Jack Kirby was a complicated man who led a complicated life and left a complicated legacy. With this being the convention of his centennial there is no better time to discuss who inked his pencils the best.
This may not seem like a complicated matter to be hotly debated in the local comic stores alongside all the reasons people enjoy the DCEU (one of you will convert me one day, I'm sure) but it certainly can be. Mention infamous inker Vince Colletta and you will get a variety of stories and maybe a fight or two. I know some may prefer Chic Stone or Joe Sinnott but as a lifelong Kirby fan I have to admit that my favorite inker has always been Mike Royer.
The easiest way to explain why is to look at Wally Wood.
The almost as famous, brilliant penciller in his own right, had a bit of a tumultuous career in comics and at one point he was inking some of the King's pages. Kirby almost never inked his own work, he could not spare the time from getting the next page off of the drawing board. To look at a Kirby page as inked by Wood is to look at a page of Wood art. Is that bad? No, but you are left with the lingering question of how it would have looked if Kirby had inked it himself.
Enter Mike Royer. His strategy with inking has always been to keep as much of the original penciller's intent and motivations on the page as possible. There is, as he is fond of saying, very little Royer on the page and as much Kirby as he could allow. Royer's devotion to this makes it so that Kirby's 'Fourth World' saga books are some of the best examples of Kirby being Kirby. Not only do they 'crackle' with all the energy you would expect but they come the closest to showing the world what would happen if the King had inked his own work.
Royer is a native of Oregon and decided early in life that he wanted to be a cartoonist. As New York was a bit too far to move to he made his way to Los Angeles and, as he put it, "knocked on Russ Manning's door and was lucky enough to land professional work."
This panel was moderated by his close friend, and noted Kirby biographer and former collaborator, Mark Evanier. The best part of watching them on stage together is having one correct the other or letting them embellish as they see fit. Evanier is the consummate professional, he lives in this space, and he has been on more panels than he could count. Royer is firebrand. He has a cowboy hat, boots, and a shirt that would not look out of place on the Two-Gun Kid. He points at the audience, cracks jokes, and leaves no subject ambiguous as to his feelings, even when Evanier has to correct him.
These two have been professional partners longer than I have been alive and to hear them speak about their work or about their time with Jack Kirby is to witness living history. Royer remembers working for Gold Key and Warren Publishing during the early days of his career. Of the latter's publisher, Jim Warren, Royer remembers that he was "a real friggin' jerk" with never returning the original artwork that Royer, working as a penciller at the time, had been promised back. This may seem to be a familiar malady for anyone familiar with Kirby but unlike the King, Royer spoke up, though the result was much the same.
With respect to Kirby and his work on the 'Fourth World' Evanier was able to provide some context of the time and the significance of what he allowed Kirby to accomplish.
Describing his first meeting, Royer said that "Kirby called me and told me that Alex Toth had said I was a pretty good inker and could I come over?" Royer's first piece was the famous image of Kirby at his drawing table surrounded by his most famous Marvel creations. Royer, incredibly intimidated at the time, performed the work, at Kirby's insistence, right there at Kirby's own drawing table. He quickly became part of the team.
Evanier pointed out that Kirby wanted to be sure it was Royer actually doing the work and not a ghost artist. Once this was out of the way he knew he liked what he got because, as Evanier remembers "Jack made no subsequent changes to the ink work, what was on the page was what Mike did and for Jack that was big." Kirby was living on the West Coast and to his publishers in New York this might have been another world. Evanier remembers that "the world to the guys in New York ended at the Hudson and to have Jack deliver full pages that were ready to print was a game changer."
Royer is also a noted letterer and this was something that Kirby had desperate need of. At the time his arrangement with DC allowed for him to write, pencil, and edit his own work. Royer explained, after the panel, that Kirby would pencil in the dialogue and captions and that Royer would go over them "without changing a single word… except for one time."
Royer recounted how a later Kirby work, 'Silver Star,' was in desperate need of a narration box by the time Royer received the page with dialogue and took it upon himself to add it in from the way Kirby, and his wife Roz, had described the six-issue story to him before. This type of synchronicity meant that Kirby was able to remove the power from others when it came to having his work changed, something of a 'never ending battle' during his career. The two men noted that at the time, freelancers were considered to be in need of "the DC Touch" once the pages arrived in the office but now Kirby had his own studio and by the time DC would get the pages nothing more would need to be done as he had an inker and letterer who could keep pace with his lighting-fast output (Kirby did approximately an issue a week back then).
Royer recounted other items from his career including his belief that, at the time they were publishing Kirby's 'Devil Dinosaur' at least, "Marvel was run by a bunch of incestuous fanboys." Those in charge at the time did not seem to support Jack's work. Royer also had an earlier connection with Marvel when he worked as an artist on the Marvel Super Heroes 1960s cartoon show.
As these were animated by using panels and pages from the comics Royer was one of the artists who would create connecting panels and similar mechanical artwork. He was also responsible for some of the core Sub-Mariner animation as that character did not have enough issues to support a series on his own. Royer remembers being "the only one in the studio that had actually read a comic… One time Stan Lee visited us and I think I was still the only one present who had!"
Royer's type of in-your-face-style continued when one day he was in Carmine Infantino's office and told him that "You shouldn't let Vince Colletta ink Jack Kirby's work. You have me and I'm better than him!" Evanier was quick to point out that Carmine "never liked being told he was wrong… even if it happened to be true at the time."
Later in his career Royer worked for Disney. He said that though he came to work "mostly with bigfooted animals" that he could feel Kirby's influence in everything he drew there and even today does not feel right comparing himself to the King. Working particularly on 'Winnie-the-Pooh' he became "known as the Poohman."
When asked if he ever, even once, had to correct Kirby's pencils during his tenure he remarked that only one time did he fix up something with Big Barda's (of the New Gods, wife of Mr. Miracle) face only to have Kirby sternly tell him to "Never touch the faces!" something Royer would find himself telling others over his long career as a sort of mantra for the type of care an inker should have, believing that "You should never know another artist had touched it."