Comic book artist Joe Sinnott sketches his favorite character, Thor, in his Saugerties home.
Joltin' Joe Sinnott's legendary career in comics
By Eileen King-Kamrass
Photos by Philip Kamrass
HE HAS BREATHED LIFE INTO A LIST OF CHARACTERS THAT READS like a who’s-who of modern box-office superstars: Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Spiderman.
But of all the characters Joe Sinnott helped create during more than 60 years as a comic book artist, there is a frontrunner. “Thor was my favorite to draw,” Sinnott, 87, said of the hero whose next film will
be released in November. “He looked good; he had a great costume.”
Thor, and the others, sprang from the mind of legendary Marvel Comics writer and editor Stan Lee. From following his stories, Sinnott and other artists wielded their artistic superpowers first penciling sketches, then finishing them in ink.
While Sinnott’s talents are known in all three comic art specialties – penciling, inking and coloring – he is most respected for his inking work on the Marvel superheroes. But he has also illustrated popes, presidents, generals and sports and entertainment stars for several companies – even a few Bing Crosby album covers.
At home in Saugerties during most of his career, he gave family equal importance to the art that so many comic aficionados enjoy. “The guy is so competent, so talented that it’s almost scary. … His penciling is superb and, as an inker, he’s truly in a class by himself,” Lee wrote in his introduction to “Brush Strokes With Greatness: The Life & Art of Joe Sinnott” by Tom Lasiuta. According to Lee, the “pencilers” for Marvel demanded that “Joe, and only Joe, inked their pages.”
Although he’s retired, he continues to ink Lee’s Sunday Spider-Man comic strip in his Saugerties apartment. The two have been working together for 63 years. “He’s a great guy – got a great sense of humor,” Sinnott said. “He was always good to me.”
Lee, who has made millions from the movies based on his characters, continues to praise Sinnott in “thousands” of notes sent with the art for the Spider-Man strip. In one recent note, Sinnott said that Lee wrote, “Not only are you the best inker in the business, you have the best handwriting.”
“Stan likes to pour it on thick,” he said.
The heyday of comic books
Sinnott is best known for his work during the golden age of comic books – a period when superheroes ruled from the early 1960s through the ’80s – when he inked the pencil sketches rendered by comic art royalty such as Jack Kirby and John Buscema at Marvel.
Through the ’90s, Sinnott worked on 116 Thor comic books and 83 covers, primarily as an inker. In fact, he worked on the book in which Thor first appears – a part of Marvel’s “Journey Into Mystery” series, according to his son Mark, who has cataloged most of his father’s work.
While he liked Thor’s 2011 film, Sinnott has some issues with the visualization of the character. Most notably, the helmet that adorns him in the comics makes only a brief appearance in his Hollywood rebirth. “It was a beautiful helmet – problem was, he didn’t wear it enough,” he said.
Also missing are the flowing lines from the illustrations of Thor’s hair and cape; both seemed static in the film. “This is Hollywood. They don’t care about the fans who bought the comics for years,” Sinnott said. “They have to put their own spin on it.”
Despite any disappointment from die-hard comic fans, the character is popular. The movie earned more than $180 million domestically, and its sequel, “Thor: The Dark World,” is set for release Nov. 8. The Norse-god-turned-superhero was also part of the ensemble of superheroes in last year’s biggest moneymaker, “The Avengers” – the third-highest grossing film of all time, which netted more than $1.5 billion worldwide.
While comic books may come to the rescue for Hollywood most summers, they were on the ropes in the late 1950s and needed a superhero of their own.
Early in the 1950s, comic sales were booming with their tales of horror and adventure. But the emergence of the Comics Code Authority, which had to approve content before publication, affected the integrity of the work. After the CCA came into the picture, stories and pictures were censored, including some of Sinnott’s art. One storyline called for a villainous old crone, and he drew a likeness that fit. In the published version, however, someone had changed her to look as kindly as Aunt Bea from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
As a result, sales declined, and by 1958 Sinnott earned half of what he used to make at Timely Comics, which became Marvel Comics in the ’60s. “Everyone stopped buying them because they didn’t make sense,” he said.
During the hard times in the ’50s and ’60s, he penciled and inked a variety of work for other companies including Treasure Chest and Dell Comics, and even illustrated a children’s comic. He sought out much of the work on his own, but also provided some work on spec. “You didn’t turn anything down when people called you,” he said.
While he didn’t earn as much as he had from his earlier work for Timely, it was a period of artistic satisfaction. He enjoyed creating the likenesses of such people as the Wright brothers, Mother Teresa, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and John F. Kennedy.
He’s especially proud of work he contributed to a 1964 publication from Dell Comics titled “The Beatles: Complete Life Stories.” While drawing the likenesses of the Fab Four proved challenging, Sinnott notes that the most difficult items to illustrate were the guitars.
Sinnott still has the original Beatle artwork – the one thing he would grab if all of his work was in one room and it caught on fire. While most original work was destroyed after publication, an art director saved it and offered them to him after Dell went out of business a few years later. Sinnott purchased his own Beatles artwork for $500.
A marvelous upswing
As for Marvel, something big happened in the 1960s: The superheroes came to the rescue. In 1961, The Fantastic Four appeared; shortly thereafter, Thor made his debut. Both were penciled by Kirby and inked by Sinnott. “They took off and we didn’t expect it,” he said.
A few years later, a lad named Peter Parker turned into Spider-Man and times were good again in comics land. Later, there was even a time when Sinnott worked under contract with vacation time and a 401K.
With his large body of work, fans who still call for advice and recognition at comics conventions, Sinnott continues to value his family and personal relationships.
Walk into his apartment and he takes you to a portrait of his wife, Betty, who died in 2006, instead of taking you to see his illustrations of famous comic characters and sports stars that adorn the walls of his studio.
“Dad’s always been a family guy,” said Mark. “Family always came first for him.”
Part of his family focus meant living in his hometown of Saugerties. He moved back in 1953 after purchasing a home where he raised his four children. To continue to work, he converted the attic into his studio. He and Betty would deliver his pieces to Timely on weekly trips to the city. Later, when another day’s work brought in substantially more money, he started sending it through the mail.
“As a cartoonist, you can live anywhere you want,” he said. “I came back for my family because it’s a nice place to live.”
His current apartment is close to his home, where his son, Mark, now lives with his family. The move provided a more manageable space and proximity to family.
In recent years, he’s also cut back on comics conventions. He used to attend as many as 10 a year, but now goes to about three or four local ones yearly. While he is treated “like a king” at conventions, they also are a lot of work as he signs autographs and sketches for the people who come to meet him.
Other fans have turned into close friends, such as Terry Austin, another comic book artist who lives in Woodstock. He has been friends with Sinnott for about 25 years and sometimes stops in to see him, or take him out for errands and appointments.
Austin’s praise echoes that of Lee. “Joe enhances everything that he inks,” he said during one recent visit. Then he turned to Sinnott and said, “You were a name in a comic book that I adored.”
Robert Tonner has built his doll empire from the ground up. From a background of poverty, Tonner has emerged as head of the multimillion-dollar Tonner Doll Co. and is considered one of the most influential doll designers of all time.
A sample of Sinnott’s early work. Courtesy joesinnott.com
FROM CRAYONS TO COMICS
Joe Sinnott first remembers drawing with crayons at the age of 3. By the time he was 12, he was sketching comic book art. “I would draw on paper bags – anything I could,” he said.
In his teens, he illustrated for the high school paper and yearbook. During World War II, he was drafted into the Navy as a Seabee, right. Recognizing his talent, his fellow sailors often asked him to sketch on the backs of letters they sent home.
After the war, he spent a few years in New York City, where he studied at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, which is now the School of Visual Arts, and started work as a comic book artist. It was one of his instructors, Tom Gill, who first paid him to illustrate his Lone Ranger series.
Realizing he could complete work that was good enough to publish, he decided to take a chance. In 1950, Sinnott took his work to Timely Comics, and showed it to Stan Lee, who immediately hired him to work on “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die” story for his Apache Kid series.
The two are still working together.
Joe Sinnott with his friend, Marvel Comics writer and editor Stan Lee, at New York Comic Con. Photo by Mark Sinnott
A SINNOTT SAMPLER
Here are a few examples of Joe Sinnott’s work for Marvel over the years, including inking and illustrating for such famed titles as Iron Man, the Silver Surfer, the Thing and the universe-devouring Galactus.