Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Comic Assembly Line

By Chris Buchner

I recently had a conversation with a friend, the contents of which were about my entry in Small Press Idol; an American Idol-like competition hosted by Dimestore Productions. Basically, the prizes involve getting your idea published by Dimestore. Runners up get put together their own book, second placers get cover features for Dimestore’s anthology Mysterious Visions, and first placers get #0 issues whose sales will determine the ultimate victor for a four-issue publication deal. Even if you don’t win, it pays off in exposure; like for last year’s second place winner, Sky Pirates, which ended up signing a deal with Free Lunch Comics.

In talking with my friend about my entry, the subject of all my production problems that plagued me along the way came up. My friend was shocked at how much goes into making ONE comic, which led me to realize that not many will know or recognize how much of a collaborative effort comics are in order to make the ever-looming deadline. A team on a comic relies on each other because if just one of the people drops the ball the comic is either delayed or never again sees the light of day.

Following is a general overview of the typical basic process involving a standard comic production team (certain circumstances may differ for teams whose members have multiple tasks and for single-person projects):

Like anything else, a comic starts with an idea. This could be from a writer, editor, artist…anyone. Ideas are the easy part; execution is the challenge. The idea is passed on to a writer who works up an outline to get a general sense of pacing and plot within the confines of how many issues they have to work with. That outline then reaches the script stage and is passed along to an artist after a series of revisions. Of course, this whole process is overseen by the editor of the book, and anything that the writer does has to meet with their approval before advancing to the next stage of development.

The artist plays a big role in the production. Without the artist, there is no comic. Everything comes to a screeching halt if for some reason they get delayed, have a production slowdown or just flat-out refuse to work. Before getting to work on actual pages, the artist could work on character renderings based on notes from the writer or notes from a discussion between the two. This could be so the artist could get a feel for the characters, or to develop the characters if they’re completely new for the comic in question. Once the final draft of the script is near or reached, the artist sets to work on the pages. Some artists do thumbnails, small pictures that are mock-ups of a comic page, where they then plan out the placement of the panels and do quick rough sketches of the action inside of them. From here, the artist then draws them on the actual comic page (which is about double the size of the final product that reaches shelves) and passes them on to the inker once they get approval.

The inker, despite Kevin Smith movies’ indications to the contrary, is not a tracer. An inker can be every bit an artist as the artist themselves. Sometimes, depending on the style of the artist, the inker is demanded to tighten up and finish the images. Maybe the artist is weak with backgrounds. A good inker can draw in the background around the action, finishing the panel. They can also be called on to make minor corrections to an image that an artist could have missed or done in error, freeing up the artist to finish the rest of his work and keep the production line going. An inker can also help or hurt the artwork. Depending on how they do it (by hand or computer) and if what kind of style they use, they can either add depth and drama to the pencils or take away from the artist’s skill and make them flat, cartoonish images.

The finishing touches come from the colorist. The colorist can add the color to the book, obviously, but also can do what’s known as greyscaling to a black and white book. Greyscaling is essentially coloring but with tones of gray, black and white. Like in movies, this process can help convey the tone of the scene, time of day, mood, etc. As with the inker, the right coloring is key in order to accentuate the artwork and story.

Letterers have a difficult task. There’s a fine art to lettering; not only do the word balloons have to flow with the natural methods of reading, but a letterer needs to determine the proper placement of the balloons so as not to clutter up the page or block necessary parts of the artwork. A good artist would, hopefully, be aware of this and attempt to leave some room for the letterer to work. In the old days, there used to be even more skill involved as all the lettering was done by hand with measured lines, but it has been made easier when computers came into the picture.

All of this, however, would not be possible without the spirit of collaboration. Creative people all have their own styles, their own ways of doing things, and their own ideas. Sometimes, colleagues on a project may have opposing ideas in terms of direction or the characters. Compromise plays a very big role in collaboration, the ability to be open to the new ideas and maybe integrate them together in a way that all parties are satisfied. If egos are allowed to come into play, that can take a toll on not only the final product, but the rate of production as well. It has been known to happen that an artist, unhappy with a writer’s idea with no compromise on the horizon, will turn in pages done how they wanted too late to be fixed without missing the deadline.

It only takes one major blunder to throw a production schedule completely off and put the entire process behind. In making comics, everyone involved brings something to the table, be it an idea or their particular skill. The spirit of collaboration is what gets the books made and made right. Each person has their task to perform on the book, and without that task being done the book can’t be finished or it looks like trash. It’s all about teamwork, compromise, and meeting the ever-important deadline. Sometimes creative differences and ego can get in the way, and sometimes the people may be creatively mismatched to the point their work doesn’t compliment each other. And that’s only the creative aspect of making comics! There’s still a whole other business side to it, but that’s an article for another time. A lot goes into making these little picture books, and now you have an idea of just how much.

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