12 Secrets of Comic Book Artists
Like jazz, comic books are one of the true American art mediums. Dismissed as disposable reading for their first few decades in existence, they experienced a renaissance in the 1980s thanks to work like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1986). More recently, they’ve graduated to a place of modern mythology, providing the source material for movies and television shows that reap billions for parent companies like Marvel Studios at Disney and the Warner Bros.-owned DC Comics.
Telling a sequential story across panels and pages is the purview of the comics artist, who must be accomplished in everything from the human anatomy to perspective to lighting. Whether they’re working with a writer or generating their own material, comic book artists must be versatile.
“I’m sure there are similarities in other types of illustration work, but in comics, you have to be prepared to draw literally anything, whether it exists or not, at any given moment,” Casey Coller, a veteran comics artist of titles like Transformers, tells Mental Floss in an email. “You usually have 20-ish pages to submit in a month, and whatever is in the script needs to be visualized on paper. You also are essentially the director, actor, makeup, lighting, set designer, etc. all bundled into one pencil-wielding package ... It’s much more involved than just drawing pretty pictures.”
To get more insight into how these fantasy illustrators operate, Mental Floss spoke to Coller and others. Here’s what they had to say about deadlines, owning their work, and getting penciled-in revenge.
1. Not all comic artists are into spandex.
While Marvel, DC, and other major superhero publishers dominate the comics industry, not all artists are willing—or even capable—of getting into the muscle market or emulating the “house style” that can be seen at large labels.
“I think house style refers to what folks have sort of come to expect from comics—large muscles and tight spandex,” Rob Guillory, who currently writes and illustrates Farmhand and co-created the successful Chew at Image Comics, tells Mental Floss in an email. “Really, house styles sort of change depending on who’s in charge at any particular publisher. There’s [a] lot of variations on that, and a lot of artists do a great job of bringing their own take to that, and I’m not one of them. I tried to fit into that mold for years in my early career, and I was never able to pull off house style in any sort of convincing way. I’d describe my art as highly animated, focusing less on intense detail or realism and more on expressiveness and clear storytelling. I’m probably more influenced by animation than comics, honestly.”
2. Comic artists like to have their characters “overact.”
While there are many methods to communicating emotions in a comics page, artists frequently opt for a more-is-more approach. “I lean toward having my characters overact,” Guillory says. “It’s the difference between acting on Broadway or on the big screen. Broadway actors project louder because they don’t have the benefit of a camera close-up. They’re trying to reach the guy sitting at the back of the theater. Comics are the same to me. I don’t have audio or actual motion on the page, but by making the characters act in more dramatic, exaggerated fashion I can bridge that gap. I’ve had readers tell me they remember certain scenes I’ve drawn as if they were actually moving, not just a still image. That’s sort of the goal.”
3. Comic artists make sure characters only run in one direction.
Comics are about momentum and movement. A reader perceives motion between panels because of how artists communicate that motion in panels. One way they accomplish that is by making sure characters move from left to right.
“You want characters running to the right because you read left to right,” Joëlle Jones, an artist on titles like Batman, Catwoman, Supergirl, and her own Lady Killer, tells Mental Floss. “They’re going on to the next panel, the next page, in that direction. If something is curving off the panel, it will take your eyes out of it.”
4. Comic artists consider one panel on the page to be the most important.
Sequential art involves telling a story across a series of panels. Some artists adhere to a grid-style structure, with six or nine panels per page, while others use whatever compositions they feel best suits the story. Others zero in on one specific panel. “When I'm breaking down a script, I try to look for the impact panel or panels on each page,” Coller says. “If there's something that stands out I try to build the page around that, using the size, layout, or progression of panels to carry the story in the most interesting manner.”
Still, Coller says, there’s always room for the basics. “There are some pages where a simple grid is the best way to tell a story, and it's never a bad thing to fall back on that as long as the storytelling is clear and effective.”
5. There’s one problem when comic artists work on major characters.
Grabbing a monthly gig on titles with high-profile characters like Superman or Spider-Man is a goal for many artists, but there is one disadvantage—you need to do it every month. “The timeline is so quick and you have to turn pages in so fast, you don’t give it all the care and love you imagined you would,” Jones says. “Sometimes it’s for the better. You might have been over-detailing before. Other times, characters can be too stiff or you’re going for a more simple perspective than you’d like.”
Of course, artists may be their own harshest critics. Jones’s work was so popular that DC issued a line of collectible statues of Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, and others modeled after her style in 2017.
6. Comic artists like to use the silhouette test for characters.
There’s an illustrating adage that lets artists know when they’re being faithful to the design of a character. It’s called the silhouette test, and it helps both creators and readers recognize familiar concepts. “Transformers are definitely prime—no pun intended—candidates for the silhouette test,” Coller says. “Anyone familiar with Transformers should be able to recognize most of the major players simply by looking at a silhouette, though some characters do share body types.”
7. Comic artists still need to think in words as well as images.
It’s safe to say painters don’t need to worry about leaving room for collaborators. Comic artists need to tell a visual story while also leaving space for the letterer to use part of that panel for exposition or dialogue. “I didn’t [leave space] very early in my career, and it drove letterers mad,” Guillory says. “When I’m laying out the issue in thumbnail sketches, I take note of dialogue, how many word balloons will be needed, and how many words. If it’s a ton of dialogue, I’ll need to give the letterer a wide berth by leaving a decent amount of background space I don’t mind being covered in text. It’s a case-by-case basis.”
8. Comic artists can get revenge in their art.
It’s not uncommon for artists to use real people as models for their fictional characters—typically background or supporting figures. “You spend so many hours alone with a page that you get bored sometimes,” Jones says. “So you’ll draw your editors in the background.” Other times, it might be someone they’re annoyed with who meets an untimely end. “Maybe someone who has frustrated you becomes a bystander getting crushed.”
9. There’s a downside for comic artists who use digital tools.
Drawing on tablets or screens has complemented—or in some cases even replaced—the analog method of using pencil and paper. While digital tools can increase productivity, they have the potential to affect an artist’s earnings. If the work is done digitally, there’s no tangible original artwork available for collectors. “I've only done a few jobs digitally, but sometimes that's the most efficient way to get a job done,” Coller says. “Personally, I like to have a physical piece of art to represent the work I put in, and I know there’s a market for these pages with art collectors, which is a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Other artists combine both traditional and digital tools in a blend Jones refers to as “tradigital.” This allows them to take advantage of each. “I’ll pencil in all digital, print it out on paper, and then ink on top of that with a brush,” she says. Digital penciling can go faster, and the completed—and tangible—work can be sold if Jones chooses.
10. There might be more money for comic artists in creator-owned independent titles.
When it comes to visibility, nothing beats getting a high-profile assignment like Batman or The Amazing Spider-Man. But opting to develop an independent and creator-owned title can actually be more meaningful financially if it resonates with readers.
“I can’t say if it’s the brass ring or not, but just about every creator I know has at least one old comic idea in their back pocket they’ve been itching to make,” Guillory says. If the concept takes off, the creator (or creators) can reap the financial rewards that may not be available with a character owned by someone else. “But indie creator-owned publishing is more of a risk than mainstream work-for-hire. That’s a given. As someone who’s spent most of my career working on my own comics, I can say the stress level can be ridiculously high. That said, getting steady work-for-hire can be tricky in its own right, and being beholden to a publisher’s whims can be maddening. My advice to any up-and-coming creator is to try your hand at both, if you get the chance. Each has its pros and cons. You just have to see what fits you and pursue that as best you can.”
11. Many comic artists spend their time doing other things besides drawing.
The image of an artist hunched over a drawing table holds true, but it's far from their only obligation. “I think folks would be totally shocked how much of my career is spent on the business side of things,” Guillory says. “I spend so much time on emails, selling original art, negotiating deals for things or doing press stuff. There’s a lot of work that happens before I ever get to my drafting table.”
12. Comic artists still draw just for fun.
Anything done as a job can cease to be fun, but some artists still draw just because they want to. “I used to think I was working so much that I wouldn’t draw for myself ever again,” Jones says. “But if I go three or four days without drawing, I get withdrawals. I need to get it out of my system somehow. I miss it. I’m addicted.”