The Invisible Artists Behind Your Favorite Comics

Colorists and and letterers bring a silent medium to life, and their work often goes undetected—especially if they’re great at their jobs.

Katie Posner

Open any issue of The Wicked + The Divine, the critically acclaimed modern-fantasy series from Image Comics, and the first thing you see is spectacle and sound. Jamie McKelvie’s art breathes life into the stories of 12 gods reincarnated as pop stars: When one deity puts on a rock show, crackling energy explodes across the page, like music at the loudest and most impressive concert you’ve ever been to. The snap of a god’s fingers can make a cigarette flair into life—or cause a head to explode. Kieron Gillen’s dialogue flashes out across the panels, some witty, some heartfelt, some magical. It’s all brilliant work by two creators at the top of their game. But without the additional contributions of talents like the colorist Matthew Wilson and the letterer Clayton Cowles, it would all fall flat.

Though they rarely get the acclaim of superstar artists and writers, colorists and letterers are the secret sauce behind most comic-book storytelling. Colorists are the cinematographers of graphic narrative, laying hues over art to control mood and style; letterers are the sound designers, crafting fonts, effects, and speech balloons to bring noise to a silent medium. Both often operate behind the scenes. But as comics gain more mainstream attention, many in both fields are pushing for greater recognition of their contributions.

In comics, it’s a truism that the best coloring and lettering is the sort you don’t notice. The goal of both disciplines is to meld so harmoniously with the underlying pencil art that they nearly disappear. Yet both are deeply intertwined with the more playful side of cartooning. The result is a delicate balancing act between fundamental principles and individual experimentation.

For Joe Caramagna, a letterer who’s worked on several Marvel books including Daredevil, Black Widow, and The Amazing Spider-Man, the no-frills approach is usually the way to go. When he gets a script, he pastes dialogue into digital-lettering templates, before working out balloon positioning and flow. For a new series, he’ll pick a font he that feels works with the look of the book. “I try to keep the lettering as clean and classic-looking as possible because I don’t want to try to upstage the art,” Caramagna told me.

It’s the letterer’s primary job to arrange speech balloons in ways that don’t obscure the art, and that lead the eye through the natural rhythms of a conversation. Legibility and clarity are vital: It should be obvious at a glance who’s speaking, and when. But letterers also have to calibrate their work to the art itself. “I’ve had editors ask for me to give a [word] balloon a loud screaming effect, because they want the moment to be bigger and more dramatic,” Caramagna said. “But the artist drew the character as steaming, not screaming. So it doesn’t work.”

Other letterers are a bit more experimental. For example, Deron Bennett (Batgirl, Batman, and Tale of Sand) likes to occasionally flex his creative muscles, and tap into his interest in typography and design. When the script calls for it, Bennett works out ways to show word balloons as if they’re underwater, or coming from behind glass or force fields. Working on the book Hacktivist from the imprint Archaia, Bennett developed a clever way of signaling dialogue in a foreign language; when multiple languages are present in the dialogue, each is written in a different color, with a bit of calligraphy from the language in question attached.

A panel from Hacktivist (Archaia)

“We were going to be slipping in and out of different languages, and leaving a note each time would have been visual clutter,” Bennett said of Hacktivist. “So I looked at what we do to suggest singing in comics—a simple music note on the side of a balloon. I decided if I could just symbolize the language in the same way, it should work in distinguishing what was being spoken.” The result is intuitive and unobtrusive, as the best lettering often is.

While coloring might seem more flashy, it’s also a careful balance between individual flair and the needs of the underlying art. Colorists these days usually work digitally, painting over the pencils or inks provided by the series’ artists, using cues from scripts and art and conversations with writers to decide on tone. “The overall mood to the book is throughout the script and context for the larger story,” said Jordie Bellaire, the colorist of Moon Knight, Injection, and Hawkeye. “That informs the way the colors should feel as well. I try to keep myself open to the art and writing to try new things ... for things like speed and action, I try to find the simplest and most believable route to create an effect.”

Years before he began working on The Wicked + The Divine, Matthew Wilson started out at Zylonol Studios, a coloring outfit run by another artist. Initially he scanned original art and did technical work before moving on to color separation, a process where hand-colored work was reproduced in digital files. (The ubiquity of digital drawing now basically means this doesn’t exist anymore.) Eventually Wilson was making enough at Zylonol that he was able to branch out, taking on freelance coloring projects, gaining critical attention, and moving onto bigger books, including Daredevil, Black Widow, Paper Girls, and many others. “After 14 years of working at home, I’m totally unqualified to do anything other than color a comic book at this point,” Wilson said. “I’ve digitally painted myself into a corner!”

A sequence from The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics)

In 2013, Wilson teamed up with Gillen, McKelvie, and the letterer Clayton Cowles to produce Young Avengers, a critical and fan-favorite relaunch of a 2005 Marvel property. Wilson had previously worked with Gillen and McKelvie on their book Phonogram, and as they finished Young Avengers, Gillen and McKelvie invited both men onto a new, creator-owned project they were planning. In 2014, the book came out under the name The Wicked + The Divine. The book stars a dozen gods, incarnated in young-adult form as pop stars: Lucifer arrives looking like Bowie’s Thin White Duke, Inanna has shades of Prince, Sakhmet bears a close resemblance to Rihanna. They are loved and hated; within two years, they are dead. The plot is a snappy stew of arena-rock spectacle, superhero soap opera, and meticulously plotted murder mystery.

Early on, the team experimented a great deal with The Wicked + The Divine’s look, trying to nail down the signature colors of the gods. Then came figuring out how to make the colors really sing. All agreed that the magical performances and miracles needed to pop off the page. “I set up a lot of the non-performance/miracle stuff to be a bit more subdued, so that by comparison the bright colors I use when the gods show off seem even more colorful and extraordinary,” Wilson said.

In Issue #8, the teenage protagonist Laura Wilson goes to a rave thrown by the god Dionysus. Gillen wanted imagery that communicated the feeling of being high at a party; after thinking about it, Wilson used shifting gradients of hues to wash out the linework and communicate the speed and pulse of the music. “Even when the gods in this comic are basically doing big superhero fights, we’ve always wanted their powers to look and feel different than a typical superhero book,” Wilson explained. “We look at a lot of fashion photography, music videos, and art installations to draw inspiration for the look of the gods and their powers.”

Other performances were trickier to sell, though. “Kieron [Gillen] writes these incredibly abstract ideas, which evoke some amazing imagery, but are sometimes a bit tough to actually depict,” Wilson said. “Kieron’s script will say something like, ‘and their powers are waves of extreme nothingness pouring over the crowd’ and then I have to go figure out what fucking color ‘extreme nothingness’ is.”

A sequence from The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics)

In a book about music and murder, how the characters speak is also pretty important, which is where Cowles comes in. He has worked as a letterer on books including Bitch Planet, Batman, and Journey Into Mystery, the latter of which was also a Gillen project. Cowles said his lettering philosophy is “enhance, don’t distract,” though WicDiv offers plenty of opportunities to play around. There’s only one consistent sound effect in the book: the “KLLLK” of a finger-snap, which starts the story off and accompanies many of its more shocking moments. The rest is up for grabs.

While civilian characters speak in traditional balloons, Cowles decided that the gods’ voices in WicDiv would come in the same colors Wilson uses for their respective costumes. He also used custom lettering styles for specific characters, like Woden, a creepy, Daft Punk-influenced god. “Kieron wanted Woden to employ super- and subscripting to imitate the sound of a vocoder,” Cowles said. “I added a few of my own flourishes, like making Woden’s balloons square ... I take a similar approach to both character voices and sound effects. Through fonts, shape, and color, I try to make them look the way they sound.”

The Wicked + The Divine has been a resounding success for all concerned, selling well in both single issues and trade paperbacks, and picking up a deeply devoted following. (It’s also been optioned for a potential TV show by Universal, though there’s been little public movement on that front.) As beloved as the project is, however, everyone involved has to keep working.

Like many other creators in the comics industry these days, colorists and letterers are freelancers, moving between projects and publishers as money and oppurtunities dictate. Colorists and other creators typically sign a generic work-for-hire contract, which covers all the work they do for the publisher. (Contracts tying a colorist exclusively to a publisher will often have a timeline or number of issues spelled out, and stipulate what kind of side-work for other publishers is acceptable. According to Bellaire, typical page rates can run anywhere from $25 to $200 per page, depending on how senior you are in the industry. For letterers, it’s sometimes a different story—Caramagna and Cowles both work for Virtual Calligraphy, a lettering studio that is under contract to Marvel and thus provides relatively steady work.

Compensation and royalties can still be shaky, however. DC Comics added colorists to their royalty program a few years ago, Wilson said, but such steps forward have been accompanied by rates at other companies declining even as issue sales stay steady. Then there’s the occasional neglect colorists and letterers face from the editorial arms of the publishers, especially compared to writers.“Sometimes Joe the Letterer doesn’t know a book he’s been lettering every month has been cancelled until he sees it on Twitter,” Caramagna said. “I’d rather have Joe the Writer and Joe the Letterer have a similar experience when dealing with the publisher than get a vanity boost from seeing my name on a cover.”

But colorists and letterers do pop up on comic covers more often these days. In fact, the last few years have seen a real change in the way both disciplines are viewed by audiences. Comics journalists on websites like The Beat and the sadly defunct Comics Alliance often spotlight both disciplines, and creators often have devoted followings on social media. “It’s more common to see interviews with colorists now, both in articles and podcasts,” Wilson said. “When I started there was no YouTube or Twitch, and with those new outlets you can watch comics artists and colorists creating their work and explaining their process. It’s all much more open, and it’s allowed colorists to come a long way in terms of visibility.”

If nothing else, there’s always the respect of your peers. Bellaire has won two Eisner Awards—the comics equivalent of the Oscars—for her work, and Caramagna and Bennett have picked up nominations. The awards are based on the work of the comics giant Will Eisner, himself no slouch when it came to inventive lettering and colors. This year, Wilson won for Best Colorist, partly for his work on The Wicked + The Divine. It’s not quite being a god; but it’s nice to be recognized for your role in making the magic.