How Comic Books Work


Superhero Image Gallery Like this guy, comic books themselves are cultural icons. See more superhero pictures.
Courtesy of DC Comics

Blam! Zap! Pow! These are more than page-bound sound effects; they're emblems of a unique form of human communication. They're a hallmark of -- you guessed it -- comic books.

Comic books have a storied place in the history of human publishing and strong roots in American culture. In many ways, they're the apple pie and Fourth of July versions of American literature, full of iconic imagery, action, drama and, sometimes, even MOMA-worthy artistry.

Comic books and their artistic cousins saturate our society. You'll find comic strips and comic books at newsstands everywhere, and graphic novels and comics in strip mall bookstores and geek boutiques all across the land. Comic-based movies now routinely show up in theaters and draw huge crowds. It's not a surprise that these flicks are popular: Comic books have inspired a fanatical subculture, one that features its own lingo, slang and inside jokes, as any fan of Kevin Smith's films can attest.

Films aren't the only medium that pulls material from comics. In fact, there are so many varieties of comic books and related types of work that it's worth reviewing the term. A comic book blends drawn art -- color, black-and-white or both -- with text to tell a story. Comic books are usually 20 to 30 pages long; once they get longer, they're sometimes called graphic novels.

Stylistically, comic books are pretty easy to spot. Each page of the books is segmented into panels (or frames), which have borders that separate them from other panels. Individual panels contain one part of a story (perhaps dialogue between characters), or a character's inner thoughts (represented by speech and thought balloons) that leads into the next panel. Panels are routinely separated by blank areas called gutters. Artists lay out each page so that panels logically flow to one another, guiding the reader's eyes so that he or she absorbs the story in a sequential manner. It's for this reason that comic books are often called sequential art -- a type of graphic storytelling.

It's not uncommon for people to scoff at anyone who uses the word "art" in describing comics. Comics have a long history that's been linked to low-brow, cheap entertainment. But comics these days aren't just longer versions of the Sunday funnies. They span as many genres and subjects, both frivolous and mature, as traditional novels.

Comics are a global phenomenon, but for the purposes of this article, we'll focus mostly on the American evolution of comic art, with nods to notable international examples. Keep reading, and you'll see how comic books first came to life, how they're more popular than ever, and how their creators keep finding new audiences to enthrall.

Dusting off the (History of) Comic Books

Ask three experts to name the very first comic book, and you'll probably get three different answers, depending on the exact semantics they use to define the medium.

However, it was in 1842 that a book complete with paneled drawings and captions made its first appearance in America. It was "The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck," by Rodolphe Topffer, a Swiss teacher and artist. Many historians consider "Obadiah" to be the first comic book. After Topffer's breakthrough, comics spread slowly but surely in printed media.

Modern comic books grew out of comic strips, which were almost always humorous (thus, the word "comic" stuck). Those short narratives with just a few panels, such as "The Yellow Kid," graced the pages of newspapers beginning in 1895. "The Yellow Kid" used speech balloons, a convention still used in modern comics.

Comic strips were just one of the phases in the evolution of comic books. From the turn of the century to the 1930s, publishers cranked out hundreds of different strips featuring still-famous characters, such as Dick Tracy, Popeye and Little Orphan Annie. And these strips didn't just appear in the Sunday funnies -- other forms of comics appeared on newsstands and in gas stations in the form of cartoon books, and comics used as advertising gimmicks.

In 1933, the modern comic began to take shape in the form of "Funnies on Parade." Eastern Color Printing reprinted this short collection of comic strips on tabloid-sized pages, which simply meant the publication was a smaller size than newspapers of the time. "Funnies" wasn't for sale; rather, Proctor and Gamble gave it away as a part of what turned out to be a very successful corporate promotion.

Eastern Color decided to capitalize on its momentum by actually selling a book of comics. These were still reprints of funny Sunday comic strips, and they sold quite well on newsstands, opening the door for the next big jump in the comic book metamorphosis.

The epic adventure of comic books had just begun. On the next page, you'll discover how newfangled comic books and their lead characters not only revolutionized comic art, but perhaps (with only a smidgen of hyperbole) changed the course of humanity.

Drawn in Steel

The words "epic superhero" hardly do him justice. Superman is a cultural icon for the ages.
The words "epic superhero" hardly do him justice. Superman is a cultural icon for the ages.
Courtesy of DC Comics

In 1935, DC Comics printed the first comic book filled with mostly new material instead of comic strip reprints. The title was "New Fun Comics No. 1," and it introduced the American public to brand-new characters and storylines that spanned several issues as part of a series. Nearly 90 years after "Obadiah," comics were finally becoming a true cultural force.

The sixth issue of "New Fun" featured work from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two men who gave life to a character that changed the face of comic books -- and, in some ways, American culture itself.

That character's name? Superman. Yep, you know the one: Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, The Man of Steel. Comic book legend and world-famous American icon.

In June 1938, Superman debuted in "Action Comics No. 1." This was the first superhero comic book, and Superman's success gave rise to all manner of superheroes, from Batman and Captain America to the Fantastic Four and Wonder Woman. That first appearance of Superman is so legendary that a copy of "Action Comics No. 1" can sell for more than $3 million [SOURCE: Nostomania].

Superman wasn't the only legend born in those days. DC Comics published its "Detective Comics" series in 1937. This publication introduced Batman to the world. Just as significantly, The "Detective" series is still going strong today, with more than 800 issues, and it stands as the longest-running comic book title ever.

During World War II, superhero-themed comic books were enormously popular. In some of the most popular titles, iconic superheroes battled (and always defeated) the forces of evil in ongoing series that lasted for multiple issues published over many months and years. Other, non-hero characters were hugely popular, too. Walt Disney's lineup, in particular, scored big with characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Once the war ended, the glut of superheroes lost their luster. To recapture and enlarge their readership, comics publishers introduced more diverse subjects, featuring science fiction, drama, animal, Western, crime and horror comic books. It was those last two categories, in particular, that led to another seismic shift in the comics landscape.

Next, you'll see how a single (non-comic) book completely warped comic book publishing and saddened readers everywhere -- and how a comic book revolt saved the medium from itself.

Kryptonite to the Authority

In 1954, psychiatrist and author Frederic Wertham published a book titled "Seduction of the Innocent," which scapegoated horror comics, in particular, as a cause of adolescent depravity and misbehavior. Parents everywhere were alarmed, and a cultural crusade to clean up comics began.

To save their industry, comics publishers created a self-censoring Comics Code Authority (CCA), which set standards for comics content. Mostly, they whitewashed their comics to make them completely non-offensive, politically correct, and non-threatening to children and institutions of the time. For example, no title could use the words "terror" or "horror." Other prohibited characters and themes included vampires, zombies, torture and werewolves.

Mainstream comics became banal ghosts of themselves. And, thanks to the prominent Comics Code Authority label, parents felt comforted that the materials their children were reading wouldn't eventually turn their offspring into serial murderers.

The CCA may or may not have prevented comics from inspiring legions of Jeffery Dahmers, but it did help spark an underground comics movement. In the 1960s, independent publishers and authors, unbound by the CCA rules, began making comics featuring every sort of subject that mainstream comics couldn't -- sex, drugs, politics, and both visual and written obscenities of every kind. These alternative, underground comics were often called comix. Comix spawned their own superstars, including "Fritz the Cat," "Trashman" and "Wonder Wart-Hog."

The unbridled creativity of comix heralded another new era of the comic book medium. Unburdened by sales quotas and censorship, artists crafted comics with more sophisticated storylines and themes, often trading campy superhero fluff for mature, literary writing styles matched by equally advanced artwork.

The lowly comic book, which had been vilified by the press, derided by lovers of "true" art and ripped from the hands of countless students by ticked-off teachers, suddenly began gaining respectability. On the next page, you'll see how comics traded in their superhero trappings and found soft spots in the hearts of even their harshest critics.

A Medium's Metamorphosis

Watchmen: Not your average comic book.
Watchmen: Not your average comic book.
Courtesy of DC Comics

In the 1970s and 1980s, longer-form comics -- sometimes serious, sometimes funny -- became more common and were sometimes labeled graphic novels. These so-called novels featured complicated subjects such as morality and philosophy, and they introduced conflicted characters and damaged, fallible superheroes.

In some particularly notable works, it became clear that the power and scope of comic art had become a true cultural force. "Watchmen," "Maus" and "The Dark Knight Returns" put on display the kind of nuanced, tour-de-force works that were possible when scholarly writers matched their intellect with equally talented illustrators. Since these titles were released, comic book and graphic novel creators have continued to explore and find success in every genre. To learn more about the evolution of graphic novels (and the term itself), check out our article How Graphic Novels Work.

Independent publishers do sell many comic books. But these days, two long-standing rivals, DC Comics and Marvel, account for about 8 of every 10 comic books sold in the United States [SOURCE: CNN]. Their hit titles, which often benefit from movie adaptations, include "Superman," "X-Men," "The Dark Knight" and "Ironman," among many others.

While the U.S. sequential art medium was experiencing its developmental renaissance, Japan saw a similar rise in comic art. After World War II, especially, the Japanese fell in love with comics and began publishing them en masse. Japanese comics are generally referred to as manga. Manga are a massive cultural spectacle, more popular in Japan than comic books are in America. Manga creators make books that target and grab every section of society and gender, from young children and teens to adults.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, manga are also growing in popularity in the United States. Sometimes manga titles, such as "Fake" and "Death Note," even outsell those made in America. Manga are often simply black-and-white drawings, with only occasional color, and feature stories that appeal not to boys, but to girls. When it comes to manga, girls are the driving market force, and most titles are geared toward their tastes.

These days, in both Japan and America, comic creativity is still high, drawing on the powers of top-notch writers and artists. Keep reading, and you'll see just how these talented artists make their characters and stories leap from the page.

Artful Comic Architects

Oliver Coipel sketched this Mighty Thor #3 cover, Mark Morales inked it and Laura Martin provided color. Confused? Don't be. As you're about to find out, comic book creation is an exercise in teamwork.
Oliver Coipel sketched this Mighty Thor #3 cover, Mark Morales inked it and Laura Martin provided color. Confused? Don't be. As you're about to find out, comic book creation is an exercise in teamwork.
Courtesy of DC Comics

Comic books aren't typically solitary creative pursuits. Instead, teams made up of a writer, penciler, inker, colorist and letterer often combine talents to make for the most compelling books.

Writers often conceptualize the plot of a comic book and write the dialogue and captions. They imagine the way the words and art play off of each other to create an impactful, cohesive story. Other times, the writers will collaborate extensively with the other artists in the group.

Pencilers draw the rough initial panels and characters that make up a particular comic universe. These may sometimes be just sketches, but they're the fundamental basis for all of the drawn art that follows.

Some comics teams also have inkers, who add to and enliven the work of pencilers. Using complex shading schemes, they use their creative flair to add drama and motion to each panel.

Colorists add color to the black-and-white drawings in each panel. Colorists choose a specific color scheme, or palette, that matches the mood and tone of the story. Dark hues might add drama, while brighter tones may add a sense of joy or wonder.

Letterers are tasked with adding life to captions and thought and speech balloons. Bold fonts convey emphasis. Squiggly letters can convey uncertainty or fear.

Laura Martin, a colorist for Marvel Comics, says that there are quite a few artists who take on the challenge of doing all of the work for a book by themselves. But when it comes to mainstream comics, which typically arrive at a rate of an issue per month, time restrictions make the team approach much more efficient. Most pencilers and inkers crank out roughly one page per day, so by the end of the month, a 20- to 30-page comic book is ready to go.

On the next page, you'll get the scoop on exactly how comic books come together -- and you'll see how two artists landed their dream comics jobs.

A Comics Life For Me

Laura Martin says the color schemes in this art, from "The Stand: Hardcases," are based on photos of the MGM Grand. She made subtle changes, darkening the hallway and making the penthouse warmer and richer, to play off the emotions of the characters.
Laura Martin says the color schemes in this art, from "The Stand: Hardcases," are based on photos of the MGM Grand. She made subtle changes, darkening the hallway and making the penthouse warmer and richer, to play off the emotions of the characters.
Courtesy of DC Comics

Mainstream comics publishing is demanding, deadline-driven work. Brian Stelfreeze, who has drawn dozens of cover illustrations for DC Comics, Marvel and other clients, says that in this environment, teamwork is paramount, although he found the idea of collaboration a little strange at first.

"I started my career as a commercial illustrator, so the process of an assignment divided into three artists seemed quite foreign to me." Now, though, he's sold on the teamwork approach. "Comics depend on the synergy of specialists and creating a work greater than the sum of its parts, but I find it often only as strong as its weakest link," he said.

You may wonder how a world-class artist winds up in comic books. The road to comics success is not necessarily a straight one. Like many comic artists, Stelfreeze has a patchwork background. He started by drawing editorial cartoons in high school, went on to airbrush t-shirts in Myrtle Beach and jettisoned art school for a job as a commercial illustrator. Then he fell back in love with comics.

"I had always wanted to draw comics as a kid, so I thought I'd try it just once," he said. "Fateful last words spoken by many an alcoholic, junkie, (and) vampire."

Laura Martin got bitten by the comics bug at university. She says, "I read comics as a child and in my early teens, but I'd largely dismissed them until I was in college. At the University of Central Florida, my major was graphic design and my minor was art history. While I was going to school there, I worked nights at Kinko's, where several of the employees were comics fans. Their enthusiasm got me excited about comics again."

Martin says that her coloring work is 99% digital, but that style and techniques vary depending on the artist. "Comic coloring is part of a collaboration; we're not creating new art ourselves. Our job is to enhance the black and white artwork drawn by a penciler and inker, which is drawn based on a story written by a writer." That means individuals aren't in complete creative control -- their work is dictated by the story's setting and mood, among other factors. Again, efficiency is key. "Many pros color over sixty pages per month. So we have techniques and styles in place to maximize productivity while not sacrificing storytelling or style."

Reading this description of a comics workflow might make you think the whole process sounds vaguely cinematic. On the next page, you'll see how the work these artists do really does wind up on the big screen.

Comics Take the Silver

Plentiful white space presents an opportunity for your imagination to add to your comic book experience.
Plentiful white space presents an opportunity for your imagination to add to your comic book experience.
Courtesy of DC Comics

Comics have enjoyed so much success in the past two decades that in some form or another, they've infiltrated all parts of our society. Hollywood, for instance, is awash with comic book adaptations.

From "Spiderman" and "Watchmen" to "From Hell" and "Ghost World," comic books offer film producers plentiful material for on-screen action and suspense. Sometimes those films work spectacularly and translate into huge success at the box office.

"The Dark Knight," an epic flick starring Batman and created by Warner Bros., grossed more than $500 million. "Iron Man" also scored big, with more than $300 million in gross ticket sales. All three "Spiderman" movies grossed more than $300 million, each. "Barb Wire," on the other hand, was a spectacular flop, earning less than $4 million [SOURCE: Box Office Mojo].

It's clear that audiences can connect with comics that are brought to life on the big screen. Brian Stelfreeze said that when it comes to Hollywood hits, certain comics work better than others.

"I think comic book movies face a difficult challenge because they are generally as good as the material they come from. The problem is that we consume movies but we interpret comics," he said.

Stelfreeze thinks comics are a more immersive and interactive medium, one in which readers fill in the moments between panels, in effect providing the quality of directing and acting.

"The comic book often provides less than 10 percent of the story itself, so the quality is consistent with the reader's imagination. Movies simply are what they are. I believe the last Punisher movie was about as good as your average Punisher comic, but every reader has this fantasy Punisher in their heads that's much better than both."

Movies are hardly the last stop for comic books. Next, you'll see how comics are finding fame in other parts of America's cultural dialogue.

The Imminence of Comics

Comics aren't just books with a lot of pictures. They are a cultural phenomenon with a fanatical fan base.
Comics aren't just books with a lot of pictures. They are a cultural phenomenon with a fanatical fan base.
Roger Kisby/Entertainment/Getty Images

Comic books are anything but a passing fad. Their long history and current resurgence means comics have become cultural touchstones that make appearances just about everywhere.

Classrooms and libraries used to be no-fly zones for Superman and Captain Marvel. These days, teachers and librarians actually leverage comics to pry into the minds of unenthusiastic or fearful readers. Sometimes, students who struggle with the written word digest literary devices like symbolism, themes and narrative better when there are pictures to help them along.

Comics are also useful for communicating non-fiction or biographical information. Politicians and celebrities are frequent subjects. For instance, a biographical comic due in late 2011 will detail the life of tycoon Donald Trump. The same publisher, Bluewater Productions, has already produced (or plans to release) titles about the lives of Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, and Jon Stewart.

And thanks to the Web, you no longer even have to visit a newsstand or comic book shop to find comics. Web comics are a genre unto themselves, with all of the unlimited potential of digital tools used to create them. In fact, many Web comic artists call the computer screen the infinite canvas, one that can be used to show the artistry of comics in a single panel, or innumerable frames with imaginative layouts and limitless storytelling potential.

Perhaps the infinite canvas is an appropriate phrase for comics as a whole. They've morphed from simple, one-frame beginnings to novel-length epics, to the movie screen, to the online world.

They've triumphed over "funny book" and superhero stereotypes, survived government suppression and even won over the very teachers who once banned them from English class. If all of this history is any indication, comic books will be here spinning their tales for a long time to come.

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