I think of your work in the sixties is, particularly working with Kirby, was that it was a heavier line, it seemed like a thicker, heavier line in those books than maybe we would see today or maybe even in some other books. Is that a mistake?
SINNOTT: I think you’re correct in that regard. I know, looking back, when I worked on Kirby in particular, I used an awful lot of brush, and certainly with a brush, you’re going to get a heavier line. But Jack’s work, it almost demanded a brush because he had big, bold pencil strokes, and usually four, five at the most panels on a page. And you could really do big drawings, and you could get in there with a brush and let yourself go. It’s not like today when I’m inking the Sunday “Spider-Man” page for Stan and the King Features. I use an awful lot of pen. The drawings are so small, and they’re reproduced so small that you have to use a lot of pen because brush is just too big, and the lines would be too heavy.
ANDELMAN: You had worked in comics for ten or eleven years by the time that first issue of Fantastic Four came your way. You had seen the superheroes go away, Westerns come on, things like that. When the Fantastic Four came to you, what did you think? Did you think it was another monster comic? Was it a big deal at the time, or was it just another assignment?
SINNOTT: It was no big deal at all. When the Fantastic Four came to me at number five, I had never heard of the book. But as soon as I saw the characters, I said, gee, what great characters. Of course, in those days as you know, through the fifties and sixties, we were always looking for a new trend. We had the Korean War, then we had the horror comics, we had romance, we had science fiction, and then we had the monster books in the late fifties and early sixties. And then when Stan came out with a few superheroes, we didn’t think anything more of it. We thought, even Spider-Man, we just thought that was another character, that it would soon fade, and we’d be doing something else. Certainly, as you know, it caught on and took off.
ANDELMAN: I think I need to correct myself on something from something you just said. You actually came on Fantastic Four with the fifth issue not the first issue.
SINNOTT: That’s right. The introduction of Doctor Doom.
ANDELMAN: How did the whole perception of the industry you were working on start to change in the early ’60s as these comics took on a life of their own that they had not had?
SINNOTT: It was pretty obvious. Most of the comic houses — we were dropping houses at that time — really concentrated on the superheroes. DC, of course, with their Justice League and Batman and Superman and whatever. They brought them all back. The same with Marvel, only Marvel created more characters. Of course, we did have Captain America and a few like that, but basically, we had all new superheroes. I think Stan was surprised that they were so popular.
ANDELMAN: And Stan created kind of a culture personality around everyone who worked on those books, didn’t he?
SINNOTT: Yeah, he certainly did.
ANDELMAN: How was that different than the way the industry had operated a decade earlier?
SINNOTT: Well, that’s pretty hard to ascertain, Bob. I really wouldn’t know how to put a finger on it, to tell the truth.
ANDELMAN: Stan nicknamed you “Joltin’” Joe Sinnott, but there was a nickname before that, right?
SINNOTT: Yeah. He had called me “Jovial” Joe.
ANDELMAN: Were you surprised the first time that popped up?
SINNOTT: No, not really. I don’t know where he got it from, but Joltin’ Joe, I could understand that because I’m sure he was influenced by Joe DiMaggio. And I used to talk a lot about baseball with a friend of mine that worked in the office down there, Jack Abel, a very talented individual.
ANDELMAN: In the late ’60s and early ’70s, comics developed a cult of personality. It was a changing time. People actually knew your name, they knew what you did, they knew other people. It wasn’t just a matter of buying their favorite comic, they were looking for people’s names, and they were recognizing people, right?
SINNOTT: Oh, I think so. I often hear from people that said, “I rooted for you,” so to speak, and “I looked for your work way back in the beginning of the superhero age, back in the early ’60s, ’61, ’62. I remember many years ago the first fan mail I ever got was back in 1953, I think it was, and this kid from Connecticut wrote me and said how much he loved my character, Arrowhead. He was an Indian renegade. The law was always after him, but he was always helping out those who were in trouble. The book ran for quite a few issues, and I really enjoyed it. This kid wrote to me and said how much he loved Arrowhead. They finally made a movie, and Charlton Heston played a character called Arrowhead, and here again, he was an Indian. It was a fairly successful book for the ’50s, and I kept his letter all these years.
The last letter I heard from him, he said he was going off to Korea. This was during the Korean War. Well, I never heard from him again. It was interesting because I thought maybe something happened to him during the war, and I had lost his address. But anyway, about two years ago, I got a letter from this woman from Connecticut, and she said she was this person’s wife that I had known when he was a kid and that he was very sick. He wasn’t expected to live any more. His illness was terminal so I got together some of the old Arrowhead drawings I had done many years ago, and I sent them off to Roland. Of course, he couldn’t respond to me. He was aware that he got them and everything, and he passed away about a week later. I’m sure I made his last couple days fairly happy because he loved that character.
ANDELMAN: What a wonderful story. What a great story. Now, I wanted to ask you, you’ve had a business relationship with Stan for 57 years. How different was Stan in 1950 from the man who, this year, is hosting a weekly TV show?
SINNOTT: I can’t see one bit of difference.
ANDELMAN: Is that right?
SINNOTT: Oh yeah. Stan was always the life of the party, so to speak. If Stan was in a room with a thousand people, he would stand out. Great sense of humor. His memory is a little bit off now, but even back in those days, he wasn’t known for him memory. Tremendous sense of humor. I wish I could tell you some of the stories because whenever I vouch for my work, Stan sends me a little note back. I’ve kept them all. I have hundreds and hundreds of Stan’s notes and letters. Someday, they’ll make a good book, I think. Really, you can’t believe the sense of humor he had. Always with a smile. If you ever see a picture of Stan, it’s with a great big smile.
Well, he could be tough too, though. He knew what he wanted, and he expected it. He certainly helped me in many, many ways. Right from the start, I remember when I was just a kid out of school, he said, “Joe, whatever you do, exaggerate everything.” He said, “I want everything exaggerated.” That’s what we lived by.
ANDELMAN: What about Kirby? Obviously, you got pages from him. And I know that while Stan developed this idea of the Marvel bullpen, there were some guys working on staff, but mostly guys worked from home so you didn’t see each other that often.
SINNOTT: No. Most of the guys who did the books worked at home. The staff, of course, involved so many people. Proofreaders, people who did corrections, things like that. Well, Romita, of course, worked there at the office, and there were a few others. Kirby, I worked with Jack, oh gee, must be 18 years, something like that, and I had never met him. Never talked to him on the phone, would you believe that? And so Marvel had a convention in ’72, and I went down and I was introduced to Jack Kirby by Marie Severn. And I didn’t see him again, I didn’t talk to him again until 1975. They had another convention, and I went down and we got together. We had a great three days together. After that, I never spoke to him again, would you believe that?
Of course, Jack moved to California, and he dropped me a note once in a while if he wanted something. For example, if he wanted his characters inked, and he’d ask me that way if I could help him out, and of course, I always did. We never talked about the Fantastic Four. He never told me he liked the way I did this or didn’t like the way I was doing that. We just never talked about what we were working on, which is amazing, I think.
ANDELMAN: Well, to use the Marvel term, it’s astonishing, really. You guys only met twice in all those years, and yet, your work is so closely tied from that era.
SINNOTT: Never discussed the work. Never.
ANDELMAN: I’m baffled. Really.
SINNOTT: Of course, Jack and Stan used to write notes on the pages for each other. If Stan wanted something changed, or Jack didn’t like a certain way a story was being told or whatever, but when Jack sent the work to me, there was never, ever a note on the border saying Joe, would you do it this way or would you do it that way. And, of course, my son knows all the pages we did together. It astonishes me, Bob, sometimes also.
ANDELMAN: Do you have any guys that you were particularly close to from that era, from Marvel?
SINNOTT: No, no. Actually, it was pretty much the same as Kirby. They sent me the work, and they knew I was gonna do a complete, acceptable job when I returned it.
ANDELMAN: And where were you living at the time?
SINNOTT: I’ve lived in Saugerties all my life.
SINNOTT: Yeah. I was born here in 1926, and I went to the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York City for about three years, I guess it was. So I lived down on 74th Street and Broadway. Then I moved back up to Saugerties here when I got a firm account with Stan.
ANDELMAN: And that school you went to later became the School of Visual Arts.
SINNOTT: That’s right. Burne Hogarth was one of the directors there.
ANDELMAN: I think I saw that Silas Rhodes just passed away.
SINNOTT: Oh yeah. Well, I’d say it’s been about two or three years ago now.
SINNOTT: Oh, wait a minute. I thought you meant Burne Hogarth.
ANDELMAN: No, no, no. Silas. I think I just saw…
SINNOTT: I didn’t know that he passed away.
ANDELMAN: I think he was like 92 or something.
SINNOTT: He was. What a dynamic…They both were. Unbelievable. Both characters were dynamic personalities. Of course, Silas had been in the Marine Corps during World War II, and I would hate to have been under him, I’m telling ya. He was a, what do they call, not slave driver, but there’s another word.
ANDELMAN: Do you have a good story about him?
SINNOTT: Well, we used to call him “Rocky” when we were in school. He’d come around everyday, certainly. I’m telling ya, he was a dynamo. He was a strong person, and you could just see him in the Marine Corps. A lot of stories, little stories that he would tell. I remember one time he told me, he said, “Joe, you’re putting on weight. It’s not good. It’s very unhealthy.” I’m sure he was a health nut because he looked like he could take on a weightlifter. And like you just said, he lived to be 93, right?
ANDELMAN: Yeah. Yeah.
SINNOTT: It’s funny to think that as many times as I talked to him, that’s the one thing, of course two things, that’s the one thing I remember him saying to me, “Joe, you’re putting on a little weight.” I wasn’t aware that I was, but obviously, he could see it.
Another time when I was down at the school to apply for entrance, I had my little pencil and ink scratchings. I was very apprehensive about it cause I thought they weren’t good enough to get into school. So I went to see Silas Rhodes. He called me in, and he looked at my work, and he said, “Joe, this is really good stuff for a beginner. I gotta show these to Burne Hogarth.” And I was saying to myself he’s just saying that because they’re having trouble getting people into the school, and they want to make sure I come to the school. So he went in and showed the samples to Burne, and of course, Burne came out and told me, “Joe, these are pretty good for a guy at your stage.” I wanted to be an illustrator so I wanted to take the illustrating course. And Burne says, “No, Joe, you’re a natural-born cartoonist. I’ll tell ya, it’s not easy, it’s very hard, very hard work. But your work will lend itself perfectly to a comic strip or comic book cartoonist.” So that was the first day I was down at the school. Certainly, both of them impressed me so much at the time.
ANDELMAN: For people who don’t know Burne Hogarth, do you want to explain?
SINNOTT: Yeah. He was the illustrator for the newspaper strip “Tarzan.” It appeared in the New York Mirror back in those days. Of course, he was a great draftsman, and we used to love to have him come in and draw on the easel for us. He could draw anything you wanted. A sabertooth tiger or whatever. He was just a dynamic person and a great artist. He really was.
ANDELMAN: For a lot of cartoonists, especially in the action genre/adventure, he’s the gold standard, isn’t he?
SINNOTT: Exactly. Certainly one of them.
ANDELMAN: So when you come in there out of the blue, and Burne Hogarth tells you you’ve got what it takes, that must have been a pretty exciting day.
SINNOTT: Yes it was. Of course, I had come out of the Navy, and I didn’t go to school right away. When I came out, I was playing ball and having a good time, whatever. So then it came time, and I said, “I gotta go to art school.” And so when I went down there, we were doing some drawings in ink, and I was using a pen, and he came by me, and he knocked the pen out of my hand. He said, “Joe, in this school, we use a brush.” He was a great brush man. Here I was, about 21 years old. I wasn’t even aware that cartoonists used brushes. That’s how naïve I was. In those days, there were no conventions. You had no chance of ever meeting, especially up here in the mountains of the Catskills, I never met a cartoonist and never had the thought that I ever would whereas today, the kids, they see cartoonists all the time at these conventions. They know everything about the field even before they try to break into it. They know what supplies to use and what brushes and what pens and whatever. All I used was a post office pen that they used in the post office. The ones you dip in the inkwell.
ANDELMAN: Right. I did this biography of Will Eisner, and I remember he told me about taking his portfolio up to see Ham Fisher. He did Joe Palooka. And James Montgomery Flagg was there who did the famous Uncle Sam posters. And the big deal for him was he was just so overwhelmed, he didn’t know what to say to the man so he says, “What kind of pen do you use?” And Flagg said, “I use a 290 Gillette.” And so Eisner went out and bought nothing but 290 Gillette pens and used them for the rest of his life.
SINNOTT: Isn’t that amazing? Of course, the school used to get a lot of calls from people in the business or whatever. And they got a call from either NBC or ABC, one of the TV stations. There were only three at the time. And they wanted someone to come over on, I forget whose program, but Ham Fisher was the guest over there. And they wanted an art student to come over and talk with Ham Fisher about comic strips. So they used to send me on a lot of these errands, and so they called me up from the class, and they said, “Joe, Ham Fisher wants you to come over and ask you a few questions about school, things like that.” And I said, “Oh, I’m afraid not.” I thought I was too shy to go on TV. So I passed it up. They chose another friend of mine from the school, and he went over, and he came back, and he said, “You know what? Ham Fisher was showing the people on the easel how to draw Joe Palooka, and it was already drawn. It was in blue pencil, and you couldn’t see it, but he was tracing it.” Hey, those guys weren’t taking any chances, either. Another time, Ted Mack, I don’t know whether you remember Ted Mack.
ANDELMAN: “The Original Amateur Hour.”
SINNOTT: Yeah. He’s before your time. But anyway, they called me over. Well, the Amateur Hour used to be “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour.” They could have still called it that. But, in any case, I was sent over there. So I did go over there and was up in the booth with him, and we were watching, I can still remember the Old Gold, the mother and the daughter. They were inside a cigarette pack, and they were both dancing on the stage. Do you remember that commercial?
ANDELMAN: I remember dancing cigarette packs.
SINNOTT: Well, that was Old Gold. So anyway, we watched that, and Ted’s agent was there, and he wanted me to do a caricature of Ted for Variety magazine. And I’ll tell ya, boy, I was nervous. And he said, “Make Ted look like a nice guy cause he’s really nice.” And actually, he was a really nice guy, but he looked like somebody from Guys and Dolls. How do you do a caricature of someone who looks like a gangster? I’ll tell ya, I was scared to death, and I kept drawing away. And Ted Mack said to me, “Joe, don’t be nervous. I’d like you to come with me over to one of the big nightclubs.” I just couldn’t do it. I said, “Ted, I really can’t.” I made up some excuse. I was just too scared. I really was scared. I was just a kid then. It would’ve been interesting. Looking back, I should’ve gone to see whom he would’ve met over there and whatever.
ANDELMAN: Well, to borrow the title of your biography, you had another brush with greatness, although I don’t know if you actually had contact with them. I suspect you didn’t. You did a comic based on The Beatles in 1964, right?
SINNOTT: Yeah. 1964. They were on their way over to be on Ed Sullivan’s show, and Dell called me. They knew I did good likenesses, and they wanted someone who could do likenesses. So they asked me to do The Beatles book, which was 64 pages long. And I had a month to do it in. That was a lot of work in a short period of time. It came out really good, all things considered. They were very happy with it. Of course, I never did get to meet The Beatles. But the book is fairly unique, and it’s fairly rare, I guess.
ANDELMAN: And that was a project that you did the drawing for. You drew The Beatles for that. That wasn’t an inking job like you were known for much later. You drew The Beatles pages.
SINNOTT: Oh sure. Oh yeah, yeah. The book. A good friend of mine, Dick Giordano, he helped me out on a few pages toward the end. I was running out of time. Of course, Dick and I used to work many years ago together. I would pencil books for General Electric or Radio Shack, and he would ink them. Of course, that was an interesting period.
ANDELMAN: Now, I want to ask you about one more thing cause we’re running out of time. This is the summer, of course, that the Silver Surfer actually comes to life. I wondered if you have seen either of the Fantastic Four movies, and if you have, what you thought.
SINNOTT: Don’t embarrass me. No, I haven’t seen them.
SINNOTT: My family, my son, he’s a big comic fan, and he knows all about the comics. He took his two children to see it. Of course, they wanted me to go with them, but it was the first night, and I really didn’t want to go the first night because they get a lot of young people the first night. They pack the theaters, no question. I did see Spiderman 3 the first night, and it was hectic. The kids, they were quiet and everything, but there were just so many of them. I had to wait in line and all that. So anyway, I didn’t see it, but my son Mark, he’s quite a critic. He loved it. There were a few little things, naturally, he disagreed with, but he thought the Surfer was tremendous.
ANDELMAN: Yeah. It was great. I thought they did a great job with the Surfer. My daughter, who’s the upcoming comic fan in our house, she loved it. She just absolutely loved it.
SINNOTT: John Buscema and I did the first three Surfers. Of course, he continued with his brother for a while. I think they did maybe 17, 18 issues altogether. But I thought what a great character the Surfer was. Of course, John did a beautiful Surfer.
ANDELMAN: I think you have to go see the movie, not just to see what they did with the Silver Surfer, but I think you’ll get a kick out of Stan’s cameo in this particular movie.
SINNOTT: That’s what Mark said. The first couple that he was in, you could barely see him. Don’t blink, otherwise you’ll miss him. But I understand he had a little more…
ANDELMAN: Yeah, you can’t miss him in this one. It’s a very funny moment, especially for someone who’s known him as long as you have.
SINNOTT: He’s something, I’ll tell ya. He just called me about two days ago. And I was away from the “Spider-Man” Sunday comic strip for a while because my wife had passed away, and I was quite sick for a while. I was in the hospital three times.
ANDELMAN: I’m sorry.
SINNOTT: Yeah, over the last five months, so I had to hand over the “Spider-Man” to him, a friend of mine. And he very graciously took care of it while I was laid up. So I went back about, oh maybe a month ago, so Stan had to call me and tell me how great it was to be back working with me.