Still drawing Spider-Man after more than 50 years

Joe Sinnott, 90, who has been inking and drawing comics for over 60 years, working at his studio in Saugerties, New York.
Joe Sinnott, 90, who has been inking and drawing comics for over 60 years, working at his studio in Saugerties, New York. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Joe Sinnott says spider webs drive him crazy, even though he has been drawing them for over 50 years for one of the world's most famous superheroes.

"They've got to be so accurate, and they've got to be the same all the time,'' he said. "It takes me about three days to do two pages." At 90, Sinnott still brings to life the action tales spun by Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spider-Man, continuing a collaboration begun in 1950 when Sinnott first went to work for Lee at what later became Marvel Comics. "Imagine having the same boss for 67 years," Sinnott said. He added that they should be in the Guinness World Records book.

With pen and brush, he keeps Spider-Man flying over New York City, soaring from skyscraper to skyscraper, in a never-ending battle against supervillains. "It just takes time putting all those lines, and the tiny spider on Spider-Man's chest, in such a small space," Sinnott said.

After 41 years at Marvel, where he produced thousands of comic books for the likes of Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four, Sinnott retired to work exclusively on the Spider-Man Sunday comic strip, distributed by King Features to newspapers across America. Lee still develops the storyline.

Spider-Man made his debut in 1962, when Peter Parker, a high school science nerd, according to the plot, gained superhuman powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Fifty-five years later, his crime-fighting adventures are still popular. The latest film version, Spider-Man: Homecoming, starring the English actor Tom Holland, will arrive in theatres on Friday.

Sinnott is not involved with the movie, but he is one of the people most responsible for Spider-Man's longevity and legacy. To fans, collectors and fellow artists, Sinnott is hero, too, for the larger-than-life figures he creates.

Joe Sinnott first went to work for Marvel Comics in 1950, where he produced thousands of comic books for the likes of Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four, and continues to ink the Spider-Man Sunday comic strip for King Features. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"Joltin' Joe Sinnott is one of the most talented, most capable and most dependable artists in the comics business," said Lee, Marvel's former publisher. "I've been lucky enough to work with him many years and cannot speak highly enough as to his talent and character." Sinnott is regularly asked by collectors worldwide to autograph prints, sketches and decades-old comic books, whose value increases significantly with his signature.

Despite such acclamation, Sinnott prefers small-town life in the Hudson Valley, where he has been his entire life except for service in the Navy during World War II and while attending the Cartoonists and Illustrators School - now the School of Visual Arts - in New York.

Producing the Spider-Man comic strip is a tag-team effort that crisscrosses the country, starting with Lee, whose office is in Beverly Hills, California. He sends the script to Alex Saviuk, an artist in Florida, for rough pencil drawings. Next, the work in progress goes to Janice Chiang in Woodstock, New York - about 10 miles (16 km) from Sinnott's home studio - who hand-letters the dialogue in each comic panel.

"I've lettered 69,000 pages during my career, so I've seen a lot of art," Chiang said. "Joe's art is so clean and fresh every time you look at it. He makes the art jump." When she's finished, the strip goes back to California for Lee's approval and then to Sinnott, who is like the anchor in a four-person relay.

His job is turning rough pencil drawings into finished artwork. "It's got to be inked with a brush and pen in black India ink," Sinnott said. "They call it embellishing." Before publication, the strip heads across country one last time for colouring in California. Even as the newspaper industry has cratered in recent decades, The Amazing Spider-Man still appears in many papers, though a spokeswoman for King Features would not provide a precise count. The digital version of the comic has extended Spider-Man's reach, and it also appears on many websites.

Chiang believes Spider-Man's popularity is based on Peter Parker's determination to rise above personal difficulties in his quest to overcome evil with good. Unlike, say, the millionaire Bruce Wayne, who transforms into Batman, Parker is a humble middle-class young man, trying to help his Aunt May after his Uncle Ben's murder.

Joe Sinnott drawing a comic at his studio in Saugerties, New York. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"Given the political situation and turmoil in the world, what we do is create hope," Chiang said. "That's the power of Spider-Man around the world, the idea that I can be more. You find your strengths through struggle, and it's using those strengths to do what's best for all of us." As the Spider-Man comic strip narrative says, Peter Parker came to realise that "with great power there must also come - great responsibility!" Saviuk said Spider-Man wouldn't be the same without Sinnott. "His lines are so smooth, silky and polished-looking compared to other inkers," he said.

Sinnott's portfolio is also heavy on baseball and World War II Army illustrations. His brother, Jack, was killed in France in 1944. Baseball is in Sinnott's blood because his mother, Catherine, was a cousin of John McGraw, the renowned manager of the New York Giants and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sinnott credits a box of crayons he got as a birthday gift when he was a toddler for helping start his career. "I drew from the time I was 3 years old," Sinnott said. "I wore those crayons down to nothing. I drew on paper bags, sidewalks, whatever I could."

He continued: "I tell kids in schools, you've got to keep drawing, and date everything so you know how you're improving. You've got to keep working all the time." Growing up during the Great Depression, he couldn't wait to spread Sunday comics on the living room floor. Strips like Terry and the Pirates - his favourite - Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon opened worlds of adventure and ignited his childhood imagination and creativity.

"It was a ball for a kid in the 1930s," Sinnott said. "It was so exciting. You couldn't wait to see this stuff. There was no TV."

Like a poet or symphony-orchestra musician, Sinnott said his art comes from his soul, which explains why he is still working. "I'd be drawing anyway," he said. "I'm always doodling. I like to make people happy. To see a kid smile when you give him a print you've signed to him, I love doing that." His handmade illustrations are something of an anomaly in today's digital age.

"It might be a lost art, but it will be around 100 years from now," Sinnott said. "I'm leaving something for my kids. I love the old comics. Really, it's like an old movie that never goes away."