Written by Bryan Stroud
Tom Palmer Sr. (born July 13, 1942) is an American comic book artist best known as an inker for Marvel Comics. Although he has done a small amount of penciling work (as well as some cover art and some coloring), the vast majority of Tom's artistic output since the 1960s has been as a comic book inker. Particularly noteworthy in Palmer's extensive work for Marvel Comics are well-remembered runs paired with pencilers like Neal Adams on The Avengers and Uncanny X-Men; Gene Colan, on Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and Tomb of Dracula; and John Buscema, on The Avengers. He also inked the entire run of John Byrne's X-Men: The Hidden Years. Palmer's brushy, detailed, and illustrative inking style hearkens back to vintage newspaper comic strips, and has influenced later generations of inkers for years.
When you learn that an inker is held in high regard by no less than Mike Esposito and, Gena Colan and that Neal Adams lists him as his favorite (after himself) on his work at Marvel, it tends to pique your interest. I'm glad I sought out and got to speak with the great Tom Palmer, whose career is still going strong.
This interview originally took place over the phone on November 8, 2009.
Bryan Stroud: How's your day?
Tom Palmer: Busy, but it's always fun.
Stroud: In the life of a freelancer, busy is always good.
Palmer: True. I've been freelancing for quite a while, since I was a teenager, and keeping busy is always satisfying.
Stroud: I think I understand. Tom Orzechowski was telling me that he was happiest when he had a full load and maybe just a bit more than he could handle.
Palmer: Yeah. If I have a project and it's nearing completion and there's nothing waiting I tend to slow down. It's a mental thing and I try to overcome that, if I have deadlines and there's something behind it waiting, I speed up.
Stroud: It's interesting how that works. I think it was Len Wein who told me that deadlines are crucial to his work or he'd just never get a script done.
Palmer: It's true. I had a couple of commissions to paint, and I love to paint, there are no deadlines on commissioned work when it's a side venture, and I tend to work on the projects with deadlines when they come in. I will take on projects without deadlines but it's tough finding those moments to work on them and moments to finish them. Guess it's the nature of the beast.
Stroud: I'm not artistic at all, but I'm reminded of years gone by when I'd have to do year end overtime for my job and after a while, I found I could easily squeeze 8 hours of work into a 10-hour day.
Palmer: I've never had an office job but I did work in a hectic advertising art studio early on and found a similar experience. We would stay as late as we had to for finishing up a deadline project and it was amazing how much work we got done in one long day. I got an hourly rate but the studio made some nice money when a job went out the door that fast.
I was out of high school and decided I wanted to become an artist. I wound up in art school and working in an art studio as a “gopher”, go for lunch, go to pick up work, etc. That first studio job didn't last long and I found a freelance position in an advertising art studio at 40th and Madison Avenue in New York City. I've been freelancing ever since.
I had a job or two in high school but not art related, I've gone to enough advertising agencies to pick up work to see how people react to a 9 to 5 job and I never was drawn to that kind of life. Freelancing, weekends and holidays mean little to you. On the big holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas you do celebrate them, but if I have work to get done, I'll find time later in the day to do it.
Stroud: You do what must be done.
Palmer: Yeah. I've met artistic people deep into a career outside the art field with responsibilities like family, and mortgages, who dreamed of becoming an artist but leaving that secure job and flying that freelance trapeze without a net can be scary. Guess I was lucky, I started young and foolish, without fear and responsibilities.
Looking back, if I had a salaried position somewhere with all the perks like medical coverage, paid vacations and sick days, and a pension, it would be difficult to leave all that for a freelance career in a competitive field that you may not be successful in. I wonder if the passion I seem to have to be an artist would have been strong enough to take that leap if I was faced with that decision. My guess is that we're destined to be what we will be, artists or firemen, and if we're lucky making some of life's early choices events just fall into place. I never look back wishing I made different choices, I've had a wonderful life doing what I love to do and you can't beat that in the end.
Stroud: Spoken like a true artist.
Palmer: You have to enjoy what you're doing and I did from early on. It's good that I went to art school, though. Art school doesn't make you an artist, it does open up another world to your eyes and allows you to begin developing skills to become an artist.
Joe Jusko put me onto a blog site that has a “Daily Inspiration” filing on illustrators from the 1950's and 60's and examples of their work. Many are gone now from the pages of magazines where they did editorial and advertising illustrations due to changing times, but their craft endures and some of them, like Howard Terpning, have gone on to even greater success in the fine art field. Once bitten, you can't just stop doing art work, no matter what form, it provides a lifetime quest of improving your craft that is never ending. If you love your work and work hard at it and don't get too complacent, you can survive in an ever-changing field.
Stroud: Unquestionably, and I can't help but wonder at the fact that just shortly after announcing he wasn't going to be doing any more commission work George Tuska passed away. 93 years and still going nearly to the end.
Palmer: Wow, funny you should mention that. This is going off the beaten path a bit, comic art is something I always loved to do along with painted illustrations that I've done for editorial and advertising clients. I enjoy and collect the work of many past illustrators like Tom Lovell.
Tom Lovell started his career in the 1930's doing art work for the pulp magazines, interior black and whites first and then painted covers. He was doing art for the slick magazines by the 1940's, leaving for a few years to serve as a Marine in WWII. He returned and continued to paint illustrations for the magazines, rising to be one of the top talents in the field. Tremendous artist, fantastic painter. When the market for magazine illustrations started to dry up in the early 60's he went out to the southwest to paint for the fine art western market. I followed his work still, picking up catalogs of his work along with a huge hardcover of his illustrations published by the Greenwich Workshop in 1993.
Tom Lovell built a whole new career and following, he was now in his 90's living in Arizona and continued to paint, having exhibitions of his work. He had his daughter drive him to Texas for a gallery showing of his new paintings, I even got an early catalog, when they had a head on collision on route and both were killed. It took a horrible accident to snuff out Tom Lovell's creativity at age 94. He had a great life and absolutely loved what he was doing.
Stroud: The fruits show that. It was the same with Creig Flessel who was at it right up to the end and I believe he was 96.
Palmer: That is a full life. Many people reach that age to retire and their working life is usually over. What do you do? Golf? I played golf twice in my life and I was bored. Guess I have nothing to retire to!
Stroud: Oh, exactly. I read a comment by Arnold Drake where he said, “Work is life.”
Palmer: I'm reminded of the old saying if you do something you love you'll never work a day in your life. It's simple but true. And it doesn't mean you have to be an artist, do anything that requires passion to pursue.
Stroud: Whatever your passion may be.
Palmer: Exactly. I think that's the true elixir of life, is having a reason to live. I've put in a lot of long days and nights in my studio keeping things going and helping to raise a family. Not just in comic books but doing advertising and editorial illustrations. The comic book industry changed in the 90's and allowed you to make a better living. I always continued to work in comics because they were a great source of enjoyment and satisfaction, I found them to be an oasis when the stressful demands of advertising work got to you.
I grew up with comic books, learned to read with them, even did some of my own when I was a kid, but I wanted to be an illustrator and paint covers for the Saturday Evening Post like Norman Rockwell. I did find a terrific art school with one teacher, Frank Reilly, where I took evening classes as I freelanced in a studio during the day. The studio's resident illustrator was Jack Kamen who was one of the artists working for EC Comics years earlier along with Wally Wood, Al Williamson, and Jack Davis. They all worked on those comic books that got the industry in trouble with the Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency in the 1950's.
Stroud: The Kefauver hearings.
Palmer: Yes. This was now in the 60's and Jack Kamen had been out of comic books for at least a dozen years and was making his way in the studio doing all sorts of artwork from line spots to full color advertising illustrations. A very versatile and good artist. Believe he took art classes with Harvey Dunn back in the late 30's. I walked into the studio as a very idealistic young man and we immediately bonded. I sat a few feet away from Jack with my drawing board and I was getting an education equal or even exceeding the one I was getting in art school.
I was trying to make more money but Jack was reluctant to help me if it meant my getting into comics. He said that if I start doing comic books I'll stop going to art school and he didn't want me to do that. Frank Reilly died unexpectedly from a brain tumor and the school disbanded leaving Jack with no other choice than give me a little boost into comics to help my income. He called up Wally Wood and I went to see Woody with my portfolio. I spent some time in his studio helping out and he gave my name to someone else, Mike Esposito, who was working with Ross Andru at the time. I did some background work for Mike and he mentioned my name to Sol Brodsky at Marvel and I went up there for an interview.
My first assignment was penciling a 22-page Doctor Strange book and I was clearly out of my league. I had never penciled a comic book before and to top it off, Stan Lee acted out the plot in his office while I stood dumbfounded. Luckily, his assistant, Flo Steinberg, took notes while Stan performed the plot which she slipped to me after as I left the offices. Flo still works for Marvel by the way. Stan did that kind of story plotting for Jack Kirby and John Buscema but I didn't know what he was doing or saying being awestruck by it all.
I went back home and penciled the 22 pages. Looking back, it was what it was at that point, but certainly not up to speed with anything that was being done at the time. Roy Thomas then wrote the story and dialogue over my pencils, I doubt little of what Stan performed made it into my penciled version. It was lettered and given to Dan Adkins to ink and he really saved my butt with his professional inks.
I went back to Marvel the next month for another issue of Doctor Strange and was told they had another artist to pencil it but would I like to ink it? I said, “Sure.” They handed me 22 pages of incredible pencils by Gene Colan. This was Gene's first issue of Doctor Strange, #172, and my first inking assignment for Marvel. Gene's pencils were absolutely beautiful rendered in gray tones and little if any line work. I used whatever I knew at the time to ink the pages and Marvel seemed to like it because I was asked to continue inking the following issues.
You worked three months in advance then, and when issue #172 came out I didn't like the coloring and asked Marvel if I could color the next one. They gave you reduced photostats of the pages and you used Dr. Martin's Dyes to color them approximating what colors were on the guide sheet. Not too many colors to work from but you could create a mood and do a reasonable job. I was told that colorists could do a book in a day but I wound up spending three days on the coloring.
Stroud: Oh, no.
Palmer: Well, I was doing little watercolor paintings, stuff that would never get into print with the process back then but it was a thrill finally seeing that issue in print.
Today, coloring is done on a computer and digital scans are generated that really have become an important part of the final printed version.
Stroud: They are much more sophisticated.
Palmer: Well, the big reason is that they are magazines now. Also, the venues for illustrators have shrunk so very talented people have migrated into the comics and the quality has become very high.
Stroud: It's true. I was going to ask your opinion, too, Tom about digitally produced comic books. Over the course of your career you've seen a lot of changes in how they're produced, so how does a digital product stand up in your opinion?
Palmer: I've had a computer for over ten years and use it in all my work in one way or the other. It's only a tool but a very valuable one. Without it you really can't compete in the business. You're able to do so much more with the artwork now and use different mediums to render with, things you couldn't do before when the art was just line. The coloring has become limitless also, far beyond what was possible just ten years ago.
Stroud: It's the way the world has gone.
Palmer: Right. The printing end dictates what you have to supply to get on their presses and they've been digital for close to 20 years or more. Not everyone has embraced the computer but you can still function well without it, I just enjoy having some control over what I do when it gets to the printed page.
Stroud: I think I understand. I have friends who haven't fully embraced the technology and I don't know whether it's due to discomfort or what.
Palmer: I think it's the fear of the unknown. You look back about 10 years or so, comic book sales had dropped after that speculation boom, Marvel had declared bankruptcy and I went up to DC Comics for a few years. Someone there mentioned that the business had been reviving itself every decade since it's beginning just before WWII, when sales were probably the greatest they have ever been. Sales waned in the 50's after their content attracted criticism and then outright banning of some titles. The industry established a comic code to survive but that only reduced the comic books to pablum. Stan Lee, along with Jack Kirby, revived the industry with their brand of superheroes in the 60's which is still going strong today with some bumps along the way. Who would have thought that the movies, and more importantly, the CGI advancement, would raise comic books and superheroes to a whole new level today. I suppose this is the new revival.
Stroud: Right. And after all, this uniquely American creation of the comic book is still relatively young with DC coming up on it's 75th anniversary. It will be interesting to see how far this run goes.
Palmer: Well, it has to evolve and we'll have to see how it evolves before we can predict the future. I think a big key for the publishers will be in letting creative people be creative. If writers and artists find creative freedom in comic books they will instinctively be drawn to them.
Stroud: That's logical. You've got to find new ways to breathe new life into scenarios or characters to keep it from going stale.
Palmer: True. Comic books don't have to follow what's in the movies. Iron Man was not a high-profile Marvel character but it shows how a well made creative and entertaining movie can instill new life into an old Marvel superhero.
Stroud: Sure. Ghost Rider wasn't exactly a household name before the movie came out.
Palmer: I really enjoyed that movie. A lot of critics didn't like it but it had a certain charm that made it work. It may have been Nick Cage in the lead role. I enjoy Nicolas Cage in just about every movie he does, same with Robert Downey, Jr., they have a presence on the screen that draws you in.
Stroud: Which is what you need.
Palmer: Exactly. Robert Downey, Jr. was just perfect as Iron Man, he pretty much played himself but captured the Tony Stark character perfectly. I understand that he does his best work when he has the freedom to have input into the character's development and the director, Jon Favreau, did just that. That really made a difference in the movie's huge success.
This goes back to what I was saying earlier, don't confine creators, give them the freedom to soar to new heights.
Stroud: Your point of being stifled reminds me of a comment Bernie Wrightson made when I asked if he did commissions and he said, “Not really. It's not that I don't like doing them, but I don't like being art directed.”
Palmer: I do commissions but have fun doing them. I treat them like the commercial assignments I did for years and expect the same mutual respect between client and artist. I provide sketches for approval, and with a painted commission, color sketches, so the client can see what they're getting and it also helps me with the finish. I've had changes in the sketches but don't really mind them, better than in the finish, which I won't do unless the client pays for it.
I think Bernie is speaking of people who want some crazy composition with Frankenstein fighting Captain America or something, and that I would also avoid. You have to enjoy doing a commission to do your best work and not have arbitrary changes or direction.
Stroud: Right. Second and third guessing.
Palmer: Accepting a commission doesn't mean you're being paid to do what the client dreamed up one night and is almost impossible to duplicate on board or canvas. Let the artist have some input and suggest a composition that will make them both happy. Again, you get the best work from the artist if he's enjoying the work.
I've heard the comment, “I don't know what I want but I'll know when I see it.” I've learned to close up shop and leave when I hear that, the only way you can keep your sanity.
I was invited to attend a party Roy Thomas was having right after I started at Marvel. The apartment was packed with well known comic book artists and writers but I was unaware who they were because that world was so new to me. I met both Bernie Wrightson and Neal Adams that night and enjoyed pleasant conversations with both of them. That relaxed friendship endures to this day. Haven't seen Bernie for a few years but Neal and I keep meeting in assorted places it seems and it's always good fun. They're both good guys as well as most of the people I've met in the business.
Stroud: To quote Shelly Moldoff, comic book people are usually good people.
Palmer: I agree. I suppose we're all kindred spirits in some way and that that helps to bond.
Stroud: At the risk of embarrassing you I thought I'd share the comments a couple of other professionals have made about your work. Mike Esposito said this:
Some inkers were so frustrated; they felt they had to make it look like their stuff. Well, I was trained by Ross to make it look like his stuff. You get a guy like Tom Palmer, who is very good. Tom Palmer I always thought was a genius. I got him his first job up at Marvel. He was just a background man. When I saw his stuff when he was working for me a couple of times, I said, “You're too good for this.” I called up Sol Brodsky up at Marvel Comics and I said, “I've got a guy that shouldn't be doing backgrounds. He should be doing features.” So, I sent him to him and he got the job and he did some great stuff in the black and white magazines. The vampire stuff, you know? And he did a great job inking. The only guy I thought could ink Gene Colan the right way was Tom Palmer. Gene Colan used to pencil like a photograph. He'd use an outline of it. But he knew how to take that photographic look and make it unbelievably crisp. Whereas Frank Giacoia and I would ink him and we'd do it as an outline, because he didn't work in lines. So, you'd destroy his soft pencil sketches by putting a hard outline. And the only guy that really knew how to do him was Tom Palmer. You look up the stuff and you'll see how beautiful those black and white vampire books and Dracula books turned out.
Palmer: You know, that's very nice of Mike, he was one of those great people who really impacted my life and career and he just did it out of the kindness of his heart. Another great guy.
Stroud: Gene said the very same thing. He said a lot of inkers had trouble with his work, not being able to see what was in there and he told me that you were his favorite inker and then said this:
Stroud: You mentioned your preference for penciling. Did you have a favorite inker on your work?
Gene Colan: Tom Palmer. Eventually I got to meet him and he did all the Dracula work. The Dracula series ran the longest for me. It must have been a good ten years of a once a month book. Can you imagine all that work?
Stroud: That's a lot of pages.
Colan: Yes, it is. I believe it was a monthly and Tom wasn't there at first. I inked one or two and there were a couple of other inkers, but when he came in the whole face of it changed for the better. Tom is a first-class illustrator and painter so he knows a lot about a lot of stuff and he came along and made the work look great. You know a great penciler can put his work in the hands of just a fair inker and the work will come out fair, but if you're not the best penciler and you put your work in the hands of a great inker it can look much better than you can usually do. It will wind up looking even better than what you did.
Palmer: Wow. That's very nice of Gene, he is always the kind gentleman and his flattering words are very heart warming. I always enjoyed working with Gene, he loved what I did and was a constant support. No one in the field penciled like Gene did, he loved the cinema and film noir and brought all that to his work. Comic books were printed in line and his penciling was way beyond that, as Mike Esposito said, “Like a photograph.” Gene's pencils on that first Doctor Strange were my test to get work from Marvel and I worked hard trying to capture the look of the pencils. It took some time, probably when I was working on Dracula with him, to finally realize that you had to work into the shadows and bring out the nuances and drawing that Gene did. Back then your options were limited but with a little dry brush, zip-a-tone, and some cross-hatching you had a variety of gray tones to work with.
I worked with Neal Adams right after I started with Gene and that was a whole different experience. I was impressed with Neal's pencils, they had an illustrative look to them and he used a pencil with a chisel side so he had broad strokes and a thin line in one tool. Something you learn in art school and find hard to retain. His pencil lines went thick and thin around a form and showed how mature an artist he was. Working with Neal opened up a new chapter in my learning process.
That lead into working with John Buscema, one of the finest artists I've met. I didn't recognize how talented he was until he started doing breakdowns for me to work over. This was on the Avengers. He used a minimal amount of lines but everything you needed was there, all you had to do was build on them and then add light and shade. One of the most rewarding collaborations I have ever had. John spent years in an illustration studio and his talent ran deep, deeper than what the comic book pages he did showed.
Getting to know the man was the most rewarding. He was your dad, big brother and best friend all rolled up into one. Loyal, generous, and another great guy. Still miss him.
Stroud: I read somewhere that your work has the mark of maybe being influenced by the old dailies by Foster and Caniff and so forth. Any truth to that?
Palmer: I did know of Hal Foster and Prince Valiant when I was young and studied his work closely. Never saw Milton Caniff's work though, he wasn't in the newspapers my family bought. Never knew who Alex Raymond was until I met Wally Wood who had this big book of his Flash Gordon Sundays in black and white. I was struck by Raymond's work at the time since it was all new to me. Both he and Foster have influenced just about everybody in comic books and probably beyond.
I always felt that the first 18 years of my life were some sort of prelude to the new world that opened to me when I simultaneously entered art school and the art field. I grew up in New York but I was the one who hung out with the guys and liked to draw.
Any of my influences after came at me in a torrent of images from every medium, illustration, comic books, and even fine artists like John Singer Sargent. It was overwhelming at times trying to sort it all out. It may have helped me see all of art expression as one and not try to categorize one from the other. An artist can paint an advertising illustration and a piece of fine art. An artist who can do both can also work in comic books; it's just another artistic expression.