This vocabulary forms a language variously identified as sequential art, graphic storytelling, pictorial stories, visual language or comics. Whilst scholars have yet to unite on a term to define the language, the communicative tools of that language have been formalised in works by authors such as Will Eisner, Scott McCloud and Mort Walker.
- 1 Creative team
- 2 Comics, comix and graphic novels
- 3 Outside the comic
- 3.1 "Alternative comics"
- 3.2 Fanboy or Fangirl
- 3.3 "The Marvel Method"
- 3.4 Continuity
- 3.5 Canon
- 3.6 Retcon
- 3.7 Pre- and post-Crisis
- 3.8 Events
- 3.9 DCU, MU, Earth-1, Earth-616
- 3.10 Crossover
- 3.11 Tie-in, guest appearance, guest star
- 3.12 Shared universe
- 3.13 Cover date, publication date
- 3.14 Origins
- 3.15 "One shot", stand-alone issue, "done in one"
- 3.16 Imaginary tales, Elseworlds, Alternates, Possible futures, What If...?
- 3.17 Direct market
- 4 Specific comics terminology
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
A comic book's creative team (or sometimes creators) generally refer to the same individuals: those responsible for the specific creation of a particular book or story. However "creators" can also refer to the individuals who first wrote/drew a particular character or title. For example, the character of Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but while they are that character's "creators," they are not per se the creators/creative team of every title featuring him.
The "creative team" usually refers to two main roles, with around four subsidiary ones. Primarily, the term refers to the writer and artist. This latter term is usually used to refer to the penciler, but also includes the role of an inker and colorist. There is usually also a letterer involved in the hands-on "creation" of a comic book, and then an editor behind-the-scenes. Any combination of these people (that includes the key roles of writer and artist) can reasonably be said to refer to a "creative team":
- The "term describes the individual(s) who created the comic book in question. A writer, artist, letterer, and editor will usually be credited in the comic book. Note that these functions can be performed by one or more people, acting collectively or individually. A comic book may have one writer and multiple artists, for example, or may be the creation of a single person."
The complete creative team on a small press, independent or self-published comic will likely be smaller than that on a more mainstream title. At its most basic, the creative team can see just one person filling every necessary role; at its most complex it includes a considerably larger group.
- "The writer, naturally, writes the comic book. This is not, however limited to "writing the words in the balloons," as many newcomers often think, but rather requires developing and putting down on paper the entire story in such a way that the artist can then interpret it into visuals for the reader. It is possible to have multiple writers on a single comic book. Sometimes one writer will plot the comic, and a second will write the dialogue after the fact. In other cases, many writers may plot a comic book together, with one of them (or another writer) supplying the dialogue."
Moreover, the writer can be two (or more) individuals working as a team. The writer (or writers) often produce a full script of the comic, often in a panel-by-panel, page-by-page form to guide the artist, often detailing dialogue, actions, thoughts, motives, expressions, similar to a screenplay. Some writers such as Alan Moore are famed for describing precisely how the artist should draw each individual part of every scene. However, some writers create extremely sparse scripts, giving the artist a creative edge. Stan Lee instigated the "Marvel Method" (below) saw the writer's role reduced solely to writing the words, leaving the burden of storytelling with the artist.
Comics are usually a collaboration between different individuals, typically a writer and an/several artists. Broadly the term "artist" is used interchangeably with penciler, since it is almost-always the penciler who produces the initial artwork, and provides the bulk of the artwork. Hence the writer and artist (penciler) are usually said to be the exclusive authors of a particular comic, even though there are usually other individuals involved in the creative process.
A general breakdown of a comics' "artists" includes three roles, often — but not always — provided by three separate individuals/teams. Alysson Lyga puts it thus: "Historically, the three functions were performed by three individuals separate from the writer and were distinct job titles." The three titles/roles/jobs are:
The role of the penciler is, for most comics (excepting, for example, fully painted comics) the primary artistic chore, and hence the penciler is usually referred to as the "Artist". The term refers to the fact that initial artwork is done in pencil, so that mistakes can be corrected and so that the layout is not set in stone immediately. Some artists choose to work in ink immediately; some do their own inking; many nowadays draw on a computer via a wacom tablet, sidestepping the need for actual pencils in favour of digital pencils:
- "A penciler does the initial work of laying out the page based on the script. He or she creates each panel, places the figures and settings in the panels, etc."
The role of the inker is to supplement and enhance the pencil artwork. The purpose of inking was initially to define the artwork both for the colorist and for the printing process. Many artists work with a single inker, or small group of inkers, who best accentuate their art-style. Some artists also provide their own inks, but the separation of the roles both speeds up production (particularly vital on a monthly schedule) and allows a buffer-stage for editorial-or-other art-changes. With the advent of computer art, some modern "pencil" computer artwork is "digitally darkened," (i.e. the gray pencil lines are darkened to imitate the inking stage), bypassing the role of an inker. This ignores the role of the separate inking stage (and often the separate individual who carries out the inking), where artwork can be added to or refined:
- "The penciled pages are then passed to an inker, who uses black ink to render the pencils into fuller, rounder tones. The inker usually adds depth and shadow to the images - a good inker will bring out and enhance the strengths of a penciler's artwork."
The role of the colorist is to add color to the artwork, either by hand or on computer. Historically, the colorist (and the inker) would work directly on the original artwork, but modern advances mean that the coloring (and sometimes inking) is now done digitally on a computer, and hence can be refined and changed with comparative ease. The colorist will often make the ultimate decision over palette (color scheme), adding to the tone of the book. "Muted", "Pastel" and "Technicolor" color schemes can change the whole tone and feel of a comic, and is a key part in comics production, despite being arguably the most overlooked artistic role.
The artistic roles on comics can, of course, be filled by any number of individuals, from one to an almost indefinite number. The writer-artist (e.g. Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Darwyn Cooke) typically combines the two roles of writer and penciler, but can also incorporate the role of inker as well. More commonly, the pencils and inks may be produced by the same individual on some, or all, of their projects. Some comics feature more than one writer, penciler, inker or colorist, and some feature individuals (often uncredited) who "ghost" work in the style of a particular artist, or work as a background artist, working with (or for) an artist who might only draw certain figures, panels or scenes, leaving the rest to their collaborator.
The role of colorist is more likely to be a role filled by a separate individual to the rest of the artwork, although some artists do provide their own colors, most typically those who work digitally. (In addition: Some "[c]omics are produced in black and white, with gray tones instead of colors, etc. Some comics are painted in full color, rendering further artists moot.") In recent years, studios and companies such as Digital Chameleon and Comicraft are credited with, for example, colors and lettering, with the credit given to the company/studio and not a specific individual within that company.
The role of the letterer is usually separate to the role of writer and (all individuals under the catch-all term of) artist, and refers to "[t]he individual who places word balloons and captions on the finished artwork and fills them with words based on the script." Typically this is the last stage in a comic book's production, although the letterer may liaise with the artist initially to make sure there will be space to fit the speech bubbles into the artwork without obscuring too much/any of it.
- "Letterers also often provide the sound effects prevalent in comics though sometimes the artist will render them."
The lettering in a comic is usually designed to be unobtrusive, and in some cases (e.g. The Sandman) is used cleverly to differentiate between different characters. Richard Starkings' company Comicraft provides lettering services (and also supplies digital fonts for letterers) by a number of individuals under a collective credit.
The editor of a particular comic (and there are usually, for larger companies at least, many tiers of individual editors, group editors and head editors) is the "individual charged with the editorial functions," typically implying that the editor has "broad control over the content and direction of the story... shepherds the creative process, or may function as an "extra set of eyes" to catch errors and glitches in the process" or any combination thereof.
The editor is often the individual who shoulders the responsibility, be that for continuity errors or story glitches, late comics or (perceived or actual) mismanagement of a creative team. Some editors work by dictating the broad or specific direction of a title or story arc while others give their writers/artists free rein. Typically the editor on a work-for-hire project (i.e. one where the writer/artist does not own the character whose story they are telling) will have more direct influence over and input to the story than would the editor of a creator-owned title. Many comics have a specific editor over-seeing a specific story, who is answerable to a "Group Editor" who may be responsible for a number of titles, perhaps linked in theme. This individual will ultimately be answerable to an Executive Editor/Editor-in-Chief.
"Cartoonist" is a very broad term, sometimes "used by many artists who perform multiple tasks in the creation of a comic, including the writing... with the implication that the work is predominantly the creation of a single vision." In mainstream comics, however, "cartoon art" is seen as less-realistic, so the term "cartoonist" is usually best applied to representative artists and artwork (i.e. newspaper strips such as Garfield and Peanuts, and many alternative comics, where the characters cannot be said to have an overly-realistic look to them), and so applies to relatively few modern, mainstream comics.
Comics, comix and graphic novels
The generic and most common term for the individual issues of a particular series, and the format in which they are presented:
- "Traditionally, a comic book was a stapled, magazinelike product that told a serialized story or anthologized many stories over a period of months and years. The term has evolved to describe any format that uses the combination of words and pictures to convey a story, and thus is accurate when applied to both the medium itself and the periodical form. As a result, all graphic novels are comic books, but not all comic books are graphic novels."
The term is sometimes seen as an awkward, not least because of the cultural baggage tied-up both in comics' origins in childish, humorous stories (hence "comic"), and in the negative associations forced upon them in the 1950s by senate hearings and Fredric Wertham. Comics are thus often alternately and in contradictory fashion seen as solely for children, and not for children at all.
Comic strip generally refers to daily and Sunday newspaper features widely syndicated during the past century. Many comic strips have been collected into comic books, paperbacks and hardcover books.
- "The plural of comic is typically used as a singular (as "politics" is) to refer to the entire medium or industry. Hence "comics industry" or "comics creators." This is usually employed to avoid the unintentional consequences of using the adjective "comic," which implies comedic content. (For example, "the comic industry" might be misinterpreted as meaning "an industry that is funny," while "the comics industry" can mean only "the industry that creates comic books.")"
- See: Alternative Comics, Independent Comics
Underground (and Alternative) Comics or Comix were born both out of the general 1960s counter-culture, and as a part reaction to the Comics code-induced censorship of all mainstream comics inspired by the hysteria surrounding Dr Wertham's seminal book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which was interpreted as labelling comics partially or wholly responsible for juvenile delinquency:
- "A word coined in the 1960s to describe titles that nowadays would be considered alternative. The comix were titles created as a reaction to the juvenilization of comics compelled by Congress in the 1950s."
As a result of the sanitisation of mainstream comics, most underground comix dealt with themes of sex, drugs and politics, and were propagated through so-called head shops.
Pamphlet, Periodical, Monthly, Floppy, Single, Issue
These terms are all used interchangeably by fans to describe individual comics. They:
- "describe the original comic book form, that of a slim, magazinelike periodical, not designed for long-term use or wear and tear. The term [Pamphlet] is considered derisive by some."
Periodical evokes magazines, and is less-widely used, but arguably most accurately describes the serial nature of on-going comics. Monthly likewise is tied to the historically common release time of most comics, while floppy simply describes the spineless nature of comics (as opposed to collections), and single denotes their place as parts of continuing narratives. "Comic" is still a simpler term.
Graphic novel ("GN"), OGN
The term "Graphic novel" (simply put a novel conveyed in pictures) is:
- "Used to describe the specific format of a comic book that has greater production values and longer narrative."
The term became popularised when titles such as Dark Knight Returns, Maus and Watchmen began to break into the (non-comics) "mainstream," and from that point forwards has been more-or-less conflated and confused (erroneously) with trade paperback. While comic books are extremely similar to graphic novels, some cartoonists, such as Ed Koren, argue that compiled comic books do not classify as graphic novels.
For that reason, the qualifying "Original" (hence "OGN") is often added to the front of the term when describing a story told through the medium of comics which debuts in the higher-production-values (increasingly as a hardback, almost-always with a spine) format:
- "The graphic novel is more like a traditional novel, in that it is published on an independent schedule. It is longer in format than a periodical and typically contains a complete story unto itself. Graphic novels usually have higher production values than the typical stanpled comic book; they may be squarebound, for example, with cardstock covers. Some may be hardcover volumes. Although a graphic novel usually stands on its own as a complete story, it is possible to have an ongoing series or limited series of graphic novels telling a single story or series of related stories. A typical abbreviation in the industry for graphic novel is "GN," usually used as part of a title to indicate to a reader or browser that the title in question is not a periodical."
- The term OGN is "[a]n abbreviation for original graphic novel, often used to differentiate a graphic novel that contains a wholly new story from a trade paperback."
A motion comic is "a hybrid of comic books and animation." based on the actual panels of a comic. Examples include DC Comics' Watchmen: Motion Comics, Peanuts Motion Comics and Marvel Comics' Spider-Woman.
Trade paperback, collection, collected edition
- Not to be confused (although it usually is) with "Graphic Novel"
Trade paperback collections are compendiums of individual issues of particular comics:
- "A comic book trade paperback is a squarebound edition that collects and reprints a mini-series, maxi-series, or story arc in this sturdier format, giving readers a complete story at one time rather than over a period of months. Sometimes a trade paperback may collect stories that are not interconnected but rather are related by some theme. Many trade paperbacks also contain additional material, such as an introduction or foreword, interview, or character sketches."
Comics series such as Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are thus not "Graphic novels," but "trade paperbacks" - as they debuted in single issue format, and were only subsequently collected. The trade paperback is rapidly becoming the format-of-choice for many readers, and are, by their nature, more readily available: in bookshops as well as specialist comic book shops. Their benefits include (typically) containing a complete story, rather than a single part of one, as most on-going monthly series' are. Another benefit is that typically a trade paperback is greatly less expensive than collecting the issues separately.
Prestige format or bookshelf format
Prestige format or bookshelf format describes the manner in which some (usually one shot) titles are printed and bound. Most are 48- or 64-pages in length, and tend to have a (thin) spine. They are broadly synonymous with (mini-)Original Graphic Novels, and are almost always longer than a normal comic book (which tend to be either 22 or 32 pages in length, depending in most cases on whether advertisements are included in the page count).
A Back issue comic is an unsold earlier comic issue that has been kept to sale but taken off the shelf. Usually a comic store will have them in boxes in a section of the store to be gone through. Example: say the new comic is Wolverine issue 161 a back issue would be any issue that preceded the new one that is not on the shelf. Some comic stores will keep the last 2-4 issues onshelf so their customers can follow a story arc.
Comic Digest Size Format
Digest Size Format is a magazine size, smaller than a conventional or "journal size" magazine but larger than a standard paperback book, approximately 5½ x 8¼ inches, but can also be 5⅜ x 8⅜ inches and 5½ x 7½ inches. These sizes have evolved from the printing press operation end. The main publications remaining in digest size now are Reader's Digest and some Archie comics digests.
From the late 1960s on, several comic book publishers put out "comics digests," usually about 6¾ x 4 inches. Gold Key Comics produced three digest titles that lasted until the mid-1970s: Golden Comics Digest, Mystery Comics Digest, and Walt Disney Comics Digest. DC Comics produced several in the early 1980s (including DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest and The Best of DC), and Harvey Comics also published a few during the same time (including Richie Rich Digest Magazine). Archie Comics has published numerous comics digests since the 1970s, and in the 2000s Marvel Comics has produced a number of digests, primarily for reprint editions.
The manga graphic novel format is similar to digest size, although slightly narrower and generally thicker.
Outside the comic
Describes a certain type, or genre of comics (although alternative comics can also be cross-genre), and tends to merely imply "non-Superhero". The term "alternative" is:
- "used as an adjective, usually to describe anything that is not mainstream. Its use connotes a qualitative difference in storytelling styles, subject matter, and form. It comes from the dominance of the large, corporate publishers, causing smaller publishers to label themselves as the "alternative" reading choice."
Fanboy or Fangirl
The term "Fanboy," usually used as a pejorative term, (although many described individuals wear it as a badge of honour) describes the anal retentive nature of extreme comics fans. It signifies a complete immersion in the world of comics, comics trivia and so forth.
"The Marvel Method"
The "Marvel method" is a manner of writing comics popularised in the 1960s by Stan Lee (with his artistic collaborators, in particular Jack Kirby) in large part simply to speed up the process. Rather than producing a full script, (typically) the writer and artist would talk over a rough plot outline, and then the artist would produce the full comics-worth of pages. The writer would then add dialogue to the artwork after it was done, rather than the other way around.
This method of working is still used occasionally, particularly by artist-plotters Keith Giffen and Alex Ross. Its use in the creation of the vast majority of Marvel's 1960s key output, has drawn considerable criticism and created large amounts of confusion, since it clouds the issue of who did what. Artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, for example, have alleged that the actual input from "writer" Lee was minimal, and that it was regularly/completely left to the artist to produce the plot and story, even as the writer was given most of the credit.
Comics continuity almost-always refers to the existence and use of a shared universe, although any comic can have internal continuity independent of this. Simply, the term describes a consistency of internal plot, and usually of characterisation and external references also. Initially, many comics were stand alone, "done in one" stories with a beginning and end taking place within the confines of a single comic issue, often structured in chapters as are most novels. Over time, the comics companies realised the lucrative potential of the crossover comic, whereby other characters from a company's shared universe appeared in issues of each other's comics. (This ultimately led to the formation of "team" books such as the Justice Society of America, Justice League of America and Avengers.)
During these crossover character interactions, editorial footnotes would often reference previous adventures and comics issues, but an actual editorially enforced "continuity" was not strictly adhered to, leading to some characters' actions appearing "out of character," or outrightly contradicting earlier plot-points. As comics were deemed largely ephemeral items, this was not considered that much of a problem, until the full advent of comics fandom. As a result of fan/reader scrutiny, the continuity both of individual characters and of the wider universes in which comics companies' characters interacted began to become more important. The Marvel "No Prize" became a humorous method by which readers could write letters to authors and editors pointing out mistakes or "continuity errors" in various comics, and were then named in print and awarded a "No Prize" (in reality a coveted sheet of paper declaring itself a non prize).
In 1985, cross-universe continuity took on new levels of depth and (intended) consistency at the two main comics companies: DC and Marvel. Marvel launched its cross-line toy-driven-event Secret Wars, which required all characters to undergo specific changes at specific times, and required considerable editorial dictates and conformity. DC launched the Crisis on Infinite Earths, one of the earliest maxi-series', to address universe-wide continuity and attempt to explain away, remove or revise all previous errors in continuity. The reader was reminded that the DC Multiverse consisted not merely of the core DC Universe, but of a number of different iterations of various heroes on a multitude of different planets. Companies and characters purchased by DC (such as the Charlton Comics characters and Captain Marvel) as well as older characters like the JSA were (re-)assigned their own Earths, which were then destroyed and folded into one, core Earth. This naturally resulted in a number of contradictions and discrepancies in individual characters' histories, so a new, uniform continuity was created and the revised origins of the resulting heroes were retold in the hopes of maintaining consistent continuity.
Naturally with hundreds of characters and dozens of writers, over the years uniform and consistent continuity is difficult to maintain, and most comics companies periodically address the erosion of internal consistency with big "events" designed to explain and simplify (although at times they do neither) discrepancies, and maintain continuity.
Similar to internal continuity, the canon of comics characters/universes is often subject to change, but refers to the stories which are, at any one point, part of the "official", "accepted" history and story of particular characters/universes. Alternate versions of characters (such as DC's Elseworlds and Marvel's speculative What if...? titles) are necessarily not canon. However, stories can change from being non-canonical to being accepted as canon - and vice versa. In particular, line-wide continuity-changing events (such as DC's Crises and Marvel's controversial recent Spider-Man: One More Day storyline) retroactively affect which stories are part of a character/universe's core canon, as they may revise or ignore previous events and happenings.
For example, DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths addressed continuity and consistency errors over almost 50 years of comics publication, and retrofitted events and characters into the history of the DCU as if they had always been there. (For example, the JSA went from being JLA-contemporaries from a parallel world to being their earlier, historical counterparts some years previously.) The Post-Crisis DC Universe removed many stories from "official canon", explaining them as Imaginary Tales or ignoring them completely.
Retcon or "Ret-con" is a portmanteau shorthand phrase for "retroactive continuity", and is the descriptive term used to explain continuity- and canon-effecting stories. A retcon affects the past history of characters and/or the whole shared universe, and says that the "new" changed events have always been that way. This can lead to intense confusion, as compounded events can cause even the most knowledgeable fanboy to falter over what is currently the accepted canon.
Linked: retrofit, retroactively embedding something (usually a plot point or subsidiary character) into a past story, for the purposes of a current story. This can give added weight to a story, implying that the impetus for a current story had been around for some time. ex. The X-Men: Deadly Genesis limited series from 2006 "retrofit" the story line from 1975's Giant-Size X-Men#1 to include new characters and plot points. It can also be used to update a character for more modern times. For instance, Iron Man #1 (Vol. 4) updated Iron Man's origin story so that he was wounded in Afghanistan instead of Vietnam.
Pre- and post-Crisis
Labels referring to DC Universe continuity and canon, with the separator being the 1985 ret-con event Crisis on Infinite Earths. Simply, Pre-Crisis stories were not as stringently policed or edited, and often contained errors and internal inaccuracies (in large part because of their frequent nature as one-shot stories, rather than linked tales designed to follow evolving and changing characters). Pre-Crisis stories are often seen as throwaway and frivolous, perceived to be dominated by imaginary tales and "camp" characterisation. Neither label is entirely accurate, nor is the broad-brush assumption that a lack of cohesive continuity denotes a complete disregard for it.
The Post-Crisis DCU is that which was formed in the pages of the CoIE maxi-series, and is (or was intended to be) far more internally consistent and interlinked. Characters' origins were revised and updated, conflating previous stories and origins into one, accepted canonical one. Writer-artist John Byrne's Superman: The Man of Steel mini-series, for example, provided the post-Crisis origin of Kal El, while Crisis-architects Marv Wolfman and George Pérez produced the two-issue History of the DC Universe to briefly detail a broad overview of the post-Crisis DCU, showing the sequence of events as well as the revised origins of many characters (later to be fleshed out in their own series).
Even the post-Crisis DCU was not without its continuity problems, however, and several subsequent events have attempted to address them, making the "post-Crisis" label largely defunct. However, because of the 1985 maxi-series's landmark status, the label persists in one form or another.
A comics "event" describes a large storyline which almost-always involves a crossover between one or more characters, titles, universes or companies, but usually denotes an internal company crossover. These then typically fall into two broad categories: character or universe events. i.e. a Batman "event" will likely only feature the Batman family of characters (an example would be the Batman: Knightfall storylines), while a multi-character crossover will usually be universe-wide and affect several different individuals (an example would be Marvel's Civil War event, which affected almost-every character and title in their shared universe).
Cross-Universe events and inter-company events are considerably rarer, but do happen. 1996's DC vs. Marvel event saw the DCU and MU brought together (and ultimately, briefly, merged), while the DC Universe has also featured in events/crossovers with, for example, the WildStorm and Milestone universes.
DCU, MU, Earth-1, Earth-616
The concept of a shared universe, wherein a company's diverse cast of characters are able to interact and crossover between books and events is usually labelled the " - Universe" (DC, Marvel, Image, CrossGen, Valiant, etc.). Comics fandom has produced various shorthand ways of referring to the various universes, however, and the comics themselves also refer to themselves in specific ways. These labels are usually reserved for the universes of "the Big Two" (Marvel and DC), in large part because they are the main American comics publishers and have the largest shared universes. A non-exhaustive list of terms includes:
- The Marvel Universe, sometimes abbreviated to the MU. The shared universe in which the X-Men, Spider-Man and Avengers, etc. all exist and interact
- Earth-616, The Six-One-Six, etc. denotes the numerical designation of the Earth which the Marvel Universe inhabits. The term was coined in the pages of Captain Britain, by either Alan Moore or Dave Thorpe and may have been chosen for reasons of historical significance, wry commentary, or random choice. See also: Marvel Multiverse.
- The DC Universe or DCU refers to the shared universe inhabited by Batman, Superman, the Justice League of America, etc.
- Earth-1 was the Pre-Crisis designation of the "main" DCU, in contrast to Earth-2 (featuring the JSA), and latterly dozens of individual Earths which were home to a plethora of characters, and were destroyed in the Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series.
- New Earth is the designation of the "main" DCU after the events on 2005's mini-series event Infinite Crisis, in which a revised Multiverse of 52 worlds was created. See also: DC Multiverse, Multiverse world lists.
In addition to the core shared universe, some companies have subsidiary universes/imprints, which can be part of the main universe, or can not be (or can be thoroughly confusing). DC Comics' mature readers' imprint Vertigo Comics, for example mainly publishes stand alone ongoing, mini- and maxi-series, but also variously includes characters who were once part of the DCU, or have intereacted with it in such a way as to make them at least an honorary part of it. Characters such as The Sandman family of titles, Doom Patrol and Swamp Thing all began publication as part of the DCU, but have gradually drifted to a corner of it quite far removed, if still nominally a part. The WildStorm Universe, which was initially published by Image Comics, is now largely accepted as part of the wider DC Multiverse, but not part of the DCU-proper. Similarly, the Ultimate Marvel Universe is not part of the 616, while the MAX Imprint is on the fringes in a similar way to the Vertigo/DC interaction.
Crossovers can be both internal and between different universes and companies. At their most basic level, a crossover can refer simply to a character making a guest appearance in a different comic (e.g. Daredevil "crossing over" into an issue of a Spider-Man comics), but typically a "crossover" implies more than a simple appearance, and denotes a cohesive storyline spanning more than one title, often as part of an event. Thus when the JLA and JSA featured in a two-part story beginning in the pages of one comic and concluding in the pages of the other, this is referred to as a crossover. Typically, crossovers are more than two-issues in length, and often span multiple titles, rather than just two. For example, the X-Men: Messiah Complex crossover event sees the storyline unfold over four X-Men titles, as well as two one-shot issues.
Most crossovers occur within the confines of a shared universe, although crossovers between universes (and companies (see below)) also occur, for example in the upcoming DC/WildStorm: Dreamwar crossover event.
- N.B. Crossover and Tie-in issues are often confused, conflated and used interchangeably. This is inaccurate.
Cross-company or Intercompany crossovers occur when the characters of two different publishers' universes meet (and usually fight - see "comic book clichés"). Usually this is in a non-canonical event, although occasionally happenings can be referred to in mainstream continuity (e.g. the character of Access appeared in a couple of DC comics issues independent of the DC/Marvel intercompany crossover). The biggest and most famous example of intercompany crossovers are the irregular meetings of the DC and Marvel Universes, most notably in 1996's crossover event DC Vs. Marvel/Marvel Vs. DC, which threw all the DCU and MU characters together in one big event, which ultimately spun out into a series of merged-character one-shot issues co-published between the companies as the Amalgam Comics line. Other crossovers include the irregular meetings between DCU characters and the Dark Horse-licenced properties Aliens and Predator; or the various Marvel and DC character-crossovers with Top Cow's Witchblade, Darkness, etc.
Tie-in, guest appearance, guest star
A tie-in issue, usually involves a guest appearance of one sort or another, and occurs on the fringes of an independent storyline or event. Different from a full-fledged crossover issue, the two are often confused - and, indeed, if ill-plotted or written are difficult to tell apart. Whereas a crossover issue plays an integral part in furthering the plot, a tie-in simply expands upon a minor point, side-issue or tangential-but-somehow-linked story, which is not required by the reader to fully comprehend the plot of the main storyline/event, but nevertheless enhances it or creates greater depth.
A guest appearance is when a character not normally associated with a specific title/book appears briefly (or sometimes for several issues) appears there. Often (somewhat cynically, if accurately) seen as a money-making move by publishers to boost flagging sales by inserting a popular character into a lesser-selling book (and in particular, it seems, Wolverine), a guest appearance may be a throwaway occurrence, may further the plot, or may be part of an event, crossover or tie-in. The character who puts in a guest appearance is, reasonably enough, also known as a guest star.
The concept of a shared universe is one in which a multitude of different characters co-exist and/or interact. Typically this concept confines itself to one publishing company's output (although concepts such as the Wold Newton family extend the boundaries considerably), and it is most common in the main superhero universes of DC and Marvel. The benefit of having a shared universe is that characters can make (sales-boosting) guest appearances and allow for team-ups between different characters, as well as allowing the "team" concept (JLA, Avengers, etc.) to exist at all. Stan Lee's initial Marvel Universe creations in the 1960s best exemplify the "shared universe" concept, whereby characters (and villains) would feature across multiple titles, sometimes in the foreground of the story, sometimes as cameos in passing, but always underlining the interlinkedness of the universe.
Cover date, publication date
Most comics include a "cover date" on their covers, but this is rarely the actual date of publication, even though it can easily be referred to as such, not least for ease of reference. Much like magazines (which are typically cover-dated a month ahead) most comics are cover dated a couple of months ahead of their being published. The reasons behind this dates back to comics being available on a newsstand, rather than through the direct market in a comic shop:
- "This month was not the month the book went on sale, it was the month the issue was to be removed from the newsstand in the event the book did not sell."
A character's "origin" is the fictional story which describes (almost always solely for Superheroes) how they came to be; gained their powers; arrived on Earth; were bitten by a radioactive spider, etc. Origins need not be established immediately, they can be told in flashback, or slowly over the course of several issues or, indeed, years. Origins are often subject to revision and ret-cons, and may find themselves having additional information retrofitted in at a later time.
They are also frequently updated to better reflect their times. For example, the origin of Iron Man has gradually been revised and updated, so that instead of serving in the Vietnam War, he serves in Korea or the (first) Gulf War.
"One shot", stand-alone issue, "done in one"
Although "one shots" and "stand-alone issues" (sometimes referred to as "done in one" stories) are occasionally confused with each other, they refer to slightly different things: A one-shot is a single issue, usually either unnumbered entirely or sporting the number 1. It may either tell a stand-alone story or be tied into a larger story told within the pages of related, ongoing titles; in fact, the one-shot may sometimes serve as the starting point of a larger story arc (for example, Batman: The 10-Cent Adventure #1 directly led into the Bruce Wayne: Murderer?/Bruce Wayne: Fugitive story arc). On the other hand, a stand-alone issue is simply a numbered issue within an ongoing title that tells a self-contained story with a clear beginning and end, rather than being part of a longer story spanning multiple issues.
Imaginary tales, Elseworlds, Alternates, Possible futures, What If...?
All these terms refer to specific and general "non-canonical stories", often - but not exclusively - featuring alternate versions of established heroes and/or events. For many years some DC comics would feature stories labelled as "Imaginary Tales," signifying that the events which occurred therein did not have an active effect on continuity, and therefore that anything could happen, even the bizarre and contradictory. (This also meant that some seemingly-bizarre or outrageous stories were deliberately labelled and described with the tagline: "NOT a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Tale!" to separate them from those which were non-canonical.) With 1989's Gotham by Gaslight prestige format one shot, in which the story of Batman was re-cast and set in the Victorian era, DC produced occasional titles which they labelled Elseworlds, to set them apart from the main DC Universe. These stories (and characters) can also be referred to by other names, but are most likely to be talked of Alternate World/Universe stories/counterparts. Some Imaginary Tales and Elseworlds have been assigned their own alternate (numbered) Earths in both the DC and Marvel Universe; others (like Frank Miller's dystopian Dark Knight Returns or Mark Waid & Alex Ross' Kingdom Come have variously been considered pseudo-canonical, as potentially in-universe futures for their respective casts.) Marvel Comics' main rival to the mainly-DC preserve of alternate tales are their series' and one-shots under the What If...? banner. These tend to shy away from DC's Elseworlds stated method whereby "heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places - some that have existed, and others that can't, couldn't or shouldn't exist," (i.e. in typically in self-contained continuities) and are largely based on specific events or happenings. Most What If...? stories changed one minor (or key) detail in a major Marvel event, and posited how events might have played in a mostly same-universe situation - "What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?", while many Elseworlds suggested what would happen if known heroes had existed in completely different situations (e.g. Superman: Kal which grafts the Superman mythos onto the story of King Arthur). Some Imaginary Stories can be adapted into the accepted canon of a Universe (particularly possible futures, but also as taking place on parallel worlds which can then be interacted with), but it is most common for them to either stay completely separate, or even for some formerly-canonical stories to be retconned into Imaginary Stories as after a major event. Thus some stories which may have once been "real" for the characters to whom the occurred can be retroactively said not to have happened, and thus that any memory of them is of an "Imaginary" tale. (For a knowing take on retroactive continuity and Imaginary Tales, see Alan Moore's Supreme: The Story of the Year)
When comics were first launched, they could be purchased in many places, most particularly at the newsstand, alongside newspapers and magazines. In the 1980s, with comics sales on the wane, attempts were made (notably by convention-organizer Phil Seuling) to buy comics direct from the publisher, rather than through a traditional magazine distributor. In addition, rather than returning unsold copies after a certain date (see: cover date), with a higher initial discount, buyers could keep unsold copies as back issue stock. This led to the formation of specialist shops ("comic shops"), with wide-ranging stock of older issues, as well as the creation of a number of tailored comicbook distributors.
Specific comics terminology
The images that are usually laid out within borders are known as panels.
The layout of the panels can be in a grid. Watchmen was notable for utilizing a nine panel grid of three rows and three columns. Occasionally, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons would use larger panels that broke the format of the grid to emphasize specific acts or points in the narrative.
The border or edges of a panel, when drawn, are called frames. These are normally rectangular in shape, but this shape can be altered to convey information to the reader. A cloud shaped panel can indicate a flashback or a dream sequence, whilst one with a jagged edge can be used to convey anger or shock. A panel without a frame is used to convey space. The frame itself can be formed by the image. For example, a scene can be framed by a door frame or by binoculars.
Full bleed is usually used on a comic book cover, and is when the art is allowed to run to the edge of each page, rather than having a white border around it. Bleeds are sometimes used on internal panels to create the illusion of space or emphasize action. This is more common in manga and modern comics.
Splash page (and splash panel)
Splash page or sometimes referred to simply as a "splash," is a full-page drawing in a comic book. A splash page is often used as the first page of a story, and includes the title and credits. Splashes that are not on the first page of a story are sometimes called interior splash pages. Interior splashes may, or may not include titles and/or credits. A panel that is larger than others on the page is called a splash panel. A splash that appears across two pages of a comic book is called a "double splash" or a two-page spread. Rarely, splash pages will stretch over more than two pages; such multi-page spreads often take the form of fold-out posters. 300 and Holy Terror, both by Frank Miller, are told entirely in two-page spreads. Occasionally, a two-page spread is drawn vertically, so that the comic has to be turned 90 degrees to read it. This is widely disapproved of because it breaks the continuity of the medium, and is rarely used anymore.
When used early in the issue, the splash provides a means of establishing characters or setting as well as draw the reader's attention. If used far later, it is commonly employed to dramatically portray the climax of a story. Rarely does an issue include more than two splash pages; however, Superman #75, Vol. 2 is notable for consisting entirely of splashes, as was The Mighty Thor #380 (Vol. 1).
Speech balloon, word balloon, speech bubble
The speech or word balloon (also known as a speech bubble), is a graphic used to assign ownership of dialogue on a particular character. Bubbles which represent an internal dialogue are referred to as "thought balloons". The shape of the balloon will indicate the type of dialogue contained, with thought balloons being more cloud-like and connected to the owner by a series of small bubbles. Speech bubbles are more elliptical, although those used to represent screaming or anger tend to be spiky, and square boxes have been used to represent dialogue spoken by robots or computers. Whispers are usually represented by balloons made up of broken lines. Surprised thoughts in Japanese Manga are usually round and tend to spike out. Balloons such as radio, or TV, may be represented by a spiked balloon. Certain creators are particularly renowned for their inventiveness with the format of the balloon; writer and artist Dave Sim (who also letters his own work), is particularly innovative with this aspect of the comic book - using particular balloons for drunkenness, echoes etc.
Comic book captions are a narrative device, often used to convey information that cannot be communicated by the art or speech. Captions can be used in place of thought bubbles, can be in the first- second- or third-person, and can either be assigned to an independent narrator or one of the comics' characters. Simply put, they are:
- "Boxes on a comic book page that contains text... While sometimes used to convey dialogue, they are more often used to impart a character's thoughts or as a narrative device."
Like word balloons, they need not be of uniform shape, size, design or color (indeed, some modern comics use different colors to assign different textual captions to different characters).
Motion lines, also known as "speed lines", are lines that are used to represent motion; if a person or some other mobile object is moving such indicators of movement will follow in straight lines behind it. Line length may be said to vary proportionately to the rate of speed of the object moving.
Symbolia or Emanata
Mort Walker defined in his book The Lexicon of Comicana, the iconic representations used within comics and cartooning as "symbolia". Examples being the lightbulb above a character's head to indicate an idea, the indication of sleep by a saw cutting a log or a line of "zzzz", Kirby dots, and the use of dotted lines to indicate a line of sight, with daggers being used instead of dotted lines to indicate an evil look.
Sound effects and environmental sounds are presented without balloons, in bold or "3D" text in all upper case. Percussive sounds usually have exclamation points. Usually, they are written/drawn in a way as to emphasize their nature, such as the sound effect from a fast racer car almost leaning from the car's speed, or a shrill noise depicted in a jagged, scratchy form.
- BAM! (pistol shot) (image)
- SPANG! (bullet hitting metal) (image)
- SPLAT! (bullet hitting masonry or concrete) (image)
- WANG! KAWUNNGG! (bullet hit with ricochet) (image)
- POW! (fist hitting chin) (image)
- SOK! (fist hitting chin) (image)
- CRAK! (nightstick hitting skull) (image)
- CRACK! (wrench hitting skull) (image)
- CREAK! (squeaky door opening) (image)
- EEEEEEEEEE! (scream) (image)
- CRASH! (furnishings being destroyed in a fight) (image)
Marvel Comics' characters have several specialized sound effects that are under Marvel's copyright: Spider-Man's web deploys with a "thwip", Wolverine's claws emerge with a "snikt", and Nightcrawler teleports with a "bamf".
- Lyga and Lyga (2004) p. 162
- Lyga and Lyga (2004) p. 165
- Lyga and Lyga (2004) p. 161
- Lyga and Lyga (2004) p. 163
- "I'd rather the average reader not notice my work...that's my job, after all... Our job is to NOT be noticed..." post at Digital Webbing by Jason Arthur, February 26, 2008. Accessed March 24, 2008
- Lyga and Lyga (2004) p. 164
- Lyga and Lyga (2004) p. 162-163
- Web Draws on Comics, Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2008
- Indeed DC Comics published a 6-issue mini-series entitled "Fanboy" celebrating the term. In recent years, Marvel Comics would likewise reclaim the insult "Marvel Zombie" in a series of that name.
- Some maintain that the numbers refer to 61/6, or June 1961, the alleged "actual" publication date of the first Marvel comic Fantastic Four #1 (cover-dated November 1961). Marvel UK Earth-616 comments. Accessed March 25, 2008
- It has been noted that "616" is thought by some scholars to be the actual Number of the Beast, rather than the more-widely believed "666". "More 616", May 19, 2007 on Tom Brevoort's Marvel blog, quoting Alan Davis. Accessed March 25, 2007
- Arguably the most likely theory is that "616" is a random number chosen to signify the vast array of parallel worlds that exist, in contrast to the DCU designations which tended towards the low-end of the number scale. The "616" Universe message board post, May 11, 2005 by Alan Moore's son-in-law John Reppion. Accessed March 25, 2008
- Mike's Amazing World of DC Comics: Musing of a Fanboy: "Secrets to DC Cover Dates", July 30, 2004. Accessed March 26, 2008
- Edkin, Joe Chapter Four - The Page Breakdown Writing for Comic Books (2006). Retrieved on 2-10-10.
- McCloud, Scott (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Kitchen Sink Press. ISBN 0-87816-243-7.
- Walker, Mort (2000). The Lexicon of Comicana. uPublish.com. ISBN 0-595-08902-X.
- Lyga, Allyson A. W.; Lyga, Barry (2004). Graphic Novels in your Media Center: A Definitive Guide (1st ed.). Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 1-59158-142-7.