On the Assembly Line

If you're working for a major comic book publisher such as DC, Marvel, Image, or Dark Horse, you'll find that creating comic books is a team sport. Independent comics are often created by smaller teams — and sometimes by one cartoonist. But largely, comic books are produced assembly-line style, with a specialist for every step of the way. This is the typical production schedule for a comic book:

  • First, a writer writes the script, providing instructions for scenes.

  • Next, a penciller sketches out preliminary drawings in pencil.

  • If the words are being hand lettered, a letterer adds words to the penciller's work.

  • An inker draws the final art directly over the penciller's breakdowns.

  • A colorist scans the inker's work and adds color using a computer.

  • If the lettering is done digitally, the words are added at this point.

  • The digital files are sent to the printer to be assembled into a book and printed.

  • Editors are involved at each step, ensuring accuracy and enforcing deadlines.

  • Breaking down the workload for a series of specialists is crucial to maintaining a monthly deadline. In reality, all of the members can be working concurrently. After the writer finishes writing, he does not have to wait for the issue to be completed to start writing the next one. All of the members of the team can maximize their time working continually on the things they do best.

    The Writer

    As the writer, you create the story that is told in the comic book. However, a comic book script goes beyond telling a story. The script is the blueprint for the comic itself, dividing scenes into pages of panels. Through dividing the action into panels, the writer controls the pacing and ensures steady storytelling throughout the book.

    Beyond the dialogue, narration, and sound effects, the writer describes the scenes that the penciller is to illustrate. The amount of detail varies, but in general, the writer conceptualizes the comic book. The illustrations are the artists' translations of this conceptualization.

    Comic book writers are advised to write action. A dialogue-heavy script is not conducive to a good comic book plot. As you're writing, try to find visual ways to help tell the story — ways that don't rely on a written explanation.

    The Penciller

    A penciller takes the writer's script and begins roughing in the pages. His job is twofold. Certainly, he illustrates the action described in the script, but additionally, he designs the individual pages.

    The writer designates a certain number of panels to a page, but the pen-ciller's job is to arrange those panels on the page in an engaging way. A boring page design is going to adversely affect the story. Therefore, the penciller's first responsibility is closer to graphic design than illustration.

    How can I practice pencilling without a script?

    You can find some on the Internet. You can also buy books such as Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers. Choose scripts for comics you haven't read, then buy the comic and compare your solutions to theirs.

    Beyond designing pages, the penciller lays down the basic structure for the illustrations. All of the anatomy, perspective, and viewpoints fall under the responsibility of the penciller. These are not rough thumbnails to be firmed up later. All of the perspective problems, anatomy issues, and minor details are addressed in this step.

    Finally, the penciller must rough in all of the text. As a penciller, you will not measure out the text grid — more likely you'll jot down the text by hand — but it is important that you leave ample room for the text. Moreover, it is essential that you plan word balloons and narration boxes so they work as part of your coverall composition. Placing text so the reader reads the comic in the right sequence is vital. The same strategies you learned in the preceding chapter will serve you well here.

    The Inker

    The inker does not simply trace the penciller's work. That's a common misconception that drives inkers crazy. The inker uses the penciller's framework to do the final illustrations that will be seen by the reader.

    Since the penciller has solved the rendering-related issues of the illustration (perspective, anatomy, scene selection, etc.), the inker is free to concentrate on style. The inker focuses on issues such as line quality, contrast, and shadow placement.

    An inker must also be the final judge of the art. This means judging the level of detail, managing the amount of contrast in an image, and composing solid black areas in such a way that they assist the overall composition of the page. Very often, too much detail is more harmful than too little.

    Many professional comic book inkers report they can ink about one or two pages per day — and many work very long days. Comics vary in length, but assuming an average-sized book of about twenty-four pages, that can be a very challenging deadline.

    The Colorist

    The colorist gets a computer file of the scanned art and adds color to it. Obviously, the colorist must be able to color the costumes of the different characters correctly and keep them consistent throughout the book. Furthermore, the colorist must be able to produce sophisticated lighting and atmospheric effects as well as evoke distinct moods through the use of color. Coloring will be addressed in detail in Chapter 20.

    The Letterer

    A letterer working by hand will enter the process before the inker does. More likely, the lettering will be done on the computer. In this case, the letterer comes in after the colorist.

    The work is scanned in and imported into your computer's design software. The letterer then imports the text from the script and divides it into the appropriate word balloons. The letterer can also assist in the storytelling, both by font selection and in the way the balloons are designed.

    If you want to work on comic books, you must be able to keep a deadline. That means knowing how long it takes you to complete certain tasks, scheduling those tasks accordingly, and working consistently throughout the week. Make a work log and chart your progress. It will help you stay on schedule and enable you to figure out how long you'll need for the next project.

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