“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
One of the most prolific inkers in the industry, with a list of credits too long to even begin to unroll, Scott Koblish has been a fixture on comics pages since the ’90s. Certain guests need no real introduction, so let’s get to it…
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Los Angeles, CA
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? As an artist, as a creative person, what does this medium offer you that keeps you coming back year after year?
Scott Koblish: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. It’s the thing that makes the most sense to me when I draw. It’s the thing that makes the most sense to me, just as a narrative throughout my life. I found comics and I just never let go. When I was about seven years old, I decided that I was gonna draw comic books. Period. So, this is Plan A at this point, 40 some odd years later. I really jived with the medium. I was excited by the juxtaposition of words and pictures; with this juxtaposition, some people, when they’re reading it, can’t read comics. They’ll ask a question, “What do I start with first, the words or the pictures?” And for me it’s just both. There’s a synchronicity that happens when you’re reading text and reading the images that they bounce off of one another so that sometimes they can be in sync, where the image is just paralleling what’s happening in the dialogue. Sometimes, the text can be subtext to the action that’s happening in the image. That’s what really thrills me about comics in a way that movies or TV don’t. When you watch a movie, there’s no way to stop it really. Well, there is a way to stop it now, but there was no way to stop it from moving forwards when I was a kid—you would start at the beginning of a narrative and you were just on that train. There was no way to sort of double back or check against something that had happened previously. But with a comic, it’s all available right in front of you.
KS: Since you decided your career plan so early on, what was your artistic life like growing up, both in terms of what you were creating, as well as consuming?
SK: I had started drawing when I was very, very young, three or four. I was drawing from stories that I would see on the TV. There was a television show called Emergency One or Emergency, something like that?
Art by Bart Sears
KS: Were you the youngest one, or was it all kids?
SK: It was all over the map. Back then, the school was just starting out, so they really took anybody they could. I guess I might have been the youngest at the beginning, but it ranged all the way up to senior citizens. There’s one story I remember. I was waiting in the parking lot — my parents, for some reason, wouldn’t come to pick me up until like 2:00 or 3:00. Muriel [Kubert] would come out every once in a while and ask if my parents knew that I was there waiting and I would just say, “Yeah, I don’t know when they’re coming.” This is before cell phones. I would wait there, and this one guy — he was 66, 67 — told me that when he was a kid, he wanted to be a cartoonist. And his parents told him that he had to have a job that was guaranteed to make some money, so he became an accountant. He said all those years he wanted to draw, but he was stuck in this job. And now that he was retired and had the time to draw, his hands shook. He showed me his hands, his shaking hands, and said, “Don’t ever give up.”
KS: Even though you may not have had a lot in the way of reference for their work, did you see any well-known artists aside from Joe?
SK: The Kubert boys were around; they were very young. They were doing all sorts of lettering things around the office and stuff like that for Joe. There was [Stephen] Bissette and [John] Totleben and all these. I remember Jan Duursema was around. They were super proud of the ones that had managed to get some work. At the entrance to the mansion, they had a podium where they had a whole bunch of pull sheets. And I remember Jan’s stuff there because it was Arion, Lord of Atlantis. I always thought the Arion stuff was very strange because I knew Aquaman was the king of Atlantis, but I didn’t really understand this Atlantis. It was all about magic and stuff like that, but Aquaman had never really been about magic. So, it was appealing to me in a weird way. The students were in their late teens, early twenties, and they were living up on the third floor in the mansion. We’d be on the first floor, Joe would do a lecture for an hour, and then we’d break to draw for about two hours and the students would sort of wander down to make Xeroxes or whatever. They were terrifying hippies. [laughter] At that age, in all the TV shows, every villain was a hippie—it was guaranteed that that was who the Hulk was gonna fight, or who the A-Team fought, or who Starsky and Hutch were fighting. It was just hippies.
KS: What did your education look like, as far as hands-on drawing or even exposure to any corners of comics history you didn’t know about?
SK: Joe kind of cornered me at some point and he said, “Who are your influences?” I was really excited about George Perez and John Byrne and he said, “Well, those guys are fine, but what you should really look at are the people who are my heroes.” He introduced me to a whole bunch of artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. Some of that stuff was still lurking around in the Sunday papers — I think Prince Valiant was still being published — but I didn’t really have any affinity. Joe had a whole bunch of originals all on the wall, stuff from Little Nemo and Flash Gordon and stuff like that. He would point to me and he would say, “These are the real artists. You should really try to emulate these guys.” He would teach us the fundamentals, but I’d watch him sit and work and he would take just a blue line, the outline of a head. He would draw an oval and then he would just draw, like a little cross in between, sort of indicating where the focus of the front of the head would go, [then] he would just take out a brush and start working like that. It took me years later to be able to slow that down and pull it apart and figure out how to pencil in between. I really took to inking very quickly. He taught me a lot about inking, especially all the little feathering techniques and all the ways of approaching things like wood or paper or trees or steel — all these different sorts of techniques for handling different textures and stuff like that.
They gave me a couple stories to work on, because I’d been there for so long. I was there from about [age] nine to about 16. Somewhere in the middle there, they kind of isolated me, put me up on the second floor with another one or two kids that had been there for a long time. I remember struggling with this script for the first time and getting a script from somebody else as opposed to making up your own stories. It’s a jarring transition because you kinda have in your head about what it is that you want to draw or what you’re comfortable drawing or, and then when you get a script and it’s stuff you never thought of at all.
KS: When you’re on the second floor and you’re getting these assignments, is this reconfirming what you want to do with your life? Is there ever any moment of “this is actually hard work” second guessing?
SK: No, I never second guessed it. I figured that that was just it. I was talking with Howard Chaykin and he was saying, “Well, there was no other thing.” I felt the same way. This has been it, this has always been it.
KS: From there you went to SVA. It’s one thing for a parent to drop their child off for Saturday morning art lessons, and then comes the actual commitment of, I’m going to college for illustration. Did you have full parental buy-in on this plan?
SK: You know, I was speaking with my mother about this recently. She was really for it ‘cause I was always drawing. There was a lot of drama in my family, and I used it as a way to get away from all that if I was drawing. Everyone knew enough to leave me alone. My father was always away; I don’t think I ever really knew what his opinion about any of this was. I don’t think I would’ve listened either way anyway. Someone, either my stepmother or my father, had bumped into somebody who worked in Marvel Japan and they were making about $75,000 a year. I had an Uncle Bob, who had a friend Bob Sharen, who was a colorist at Marvel in the seventies, so my mother must have known that there were jobs in that field. Especially once I started going to the Kubert School, Joe was all about making sure that I knew it was a job, it wasn’t a hobby. If you’re gonna take this job, it was the hardest, loneliest job you were ever gonna have. Joe had really beaten that into my head. When I went to high school, my senior year there was a vocational technical school in Morris County that had commercial arts, so I took that class. That was the first time that, as a matter of work, we sat down for about four hours at the drawing table [and] did the assignment. I already had kind of a good sense of what it took.
KS: The next stop after SVA was Marvel?
SK: Yeah. There was a period of about nine months in between SVA and Marvel.
KS: What did that time look like for you?
SK: I had broken up with my girlfriend, and then I was scrambling to find a place to live. I wound up back at my parents’ place for a couple months, but they were not happy that I was there. I had a ton of jobs — I was working in a gas station, I was working at a framing store. I decided I was gonna take a month or two off and just really focus on my portfolio, but that left me kind of destitute and in no way able to get out of my parents’ place. They really cornered me at some point and they were like, “You need work and you need money, and you need to be outta here.” I took a job selling video cassette tapes door to door. I looked in the newspaper and [the ad said] “Earn a thousand dollars a week.” I was like, “That’s great, let me take this job.” [laughter] Within a week or two, I was earning a thousand dollars a week. It was great.
KS: We must now pause our regularly scheduled interview to hear about the day to day of that job.
SK: We’d go to business districts and drop off these sports blooper tapes with whoever would take it at the store or the company. Bloopers of the Canadian and the AFL leagues, so they weren’t even the NFL. You’d come back a couple days later and you’d say, “Do you have any interest in this as a gift, a Christmas gift, or something like that.” I did that for, I wanna say about five months, and I was really struggling. The amount of rejection in a job like that is off the charts. Not only are people furious that you’re there, but they’d call the cops. I remember being stopped by the police a number of times. It was a pretty intense job, so you had to keep your chin up. My rejection rate was like 85% — it’s just that I made a lot of money on the last 15%, which is, I guess, sales in general anyway.
KS: When or how did you get on Marvel’s radar during all this?
SK: I had a girlfriend at the time who found out that John Romita was gonna be at Morris County Mall. The mall didn’t have a comic shop in it, but it had, for some reason, a small dealers’ convention. They transformed the food court into a couple tables. I had my portfolio and she essentially kicked me out of the car and was like, “Go show your portfolio to this guy.” I knew of Romita’s work, obviously, but I didn’t know that he was the art director at Marvel. I showed him my portfolio and he liked it. He said, “Send this to me at Marvel.” I sent Xeroxes to him, and then he sent it back with notes wanting this change, this change, and this change. I did those changes and I sent it back, then I didn’t hear from them at all.
Then two things happened. I went to visit Bob Sharen for the first time, and Bob was very sweet, very nice. He was coloring over Todd McFarlane’s work on Spider-Man. He asked me what my opinion of it was and I didn’t really have an opinion. In college, I didn’t have any money, I hadn’t picked up any comics. There’s a void in my collecting time from 1988 to 1992, which is exactly when all that Image stuff happened. Bob [asked], “What’s your Zodiac sign? When were you born? Where were you born?” I told him and he’s like, “I’m gonna do a workup of your Zodiac.” I was away doing that sales job and I get a call left on my answering machine, a panicked call from Bob. He goes, “You’re never going to be happy, ever, unless you’re an artist. You’re just not going to be a happy person and you should move to Los Angeles. You’ll be happier there.” I remember that because it was such a panicked call. He was really desperate to tell me this.
KS: Going to L.A. would have meant no Marvel, so what stopped you?
SK: I got a call from Steve Geiger at Marvel, who worked underneath John Romita. I guess they had filed away my samples so that when they had an opening in the Romita Raiders program, they were able to give me a call. A fellow named Frank Percy had just left the position and they wanted me to report on January 4th. It was really great to be in the offices; that was really where it all made sense to me. The people I met there [are] still friends of mine to this day. I always have a huge, wonderful spot in my heart for everybody who was working there at the time. I just camped out in the offices. I would do my work from about 9:00 to 6:00, and then I would sit down and work on my samples. The job was a minimum wage job. I had saved up enough money from my thousand-dollars-a-week job to survive for a while living on my own. But with a job where I was getting paid $535 a month and my rent was $675, I was really struggling to make ends meet at that point. Keith Williams was doing a whole bunch of inking things, so I started doing background inks and learned a lot from Keith, especially on how to get things done. I’d plow through about three or four pages a night. I’d sit there at the offices and just ink those pages or work on my pencil samples.
KS: You’d been exposed to inking at the Kubert School, but what was it like there in the big time?
SK: In the position of a Romita Raider, you were trying to come into the artwork, pretend to be the artist who was there, and then make the corrections so that nobody ever knew that it had happened. I excelled at that sort of thing. I knew enough about the different styles and the different techniques so that anything that ran across my desk, whether it was a Mark Farmer inked page, or if it was something from Tony DeZuniga or Klaus Janson or Al Williamson, anything that needed fixing, I could ape that style. It’s been like a blessing and a curse for me ever since. I feel like I kind of transcended style early enough that I kind of float above it, so that I can do a number of different styles—but it’s a bit of a curse because really when it comes down to it, [because] nobody knows who they’re hiring on a minute-to-minute basis from me. It’s like I’m too restless to be able to settle down in one style.
KS: What was the first time your name appeared in the credits of a comic? This goal you’ve been working towards and dreaming of since age seven, when do you officially “arrive?”
SK: I must have done some Marvel Comics Presents work, but I think the first thing that came published was a thing that I inked a page or two on in an emergency. Everything was an emergency early on.
KS: Appropriate, given your love of the show once upon a time.
SK: Yeah, it’s true. Everything was an absolute emergency at Marvel at that time. There were so many books flying out of the office. I think in August of 1993 we had about 125 books leaving the office that month. I think Sleepwalker is the first thing that came out, but I had already been doing corrections, so in a weird way, there were all these books that came out that already had my artwork in them. Then I had done a page or two of emergency pencils and inks on a Cable book [#4, 1993]. I think the first thing that I was credited as a penciler on. It was just one page. Rob Liefeld had done breakdowns on it. They’d given me this sheet of breakdowns that had come through the fax machine, and I drew it overnight. Al Milgrom inked it. There’s only a handful of people who’ve ever inked over me — Milgrom is one, Will Eisner is another, then Wade von Grawbadger did some inks over me recently.
KS: Are there traits you can identify that the great inkers have in common? What do you think makes a good one?
SK: Well, that’s a great question. I remember reading an interview with Terry Austin very early on about how he was approaching inking, and he felt that he was giving the artist what they needed and maybe not giving them what they wanted. There are a couple things that you’re doing as an inker. There’s a certain amount of respect that you have to give the penciler, that’s the person who’s taken a blank page and created something from nothing; you really have to honor and respect the person who came before you. As an inker, you’re looking for clarity first, you’re looking for fidelity to the artist second—but there’s a lot of leeway within that. Some of my favorite inkers, like Al Williamson or Klaus Janson or Terry Austin, they’re taking the work and they’re “plussing” it. They’re adding things to it. You can have an inker that comes in and does a tremendous amount of work; you can also have guys who do really fine-tuned work like the Norm Rapmunds of the world or the Tim Townsends of the world, where they’re taking art and they’re really giving this shine to it. There’s no aspect of the page that’s given short shrift because of time.
KS: Can you talk a little about your own experience with different pencilers?
SK: I worked over John Buscema and John gave me very loose pencils — almost no backgrounds, the costuming wasn’t anywhere near what the actual costume looked like. I had to go in and provide all those details. I really enjoyed it, but everything was there. it’s hard to describe. Everything was there storytelling wise, everything was there emotionally, the beats were all there. It’s just that all the surface details were not there. I worked hard to provide those and give shading and depth. There are other guys [where] everything is already there and you’re just sort of… it’s not tracing, but it’s you’re giving it a snap. You can’t use the same approach on a Ron Garney that you would on a Tom Grindberg or a George Perez or a Keith Giffen. You have to exercise different muscles for each one.
KS: It must have been surreal inking one of your childhood favorites on Perez.
SK: I’d wanted to meet him for years before I ever did, and he was a really kind and giving collaborator. I remember reading New Teen Titans #1 , the Baxter series, and he was inking himself. That’s where I realized what he wanted to look like, because I’d seen his work as interpreted through different inkers up until then. So, I approached it that way when I got the chance. I really gave, like, 200% into each page that I got from him. He was just such a great guy when I got some penciling gigs and I had to quit, I had to give up inking him. At that point I was doing finishes over his work, so I knew that he was struggling with his eyesight. It was a really difficult call for me, but he was super kind. I mean, he was like, “This is your shot. You’ve gotta take it.”
KS: To wrap up, let’s imagine a hypothetical comic book Hall of Fame and you get a ballot to induct any comic or graphic novel from any era. What gets the plaque sponsored by you?
SK: Oh, boy. I always love the Blueberry stuff that Moebius did. I thought that that was the best Western I’d ever seen anybody do — a Frenchman did the best Western. I guess the best slice-of-life stuff was Love and Rockets. Jaime Hernandez’s work was off the charts. I also have a real affection for the John Byrne/Chris Claremont/Terry Austin X-Men. I still can’t get those out of my head. That entire three-year run is just astounding. You can tell X-Men has struggled to get out from under that shadow ever since, and it’s been 40 years. So, I put that up there, too.
KS: I’ll turn the floor over to you at this point. Please let fans know what you have either out now or upcoming, whatever people should be on the lookout for.
SK: There’s a trade that I’m hoping people can pick up, Scotch McTiernan Versus The Forces of Evil. It’s a collection of all three one-shots that I drew with Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan writing, and HiFi coloring. It follows this one character, Scotch McTiernan, over his entire life, essentially from his origin in the seventies and eighties and all the way into the future. It started out with a secret history of the war on weed, which was the first one-shot. Then Halloween Party was the second, and then Holiday Party was the third, and they’re meant to be read altogether.
It comes out July 25th, around the time of San Diego Comic-Con. That’s the stuff I’m proudest of at the moment. I am working on a project right now that I don’t know when it will be announced. It’s a serious fantasy book; there are no jokes really in it whatsoever. I’m really enjoying it a lot and I’m hoping it will come out soon.
This interview was edited for length.