Flat­ting, let­ter­ing, edit­ing... Dis­cover the over­looked comics contributors.

It takes more than just a writer and artist to make a modern comic. David Bar­nett looks at the of­ten over­looked contributors in this most col­lab­o­ra­tive of cre­ative arts

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

When comics are fea­tured in the me­dia, the fo­cus – if cre­ative teams are even men­tioned at all – tends to be on the artists and writ­ers... and very of­ten just the writ­ers. Even the most con­sci­en­tious comics fan can be guilty of ask­ing whether the “new Grant Mor­ri­son is out”, or com­ment­ing on “Gail Si­mone’s lat­est” on­line.

The truth is that your monthly graphic fix is usu­ally the re­sult of a close-work­ing team ef­fort. Inkers, colourists, let­ter­ers, de­sign­ers... there’s a ver­i­ta­ble army in­volved in cre­at­ing a book be­yond the typ­i­cal mar­quee names on the cover. And do you even know what a “flat­ter” does? Well, here’s where you find out... and where we raise our hats to the un­sung he­roes who make comics the suc­cess they are, month in, month out.

Colour­ing and flat­ting

Hit Im­age cre­ator-owned ti­tle The Wicked + The Di­vine is usu­ally cred­ited to writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, but ac­cord­ing to Gillen the colours pro­vided by Matt Wil­son are vi­tal. “Colourist recog­ni­tion is a big deal for us,” he says. “Matt is ex­plic­itly part of Team WicDiv in a way which we don’t feel colourists al­ways are. We think about colour as part of the comic – some­times it’s even the lead in­stru­ment, what the is­sue is ‘about’.

“It’s ac­tu­ally the jobs which get talked about even less which is our thing,” he adds. “I mean, Dee Cun­niffe is Matt’s flat­ter. Flat­ters get so lit­tle credit that I sus­pect most read­ers haven’t even heard of them, which is be­cause most comics don’t ac­tu­ally credit who does flats. We’ve in­cluded some flat­ted pages in the back of var­i­ous trades, just to show the stage.”

Flats? Flat­ters? What’s that? “Flat­ting is a step in the process of colour­ing line art which is widely used for comic books,” Cun­niffe ex­plains. The flat­ter lays down flat, solid blocks of colour, which a colourist then uses as the ba­sis for more de­tailed and nu­anced colour on the page. “It’s a time-con­sum­ing process and most colourists farm their flats out. Work­ing with so many tal­ented colourists gave me an in­sight into the process of colour­ing comics, and I learn some­thing new from my bosses ev­ery day.”

Cun­niffe is based in Ire­land. Since 1996 she’d been “mess­ing around with colour­ing” comics in Pho­to­shop, not real­is­ing there was a ca­reer to be had from it un­til she saw a Face­book ad look­ing for a flat­ter in 2012. She ex­plains: “I had no idea what a flat­ter was but I fig­ured I’d give it a go. It was only a cou­ple of pages a week, but I en­joyed it. The cou­ple of pages a week soon turned into a cou­ple a day, and then even­tu­ally it got out of hand and I was flat­ting for a dozen colourists and try­ing to flat 10-plus pages a day, hold down a full-time job and en­dure a very long com­mute.”

Now a full-time flat­ter, Cun­niffe has worked on a host of books in­clud­ing Ver­tigo’s Sand­man Over­ture. She says that things are chang­ing, slowly, when it comes to recog­ni­tion for her craft. “I

think comic read­ers are start­ing to re­alise just how much of a team ef­fort a comic book is, and it’s the me­dia who are the ones who fail to see the col­lab­o­ra­tive process that goes into the pro­duc­tion of a funny book,” she says.

Tamra Bonvil­lain is colourist on a di­verse range of books in­clud­ing Rat Queens, An­gel Cat­bird and Moon Girl and Devil Di­nosaur, and she too thinks things are im­prov­ing, al­beit slowly. “I think things have got­ten bet­ter, and there are def­i­nitely peo­ple that ap­pre­ci­ate the work of colourists and other mem­bers of the team aside from line artists and writ­ers, but we’re still ne­glected in re­la­tion to them,” she says. “Not ev­ery­one seems to re­alise how much of the heavy lift­ing is done by the colour to sup­port the art, in some cases. Good or bad, as the case may be, the line artist tends to be the one who gets the credit for any of the vi­su­als.”

Bonvil­lain got into colour­ing through an in­ter­est in art and comics from a young age. “I went to the Joe Ku­bert School to learn more about work­ing in comics specif­i­cally, and started to feel more con­fi­dent in my colour­ing abil­ity at the time,” she ex­plains. “Af­ter I grad­u­ated, I got a few small jobs here and there, of­ten with or through other grad­u­ates. Even­tu­ally, I started get­ting enough work that I could make it my full-time job.”


If colourists make the line art sing, then it’s the let­ter­ers who help the writer’s words jump off the page. Ac­cord­ing to Shelly Bond, for­mer edi­tor at DC and Ver­tigo, “great comic book let­ter­ers are also good artists in their own right. They have to be. The place­ment or po­si­tion­ing of the word bal­loon af­fects ev­ery­thing on the page. The let­ter­ing within the bal­loon border needs to be con­sid­ered, not just stylis­ti­cally but also in its point size and line weight.”

For Aditya Bidikar, learn­ing to let­ter was a ne­ces­sity. “I came to let­ter­ing orig­i­nally as a writer who couldn’t af­ford to pay a let­terer,” he re­veals. “I taught my­self how to do it with the help of on­line tu­to­ri­als and let­ter­ing fo­rums, and found the sto­ry­telling and craft as­pects of let­ter­ing tremen­dously fun, to the point where I now do this in­stead.”

Aditya’s let­ter­ing ap­pears in Mo­tor Crush, Drifter, 18 Days and The Skep­tics. He says: “There’s a grow­ing appreciation for colourists in the in­dus­try as well as among re­view­ers, which is great to see, and down the chain of creators, more let­ter­ers are get­ting cover credit these days.”

Pat Mills, the leg­endary writer-edi­tor who launched 2000 AD, was al­ways keen to give his “let­ter­ing droids” full credit even back in the 1970s. He men­tions “bril­liant let­terer” Tom Frame and points out that Jack Pot­ter’s early work on Flesh, In­va­sion and Dan

Dare made him “the ul­ti­mate let­terer”. Let­terer Si­mon Bow­land has worked for 2000 AD... and Marvel, DC, Im­age, Dark Horse, Valiant, IDW, Boom, Ti­tan... pretty much ev­ery­one.

“I think the let­ter­ing is hugely im­por­tant. There’s noth­ing worse than pick­ing up a book which is su­perbly writ­ten and beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated yet ru­ined by poor-qual­ity let­ter­ing,” he says.

“It’s so frus­trat­ing and un­nec­es­sary. You can as­sem­ble the great­est cre­ative team in the world but choos­ing a let­terer who’s out of their depth will ul­ti­mately de­tract from the reader’s en­joy­ment.

“Dig­i­tal let­ter­ing has al­lowed any­one with some fonts and a copy of Il­lus­tra­tor to class them­selves as a let­terer, but the top let­ter­ers in the in­dus­try to­day are the guys who have come from a de­sign back­ground, who have stud­ied at some depth the art of let­ter­ing, and who have honed their skills over many years,” Bow­land adds. “There’s no sub­sti­tute for that kind of qual­ity, and mov­ing for­wards I’d re­ally like to see the stan­dard of let­ter­ing be im­proved in­dus­try-wide.”

Book de­sign

Fo­cus­ing on the story page, even if we recog­nise all those who con­trib­ute art, writ­ing, colours and let­ters, we may for­get that some­one has put a lot of thought into how the en­tire book will look as a pack­age once the var­i­ous com­po­nents are brought to­gether. Ac­cord­ing to gi­ant of the un­der­ground comics scene De­nis Kitchen, “I don’t think de­sign­ers (other that Chip Kidd) get enough at­ten­tion. For ex­am­ple, my Kitchen Sink Books part­ner John Lind does in­cred­i­bly amaz­ing work on books like Sin City: Cu­ra­tor’s Col­lec­tion, Tony DiTer­l­izzi’s Realms, Har­vey Kurtz­man’s Jun­gle Book, The Best of Comix Book, and Abrams’ Art

of Har­vey Kurtz­man, just to name a few. Yet al­most ev­ery time I see re­views, plugs, and on­line dis­cus­sions, it’s my bet­ter­known name that is al­most al­ways cited, even though I of­ten have rel­a­tively lit­tle to do with some projects. It drives me crazy that crit­ics and jour­nal­ists too of­ten over­look the de­signer, like John Lind, who makes beau­ti­ful books beau­ti­ful.”

De­sign was im­por­tant to 2000 AD too, says Pat Mills. “Doug Church def­i­nitely made it sing!” he says. “With­out Doug,

2000 AD would have been a lesser suc­cess. It’s hard to imag­ine or de­scribe how he laid out sto­ries for me. It’s never been copied since – it was a unique, al­most mag­i­cal process.”


One fi­nal job is of­ten over­looked even to­day. Even among comics creators them­selves, edi­tors don’t get enough

recog­ni­tion. For let­terer Aditya Bidikar, “edi­tors re­main the cur­rently-un­sung he­roes of comics, for the in­vis­i­ble hard work they put in.” Ac­cord­ing to Shelly Bond, if, say, “the let­ter­ing is to­tal a mess, I blame the edi­tor. Her job is to hire the right tal­ent for the job”.

Pat Mills has plenty of love for the cur­rent in­cum­bent of the 2000 AD edi­tor’s chair, Matt Smith. (No, not Tharg the Mighty. He kind of has an ex­ec­u­tive role these days.) Mills says: “He’s been edi­tor of 2000 AD al­most since the mil­len­nium. That’s an as­ton­ish­ing achieve­ment, and it’s been an ag­gro free era. 2000 AD is a comic that raises in­tense emo­tions, pas­sion and ar­gu­ments, but Matt seems to have se­cret tech­niques that en­able him to deal with them all.”

So, across all the dis­ci­plines of comic cre­ation there are jobs that are of­ten go­ing un­her­alded. It’s bound to be frus­trat­ing for those in­volved. Si­mon Bow­land ad­mits, “It is a lit­tle frus­trat­ing some­times that colourists and let­ter­ers – colourists less so nowa­days – are al­most pushed to one side. At the end of the day, the writ­ers and the artists are the ones who are truly ‘cre­at­ing’ the comic. But at the same time, with­out a let­terer the comic is go­ing to be silent, de­void of words, which would make it far less en­joy­able a read. So whilst I ac­cept that I’m con­sid­ered to be the least-im­por­tant mem­ber of a cre­ative team, at the same time I think it’s nice when a let­terer gets a lit­tle recog­ni­tion for their ef­forts.”

Dee Cun­niffe agrees: “It’s ter­ri­ble to see press and web re­views of a comic book that com­pletely fail to ac­knowl­edge the artists but laud the writer. There are great creators out there, De­clan Shalvey for one, who never fail to call-out guilty jour­nal­ists for fail­ing to credit where credit is due.”

It’s some­thing we can all be bet­ter at, start­ing by ed­u­cat­ing those who still, for ex­am­ple, praise Stan Lee as the “artist” of Marvel Comics. Kieron Gillen says, “I mean, the core thing in comics is that the main­stream pub­lic sim­ply don’t know any­thing about how comics are made. Which is ob­vi­ously nat­u­ral and un­der­stand­able, as it’s a fringe medium in pop­u­lar­ity... So there’s so many so­ci­etal pre­con­cep­tions that have to be cor­rected.” Due recog­ni­tion starts here.

Vet­eran Bri­tish stylist Shaky Kane con­trib­utes a Bull­whip pinup page.

Lisan­dro Es­ther­ren’s line art, Dee Cun­niffe’s colour flats, and the fin­ished colour cover for Im­age’s Red­neck #1.

Be­low, Eric Zawadzki’s ink art for the open­ing of The

Dregs #2 from Black Mask...

Dee Cun­niffe cre­ates colour flats (left) as the first step in her colour­ing (be­low).

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