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How Graphic Novels Work

The Creative Team
Colorists add the spice of rich coloration to graphic novels and comics. Each hue adds a specific emotional overtone to the pages.
Colorists add the spice of rich coloration to graphic novels and comics. Each hue adds a specific emotional overtone to the pages.

A single, highly-motivated writer can type an old-fashioned book all alone. Graphic novels, though, usually require a full creative team, including a writer, penciler, inker, colorist and letterer.

The writer, of course, composes the text that appears in the novel. Writers usually develop the overarching story and themes, too, along with the plot, dialogue, character development and all of the essential elements of storytelling. Of course, no novel is graphic unless it relies on illustrations to propel all of these components.

That's where the penciler comes in. Pencilers imagine and execute the layout of each page, creating the panels and gutters and drawing the characters and environment of the story. Their illustrations are sketch-like and serve as a sort of framework or skeleton for the other graphic artists in the team. Pencilers are often jack-of-all-trades illustrators, able to accurately draw everything from people and buildings to puppies.

Inkers build upon the work of pencilers. With great precision, inkers shade and form the penciler's drawings. They wield an entire array of brushes and pens to add dimension, shape, depth and detail to the original sketches. In many cases, the inkers will liberally erase much of the pencil work as they go, to prevent random, rough pencil lines from diminishing the overall image quality.

Unless, the graphic novel is supposed to be monochromatic, colorists have the joy of adding color to the work of the pencilers and inkers. They use their skills to embellish the characters and add mood and drama to the story. With dark colors, they can create an ominous or dangerous setting, or use bright colors to lighten the page. In the past, colorists used pencils, pens and paints to do their work, but nowadays they mostly employ computer programs, such as Adobe Illustrator.

Letterers are tasked with adding text to the layout. He or she is responsible for drawing thought and speech balloons, and then filling these with a font that matches the story's atmosphere. Big, boldface letters, for example, show emphasis and drama, and small, squiggly letters might display a tone of sadness or uncertainty.

Powerful graphic novels bring together the skills of high-caliber artists in all of these fields. At the best of times, they bounce ideas off one another to get the story just right. In more discordant times, they might bounce each other off the walls instead.

The amount of collaboration between the team members changes depending on the people involved and the scope of the project. With some novels, a writer might take sole lead in dictating the direction of the art. In others, such as Dean Koontz's "Frankenstein," the author lets the artists choose how to illustrate the story.

No matter how many people are involved, if a famous name like Koontz is on the cover, you can bet that Hollywood investors are watching. As you're about to discover, film adaptions of graphic novels often draw huge crowds.