Comics stories start, like most everything else dramatic including half the breakup conversations I have ever had, with a script. Unlike the standardized screenplay format, there is no existing template for comics scripts. That’s primarily because comics is a uniquely collaborative medium. Some writers are their own artists and work it all out in the drawing; some writers break their scripts down panel-by-panel with dialogue; some describe simply the basic plot to the artist sans final dialogue, then add the actual words and captions once the art’s produced. I’m sure that last method sounds spectacularly backwards to our film and TV brethren—like crafting and looping in dialogue only after a scene’s been shot—but that’s the way many of the most classic American comics of all time were done. More on why this is in a moment.
Once a script is approved by an editor, it’s given to an artist who’ll illustrate it on (almost always) Bristol board. Some artists do finished, ready-for-print work; sometimes, to speed production, they work only in pencil and an inker comes behind them to add textures and shading and background detail with India ink to get the art camera-ready. Whether he’s doing finished work or just pencilling, however, the artist turns the writer’s words into pictures, and that is much harder to do well than most writers realize. Not only does a comics artist have to be able to draw anything from a herd of horses to a county fair to a Betelgeusean starship, all the characters have to be consistently on-model in every shot without fail, the storytelling has to be clear, and the images have to be dynamic. Tall order; some of the most phenomenal illustrators I have ever met are wizards in their own areas of expertise but cannot begin to juggle the multiple tasks of a comics artist.
This is why I say that artists are not helper monkeys; they’re not in it to visualize “your” story, because it stopped being “your” story the moment you engaged in a collaborative medium. From here on in, it’s also the artist’s story, and if you’re working with an illustrator who’s any good at all, you as a writer have to tamp down any control-freak tendencies you suffer under and relax into the process. Chances are, the artist isn’t going to draw that submarine hatch exactly as you’d envisioned it or angle that close-up exactly the way you saw it in your head, but as long as the story’s being told effectively, that’s okay. That’s what artists are paid to do: bring their own storytelling skills to the table. If they’re experienced, then more often than not you can give them a detailed story outline with first-draft dialogue, then craft your final draft around their drawings to add nuance, characterization and exposition, and there’s going to be an energy to those pages that’s present because the artist felt engaged and not simply dictated to. I always put my phone number and e-mail address on the first page of every script I write and encourage my artist to call me with questions, observations, or insights, particularly if they read a scene description and can suggest a clearer or more dynamic way of illustrating it. Again, it’s not “my” story anymore; it’s OUR story, and at some near-future date, we’ll go into specific examples of how my artists have improved my scripts immeasurably.
Beyond that, coloring is its own craft. Most comics artists work strictly in black-and-white line drawings, then scan the physical artwork so gifted artists-slash-technicians-slash-specialists can use Photoshop (industry standard) to add color. The letterer likewise uses his computer (alas, the days of hand-lettering are all but gone) to lay in the captions, balloons, sound effects and titles using (by and large) Adobe Illustrator. The coloring and lettering, once an editor has reviewed them for errors and corrections, are then wed into high-res EPS files and FTP’d to the printer. A few weeks later, printed comics are in stores. Rinse, repeat.
There are as many ways of mixing and matching these creative components as are mathematically possible. There are plenty of artists who do their own coloring and/or lettering. There are letterers and colorists who also write. Or draw. There are no union lines to cross. What’s important is that everyone’s telling the story.
Still too inside? If so, forgive my lack of perspective and feel free to ask questions.
Next: A Unit of Entertainment