Behind the Heroes Part 4: The Penciller
Featuring artist Rob Norton
Imagine a comic book without narration or dialogue and most likely you’d think of the classic 1984 G.I. Joe (#21) issue ‘Silent Interlude’.
Now try to imagine a comic book without any images and there’s a good chance that what comes to mind is a book or a script.
While ‘Silent Interlude’ shows that a good story (when well illustrated) doesn’t always require accompanying text, it does highlight how much the penciller contributes to the overall story with their choices in how they present the story.
But it still needs the story and someone to present that story in comprehensive sequential art.
And this is where the penciller steps into the comic book process.
A basic explanation of the pencillers role is that their job is to turn the story into a series of visual panels which the reader can easily follow.
While this may sound simple enough, keep in mind that while doing this the penciller also has to be able to render anatomy, perspective and lighting accurately.
This is on top of considering panel composition and, not only, maintaining the story but keeping it interesting.
This certainly adds a lot more dimension to their task (beyond my earlier basic definition) and is why so many fail to become comic book artists.
When the penciller first receives the script they will read through it for various details that give them the ideas they need to begin designing how the comic is going to look.
“I’m sure every artist has their own approach to how they do this, but I assume it’s all very similar in that we all have to read the script and figure out the best way tell the story visually. “ said artist Rob Norton. “For me, the biggest thing I look at first is to see if the writer has a good understanding of what the artist will have to do when drawing their script. Some writers get focused too much on the written word that they forget that an artist has to interpret this story, and for example, you get a big action page with 9 or 10 panels, which is ridiculous.”
A self-taught artist, Norton begins works largely with traditional materials.
“For the most part, I prefer to use pencil and ink on paper.” He said, “I have nothing against digital work, but I just prefer the hands on approach of traditional stuff myself.” He starts traditionally and then uses digital medium to tighten up his finished images.
Working with Red Leaf Comics for the past 3 years, Norton’s current work is on Highlander 3030 for Emerald Star Comics.
“I feel I learned a lot just by having the chance to draw a book. It gave me a specific goal, with people counting on me to produce what I promised I would. I have no interest in being that kind of beginner comic artist that can’t complete the work assigned. It also pushed me because I wanted to be as good as I could be. “
Part of that desire to constantly improve involves working as closely as he can with the others involved in the title.
“Whenever possible, I prefer to have a lot of contact with anyone involved in the process, and I also try to make myself as openly available as possible to them. In fact, there have been times where I have been worried that I’m too involved and may be a bit of a pest. Any little idea I get I want to bounce off them and sometimes I think I need to rein that in.” He said.
However this doesn’t mean that Norton sacrifices his own approach.
“After going thru the script and making notes, I start putting it together in my head. Usually, time allowing, I will let the script run thru my head for a day or two.” Norton said, “That gives me a chance to think it over in detail before I get started. Then I do small thumbnail sketches of every page, working out storytelling, page composition, flow and all the stuff involved in making the book look as good as I possibly can. I have a personal rule that if I can’t make the pages look as exciting visually as I would like, due to my lack of skill, then they have to at least be clear and easy to follow so the reader can understand what’s going on.”
Although he is currently enjoying witnessing his hard work and dedication come to life with the Highlander 3030 title, Norton is also developing his own title with writer Adam Volk.
“Ultimately that is the goal, to work in comics.” Norton says, “ Drawing sequential pages is hard and to have a completed project done and know that you did the work is a great feeling. I have found myself in the role of cover artist for Emerald Star and Red Leaf and that, in itself, is a very challenging job that I find very fun and rewarding.”