San Diego Comic-Con: The Forgotten Trio-Colorists, Inkers, and Letterers

What is the state and future of these comic book contributors?

On Thursday, July 18, a panel focusing on colorists, inkers, and letterers was moderated by comic book historian Jessica Tseang. Her two guests were Dave Lanphear and Beth Sotelo.

Ms. Tseang began by asking how the industry is currently recognizing these contributors to comics. Mr. Lanphear responded that it seemed that letterers were pushing back as whole to be recognized on covers along with other contributors. He recounted that he had heard Kurt Busiek say that letterers are the soundtrack for a book. He found that very positive. Ms. Sotelo stated that it’s gotten better for colorists. “It’s exciting now because of Kickstarter and people can work on their own creations. It’s also easier for anyone to get their foot in the door because of software that anyone can use.”

On where inking currently is in the industry, Lanphear said that it was in trouble because scanning can do the job. “The trouble is pencils and inks compliment each other. The computer misses stuff.” This leaves the colorist picking up the work load. Sotelo agreed, “Inkers are getting the squeeze.” Tseang asked if graytones help or hurt when artists do them. Sotelo responded, “They help, unless it’s skin tones.”

Sotelo was asked where she started. “Top Cow. Working on Michael Turner’s work.” She added, “During the day I was waiting tables at Chilli’s and at night I was doing color flats.” Sotelo was glad she stuck with coloring because “It’s so much fun to color.” She currently does about two books a week on average.

Lanphear was asked if he’s aware that he has the status of lettering over 100,000 pages of comics. “I run across stuff in twenty-five cent bins I don’t remember lettering.” He started as a freelancer, moved to Malibu Comics, then to Comicraft, Marvel, and DC. He’s since started A Larger World.

When asked where people can go to see what an inker, colorist, or letterer do Sandra Hope was brought up for her Instagram page inkmonkeyhope. “The brush control is fascinating,” Sotelo said. Lanphear added, “Pencils are not always precise. Inkers often have to determine light sources.” Richard Friend was also mentioned as having an amazing set of Youtube videos. Lanphear wanted to include “The inker often establishes volume and weight.” He then shook his fist as he humorously said, “Thanks, Kevin Smith, for calling us tracers!” The audience laughed at this reference from Chasing Amy.

Due to technology being used to create lettering, the text is not often on art used in the industry. Tseang asked how it effects the value of letterers’ work. Lanphear was quick to answer. “The effect is actually on the artist.” People want to buy original artwork from comics that include the lettering. “‘Where’s the lettering?’ People want the story that the page tells with the text.” He also said that he’s been commissioned to letter art that doesn’t have his lettering so that the owner gets the full effect of the page. Sotelo said it “feels a little removed.” “We come at this work as artists,” Lanphear included.

It was then introduced that Matt Banning, a DC inker known as Batt, thinks that inking is in trouble because no younger talent is coming into the field. Tseang asked if his concerns are valid. Lanphear stated that technology has a twofold effect. “At Comicraft we tried to come up with programs that resembled hand lettering.” He recounted how the company created fonts and balloons to match The Spirit for Matt Wagner. “I tried so hard to make it look like the original (from Eisner’s books). Matt Wagner stood up for all I did.” So, it’s good to go to what’s been done in the past, but he said with a smile “don’t look at the past.” It’s possible to control the randomness and thickness of letters with computers. “The technology is amazing.” Sotelo added, “You have to embrace the change. The internet is blowing things up. Everyone has an opportunity (to create). Stylistic choices incorporating new tools are the future.”

A question from the audience was if inking was a good job. Lanphear answered first, “Talent and opportunity are two different things. Be a good artist, not just an inker. Find your passion.” “Try everything,” Sotelo added. “Have a broad approach to comics.”

I asked the question if they’ve noticed that sound effects are being left out of comics lately. I grew up on books from the seventies and Jack Kirby reprints, so I appreciate sounds in books. Sotelo said, “My husband enjoys including sounds.” Lanphear stated, “I think sound effects have been abused. They’re disappearing like thought balloons, which have now become captioned. I try to harmonize sounds with panels.” He also said, “Whatever services the story is best.”

The final question from the audience was if people do better with traditional media before using computers. “I think that’s a good idea,” Lanphear said. Sotelo concluded the panel by saying, “I think so, too. I might be biased. When drawing by hand, I’ll catch myself going ‘Undo! Undo!'” This brought much laughter from the audience.

This was a really interesting panel. Inkers, colorists, and letterers are major contributors to comics and aren’t often covered in the comic press, let alone the mainstream media. I would recommend anyone who has a love of comics attend a panel like this and talk to professionals in these fields. This panel was engaging and enlightening. I would love to see more of these professionals invited to comic book conventions.

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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