Comic books have been around since the 1930s, each story taking shape as it moves from its writer to its artists (usually a penciler and an inker) and then to its letterer and colorist.
Today, that team effort, which also includes an editor reviewing the work and mindful of deadlines, remains largely the same. But while the way writers and editors work is relatively unchanged, computers and technology have broadened the options for illustrators — some of whom have traded pencils and inks for styluses — and revolutionized the roles of letterers and colorists, in speed, output and artistry.
This technological evolution did not go exactly as some had imagined it might.
“I recall in the late ’80s, we were all so sure that every discipline of comics creation would switch over to being done with the aid of the personal computer,” said Mark Chiarello, a veteran of the comic book industry. “Well, 30 years later, people pencil and ink comics in relatively the same way that they have since the art form began,” he said. “But the job of colorist and letterer has changed and been completely taken over by the computer.”
In 1990, DC Comics published “Batman: Digital Justice,” produced on a newer MacIntosh, one with 3-D renderings and color. Still, digital comics took years to blossom. “It took a few years of stumbling around in the digital darkness and trying to invent custom-designed software before all comics companies embraced the creative software to end all softwares: Photoshop,” Chiarello said.
Today, we get lush images like those by Yanick Paquette, who has drawn many covers and comics for DC, including “Wonder Woman: Earth One,” a modern retelling of the Amazon’s origin. In Paquette’s view, readers are wary of digital art; their minds may look for tricks or shortcuts. “When something is too perfect, too crisp, you lose the human sensibility,” he said. To draw an army of storm troopers, he could draw one and digitally create a battalion, but he does not. “If I spend all my time drawing all the storm troopers, they are humanized and your relationship to the art is different.”
The relationship between a penciler and an inker has also changed. It “used to be a good inker was the best way to elevate a penciler’s work. Nowadays it’s a good colorist,” said Karl Kesel, an inker whose work was first published in 1984. “Technology has reversed the order of artistic importance in comics from penciler-inker-colorist to penciler-colorist-inker. As an inker, I hate to say that,” he said. “But it’s true.”
The artistry of coloring has improved by leaps and bounds. When Alex Sinclair began coloring in the early 1990s, the process was a true labor of love that required acetates, Dr. Ph. Martin dyes and color charts. Tablets were the next revolution for colorists. “Once the tablets came out, it felt more like painting,” he said.
Analog or digital makes no difference to Maggie Thompson, a former senior editor of the “Comic Buyer’s Guide”: “I’m there for the story,” she said.
Thompson owns an unpublished comic book cover from 1972 by John Severin. It depicts Captain America and the Howling Commandos, and required some paste-up corrections, which are now slipping off. “I wouldn’t have that problem with digital art,” she lamented. “But I also wouldn’t have the original art.”