Don Carlton – RIP

Longtime Doonesbury inker Don Carlton has passed away.

Donald Rayford (Don) Carlton
December 28, 1936 – May 16, 2023

From the obituary:

Don’s early career in the publishing industry included a job as the circulation manager at National Catholic Reporter. However, his longest professional role was his 43-year stint as the “inker” for the comic strip Doonesbury, written by Garry Trudeau.

Don’s long collaboration with Garry B. Trudeau began in 1971 when Jim Andrews of Universal Press Syndicate suggested to the Doonesbury creator that getting an assist from Don would relieve the daily deadline pressure.

© G. B. Trudeau

That led to a long partnership of Don inking (and soon enough lettering) Doonesbury until 2014 when Don retired.

At about that same time in 1971 artist Don partnered with writer Monte Burch, under the pen name of “Mark Gregory,” and began the Universal Press Syndicate Good Earth Almanac Sunday feature.

© Andrews McMeel; image via Allan Holtz

Don would pass the art chores on to Richard Lumpkin when he stopped drawing Good Earth Almanac in 1978.

A surprising credit from the obituary:

For a few years, my dad also performed this role [inking] for the comic strip The Far Side by Gary Larson.

Also from the obit:

Don made numerous annual pilgrimages to the town of Ouray, CO—aka “the little Switzerland of America”—and immersed himself in the local culture and community while exploring the surrounding scenery on jeep tours. He authored the popular “Ouray Sketchbook” column in The Ouray Plaindealer newspaper, providing a pen-and-ink drawing along with factual and reflective commentary on the region’s natural assets and points of historic interest.

The above samples of A Wistful Visitor’s Ouray Sketchbook are from The Ouray Plaindealer of 2020.

An interview with Don from 1982.

A video interview with Don from 2021.

11 thoughts on “Don Carlton – RIP

    1. All the comments to your questions are correct. I was an inker for many years with Marvel and DC Comics as well as a past member of the National Cartoonists Society. An inker is an artist who can adapt to the style of the penciller and finish the art by drawing over the pencil art. The penciller is the story teller and sets the stage for the style of the art. The inker is supposed to finish the art in the penciller’s style for the art to be able to be printed and also to save time for the penciller so they can move onto drawing the next issue and deadline.
      The traditional way of inking is using crowquill nibs in a holder and dipping in a bottle of permanent india ink. We prefer permanent ink so there’s no smudging or diluting or spreading if something is spilled on the art. Hunt makes crowquill nibs. A #102 used to be the standard. Also sable water color brushes by Winsor & Newton or Raphael. There are many companies that make india ink — Speedball and Higgins are a couple. These are the most common tools with many variations. There are permanent markers that don’t bleed called Pigma Micron that we’ve been using for many years usually for background lines. Now a lot of people like to ink everything with these markers.
      If you ever look at the Blondie Strips, the artists change, but the style stays the same. It takes a good artist to be able to take on someone else’s style in the way Stan Drake did when he adopted Chick Young’s style when taking over the art for Blondie.
      This is what Don Carlton did on Doonesbury. He adopted Garry Trudeau’s style and quite well. I didn’t know Don, but have seen him at the NCS events.
      In the older days of Marvel, some pencillers would just do breakdowns or layouts, drawing only in the simplest form without finished rendering. An inker who could take simple pencil layout and finish it with ink was usually termed an “embellisher”, such as Dick Ayers or Tom Palmer. Most folks think drawing comics is an easy past time, but it really isn’t. It’s a job for artisans who are skilled at drawing.

  1. As I understand it, the original art is often done in pencil. The inker goes over the pencil drawing with the more permanent medium.

  2. “Lost” is exactly right. Often in comics, a penciller draws the scene first in pencil. These pencil drawings can be very detailed or very loose and sketchy, depending on the artist and job. Then the inker goes over the pencils with (traditionally) India ink using pens, brushes, etc. because a clear black line is needed for printing purposes. This division of labor still exists in the digital era.

    Sometimes artists ink their own pencils. Some inkers have a heavy hand and impose their own style on the pencils, others have a light touch and let the penciler’s style show. Inking is an art form of its own.

    If you Google “penciling inking comics” you’ll find some good illustrations and examples.

  3. From the obituary:
    “What is an ‘inker’ you ask? … In the simplest of terms, and at the risk of overestimating my dad’s responsibilities (but not his talent), Garry wrote Doonesbury, and my dad drew Doonesbury—or, more accurately, finished drawing it—to make it publication-ready.”

  4. Don’s work was great and I read it all the years he was inking Doonesbury, but as Zonker says, I preferred the early period. It had character and it jumped off the page with its simplicity. I remember being drawn to it as a kid, I probably didn’t know what much of it was about at my young age, but the simple drawing style attracted me.

  5. At first I questioned why you had put quote marks around “inker,” almost as if you were questioning the validity of the job, but now I understand that there are cartooning fans who don’t know the word’s definition. Having done both both as a child and as an adult who got paid for it, it seemed impossible to me that everybody didn’t understand what the term meant, but then I remembered back to the (excellent) 1967-68 TV series HE AND SHE, which was about cartoonist Dick Hollister (Richard Benjamin), who wrote and drew the comic strip “Jetman.” In one episode, he hired an assistant to “ink” the strip (played by Julie Sommars) and what she did as an inker was to COLOR the strip, right on the original, already-inked artwork. If a sitcom based on a profession couldn’t get it right, why would I expect that non-comic-book readers would know the term? And, I fear, with so many artists today doing all their art digitally and never coming anywhere close to a bottle of ink and a brush and pen, perhaps the term may lose all meaning in the near future anyway. (Come to think of it, even as late as the ’90s CAROLINE IN THE CITY had no idea that comics are drawn weeks ahead of publication, with that daily deadline in TV and film portrayals of the profession always meaning tomorrow instead of six weeks from tomorrow. I guess, without that subterfuge, there’s no true suspense to be had in the travails of a strip cartoonist.)

    1. For the record it was the obituary writer who put the word inker in quotes.
      I grew up with Marvel Comics credits, so “inker” was as familiar to me as Aunt Petunia.

  6. Thanks to everyone for the answers. I’ve been reading comics my whole life, and I knew that often someone other than the cartoonist would color the drawings, but I didn’t know about the inking of them.

  7. I would love to know how much of the visible drawing in Doonesbury was down to Mr. Carlton. The early strips, which were all-Trudeau, were drawn very badly. But somehow, as time went on, the characters and settings acquired a palpable and credible three-dimensionality and solidity. I grww to admire the art. Did Trudeau eventually start drawing with that increased skill, or was Carlton saving his bacon for all those years? In any case, the two men together turned out a unique and admirable product.

    1. Brian Walker in 2010’s Doonesbury and the Art of G. B. Trudeau put to rest the rumors that Doonesbury art was ghosted. Don Carlton was faithful to Trudeau’s pencils. In the early years Don inked over Garry on the original art, later on it happened on two separate boards so comparisons can be made. At around 14:30 into the video interview above Don explains the process of Garry faxing Don the strip and then Don putting it on his light table with his pre-paneled board to ink the strip.
      As seen in the side-by-side samples above from 2003 Don closely follows Garry’s original art.

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