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Superhero or supervillain? Technology's role changes comic books

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Letterer and cartoonist Chris Eliopoulos working on a Temple Grandin cartoon. "We get paid less but we can do more, thanks to Mr Computer," he says.

New York

COMIC books have been around since the 1930s, each story taking shape as it moves from its writer to its artists (usually a penciller and an inker) and then to its letterer and colourist.

Today, that team effort, which also includes an editor reviewing the work and mindful of deadlines, remains largely the same. But while the way writers and editors work is relatively unchanged, computers and technology have broadened the options for illustrators - some of whom have traded pencils and inks for styluses - and revolutionised the roles of letterers and colorists, in speed, output and artistry. This technological evolution did not go exactly as some had imagined it might.

"I recall in the late '80s, we were all so sure that every discipline of comics creation would switch over to being done with the aid of the personal computer," said Mark Chiarello, a veteran of the comic book industry. "Well, 30 years later, people pencil and ink comics in relatively the same way that they have since the art form began. But the job of colourist and letterer has changed and been completely taken over by the computer."

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Chiarello began as an assistant to an editor at Marvel Comics, worked as a colourist at Dark Horse Comics and later was the art director at DC Comics, where he worked for 26 years until this January. He is now a freelance artist and has witnessed many attempts to shift towards digitally produced comics.

When Shatter Special No 1, published by First Comics, was released in 1985, its cover proclaimed it "the first computerised comic!" The entire issue - except for the colouring - was done on a Macintosh. The interior art had rigid word balloons and recalled the early days of video games, with pixellated, somewhat clunky images. But it was innovative and a bestseller.

In 1990, DC Comics published Batman: Digital Justice, which was produced on a newer Macintosh, this one with 3D renderings and colour. Still, digital comics took years to blossom.

"It took a few years of stumbling around in the digital darkness and trying to invent custom-designed software before all comics companies embraced the creative software to end all softwares: Photoshop," Chiarello said.

Today, we get lush images like those by Yanick Paquette, who has drawn many covers and comics for DC, including Wonder Woman: Earth One, a modern retelling of the Amazon's origin, written by Grant Morrison.

Paquette's first published work was Harem Nights, a hand-drawn erotic story published by Fantagraphics Books in 1994, and his first foray into digital was a 2000 cover for "Batman Inc." Paquette said it was not an easy transition. "Working in Photoshop, I couldn't do a circle," he recalled. (They looked like eggs.)

He found his footing using a Cintiq, a tablet that allows the user to draw directly on the screen, which has increased in size and resolution. "I don't buy erasers anymore. I don't buy inks. But every time there is a new Cintiq, I kind of indulge," he said.

In Paquette's view, readers are wary of digital art; their minds may look for tricks or shortcuts.

"When something is too perfect, too crisp, you lose the human sensibility," he said. To draw an army of storm troopers, he could draw one and digitally create a battalion, but he does not.

"If I spend all my time drawing all the storm troopers, they are humanised and your relationship to the art is different."

The relationship between a penciller (who lays out the page and draws the initial images) and an inker (who gives proper weight to each line) has also changed. It "used to be a good inker was the best way to elevate a penciller's work. Nowadays it's a good colourist," said Karl Kesel, an inker whose work was first published in 1984.

"Technology has reversed the order of artistic importance in comics from penciller-inker-colourist to penciller-colourist-inker. As an inker, I hate to say that," he said. "But it's true."

Kesel inks on paper, but he believes the biggest digital innovation is the computer's undo function: "Don't like that line? Click. Gone."

Technology has certainly affected the role of the letterer, who adds the word balloons, editorial captions and sound effects to the page. "We get paid less but we can do more, thanks to Mr Computer," said Chris Eliopoulos, a letterer and cartoonist.

Eliopoulos got his start in the industry in 1989 as an intern in Marvel's production department. The head letterer, Ken Lopez, taught him the craft, which Eliopoulos described as analog lettering. Later, he would show Lopez how to use a computer to letter.

Eliopoulos does not see the process as very different. "I still letter by hand. I just use a different tool," he said.

But whereas the old days of lettering had many accouterments - the art boards, adhesive tape to steady them, T-squares, lettering guides and pens - a computer now serves as nearly a one-stop shop.

"The two disciplines, coloring and lettering, gravitated to two different programs," he said. "Colourists flew to Photoshop and letterers to Adobe Illustrator."

The artistry of coloring has improved by leaps and bounds. The variations of reproducible colors increased and - whether on paper or viewed digitally - the result was richer. NYTIMES