Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Making a Comic Book -- Step by Step

If you ever wondered how a comic book story was made from start to finish, now is you chance to find out. Using a page from "The Dragon's Eye - Part 2: Russian into Danger" from SCOOBY-DOO #60 I will take you through the steps from start to finish. You can click on any image below to make it larger.

Step 1:  Everything starts with a story, or at least the idea of a story. Every story begins with what's called a pitch. In the pitch, a story is broken down to its most basic elements in about three or four sentences. In the case of the story here, it was one chapter of a six part story, and was probably pitched as something like this:

The Dragon's Eye - part 2: As the mystery of the Dragon's Eye deepens, the Mystery Inc. gang travels to Russia where they encounter Baba Yaga, a witch from Russian folklore. Baba Yaga is after a jewel encrusted Faberge egg. Can they stop her?

As you can see this is very basic, but gives the editor enough information to decide whether they'd like to develop the story or not. Maybe they've already done a story about Baba Yaga, or one set in Russia and don't want another one. In this case the story was approved and then I got to move on to step 2.

Step 2: Now that the story is approved the writer (in this case me) writes a script for that story. The script tells the artist everything that he will need to draw for the comic book story. The script describes the locations where the action takes place, who the characters are and what they look like, what the characters are doing in each panel, what they are saying, and even how many panels are on a page.  Scripts vary in length depending on the story. I have written scripts for a 22-page comic book story that were over 50 pages long, and scripts for a six page comic book story that were only 2 pages long. Below is a page of the script for "The Dragon's Eye - Part 2: Russian Into Danger"

Step 3: The script now goes back to the editor. The editor will read it and decide if anything needs to be changed by the writer. If everything is okay then the editor sends it on to the artist who is going to draw the story.

Step 4: The person who draws the story is called the penciller. In this case the penciller is the talented Joe Staton. The penciller reads the script and then decides how they are going to draw everything based on the writer's script. The penciller also thinks about the best way to make the action flow smoothly from panel to panel, and to keep the dialogue easy to follow between one character and another. Below are Joe Staton's pencils for this page. Compare his drawings to the descriptions in the script page above.

Step 5:  In the old days, before computers, lettering was done directly on the page of art containing the pencils. After the lettering was done, the art would be passed on to the inker. Now both these steps are done more or less at the same time, but we'll start with the lettering for the sake of tradition. The lettering is the process in which all of the dialogue, including the balloons that contain them, the descriptive narrative captions, and the sound effects are added to the artwork. Oftentimes, to make things clearer for the letterer, the editor or writer will mark a copy of the script and the pencils like this:

and this:

If you look at the copy of the script page just above, you'll notice that numbers have been placed next to each line of dialogue. If you look at the copy of the pencils just above, you'll notice that rough balloons have been drawn over the art with numbers inside them. The numbers in the balloons go to the numbers on the script. This shows the letterer which lines of dialogue should go in which balloons, and where they go on each page so as to not block out important bits of artwork and so that the dialogue is easy to read across the page. It also makes it less likely for mistakes to be made where a character will be speaking the wrong dialogue.

Step 6: Now that the letterer (in this case Tom Orzechowski) has these marked versions of the script and pencils, he can use them as a guide to add the actual lettering to the story. This used to all be done by hand, so a letterer had to have excellent penmanship. Now it's mostly done on computers.

Step 7: It used to be that the inker wouldn't do their job until the letterer had done theirs, but that's no longer the case, since the lettering is no longer done directly onto the pencilled artwork. The inker is the person who goes over all of the pencils in ink so that the artwork reproduces better when it's being printed. Many people think that all an inker does is trace the pencils. This is not true at all. An inker adds areas of black, and varies the thickness of their line to help make certain parts of the artwork stand out, and to make other parts sort of fade into the background. They can add atmosphere and texture to the art as well. Below is the inked artwork by Horacio Ottolini over Joe Staton's pencils. Compare this with Joe's pencils back in Step 4.

Here is the inked page with Tom Orzechowski's lettering.

Step 8: The final step is adding the color. This work used to be done by hand using special dyes on copies of the inked and lettered artwork. Now most coloring is done on computers. The colorist can use their skills to create mood and to bring emphasis to a character or object in a panel. For example, in the page below, colored by Paul Becton, notice how in panel 4 only Scooby-Doo and the egg he's trying to catch are colored in detail. The other characters are all colored in one pale shade of purple. This is because even while the other characters are present, they aren't what's important in this panel, so they are colored to fade into the background while our attention is in Scooby-Doo.

There you have it, the entire process from beginning to end in creating a comic book story. In future posts I will go into even more detail for each of these steps and will even have various editors, writers and artists talk about their parts in bringing a comic book story to life.


  1. Groovy breakdown of the steps, and a real treat to see Joe's unvarnished work. He's a swell cartoonist, and I've been following his stuff since his run on Green Lantern back in the very early 80's.

  2. He's always a pleasure to work with, and a super nice guy.

    At some point I'm going to pester you for a contribution to this blog where you can talk specifically about penciling, covers, and answering a few questions I've been asked from kids.