The Thin Black Line: Perspectives on Vince Colletta, Comics' Most Controversial Inker

A book review article by: Jason Sacks
Talk about scary.

When I was a kid collecting comics in the '70s, the most frightening four words I would find in a comic were "inked by Vince Colletta." Those words were almost always a clear indication that the artwork in my new comic would be poorly drawn, that Colletta's thin, unappreciative and rushed inking would pretty much always overwhelm the good work by the comic's penciller. Panels on those comic pages would look flat, eyes would look vacant--and often not parallel to each other - and there would be a real scantiness of backgrounds.

It could be terrifying to pick up a comic inked by Colletta. When he inked art by some of my favorite artists--his work over Gil Kane, Gene Colan, Paul Gulacy and Mike Grell was especially scary - I would often find myself shaking my head as I considered how lovely the comic could have been if it had been inked by a more appreciative creator. I dreamed of appreciative brushstrokes and bold gestures from an inker, and never saw that kind of attention paid by Colletta.

None of these aesthetic opinions were based on any knowledge of the man himself. Over the years there have been a lot of legends that have arisen about Colletta. He's notorious for inking comics with blinding speed, for easing backgrounds, for not caring what he was working on, for even having connections to the Mafia. There were stories that Colletta even got a lot of his work because he used his mob connections to intimidate his editors into getting work.

But there’s been precious little in the way of actual, verifiable facts about Vince Colletta on the web. We've needed a good and objective biography of Colletta for a long time to separate out the truth of from the legend. Thankfully Robert Bryant Jr. has brought us a very thoughtful examination of Vanishing Vince's life and career.

I really enjoyed how Bryant both confirms and denies many of the rumors about Colletta, providing deep context for many aspects of the man's life and career.

One key fact that Bryant discusses is Colletta's palatial house in upscale Saddle River, New Jersey. Colletta loved the house, which he bought in 1962 and which today is worth about 3.6 million dollars. Even 50 years ago, the house was terribly expensive to buy and maintain, which meant that Vince needed to work very hard in order to pay his mortgage. It was the American dream for a first generation Sicilian immigrant to own a spectacular house, and Colletta would do anything he could to keep the place.

So Vince Colletta became a man who never stopped working, always hustling to take on more pages in order to pay his mortgage. When the publishers had books running late--and that happened all the time at Marvel, especially--Colletta became the go-to guy for work. He became the man who could ink a whole comic overnight, who would take every shortcut necessary in order to help the comic meet its production date.

And in the ethos of the day, when comics were seen as a junk commodity rather than an artform, it was much more important to meet your dates and avoid high publishing charges than it was to produce fine art. Why wouldn't it be that way? There was no idea of a collector's market in those days. Most comics were read, traded, folded and thrown into a back pocket, and quickly forgotten. He was a valuable cog in the production line, and definitely saw his own work in the same light.

It's also easy for us to forget now that Colletta was actually a popular creator among the fan base of the time. He topped several public polls of favorite artists in the '60s--the kinds of polls that circulated among the readers as opposed to the collectors. The fan press often didn't reflect the opinions of the popular press, and one of the key variances was in the perception of the controversial Mr. Colletta.

Even among the fans there's great debate over the quality of Colletta's work on Thor. Many fans--Bryant seems to be among them--found the inker's thin and scratchy line to be a good match for Jack Kirby's majestic art on this series. They enjoy Colletta's naturalistic feathering of fabrics and other natural materials, while not ignoring his predilection for erasing backgrounds and removing figures from panels.

One of the most interesting sections of this book comes in an examination of Colletta's erasing of figures from the original artwork. I found it fascinating to read a wide diversity of opinion on this practice. I'm conditioned to condemn Colletta for erasing figures, assuming that he was obliterating some classic art (especially art by Jack Kirby). But Bryant calls upon some comic art experts to discuss how the erasing of figures and busy backgrounds often actually worked in favor of stronger storytelling. Erasing extraneous details made the panels more focused by improving the reader's focus in the story. There were fewer distractions with lighter backgrounds, which often helped make the storytelling more focused.

Colletta also had a way of softening the work of very strong artists in a way that made them more palatable for readers. His inking on Invaders over the controversial Frank Robbins is a great example of that. Robbins was often condemned for his rubbery-looking and plain weird figures. His people looked very unnatural, and his style was seen as not being enough in the Mighty Marvel Manner. Colletta adeptly helped bring Robbins's art a more Marvel-esque feel. After Frank Springer took over the inking chores, the book's sales trailed off. Colletta actually made the comic more popular.

There was a whole lot of stuff to enjoy in this book. It's pretty much the exact right size and cost for a book like this. Colletta doesn't need the full deluxe treatment, but a 128-page book is just right for him. There are lots of interesting stories about Vince Colletta that get into his alleged mob connections, his dalliances with beautiful models, his incessant hustling for work, and his rather difficult childhood. All of these stories gave me a nicely well-rounded view of the man and made me appreciate him much more.

My only real complaints are that I wish Bryant had printed more photos of Vince and his family and somehow had quoted him more. Bryant prints Vince's ID photo from Marvel, and the image is fascinating and resonant. He looks like an intense and imposing man, and I wish we'd been provided with more photos of him.

The only actual words from Colletta that are printed are his notorious 1987 resignation letter from Marvel, and what a breathtaking and intense letter it is! "Marvel editors, you are the droppings of the creative world. You were destined to float the cesspool till urine-logged and finally sink to the bottom along with the [expletive], but along came Jim Shooter, who rolled up his sleeves and rescued you." Wouldn't you love to read more comments from a mind that can come up with comments like that?

I recommend this book heartedly to anybody who has an opinion on the work of comics' most notorious inker. Robert Bryant Jr.'s new book is an outstanding and even-handed biography that gives a full view of the man. It takes the fear away from a man whose work has always scared me.

Community Discussion