(Note: I wrote this a few years back for National Cartoonists Day for a magazine that has since disappeared, and since yesterday was May 5, I felt it would be the right time to “reprint” it! Hope you enjoy!)
Today is Cartoonist Day. Let me confess rather quickly that I did not know until very recently that such a day even existed. But, to celebrate the occasion, I’m going to explain to you how comic books are created.
I should first explain the difference between a comic “strip” and a comic “book” or, as the longer versions are called, “graphic novels.” Most people think those terms are interchangeable. A comic book is the traditional magazine style Batman, X-Men or Spider-Man comic you might buy off the spinner rack. It generally contains 22-32 pages and tells a complete story or is part of a longer story. A comic strip is something you find in the newspaper, and is generally only a couple of panels of art. Rather than tell a story, strips often end with a gag or joke. Strips are often done by one person (sometimes with an assistant) and their label is more appropriately “cartoonist.”
Comic books are generally produced by a creative “team” which starts with a writer. Regular readers here will recall Saturday’s [insert link to MAY 2 column] explanation of the two main comic script styles. Regardless of script style used, the process still starts with a writer creating a concise story that must be told in a predetermined number of pages. Not as easy as it sounds. Generally, a 24 page full script comic should be done in 3-5 full working days. An editor must approve the work after each stage is completed.
After the editor approves it, the script is sent to a pencil artist, or penciler. The penciler reads the script and brings it to life via pencil artwork, very much like story boards are done for movies. Most artists can do 1-2 pages per day…which means it can take 2-4 working weeks to complete a full comic book. Keep in mind that this is the complete comic drawn in pencil.
The lettering (the text you actually read on the comic page) can either be done directly on the artboard at this stage, or pasted on after the ink artist has completed his work. Depending on the amount of text per page, a letterer can complete a page in 2-3 hours, which means a week or two.
The art then goes to an ink artist or inker. It is the inker’s job to enhance the pencil lines. There is often much confusion by those who aren’t artists as to exactly what the inker does. A long running joke among comic artists is that inkers are just “tracers.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. In a nutshell, though, an inker brings three-dimensional depth to the pencil drawing. He has to know which lines to make very thick and which lines to make very thin—thus giving the illustration depth. A bad inker can really mess up a penciled drawing. An inker takes about the same amount of time as a penciler; 2-4 working weeks.
If the comic book is lucky enough to be one of the ones in color, the finished black and white pages are scanned at a high resolution and sent to the color artist. The colorist will then use a computer program, most often Photoshop, and apply color to the art. There is a wide variety of complexity to a colored comic page, ranging from the very simple traditional Sunday funnies color to coloring that appears to be fully painted.
With the coloring finished, electronic files are sent to the printer and the comic book is printed onto paper—the final product which we get to sit and enjoy. So you see, all in all, a traditional comic book can take up to as much as six months to produce. But it all starts with the writer!