Art direction and design of comics – part 1

the state of design in comics

To begin with, a bit about me. I spend the majority of my time working as a graphic designer and I’ve designed everything from publications to reports, brochures to business cards, logos, posters, videos and more. Here’s my issue: I grew up loving comics but every time I walk through my local comic shop I cringe at the design work that I see. It’s not good overall and I don’t know why that is considering that comics are known to be an artist friendly industry. So I ask, why isn’t there better design and art direction?

First, let me separate comic art and artists – pencilers and inkers and painters and illustrators – from the design and art direction. For the most part, the art and artist couldn’t be better. What I’m wondering about here is how all the various elements are tied together into a nice package that’s then sold to the reader and this is what I want to explore with this series of blog posts.

Actually, it’s not that comics and graphic novels are poorly designed. It’s more that they are all designed exactly the same way and based on styles that were developed years ago that haven’t evolved at all. I don’t know why but this bothers me. There’s good design absolutely everywhere so I don’t understand why someone hasn’t come along and with a little creative design and revolutionized the industry.

Overall (blanket statement here…and I know there’s crap out there too), it seems like independent comics produce a lot better designed content and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the creators have much more control over the whole process. I think the mainstream stuff is really broken down into defined roles – so writer, penciller, inker, painter, letterer, colourist, editor… There’s no designer or art director listed there. Now I’m sure there’s someone involved somewhere in the process doing some design work before it gets printed but for the most part we associate the way the book looks (or its “art direction”) with the guy who draws the story not an “art director” and I think that shows in the final product.

If you take a look at the editorial design (i.e. magazines) that are produced on a regular basis and done in shorter time periods than a lot of comics – Bloomberg Business Week or New York magazine, for example. The design in comics just doesn’t hold up and I think that’s really strange for an industry that places so much stock in art.

So in the following posts I want to take a good look at what art direction and design are, how they can be applied to a comic and why these are important. Here’s what I plan to cover:

Part 2 – what is art direction?
Part 3 – design and design elements
Part 4 – putting it together
Part 5 – lettering
Part 6 – logos and mastheads

I don’t expect to revolutionize the industry, but for the independent creators out there like myself – I hope that some of this information can give you a better idea of what you can do to set your work apart and get it the attention it deserves.

About jason

Illustrator and graphic designer. When not working full time as a Senior Graphic Designer, I am usually working on the graphic novel On the Verge: the Arrow of Time. Artist on Andrew Jackson in Space and The Sisters.

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