Overview Of The Comic Creation Process

Casual consumers of comic books around the world often have no idea of the work involved in producing the entertainment they enjoy. Effort and workload aside, merely the size of the team required for an idea to manifest can boggle the mind. Dozens of people handle specialized roles from writer to penciller, inker, colorist, letterer, and editor. Printers are needed to produce the physical copies and a distribution network is required for those comics to end up in your local comic shop.

Or maybe the comic in question is of a new breed — a webcomic — and most of the jobs are handled by one person.

This article is intended to be a quick reference for the most common methods of comic creation, both from the professional side of things as well as how those methods scale when applied to smaller projects.

Stan Lee, from back in the day. Dude made a lot of comics.

Stan Lee, from back in the day. Dude made a lot of comics.

Breaking Down The Process

Comics go through several stages from conception to completion. Read over this sequence to familiarize yourself with the general components of comic creation, after which point I will address a few elements in greater detail.

Stage 1: Ideation/Concept

  • This is the starting point of the project. To create a great comic you need to first start with a great idea.
  • The central concept for a comic can come from anyone, but is typically developed off of a writer or editor’s idea for a storyline.

Stage 2: Plot Development

  • The basic concept for the comic is expanded by the writer into a workable story outline.
  • All of the story elements are arranged with consideration for pacing and character development.
  • Think of this as the planning stage for how the story unfolds.

Stage 3: Script

  • The writer, using the plot outline as a guide, writes the script for the comic.
  • There are two common methods for scripting a comic, the Marvel Method (plot style) and full script (sometimes referred to as “DC style”). I will explain the difference between the two in a bit.
  • Aside from tweaks and edits, this is the writer’s primary window for determining the story. The script is the basis for everything that follows.
  • In certain cases a writer may forgo this stage and instead give verbal plot notes to the artist, who develops the visual storytelling through thumbnails.

Stage 4: Art Production

  • Following the script-writing stage, multiple artists produce the comic based off of the writer’s script.
  • Pencilling happens first, followed by inking and finally coloring of the comic.
  • These steps are sometimes done digitally, in whole or in part.
  • The size of the art team on a comic can vary greatly. In some cases, a single creator will handle all aspects of art by themselves.
  • Throughout this process, the editor of the comic facilitates the various contributors and oversees the quality of the product.

Stage 4a: Pencils

  • The penciller is often viewed as the primary contributing artist and determines the look of the comic. This person lays down the base drawing upon which all further art builds.
  • He or she starts by sketching thumbnails (practice panel compositions) from the script provided by the writer.
  • After thumbnails are approved, the penciller illustrates the full comic in pencil.
  • Some pencillers skip the thumbnailing stage and work out their panel compositions directly on the page.
  • The advent of digital comic production affords artists the option of pencilling within a program like Photoshop.

Stage 4b: Inks

  • The inker is responsible for taking the rough pencils provided by the penciller and using them as a guide to produce the final lineart of the comic in ink.
  • More than simply “tracing” the pencils, an inker makes choices based off of which lines are necessary for the finished image and can correct earlier problems in the pencilling phase.
  • Inkers use a variety of subtle techniques to affect light and shadow in a composition.
  • Some artists skip pencilling altogether and draw in ink.

Stage 4c: Colors

  • The final lineart of the comic is handed off to the colorist who uses a computer (in most cases) to color the black and white images.
  • The idea for this stage is that the colors not compete with the lineart. Instead they should compliment or enhance it.
  • Comics intended to be black and white skip this step.

Stage 5: Letters

  • After the comic art is complete a letterer inserts dialogue balloons/boxes into the panels of the comic and places all of the text.
  • From the thumbnail stage onward, consideration is taken for proper placement of dialog balloons so that they don’t compete with the composition or cover important art.
  • Letterers generally work on a computer although some letter by hand.

Stage 6: Editorial

  • While active throughout the comic-creation process, at this phase the comic’s editor gives it a last minute check-over in order to fix or resolve any remaining content issues prior to publication.
  • Digital comics, including webcomics, may not have an editor or be intended for release in print. Because of this some or all of the following steps may be combined or skipped.

Stage 7: Printing

  • If the comic is being sold as a physical product, it is submitted to a printer where a certain number of copies are printed based off of sales estimates.
  • This process can take several weeks depending on the size of the order.
  • Numerous printers take small orders. Self-published comics can be financed through personal investment or fundraising through means such as Kickstarter.
  • If your budget is especially limited you can photocopy your comic at a business that offers printing services. FedEx is one such example.

Stage 8: Marketing

  • Marketing a comic is an ongoing process that happens parallel to the production of the comic.
  • Marketing takes many forms: press releases sent to media outlets, advertisements (both print and web), sending advance copies to the media, and coverage on the convention circuit.
  • As a solo creator, marketing is a different animal. Social media can be wielded to locate potential audiences for your comic. If you remain active and maintain a presence on the web, you will gradually attract interest.

Stage 9: Distribution

  • Once the initial order of your comic is printed, it needs to be delivered in some way to the buying public.
  • Distributors — Diamond Comics primarily — have a network in place for shipping comics to local retailers throughout the United States (the downside is you need to sell-through quickly).
  • There are alternative methods of distribution, such as conventions or direct sales online (through services like Comixology).
  • For DIYers, the budget and scope of the comic determines the distribution needs.

Those are the basic steps for comic creation but times are changing. The makeup and process of a creative team varies wildly between traditional print comics and webcomics (or zines). I’ll explain how in just a minute, but first…

Full Script Versus Plot Script (Marvel Style)

There are two major schools of thought regarding how a writer prepares a script for the penciller to use in creating a comic. The first, “full script style,” is traditionally how people think of movie or television scripts. They lay out all of the descriptions of the action in full detail, often with detailed breakdowns of what action occurs panel-to-panel. This is a very thorough style of script-writing that leaves little ambiguity for the artist.

Marvel-style scripting (also known as plot script style) is a little different. In the 1960s, Stan Lee developed this method in conjunction with his various collaborators as a way of allowing one writer to juggle multiple comics at a time. The script touches only on the basic beats of plot and action, leaving much of the interpretation of what occurs on the page to the penciller. Then, after the art is completed, the writer determines the dialog and text for the finished page.

The pros and cons of each style of scripting are fairly straightforward. If you’re collaborating with an artist for the first time as a writer, or are concerned that your vision may not be clearly communicated with a plot-style script, choose a full script. In most instances it’s the best choice. If you’re juggling multiple projects and need to work quickly, or trust your artist to collaborate fully on storytelling decisions, consider a plot script. All that matters is that you choose a style of script that communicates your vision clearly through all phases of development.

Team Make-up

Let’s say you’re not developing a mainstream print comic. What then?

Generally speaking, most of the steps involved in producing a webcomic or something creator-driven are the same as making a print comic for a big publisher. The difference is that the size of the team is much, much smaller. As a direct consequence of this you’ll have to fill multiple specialized roles with fewer people.

One common alternative to the mainstream method is the writer/artist duo. It’s largely the same breakdown except the artist handles both pencilling and inking duties, and in some rare cases might be responsible for coloring the comic as well. Typically a letterer assists the duo (as well as a colorist if the primary artist does not color). If the comic is destined for print there is generally an editor involved, with printing/marketing/distribution all handled similarly to mainstream print comics. If the comic is destined for the web, the duo likely acts as its own editor and either submits the comic to a third party (like Comixology or Thrillbent) to be distributed or hosts the comic themselves on a privately-managed website.

Some creators work alone — handling the script, art, and distribution/promotion by themselves. They may seek the advice of trusted friends but largely develop their comic alone. This way of working can obviously be a major challenge but affords the greatest creative freedom of all of the methods covered in this article. If you feel capable of doing all of the work yourself and have the discipline, consider giving this method a try.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of how you choose to tackle your project, the core sequence remains the same. Starting with the initial concept, develop a plot outline followed by a script. Create the art for the comic based off of this script by drawing in pencil, then inking, and finally adding color (if your comic is in color). Add dialog and captions to the finished artwork in a way that respects the established visual flow. Depending on the size of the team involved you may be able to skip or combine certain steps if everyone is comfortable with working in a more freeform manner. For example, as a writer, maybe you trust the artist you work with to compose panels without a lot of oversight. If that’s the case, the artist might skip the thumbnail stage and move directly to pencilling the page.

Ultimately, choose the method of producing your comic that works best for you and your team.



18 Responses to “Overview Of The Comic Creation Process”

  1. Patrick

    Interestingly, the old school method is step 5 before step 4 because they used to hand letter and the ruler might have screwed up the inks when they were making the lines to letter within. (Using an Ames guide)

    I super recommend learning how to hand letter at some point. One of the books I have found useful for this is the “DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering” as well as anything/everything Jim Starking has to say.

  2. Patrick

    Forewarning about Fedex: though it might be a good idea to proof a comic, or print a single issue, from Fedex – their markup is atrocious. Fedex is basically the Radioshack of printing, works in a pinch, but you would never buy a computer there.

    • Patrick

      As another note on printing – I highly recommend using Ka-blam.com for single issue orders. They aren’t great, but again, will do in a pinch.

      Personally – I am a big believer in developing relationships with local, small business, printers to help go through the process of printing. I am going to be doing an article series on this during the month we theme printing around – so stay tuned.

  3. Patrick

    I really can’t wait for us to release the chapters of Jason Brubaker’s “Unnatural Talent” on here that cover steps 8 and 9! He is a genius at understanding this stuff. If you want to read it before we get there in the latter part of this year – go to amazon and buy it!

  4. Andrew

    I’m very lucky to have a talented writer/artist for a wife- it allows us to divide up the work more evenly, and as an even better stroke of luck, she likes to ink and color and I prefer pencils / backgrounds. Over the last four years our ability to work off of each others strengths has been so phenomenal. I know so many people struggle to find that ‘right’ person to help share their work load (not necessarily looking for that person to be a significant other either, lol).

    • Hi I have written my comic script, can yo share what software I could use on a Mac computer to get started

      Hi I have written my own comic with a complete script, can yo share what software I could use on a Mac computer to get started with self-publishing it.

  5. Joshua

    This information is very helpful to me, this website provides what most don’t.

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