Probably the most popular genre of comic books is the superhero comic. Even those of us who have never read one are familiar with the standard superheroes, and this is a testament to the pervasive power of comic books. As non-readers, it is doubtful that we have realized the influence that comic books have on contemporary pop culture, and we have probably never considered the talent which they contain.
However, the comic books of today are much more than vehicles for the latest adventures of well-known superheroes. The world of comic books has developed and diversified to the point that it is now classified according to genres. In addition, graphic novels have gained in popularity and found widespread acceptance in the literary world; several have won book awards and even been made into movies. Yet, despite the endless variety of comic books now available, superhero comics remain the most well-known and are the most widely read.
Comic book readers and fans are knowledgeable, opinionated and they have high standards and great expectations from the artists and writers that produce their favorite fictional universe and favored crime fighter. And they ought to; the art produced in comic books is often quite impressive and the writers are tasked with the need to spin out an exciting narrative in a short space, and provide text that complements the illustrations.
Not only do artists and writers have to produce results quickly to meet the demand, they are also under pressure to keep a beloved character interesting, while providing danger and conflict that must be overcome. Inventing new scenarios for the protagonist and remaining relevant, but not repetitive while working within the strict confines of an imagined universe and not exceeding the parameters set forth for the main character makes the job even more difficult.
Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dan Adkins
Creating a comic is a collaborative task and is typically split into two parts; the writing and the creating of the art. The writing is generally done by one or two people who produce the plot and the script. In comparison, the artwork is usually subdivided with four people creating the art; the penciller, the inker, a colorist and a letterer. First, the penciller is responsible for the first step of visualizing the story, and working from feedback provided by the writer, he creates scene layouts with focus on positioning and perspective to illustrate the plot. Next is the inker who produces refined outlines over the pencil lines using black ink. The inker plays a pivotal role as he is responsible for interpreting pencil lines and shading and modifying shapes and forms. His work may improve upon or add to the output of the penciller, and the inker’s task controls the mood, pace and readability of the comic. Following, the colorist is responsible for adding color to the black and white drawings. With the inclusion of technology, the colorist’s role has become more influential. Previously, when all comics were done by hand, the inker was responsible for shading. Now, inkers often rely on the colorist to add colored gradations of shading digitally. Finally, there is the letterer who is responsible for providing all text within a comic including display lettering, dialogue and scripted sound effects. The letterer’s role is also of significance as the typeface, letter size and layout all contribute to the readability and impact of a comic. It is worth mentioning that many comic book artists are quite versatile and can easily work in any of the four given roles needed to produce the artwork.
Typically within comic books, a new character is introduced within the storyline of a popular, established character. If the new character is well-received, then he is likely to get his own comic book title and storyline. Once a character becomes well-liked, his story is explored over numerous issues; superheroes are usually given a cast of enemies to fight against and may join other superheroes on adventures as well. However, over time it is difficult to maintain the same level of interest and intensity for the reader as the protagonist is essentially undertaking the same basic task again and again; a showdown against a bad guy in which the hero prevails. As such, it is quite common for a number of writers and artists to have produced the work for one superhero, and to retain the reader’s interest, new storylines are often introduced when new artists take over.
In fact, to overcome this issue of redundancy and a loss of interest in long-standing characters, one major comic book publisher, DC Comics, re-launched its entire line of ongoing monthly superhero comics in 2011. Called the New 52, it entailed the cancellation of all existing titles and 52 new series were released in September 2011, all renumbered to start at issue one. These actions allowed DC Comics to present new origin stories for its most popular characters and portray them in a way that is more modern in an attempt to increase reader numbers.
What is interesting to note is the information that can be gleaned from comic books, as they are truly a product of the time in which they were written. Plots and enemies fought against tell us about the state of the world at any given time; for example, during World War II, several notable superheroes fought against Hitler within the pages of their comic books. The writing often mimics popular slang and typical usage of a specific era and pressing social issues are frequently offered as plot points. The artwork provided also mirrors the passing of time and viewing one character’s story over the years shows the influence of various artistic movements as well as the emotional state of society within a specific time period.
Regardless of our level of interest or the opinion we hold on comic books, it is difficult to deny the fact that they are a pervasive influence on everyday culture. Superheroes and other popular comic book characters appear in television programs, movies, cartoons, toys and even home goods. Yet this prevalence can be traced back to the simple comic book; typically dismissed as written cartoons for children or the domain of young men who are loathe to grow up, comic books are actually widely influential. In addition, they are often an overlooked source of talented artwork and innovative storytelling that directly mirrors the contemporary culture of any given era. Who would have ever thought that the simple comic book could do all of that?