Just recently, in 2015, Valiant celebrated their 25th anniversary. During that time a lot has changed in how their comics are created. Through the different Valiant eras scheduling and deadlines have been ever-present. The name of the game has been to get the comics out on time while telling the best possible story with the resources available. Artists, editors, and production crews will use tools of the trade and whatever it takes to get the job done. As technology evolves so does the methods in which comics are produced. With this installment of Portfolio Review we will explore what happens during the pencil and ink stages of the creative process and how production methods have been utilized over the years with Valiant Comics. Note that the coloring process has also greatly changed and will be the subject of a future installment!
The role of the penciller is to visually tell the story, composing the panel layouts, and staging the scene. The pencil work can be sparse or detailed depending on the artist’s style and/or time allocated. Traditionally, the penciller might do rough sketch layouts to construct the flow of the visual art. Finished pencil art is applied to 2-ply bristol illustration board, usually measuring 11″ x 17″. For the art to line up properly and consistently, margin lines are typically pre-established to a template. An inker’s job is to finish and polish the lines, adding depth and dimension, and preparing the work for publication. A variety of pens, brushes, white-out and other tools are utilized. Traditionally, the inker would apply the inks directly over the penciled pages. With the increased use of digital features some of these steps are now performed on a computer.
For years penciled pages would need to be physically delivered to the inker. Many penciller/inker teams would work in the same studio space. Often times, during a deadline crunch, multiple inkers would chip in to get the book completed on time. When artist teams did not occupy the same space the penciled work would need to be delivered by courier to the inker for completion. In the ’80s and early ’90s, when distance was an issue, editors and artists would often utilize fax machines to communicate ideas visually. Valiant’s “Knob Rob” was a team of artists and production staff who performed work on-site in downtown NYC in the early ’90s . Modeled after the mythical Marvel Bullpen of the ’60s, rows of drawing boards and art tables were lined up where art and production was done on the spot. Jim Shooter and JayJay Jackson creatively experimented with new techniques. Industry legends such as Barry Windsor-Smith, Don Perlin, and Bob Layton, would go on to mentor and teach young artists like David Lapham, Sean Chen, Bernard Chang, and Rags Morales among others.
In this photo-set example from Magnus Robot Fighter #5/Rai #1 flipbook, published by Valiant Comics in 1991, Tohru is about to assume the mantle of the Rai. The penciled art by David Lapham was inked by Kathryn Bolinger. The discolored panels are actually stats. Stats are photocopies of the original panels that are modified and pasted directly on the page. In some cases the original work is reduced in size to make room for the dialogue. Other times a face may not be drawn correctly or require some other modification. Instead of redoing the entire page or panel the stat would be used during production to speed things along. Back then ‘cut, copy, and paste’ were literal actions required during production. The stats discolor a lot faster than the illustration board and can oftentimes be unsightly, especially for original art collectors. One must keep in mind that these pages were created for the intent of comic book publication and not for creating perfect works of art. It is not uncommon for original art from the Pre-Unity/Unity Era to have multiple panels with paste-ups and corrections.
Production methods were streamlined and improved as Valiant transitioned from a scrappy up-and-comer to an industry force to be reckoned with. Even the quality and consistency of the illustration boards improved. Branded with the Valiant logo they used some of the best art boards in the industry. A full size copy of the pencil art was photocopied (as back-up) before inks were applied to the pencil art. Oftentimes you’ll still find the pencil art photocopy still present with the finished inks. Word balloons were still glued on the boards during this time, but there was generally fewer corrections and stats utilized. Later, after being acquired by Acclaim Entertainment in 1995, the lettering was done on computer and no longer needed to be applied directly over the original artwork.
In recent years production methods have changed dramatically. Computers and the internet have enhanced communication, production, and delivery methods significantly. The workforce is now global. No longer does an artist have to be in an ideal geological location or require the need to ship artwork in the mail. Cut, Copy, Paste are performed in Photoshop or similar programs. Hardly anybody has need for a fax machine these days.
The roles of the penciller and inker have stayed fairly consistent, but may now be expanded to include additional technical skills. More and more artists ink or finish their own work and use digital enhancements to prepare for publication. When separate artists fill these roles then the pencil line art and completed inked pages are usually done on separate boards. Once the pencil line art is complete the artist will scan the pages in. This requires the use of a larger flatbed scanner and uploading or emailing the scans to an editor for approval. The inker who is assigned for the job will then have access to the penciled scans. That inker will print out the line art in bluelines. The line art will be in blue, which will allow the inker to visually work from, but the blue line does not reproduce photographically. A collector may be pleased to find out that a favorite page may both exist in original pencil form and also as finished inks. On the flip side one may discover that one or both stages of art by have been done digitally. Therefore an original may not even exist. Other times one may find that panel grids, fill-ins of blacks, or other enhancements and/or corrections were finished up digitally. Thus there may be differences between the published work and the original art.
In this example from Harbinger #15, published by Valiant Entertainment in 2013, we see how both stages are done on separate art boards. Artist Barry Kitson composed the panel layout and the initial line drawing. He utilized loose pencil sketching and later went over the lines with a uniform pen line to add definition. Inker Mark Pennington printed out a scan in blueline on which to add his inks. Pennington used a variety of line weights and textures to add dimension and contrast. Special attention is applied to the rendering differences between the waves of the water, the sand of the beach, the male and female bodies, and the background & foreground.
This opening page of Valiant Entertainment’s Eternal Warrior #1 (2013) is an example of when the artist does both the pencil and ink work. Here artist Trevor Hairsine chose to do the penciling and inking on separate art boards. The pencils are fairly detailed and are done over a blueline printout of the initial sketch layout. The inks faithfully render the pencil work. Some details are left out (notable in the first panel) which lead to clearer storytelling. The blacks are filled in and different line weights are applied. The emphasis on textures such as skin, hair, clothing, weapons, make the page come alive in Hairsine’s detailed and kinetic approach.
One of the things to keep in mind is that methods adapt, evolve and vary. No two artists work the exact same way. Influences, style, and skill fill the creative process. Schedules, budgets, and deadlines play their vital part of production of comics books. The editors work to keep things moving. Methods are adapted to get the job done. Collectors of original art who have an understanding of the process may find more success in curating a collection. Additionally, a deeper insight and enjoyment may be gained by knowing how our favorite comics are made.