Digital Comics

This month I will be participating in this blog by posting some brief articles around the general topic of “digital comics”.

It is my intention to use this month’s topic to post on different online platforms that will link back to this blog, and hence try to expand the “network” part of the project by linking back to this blog and reciprocally to link to the other resources. I will in fact be “reblogging” myself here (or there?) and as such also attempt to play critically on the notion of “original publication” on line.

Instead of starting directly addressing “digital comics” as such, I have taken a look at the assembly-line like conditions of production of American comic books before computers became the norm.

Graphixia is a collaborative comics blog published weekly on Tuesdays. Today it was my turn at Graphixia so I published a post titled “Comic Books: Art Made in the Assembly Line“. I have reblogged it below.

The smooth surfaces of our modern-day computers and mobile devices (phones, tablets, e-readers) can often hide the complex history of their making.

Whereas it can be argued that the “digital age” has democratised up to a certain extent a “culture of making” by encouraging people to create and share open-source code, the software and hardware of today can simultaneously alienate users from an awareness of the material conditions of production that still underpin creative labour. This is related to a tendency to think that these current devices are making “collaboration” possible in a way that did not exist before. A look back at the history of comic books as cultural products implies a look at how these publications were made.

Before the use of digital computers in the production of mainstream comic books became widespread in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a convoluted assembly-line process was standarised. It often involved a range of agents, and I’d like to argue that this process helped to define the expressive boundaries and possibilities of the medium and the specific texts it produced. The available tools defined specific roles, and this specific roles were located at more-or-less fixed steps or positions within the process. These steps also played a role in defining an authorial/creative hierarchy, and ultimately in defining the identity of different comic book authors within the industry and within the produced textualities as well. Hence, for example, the penciller used pencils; the inker, inks. Other roles within the process were not specific tool-dependent, but implied a variety of other tools that implicitly imposed particular modes of behaviour and expression.

The participants in the production chain used their own respective “tools of the trade”, and the levels of authorial involvement varied greatly from one participant to another. With this method of production, the editor and publisher remained the all-seeing eye in the process; they were the agents with the clearest conceptual vision of what the finished product would look like (for a fascinating visual itinerary of the changes in the textual topology of a comic book in progress, see Gibbons, Watching the Watchmen, 2008; also useful is the now-classic Lee and Buscema,  1977. For academic engagements, see McAllister et al 2002; Gibbons 2008).

The process could be as diverse as there were comics authors, and many did not follow identical steps. Nevertheless it is possible to infer a general work flow,  a standard industrial process that mainstream publishers used to impose as a production line:

This diagram describes the convoluted process of multi-authored mainstream American comic books. It imposed constraints of all types, and forced those involved in the creation of comic books to work within those limits. Diagram CC-BY Ernesto Priego

This diagram describes the convoluted process of multi-authored mainstream American comic books. It imposed constraints of all types, and forced those involved in the creation of comic books to work within those limits. Diagram CC-BY Ernesto Priego

Conceptualised as such, the process could start either with the writer, the editor and publisher or the artists (usually the penciller). It can be assumed that often the writer first produced a typewritten script that was sent to the editor for approval, who in turn may have had it sent back to the writer for revisions. The penciller produced a basic layout for the story, not dissimilar to a movie storyboard, either before or after receiving the typewritten script via the editor. The process continued through the inker who went over the penciller’s traces, then the colourist who illuminated the previously inked illustrations using several manual or mechanical techniques; then the letterer, who calligraphically or mechanically added the written words to the page.

By then the editor would already have commissioned a cover from different artist(s) (who may have followed the same process as the inside pages’ artists), and everything was put together as a coherent textual whole by a graphic and editorial designing team. The whole package was sent back to the editor and proofreaders, and if no further corrections were deemed necessary then the whole mechanic or pre-press original was sent to the printer. Though it is not depicted in the diagram, proof copies were sometimes sent back to the editor for approval, since colour separation techniques, paper and ink quality, etc., also affected the finished publication. The printer would in turn deliver it to the distributors in charge of selling the books to the readers through their established channels.

The heritage of 18th century caricature and 19th century illustrated journals is historically embedded in this industrial system that juxtaposes artistic creation with mechanical reproduction. The techniques used to create the illustrations and often the texts themselves were varied, from wood engraving (1770s) and lithography (1798) to the relief halftone (1852). These methods confounded creation and reproduction, and became popular because they increased the speed with which publications were produced and lowered the cost and broadened the audience for these illustrated materials. This created an explosion in the illustrated publications industry in the United States and Europe between 1850 and 1890, and set the industrial conditions for serialised production that would define mainstream comic book publishing a century later.

The influence of technological development in the history of the artistic evolution of the comic book in the late 1930s and the early 1940s is no different, but the differences between comic strips published in daily or weekly newspapers and the production of longer narratives in monthly or bi-weekly stand-alone flexible spine publications imposed a different set of possibilities and constraints. Until the 1950s, even though comic strips were often created with the help of assistants, the work was credited to a single author. Whilst comic strips authors largely worked alone or from home, collaborating with others often through the post, the studios where animation films were made were not unlike medieval scriptoria, where authorial work was carried out collectively and the auctor/scribes/artists worked together on individual desks. These working spaces were proper artwork factories. and the influence they must have had on the superhero comics of the late 1940s and 1950s cannot be underestimated.

    The Max Fleischer Studios in 1935, where Jack Kirby started his career (Evanier 2008).

The Max Fleischer Studios in 1935, where Jack Kirby started his career (Evanier 2008).

Kimmelman (1996) offers a discussion of the concept of auctor that could well be applied to understand the role of comic book authors during the Golden and Silver Ages of American comic books. The common traits between the production lines in factories and comics and animation studies also underscore the material conditions of production of comic books and animated films and shows. British graffiti artist Banksy directed an episode of the American animation series The Simpsons, aired on 10 October 2010. In the introduction to the show, the viewer sees an East Asian factory where rows of workers in terrible conditions hand-colour frames of the cartoon, a clear critique of the industrial conditions of production involved in mainstream animation

It must also be said that the visual representation and self-representation of comic book artists through photographs, drawings and paintings of the artists sitting at their desks and surrounded by their tools deserves closer study (see Priego 2010).  In October 2010, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC was formally presented with a 1986 photograph by Yousuf Karsh of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz sitting at his desk with a Peanuts strip in progress next to a collection of pens. The Smithsonian Institution has traditionally been very welcoming of comic art, but this is a significant event since it is the first portrait of a cartoonist to make it to the walls of the American National Portrait Gallery.

The comic strip artist who published his work on daily or weekly newspapers was known for his manual skill and speed with which he could both write and draw. For reproduction purposes nothing more than a photostat in black and white of the original strip was required (composed of black ink on white paper). Sunday colour supplements required a more complicated procedure, involving colour separations made without the strip artist’s control (Gordon 1988).

In the late 1950s and early 1960’s the conditions under which the modern comic book was produced differed for several reasons.  The division of labour as exemplified in the diagram above was essentially a corporate attempt at protecting the publishing companies’ intellectual property (by taking advantage of the creators’ work, who rightfully claimed authorship of the published material). According to Dowd, the division of labour in comic book production “is not really necessary except as an asset protection strategy”  (2004:18). However, a case can be made that these production conditions established the artistic, commercial, cultural and social boundaries of the comic book.


Dowd, D.B., and Hignite, T. (eds.) (2004) Strips, Toons and Bluesies: Essays in Comics and Culture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press)

Evanier, M. (2008) Kirby: King of Comics (New York: Abrams)

Gibbons, D. (2008) Watching the Watchmen (London: Titan Books)

Gordon, I. (1998) Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press)

Kimmelman, B. (1996) The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages. The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing)

Lee, S. and Buscema, S. (1977) How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. (New York: Simon & Schuster)

McCallister, M.P., E.H. Sewel Jr., and I. Gordon, eds. (2002) Comics and Ideology (New York: Peter Lang Publishers)

Priego, E. (2010) “The Digital Scriptoria: Textuality and Materiality”, Opticon 1826 Research Images, available at [PDF]. Accessed 4 February 2014

Sillars, S. (1995) Visualisation in Popular Fiction 1860-1960. (London and New York: Routledge)

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One comment on “Digital Comics
  1. Julia Round says:

    Enjoyed reading this Ernesto, thanks.
    With respect to ‘the old ways’, I wonder if/how you would go about evaluating the impact of different ‘stages’ in the assembly line; or what effect collaboration can have here (as opposed, say, to a singular/auteur artist doing all their own pencilling, inking and colouring). Additionally, I’ve always been struck by how little credit is given to letterers in particular, both nominally and critically.
    As far as digitisation goes, I suppose I’m wondering how much this has really changed things. Obviously a lot more stages can/are being merged together, but now under a new set of tools and limitations. Is it leading to more auteur artists?
    Cheers, Julia

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