Pipe enthusiasts who read reviews of tobaccos are likely to recognize the handle JimInks. In the nine years he's been actively reviewing, JimInks has reviewed more than 2700 tobaccos, and he not only writes reviews, but revises them if the blend itself is modified or he has new insights, sharing these reviews on multiple pipe forums and on tobaccoreviews.com.
His real name is Jim Amash; he has a Master's degree in fine arts and has been an artist his whole life, and a pipe smoker for almost as long. His concentration was in fine art, and he specialized in landscapes. He's also a human being who needs to eat, and there weren't a lot of jobs available for his skill set, so he needed other employment while he worked toward building an art reputation. "It's tough to sell art to people," he says. "You have to have a patron. You have to really get into the system. Well, I wasn't able to do that." He'd managed a restaurant in Graham, N.C. during school from the time he was 19, and four years later, in 1983, he started managing a comic book store (Acme Comics) while still working toward his MFA at UNC-Greensboro.
A Love for Comics Grows
Wonder Woman commission, 1998. (Character ™ & © DC Comics; art © Jim Amash)
Jim had always been attracted to comic books. He was still concentrating on fine art, but he loved comics. He'd devoured them throughout his life and created his own comic art. Now he was putting on conventions for the store and meeting some of his comic book heroes — not the superheroes portrayed in the comics, but the people who made those superheroes. "I managed to get in a lot of the all-time great comic book people," says Jim. "Like my personal hero, Jack Kirby." Jack Kirby was foundational in the world of comics. Few of us have met our heroes; Jim experienced that, and it solidified his affinity for comic art.
At the same time, he needed to be practical. "Heidi and I got married in 1989 and I realized, since fine art was evidently not going to pay, as much as I loved it, as much as I was trained for it, I had to start thinking in monetary terms and I went back to my original love of comics. I was selling them anyway, running the comic book shop."
Breaking into the highly competitive comic book industry is difficult. Many try, few prevail, but it starts with persistence. "I started doing portfolios," says Jim. "I got rejected, and rejected, and then I got rejected some more. I just did not give up. When I sent out one portfolio, I immediately went to work on another one. So when I got rejected, I had another one to send right out."
Breaking into the highly competitive comic book industry is difficult
Marvel Comics gave Jim his start in 1992. "I did the finished artwork on an Iron Man story. The penciller penciled a little loosely and basically I would slick it up for publication, which is generally what an inker does anyway. But if you're the finisher, there is a distinction. A finisher actually ends up doing some of the drawing because the penciller might be doing rough pencils and therefore they're not finished. You have to finish them and ink them."
He spent several years with Marvel, where he worked on most of the publications' characters. By the time Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996, Jim was working for Warner Brothers. "I did Looney Tunes, I did Bugs Bunny and Daffy and all those characters. I did three years of the Animaniacs comic book. I did two years of Pinky and the Brain."
Marvel didn't go out of business because of Jim, by the way; they did that independently. "It was bad management and that's a very sad and sorry story. So I moved over to Warner Brothers and Archie comics. I've been freelancing for Archie comics since 1996, and I freelanced for Warner Brothers for six years. I also started doing a little Marvel work back in the late 1990s," Marvel having reformed in 1997. Jim is one of the few people ever to work for Marvel, Archie Comic, and DC Comics simultaneously. "I can think of only one other to do that."
Jim is one of the few people ever to work for Marvel, Archie Comic, and DC Comics simultaneously
He worked for Disney as well, on movie adaptations like Hercules, Pirates of the Caribbean, 101 Dalmatians, Toy Story, and Toy Story 2. "I forget the others but there were a bunch." These were comic books adapted from the films, and they kept Jim busy. He was a freelancer, so his work was seen everywhere, with multiple publishers.
"I did two issues of the mini-series Star Wars: Enemy Of The Empire, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer for Dark Horse Comics. I did some work for Valiant. I worked for Techno Comics. I worked for everybody."
A Wide-Ranging Career
"Point of View." © Jim Amash, 2021
That's the life of a freelancer: you work for everyone and anyone willing to hire you. Steady paychecks aren't part of the deal and it's challenging to maintain a consistent workflow. "You can go for long periods of time without work. Sometimes it's like they give you a job and when it's done they say, 'Okay, now don't eat for six months until we need you again.' They don't actually say that but that's what it amounts to. You have to hustle and you have to believe in yourself. You learn not to take no for an answer and not to take no personally; it doesn't matter how good you are. Heck, if you think about it, even Humphrey Bogart got turned down for roles."
"Okay, now don't eat for six months until we need you again"
One of his longest-running assignments was for Sonic the Hedgehog, which he contributed to for 21 years, until a new publisher reallocated the assignment. "I was not happy about it," says Jim. "I loved those characters. That's the only time that happened to me, and I guess I'm lucky because it happens to people in the comic business a lot. It's a very common occurrence, honestly, but the fact is almost nobody stays on a feature for as long as I stayed on that one in modern times. Most comic artists have short careers: shorter than they want. I've managed to last 30 years."
Jim attributes that longevity to his adaptability. "I can do a variety of styles: humor, detailed illustration, regular superhero. More importantly, I deliver the best I can and provide professional work. I have never missed a deadline in 30 years. You get your first job on your availability and more often than not, the rest of your jobs are based on dependability, and getting along with people. I'm a clock watcher and I've never been late. I meet my obligations."
"I have never missed a deadline in 30 years"
Jim approaches his tobacco reviews with the same integrity as his professional life. He became a pipe smoker in July of 1974, and started smoking Dunhill tobaccos in 1981, having gravitated to bulk blends before that because of his financial situation. "I didn't really get into tins until the end of the 1980s once I didn't have any college debt and could indulge myself." He loved Three Nuns and Elizabethan Mixture. "In those days, Elizabethan was a very hearty, floral, spicy blend, much different from what it is today. And Balkan Sobranie Original Smoking Mixture, which was my favorite English until the current version appeared. Though I liked the 759, too, I preferred the Original because I liked the Yenidje." Jim retains to this day his appreciation for Orientals.
"When I first started smoking a pipe, I lived in a small town so there was no pipe shop, but there were grocery stores and there was Eckerd's Drug Store. I remember counting one time in the summer of 1974: they had 52 blends on a rack that you could decide from. That's a big number for a drug store."
He started writing reviews in the fall of 2012, on tobaccoreviews.com. "I can't remember how I tumbled onto that site. I think when I started joining pipe forums I saw mentions of tobaccoreviews, and I started reading them. I felt some of those reviews were just too subjective. I didn't see how they could help anybody. Some would say, 'I hate this blend. It's terrible.' Or one of the worst types; 'Well, I like English blends and I hate Aromatics so I'm giving this one star.' How was that helpful to anybody?" He had published numerous historical interviews and articles in publications for the comics industry — publications like Alter Ego, for which he's been an associate editor since 2001 — and felt he could do well with writing reviews of tobaccos.
"I wanted to write tobacco reviews because pipe smoking is one of my biggest passions and I think pipe smokers are really good people. I think the most generous people I've ever known in my life as an aggregate group have been the people in these pipe smoker forums. No question about it."
However, he knew that the subjective aspect of reviews was a weakness and determined to be as objective as possible. "I don't think my opinion matters. I think the only thing that matters is my experience with the blend, and I try to be as objective as my body chemistry allows, because everybody tastes things differently. I've spent many thousands and thousands of hours writing reviews. It's my way of giving back to the community. That has always been very important to me."
"I don't think my opinion matters. I think the only thing that matters is my experience with the blend"
The process may be more involved than many realize. "Think of all the times I have to smoke a blend to figure out all the details. Then I write review notes. Then I write a draft. Then I edit it. And often I do a little more work before posting. Some blends you can nail in two or three bowls and some you have to smoke more than that, especially when you have a complicated blend like, let's say, First Amendment that Drucquer's recently released. There's a lot going on in there and I had to smoke it several times, and in several different bowls, trying to get a feel for its performance in different circumstances. With something complicated like that, I prefer a pipe that has a wide bowl with a wider burn surface. I stand the best chance of catching nuances and subtleties with a wide bowl, like a Pot. Let's say you're smoking something that's got five varietals; with a narrow chamber you're not going to get it all at one time and you're going to think it's an inconsistent blend. But if you have a wide bowl, you have a better chance of capturing what the blend is supposed to be."
Edward G. Robinson Averts Cancellation
Jim's avatar, used for his posts on various pipe forums, is an image of Edward G Robinson, his second-favorite actor after Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was already represented on the forums by other users, so he went with Robinson. There have been instances where he was mistaken for the real Edward G. Robinson, and received compliments on his films, but that's a rarity. His user handle, JimInks, refers to his profession as an artist.
And the blend Edward G. Robinson means a great deal to him as well. He didn't discover it until after he started using his avatar and decided to try it. It was available only in large tubs for close to $40, so Jim contacted the manufacturer, Sutliff. "Is there any way to get a sample of this blend? Because it's a lot of money to invest in something you don't know if you like." Three days later there was a sample waiting for him in the mail. It wasn't an ounce of tobacco in a baggie, it was a full tub with the note, "Enjoy."
"I fell in love with it." He called Sutliff to say thank you and was told, "Well, enjoy it, because we made the decision to discontinue it." Jim was distraught, having just discovered the blend, but because it wasn't selling well, it was going out of production. Jim said, "I'll tell you why it doesn't sell. It doesn't sell because you don't have it on your website. It doesn't sell because you don't have it in your catalog and you don't promote it. And it hurts sales to offer the tobacco only in a large, expensive tub."
Jim decided to do something to save this tobacco. "I started an internet campaign and I went to every forum in existence, 13 forums at the time. I discussed the blend and posted my review, and talked about why it was important to save this blend, and then a lot of people were saying the same thing." Jim recommended that people contact Sutliff and let them know they wanted to try Edward G. Robinson in a pouch or a tin. He contacted all of the major pipe tobacco retailers and got many of them interested in carrying it, and they contacted Sutliff. He worked at getting the word out, and on a Monday morning sent Sutliff links to all of the online discussions.
His phone rang a few hours later and he picked it up to hear not a hello, but the words, "We surrender."
"I started an internet campaign and I went to every forum in existence"
Sutliff asked Jim to make the announcement that Edward G. Robinson would have wider availability and agreed to send free pouches to those interested. "Sutliff generously gave away several thousand free pouches in that promotion. It isn't a nirvana smoke, but it has a nice, mild, comfortable, tasty flavor. I like the Burley in it. It's got one percent Latakia, which is just enough of a smoky accent to add a little dimension. And what I think is a red wine and plum-like kind of topping. I just like the taste of it. It's mild. I can smoke it all day and it's comfortable. So it's a blend that we still have available to us. And, by the way, Edward G. Robinson's granddaughter gets a percentage of the sales."
All of his skills came together to keep Edward G. Robinson available
Jim also recommended that Sutliff update the photo of Edward G. Robinson on the packaging to something more detailed than the half-tone depiction they'd been using. Sutliff asked Jim to help choose the new photo, and also asked him to rewrite the tin description. Jim additionally helped with the overall design of the new packaging, employing his artistic expertise. All of his skills came together to keep Edward G. Robinson available.
The Importance of Pipes
Jim enjoys filling his time with pipes, and currently has a collection of about 525. There are some favorites, mainly because of their sentimental value. Some are from close friends, some from friends who have passed, some with connections to people he respects. He still has a pipe belonging to his father, for example, which may not smoke the best, but it means worlds to him.
"One of my favorite actors is William Conrad," says Jim. "He played Cannon." Cannon is a television series from the early- to mid-1970s. "Conrad was the original Matt Dillon on the radio show Gunsmoke, and essentially one of the co-creators of Gunsmoke because he named some of the characters and contributed to development. He was a Charatan collector, and when I saw a photo of him in the 1980s with part of his Charatan collection, I knew I had to own a William Conrad Charatan. But I was never able to find one. When he died, I wondered what happened to his collection. My friend, Jesse Silver, who I became very close friends with, we're like brothers, he had two of them and he gave them to me because he wasn't smoking them. Jesse said, 'If you are that big a William Conrad fan, then you're the one who should own them.'
"It took me 35 years of dreaming about a William Conrad pipe, and now I own two, thanks to one of my best friends."
Also of particular meaning is a favorite Barling. "It's a pre-transition 249 Fossil military mount Billiard. There's a story that goes along with it that makes it very special because when my friend Donald bought it, I told him, 'This is the only pipe you've bought that I have a little envy for.' That brought a big smile to his face and Donald said, 'Well, if anything ever happens to me, this pipe will be yours.' A few years later, he died from pancreatic cancer and I ended up with the pipe. And every time I smoke that Barling, I remember Donald and that conversation."
For Jim Amash, pipe smoking represents friendships and contentment. "I smoke about 16 bowls a day. It's comforting. It's relaxing. I can't seem to read without a pipe. I can't seem to draw without a pipe. I can't seem to think without a pipe. It's as much part of my existence as breathing is. If you have a nice pipe and a nice tobacco, and you are content, there's a great joy in that. Whether you're doing something, or doing nothing, there's just nothing like sitting back with a pipe and relaxing with the smoke."