The Ian Gibson column: how comics are created

Comics legend Ian Gibson answers some of the questions you may have always wondered about...

A friend who is new to the world of comics was asking recently about the ‘pencillor/inker/colourist’ situation and the whys and wherefores of it. I believe the curiosity arose from having first seen my Halo work where it was just me, Alan and a letterer, and then experiencing something like Boba Fett, where everyone but the tea-boy gets a mention.

I never really did get ‘involved’ with the Boba Fett saga. I just didn’t get on with Darth Vader. But I gather that Angela Merkel is taking on the role now, which, even if interesting, doesn’t bode well for the future of Europe.

Now, I could have answered my friend with a glib answer like “Production line”. But that is only part of the story, and it brings to mind the very bizarre ‘nativity’ drama being enacted in the States right now.

Appropriately, some enthusiastic astronomer has concluded that there was, in fact, a high probability of there being an actual phenomena in the skies at the approximate year of the Nazarene’s birth. And looking up into the clear winter skies, that sparkle with stars and the promise of frost, I see that Orion’s belt is particularly well polished right now.

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But that’s not the reason that the three kings from Detroit are banging on Herod’s door, bearing promised gifts of industrial collapse, economic upheaval and mass unemployment. Not quite gold, frankincense and myrrh?? So the current Herod is quite happy to point out the stable where the new saviour elect is in waiting – saying, “I think it’ll be his baby!”

But production line, to meander back towards the original topic, is a fair description of the process.

I fondly remember during my stint on Mr Miracle, that I got the chance to take over more of that production line by taking on the task of colouring the artwork too. Not to mention a little editorialisation!!

Now, for those who are unfamiliar with anything to do with how comics are created, I will attempt a brief explanation…. taking Mr Miracle as an example of how it was done back in the dark ages of the last century.

First the script arrives with the artist, having been ‘inspected’ by the editor and approved. The artist then, having thoroughly digested the story and its finer nuances, pencils the pages on boards, often supplied by the publishers. These are then sent back to the editor for approval and handed on to the letterer along with the script. The pages are often marked with ‘production blue’, which will not show up in the black line printing part of the process. The ‘blue’ is mostly a guide as to speech balloon placement. Once lettered, the pages are returned to the artist, or sent on to the designated ‘inker’ for rendering in black line. By now the original pencils are covered with a fine hatch of lines that guided the lettering pen, and random blue marks from the editor’s pencil. It can be a test of the memory as to what the original pencils actually looked like sometimes!!! Thank goodness for photostats!

Then, once the pages are inked in black, they are again photostated to provide a base for the colour guides – a bizarre process of colouring and then numbering.

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In those days there was a palette of, I think I recall, 64 colours – combinations of red, blue and yellow… each split into values e.g. R, R2, R3. Now R was full on red, R2 was something like 25% red, though it would vary from 10 to 30% and R3 was supposedly 50% red but could be anything from 30 to 70%. So you can see it was a very precise system!

It boiled down to ‘B3, Y3’ being grass and ‘B2, Y2, R2’ being the grey of rocks etc. Any hopes of being subtle with colour were soon dashed, not just by the limitations of the palette, but more by the random quality of the printing process. So, once the colours had been lovingly applied to the stat copies of the pages, it was a process of carefully writing the appropriate numbers into the coloured spaces, or where required, drawing lines that pointed to where the colour was with the associated ‘B2,Y2,R2’ type code attached in the margins. But that’s just the way it was done by DC back then. Cheap and cheerful.

I recall that my friend, Esteban Maroto, told me that one time, while he was working for a fantasy publication, he did a colour guide for one of his stories – I think a Sheherazade-type tale. He had quickly scribbled in the colours with marker pens, (he was telling me this while he was using red wine and cofee to colour in a sketch for a fan!!) only to find on publication that the printers had lovingly reproduced the felt-tip dawbs exactly, which gave the artwork a rather strange unfinished appearance!

Sometimes you just can’t win!! Small wonder that Superman always had a red cape and blue tights. Play it safe!!

Read Ian Gibson’s previous column for Den of Geek here.


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8 January 2009