Diary of a Comic Book Goddess: TCAF 2010 Panel Coverage – Comics as an Assembly Line Production Process

This morning, I had the opportunity to sit in on a panel on that aligned comics production to any product manufactured on an assembly line. That is, where parts are added to a product – usually in some kind of sequential order – in such a way as to complete the finished product in as little as time as possible. In other words, as many creators often contribute to the production of the finished monthly comic, what are the trials and tribulations facing those involved?

Oh, and a wee caveat before we continue with this report: since I’m not fast enough to type everything verbatim, I’ve paraphrased the main points of the conversation.

So, onwards to the panel!

Panel: Assembly Line Comics
Where and When: The Pilot (2nd floor), 11am-12pm
Panel Guests: Ryan Kelly (Artist), Cameron Stewart (Writer/Artist), Jose Villarrubia (Colourist), Zach Giallongo (Colourist/Letterer), J. Torres (Writer), Cecil Castellucci (Writer)
Moderator: Mark Askwith

JOSE: Because of how comics have been historically produced in America, and we have to ask if books produced by teams of creators, diluting/compromising the individual creators’ original intentions

ZACH: Internationally, the Japanese make their manga in a similar fashion but there tends to be a single voice; a single author and/or artist are often credited with the whole, despite the fact that a large group of creators have collaborated on the finished product.

J. TORRES: The entire process begins a writer, who pitches a plot. After editorial approval/changes, the writer writes a script, which then goes to penciller, colourist, and then a letterer (any of whom may or may not go to the writer and ask for clarification or edits). Despite this fairly linear process, at later stages, the writer might have a chance to go back and change things.

RYAN: So, if the writer is at the beginning of the assembly line, the artist is in the middle. The key is to stay in touch with everyone. Editor sort of oversees the entire process and the level of involvement depends on his/her nature. Both the writer and the artist have to work as quickly as possible because other people (colourists and letterers) are dependent on them getting the work to them with enough time to meet the final deadline. Generally, the artist starts with thumbnails/sketches to work out the design elements. Move to tighter layout and then traditional pencils. Then onto the inker.

Moderator asks: “Does the pressure creatively hamper you or does the pressure give you opportunities to be even more creative?”

CAMERON: It all depends. If you get something late, you have to crank it out really fast (especially on a big superhero project; though some titles have some flexibility). Sometimes the best stuff comes out when you’re under duress because it’s so pure. On Batman and Robin #9, had to do 24 pages of inks and pencils in 16 days (got the script late). It can work to your advantage in that sense, but it’s not fun to work under those conditions. After I’m finished with the pages, it goes on to the colourist.

ZACH: There are sometimes problems when a penciller doesn’t understand that a speech balloon is part of the composition. At times like that, it’s tough to letter.

J. TORRES: That’s my biggest critique of some mainstream comics – some of the most high profile, best-selling books – there are half a dozen panels where someone along the assembly line wasn’t looking towards the end project and the composition is all messed up. It might be the writer, who was too verbose or the author who didn’t take the script into account but it just looks messed up.

ZACH: One of my pet peeves, is lettering when you have a smattering of conversation in the panel and you don’t have enough room in the panel in order to have it. I recommend that writers and artists letter someone else’s comic so they can get an idea of the challenges of lettering someone else’s work.

CAMERON: Doing my own web comic, I’ve faced that difficulty [where I’ve left the lettering until last and didn’t leave enough room for it] and it causes you to make different decisions when it comes to the dialogue and the art.

ZACH: You can always go back, as a letterer or an artist, and ask the editor to have the writer change the layout.

JOSE: A lot of what’s been said applies to the colouring process as well. The deadlines are insane. The artist may have two weeks to draw something and the colourist only has two days to do it. At those times, you do it intuitively, where you try to feel it out as it goes. The advantage to this is that sometimes you surprise yourself. But the disadvantage is that you rely too much on formulaic ways of doing things. To be successful as a colourist, you need to be really cool; you’ll have pressure from everyone and you need to be able to handle it.

JOSE: One of the best things working with guys like Paul Pope and Jeff Lemire, they don’t micromanage. They let me do my thing.

CAMERON: Exactly, a good editor will know how to pair an artist and a colourist who are both on the same page and who have the same style. The problem is when you have styles that clash.

JOSE: The two important things is clarity in storyline and the continuity of the storyline with other books.

MODERATOR: How do you find a creative place and a real pride when the job is split among eight or nine different people?

RYAN: Editors are an important part of the process. I’ve worked with both indie publishers and mainstream publishers and they’re really different animals. Some editors say nothing – this gives you creative freedom but you’re missing something. With my experience, working with Vertigo, the editors are like working with a second writer (kind of like a pilot and co-pilot); I’ve begun to appreciate the collaborative nature of the process. Some people are really comfortable working independently but I really enjoy collaboration. In the projects that I’ve worked on, there has been a rewrite in order to make the art and the writing more cohesive and connected.

CAMERON: It’s possible to do good work within this studio system – there’s a lot of evidence from the past and from today. Having a creative team that’s creatively in sync, creatively good, and willing to work with the other creators to make the comic the best it could be. There’s no room for showboating.  One of the benefits of collaboration is that you can feed off each other and make the final product better as you go through the process. But sometimes there are times when you put a lot of work into the project and the guy after you does a half-assed job, that’s when working in teams can be very frustrating. This is something that tends to happen more in a superhero monthly than in a miniseries or a one-shot.

JOSE: You have to be flexible and want to work in teams. What you sacrifice artistically every single time is that you don’t really do anything new or different. Every time you try to do something different, editors will ask you to go back and colour it more conventionally, which can be frustrating. Time after time, the editors tend to sacrifice anything unconventional as they feel that it impedes in the clear interpretation of the story. This doesn’t advance the medium. It just helps to tell stories, to help people understand them. Artistically, the trade is the freedom to play and the need to convey a story as clearly as possible.

[CECIL arrives and JOSE has to leave for another presentation. MODERATOR asks: “You’ve worked with various projects in a number of mediums but do you feel good about collaboration?”]

CECIL: I love collaboration! I’m writing scripts in a new way. I’m not breaking it down in panels. When you’re working with an artist who knows what they’re doing, you’re passing the baton. And you’re just giving the artists more freedom.

CAMERON: I prefer that. I don’t like it broken down into panels. That’s my job. It makes it a lot easier. Grant Morrison was really great with me in terms of the action sequences in Batman & Robin. He told me what the basic situation was and allowed me the freedom to choreograph the fight myself. Grant works Marvel-style; he doesn’t write the dialogue until after the art has been done. It’s really nice to see, when I get the final printed comic, is when my art has influenced his dialogue and vice versa.

CECIL: I like doing the short story method but will often give the artist a bit of dialogue to show him/her the pacing in my head. 

ZACH: There are a lot of times when I’ve had to write what the art shows and that’s against the cardinal rule of writing: don’t write what you can show. The final product ultimately suffers when the art and the words don’t work together to tell the stories.

RYAN: So much of the comic production is cutting down the words to get to the fundamentals. And sometimes a silent panel is all you need.

CAMERON: You spend a lot of time learning what goes into your art and a lot of time as to what should be left out of it.

CAMERON: The thing that’s paramount for a successful collaboration is communication. When you have free communication among everyone, you have a stronger product. When you’re working in a vacuum and there’s no interplay among the creative thing, the project suffers.

Shelley Smarz
Shelley Smarz
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