Sean Murphy: Will Inkers Be Obsolete?

While searching for Sketch Up candidates, I ran across this post by Sean Murphy (Joe the Barbarian, American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest), talking about the changing role of the inker. He thinks it might not even be a real job in comics for too much longer.

Really interesting reading, in terms of the business of producing comics.

How long will inkers be needed?

In the old days they needed inkers because computers weren’t yet being used in print.  I forget the name of the machine that preceded the scanner (process cameras?), but it was low-tech enough that inking was REQUIRED because the pencil lines weren’t dark enough to pick up.  A side effect of this lumbering technology was that it created “inking” as an art form exclusive to print and to comics.

Imagine you’re an artist working for Ben Franklin at one of his printing presses.  Ben loves your comic strip ideas and wants to publish it.  But there’s a problem: scanners haven’t been invented yet so your pencils won’t translate.  He hands you a pen and brush and a bottle of ink and tells you to go over your pencils to make it darker.  You frown–your pencils have nice shades of gray that ink will ruin!  Surely Ben will understand that.  “Too bad!” he says while staring at some chicks walking past the window, “Take this ink and find a way to make it work.  Or you’re fired.”  And off he goes to get laid.

Demands like this are what gave birth to hatching, cross hatching, feathering, and other tricks to give the impression of “gray” even though there’s only black and white.  Before Ben Franklin, it was the lithograph invented by some Bavarian guy in the late 1700s.  Before him, it might have been the Greeks using stone blocks or something.  Whatever the history, we have to acknowledge that it was the shortcoming of technology that gave birth to modern inking.

That’s why we’ve got inking. It’s just a style, but if a style costs more, will the bookkeepers continue to foot the bill?

The 90s is when many publishers switched over to scanners and modern printing technology.  While it helped give birth to better coloring via Photoshop, it also helped make inking obsolete.  But inking survived because it was part of the identity of comic books.  Many people working in publishing still had a soft spot for the writer/penciller/INKER/colorist/letterer dynamic.  We had the technology to print pencils and colors without needed it inked, but it wasn’t enough to kill off inking.  Would readers even buy books that  were just pencils?  Thus, Marvel and DC continued including inking rates.

With Wacoms and Cintiques coming of age, traditional inking is completely unnecessary.  We no longer need comics to have that “comic book style” because readers have adapted to variety of styles that Cintiques easily create.  And if it’s an old fashion “comic book style” you want, Cintiques can do that too!

Obviously, most of comics is now digital.  I write to my editors digitally–phone calls aren’t needed anymore.  Even though I create my art traditionally, it’s scanned into digital files which is exactly where digitally created artwork ends up–there IS no distinction at the end of the day.  Comics are colored and lettered digitally, the graphics are added digitally.  The printers are digital.  And if we could find a way to automate the writing and artwork at a lower cost, you’d better believe it would happen.  Cost of iArtist (the computer program designed to create art based off the script create by iWriter)–a one time fee of $500.  Cost of hiring Sean Murphy for one 22 page issue–$10,000.

So there I am, cashing my paycheck from DC.  My inking rate still included.  But for how long?  In a few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the publishers cut out inking rates altogether in order to save money.  You can still ink if you want to, they just won’t pay for it.

There’s a bit more from the very candid Murphy on the issue, and predictions of what could happen. Obviously, this isn’t set in stone, but he makes a convincing case, and we’ve already seen it happen in some comics. I remember this technique being lauded in the early part of the last decade with Richard Isanove and the Marvel books he was digitally “painting”. I think some readers will say they want inkers, and prefer that style, as will some artists certainly. But when taking the “Pepsi Challenge”, I doubt your average comic book reader can tell the difference between digitally produced work and traditional work, nor would they care. I certainly wouldn’t want to lose traditional inking, but I could see it happening in most but a few cases. While Neal Stephenson might have written out his latest book in long hand with a quill, in the old way, someone had to type that into a word processor. The question is who is going to foot the bill.

While, I’m at it, there’s a big matzo ball sitting out there. Sean gives us a pretty good idea of his page rate, which works out to about $450 a page, inking included. We’re not talking about a big name star in comics (yet), but that’s a lot of cost for talent, especially, when you’re talking about a guy whose known work was on moderate selling Vertigo books. I am in no way saying he doesn’t deserve that fee. The guy is as good as they get as far as I’m concerned. But it does give you an inkling of what it costs to produce comics, and when you compare that to the other talent costs and overhead, then look at circulation, it’s no wonder comics are so expensive. We’re already seeing a cost contraction happening. We’re down to 20 pages in some books. Editorial staff are being cut. Page rates are falling for some from what I’ve heard, and it will continue to go on, until they sort out a way to make it more profitable.


  1. Regarding Sean’s fee….one thing to keep in mind is that artists as talented as him have opportunities to do work outside of comics. I don’t know if Sean does other work, but some guys like him might just be “too good” to work regularly in comics when they can get much better paying work in other areas.

    On the topic of the post….I’m an original art collector, so it makes me cringe a little to think of inking going away.

    • I think that already happens to an extent. Be it game design work, commercial or advertising illustration, storyboards, or a lot of other things that pay better than comics. People work in comics because they love comics, and rarely for the money.

    • Terrific post, Josh. And it needs to be said: HOLY COW that is an awesome Batman model sheet posted with this piece.

      My general preference is to work with an artist who “inks” (the definition of which is definitely changing in the Cintiq era) his own work — the best part about that from a writer’s perspective is that it means fewer cooks, and ideally a purer end product.

  2. “…Cost of hiring Sean Murphy for one 22 page issue–$10,000”

    Ouch. Thats reason enough, if I were trying to make a book in the comic biz, to look at moving away from traditional inkers.

    No doubt there is an art in inking, but in the future, it may be reserved for those ‘creator-owned’ books as a sales angle.

    Sadly, inking may go the way of Latin.

    • @Kmanifesto, think about it.. He didn’t list number of hours in a day or how long it takes to produce. We only know his numbers not the return of his comics and trades on a monthly basis. Hell, his comics could be returning 1/2 a million per month,but get eaten away by over head cost for a big 2 for instance. We only know the brick and mortar are suffering from the lack of growth and revenue, and we don’t know their overhead cost. It’s like when they post NFL and NBA players salaries, we really don’t have a large picture of the revenue that’s generated, we only see the cost for X players.
      I think it will come down to what the companies will think what the consumer will stand for.

    • @OliverTwist: Exactly

    • That is a lot. I wouldn’t pay that because (ducks) I’m not even a fan of his art. I’ve tried, but it’s just too sloppy for me.

    • $450 is basically a good two days pay for most middle class income type of jobs. But its only about a day for a freelancer responsible for his own Health Insurance, his own taxes, etc. So his output is about a page a day. Its not that shocking to me. But with that said, if I were a publisher, I would definitely cut out inking as a separate discipline. While the cost may be justifiable in terms of hte employee, I dont know that the actual return on investment is there.

    • @goblyn27, true. but I do think we see the audience reaction by how many of us complain and drop a comic because of the time it takes to get it onto the stands or just continue to collect the book( I think RASL for example), or how many people would complain about a book looking to rough and sketchy and dropping it( i remember that being said of John Byrne’s current work), or the number of people ,right now, collecting books which skip the inking process( i can’t remember any book off the top of my head, but I rarely see those books on the stands).
      In the end I think it’s a no win situation. We want the perfect item, but at the lowest price.
      10,000 per book sounds like a lot, until you consider the cost of any independent contractor( i.e. business) cost of daily operation, most people don’t have to think about these things in a normal w-2 situation.

  3. there’s a lot of info there i didn’t really know, and the cost of a single book seemed crazy to me at first, but breaking it down per page, man, that’s not really alot considering the amount of time that probably goes into to creating a page.

    this article also make me think of what else in comics may be obsolete, and what techniques and styles are going to be used/adopted in the coming year(s) that are going to change the format and look of a comic book. We seem to be witnessing a time of transition, and i only have a vague idea what it’s going to be.

    thanks for posting this, josh.

  4. I can understand his thoughts. It still takes an extreme talented person to create a consistent line in a Cintiq( from an art stand point). Cintiq’s give a nice clean line, but you still have to move the thing around to get the proper shape, form and execution of technique. I think Sean is right about companies seeing it as a way to cut the bottom line, and they hope the audience buys into it as a norm.
    In addition, if it becomes a Cintiq based inking style, many artist will develop their own personal brushes,and techniques. Many readers I know and watch in stores follows stories and styles. It will be a burden on a company to go with these artist to help the sales of their product or chance pulling the creative hand out of the process. I doubt inkers will hand over their brushes which achieve certain looks if they know it will destroy their bargaining chips and livelihood.
    Sean has given insite into what an artist thinks about on occasion, like a car salesman thnking about car max taking away their buisness.

  5. i believe “Stat Camera” is what he was looking for when he said “Process Camera” …its to photograph the art to make it “camera ready” to get turned to color separations and go to plate.

    The funny thing about how comics are produced nowadays has a lot more in common with pre 1980s commercial art workflows. My job as a graphic designer/art director replaces 4 or 5 jobs and 3 to 4 external vendors thanks to a computer, adobe software, education and streamlining. Back in the day you had an assembly line of specialized tradesmen like typesetters, paste up artists, halftone/duotone makers, color separators, and more…now i can do all of those things in a short amount of time. The division of labor in comics into those specialized trades like inking, coloring etc really doesn’t make sense from a commercial art perspective in 2011.

    Also creatively, i’ve never understood how an artist (penciller) is cool handing off his/her work to someone else to work on top of. It seems like it would be nerve racking to lose control of your work and creative voice that way. I don’t want to see inking (or lettering or coloring) go away as a visual style, but i think the process could be streamlined and a job or two should be cut out.

    I really like how Rob Guillroy works..his pencils are rough and very loose, and he does all the real “drawing” in the inking phase.

  6. I always figured inkers existed to allow for the penciler to pump out more pages, and give the colorist more defined lines to work with. If methods exist to make things easier for either, with the added benefit of being cheaper, then yea…I could see Inkers becoming obsolete.

    • i feel that in comics, we the fans expect such a high level of detail, that the artist doesn’t have time to finish their own work in such a short turnaround. I’d rather see one hand create the visuals for the entire book, than a penciller spend time drawing every piece of dirt and trash in an alleyway or every window of a cityscape.

      no other form of commercial illustration works this way. Usually you hire one person to complete the assignment (unless its a formal team).

    • I admit to knowing almost nothing about the actual ins and outs of creating comics (The writer writes, the artists draw, and voila! a comic is born), but its always befuddled me how many people are listed in the actual creation of the art.

  7. Sean Murphy made a Benjamin Franklin joke, that moves him up a few notches for me (and he was already up pretty high).

  8. There are a few other factors to the whole thing.

    As Blargo pointed out, inkers are very important to the deadline. If you have a team like Michael Lark and Stephano Gaudiano, you can probably count on Stephano’s ability to know what Lark is thinking as he’s drawing. So, Lark could pencil a little more loosely if he was trying to make a deadline, and Staphano would be able to tighten it up for him while maintaining the same look we’re all used to.

    Also, when coloring, in photoshop there’s a tool that you can make selections with, but you can only accurately select an area that is “closed off. Pencils often times result in too many breaks in the lines, making selections impossible. Nice clean inks definitely speed up that process.

    I think there are also occasions where an artist will get paid to pencil and ink, but it’s more of a bundle deal. For example:
    Artist A gets paid $200 a page to pencil, or $275 a page to pencil and ink.
    If there were an inker:
    Artist A gets paid $200 a page to pencil
    Inker B gets paid $150 a page to ink
    (This is just speculation based on how some indy page rates work).

    Another thing to take into account is the median age range of comic book readers. There are a lot of readers who’ve been buying since the golden age, and they really like the art to hearken back to that style. They’re the same guys who buy drop $120 for all of the IDW artist editions that come out, who buy Buscema Conan pages at cons and from art dealers, etc. These guys like them some inking. Publishers might not want to poke that sleeping bear.

    Cintiqs are also really expensive, and they’re the only thing you can really draw with digitally that have any accuracy to them (there’s too much of a disconnect with tablets, from your hand to the pad, from the pad to the screen). So, until those get a lot cheaper, traditional will still be the way things are done.

    Publishers may keep the inkers, and just outsource to artists in countries where the exchange rate is in the publisher’s favor. Shit, half of the new 52 artists/inkers/colorists seem to be in Brazil if you listened to the latest Word Balloon.

    • no selection is impossible in photoshop if you know how to use the pen tool to draw your own paths. The method you outline is very quick and easy though.

      Usually i’ve found that when you get a creative freelancer to bundle services you don’t have to pay them the same has hiring multiple people. Its a buyers market and usually a package deal. Thats at least how i’ve always hired freelancers. The main advantage is time, less people to deal with and one creative vision as well as reduced costs.

    • “impossible” meaning “time consuming and extremely frustrating”, lol.

    • Practice, Practice, Practice!!!!! i only make my selections that way, and its so much faster. i’m a very quick draw with the pen tool if i do say so. =p

    • Any video tutorials you can point me to?

    • as far as tutorials, there are a lot on youtube and via google search. I have an online service that i get through work called but its paid and is an amazing resource for anything software related if you want to make the investment. The pen tool is arguably the most important and useful tool in the entire adobe worth learning.

      Once you see a few demonstrations, all i can say is practice tracing on images. I learned by making paths of cartoon images like Batman the animated series and looney toons. Solid lines, high contrast. After a little while you’ll be able to rock it lightning fast.

    • Ah the Pen tool! Such a gift! Im not uber quick, only got my Wacom 3 months ago and while I dont exclusively Ink with the Pen Tool it does account for 80% of the final product. Once you get the hang of it, its a breeze & a joy to work with.
      There is a lot to learn about it though and familiarizing yourself is a step-by-step way will definitely go along way to improving your skills – take note of the buzzwords/Jargon too, a make an effort to understand them and be able to Identify them and their meanings easily – Anchors, Work Path, Fills, Weight, Pressure etc as few examples.

      One thing i would definitely suggest if your a Photoshop user is getting to know the program as a whole – As wally say’s making a selection from the Pen Tools work path is probably the easiest way to go if your familiar with the tool. Make a path with the tool, Right-click the path and hit Make Selection and voila!
      Being familiar with the program will allow you to go a step further and create an action for the process which is then keybound for ease of use.

      Im still learning too but it’s an amazing program.

      On topic though, as someone who has just gotten into Digital Inking I hope the process doesn’t get eliminated and I for one prefer the dynamics Inking can give to artwork’s.

  9. I love how good old Ben Franklin runs off to get laid while your stuck at the office inking something that you know is gonna ruin the page! LMFAO Great article Josh

  10. I read his original post…its kinda funny how he uses a double space at the end of a sentences. Now thats a holdover from typewriter days. Its slightly ironic considering the context.

  11. I picked up X-treme Xmen when it was first released largely due to Salvador Larocca’s awesome art work and it was the first time I’d seen a book that had colours applied straight over the pencils. It gave the comic a nifty water colour type look which was nice, but in general I prefer the impact of a hand inked book. Then again I’m not sure if I’d be able to tell the difference between a hand inked and digital inked book :-I

    Ah well, another art form bites the dust.

    And on a tangent how stupid was Xtreme Xmen as a book? My favourite terrible scene, while Storm picks the lock on a house Bishop says to Thunderbird, “Hey, lets test your bright energy powers out the front of this house we’re trying to sneakily break into, melt this hockey puck I carry around for no reason”, and when Thunderbird is unable to melt it he literally sits down and starts crying, after which Bishop says, “hey, don’t be sad, this hockey puck was actually made of adamantium”, like Bishop just wanted to screw with him to teach him a valuable lesson about…. trusting cops from the future who carry around adamantium hockey pucks for no possibly explainable reason.

    Then Storm cracks the lock and the stupidest two pages I’ve ever read in two decades of comics reading ends and the plot contines. Take a bow Chris Claremont.

  12. I have noticed more books lately with that colored pencils look.

    Also books with that “colored pencils” look.

    I’ve also noticed that I really take note of colorists now.

    I think a good colorist (or two) can keep a book looking consistent over many artist changes.

    I find myself saying Chris Sotomayor and Dean White are good artists now, not just good colorists.

    Sonia Oback is also really good.

    I’ve taken more notice of the work of colorists than I have of inkers this year.

    For the first time in thirty-five to forty years.

    Ever since I saw Klaus Janson ink Sal Buscema I started really taking notice of inkers.

    Some of the New 52 look really pencils-to-color.

    Some of them have a kind of “Milestone” look.

    Sometimes I don’t enjoy it if the pallet is all yellow-pink-aqua.

    It’s too Jubilee-in-the-90s or something.

  13. I’m not sure where I satand. When it comes to the inking debate, the first person I think of for some reason is Joe Mad.
    I remember his Battle Chasers and X-men stuff as so crisp and with clean lines. The new Avenging Spider-man is really nice and clearly him, but I ask myself, does he need an inker?
    Maybe there is a button for that?

  14. While I totally get that there’s a strong traditionalist streak within comics, I kind of feel like lamenting the loss of inking is like asking “But what about the horse-drawn carriage makers?”

    As to Murphy’s page rate? Wow. He’s really good and I like his work a lot, but….wow. Good for him!

  15. Sean is definitely outspoken and very funny (read his journal DA post about Rob Liefeld.) and he’s almost always pretty right on. It’s ironic to hear him talk about inking being obsolete when hands down he’s probably the guy I admire most when it comes to slingin’ ink.

    His fee is appropriate and what’s even more astonishing is that he works pretty small, about half the size of normal boards. I’ve seen them! And his original art goes for a mighty pretty penny.

    More power to him, and more power to traditional inking.

  16. Even though I don’t have much of anything to add to the topic, can I just add my name to the list of people who want that Batman statue to be a reality?

  17. I think inked work looks SO much better than colors on pencils. I think Devil’s Due was doing ink-free art a lot to save a buck and it looked kinda crappy.

    • That I would definitely agree with,i couldn’t think of any thing until you mentioned Devil’s Due, a prime example of ink-free work, I hated it.

  18. I remember the first time I saw a comic without an inker, when Michael Zulli did “The Wake” story from Sandman. I remember thinking “Wow, this is beautiful.” It really does seem to be increasingly unneeded as technology catches up with the demands of mass producing the artwork.

  19. The inker not only allowed the penciller to draw more pages, he or she often actually helped make the art BETTER.

    Replacing the inker isn’t something new. Marvel experimented with it in the late 1940’s. Old Sub-Mariner pages exist which were clearly done for that process. In newspaper comics, Stan Drake tried drawing with a carbon pencil to skip the inking step back in the 1960’s, but it didn’t have the same zing as his inked lines. A few years back, Alex Ross did a book in black pencil, just like Bill Everett had done with the Sub-Mariner way back when. The trick is making it look good. These days, the real artist often seems to be the colorist, which is interesting.

    The illustration of Ben Franklin he used is a bit off, though. Ben wouldn’t have handed a young artist a bottle of ink. It didn’t really matter what the thing was drawn with as long as it made a fairly permanent mark. Even watercolor. What he *would* have done is given him a burin to go engrave the picture on a block of wood with. The old time wood engravers actually *carved* the printing plate by hand. They were a step in production, and yes, they were the inkers of yesteryear. And they were often BRILLIANT. When photoengraving took over in the late 19th century, it put a lot of skilled craftsmen out of work. They became tweakers instead of artists. Without them, the artistic quality of a lot of illustration work took a nosedive (my humble opinion) for quite some time. The dull gray washes and weird colors of the 1890’s are a testament to that. Boring stuff. The artists had to figure it out for themselves, at last, to make it any better. Welcome back to the future.