An Interview with Tom Palmer

Tom Palmer has been working steadily in comics since 1968 when he pencilled an issue of Doctor Strange for Marvel. He inked the next issue of the comic the following month, his first collaboration with artist Gene Colan, though the two would go on to work together on Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula and other projects. Palmer has worked primarily as an inker, mostly for Marvel Comics, sometimes inking many books each month in addition to occasionally pencilling comics and outside of comics, doing advertising and illustration work. Over the course of more than forty years, Palmer has worked with a number of people ranging from John Buscema and Jim Steranko to John Romita Jr. and Tom Grummett. His early career was also marked by his relationships and collaborations with two EC legends, Wally Wood and Jack Kamen, as he discussed. Palmer is part of a generation of comics creators that began working in comics in the 1960’s and continues to do so today and he spoke about this changing comics landscape and trying to understand his place in it. - Alex Dueben.

When you were young, were you always interested in art and want to become an artist?

Tom Palmer:  I guess like all kids I liked to draw, and with an older brother’s supply of comic books I started drawing my interpretation of them early on. I had a problem with one of my hips by the third grade and was on crutches for four years after which gave me a lot of time to draw. Once I was ambulatory again in my teens I started catching up on my life missed during those early years on crutches and spent less time at a drawing board. Took art classes in high school, drew and painted for my friends, but didn’t think of pursuing art as a profession. Things changed when I finished high school, I discovered a new appreciation for drawing and painting and thought seriously of going to art school.

What kinds of things were you drawing?

In high school I contributed artwork to their magazines and yearbooks, did drawings of my friends or just drew memorable situations that we experienced in a cartoon style for everyone’s amusement, including mine. I think those solitary years I had on crutches and drawing all the time became embedded in me and it was there all the time but I wasn’t really aware of it.

Did you go on to art school? 

Yes, I did but not immediately. I first had to find an art school that offered what I was looking for, not comic art but drawing and painting, which became something I was interested in. I found an entry level position in a studio on Lexington Avenue in New York City and took evening classes at SVA (School of Visual Arts). I did everything in the studio from picking up work to getting lunch for the crew but no board time and it wore thin quickly. The art school wasn’t working either, great teachers but I was not learning anything about painting so I went out for another studio position, freelance this time, and a new school.

An artist I met mentioned a well known teacher at the Art Student’s League for years had started his own school up on 57th Street in Manhattan and suggested I try it out. He had the teacher at the Art Student’s League years earlier and he was a pretty good artist so I gave it a try. The teacher was Frank J. Reilly and his school was named after him. I started taking classes and was soon getting a solid instruction in drawing and painting.

When you were in school, who were the artists you really liked? What kind of work were you interested in?

I liked Norman Rockwell’s artwork early on but in my teens I started noticing illustrators like Jim Bama, Howard Terpning, and Bob Peak, and Frank Reilly introduced me to past masters like Dean Cornwell and J.C. Leyendecker. My love of comic books never left me though and probably my biggest influences were Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, and Jack Davis growing up.

What was your first professional job as an artist? How did you get into comics after school?

After that short initial studio job on Lexington Avenue while I was going to Frank Reilly’s Art School at night, I picked up a freelance studio position at an advertising studio in New York City and my first drawing board position. It just so happened the studio illustrator was an ex-EC Comics artist, Jack Kamen, and I was quite elated having such luck working at a drawing board next to him. I started doing some line drawings and some painting for the accounts they had but learned a great deal more just watching Jack working. He was not doing comics anymore, he had stopped years earlier when EC Comics ended their line. He was doing line drawings and painting advertising artwork for his clientele. He inked his line art exclusively by brush and that’s where I learned what can be a tricky maneuver starting out!

I wasn’t making much money at the time and asked Jack if doing comic book artwork might help to pick up the cash flow. He wanted me to continue with Frank Reilly at night in art school and was afraid if I started doing comic books I would end my schooling so he didn’t encourage me at that time. It wasn’t much later that Frank Reilly became ill and after a short hospital stay passed away. Without him the school closed which pretty much ended my art school training. His passing was a big shock to many including myself. Great man and teacher.

Jack Kamen studio work.
Jack Kamen studio work.

Jack Kamen relented and decided to see if I could do some comic book work along with the freelance advertising art in the studio to make extra money. He called Wally Wood, who was living in uptown Manhattan, and asked if he could send someone up to see him. I went up to see Woody and showed him my portfolio and he had me pencil a few pages  of a Jungle Jim short story which he inked and made his own. My pencils disappeared and “Wally Wood” emerged on the pages! He gave my name to Joe Orlando who passed it to his friend, Mike Esposito, and he had me do some background inking on a DC comic he was working on.

Mike played poker each week with a group of comic book guys and gave my name to one of the players, Sol Brodsky, who was the production manager for Marvel at the time, and I went up to see him with my work. My first job was pencilling a Doctor Strange issue, which was written by Roy Thomas. [Issue #171].

Outside of those couple of pencilled pages for Wally Wood this was the first comic book pencilling I had ever done and it must have showed. Dan Adkins did a tremendous job inking the issue making me and the book look quite professional. When I returned to pencil another issue I was told they had a new penciler and would I like to ink him? I had done enough inking for advertising art so I took the opportunity and inked that next Doctor Strange issue, #172.

The new penciller was Gene Colan and it was the beginning of a wonderful relationship both personal and professional. I worked hard on that first inking assignment and did everything I could to turn his illustrative pencils into inked line art for printing. Remember using a lot of zip-a-tone to capture all the subtle penciling Gene had done, which he was a master of. I soon learned that Gene pencilled quite differently than other pencilers using graded pencil tones to render form and shadow and not strictly pencil lines. I enjoyed the challenge. Marvel must have liked what I had done and I was asked to return for the next issue.

A page from the Colan/Palmer Dr. Strange
A page from the Colan/Palmer Dr. Strange #172

So when you started working in comics you weren't thinking, I want to pencil or I want to ink. You were looking for more art work and willing to do whatever?

I was looking for more art work to do but also art that I enjoyed doing, and thinking back to my youth, I found drawing those comic books when I was a kid quite gratifying and asked Jack Kamen for guidance. I saw him pencil and then ink his advertising work and had no preference at that point, it was the drawing that always satisfied and I saw both as the same.

Frank Reilly brought a new interest in painting with his teaching and I wanted to pursue that more but I was still learning the business and not ready to specialize just yet so doing some comic book work looked like fun.

I'm curious, what did you learn from Jack Kamen?

Someone asked that same question a few years ago and my first thought was he showed me how to be an artist. We shared similar backgrounds, New York kids who lost their dads early on and he took me under his wing so to speak. He had taken classes with Harvey Dunn when he was young and I was taking classes with Frank Reilly, the connection between those two  teachers/artists must have been symbolic to him.

I would watch him lay out an illustration and then do a finish either in line or color and in many ways my real art education was in that studio sitting next to him. I was doing some painting for advertising at one point and he sponsored me into the Society of Illustrators, which he was a member of, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. He said that if you’re making a living as a freelance artist and your work was being accepted you qualified. It was an honor becoming a member. I also saw how Jack conducted business, either on the phone with clients or dragging his ass into the studio in the morning after delivering a job he worked most of the night on. That stuck with me to this day, delivering on time makes all the difference succeeding in the business.

At this point I think it’s obvious he was a father figure to me, the dad I didn’t have growing up who showed me how to survive as an adult and an artist.

You mentioned that Jack Kamen always inked with a brush. Were you using a brush to ink?

I inked with a dip pen, it was a Hunt 102 Crow Quill, and I used a Koh-i-noor Rapidograph pen, which had a one line thickness, to rule straight lines or ellipses with guides, a very mechanical line but needed in an advertising art studio. Used a brush to fill in black areas but never to strictly ink with, I would paint with a brush but never ink with one.

Jack was very particular about his Winsor & Newton Series 7 #2 brushes and once they lost a point he would pass them on to me. He would ink straight lines with a brush using a bridge he had bought. I was always fascinated how much he did with a brush.

As you said, Gene Colan penciled differently than a lot of other artists. The two of you worked together a lot over the years. Why do you think you worked so well together? What did you do with his pencils that others did not?

Gene Colan was the first comic book penciller I ever inked, and since I didn’t have anything to compare to, I did my best to interpret his gray tone artwork into line art. I would open up his shadows with crosshatching or zip-a-tone screens, something other than just black, Gene had a lot going on in his pencils especially the shadows, I just brought it out.

You said that being by Wally Wood, your pencils ended up looking like Wally Wood. You've always approached each penciler differently.

I suppose I meant that Wally Wood’s style was so strong he made any pencils he worked over look like his work. He had many collaborations with Jack Kirby, who had a very recognizable style, and you always knew Wally Wood had inked it making it his own. Remember many of his artist friends pencilling for him when the workload was too great, artists like Steve Ditko, Al Williamson, and Gil Kane, and although there was an awareness of their style it was Wally Wood’s inks that you saw.

I approached each collaboration I had with the goal of enhancing the penciller’s work doing my best to keep their style while converting the pencils into line art for printing. I probably had the biggest influence on John Buscema’s work since he was doing mostly breakdowns, loose pencils, rather than tight pencils, and I had to tighten up the art when I inked creating a hybrid of styles but you could still recognize John Buscema. If I worked with a tight penciller I would try to stay true to his style using brush or pen, or whatever else worked, to complement the pencils and add dimension to the finished art. Sure many didn’t realize I had worked on a book without a credit line. I can be a chameleon if necessary.

When I did line advertising art I had to keep up with current styles using different tools to create a drawing but most times the printing was in halftone and not strictly line like comic art. Only in recent years, when comic books became true magazines, can you work over pencils with a greater range of options doing finished art. You don’t need zip-a-tone anymore to create a halftone, you can use whatever is available on a page and it’s scanned into a digital file for printing.

You started inking John Buscema pretty early in your career. Can you talk a little about inking him versus someone like Gene Colan?

I did do some pencilling over John’s breakdowns to loosely find light and shade, he had the structure in place and all I needed to complete the page was finishing what he started. John Buscema had a grand style that was easily recognizable in it’s raw form, he didn’t really like doing tight pencils, he found all that miniature a waste of time, but he did some fabulous inking of his pencils when he was up for it. I’ve noticed that whoever inked John Buscema left a bit of their style which made for a varied look to his work.

Gene never did breakdowns, I remember John Buscema tried to get him to do them but Gene found pleasure creating cinematic tableaus in each panel which made his work so distinctive.

John Buscema didn’t really spot blacks on a page and left that up to the finisher. Gene, on the other hand had a lot of blacks in his noir style and those gray areas within the blacks were distinctive in his work. Rendering them gave Gene’s art dimension.

I did want to ask about Tomb of Dracula, which was one of your collaborations with Gene Colan. What kept you interested both in working with him and working on the book for so long?

Gene was the first penciller I worked over and he was always a delight to work with. He pencilled in his own unique style which was cinematic with varying gray values from light to dark and the challenge was to convert it all into a line art finish. That process was fun to do and never boring. Later on we had the opportunity to do some halftone Dracula art for one of Marvel’s magazines where ink washes were used and that only heightened the pleasure working over him with that capability of capturing all his subtle shading.

I worked with Gene on a number of books not just Tomb of Dracula and think he enjoyed that series most of all. Believe he was at his best on that book and we were both saddened when it all ended.

A Colan/Palmer Tomb of Dracula cover.
A Colan/Palmer Tomb of Dracula cover.

Can you talk a little about how working with Colan’s ink washes changed what you did and how you worked?

To be technically accurate, I didn’t use ink for the washes, it’s just a term that is used to describe adding halftone to line artwork, I used Winsor & Newton Lamp Black watercolor which flows much easier off of a brush and gives richer black halftones. It was an extension of the inking process working in the shadows and defining creases or folds in clothing, or establishing a light source, a full illustrative style.

Having that halftone available working over Gene’s pencils only enhanced the art with a  full range of values, something not attainable with zip-a-tone, which still had to be used for a mechanical halftone working in comic books back then. I was working in halftone outside of comics so it was pleasurable working with it in the magazines.

Colan and Palmer work in halftone here.
Colan and Palmer work in halftone here.

Why do you think he was at his best on Tomb of Dracula?

Gene had a stylish cinematic style that just soared with all the atmospheric panels in Dracula, only the limited printing available tampered his actual pencils which always were a joy to behold. I tried my best to get them delineated on the boards in line but I was not usually successful due to the limits of the medium in comic books. Magazines could handle the halftone art but not the color, I can only imagine how those pages would look today with all the sophisticated printing methods available and excellent paper stock.

That short black and white magazine venue came at the end of the long comic book run and never quite connected the same with the fans and ended quietly.

Did you enjoy working Tomb of Dracula and do you think that was some of your best work? Or some of the best work the two of you did together?

I always enjoyed working with Gene, my first comic book inking was over his pencils and I never turned down a chance to work with him, like going home.

Tomb of Dracula was probably the best work we did together, at least from my view, it was a comfortable fit for both of us at the time.

Another classic Colan/Palmer cover.
Another classic Colan/Palmer cover.

How did it work as a inker? Did you drop one assignment off at the Marvel offices and pick up another? Who did you mostly deal with? Were you just given whatever needed to be inked next?

Early on the pages were hand lettered by a letterer and he, or she, sent you the pages by USPS Special Delivery. The penciller usually dropped the pages off at Marvel, they made copies of the pages and the writer wrote script for the book from the pencils. The pages were sent to the letterer along with the script and then passed on to the inker after being lettered. That whole process changed in the 1990’s when digital lettering began and the pages went straight to the inker, sometimes directly from the penciller, and the lettering was added at the end.

You worked with editors and assistant editors on books. There were longer runs on books then and you worked with the same people for months and years.

Do you prefer to work with artists over a long period of time?

I don’t know if prefer is correct, but I have wanted a few collaborations to last longer.

How much do you chose your projects? What makes you interested in inking something?

I’m strictly work for hire, in either illustration or comic book work.

I enjoy the artist’s craft, either drawing or painting, as inking is part of creating art, my interest is always there. I’ve never been bored doing artwork, sometimes frazzled when deadlines loom, and that covers work in and out of comic books, but there is a satisfaction having completed an assignment that makes it all worthwhile.

A John Buscema/Tom Palmer page.
A John Buscema/Tom Palmer page.

Do have much interaction with pencilers when you’re inking over them?

Sometimes, but not always. I worked with John Buscema for a long period and there was no interaction regarding the work at hand. We were friends but never discussed each other’s task working on a book. I assume he would have mentioned anything he had a problem with but he didn’t. I took that as approval for the finished art. He was a very talented artist who pencilled quickly after doing layouts on a separate sheet of newsprint, light boxing those loose layouts onto bristol in a grand way completing what was considered a breakdown but a perfect platform for a finish. What amazed me was that I never saw any erasures, his pencil lines were so sure at that point in the process he never had to second guess himself producing immaculate pages to work over.

I had a great deal of interaction with Walt Simonson when we worked together and in our private lives, we have been friends since the “Star Wars” days.

I probably had the most interaction with John Romita, Jr. when we were doing “Kick Ass” and “Hit-Girl” and that would be understandable considering the tight group of people working on the books. We had a few editors during the run but the core creative team pretty much stayed the same and keeping in contact with each other was essential. Everything but the final production getting the books out to the printer was handled outside Marvel’s editorial purview.

Did you have much interaction with pencilers back in the 1960s and 70s when you were starting out?

No, not really, everyone had their part to do and Marvel’s production manager kept things moving from pencils to final coloring and you had to meet your deadlines to stay in the process with very little external interaction. That did change into the 70’s though  when comic book creators got together more and friendships developed.

There is this idea people have–which may be romantic and/or inaccurate–about when almost everyone lived in and around New York and artists interacted more and socialized. Did you spend a lot of time socializing with other artists?

New York City was a magnet not only for comic book creators but artists in general, most of the publishing was there along with studios and advertising agencies, a very fertile ground for creativity in all the arts. There were parties and a visit to Marvel or DC on any given day would always include other artists or writers. You had friendships that began and for me exist to this day. One editor at Marvel exemplified that spirit at that time, Mark Gruenwald. His creative playfulness was legendary in the business and he always had a party, large or small, to keep comic book people connected. He was loved and admired by everyone who worked or just knew him in the industry and his passing August 12th, 1996 at age 43 ended that fun-loving time.

You mentioned that when you and John Buscema hung out, you never talked about work. Was that how it was with a lot of artists? Did people just not want to talk about work?

I never hung out with John Buscema–besides the age difference, he lived on Long Island and I was either in New York or later in northern New Jersey and not in the same social circles. We did have phone conversations though and we spoke about the business but hardly ever about the work. John had spent a number of years at Chaite Studio as an illustrator before returning to the comic field in the 1960’s and I enjoyed hearing about his adventures while there.

When you started out, could penciler request specific inkers? When did that change?

I suppose a penciller could request an inker at any time but you had to have someone available to begin with and if they worked well together you had a team. I don’t think that has changed at all.

In recent years you've inked over John Romita Jr. on Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl. What are his pencils like and what were the specific challenges inking his work?

It has been a delight working over John. Years had gone by and we never collaborated until a Hulk arc a few years back, but we really connected during the Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl run which ran for a number of years. John’s pencils seem to be effortlessly done and when you get into them you discover how much talent and experience is there along with a flawless knack for perspective. He also has an incomparable gift for storytelling.

I can’t think of any challenges working over anyone, always found some pleasure and satisfaction, usually learning something along the way.

You mentioned that you were work for hire in terms of illustration and comic book work. How much illustration work do you do?

For a number of years I spent half of my time doing illustration from line drawings to full color paintings and some of that painting spilled over into comics when I did covers for Marvel.

When you do advertising work not all of it is that exciting and you do it to service your clients but I always enjoyed getting back to comic art which never was boring and fun to do. Saw my comic book work as my vacation and grounding in what brought me the greatest pleasure. I started out with the dual careers which I think complemented each other and helped me grow as an artist over the years.

Advertising illustration has diminished greatly in recent years as well as editorial illustration and any artwork outside of comic books I do now is on commission.

Do you have any favorite collaborators you worked with over the years?

I’ve enjoyed working with everyone, you learn something from each collaboration, if I made a list I would leave someone out and feel terrible about it later. Have always had a great respect for pencillers, they carry a book, if I screw up their name is before mine and I try to do my best for us both.

Is there something you haven’t done or someone you’d really liked to work with?

There are many things I haven’t done, I just haven’t had the chance to do them yet. I’ve worked with many artists over the years and have unexpectedly discovered many great people to collaborate with along the way, rather than pick someone I would prefer to wait and see what the future holds.

What are you working now? Or, what are you working on next?

I have a few projects on hold and some I’m waiting to see what develops so it’s too soon to discuss. I'm having a website being put together right now and should have it up and running by the end of the year. I’ll have chance to put up other work including what I’m doing in comics and that looks like it could be a lot of fun.