A comic book is a well-orchestrated design where every contributor plays an essential part. Although the roles haven’t changed in almost 75-years, the way they’re executed has.
The responsibilities of each role vary across the industry. Sometimes a Writer is also the Artist, sometimes Artists are also Inkers, and so on. Whether they wear one hat or many, it is mind boggling how labor intensive it is to produce a little paperback book.
The writer does more than compose words in speech bubbles. A writer actually produces a script giving scene-by-scene cues to the artist. The degree of cueing depends on the collaboration between the artist and the writer, but a comic script can look a lot like a movie script.
Sample scripts by Antony Johnston
One of the most shocking things I’ve learned about writers came from our interview with Kelly Sue DeConnick. When the writer hands off their script, their job is done. The artist renders the story without any further collaboration with the writer.
The artist’s role is pretty straight forward—they draw the comic. So, if they draw the comic then what do the Inker, Colorist, and Letterer do?
Full-color printing is time intensive. Separating the jobs saves time in production and allows each step to be expertly executed for the best product. The artwork in today’s comic is astounding and the main reason I love them.
On average, an artist needs to sketch 100 panels of action a month.* That’s 3.33 a day, which leaves little room for misunderstanding. An artist is good at what they do, are in tune with their story, and are fast.
The unsung heroes of comic production have to be the letterers (or maybe it’s just that I love lettering). If there’s a letter on the cover or inside the comic, the letterer designed that. This role contributes greatly to telling the story.
The panels below tell part of Barbalien’s origin story in “Black Hammer.” Notice how the text is other worldly instead of the typical comic book font. The font changes again in the last speech bubble to transition the reader back to earth (the font is dark and slanted).
The title page of “Ms. Marvel” issue 2 shows how much variety a letterer has to deal with. Using the weight, size, slant, and line of a character the letterer can convey someone is speaking in a foreign language, crying, screaming, enraged, or happy.
The pencil sketches produced by an Artist do not print well so an Inker takes the final drawings and lays down rich black outlines and shading. This may seem like tracing but it is far from it!
Before digital art, Inkers would lay a piece of clear film over the sketches and re-draw with paint brushes and India ink. Mistakes were removed with a razor blade.
Scott Williams old-school inking
Richard Bennett inks on vellum
The Colorist has probably changed the most in the last sixty years. In fact, the job of the colorist before computers explains a lot about why the artist and colorist are separate jobs.
Simplistically (very simplistically), all printed colors are made from just four colors of ink: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, known as CMYK. In older print processes, to get something printed full color, you’d have to run the paper through four different printers. One would print yellow, one magenta, one cyan, and one black.
The Inker did the black. The colorist then used sheets of cyan, magenta, and yellow film to add color—one layer at a time. By hand they’d cut out the yellow parts, the magenta parts, and the cyan. To achieve other colors (orange, purple, red) the colorist had to know how to layer the C, M, and Y film to produce them. This is why older comics had a more limited color palette—to reduce labor and mistakes in coloring.
Computers have made this process much quicker but the science is the same. A colorist doesn’t cut film but they still have to think in CMYK. And computers bring their own unique set of problems.
See “Coloring Comic Books Before Computers” by Gary Scott Beatty.
This orchestra needs a conductor and that’s the Editor. Among the million little logistical tasks an Editor has, they double check the continuity between the writing and the art and ensure the layout of the panels makes the story flow. An overview of how this all comes together so beautifully is discussed in, “How to Read Comics.”
It’s amazing to think how labor intensive such a little book is. Just like with video games, you can see the quality of execution is on the cutting edge and the industry thrives off of exceptional, creative talent.
For more on comic book lingo, see:
Comic Book Lingo: Part 1: The Format and The Serial
Comic Book Lingo: Part 2: The Numbering
How to Read Comics
*Comic publishing has an aggressive publishing schedule and they are ahead of that by one or more issues.
**Also check out “The Job of the Comic Book Editor” by Mark Waid