Joe Rubinstein is an acclaimed comic book inker, having worked on a staggering number of titles in a career spanning several decades. He's perhaps best known for his work on The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, and he currently inks the Green Arrow/Black Canary comic for DC. In an exclusive interview with Mania, he talked about the way he got started in the industry, his penchant for horror comics and his insight into the characters he's worked on over the years.
Question: How did you first get bit by the comics bug?
Joe Rubinstein: I came to this country from Israel when I was five years old. My cousin, who was three years older, had a comic book collection. Since I didn't read the language, I looked at the pictures. Like a lot of kids, I then started to draw the pictures, and fortunately that never wore off. I went to the High School of Art and Design, which was a vocational school in New York, and there I found other comic book people to study with--the most famous was probably Bernie Krigstein, who was one of the great innovators at EC Comics. Then when I was seventeen, I was sick of school and I didn't want to go to college. So I did up some inking samples, and I think I got, like, three jobs on the first day. I've pretty much been doing it ever since. I mainly read superhero comics, like everybody else, though I did read Dracula because the Gene Colan artwork was so beautiful, and Swamp Thing because of Bernie Wrightson and all that. For a while there, Marvel came out with all these monster books like Frankenstein and Werewolf by Night.
Q: Can you do work on horror comics these days or is it all superhero stuff?
JR: I would much prefer to do haunted mansions and twisted trees than spaceships and tanks. I like organic stuff--things that have a little personality to them--which is what draws me to Wrightson and Frank Frazetta's monster-y stuff. I remember a Challenge of the Unknown I did with Mike Netzer, where Swamp Thing was a guest star. Just for the hell of it, one panel was inked by Bernie Wrightson. And when I saw what Bernie did with it, it gave me an inkling of how to push the material in that direction. But I take pride in accommodating what's in front of me. If somebody has a very clean style, I'm not going to screw with it. But if an editor instructs me, "do what you can with this," then of course I will.
Q: What kind of work do you prefer to do?
JR: As an inker, it can be very boring to do the same thing all the time. So when I'm given a job by Bernie Wrightson or Neal Adams, I try to shift gears accordingly. Someone once told me that one of the things which hurt my career early on was that I so altered my approach every time that the editors didn't know what they were going to get back. I think I was the favorite of a lot of pencilers for the same reason: they knew they were going to get their own work back and not me overwhelming it. While I don't want you as a reader to stop and notice the artwork, I do want a sort of subconscious sense that this is appropriate to what you're reading. One of the reasons why I got the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe job was because there were going to be dozens and dozens of different pencilers, and they wanted one inker who could accommodate all the styles. They figured that would be me.
Q: People talk about the grittiness of your work on Green Arrow these days.
JR: When they shifted gears on the Green Arrow book, they wanted it to be a little… skulkier. They wanted grit and in my mind, that meant not smoothing it over. I'm just letting what happens happen, as opposed to more modern styles, which--the best of them achieve a sort of mechanical cleanness to them, which is incredibly admirable and difficult to do, but more often than not leaves me cold. There's a rawness and a handwriting to each individual artist that I try to achieve and I hope I have.
Q: What do you think it is about Green Arrow that leads to that kind of grit?
JR: It's kind of like what Miller did with Daredevil. Frank proved that a second-string character like Daredevil could be incredible if done correctly. And he was. Before that, he was basically just a Batman rip-off and look at what Frank did. Daredevil stopped fighting Mr. Boom the Human Bomb and started dealing with some really serious issues. Real crime, the overall blanket of crime that the Kingpin was all about. I think they look at Green Arrow the same way. What's interesting about this guy? Let's see what he does when he's confronted with some of the darker stuff in life. I think the book deals more with the grown-up relationship he has with Black Canary. Not so much the sex, but living with somebody and what it's like to go out on patrol with the woman you love who might be killed. What are you even doing with her there? Or, alternately, does his trust in her make her the very best possible person to watch his back?
Q: Do you have more flexibility or a sense of greater freedom in what you do when it's a so-called "second-tier" hero? Someone besides Superman and Batman?
JR: Up at DC and at Marvel too, you can't just do anything you want even if it's your book. You can't just say "I want Martian Manhunter to guest star this month." Martian Manhunter may be booked. He's got a storyline going on in another book, and things are going to happen to him, and you can't play with him until they're ready. I wonder sometimes about the Smallville TV show, which features Green Arrow, and whether or not they're going to start making the comic book version adhere more closely to that guy. I was working on Superman when Lois and Clark was on the air, and all of a sudden everyone changed gears. The characters had to get married in the comic books because they were married on the TV show. Having said that, since Green Arrow is less of a superstar, I think they'd be less inclined to enforce that kind of a decree on him. They'd be more willing to let us do what we want with him.
Q: You worked on the original Wolverine miniseries, inking Frank Miller's drawings. Any thoughts on the new Wolverine movie? Any insider tidbits?
JR: I get to go to the movie's premiere in Las Vegas because of that book… presumably because they couldn't get Frank. But you can never tell which work is going to transcend. When I did the Wolverine mini-series, it was just a job. I loved it and I was thrilled to be working on Frank's drawings, but it was still just a job. When you do a piece of art, I have no real use for it, unless it contains some kind of specific sentimental value. So I sold all my Wolverine stuff off twenty-five years ago. Now I find that people are selling just one of those pages for $1,000 apiece, and if you can find one of those covers, they go for the tens of thousands. It kind of amazes me that people are willing to pay so much.
But it also helps people find me and gets me commissions. People can't afford it, so they ask me to draw something up. There's a website called www.comicartfans.com, which is a wonderful resource for people to find artists to do sketches or drawings for them. People are amazed that you can find the artists to do these things. I mean Frank Miller is one thing because he's busy doing movies these days. But there are a lot of us out there, ready to work for people who need artists and want to commission pictures from artists, but just don't know how to get to them. I'm thrilled to do that kind of stuff. I'm still just a kid drawing pictures; the only reason I ask for money is so I don't have to get a job at a video store or something during the day.