(Or find the entire series here.)
Reading Comics, Part 2: Terminology and Production
by Dr. Brad K. Hawley
Assuming that you have found a more adult-themed comic book (I’ll give some recommendations in a later installment of this essay), what do you need to know to begin to appreciate what happens in it? First, understanding key terminology and the production of the comic book as a commodity seems necessary. A current American comic book is roughly 22 to 24 pages long, is usually based on a single key character or group of characters, and is issued monthly. A writer-and-author team often will have long runs on a particular title. Names on a comic cover are listed in a particular order: the writer is listed first and then the artist (if they are different people, and they usually are in mainstream comics). Inside the comic, more names are given after writer and artist: The colorist, the letterer, and the cover artist. Even though any one person can cover multiple jobs on any given title, this breakdown of duties is the most common. However, independent, low-budget comics are often completed in their entirety by a single person.
In terms of narrative, very few of these comic books are one-shots that tell a complete story in the pages of that single issue; rather, a long series like Batman will usually be comprised of story arcs consisting of, perhaps, five issues. Publishers, to help the reader, will often print “3 (out of 5)” on the cover to let buyers know at what point they are entering into a story arc. The presence and positioning of advertisements can affect the way an artist and writer may deliver a particular image or sentence with special emphasis in the same way that television script-writers incorporate commercials into the pacing of plot or building of suspense. A person either buys these individual issues or waits until story arcs are collected together and published as trades with the advertisements removed and with continuous pagination added. One long, grand story with multiple story arcs may be issued as up to 10, 15, or even 20 separately numbered trade volumes. A comic book, therefore, could be 25 or 1,000 pages long.
You should be able to see the importance, then, of determining whether you are about to read a trade containing a completed, single story arc; a trade that includes a story arc that is part of a much longer series; or a graphic novel. The term graphic novel was coined by Will Eisner for his novel A Contract With God (1978), and while it is often used synonymously with the term trade, the word trade generally refers to a collection of issues comprising a single story arc. Graphic novel refers to a book, whether fiction or memoir, that is illustrated and comes out as a (usually) single volume, is a thematically unified work of art, and has a definite beginning and end. Often only excerpts of graphic novels have been published before. The term graphic novel sometimes is used to also describe a collected story arc if it is truly meant to be a stand-alone story, as is Watchman and Batman: Year One. And to confuse matters, unfortunately, comic book is a catch-all term that can be used to refer to a trade, a graphic novel, or the monthly publication.
Basically, if you’re preparing to read a collection of comics, it’s easy to not be aware of all that’s going on. Make sure you are aware of all the restrictions and limitations that somewhat vanish in the illusion of the collection comprising a trade or even many graphic novels. In other words, keep in mind that each issue was produced by a team of members facing certain challenges:
- The team members were probably working on multiple projects in addition to the one you are preparing to read.
- They were probably working on a tight, monthly schedule.
- They usually have a restricted page limit.
- The placement of the full-page advertisements is probably out of their control (unlike most periodicals, comics have only full-page ads. You will never see a page with both part of the art and some smaller ads).
- There are often continuity restrictions — for example, one character can’t do something in a Marvel comic if it’s at odds with what that same character is doing at the same time in another Marvel title.
- The writers have to determine how much information of the previous issue they should retell since their audience purchased and read the previous issue a month ago and might have forgotten a good portion of the story since then. Or they might consider whether a new reader might not have read any of the issues before.
Not having this appreciation when reading a collection of comics is similar to going to see a movie and assuming a single person turned on a camera to film actors, carried it around for 90 minutes, and then turned it off after yelling, “Cut!”
Now that we understand how comics are produced, we’re ready to actually open up your comic book and look inside. We’ll do that next week!
Next week: Part 3: Look at the pictures
Author’s note: I want to thank the readers of early drafts of this essay, all of whom made useful comments reflected in the final version of this essay: Ellen Attorri, Chelsea Cariker, Abby Weisberger, and Chris Ziegler (four excellent students in my Crime Fiction course at Oxford College of Emory University); Sean Lind and Ellen Neufeld (two Oxford College librarians who allow me to work with them as they develop a substantial comic book and graphic novel collection for the college); Andy Tegethoff (my long-time friend and comic-book expert who has helped me not only with this essay, but who also has taught me much of what I know about comics); and finally Dr. Adriane Ivey (my wife and colleague, who has not only read this essay several times, but has made room in our house for yet one more obsessive collection).