The Origin of the Comic Book Assembly Line

By | Friday, May 21, 2021 1 comment
You're probably aware that many of the more commercial comics are done by a series of people, right? A writer will draft the story, a penciller will do the initial illustrations while an inker cleans the linework up, a letterer is actually the one putting in the dialogue, and a colorist applies... well, color. Pretty standard breakdown of work, right? It mostly makes sense, as those individual tasks require slightly different skill sets. That approach is generally credited to Will Eisner, who by the late 1930s began getting too much work to handle by himself and found he had to hire a staff of creators to help meet the demand. The list of Eisner & Iger Studio alumni is a veritable who's who of early comicdom: Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Lou Fine, George Tuska, Mort Meskin, Bob Powell... In hiring all these new people, he established this assembly line process to help speed up production.

(The art accompanying this post is the original rough layout for the page in which Eisner explains his approach in The Dreamer.)

What I'm wondering, though, is how/where did Eisner hit upon the idea originally? I've seen/heard it referenced almost every time the Eisner-Iger shop is mentioned, but there's very little in the way of details. In fact, The Dreamer is about the most elaborate version I've found, and he literally spends only one panel on it. From Eisner's own accounts, he didn't seem too business savvy at the time, so it strikes me as odd that he might lift the idea wholesale from Henry Ford. Also, I doubt he would've woken up one day and suddenly hired fifteen people to help out; he would've picked up one guy here, another there over the course of weeks and months, so even if he did have a flash of inspiration, he wouldn't have had the resources to implement a full assembly line at the outset anyway.

So some kind of gradual approach seems to make the most sense. Maybe start with "I'll write the story and do some rough layouts, you finish it and make sure everything looks polished"? Then perhaps "I'll write the story and do some roughs, you write in the dialogue and draw the figures, and you fill out the backgrounds"? Then "I'll write the story, you do some roughs, you write draw the main figures, you drop in the dialogue, and you finish it"? Something kind of like that makes sense, right?

But how much experimenting did he do with that? How long before he settled on a single methodology? What were some of the options he might have tried that didn't work out well?

And one thing I've always been struck by is that Eisner has mentioned on more than a few occasions that different artists worked on the main figures than the backgrounds. I understand that's not an uncommon practice in manga, but it's definitely not common in North American comics. At least not since the death of the newspaper adventure strip. I've heard Bryan O'Malley, Jamie McKelvie and Marc Silvestri have used background artists on occassion, but that's far from the norm, I think. When/where did that comics assembly line process shift into the penciller/inker model we're more familiar with? Is it indeed more efficient than a foreground/background approach?

I find it a little curious that, for as much as has been written by and about Eisner, and for as significant as that division of labor was/has been to comics, that there seem to be scant details about how it actually came about. At least, as far as I can find.
Newer Post Older Post Home


Matt K said...

This is a good question, and very possibly we will never know a lot more about it.

My own thinking is that the nature of the switch from penciling to inking is the most obvious basis for separation/specialization.

Considered from outside the world of comic books, the widespread division between penciling and inking seems odd. Writing, typesetting, coloring; all of these seem like more natural specializations. Whereas dividing the drawing into pencil-art and ink-art seems like it must be driven mostly by production speed. The same artist penciling and inking 22 pages of art takes much longer than that artist just penciling those pages. But with a separate inker, there's potential for all 22 pages to have fully finished art less than a day after the last page is drawn in pencil.

This seems like it would have been the biggest encouragement toward specialization in those early "package shop" days, with additional specialization following after.

Lettering would be the other likeliest contender for how-it-first-began, probably. If you were really under the gun, you might conceive of passing penciled pages to someone who is not even an artist but has decent penmanship, to write in the dialogue and captions, then decide that the idea has further potential.