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B&N Week 5: The Creative Team

| January 25, 2011 | 8 Comments

Happy Tuesday!

We’ve done a lot of talking about comics creation, basically from a writer’s point of view. We’ve laid a lot of groundwork, talking about story and pitching and such, before we got into scripting. I figure it’s now time to look at the other parts of a creative team, and what you should expect from every part of it.

We’re going to get to the Bolts & Nuts of what it takes to make a comic book, and the ride begins now!

A creative team will generally consist of six parts. [Yes, I added an extra part, and we’ll talk about why in a little while.] At the base is the writer and artist. Without these two, comics don’t get done. [There are discussions all over the web as to which is most important, but in truth, BOTH are important. Neither is above the other, no matter what a party wishes. Comics need both words and art, and it is that synthesis that makes them so special. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Besides, everyone knows that writers are the most important… That was a joke, people! No lynch mobs, please!] Next are the inker and letterer. The colorist is next to last, because they’re actually optional. [Depending on what you want to do and how tight the pencils are, the inker can be optional, too.] Bringing up the rear but is actually part of the base [and my own addition] is the editor.

Writer, artist, inker, letterer, colorist, editor. Six parts that are needed to make a quality comic book. Let’s look at them in all of their parts.

Writers, we’re a dime a dozen. We can trip over each other, and because of that, it can often seem that we’re interchangeable. Our work is needed, but it takes the longest to review. That should be evident from the amount of time I’ve spent in preparing you to begin scriptwriting. Editors have to read a script, and they are looking for everything I’ve been going over. There is no way to take a quick look at a script and tell if it’s good, but it’s extremely easy to look at one and tell if it’s bad. A run-on sentence, misspelling, or missed punctuation mark is all that’s needed to cast you in a negative light in an editor’s eyes, and getting out of that light can be difficult.

Very often in independent companies, it is the writers who are the prime movers. They’re the ones with the stories to tell, and as such, they go looking for a creative team to bring their opus to life. Occasionally an artist will look for a writer, but more often it’s the other way around.

The writer’s job is simple and difficult–tell a story. Writers are responsible for the script, which includes character descriptions, the actual story, and dialogue. Within that [full] script, you are responsible for everything the rest of the creative team will need to tell the story. No pressure.

Pencilers are also called artists. These two are basically interchangeable when it comes to comics. You say penciler to someone, and they know you’re talking about an artist. You say artist, they know you’re talking about a penciler. A good penciler is in extremely high demand, and writers generally understand this. New writers, however, don’t understand what they’re asking for when they ask an artist to do Pen-Man for little to no money. To put it in terms of cars, they want a Bentley on a hooptie budget. It doesn’t work that way.

A good artist will generally spend a day on a single page of art. A day. Writers, you spend maybe twenty-minutes [a LONG twenty-minutes] typing a single page of script. A day versus twenty-minutes. See the disparity in time? And you want to pay this artist something along the lines of $5/page? Imagine offering Jim Lee five bucks a page to draw Pen-Man. Finished laughing? So are most artists. Admittedly, their level of craft can vary wildly, but remember that you get what you pay for.

Artists are responsible for laying the initial pencils on the page. They take the panel descriptions that you provide and translate it into a picture, trying to get as accurate as they can to what you put down. Their knowledge base has to run the gamut from anatomy to perspective to imagination when creating monsters or spaceships or what-have-you. The pencils can run from very tight to very loose. Today’s artists generally use pretty tight pencils, but they don’t have to. Generally, you can count on a page a day from an artist. Some artists are fast, like Mark Bagley or John Romita, Jr. Artists such as these can handle two books a month. [This used to be closer to the norm, but as comics got more intricate, it started to take longer. This is why you can now count on a page a day.]

Inkers are also known as finishers. The term “finisher” was used when the pencils were loose. The inker would then come behind the penciler and “finish” the page. Nowadays, like I said, the trend is for very tight pencils. This turns the inker into a glorified tracer. [Chasing Amy, anyone?] What the inker does is takes the pencils and goes over the lines in ink, making the temporary pencil lines into permanent ink lines. They then erase the underlying pencils. However, don’t misunderstand me–inkers are artists in their own right. They are responsible for fixing any problems in the pencils, and varying the line weights in order to push objects into the fore-, middle- and backgrounds.

In a perfect world, the artist should choose their inker. Why? Because inkers also come in varying skill levels, as well as approaches and styles. You don’t want a gritty inker on a book that’s supposed to look slick. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Just as pencilers interpret the script, inkers interpret the pencils. If it were as simple as slinging ink on a page, we’d all be doing it.

It is generally at this point that the art gets scanned. Generally. From here, everything else will be done by computer. The resulting files can be split among the next two pieces of the creative team puzzle.

The first is color. Colorists are responsible for putting color over the inks. Sounds simple, but coloring can be as simple as writing. By now, you should know how complicated writing is, so just imagine coloring. Coloring goes in layers, and if you get a new colorist on Pen-Man, which is a superhero action comic, you’re going to have all kinds of lens flares and unneeded special effects all over the place. It can get really bad. Really bad.

Anyway, the initial layers of colors are called “flats”. The flats are then built up so that they build a medley of color on a page. This is vastly different in execution from the color guides that used to rule the industry. Each color had a code, and those codes would be different for every aspect of everything you’d see on the page. If you had a red ball that was half in the light and half in shadow, as well as casting a shadow, you’d have codes all over that red ball: one for the highlight, one for the real color of the ball, one for the light shadow, one for the deep shadow, and one for the shadow that the ball cast. All of these would be on a copy of the artwork itself, and it was called the color guide. The advent of computer coloring replaced color guides.

When it comes to colors, the colorist not only has to know about color theory, complimentary and contrasting colors and stuff like that, they also need to know about light and shadow, light sources, and myriad other things.

Colorists also need to know how to grayscale. Grayscale is for black and white comics, and while not necessary, it’s often a good thing to do. Comics don’t need color, and they don’t need to be grayscaled. However, grayscaling helps to break up the starkness of simple black and white by offering the half-tones of gray.

The second place the files go to are letters. Letterers are responsible for every word you read in a comic. Dialogue and special effects are one thing, and easy to identify for the role of letterer. The not so easy to identify is signage. Signage can be anything from a store sign to a sign on the side of a truck to the numbers in a clock. If the artist didn’t draw it and it incorporates letters and/or numbers, the letterer is responsible for it.

Letterers are also responsible for logos and such things like titles and different types of captions and word balloons, not to mention the font of the dialogue and sound effects. Those lovely scrolls and such that you find in comics? Those aren’t done by the artist. Those are done by the letterer.

Lettering is more than just putting the copy [text] on the page. It can be an artform itself, laced with intricate planning on how to cram the five billion words the artist wrote for the page into something that is legible, pleasing to the eye, and can be read with no problem. This can be challenging, because new writers tend to run off at the keyboard.

Back in the day, comics used to be lettered by hand. Imagine the discipline it took to not only write neatly, but to try to form your letters the exact same way, time after time. Not to mention still being responsible for sound effects and different fonts and signs and captions with scrolls and everything else. Not only that, but letterers were also responsible for inking panel borders. As if they didn’t have enough to do! Aren’t you happy you’re in modern times now?

Last, but definitely not least, is the editor. The editor that does the best job is the one who isn’t seen. Their work is transparent. The true role of the editor is to make the rest of the team look like a bunch of geniuses, and get no credit themselves. The job of the editor is manifold, and often thankless.

Before we get into the jobs of an editor, let me first say that there are two kinds of editors. The first kind is the one who is self-sacrificial, willing to teach, and goes over changes with the creative team, pulling rank only when needed for the good of the book. This editor’s primary goal is to help the creative team produce the greatest story they can.

The other kind of editor is one that’s drunk with their own power. They’ll make arbitrary changes just so they can say they edited the book, or worse, is a frustrated writer themselves and will rewrite the book to something the original writer no longer recognizes. They are fast to take credit for something the writer did, and really gets in the way more than they’re helping the creation of the book.

Luckily, you generally won’t find the latter type of editor too often outside of Marvel/DC. Oh, they’re out there, but if you’re going to run into one, you have a greater chance of doing it at one of the big boys.

There will be times when an editor will put together a project, but that doesn’t happen all that much outside of Marvel/DC anymore. I can think of one that got a lot of attention that was put together by an editor, and that was Postcards by Jason Rodriguez. Like I said, doesn’t happen often anymore.

When a writer puts together a creative team, it is my fervent [almost rabid] belief that they should also get an editor. Lots of writers dream of putting together a team and submitting Pen-Man to Image. So they go and get an artist and inker, possibly think about color, get a letterer, and then when the book is finished, they submit it to Image, where it gets rejected. What went wrong?

Well, from the amount of submissions that editors generally get, I’m going to say it’s a safe bet to say the submission was crap, pure and unmitigated. Crap is kind of harsh, but if you hold up your submission and put it next to an issue of anything produced by the company you’re submitting to, and you find ANYTHING wrong with it, then you’re not ready. It’s really that simple. How can you get more ready?

Hire an editor.

The first job of the editor is to make sure the script is up to snuff. This is first and foremost, because the script is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Everything that I’ve been going over when it comes to scriptwriting [and stuff I haven’t gone into yet] will be looked for by the editor. This is more than just proofreading, although that’s a part of it. Format, character development, dialogue, pacing, story, company standards, and more–all of this is looked at by the editor. A good editor will go over the script with you for making the suggested changes, basically teaching you how they edit and what they’re looking for, so you shouldn’t make the same mistakes again. Proofreading for spelling and grammar are the easiest things you as the writer can do for yourself. If you’re reading this, you have a computer, and if you have a computer, I’m willing to bet you have some sort of word processing program. That word processing program has a spell check to it. That spell check is your friend. However, it’s not foolproof. It’s not going to tell the difference between follow and fellow in a sentence if both are spelled correctly. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have someone else look over the script, if possible. [This is if you’re handing it in cold, trying to get a job through an editor.] Anyway, part of the editorial job is to make sure the script is ready to go to the rest of the team.

The second job of the editor is to look at the art the penciler has produced. In a perfect world, it’ll be thumbnails first, and then finished art. In the thumbnails, the editor looks to see that the script is being followed, and that the artist is able to tell the story with pictures. In the finished art, the editor is looking for anatomy, perspective, light sources, and clear storytelling. Basically, has the artist done their job? If so, then the artwork goes to inks. If not, the editor goes over with the artist the issues that need to be straightened out, and then once those tweaks are made to everyone’s satisfaction, the art goes to inks.

The third job of the editor is to make sure the inker has done their job: have the line weights been varied? Are the light sources consistent? Are there any corrections that need to be made?

The fourth job is to make sure the colors/grayscale is correct. Is it night when it should be day? Are the colors consistent from panel to panel, page to page? You’d be surprised how things can change from one page to the next, or how light sources can change.

Next is letters. You’d think that just cutting and pasting is simple, but you’d be surprised at the liberties some letterers take. Some are good–they’ll fix your fellow to follow–but others are obnoxious and uncalled for: rearranging your words, or leaving out some dialogue altogether.

And that’s just looking at the pages themselves. That doesn’t even include making sure the production schedule is adhered to, kicking creators into gear, managing the entire project, dealing with personal problems of creators and things extremely too numerous to mention. And that’s only for freelance editors or independent companies. If the editor works for Marvel/DC, heap on meetings, payroll, phone-calls [both making and receiving], e-mails [sending and receiving], looking for new talent, and dealing with the upstarts from the slush pile [don’t forget interviews and traveling to conventions].

And that’s the creative team, with my own addition. In my world, when a writer gets a story, they’ll think about who they want to edit them before they think about getting an artist. You have no idea how many times I go to the Digital Webbing Help Wanted sections and see writers putting up ads for artists, and they have misspellings or grammatical errors in them.

Now, I know I said I was going to get into scripting this week, and I promise to get there. I felt this aside was necessary now so that when you actually do start scripting, you’ll hopefully keep some of this in mind. I haven’t even spoken about money yet. I think I’ll save it, and talk about money with contracts. I like to group things together.

Your homework is easy. Remember to always always always get an editor as part of your creative team. It doesn’t get much easier than that. Always. An editor will save your life.

That’s it for this week. See you in seven!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Writers

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

Comments (8)

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  1. John Lees says:

    I think that, from an outside perspective, an editor’s role seems clearer in the Big Two. If you’re an editor for the Batman line of books in DC, or – surely the most nightmarish, Herculean of tasks – the editor of the X-books for Marvel, your job involves having an encyclopedic knowledge of continuity, keeping on top of plot turns and character beats that may clash with something that happened in the past, and making sure the chronology between various books in the line plays out without too much overlapping and confusion. You’re overseeing multiple books, trying to make sure they all stay afloat without stepping on each other’s toes, and you’re acting as a kind of custodian for decades of comic history.

    As such, I think that’s what people associate comic editors with, rather than being part of the core creative team of all comics of every creed. But I speak from experience when I say an editor is essential, and a part of the creative team I would not do without, for all the reasons Steven mentions above.

    As for the rest of the creative team, it continues to impress me just how cumulative and complimentary a process it all is. The penciller’s job is to make the writer look better, taking the panel descriptions – just a collection of words – and turning it into a magnificent image. Then the inker’s job is to make the penciller look better, picking out the lines that will draw out the strengths of the art and emphasis the right aspects of the page. Then the colorist’s job is to make the inker look better, balancing out the inker’s shading and linework with splashes of color that give the whole thing depth and vibrancy. Then the letterer’s job is to make the art team look better, positioning bubbles and captions in ways that lead the eye and bring out the hot spots of the panel.

    It’s a very collaborative, almost symbiotic process, so much so that credit is not always placed where its due. A critic may praise the genius of a penciller for what is actually a triumph of color, or they may give kudos to a writer for the emotion he wrings out of a silent beat when in fact that was the contribution of the penciller. But I think that’s a sign of the best comics, when every person involved in its creation – each with their individual skills and contributions – meld together into a singular creative voice.

    And as a final note – I know I’m rambling – I think it’s amazing how the internet age has allowed people from all over the world to collaborate so intimitely, often without ever meeting face-to-face. Imagine how difficult this woul have been even a couple of decades ago.

    • Well said, John.

      And a couple of decades ago, a LOT of it was done by mail (for the big boys, at least). UPS and FedEx and couriers and whatever else–anything and everything to get the books out on time. The internet makes it easier for guys like us to communicate and collaborate, because the cost of shipping is already rolled into our monthly cable/internet connection bill. So, yes, it brought us together, but it also lowered the cost of production.

      Just imagine trying to do things through the mail on an international level. Mind boggling and expensive.

  2. I know I’d need an editor, I’m terrible at asking artists to go back and correct their work if it’s something like a head’s a little big or the perspective is a little off. Big stuff like no room to insert speech bubbles or using the wrong character is a different matter, but it’s the little stuff that makes a book great.

    • Interesting thought, David.

      Why can you ask them to change the big things, but not the little? What’s the impediment there?

      • Mostly because it feels like I’m bitching about nothing and I’m just trying to be nitpicky. Also, because I know that these people are putting in a lot of time and effort into this page that usually looks great otherwise, so I usually figure “Hey, no one’s perfect.”

        • Here is where I wish Lee Nordling was here.

          But, I’m going to address this in a B&N somewhere down the road.

          In the end, though, it’s about communication. If you KNOW it’s wrong, you should speak up. Don’t be a jerk about it, but point out what the faults are and ask for the changes, because there are generally one of two things going on:

          If you’re paying the artist, there is a part of you that is owed for it to be done right.

          If it is a collaborative effort (truly collaborative), then the artist would probably like an outside opinion on things. Because it is both of your babies.

          Here’s an example:

          I’m doing something with artist Scott Austin. (He stopped by in another article. Everyone wave to Scott!) We tried to get together on something before, but it just didn’t come together. I have another idea that seemed to capture his imagination, and I gave him only the vaguest of things to go on. I started coming up with a story idea when he told me he liked the idea of the character, and then he started coming up with some additional characters to go along with it. I started adding to the characters he created, so basically, what was once mine is now becoming ours (and really, I wouldn’t have it any other way).

          I have some sketches he did, I wrote up a script, and he’s going to provide some thumbs before doing the pages up. Because he’s the artist, he’s going to have a pretty free hand with the look of the story. When it comes to the finished pencils, though, I’m going to scrutinize. Why? Because I should. This is our baby, and we both should be concerned with putting our best foot forward. If I see something that I feel needs to be tweaked, I’ll say something. When he first went over the script, he saw some things he felt should be tweaked, and he said something.

          He’s not my artmonkey, and I’m not his keyboard slave. We’re coming at it from a position of mutual respect for each other’s abilities.

          One more example.

          I’m doing something else with Mac Radwanski. I came to him with an idea, and he liked it. Even though we’re partners, I’m paying him for his time at the board. I asked him for his input on certain aspects of the story, and am working them in. When the thumbnails come in, I might propose something different, or he might propose a different angle than I asked for in the script. When the finished pages come in, I might ask for a change of something here or there. Part of it is because I’m paying him, but the bigger part is because this is our baby, and I want to make sure we’re putting our best foot forward.

          Hopefully, as you grow as a creator, you’ll come to realize that you’re not “bitching about nothing” and you’re “just trying to be nitpicky.” Because if YOU can see it, and you’re not an artist, then OTHER people can see it, too. And then what does that do for your book? What does that do for the story you’re trying to tell? Sure, let some things go, but don’t be afraid to ask for changes, either. That’s all I’m trying to say.

  3. Sarah says:

    So like if I wanted to hire a full family like team for a team similar to something like Clamp in Japan, I assume it would be a good idea to have a full time editor to?

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