Portraits of Comic Book Artists as Graphic Designers

An original art panel from Denis Kitchen and Will Eisner

original art board panel: The Interview, Denis Kitchen and Will Eisner.

Comics as literature … Maus 1991, check. Comics as art … Masters of American Comics 2005, check. Comics as graphic design … hmm.

Among the 100,000-plus at last week’s San Diego Comic-Con, the place was plentiful with designers – Chip Kidd being the most famous – participating in panels and signings. But there were even more than was first obvious … it’s just that they were all called “comic book artists.” And below, you’ll hear a few of these creators discuss how and why their visual narratives are, in fact, graphic design.

First, a bit about the actual event. It’s been widely noted that in recent years, the “Comic” of the title is increasingly becoming a “Con”… or at least an outmoded brand name. Genre movie and TV promotions that continue to elbow visual literature out towards the peripheries … check. Deep sighs from those of us who recall the 1970s at the El Cortez Hotel, when the convention was, in fact, all about comics, and the superstar speakers were readily available … check. Decision about returning again next year … hmm.

The panelists in the "Comics Across All Media" panel: Paul Feig, Scott Brick, Whitney Matheson, Chip Kidd, Brad Meltzer, and Michael Uslan.

from "Comics Across All Media" panel: Paul Feig, Scott Brick, Whitney Matheson, Chip Kidd, Brad Meltzer, and Michael Uslan. Photo by M. Dooley.

But despite all the Hollywood mega-marketing folderol, the convention continues to reap rich rewards for those of us whose primary – okay, sole – reason for being there is to discover and learn more about our beloved print-based medium.

For instance … on Saturday, when the SDCC dealers’ room was at its jam-packed worst, and hype sessions for upcoming screen entertainments were overstuffed, I could waltz right into a day’s worth of fascinating, fruitful, hour long panels; topics ranged from Chip’s upcoming Captain Marvel book and the legacy of the legendary Will Eisner to new directions in cross-media and post-paper comics.

And … for all five days, when tens of thousands would queue up for hours and hours to catch glimpses of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Angelina Jolie, and Helen Mirren – wait, Helen Mirren? – I could easily seek out an array of innovative artists, upcoming and established, and speak with them about the “graphic” in novels and in design.

And here’s what some of them had to say.

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David Mack
artist/writer, Kabuki; Daredevil; The Shy Creatures; Philip K. Dick’s Electric Ant.

Kabuki: The Alchemy, David Mack. Photo by M. Dooley.

I learned graphic design as a synthesis of type and image. This gave me a sensitivity to type that I had not previously fully considered, and it gave me a consideration for how type is integrated with other imagery.

I apply this approach to my graphic novel work and my children’s books and my storytelling in general. Certainly the type is a part of the imagery. And the imagery in turn tells the story as much as the written language does.

I feel that when comics or other sequential art is at its best, the writing and the visual storytelling is indistinguishable one from the other.

Kabuki: Metamorphosis, David Mack.

For me, comics and graphic novels are a hybrid art form that creates its own unique graphic language, intertwining text and image like strands of DNA. And as such, my education in graphic design has become an integral part of that creative process.

The panels of a comic, for me, have a relationship to Kanji characters and Chinese characters in that they are both images that can be expressive and pleasing to look at, but they are also a part of a kind of grammar. They imply meaning of one idea on their own, but they have a compound and evolving meaning when presented in a sequence.

These are crystalline examples of the essence of graphic design and its meaning in my work: articulation with a clarity of idea, a communication, but with expression and evolving life, that bridges forms of written language with other visual vocabulary.

The idea of creating hierarchy of meaning in the design, and the psychology of leading the readers’ eye through the presentation – how fast they should read it, what places they should pause, where their eye should begin and where it should end – these are techniques that I developed in graphic design while considering the nuances and character of type, while I was also learning this process in the contexts of panel layout and page design in the realm of sequential art.

So, in essence, I’ve found them inextricably related and both part of the arsenal in the toolbox of communication and storytelling.

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Justin Randall
artist/writer, Changing Ways.
artist, 30 Days of Night: Eben & Stella; 30 Days of Night: Dust to Dust.
cover artist, Silent Hill.

Signals, Justin Randall; writer, Ray Fawkes. Photo by M. Dooley.

Comics are one of the most complex forms of visual communication I’ve ever experienced as a university lecturer and practitioner in the field of design. Every frame of juxtaposed imagery and dialogue adheres to the principal considerations of figure/field relations, negative and positive space, hierarchy of navigation and narrative association. These are the building blocks of visual literacy.

Comics and graphic novels are not simply influenced by graphic design. They are, in my opinion, one of the most technical and expressive examples of this discipline.

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Matt Kindt
artist/writer, Super Spy; 2 Sisters; 3 Story; Pistolwhip.

Super Spy, Matt Kindt. Photo by M. Dooley.

Graphic design has gradually forced me to treat the cover of a book not just as a selling point or advertisement for the contents but as a way to incorporate the design of the book into the actual storytelling. I want the first page of the book not to appear after the title page. The first page of the story should be the cover. And the last page of that book should be the back cover.

Pushing that even further, I think the content of the book should always drive the design. And when I’m creating the story it makes it so much easier — there’s no client to convince. The story literally drives the look of the book.

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Doug TenNapel
artist/writer, Ghostopolis; Earthboy Jacobus; Creature Tech.

pencils, 9/11: Pop Grief, Doug TenNapel. Photo by M. Dooley.

I reluctantly took my first design class in college back in the late ’80s. I knew everything, of course, and had little interest in painting construction paper with poster paints to experiment with complimentary colors. My focus in school was similar to the art life of my childhood: whatever I wanted to do. So this whole “design class” thing wasn’t my bag, even as I choked my way through to get a decent grade.

The last 22 years has pretty much been an exercise of proving how wrong I was to disregard classic design theory. My work excels in certain areas, and the only time my audience really remembers anything I do is when I incorporate some of those design principles into my work!

So instead of design being optional to the arts, it’s actually the one thing that separates the men from the boys of storytelling. Look at the top-selling books in my field and you’ll find a virtual Who’s Who of design in the works of everyone from Mike Mignola to Jeff Smith and in books from Scott Pilgrim to Maus. Whatever it is about comic artists that readers like, one huge element has to be some unconscious respect for the principles of design, given the works that are shaking out at the top of the field.

My own daily struggle is with person, panel, and page composition. Those are my three P’s – excluding the fourth, which is in response to the amount of coffee I drink. I thumbnail a page, and need the whole page to sit well with the reader. So I spot in blacks and vary the panels in a way that looks solid as a page. I can tell when there isn’t enough black, because it has the appearance of cheapness, as if I couldn’t afford enough ink – though I’m working digitally!

9/11: Pop Grief, Doug TenNapel.

Next is the all important panel itself. I always compose for flow and clarity. The reader shouldn’t have to study a panel just to find out what’s happening, they should be able to see the gist of things at a glance. Again, I blow in large chunks of black wherever I can to give the panel a feeling of solidity.

Finally, the character in the panel should be the clearest of all. I’ll often cheat details in and out to make sure I’m properly framing a point of interest that involves the character who carries the crux of the content. Readers like to be told what to do, what to look at, and what is important, so they don’t feel lost through a story.

I started thinking about all of the processes the poor reader’s mind has to go through to get a story into their head. They have to translate, interpret, and then digest what I’m intending them to enjoy. Part of my job is to have fun with it, but also to make the experience a beautiful one for the reader.

Good design on the page is like giving a reader pieces of candy or steak while they sit at the dinner table. Like all steak and candy, my design should taste good as it goes down.

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Aaron Alexovich
artist/writer, Serenity Rose; Kimmie66.
artist, Confessions of a Blabbermouth; Fables.

Serenity Rose: Goodbye, Crestfallen!, Aaron Alexovich. Photo by M. Dooley.

Comic books flat-out don’t make sense without graphic design. When I’m up against a blank white page that needs to be carved up into a coherent and emotionally effective series of tiny interconnected panels, graphic design is the only thing that can save me.

Rhythm and pacing are ridiculously important in comics, and it all comes from design. That’s what sets people like Will Eisner, Bill Watterson, and Chris Ware apart from anyone else with fabulous drawing skills. The size of their panels, the number of panels, the size of the characters within each panel, the density of detail, the depth of the blacks, the way text flows through the page, font choice: all these things have a tremendous impact on the emotion of a scene, and that’s all pure graphic design.

My favorite trick is to put a small drawing of a character in a big panel full of mostly empty space… It’s amazing how something so simple can create such a powerful sense of stillness on the page, as if everything just stopped dead to focus on this one little moment and one little character.

Manipulating time in a still image. Very cool.

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Denis Kitchen
artist/author, The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen; Mom’s Homemade Comics.
author, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics; Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix.

original art board: My 5 Minutes with God, Denis Kitchen. Photo by M. Dooley.

When I draw the – ahem – occasional comic book page, design is right behind idea. I first break down my pages in very rough pencils, then tighter pencils. When the layouts looks right for the story, and I determine how many panels are on a page, I immediately start tightening up the composition of the individual panels. I want each panel to look self-contained and inviting to the reader, but I’m aware of wanting the page as an entirety to look well-balanced and attractive. Since I almost always work in black and white, the effective distribution of black, white, and gray are crucial parts of this planning mix.

Graphic storytelling, of course, encompasses endless varieties of style, lettering and approaches, just as the reading styles and speed of those looking at the end product vary greatly. Many comics readers literally read just the balloon content and only skim the surface of the visuals. But in my own case, I draw and design comics for readers who like to consume their panels slowly; who take in and also “read” the backgrounds and detail. Therefore, I don’t stop with the initial design of each panel and page. In entertaining myself during the often tedious inking stage, I try to include background detail, sometimes known as eye pops or Easter eggs, for those readers who take time to savor such bonuses. But I try to include these in such a way that they don’t clutter a composition or derail the story itself.

I also consciously incorporate certain design idiosyncrasies that are easy to overlook. For example, my comic stories are told in rather conventional panel-to-panel narratives, but I hate to be “constricted” by the otherwise unforgiving straight lines that define the territory of single panels. Thus I break the plane on at least one side of every panel. Some detail, or several, often quite subtle, will almost always extrude from every panel I create. While unnoticed, I’m sure, by nearly all readers, the touch helps define a certain distinctive visual rhythm in my work.

Like many cartoonists, I have no formal training as an artist or designer. I deeply appreciate the best individual stylists in the comics world, and am conscious of varying design approaches, but I allow my own graphic design to come naturally and entirely from within, for better or for worse, in service of the story I want to tell and the personal aesthetic I want to achieve.

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Peter Kuper
artist/writer, Stop Forgetting to Remember; The System; Sticks and Stones; Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

The Metamorphosis, Peter Kuper. Photo by M. Dooley.

More and more, the books I’m working on are a whole package, from cover to final page. I’m interested in being involved with every aspect of production so that the experience for the reader is complete from the endpapers to the paper choice, down to the color choice for the stitching on the binding.

At this point, most publishers are expecting me to hand them finished press-ready books, which is one more way that corners are cut – and another job position lost. Unfortunately, it is another way that publishers are cutting corners and pay, although I’m glad to have that level of control over the end product.

As more books move to Kindles, I am finding myself headed towards more elaborate printing. I love the feel of a book. And in addition to its content, I want to make the book itself a unique experience as a tactile object.

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Jorden F Oliwa
artist/writer, Sins of a Gonzo Nation; The Rink Rat Chronicles.

Sins of a Gonzo Nation, Jorden F Oliwa. Photo by M. Dooley.

Coming from an a traditional animation background, graphic design has influenced my storytelling in quite a few ways. The most important aspect I feel has to do with staging and posing of characters. With key animation you are constantly searching for the clearest staging for every action. When you find that perfect action pose, it can convey the whole story in just a single panel. When the silhouette is clear, the line of action strong, and the negative space is interesting, you can convey a great deal of  story with one single drawn pose.

The theories of design are often overlooked when drawing characters because of the humanity that is needed in them to be effective. Because of the simplicity that is often employed in the character designs of animation, you realize that often a clean line or expression is much more effective that a complex shape or an over-rendered drawing. The “keep it simple” idea is paramount.

An extension of this comes at the most crucial stage of storytelling, the thumbnails. When I thumbnail any story I try to keep the initial drawn ideas as small as possible to force myself to keep the staging clear, and the actions broad and graphically simple, to achieve instant readability. If you can get the story told with no details in the thumbnail stage then it will most often work when enlarged and developed into a finished panel. If you can get a laugh or an emotion from the thumbs, then you are on the right track.

Another aspect of graphic design that I often work on during my stories is the scaling of the characters in relation to the other page elements, such as backgrounds, text, panel size, page gutters, and bleeds. An example is that often there is a tendency to create an expression or pose and the need to show it off by making it large in the frame. Usually increasing the negative space around the pose and/or expression will make it much more effective than getting tighter on it and losing the context.

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Kody Chamberlain
artist/writer, Sweets.
artist, Punks; 30 Days of Night: Bloodsucker Tales; Beowulf.

Sweets, Kody Chamberlain. Photo by M. Dooley.

During my twelve years in the graphic design industry, I’d always enjoyed the variety, and the opportunity to work in different styles to better service the client’s needs. Form follows function, so I tried to approach each new project with that philosophy. A women’s and children’s hospital required a very different approach than a punk-rock skate shop. Every tool was applied accordingly, based on the function of the content and the intended audience, in my attempt to control the presentation of the information.

Punks, Kody Chamberlain; writer, Joshua Hale Fialkov.

Since making the jump to doing comics full time, I’ve made it a goal to use that same mentality. I make a conscious effort to let my art style to evolve to better suit the type of story being told. I’m always challenging myself to dig deeper, and to elevate the presentation of the visuals. If you compare my work on Punks – done entirely in photocopy paste-up to imply the vintage punk rock flyer style of the ‘70s and ‘80s – to my gritty line work on Sweets, you’ll see a significant change, based on the content and the tone of the story. Since I’ve started writing much of my own work in addition to illustrating it, that concept has expanded considerably.

The challenge is that, as an illustrator, it’s more difficult to brand myself and to be recognized by readers. An illustrator with a well-defined style quickly becomes a brand in this industry. And because of that, readers I meet are often surprised to find out they already own several of my comics, but never realized they were done by the same artist. That creates an interesting self-branding challenge. But my hope is that fans will develop a better connection with the stories, and that will result in better sales over the long term.

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James Sturm
artist/writer: Market Day; The Golem’s Mighty Swing; Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow.

Market Day, James Sturm. James after receiving his Inkpot Award, photo by M. Dooley.

A graphic novel without graphic design is like a building without girders. Everything hangs on it. It’s essential to construction. Whether it’s visible or not, it allows you to move through space instead of a pile of debris.

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14 thoughts on “Portraits of Comic Book Artists as Graphic Designers

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  8. jennifer doering

    hello i am looking for a graffic designer to make a comic book with a picture and a story line please contact me with all the details on how much and what else you will need call me at 241-416-4828 or email me at chica.fashion21@hotmail.com thank you for your time i look forward in hearing from you

  9. Kenny

    Loved this piece… Honestly I could read a whole book of interviews like these. It reminds me of an interview I heard with Seth once, where he described comics not as a synthesis of words and pictures, but as poetry and graphic design.

    As a comic artist and graphic designer, this is the sort of stuff I think about constantly in my work. And it’s one of those topics you can take in a million directions, too. I loved reading all these different perspectives from such a great array of artists.

    Great work!

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  11. Richard Harper

    Hi.
    I’m looking to hire a student comic book artist for a special home project. My son is graduating from school in 18 months and I want to give a gift of a personalized and original comic book with him as the central “superhero” character. He is a huge spidey/superman collector. I’m on a budget, which is why I’m looking for a talented novice looking for a fun project. About 20 pages. I’ll write the story and have the concept. Need someone to draw, illustrate and color!

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  13. Terry Biddle

    Awesome post! As a working graphic designer (and part-time illustrator) that just started creating my own webcomic/graphic novel, I can completely relate to this.

    When I was working on my design degree, I would often take design inspiration from comic artists like Mike Mignola and Mike Allred. Composition, balance and positive/negative space are design principles you can find all the greatest comics.

  14. Aaron Kenedi

    Michael, I can’t tell you how much I love your posts. They’re all so visually gorgeous and inspiring to read. Thank you for helping to make Imprint such a great site!

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