In a wide-ranging discussion of all things artistic, DC Comics art director Mark Chiarello moderated the “Artists and Their Craft: A Look at the Artistic Process” panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Chiarello was joined on the dais by three masters of the craft — “Superman” artist John Romita, Jr., “Earth 2” artist Nicola Scott and Lee Bermejo, writer/artist of the upcoming “Suiciders” from DC’s Vertigo imprint. Throughout the hour-long panel each of the fan-favorite artists worked on drawings that were showcased at its conclusion.
Chiarello began the discussion by asking the artists what happens when they get a bad script. Scott answered comprehensively. She described her job as making the best of the writer’s intentions — to elevate the script, bring in some personality, bring in some humor if the jokes aren’t quite landing, and to “look for subtext and how appropriate that subtext can be” in order to “add some dimension to what might be a flat story.” Scott described the collaborative process of comics as interpretation at each level: pencillers interpret scripts, inkers interpret lines, colorists find different depths of field and layers. Each step can add something interesting or lose something crucial. Pencilers do the best they can to deliver what the writer intends, but if they screw up, everything after them generally follows suit.
Romita agreed, adding that artists are also responsible for pacing. If a writer is pacing the story, he said, the artist is probably inexperienced. Writers give the artist a template, and artists run with it, and if they tell the story well, the dialogue takes care of itself. Artists are the “directors,” and directors can make the “screenwriters” look like geniuses.
Chiarello’s then asked about how much latitude artists have when they get a script. Scott said it depends on the writer and the script. If it’s a big change, she’ll run it by the editor and the writer. Romita asked his fellow artists if they surprise the writer or discuss potential changes in advance. Bermejo said he’s had both experiences, citing Brian Azzarello as a writer who is very specific with his scripts and the last panel on every page is very important, so he opts to discuss changes with him beforehand. Azzarello generally works in three- or six-page scenes, and the last panel in the scene makes or breaks it, as the next page is either a reaction shot or an establishing shot, so the scripts are very precise.
While working on his issue of “Global Frequency,” the Warren Ellis-written Wildstrom maxi series featuring a different artist on each self-contained issued, Bermejo said the script from Ellis was late. When the script finally showed up on his desk, he began reading and discovered that the first pane; was a run-on sentence that went on for half a page, and the next panel followed suit. Unsure how to proceed, he began doing thumbnails and got four pages into a script that kept getting worse and worse. He finally walked into editor Scott Dunbier’s office to ask what he should do — and only then did he find out the script he’d been working from was a joke. While it may have wasted some of his time, the process taught Bermejo the value of communicating with the writer prior to beginning the artistic process.
Romita said that he started working when “scripts” were just plots. The writer would leave it up to the artist how to interpret it. Romita joked that John Byrne once gave him one paragraph that he needed to turn into 22 pages while Chris Claremont gave him “200 pages [of script] for 22 pages [of story].” He said he prefers plots, with the artists making the visual decisions, and that if an artist knows what a writer wants beforehand it makes it that much easier to convey what they desire visually. In recent years he’s worked more from full scripts, but many of the writers offer to adjust the dialogue after the art is done. Romita also stopped to explain what “thumbnails,” or the process of framing out the panels on a page to work out details before beginning the actual pencilling.
At this point, Scott began drawing Wonder Woman, with her process shown on a screen for the entire audience to witness. She said she usually works with a light box on her lap, so this was a bit unusual.
Romita wanted to know if readers only look at the pictures or if they look at the storytelling as well, trying to determine if readers known the differences between good and bad storytelling. Someone in the audience answered that the best storytelling is invisible — bad storytelling takes you right out of the story.
Chiarello asked if there was anything in scripts that the panelists hate drawing. Romita answered with so-called “animated panels,” in which a writer will ask for several actions in one, static panel because they get carried away. While he admitted it can be done, he said it’s difficult to pull off. He said speed lines will become less and less necessary as an artist improves, but it’s almost impossible to forego them when a writer calls for multiple actions in a panel. In most instances he will call out an artist and let them know he needs to add a panel, and mentioned that many writers leave out pauses in the script for emotional reactions, and artists need to recognize that and put them in.
Bermejo explained that transitions are a real problem. He called the mark of a good storyteller the ability to seamlessly move from scene to scene. That presents his biggest challenge when trying to tell a story, calling it easier to tell the story in one extended sequence. Getting to the next scene can be difficult and he enjoys working with writers who can do that through visual cues. Romita agreed, noting that an artist doesn’t always get a lead-in from a writer, so the artist can throw that in. Bermejo mentioned that if you get to the end of a page and the next page shows a big reveal or splash page, the artist is a bit pigeonholed and can’t adjust the pacing. Romita said writers should mention the big reveal and allow the artist to work up to that. He noted that writers might be incredibly skilled in certain areas but often lack the visual sense many artists have, which tends to paint artists into a corner with regard to big reveals.
Chiarello said he read Marvel comics growing up and that his heroes were John Buscema, John Romita, Sr., Jim Steranko and Gene Colan before asking Romita and Bermejo about their influences. Romita cited those same artists as well as Charles Gibson and J.C. Leyendecker. He said it was intimidating when you see guys who were there before you and did it better, but it allows him to keep his feet on the ground. Chiarello mentioned that he sees Leyendecker in Romita’s art, as well as M.C. Wyeth. Bermejo said he grew up loving Howard Chaykin — “American Flagg!” and “The Dark Knight Returns” made him want to be a comic book artist. He also cited Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell and Bernie Fuchs as influences. Romita said the good thing about having Kirby and Buscema to look up to was that it helped with his storytelling as he was coming into the business — he noted that it’s as important as the artwork, and that stronger storytelling improved his art overall.
Asked about which current artists they enjoy, Romita said the artist who preceded him on “Superman” is good, but couldn’t remember his name. He also mentioned Leinil Yu, Steve McNiven and Dave Gibbons. He said with so much good art out there he needs more time to check it out and compare himself to others just to try and keep pace. Bermejo mentioned James Harren as one of his favorite contemporaries and called the current artistic climate in comics an embarrassment of riches, with more talent working right now than at any time since he broke in. Romita also pointed out that there is a wealth of European and Asian artists whose work is rarely seen by U.S. audiences.
As the panel opened up to questions from the audience, comparing comic scripts to screenplays, but more difficult, and wondered if panel descriptions made things more difficult for artists. Romita answered in the affirmative, as anything that’s “more” is more difficult. If an artist is too inexperienced, he said, writers will take over and make it more difficult. He said artists have to be diplomatic when dealing with writers, and there has to be no ego involved.
This reporter asked Romita why he doesn’t do more inking, to which he replied that he can be more prolific when paired with an inker, which also lets him spend more time on the storytelling. He said that he’ll be doing be doing charcoals and soft leads on “Shmuggy & Bimbo,” his upcoming creator-owned project with Howard Chaykin. Asked if he chooses who inks on which projects, Romita said he doesn’t “demand” inkers, but his bosses ask him who he’d like to work with and he gives suggestions. While working on “Daredevil” he said he’d like to work with Al Williamson, almost as a joke, yet Marvel made the call and got Williamson to ink him. Romita thinks Klaus Janson is the best inker working right now, so when he agreed to join “Superman” he suggested the veteran inker join him on the series, and luckily for all involved DC complied.
Another audience member asked a general question about digital art. Bermejo said he recently started doing a little bit of digital art, because everything teaches you something, but he still prefers drawing on paper. He said he’s begun using a [Wacom] Cintiq a bit — it allows him to be more “fearless,” but it can also be a crutch. His facial proportions tend to shift to one side, and he moves the board to adjust. Like Scott, he flips the board over to adjust when working with traditional tools. With Photoshop, he can adjust things very fast without the restrictions of drawing on paper.
As Scott finished her Wonder Woman illustration, Romita said he would do something very fast, focusing on storytelling and design. He said he prefers the storytelling shape of a panel, which is the artist’s personal vision. He likes to do things in the horizontal shape of a movie screen, because that’s what your eyes see. According to him, Superman standing on a building isn’t as important as the background — the size and scope of the rest of the buildings and the people in the buildings, explaining that there is a flow to design.
Scott said she didn’t grow up with comic books, but she always drew super heroes. When she decided to get into comics, she didn’t really understand what that meant. After 6-7 months of playing around, she realized she didn’t want to do cover art or pin-ups, because “the storytelling was more interesting,” even though it meant she had to draw backgrounds.
This story brought up a memory from Romita’s childhood. He and his father used to watch movies together, and Romita Sr. would explain what he liked about them. Romita said nine times out of ten it was a scene in a noir movie that no one would pay attention to, but Romita, Sr. made sure his son saw it. In “The Big Country,” starring Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck, there’s a scene in a field where the two men beat the crap out of each other. The director pulled back to show two small figures in a gigantic field. Artists can do that instead of showing the big punch — they can show the effects of the punch, which opens up possibilities for the writer to bridge to new scenes. He spoke about the importance of establishing elements within a scene and offered sound advice: “Don’t be afraid of difficult panels.” Scott agreed that “difficult panels” can be the most satisfying things to achieve. She said she had to draw the Tower of Fate, with different perspectives in an endless environment. She gave herself a week to do two double-page spreads, and said it was a lot fun to keep adding onto it.
Romita talked a bit about reference, saying that he used to go to the library and get photography books with things like windows, doors and faces turned in different directions. He walked around his house with his father, who would take pictures of the backs of doors and the inside of windows just so he could make sure to be accurate when he drew them. Scott noted that artists build up a mental library of references as they go along.
Telling another story of one of comics’ all-time greats, Romita said John Buscema was known to never turn the paper while drawing. Jack Kirby, on the other hand, would pin his pages to the drafting table, start in the upper left corner and do full pencils without roughing anything out. He didn’t do it all the time, however — just when he wanted to show off. Romita said Buscema was breaking down “Conan” for Tony DeZuniga and doing about 30 pages a day. On the back of each page, Buscema would draw beautiful illustrations as a warm-up — everything from fantasy characters to regular folk. People would come in to get Buscema’s art pages not for the Conan interiors, but for the illustrations on the back of each board.
During the latter portion of the panel Bermejo was working on his own sketch, leading him to stay quiet and focused. The audience was very keen to check out both Scott’s Wonder Woman and Bermejo’s figure as the panel ended. A bold fan asked if they could have Scott’s Wonder Woman. “Sure,” she said, to the delight of the fan and the jealousy of those nearby. As the room emptied out, this reporter spoke with Romita while on his way to the DC booth and the extraordinarily fast artist shared that the can usually do 7-10 pages power week, and that he’s done as many as 60 pages in a single month before. While each member of the panel approaches their art in different ways, it’s clear that the future is bright for each of them and readers everywhere.