This article is part of our continuing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.
Comic books have been around since the 1930s, each story taking shape as it moves from its writer to its artists (usually a penciler and an inker) and then to its letterer and colorist.
Today, that team effort, which also includes an editor reviewing the work and mindful of deadlines, remains largely the same. But while the way writers and editors work is relatively unchanged, computers and technology have broadened the options for illustrators — some of whom have traded pencils and inks for styluses — and revolutionized the roles of letterers and colorists, in speed, output and artistry.
This technological evolution did not go exactly as some had imagined it might.
“I recall in the late ’80s, we were all so sure that every discipline of comics creation would switch over to being done with the aid of the personal computer,” said Mark Chiarello, a veteran of the comic book industry. “Well, 30 years later, people pencil and ink comics in relatively the same way that they have since the art form began,” he said. “But the job of colorist and letterer has changed and been completely taken over by the computer.”
Mr. Chiarello began as an assistant to an editor at Marvel Comics, worked as a colorist at Dark Horse Comics and later was the art director at DC Comics, where he worked for 26 years until this January. He is now a freelance artist and has witnessed many attempts to shift toward digitally produced comics.
When Shatter Special No. 1, published by First Comics, was released in 1985, its cover proclaimed it “the first computerized comic!” The entire issue — except for the coloring — was done on a Macintosh. The interior art had rigid word balloons and recalled the early days of video games, with pixelated, somewhat clunky images. But it was innovative and a best seller.
In 1990, DC Comics published Batman: Digital Justice, which was produced on a newer Macintosh, this one with 3-D renderings and color. Still, digital comics took years to blossom. “It took a few years of stumbling around in the digital darkness and trying to invent custom-designed software before all comics companies embraced the creative software to end all softwares: Photoshop,” Mr. Chiarello said.
Today, we get lush images like those by Yanick Paquette, who has drawn many covers and comics for DC, including “Wonder Woman: Earth One,” a modern retelling of the Amazon’s origin, written by Grant Morrison.
Mr. Paquette’s first published work was “Harem Nights,” a hand-drawn erotic story published by Fantagraphics Books in 1994, and his first foray into digital was a 2000 cover for “Batman Inc.” Mr. Paquette said it was not an easy transition. “Working in Photoshop, I couldn’t do a circle,” he recalled. (They looked like eggs.) He found his footing using a Cintiq, a tablet that allows the user to draw directly on the screen, which has increased in size and resolution. “I don’t buy erasers anymore. I don’t buy inks. But every time there is a new Cintiq, I kind of indulge,” he said.
In Mr. Paquette’s view, readers are wary of digital art; their minds may look for tricks or shortcuts. “When something is too perfect, too crisp, you lose the human sensibility,” he said. To draw an army of Stormtroopers, he could draw one and digitally create a battalion, but he does not. “If I spend all my time drawing all the Stormtroopers, they are humanized and your relationship to the art is different.”
The relationship between a penciler (who lays out the page and draws the initial images) and an inker (who gives proper weight to each line) has also changed. It “used to be a good inker was the best way to elevate a penciler’s work. Nowadays it’s a good colorist,” said Karl Kesel, an inker whose work was first published in 1984. “Technology has reversed the order of artistic importance in comics from penciler-inker-colorist to penciler-colorist-inker. As an inker, I hate to say that,” he said. “But it’s true.” Mr. Kesel inks on paper, but he believes the biggest digital innovation is the computer’s undo function: “Don’t like that line? Click. Gone.”
Technology has certainly affected the role of the letterer, who adds the word balloons, editorial captions and sound effects to the page. “We get paid less but we can do more, thanks to Mr. Computer,” said Chris Eliopoulos, a letterer and cartoonist.
Mr. Eliopoulos got his start in the industry in 1989 as an intern in Marvel’s production department. The head letterer, Ken Lopez, taught him the craft, which Mr. Eliopoulos described as analog lettering. Later, he would show Mr. Lopez how to use a computer to letter.
Mr. Eliopoulos does not see the process as very different. “I still letter by hand. I just use a different tool,” he said. But whereas the old days of lettering had many accouterments — the art boards, adhesive tape to steady them, T-squares, lettering guides and pens — a computer now serves as nearly a one-stop shop. “The two disciplines, coloring and lettering gravitated to two different programs,” he said. “Colorists flew to Photoshop and letterers to Adobe Illustrator.”
At his peak, Mr. Eliopoulos was hand-lettering 30 comics, each averaging 22 pages, per month. But working digitally is faster and more lucrative, he said. A penciler could make $100 per page, but typically finish only one per day. A letterer could earn less per page, but produce several and make more than an artist.
For the popular “I Am …” series of graphic novel biographies of historical figures, which he illustrates and which are written by Brad Meltzer, and for his own projects, like a forthcoming children’s book, “The Yawns Are Coming,” Mr. Eliopoulos uses a hybrid of freehand digital lettering, eschewing his library of fonts. “It takes more time, but I think anyone you talk to will say, if we could, we’d stick to hand lettering because it’s organic and it’s art.”
The artistry of coloring has improved by leaps and bounds. The variations of reproducible colors increased and — whether on paper or viewed digitally — the result was richer.
When Alex Sinclair began coloring in the early 1990s, the process was a true labor of love that required acetates, Dr. Ph. Martin dyes, color charts and codes for available hues written on guides for others to implement. Mr. Sinclair got his break through a talent search announced in “WildC.A.T.s,” an independent comic book series drawn by Jim Lee, one of the giants of the industry even then.
Mr. Lee, who is now the co-publisher and chief creative officer of DC Comics, was eager to push toward digital coloring and Mr. Sinclair had to get up to speed. He was familiar with Illustrator, but using its tools to try to mimic those of Photoshop was difficult. “It was like coloring with the opposite hand,” Mr. Sinclair said. He read a “Photoshop Wow” book to teach himself the program one chapter at a time.
Tablets were the next revolution for colorists. “Once the tablets came out, it felt more like painting,” he said. The Photoshop brush tools had also become more sophisticated. In 2003, when Mr. Sinclair worked on “Batman: Hush,” he digitally colored the main characters and painted the watercolor backgrounds by hand.
The inspiration was Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch” in 2002, which was hand-drawn, not computer animated. All the backgrounds were hand painted and it was gorgeous,” he recalled. “You could totally tell it was organic.” For Hush, the watercolors gave Gotham City its own distinct look.
Analog or digital makes no difference to Maggie Thompson, a former senior editor of the “Comic Buyer’s Guide,” which covered the industry from 1971 to 2013. “I’m there for the story,” she said.
One’s views on the production changes are subjective, she said. “Comics went from flat color to toned color. There’s a nostalgic quality to flat color, but I bet colorists don’t like it,” she said. And while digital art is pristine, traditional art could be rife with blue-line marks, smudges and erasures. But those imperfections show the human effort of the work and are catnip to original art collectors.
Ms. Thompson owns an unpublished comic book cover from 1972 by John Severin. It depicts Captain America and the Howling Commandos, an elite group of soldiers in the Marvel universe, and required some paste-up corrections, which are now slipping off.
“I wouldn’t have that problem with digital art,” she lamented. “But I also wouldn’t have the original art.”