A comic book portrays a story through a series of sequential illustrations
that incorporate short bits of text containing dialogue, sounds, or
narratives. The story may be humorous, or it may present a world of
adventure, mystery, or fantasy. Most comic books are printed on a regular
basis and have one or more central characters who appear in each issue. A
particular story may be told in a single issue, or it may continue from
one issue to the next over a period of time. The artistic style of a comic
book is often attributed to a single artist, although most comics are
produced by a team of artists and writers working together.
The use of sequential illustrations to tell a story dates to prehistoric
times when early humans painted series of images on rocks and cave walls.
Egyptian hieroglyphics are another form of sequential illustrations that
tell a story.
Hand-drawn illustrations appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines
starting in the 1800s. Many of them used humorous or un-flattering
portrayals of well-known people and were the origin of modern cartoons and
The first newspaper comic strip in the United States was Richard Felton
Outcault's "The Yellow Kid," which appeared in the
Hearst New York American
on February 16, 1896. It was published in the Sunday supplement to the
paper and was quickly joined by other comic strips.
By the 1910s, the Sunday comics were so popular that newspapers would
occasionally publish small books containing reprints of past strips, which
they would distribute to promote the paper and gain new readers. Soon,
other publishing companies were assembling comic strips from several
papers and selling them to merchants to be given away as premiums. In
1934, Eastern Color Printing Company decided to sell these books directly
to the public for 10 cents each. American News, which controlled
distribution to newsstands throughout the country, initially refused to
handle the books, so Eastern Color took them to chain stores and quickly
sold 35,000 copies. Faced with this astounding success, American News
reconsidered and ordered 250,000 copies of
Famous Funnies No. I
from Eastern Color. It went on sale in July 1934 and became the first
regularly published comic book to be sold at a newsstand.
During the late 1930s, many of the now-famous superheroes made their first
appearances in comic books, and comic book sales soared as good triumphed
over evil. By the early 1950s, however, readers grew tired of superheroes,
and some comic book publishers turned instead to lurid crime and horror
stories with graphic illustrations. Some people felt this material was
unsuitable for children, and the comic book industry came under public
criticism and federal investigation in 1954. In response, many comic book
publishers banded together and issued the Standards of Comics Code
Authority, which defined appropriate material for comics.
Comic books enjoyed a resurgence of interest during the 1980s, when fresh
new artists created a whole new cast of heroes and heroines. Today, comic
books are as popular as ever, and the comic book industry is a
Creating a comic book is a detailed process that includes drafting
the plot, designing thumbnail sketches and then the original drawings,
and finally adding color and lettering.
business that includes movies, television series, toys, costumes, and
many other items.
During the preparation of a comic book, a variety of art materials may be
used to create the original hand-drawn page masters and color guides.
These materials include various sizes, weights, and finishes of paper, as
well as several different drawing mediums including pencils, inks,
markers, and paints. After the master pages have been scanned and colored
on a computer, the computer uses the color guides as a reference to
generate four pieces of plastic film that are used in the printing
The actual comic book itself is printed on a variety of papers using four
colored inks—cyan (pronounced SIGH-ann, a shade of blue), magenta,
yellow, and black. These four inks are printed in an interlocking pattern
of tiny dots, which our eyes perceive as various colors. The printed comic
pages are then bound together with staples or glue to form a comic book.
Because each new issue of a comic book requires new artwork, the design
process is part of the manufacturing process. The exception is when a new
comic title or series is first introduced. That design process involves
the same creative and artistic abilities required to produce any new work
of art and may include idea generation, preparation of sketches, and the
development of a series of refinements before the final characters and
The final product of the initial design process may be a prototype comic
book known as an "ashcan," a term that was first used in the
1930s when comic book publishers sought to protect new titles by
copyrighting them. Rather than take the time to develop new characters or
plots to go with the new title, a publisher simply took pages from a
previous comic book and pasted the new title on the cover. Once the
publisher was granted a copyright, the pasted-up prototype was often
thrown in the ashcan—a metal container used to dispose of ashes
from the stove or fireplace and commonly found in many households and
businesses of that era.
The concept of the ashcan was given a more modern meaning in 1984 when one
comic book creator produced a limited number of black and white prototype
comics for his friends and staff. In more recent times, several publishers
have released small runs of ashcans in a variety of sizes and colors as
promotional items for the full-production versions.
The Manufacturing Process
Comic book publishers may be small, independent operations that produce a
single comic book title on an irregular basis, or they may be large,
well-established companies that produce several comic book titles every
month. The manufacturing process varies depending on the size of the
operation and the equipment available. Here is a typical sequence of
operations that a medium-sized company would use to produce a comic book.
Charles Schuiz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on November 26,
1922. After World War II, Schuiz freelanced for a Catholic magazine
and taught in the correspondence school, renamed the Art Instruction
Institute. His work appeared in the
Saturday Evening Post,
and eventually he created a cartoon entitled "Li'l
The United Feature Syndicate of New York proposed publication of
Schuiz' "Li'l Folks," but it was renamed
"Peanuts" by the company. In 1950 the cartoon made its
debut in seven newspapers. Within a year the strip appeared in 35
papers, and by 1956 in over 100. In 1955 and 1964, Schuiz received the
Reuben award from the National Cartoonists Society. By 1965
"Peanuts" appeared in over 2,300 newspapers and the
classic cartoon "A Charlie Brown Christmas," produced by
Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson, won a Peabody and an Emmy award.
Schuiz also received the Yale Humor Award in 1956, and the School Bell
and National Education Association awards in 1960; plus honorary
degrees from Anderson College in 1963 and St. Mary's College of
California in 1969. A "Charles M. Schuiz Award" honoring
aspiring comic artists was created by the United Feature Syndicate in
1980. The year 1990 marked the 40th anniversary of
"Peanuts" and the Smithsonian Institution featured an
exhibit titled, "This Is Your Childhood, Charlie
Brown…Children in American Culture, 1945-1970." By the
late 1990s the syndicated strip ran in over 2,000 newspapers
throughout the world. Schuiz died on February 12, 2000, the night
before his last original "Peanuts" strip ran announcing
1 Although most people think of a comic book as a series of pictures, it
is the written plot that gives the story its direction. The writer and
artist discuss the proposed story and exchange ideas. At this stage,
they may use a number of formal or informal techniques for developing
ideas. They may make notes on small index cards arranged on a table or
they may outline the flow of the story on a display board. During the
course of their discussion, they decide on the situations, locations,
characters, and other details of the story. This helps define the
overall plot from beginning to end.
2 Because most comics have a fixed number of pages, the writer and
then decide how to break up the story to fit each page. They discuss
which scenes and dialogue are critical to keep the story flowing and how
the characters and action should be depicted to have the greatest
impact. Sometimes they follow general industry practices, which define
such things as the optimal number of action scenes per page or the
amount of dialogue per word balloon, but other times they rely on their
own personal style.
3 Once the story has been refined, the writer creates a script. This
includes general descriptions of the scenes and characters in the order
they appear, the accompanying dialogue or descriptive text, and general
instructions to the artist. The result is very much like a script
written for a movie or play.
4 The artist reads the script and makes a rough sketch of each page,
called a thumbnail. The thumbnail helps the artist decide how each scene
should be depicted, and how the different scenes should be arranged on
the page. Some artists sketch each scene on a small piece of
adhesivebacked note paper and then move them around on a larger piece of
paper to achieve the desired effect.
5 Using the thumbnail as a guide, the artist begins drawing each page in
pencil. Some artists like to work on standard 8.5 x 11 in (22 x 28 cm)
white paper and then photoenlarge the pencil drawings onto 11 x 17 in
(28 x 43 cm) illustration boards before inking the final copies; others
make their pencil drawings directly on the larger boards. The artist
usually starts drawing the main elements of each scene with a hard
pencil that makes very light lines. When all the main elements are in
place, the artist considers the overall effect and makes any changes
6 The artist then darkens the main elements with a softer pencil and
adds the backgrounds and other details. Areas for the dialogue balloons,
sound effects, and narrative boxes are blocked out in blue pencil to
distinguish them from the illustrations.
7 At this point, an editor may review the pencil drawings and make
changes. Sometimes the editor may ask the artist to redraw a portion of
a scene to correct an error or clarify an item. In other cases, the
editor may have to shorten the dialogue or narrative to fit in the space
left by the artist.
8 When the pencil drawings are complete, they are enlarged onto 11 x 17
in (28 x 43 cm) illustration boards if they were drawn on smaller paper.
They are then sent to the inker. The inker's job is much more
than just tracing over the pencilled lines of the artist with black ink.
It involves the selection of line widths, adding shadows, visually
separating the foreground from the background, and creating special
effects like splatter or wash to give the illustrations texture. The
inker uses a variety of pens and brushes to produce a finished black and
white page. Many inkers have their own unique style that adds to the
artist's original drawings.
9 The final step in the drawing process is adding the lettering for the
dialogue, sound effects, and narratives that appear in the script. This
can be done using hand lettering, adhesive labels, or computer-generated
digital type. The letterer selects a typeface that not only conveys the
actual words or sounds, but also conveys the action or emphasis of the
scene with its size, style, and placement.
10 The finished pages, including the front and back covers, are sent to
the colorists who add the colors and prepare the four-color separation
films required for printing. The original artwork is first photocopied
and then scanned into a computer. The photocopy is hand-colored using
colored markers, pencils, and paints to become a guide when coloring the
pages on the computer. The scanned copy becomes an electronic file that
forms a digital outline of the page to be colored.
11 With the color guide as a reference, the colorist begins to add
colors to the digital outlines of each page starting with the
backgrounds and working forward. This is done using a custom software
package that allows the colorist to trace the outline of any part of the
image with the cursor, and then apply and blend colors to that area to
match the color guide or to achieve a special effect. For many colors,
the computer already has the information on file. For example, if one
character always wears the same clothes, information about the colors of
that character's boots, mask, or cape are stored in the computer
to ensure they look the same from one issue of the comic book to
12 As the colorist selects and applies each color, the computer
automatically assigns a code to it. This code is used to identify the
four color components that make up that particular color—cyan,
magenta, yellow, and black. When these four colors are printed in an
interlocking pattern of tiny dots, our eyes perceive them as hundreds of
different colors, even though there are really only four colors of ink
on the page. The color variations depend on the concentration of each of
the four color components. Thus a particular shade of red may have the
code M80Y87, for example, which represents 80% magenta and 87% yellow.
13 When all the pages have been colored, a proof copy of the entire
comic book is printed from the computer for final review and approval.
The computer then prints a piece of plastic film for each of the four
component colors on each page. Each piece of film has hundreds of
thousands of tiny dots to represent the location and concentration of
that color component across the page.
14 The individual pages are arranged so they will appear in the proper
order when the comic book is assembled. Usually, two or more pages are
printed on each side of a single sheet of paper. For example, page 2
might be printed on the left half of a sheet and page 23 would be
printed on the right half. On the other side of the sheet, page 24 would
be printed on the left and page I would be printed on the right. On the
next sheet, pages 4 and 21 would be printed on one side, and 22 and 3
would be printed on the other. And so on. When the sheets of paper are
stacked on top of each other and folded in the middle, the pages appear
in the proper order. On some printing presses, as many as eight pages
can be printed on each side of a large sheet, then cut and folded as
15 The plastic films for the four colors on each page are used to
produce four aluminum printing plates. A bright light is projected
through each film and onto the plate, which is coated with a chemical
that is sensitive to light. Where there are dots on the film, they block
the light and the chemical remains on the plate. Where there are no
dots, the light passes through the film and burns away the chemical.
This process is repeated for all of the pages that appear on each side
of a single sheet (see Step 14).
16 The plate for the first color on the front side of the sheet is
fastened around a circular drum in the printing press, and the plate for
the back side is fastened around another drum below it. When the press
is turned on, water flows over the rotating plates, while rollers with
colored ink press against them. Where the chemical dots remain on the
plates, the ink sticks; where the chemical has been burned away, the ink
washes off and doesn't stick. The sheets of paper are fed between
the rotating plates, and the front and back (top and bottom) sides are
printed at the same time.
17 This process is repeated for each of the four colors. In some
presses, a long roll of paper is fed between four sets of rollers, and
all four colors are printed in a single pass through the press. The
printed sheets or the roll of paper are then cut to the proper size,
stacked, folded, and stapled or glued to form the finished comic book.
The future of comic books looks as dynamic as some of its superhero
characters. Comic books offer a visual portal into a world of humor,
action, and adventure that can stimulate a reader's imagination.
Where to Learn More
How to Create Action, Fantasy, and Adventure Comics.
Cincinnati, OH: North Lights Books, 1996.
Allstetter, Rob. "Fire Drill."
(September 1996): 48-51.
Grant, Paul J. "Brush Off."
(August 1995): 52-54, 56.
Grant, Paul J. "Letter Perfect."
(February 1996): 44-47.
Tiemey, Matt. "Separation Anxiety."
White, Paul. "In the Can."
(February 1994): 86-89.
Comic Art and Graffix Gallery.
(September 18, 2000).
Comic Book Fonts.
(September 30, 2000).
The Comic Page.
(September 30, 2000).
International Museum of Cartoon Art.
(September 18, 2000).
Words and Pictures Museum.
(September 18, 2000).