Creating Comic Book Art

Getting "Good and Fast"

“First you get good, then you get fast, then you get good and fast.”[1] These are the words of Dave Sim, noted comic book writer/artist and author of Cerebus, on one of the most necessary components for being a professional comic book creator. But after professional artists manage to get both good and fast, what is the method they use to make sure they stay that way? Here are the techniques used by some of the best American comic book artists to layout and finish a page of comic book art.

Daredevil Sequentials by Joe Quesada
Credit: Joe Quesada

Joe Quesada

An Illustrative Example

Every comic artist has their own idiosyncratic way for approaching a blank page. For example, Joe Quesada, former Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, as well as artist for many titles such as Daredevil, Ash, and Azrael, prefers to read an entire comics script, and then layout sequences of the script in order as he rereads the script. His layouts are the size of the printed comics page, “because now I can see what the reader will see when they open the book, but in layout form.”[2] Quesada then xeroxes the layouts up to full size (ten inches by fifteen inches), copying them to the art board with a lightbox.

Further, Quesada says that when he is working on drawing a script, he will illustrate the entire thing in sequential order, starting with page one. “If I go straight to a splash, say, and then come back to it later, I may find that I really needed to set things up better in the preceding pages. So I’m very dogmatic in my approach; I take it page one, page two, page three and so on.”[2]

And although dynamic layout choices and a splashy style are important characteristics for exciting comic art, much of Quesada’s focus is on “trying to draw things as cleanly and clearly as possible,” since this results in better storytelling. Figuring out storytelling is also advice Quesada emphasizes for young artists trying to improve their craft, and he points out that sometimes, the best influences can come from outside of comics. “[L]ook at other illustrated media. Look at the great painters, look at the great illustrators: Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxwell Parrish, Alphonse Mucha. These guys are able to tell you an entire story in what is effectively one comic book panel.”[2]

Jim Lee

Looking Out for Key Scenes

Jim Lee, current co-publisher at DC Comics, and artist on best-selling superhero comics like X-Men, Batman, and WildC.A.T.s, has developed a system for laying out comic pages over the course of nearly three decades in the business. Lee will start by putting asterisks in a written script next to key visual scenes, and then do thumbnails of the images in his head on typewriter paper. Once he has completed thumbnail layouts, Lee will start work on the actual comic art board. As opposed to Quesada, Lee will often work out of sequence on the pages for a given issue. “The nice thing about doing it that way was that you could theroetcially pick up page twenty-two of a story, draw that first and then work backwards,” Lee says. He also notes that, “Sometimes it seems you’re actually going faster that way, because hey, you’re on page eighteen in no time!”[2]

Superman and Batman by Jim Lee
Credit: Jim Lee

Lee’s approach to laying out a comic page is to do very little preparatory work before working on the actual page. His thumbnails are “just stick figures,” and he says that a big reason for this is because he feels that if he goes into more detail and then traces layouts onto the finished page, then the “finished result had, well, that traced feeling; it lost a lot of the spontaneity and freshness doing it that way.”[2] This may be an important point for some artists, to maintain spontaneity of linework by refusing to copy something that have already drawn. On the other hand, lightboxes and other forms of duplication may work better for some artists, such as...

J. Scott Campbell

Sketching it Out

J. Scott Campbell is a comic artist best known for his work on Gen13 and Danger Girl, and he has also done celebrated covers for Spider-Man, Batman, and many other comic book heroes. Campbell’s creation of a comic book page starts with sketches for panel ideas of certain moments in a story, which he says is then “just a process of trying to piece them together to make an interesting story.”[2] Once he knows all the beats of the story, Campbell takes a piece of comic book artboard, quarters it, and does four pages of layouts on that one board. These layouts are much more detailed, and Campbell actually xeroxes them up to full size and copies them to another piece of artboard with a lightbox. His reason for this is that “my figure drawing is a lot tighter when I do it at a reduced size first.”[2]

Gen13 by J. Scott Campbell and Alex Garner
Credit: J. Scott Campbell and Alex Garner

Like Lee, Campbell will completed finished pages out of sequential page order. “But even if I start in the middle of the book, it has to at least be the beginning of a whole scene.”[2] However, he does find that it’s easier to keep track of continuity details if he works more or less in order. But he also warns that if a deadline will result in certain pages of an issue looking rushed, it is better to have those pages appear in the middle of the book rather than at the end.

So that is how some of the most famous American comic book artists layout a page, but the methods they have certainly aren’t the only way to do it! Feel free to leave any comments of your preferred method, either from your own devising or that of your favorite artist!