By: Nicholas Eskey

Often in the comic book industry we focus our admiration on the artist, shortly followed by the writer. But what about those unsung individuals that separate comic books from just fancy drawings? I’m talking about the colorists and the letterers.

Yesterday in room 24D of the Convention Center, 5 people in those positions were collected for the “Comic Book Women: Understanding Coloring and Lettering in Comics” panel. Moderating was Amy Chu (Poison Ivy, Wonder Woman ’77, Alpha Girl Comics), and on the panel were Christy Sawyer (Dark Horse, Zenescope), Maria Victoria Robado (Jem and the Holograms), Kelly Fitzpatrick (Bitch Planet, Neverboy), and Lea Hernandez (Teen Titans Go!, My Little Pony). These women openly discussed the roles of coloring and lettering in a comic; the difficulties of them, their special brand of deadlines, and the art of them. They didn’t focus on the fact that they were women working in the comic book industry or particularly in those roles, but rather just the positions themselves from a women’s perspective.

(Left to Right) Amy Chu, Christy Sawyer, Maria Victoria Robado, Kelly Fitzpatrick, and Lea Hernandez
(Left to Right) Amy Chu, Christy Sawyer, Maria Victoria Robado, Kelly Fitzpatrick, and Lea Hernandez

If you find yourself asking what exactly these positions entail, the names say it all. Amy Chu described the roles as “the least understood and underappreciated.” However, they can be the most critical.

First off, a colorist will take the art, once lined mind you, and fill in the white areas. There’s more to it than just the simple “color by numbers” artwork. Unlike what many people still think, coloring (as well as lettering) are no longer done by hand. Christy spoke about this, saying that, “Because of modern technology, there are also modern problems, and modern deadlines.” To speed up the process, digital is a must nowadays. Often a colorist and letterer must wait until the artists and liners are finished with the work. By then, it might have taken longer than anticipated, and now it’s dependent on these two later roles to make or break a deadline. “If the artist is late on a piece, it’s me that has to stay late and try to make the deadline,” said one of the panelists.

The flow chart of comic work
The flow chart of comic work

Christy Sawyer spoke about how Adobe Illustrator was an industry standard now for letterers, and that lettering is definitely an art. A letterer will have their own templates set up for them, and have a collection of fonts that they themselves created for their work. Lea Hernandez suggested that if you’re interested in lettering but aren’t confident enough yet to create your own, it would be a good investment to buy a few professional fonts until you are.

As of 1989, the industry began to shift to using computers instead of hand drawing letters. “But not so much then, because the letters weren’t yet sophisticated,” said Lea Hernandez. Coloring however had widely shifted to digital after the first instance of Adobe Photoshop.

An artist does sometimes have input in the coloring of their work, and may have some suggestions for the colorist, but they can often be vague. Christy had one of her coloring jobs on display, which showed a character in the center surrounded by wedges of scenes all around him. “The artist told me that he wanted colors for ‘fire, flood, earthquake, etc… I had to go by just that.”

Maria Victoria Robado showed a page from the Jem and the Holograms, pointing out the pinks and purples. “With some comics, they are very muted colors. But with Jem, I thought of ‘craziness,’ so that’s why I went wild with saturated colors.” For those that know, Jem is truly, truly outrageous after all.

It’s true that there are works that don’t deal with color at all. Manga is a great example of this. Lea Hernandez, who has worked a lot in the manga industry, talked about the importance of space in “ballooning.” In fact, the subject of ballooning was a big issue with many of the panelists. Most often it is the letterer who has to decide where the balloon should go, the size of it, and how the font fits in it. Lea however said this is different in manga, where if they are translating a work for the English market, the publisher often wants to keep the balloons as they are because they are seen as part of the art. “That’s why you see a lot more vertical balloons in English mangas instead of the horizontal balloons like in comics or graphic novels,” said Lea.

Example of Manga Ballooning and Lettering
Example of Manga Ballooning and Lettering

“Bad lettering can ruin a book, but good lettering, you don’t even recognize it,” said Amy Chu. “It’s an invisible art,” added Maria. “The man behind the curtain,” chimed in Lea.

The placement of the balloons can be important, and so usually come with their own rules or guidelines. “Never cover important art and never cover faces,” said Amy. Sometimes an artist will keep the balloon placement in mind and will leave some empty space for the letterer to play with. Some other artists will make the balloons themselves.

Maria Victoria Robado continued on the subject of when choosing a font for a comic, it must fit within the boundaries of the balloon and leave enough white space around it. “Often times you’re tempted to take the font (if it doesn’t fit) and change the width. Don’t do this, because it changes the font entirely then. Only rarely will I do this, and it’s only ever just a little.”

Sounds were also spoken about for the lettering and coloring. You know, those big “BAM” or “KAWOO” letters that seem like they are already a part of the art. They can be problematic said the panelists because you don’t want to interfere with the art. Not only that, who are writing for might also have a preference on the noises that are used. In Japanese manga, they keep most of the foreign noises when doing their English translations.

As for partng advice, Amy Chu recommended to those in the crowd who were interested in being artists to study these other fields too. “Base knowledge in lettering and coloring if you’re an artist, even if you’re not planning to get into it, will help you to understand our roles, especially when it comes time to hand the work over to us.”

These women had some great insight and advice into their prospective fields in comics. Next time you pick up that comic or manga, maybe you’ll pay a little closer to their touches.