Pen & Inc.

Comic-book artists are drawn to St. Louis.

Comics usually begin as scripts, which resemble movie screenplays, describing the story panel by panel. "I don't specify how the panel should look," Bunn says. Instead of description, he concerns himself with plot, characters and pacing out the dramatic moments so the reader will keep turning the pages. "Writing scripts and prose is very different. In a short story or a novel, I don't have an artist to bring things to life. I have to rely on myself and I'm not very reliable."

The ideal comic story is one that can't be translated into any other medium. "The trick is to tell a story in comics," explains Matt Kindt. "If you can tell it as a book or a movie, why bother?"

Once artists receive their scripts, they begin to make rough sketches of each panel, called thumbnails, where they choose the angle of the "shot" and where to place the word balloons. "I have the most fun doing the thumbnails," says Samnee. "It's the most creative part, turning the words into pictures. It's kinetic. There's a lot of energy to it."

From Capote in Kansas by Ande Parks and Chris Samnee.
From Capote in Kansas by Ande Parks and Chris Samnee.
Panels from Matt Kindt's Super Spy.
Panels from Matt Kindt's Super Spy.

Then the real drawing begins on cardboard, called Bristol board. Recently, some artists have begun to draw on computerized tablets. "I can't comprehend that, drawing not on paper and having it show up on a screen," Samnee says. "I don't have the hand-eye coordination." In the pencil drawings the artist concentrates on telling a story through the lines. "I don't want you to have to try to figure out what you're looking at," adds Samnee. "I want you to look at it and have it be there."

Once the pencil drawings are completed, an inker traces over the pencil lines with a pen or a brush and India ink. The inker uses the width of the lines and the amount of blackness to convey a mood. Last year Samnee drew and inked a graphic novel called Capote in Kansas about the reporting and writing of In Cold Blood. "It needed to be dark," he explains. "It's crime noir, historical fiction and a ghost story. It needed lots of black."

As with drawing, inking can now be done on the computer, but many artists, including David Zimmermann, don't like the results. "The line is dead," Zimmermann says. "There's no weight. With the computer palate, you can't get a precise line. There's not the same flexibility you can get with a brush on paper."

The artists add the word balloons and letters. In the past, calligraphy was a separate art, but now computers with handwriting fonts have taken over. It's easier to make corrections, but some artists think the computer fonts are too regular and boring. (Sacha Mardou and Ted May once compiled a list of "handwriting fonts of the devil.")

Finally, the black-and-white pages go to a colorist. In the early 1990s, St. Louis' Thompson Knox, then a junior in high school and an aspiring colorist, invested in Marvel Comics stock and used the proceeds to buy his first Mac. He scanned in black-and-white drawings, added color with a computer program and took the results to a comics show in Chicago with the hope of getting a job. Colorists back then used markers, dyes and watercolors, and no one was interested in Knox's work. Now most coloring is done on the computer, even by artists like Kindt who still draw by hand.

"You can use color to tell a story just as much as pencil and ink," says Knox. "If there's a change in emotion, you can change the color in a scene. It ties into the work the artist and the writer have done. If the story has been in blue-gray and suddenly there's an orange panel, that's a sign something has happened. It affects the way people interact with the story." (And also the characters: Knox is about to turn the Incredible Hulk red in an upcoming comic.)

Mini-comics creators handle the production process themselves. "A friend in college showed me how to make a mini-comic," says May. He pauses. "I don't know why I had to be shown. It was just a piece of letter-sized paper folded in half." Mardou uses collage and watercolors to make her covers; Dan Zettwoch uses silkscreen. Then they take the pages down to the copy shop. It always helps, Zettwoch and Huizenga say, to have a friend who works at Kinko's.

The appeal of comics," explains Matt Kindt, "is that it's still a small industry. It's easy to break in. Everybody goes to the same conventions. You don't need an agent to get your stuff looked at." Making a living, however, is another matter. Samnee drew his first book for Big Bang Comics at the age of fifteen. He didn't get paid until ten years later when he started drawing for Oni, a small comics press in Portland, Oregon. Many comic creators still keep their day jobs and make comics before and after work and during lunch hours. Some, like Zettwoch and Kindt, do commercial illustrations. (Zettwoch is a regular contributor to the RFT.) Last year Samnee finally got a regular drawing gig with the New York-based DC and began working eighteen-hour days in order to meet his deadlines.

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