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Adventures of a Comic Book Newbie: Talk to Me about Writing/Pencils/Inks/Colors/Letters!

Adventures of a Comic Book Newbie is the place where you’ll find a discussion of the fundamental elements of comics and comic culture. If you’re new to comics (or perhaps a seasoned vet eager to get back to the basics), this column will serve as a guide on where to start and what you need to know to get the most out of your comics experience.

Panelteer Swapna: Writing a comic book isn’t like writing a regular book. With a regular prose book, there is usually just one author writing the words, but comic books have multiple authors, who focus on different aspects of the finished product. It helps to understand the role of each of these people and how they work together (and separately) because it changes the way you think about comics. As a reviewer of traditional prose books, it was hard for me to make the switch to comics because it was hard for me to grasp how the art tells its own story, rather than just being an afterthought (which is how I saw it at the beginning). Understanding the relationship between the different creators of a comic makes it easier to see how the comic comes together to tell a story.

So, tell me about the relationship between the inker/colorist/writer/everyone else I’m missing.

Panelteer Jennifer: This is a complicated question, and the answer is often different with each individual comic. In general, though (and I’m speaking specifically about modern, mainstream corporate comics here — indies are often very different), there are five people involved in putting the physical comic together (not counting editors and other people who work at the corporate offices): the writer, the penciler, the inker, the colorist, and the letterer.

The most important thing to know about the relationship between these roles is that the people who fill them may or may not know each other. Sometimes, these people can be good friends or even family, in which case an editor isn’t facilitating their relationships, making the process much more fluid and collaborative. More often with corporate comics, though, due to busy schedules and hard deadlines (not to mention language barriers and geographical distance), the five people involved don’t know each other very well, or at all, and the steps are made more discrete. It’s the editor’s job to “cast” each book by hiring all of these people, and it’s the editor who moves the pieces of the comic book from one person to the next and helps the different people communicate with each other when questions or discrepancies arise. E-mail is the best thing that ever happened to the comic-creation process.

The writer of a comic, as you might assume, writes all of the dialogue that you see in the balloons on a comic book page. However, they’re also responsible for describing what happens in each panel, giving the penciler a guideline for what to draw. They’re writers, but they also do things we’d associate with directors and stage managers in film or theater. In most cases, the writer creates a full script in which they describe each panel on each page, and write out the dialogue the characters should be saying in those panels. Having the dialogue planned out is useful, as it lets the penciler know how much space to leave in each panel for the balloons, and what facial expressions the characters should have. In some cases, though, the writer might use a method called “Marvel-style,” where they write only a general description of what should happen on each page, sometimes without panel breakdowns at all, and then leave it up to the artist to decide how to lay it all out. Once the pencils are done, the writer then goes back and writes the dialogue, basing their decisions on the art as it exists. This is a matter of personal preference, and often depends on the relationship the writer has with the artist. I’d say more writers use the full-script method these days.

Once the script is done, it’s passed along to the penciler, whose job it is to draw what the writer described. They’re called pencilers because that’s usually the medium they use–pencils on big, stiff pieces of paper called “boards.” They may also draw digitally, but the art still feels like a “pencil” because the lines are light and somewhat loose, with no shading or heavy blacks–that’s work for the inker. To continue the theatrical metaphor, pencilers are the actors. They have to follow the script, but it’s their interpretation that brings that script to life, that gives the characters facial expressions and body language. They often have room for ad-libbing, and they can make structural changes if necessary to make the script work better visually. They create the dynamism of the comic, making the action move fluidly across the page. They’re also the costumers and set decorators, giving the world of the comic book weight and texture with background details and the design of props and costumes. In science fiction stories like superhero comics, props alone can require a ton of skill and imagination to create.

As the penciler finishes each page and it’s approved by the editor, the page is then passed along to the inker. Sometimes, the penciler will physically mail the page to the inker, who may live halfway around the world–or they’ll mail it to the publisher, who will then pass it along to the inker. These days, though, pencilers are more likely to scan and upload a high-resolution version of their page that the inker can download and print onto their own board. This is helpful, as it means the inker can always print out another copy of the pencils and start over if they don’t like how their work is going, leaving the original pencils unaffected. It also means the penciler and inker can each sell their original artwork online or at conventions, because both of them retain their original work.

This is Mitch Gerads. He's inking, or pretending to. More about him later on.

This is Mitch Gerads. He’s inking. Or pretending to. More about him later on.

The inker, as I mentioned above and as famously described in the movie Chasing Amy, enhances the artwork by going over the pencils with ink and adding all of the sharp lines, heavy blacks, texture, and shading. They also act as lighting directors, deciding how the light sources in each panel would create shadows on the characters and objects. The visual difference between a pencils-only page and an inked page is huge, and that inked page would look completely different if inked by another artist who might make different choices about where and how to lay down ink. Inkers have their own individual styles, and it’s up to the editor (with the penciler’s input) to decide what kind of inks would be best for each penciler: clean, thick lines? Precise, thin definition? Scratchy, sketchy texture? The work of the right inker is just as important to the final product as any other role.

Once the inker is done with their work, they scan the pages in at high resolution and pass the files along to the colorist, the next person in the process. Modern colorists are probably the hardest-working people in comics, working their magic on what are often incredibly short deadlines. They work digitally in almost all cases, using Photoshop to turn the black-and-white inked pages into a colorful masterpiece. They may hire flatters, people who outline the different segments of a page and fill them with placeholder colors, but it’s the colorists who choose the color palette for each comic and add all of the shading and texture to those colors. The colorist’s job isn’t just to “get it right”–to color costumes correctly, or correctly convey the time of day. They’re also the people who create the mood of the book, crafting every variation from dark and gloomy to bright and happy. They follow the inker’s lead to show the effect of light hitting each object in a panel, creating glow and shadow, and they provide definition and texture to backgrounds and other areas that the penciler and inker may have left empty.

Finally, when the editors (and often writers and artists, depending on the editorial process) have approved the colorist’s work, the colored files are passed on to the letterer, the final link in the chain. The letterer is given the script, and it is their task to use Illustrator to digitally create and place every balloon and caption box you see in a comic. Placement is key–if the balloons aren’t the right size or arranged in just the right way, they might cover up important parts of the art, be read out of order, or interrupt the flow of the action. Letterers also decide on things like the color of caption boxes, and they create and place every sound effect you see on a page, choosing the color, shape, and font to convey the sound without disrupting the reading experience. These are the people whose job it is to work with the editors at the very end of the process, often making a ton of little tweaks and changes to the dialogue and balloons to make the comic as clean and perfect as possible.


There are some people, especially in non-Big Two comics, who do all, or most, of the work on a book themselves. Thom Zahler, who writes IDW’s Love and Capes, writes, draws, inks, colors, and even letters all of his own comics! And there are a lot of other cases where the same person will both write and draw a comic, or where a single artist will do the penciling, inking, and/or coloring of a story. In most cases, though, the above process is the standard, especially at the Big Two. It’s a long, complicated process with a lot of moving parts, and each creator involved leaves their mark. Change just one link in that chain, and you wind up with a very different comic in your hands.

Panelteer Swapna: The next time you have a couple of different comics in front of you, look at aspects such as the shading and color. It’s really helpful to take note of these things in order to understand the story a comic is trying to convey.

Panneralissimo Paul: As a special treat, artist Mitch Gerads (The Punisher, The Activity) gave us some insight on his own process, from rough layouts to finished art. And yep, that is indeed Mitch playing the combatants. Click for a closer look.

Mitch Gerads' Punisher process

1. Layouts – These are as “tight” as my layouts ever get. The only reason I do them in color is just to help my editor decipher these insane scribblings.

2. Shoot photo ref – Essentially I act out every issue I work on. Complete with rough costumes and everything. Often I’ll bring in a couple friends to help me out. My normal model for Frank is a badass!

3. Layouts 2.0 – I basically skip the whole idea of “pencilling” and I arrange, tweak, and add in elements creating a reference montage that will be my entire page. This is a dangerous step that I don’t recommend for others. Photo ref is a trickster. It requires a LOT of manipulation and altering for things to appear right and in proportion. You can’t just draw photo ref exactly, it will look crazy wonky. Also, what’s the fun in that??

4. Inking/Drawing – Like I said before, I skip the traditional idea of pencilling and I do all my drawing and line choices right into the inks.

5. Flats – I hand my inked pages over to one of my trusted flatters because I have ZERO patience for it. Flatters are the real heroes of comics.

6. Colors – My absolute favorite part of the process. It’s where the drawings become frames in my movie and become alive!