Don’t Ignore the Art:

Reviewing and Commenting on Comics, Part 2

Line Work (Pencils / Brushwork)

One of the first things I look at when opening up a comic is the style that’s being used. Is it more lifelike (realistic) or cartoonish (iconic)? Scott McCloud discusses these concepts in great length in Understanding Comics[1]. When dealing with iconic imagery, the artist boils the image down to its more integral elements while still being recognizable to readers. In erasing overly distinctive details in a subject, the artist enables his or her readers the ability to self-identify or identify someone else with this image. A more realistic approach, however, attempts to pin down the identity of the cartoon to a specific person, place or thing. Summed up, style can be used to help convey a number of ideas including tone and atmosphere and an author’s main idea.

Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is an example of a comic that implements a cartoonish style, which helps express one of the main ideas about things not appearing as they seem. I argue Yang applies this cartoonish and iconic style to give an initial impression of a simple and “safe” story. As readers encounter the characters and the desires – particularly the concentration of Jin Wang’s fears and desires in “Chin Kee” and “Danny” respectively – they will find Yang has effectively used his choice in artistic style that further reinforces one of the dominant messages of his book. We see a comic that appears drawn for younger readers, and yet, Yang is grappling with issues of Americanization, racism, and stereotypes, as well as personal fears – not necessarily the sort of themes one might encounter in a child’s book.

The next image comes from Garry Leach’s work on Miracleman, and it is an example of a more realistic sort (although it, too, still maintains a mainstream comic appeal to it). We look at this splash image and it is far more realistic in nature. This indicates a desire to create a more realistic and specific story – less abstract than what Yang offers in his story that addresses global issues. Instead, Moore and Leach are targeting a specific character that is meant to be situated in an all-too-real setting. Note the physical build of the hero – while adhering to idealized Western notions of masculinity – does not veer into the realms of hypermasculine imagery that were present in comics even during the 1980s and reached a boiling point in the 1990s. Moreover, the spacecraft possesses sufficient detail to fool readers into thinking that it seems realistic, if foreign or alien in nature. Yet, this heroic man flying in space may just be a part of a bad dream, as Leach situates a sleeping man in the upper-left corner with his arm thrown across his face as to block the vision before his eyes. Is this character dreaming of flying … or remembering? Without even reading the captions, Leach’s line work helps Moore tell the story.

Although Moore is telling a superhero story, it is essential to the core of Miracleman – especially in the earliest issues – that this series tackles the notion of what our world would be like if it there actually were super-powered beings. To apply a more cartoonish approach would undercut this message, and while that played into Yang’s storyline, it would be an ineffective choice that serves no purpose in this series. It stands to reason then Leach’s aesthetic choices are what helped drive home the story to readers at the time and even now.

Final Thoughts on Line Work to Consider

So there is still a lot of ground left uncovered. This is going to happen. But something that isn’t talked about enough is composition. When talking about the line work, it’s important to take panel composition into account. This refers to the arrangement of the images shown in each panel – straightforward stuff. Here are just a few questions to consider when examining the overall composition of a particular panel, some of which can be extended to the page composition as well.

  • What’s in the background? Are there things happening that foreshadow events to come? Note: Sometimes, a blank or less detailed background is not the mark of a “lazy” artist; instead, it can be a tactical decision to avoid overtiring the reader’s eye and placing a greater focus on the foreground of the panel.
  • What’s in the foreground? This is typically where the most important subjects and actions are located. How is the artist helping draw the reader’s attention here? (The inker and colorist will also contribute to catching and guiding the reader’s eye as well.)
  • Are the various subjects and objects in the panel easily differentiated from one another? Line weight (or how thin / thick the lines are) can help in this regard and even help the visuals “pop”. (Again, inkers are particularly integral here.)
  • Does the arrangement of the panels throughout the page add to or detract from the reading experience? In what ways?

Of course, it’s difficult to assign “ownership” over the decision-making process to the penciller or the writer, as the creative process is different from one pairing to the next. Some writers who apply the Marvel Style of script writing may often leave page and panel composition to their artist to figure out. On the other hand, there are writers who often use full script, which can include detailed directions for angle (profile, over-the-shoulder), the types of shots (wide, medium, close up, extreme close up), etc. Still, even these writers may give their collaborators the freedom to take the script and make changes citing that format is one that simply helps them get the story out – a point Brian Michael Bendis and Scott Snyder have made in the past. Ultimately, comment on what’s presented – whether or not it works and why, and worry less about figuring out who made the call.

Inks

As mentioned before, what helps the penciller’s lines pop off the page and allows elements of the panel to differentiate themselves from one another is inking. Heavier line weights (the “thickness”) help create that “pop” where the image jumps off the page. Lighter line weights (“thinness” of the lines) often work well when dealing with intricately detailed images. If the lines are consistently heavy, it can be come tiresome on the eye; likewise, multiple panels of art where the lines are indistinguishable can lead to fatigue and frustration when readers struggle to distinguish one item from another. This is where some reviewers will praise artists for clean lines, and this often is a result of the inker providing a sharper sense of the penciller’s line work.

There are some inkers, however, who do more than provide definition to a penciller’s lines. Michael Avon Oeming makes use of more simple line work and fills in much of his animated yet evocative art when he is inking.

Notice in this image how Oeming is able to create the brooding noir environment in this image through his use of inks. Given the setting where a young man is about to be initiated into the Mafia, this is an effective choice. As a crime drama, we know there are always eyes watching the main character. Since we cannot see them, however, our feelings of tension and fear grow through Oeming’s blocking out the light and immersing the image in the darkness of his ink brush. Not only is it difficult for Valentine Gallo (and the reader) to see what’s in front of him in that moment, it also hints at his blindness of what’s to come by choosing to walk this road. We see here Oeming’s ink work helps to create the tone that will play out in this first issue of The United States of Murder Inc.

Inking with Michael Avon Oeming (Powers, The United States of Murder Inc.)

Helvie: As a professional artist with plenty of published experience, what’s the significance in your mind of inking over the pencils on a page? Why is it necessary from a practical and narrative standpoint?

Oeming: Hmm, I’m not sure that it is anymore. Necessary that is. It is a choice these days, especially with so many artists working digitally. It is faster for more and more artists to “ink” their own pages as they are drawing them. I can’t imagine an inker on David Marquez. It would almost be redundant. It all depends on the artist.

Helvie: Does the inker help the writer and artist doing pencils tell the story? How so? (Feel free to address this question from the perspective of having been the only person involved to being a member of a team)

Oeming: Absolutely. Through the use of composition, making lines thicker and thinner, spotting blacks, the inker can help guide the eye to the story points if the penciller fails to draw attention to the subject of the page or panel.

Helvie: Is there anything else you think comic book readers and reviewers don’t know when it comes to understanding the significance of the role of the inker but should?

Oeming: It isn’t tracing. Even when the pencils are super tight, so tight you can almost shoot from them. It takes years of dedicated practice to lay down perfect lines- and to know when not to lay down a perfect line.

Colors

Not so dissimilar to the inks on a page, the colors themselves can help breathe life into the lines on the page. Brighter colors on a superhero in the comic can evoke a more upfront, personable, and simple hero such as Superman, or they can suggest more brooding, violent individuals such as Batman or the Punisher. Early in comics, it was common to find forces of good in primary colors (i.e. Spider-Man) whereas villains would typically be found in secondary colors (i.e. the Green Goblin). Although this “rule” is clearly not mandated, it can still be seen in many superhero comics today.

Likewise, a brighter colored environment can suggest life and a sort of kinetic energy (a la “Kirby Crackle”), more muted or cooler color palettes can lend themselves to more realistic settings, and darker and colder tones can help create a mysterious or frightening situation. Still yet, some comics may choose to apply an even more pared down color palette using only black and white or a single color in varying shades. Some important questions to ask about color in comics are:

  • “Why were these color choices made?”
  • “Do the colors in this panel / page / comic help convey tone and atmosphere effectively? Why or why not?
  • “Would more or less color have helped emphasize XYZ more?”
  • “Did the colors feel organic to the setting? Were they distracting or complimentary?”

As seen in this single panel from Batman #29, colorist FCO Plascencia minimizes all color in the panel except for gunshot halo around Martha Wayne’s head. This serves two purposes. One, we literally see the life drain out of her as the color leaves her face with only the faintest, coolest hue of blue remaining in her eyes, which lets readers know unequivocally that she is dead. Secondly – and perhaps, more importantly – the decision to not make this panel totally black and white, and instead to create a sort of heavenly halo for Bruce’s mother suggests her martyrdom and sainthood. After all, the death of his parents at the hands of a criminal is what leads to the birth of Batman – Martha (and Thomas) Wayne had to die for Batman to exist, and this sense of sacrifice for the greater good is highlighted through colors. There’s no need for Scott Snyder to include a caption or bit of dialogue when FCO’s colors do all the “talking” required in this panel.

Coloring with FCO Plascencia (Batman, Spawn)

Helvie: What’s one thing that colorists do that you think affects readers the most?

Plascencia: In my personal opinion, I think the most important thing a colorist brings is mood. I try to bring emotions through color, and that would hopefully help tell the story in a better way.

Helvie: For readers and reviewers who aren’t as familiar with the process of coloring, what can you share?

Plascencia: On a more technical side, once I get the drawing pages – and after staring in awe at the magic Greg and Danny do – my assistants (Sheila, Erika & Naye) separate the main areas in color with a process called flats. Then I go and choose the color palette based on what I read from Scott Snyder’s script or if there is any direction from Greg Capullo.

Helvie: What comes next?

Plascencia: From there I add shade and light in the process called rendering. Through coloring, we also make things more “readable.” We guide the reader’s eyes through focal points, separating planes and differentiating scenes with different color schemes.

Once completed, I get notes from Katie Kubert & Mark Doyle (our editors). When those are completed, the pages are sent to the DC servers from Mexico, where I currently live, and they are ready for Steven Wands to add the lettering.

All that while working hard in order to meet deadlines.

Lettering

Lettering isn’t something most critics – let alone readers – pay much attention to in their comics. Sometimes, the best letterers, sadly, go unnoticed. The reader is able to follow the captions, dialogue, and sounds without confusion and in a way that enhances the reading experience.

With the use of computers and the multitude of fonts available, it’s possible to convey more than just the actual message but also characters’ tone through the visual representation of the words they are speaking or thinking. One of the contemporary lettering masterpieces comes from Chris Eliopoulos in the critically acclaimed Hawkeye #16 – the “Pizza Dog” issue.

From the lettering, readers can see – from Pizza Dog’s perspective – the breakdown of language into a truly iconic approach, and yet, the narrative remains fully comprehensible. Yet, Eliopoulos wasn’t the first person to use the method, as can be seen in many of Stan Sakai’s well-loved Usagi Yojimbo comics.

For example, we can see in issue #144, a character dies. Instead of telling this to his readers, however, Sakai shows the final breath of the fallen canine through the death’s head image – in place of traditional text – and the uncertain, wavering lines of the balloon itself. Although an often-overlooked element of comics storytelling, it can be the difference between adding that extra layer of professional polish to a story and a comic maintaining some unidentifiable rough edge. Readers may not be able to pinpoint it, but something “feels” off.

Lettering with Rachel Deering (In the Dark vol. 1, Anethema)

Helvie: So I’m curious – as a professional with published experience in lettering, what would you say you bring to the table when you letter a comic?

Deering: I feel like my biggest contribution to a comic is a well-trained eye for layout and flow. I approach a page in such a way that the placement, size, and shape of my balloons will lead the eye in a very natural way across the page and make the story easier to read. If a reader struggles to understand how to transition from one balloon to the next, you’re pulling them out of that story and forcing them to take notice of the lettering itself. As a skilled letterer, it’s sort of your job to go unnoticed on first glance, and gain your appreciation on a second or third read through.

Helvie: How can comic readers (and reviewers) identify professional-quality lettering over more amateur-quality work?

Deering: The placement of balloons in such a way that the story has a natural flow. Thickness of the stroke around the balloon compliments the lineweight of the inks. Color of the balloon fill and stroke are congruent with or complimentary to the palette of the comic. (If the artwork has no stark white and deep black, neither should your balloons, in my opinion.) All balloon tails are actually pointing to the speaking character’s mouth and not their elbow or asshole. Consistent thickness of the tail where it meets the balloon. An equal amount of breath (the amount of space between the letters and the edge of the balloon) all around the balloon. And my biggest pet peeve: NO TANGENTS!

Helvie: Is there anything else you think comic book readers and reviewers don’t know about lettering but should?

Deering: It’s not a job that can be expertly handled by just anyone. You can have the greatest writer and the most amazing artist teamed up for a book, but if you slap a shitty lettering job on top, it’s like putting diarrhea icing on an otherwise delicious cake. It’s a terrible idea. Don’t do it!


[1] Scott McCloud and Mark Marton, Understanding Comics (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 24-59.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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1 Comment

  1. I would like to add that letterers also often have to guide unclear layouts, to give the reader a notion on which order to read those panels. And that sometimes an artist makes a silly mistake like putting the person speaking first in the right side of the panel (often because that’s how they were shown in the previous panel, where the person in the left spoke first), and the poor letterer is painted in a corner.

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