Bryan Caplan  

Division of Labor in Graphic Novels

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Bismark is often quoted as saying that "People who like sausages and legislation should never watch either being made." (The actual line isn't as catchy: "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.") If your expectations about the political process are as low as mine, however, it's hard to get disillusioned.

But what if I learned a lot more about something I really enjoy, like, say, graphic novels (a.k.a. "high-fallutin' comic books")? Would that kill my enthusiasm for the subject?

I'm pleased to report that exactly the opposite is true. I've spent much of the last month looking inside the graphic novel "sausage factory," and I like what I see. Above all, I've discovered a truly fascinating division of labor.

For starters, there is the division of labor between writer and penciler. The writer invents the story, writes the dialog, and figures out what each drawn panel should look like. The penciler tries to draw - and improve upon - the panel-by-panel descriptions of the writer.

But the penciler rarely does all the artwork himself. He does the core artwork in pencil (hence the name). But then he frequently hands the job over to an inker. The inker takes drawings in pencil and - to the superficial eye - "traces" them in ink. But in reality, good inking requires a lot of skill. The inker has to tailor the thickness of the lines to show depth, emphasis, light patterns, and so on. Penciled images that are supposed to be close need thicker inking than penciled images that are supposed to be far away.

You might think that the inker does the coloring, but that is the job of the colorist. Even in black-and-white comics, you need an inker. If you want to add color, you usually get a separate craftsman for the job.

But you're not done yet: there's one more person you need to produce your graphic novel: a letterer. No joke. There's a person whose job it is to "draw" the words in each panel - to make the lettering clear, attractive, and engaging.

Oh, one last thing: If you want to sell your graphic novel, you'll need a cool cover. And again, this is usually assigned to a separate person, a cover artist, a person who is unusually good at creating one-off drawings that grab the eye and get the consumer interested.

Now how would you guess this team of craftsman splits the income? Here's a standard breakdown from The Complete Idiot's Gude to Creating a Graphic Novel:

Writer: 20%
Penciler: 40%
Inker: 15%
Colorist: 15%
Letterer: 5%
Cover artist: 5%

I think this division of labor is pretty fascinating even if graphic novels aren't your cup of tea. But for me, it's a revelation. After all, this means that, thanks to the division of labor, I can dream the dream of moonlighting as a graphic novelist even though I can barely draw.

Well, actually it's already gone well beyond dreaming. Thanks to Comic Book Creator software - a wonderful product that combines the obsessive flow of a computer game with the satisfaction of creative accomplishment, I'm two-thirds of the way through writing my first graphic novel.

Yes, the first drafts of the first two issues of Bryan Caplan's Amore Infernale are already available here. It's a superhero mystery set in modern-day Verona in the glamorous world of opera. I kid you not. And with some luck, my future collaborators are reading this right now!


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Giovanni writes:

Wow. I am so excited to read these when I get home from work.

I know Bryan is an out of the closet geek, but it's still very surprising to see such a respected academic do something like this.

Benjamin writes:

Actually, you're making a mistake: The system you describe is the one used to make "comics" such as Spiderman, the X-Men and so on. "Graphic novels" are different. They represent longer, more personal pieces than Comic Books. They are written, penciled, inked and (most often, unless a computer is used for that) lettered by the same artist, who also does the cover. So the system you describe is applicable for Comic Books, only, really.

Interesting factoid for you: Both systems were invented by the same man, Will Eisner, who passed away in 2005. In the 30's he created an "assembly line" for making comics, with a division of labor such as you describe, to serve the “pulp” market which was reconverting itself into comics and was hungry for new material. His shop was called the "Eisner & Iger" shop and while some consider it a comics sweatshop, most future comics geniuses went through it, from Kirby to Feiffer to Kubert and were pretty well catered for by Eisner, who always believed in Comics as a real art medium rather than a pure commercial enterprise. His fetish character, The Spirit, is often referred to by most current Comics and Graphic Novel artists, and Famous Frank Miller of Sin City is actually preparing its adaptation for the silver screen. Using Comics as art is what led Will Eisner, in 1978 to output "A Contract with God" which he coined a "Graphic Novel" to differentiate himself from the then struggling Comics market. “A Contract with God” revolutionized the field by enabling other artists, such as Art Spiegleman (who went on to win the Pulitzer for his Graphic Novel "Maus"), to express themselves with means on par with "real" literature.

Graphic Novelists, following the example of Will Eisner, do not use the assembly line. They work alone for the most part, and put their guts into their books.

Benjamin writes:

Actually, you're making a mistake: The system you describe is the one used to make "comics" such as Spiderman, the X-Men and so on. "Graphic novels" are different. They represent longer, more personal pieces than Comic Books. They are written, penciled, inked and (most often, unless a computer is used for that) lettered by the same artist, who also does the cover. So the system you describe is applicable for Comic Books, only, really.

Interesting factoid for you: Both systems were invented by the same man, Will Eisner, who passed away in 2005. In the 30's he created an "assembly line" for making comics, with a division of labor such as you describe, to serve the “pulp” market which was reconverting itself into comics and was hungry for new material. His shop was called the "Eisner & Iger" shop and while some consider it a comics sweatshop, most future comics geniuses went through it, from Kirby to Feiffer to Kubert and were pretty well catered for by Eisner, who always believed in Comics as a real art medium rather than a pure commercial enterprise. His fetish character, The Spirit, is often referred to by most current Comics and Graphic Novel artists, and Famous Frank Miller of Sin City is actually preparing its adaptation for the silver screen. Using Comics as art is what led Will Eisner, in 1978 to output "A Contract with God" which he coined a "Graphic Novel" to differentiate himself from the then struggling Comics market. “A Contract with God” revolutionized the field by enabling other artists, such as Art Spiegleman (who went on to win the Pulitzer for his Graphic Novel "Maus"), to express themselves with means on par with "real" literature.

Graphic Novelists, following the example of Will Eisner, do not use the assembly line. They work alone for the most part, and put their guts into their books.

Buzzcut writes:

My grandfather was a penciler in one of the comics assembly lines. He drew for Popeye, among others.

Michael Sullivan writes:

But then he frequently hands the job over to an inker. The inker takes drawings in pencil and - to the superficial eye - "traces" them in ink. But in reality, good inking requires a lot of skill. The inker has to tailor the thickness of the lines to show depth, emphasis, light patterns, and so on. Penciled images that are supposed to be close need thicker inking than penciled images that are supposed to be far away.

So essentially, you're a tracer.

If you haven't seen _Chasing Amy_, you have no idea how funny it was to read that description of what an inker does. Oh, it's worth seeing, that was before Kevin Smith sold out.

blink writes:

I guessed the writer would have received a much larger share. Still, we do not know how much effort each job requires – if the penciler painstakingly prepares illustrations for one novel while the writer churns out the plans for three, the job suddenly looks less glamorous than the 40% figure suggests. Do you have statistics that could clarify this? I am also curious about the fraction of the cover price this group receives to split.

72 km/h writes:

Forget about the penciller in the division of labor. What of the division of labor in the pencil?

Sorry, somebody had to say it.

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