How Comic Books Are Made
The process of making a comic book is no easy affair and the efforts of an entire team are required to bring it to life. After reading the Star Wars comic series Knight Errant: Aflame, I began to wonder about the roles each person played in the creation of the comic. On the reverse side of the cover was a long list of credits that included such things as inkers, colorists, letterists, and a multitude of editors. Being unaccustomed with the terminology, I sought to expand my knowledge and familiarize myself with how comic books are made.
From what I discovered, each comic series is a little different in how it’s made, but there’s typically a common process they all follow. The whole process starts off with pitching a series and getting the go ahead from the editors. From there the writer lays down the story. Each comic gets a script typically accompanied with notes to help describe the scenes for the artist. From there the artist, at this stage the penciller, takes the script and draws out each panel, turning the story from words to pictures. Afterwards the inker goes over the penciled lines and adds definition. This process of inking finalizes the art for the next step: lettering. As you might imagine, lettering is handled by the letterist, and it is their job to finally add the dialog to the panels. This is then followed by coloring which is the final step in the process, and it is one the more crucial stages of development. A good colorist can bring panels to life in such a way that the reader will be lost in awe at the images. The colorist also is the last one to touch the images. A comic with terrific artwork ultimately depends on the colorist to finish the job and raise the bar. (In review: Writer > Penciller > Inker > Letterist > Colorist)
In all of this, the Knight Errant series followed a similar process, and at the center of the creative whirlwind was the writer: John Jackson Miller. I had the opportunity to ask John a few questions about how Knight Errant was made, and he was gracious enough to not only answer my questions, but to shed a great light into the creative magic that brought the series to life.
How much of the comic do you visualize when writing the script?
JJM: Every scene, every image. I write a full script, so I imagine what every panel should look like, and I provide that description to the artists.
Sometimes I just provide the basic ideas for a panel so that the artist can use his best judgment in determining how to depict something, but when there’s dialogue in a scene, things can get very specific. It’s a lot like blocking a scene in the theater. I’m careful during the descriptions to make sure that the speakers in a scene are arranged left to right in the order in which they speak; it’s not always possible, but it makes things much easier on our letterer, Michael Heisler, when we do that up front.
I also try very hard to make sure that there’s going to be room on each page to depict what’s being described. When I started writing comics I made the same mistake a lot of new writers make by trying to do too much on one page, or within one panel. There really is only room for one action to be going on in each panel, and the events on a single page should really only focus on a single idea. When you try to do too much, the page gets crowded, confuses the reader, and weakens the story overall. So as time has gone on I’ve found myself paring down the number of panels I show, while at the same time trying not to tell any less story. That’s what’s great about comics: there are always ways to economize in the storytelling.
When writing for Knight Errant, do you write out a complete storyline or plot line for the arc, then go back and write the scripts for each issue? Do you write all the scripts at once, or are the scripts done as each issue is completed?
JJM: The plot is completed several weeks before and provides us with the road map for the individual scripts that follow. Because I am working on several series at once and have other deadlines, I tend to write a script a month for a storyline, rather than doing them all at once. The issues of the series are, as a result, at various stages of production as I’m writing, so I might be scripting issue #5 at the same time I’m seeing art pages from earlier issues. There’s usually a chance then to tighten the dialog so it meshes better with what’s being depicted on the page.
We do things well in advance of publication. On five-issue story arcs like we’ve been doing with Knight Errant, the scripting for the whole series is done before the first issue comes out. A project will begin anywhere from eight months to a year and a half before the first publication date.
What sort of interactions do you have with the other creative members (the inker, the penciller, the colorist, the cover artist, etc)? Do you ever bounce ideas off them? Do the artists ever come back to you for clarifications on how a scene/item should look?
JJM: In the case of Knight Errant, which is a new series with a lot of new character and ship designs that have to be created from scratch, most of my interaction has been up front, as the editor passes me visuals, and I make suggestions.
Most of those visuals come from the artist, but many come from Michael Atiyeh, the colorist, who plays a very important role. Not only does he decide what colors things are going to be, but when you have a series like Knights of the Old Republic, which he collaborated on, his colors served to give a unified look to the series even when there were multiple artists. The work of colorists tends to go unheralded, but I can tell you the right colorist can make a good comic book great, and Michael is a great colorist.
While there are series where there’s more interaction between writer and artists, I’m happy to have the editor play the defining role. Yes, there are always small ways in which a writer could embellish on a scene that’s already drawn, but there’s rarely time in the process for that. You can’t go around suggesting emblems to add to armor at the last minute. If something’s important enough to appear, it really needs to be in the initial script.
Is all the work done online? Do you ever get to meet face to face with the other team members?
JJM: Most of the work is done online. My Knight Errant artists have been overseas, and I have not yet met them. But I have met with my editor, colorist, and letterer, and have met with other artists on Star Wars books I’ve worked on.
The days of everyone working in a single office are long since gone; overnight mail and the internet have changed the geography of comics creation.
What role does the editor (or assistant editors) play in relationship to your job (do the scripts have to be approved by them, and if so, is the revision process usually fairly small)?
JJM: The editor reviews the initial pitch and plot, suggesting changes that need to be made; once they’re made, the proposal goes to Sue Rostoni at Lucasfilm for approval. Leland Chee, the “keeper of the Holocron,” also reviews the material to make certain everything squares with continuity. The process is identical with scripts — and then with the art pages.
There are some changes needed from time to time but generally it’s not an arduous process. We work to knock most of the kinks out of a story at the plot stage, anyway, and we’ve been at it long enough that we know how to depict things properly and mesh with Star Wars canon and terminology. I’d never use the term “unearthed” in dialogue, for example. The process is very streamlined and works very well.
How long does the writing process typically take for one issue?
JJM: The plot is a separate part, as I’ve said. A script can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on what other projects I have going on. Other projects will be coming back for revisions that need to be done quickly, and so you learn to be able to swing-shift between projects very quickly.
I want to thank John for taking the time to answer my questions about Knight Errant, and I’d like to remind readers that a lot of behind-the-scenes and in-depth info for the Knight Errant series can be found on John’s website www.farawaypress.com in his insightful production notes for each issue. I really wish more authors and writers would take the time to share this kind of info as it is priceless for fans.
Credits for the people involved in the Knight Errant comic series:
Designer: Stephen Reichert
Assistant Editors: Freddye Lins, Brendan Wright
Editor: Dave Marshall
Publisher: Mike Richardson
Script: John Jackson Miller
Art: Federico Dallocchio
Colors: Michael Atiyeh
Lettering: Michael Heisler
Standard Cover Art: Joe Quinones
Variant Cover Art: Dave Ross with Mark McKeena and Michael Atiyeh
Pencils: Ivan Rodriguez
Inks: Ivan Rodriguez, Belardino Brabo, Marcio Loezer