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
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.”
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).