Once relegated to nerdy subculturedom, comics have finally come to be accepted as a legitimate literary and art form, said Jeff Burgess, who coordinates continuing studies visual arts at Langara College. Tintin expert Benoît Peeters’s appointment as Comics Professor at Lancaster University shows a growing academic commitment to studying comic book art, and the vibrant comics landscape has birthed such collaborations as Angel Catbird, co-created by Margaret Atwood and Johnnie Christmas.
At the Editors Canada conference, Burgess moderated a panel featuring Jeff Ellis, Jonathon Dalton, and Robin Thompson, all artists in the genre and instructors in Langara’s Graphic Novels and Comix certificate program.
Comics vs. graphic novels
They started by clarifying some basic terminology: in Understanding Comics, artist Scott McCloud defined comics as a narrative sequence—a series of pictures that the reader uses to put together a story. This definition technically excludes all one-panel cartoons such as The Far Side or Family Circus. Some have defined comics as a hybrid of prose and drawing, but it’s possible to tell a story with pictures alone.
A graphic novel, used more as a marketing term, is perfect-bound and has a spine, explained Dalton. If it’s got staples, it’s a comic book. For either format, “what’s on the inside is just comics,” said Dalton.
The medium has built its own conventions and terminology, using symbols that don’t mean anything outside of comics—for instance, sweat drops to convey stress or changes in eyes to show shifts in emotion. This language of communication isn’t really text and isn’t really pictures, and it requires a “comics literacy” to interpret, said Dalton. Thompson added that the visual language in comics is often a shortcut: it can “communicate what would take up too much room as words.”
“You can mess around with time in comics,” said Dalton. “Time is a very strange thing.” The reader constructs time as they read the page. A creator can use certain techniques to make the reader spend less or more time on a page, but ultimately their perception of time isn’t something the artist can control.
History of comics
Ellis gave us a brief but fascinating tour of comics history, beginning with cave paintings as way of recording the world visually. Mayan glyphs used sequences of images to tell stories, and Japanese block printing, ukiyo-e, allowed text and images to be mass produced. One of the earliest examples from Europe of words and pictures interacting was the Bayeaux Tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England.
In the twentieth century, most people were exposed to syndicated comics in newspapers. In Europe some of these became so popular that they were published as books. But the industry changed after 1954, when psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, which cited depictions of violence, sex, and drug use in comics as the cause of juvenile delinquency. (His facts, incidentally, were all made up.) The public took the book seriously and pushed for regulation. Major publishers in the industry agreed to self-censor, setting up the Comics Code Authority, which banned horror and stipulated that good had to prevail. These regulations created a market for wholesome humour and morality tales—hence the explosion of superhero stories.
Artists like Robert Crumb published independently and revelled in defying the Comics Code. In the 1980s, what Ellis referred to as the postmodern age of comics, artists like Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, found that not using standard distribution channels could lead to success. Small publishers that didn’t heed the Comics Code took off. The Watchmen became the first comic published by a major publisher that wasn’t Comics Code approved. “It broke basically every rule,” said Ellis. Eventually the industry abandoned the code altogether.
Ellis referred to the 1990s as the “dark ages” of comics, when newspaper strips began their decline. “Calvin and Hobbes was the last great newspaper strip.” At the same time, Japanese influence became stronger, leading to today’s melding of North American and Japanese styles.
“We’re now in a golden age of comics,” said Ellis. “It’s the most exciting time to the in this industry.” The panel unanimously lauded innovative works such as Jillian Tamaki’s Governor General’s Award–winning This One Summer, calling it “the best comic that exists right now.”
Traditional comics process
Making comics begins with a script, much like a movie script, which lays out the action and narrative, said Thompson. The only limitation to your story is knowing how many pages you get and how many panels you can fit on a page. “Editing has to be done on the script first. Do you have the essential information?”
Once the script is ready, the next step is usually thumbnails, followed by pencilling, then inking. At each step, the art has to be edited. “Is the translation of the script to the visual medium working?” said Thompson. “You can’t assume the reader knows anything. You are the director. They only take in what you give them.”
Artists use gutters, borders, and page turns to control the passage of time. You can play with borders to give them their own meaning—shaky borderlines can convey anxiety, for example. Comics are also known for using words to create sound effects. “Depending on the way you draw the word, people hear it a certain way. You can create sound in a 2D medium,” said Thompson.
“There are no rules in panel layout. It’s freeing for the creator and the reader. The only limitation is the printed medium.” That’s not to say that you don’t have to consider the user’s experience. “There’s a lot that goes into composing the page. That takes editing as well.” Thompson said that you have to allocate space for the words. Don’t cover up action with narrative boxes and speech bubbles. The action has to present itself almost before the words to. “A well-crafted comics page doesn’t need words for the reader to know what’s going on. Words should enhance the visuals.” Just as you can play with gutters and borderlines, you can play with caption and bubble layout to achieve certain effects.
Digital comics process
The digital comics process shares many of the core principles as the traditional ink-on-paper process. “Computers are great, but the story is king,” said Ellis. “People will read a great story with mediocre art, but they won’t read a bad story with great art. Do as much as editing at the script stage as possible. It’s always easier to change a script than to have to throw out a page after it’s been drawn.
Common tools artists use are Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, but there’s also CLIP STUDIO PAINT (Manga Studio), which is especially for making comics. The big publishers will have dedicated writers, pencillers, inkers, and colourists, with editors coordinating the process. Independent artists may play specialized roles and collaborate with others, but many do everything themselves.
Ellis likes hand-lettering, which he finds more expressive. A font is easier to change but can feel stiffer. It’s important to get the spelling right, though: Ellis described having to copy and paste individual characters in Photoshop when something has been hand-lettered but misspelled. Big publishers like Marvel will almost always use a font rather than hand-lettering because of short production timelines.
Funding, promotion, and collaboration
Dalton said that crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have been a boon to independent artists, although they work well only if you’ve got an established online presence. They not only help raise money for creation and production but also offer a platform to promote the finished work. “We are lucky in Canada,” said Dalton. “We have grants for artists.” American artists aren’t so fortunate.
The panellists said that independent comics scene is full of opportunities for collaboration. Ellis founded Cloudscape Comics in 2007 to promote comic art in Vancouver. This artist collective runs a studio and helps artists get published. It has released eight anthologies to date. Editing is important, particularly in collaborations, and it happens at every stage. “Don’t do what I did and make a thousand copies of a book before editing the thing,” said Thompson, pointing out a typo in one of his publications. When you’re collaborating, the editor is the one making sure everything works together. Ellis said that the hardest part about being a comics editor is to make sure the artists all get their work done. Dalton warned that “even if you’re working with your close friends, it’s very important to have a contract.”
I asked about how comics can be made more accessible to people with print disabilities. Dalton said that for webcomics, the Comic Easel plugin has a built-in field that lets you input your script. Interestingly, my own research into alt text for comics suggests that artists often use it and the title field as Easter eggs to hide an extra joke. I can’t actually find much on best practices for describing the visual and textual content of a comics page for screen readers to accommodate people with disabilities.
I also asked about the industry’s gender balance and what advice the panellists might have for a woman trying to enter the field. They said that although it’s still male dominated, the number of women is growing, and the independent community celebrates diversity. There is nothing nearly as toxic as the Gamer Gate movement within comics.