Sunday, April 12, 2009

Comics rule - What goes into a comic

I got into a long Facebook conversation/disagreement/debate/battle to the death recently with Andrew "Poo in the Pants" Nolan. It was about the relative merits of sports versus comics fandom, as I personally think that obsessive sports fans are just as void of meaningful lives as obsessive comics fans are. While I don't want to rehash the entire debate, mostly out of fear that I'll misrepresent Nolan's points, it did get me to thinking about an aspect of comics fandom that eludes people. (And for some strange reason, I couldn't seem to spell "eludes" correctly.) Basically, Nolan was saying that push comes to shove, sports are real things done by real people, whereas comics are works of fiction where fictional people do fictional things.

This is true, of course. However, that's not all there is to comics. In my last entry, I wrote about a couple of favorite creators. While these people are creating works of fiction, the very act of creation is as real as anything gets. In other words, the craft of creating comics is worthy of note.

When I started reading comics as a kid, I think that I only took a quick glance at the credits. Within a few years though, I started to pay attention, and by the time I got to my teen years, I was following certain writers and artists, just as I do to this day. I imagine though that most non-fans probably think very little about the people who actually produce a comic, and they probably don't even realize what goes into it. Well, for the uninitiated, here's the breakdown:

1. The writer - This person creates the story, obviously. While there are several different ways to go about this, most of them write what's called a "full-script" where they indicate how many panels should be on the page and what exactly should be going on in each page.

2. The penciler - This person takes the script and draws it. While this seems like a no-brainer, the penciler is just as much a storyteller as the writer. With some writer/artist collaborations, the penciler will have a bit more input into the story, but even when drawing from the script, they are still responsible for subtle, but important, things like facial expressions. Most importantly, a good artist knows how to arrange the artwork in such a way that the eye easily flows from one panel to the next. Ever look at a comic and be confused as to which direction you should read? Chances are good, you don't have a very good storyteller. While there might be some pencilers who are wonderful artists, that doesn't necessarily mean that they know how to tell a clear story. Likewise, there are some pencilers who don't draw so well, but their work is always easy to follow.

3. The inker - There's a whole bit in Chasing Amy about how inkers are simply "tracers," and while I don't want to get into that whole thing, let's just say that I've been reading enough comics to know that a good inker can make all the difference. I've seen different inkers work with different pencilers, and it can make all the difference in the world. The reason for all of this is that most pencil work simply doesn't show up well when reproduced - at least, they didn't when comics started to be published in the 30s. Nowadays, there are some pencilers whose work is so detailed that an inker isn't even necessary.

4. The colorist - With today's computer technology, colorists have a lot more power over the final product than ever before. A good colorist can make mediocre work look passable, and a bad one can ruin something that's brilliant. For me, I tend to prefer colorists with a "less is more" attitude. There once was a time when comics were limited to three colors (and combinations of those four) and a lot of colorists really made that work well. A lot of the new stuff can be simply distracting as the finished product gets muddied in Photoshop effects.

5. The letterer - This is the guy who physically writes out all the captions and word balloons. Most of this is done by computer nowadays, but once upon a time it was all done by hand. I once heard it said that a good letterer is like a good movie editor - if they're doing their job well, you don't notice them.

6. The editor - This job depends a lot on what kind of comic that you're reading. If you're reading something that's creator-owned, then the editor is probably just proofreading and making suggestions. With mainstream superheroes, an editor has a lot more influence and can be a major driving force in the direction that the books is taking.

I need to point out that a lot of people do two or more of these jobs. Guys like Frank Miller and Terry Moore handle the writing, pencils and inks of their books.

So, to continue with the sports comparisons, a creative team is like a good sports team. One talented guy is hardly enough to create magic, but when they're all working together and you have a pool of talent, the (to use a cliche) total is worth more than the sum of its parts.

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