Well, when an issue of Authority and an issue of Strangers in Paradise love each other very much…
Q: No, seriously, where do comics come from?
A: Same place as all other art: the minds of talented (or not-so-talented) people. But you were probably talking about something more practical.
Q: Well, yeah. If I want pretentious meandering about the source of ideas…
A: You'll ask Warren Ellis, of course. Moving on: Let's first take a look at the division of labor as practiced at most comics companies.
Q: How is the labor divided?
A: There are, generally, six people involved in the production of any comic, from initial idea to final execution: The writer, the penciller, the inker, the colorist, the letterer, and the editor.
Q: Who comes first?
A: The one who thinks up the story, which is generally either the writer or the editor. Sometimes the penciller, but that's less frequent. Which isn't to say the other creators aren't creative, they just channel their energies into something other than story development.
Q: Okay, so what happens after they get the story idea?
A: The writer writes a script for the penciller to follow. "Page One, Panel One: Fight-Man punches The Defenestrator." Rinse, repeat.
Q: So the writer tells the artist what to draw?
A: Generally. Levels of script detail vary by writer. Alan Moore is famous for layering his scripts with every possible detail. On the other end of the spectrum, you have writers who follow the "Marvel Style" that Stan Lee developed in the '60s, where they draw a loose story outline called a "plot," and leave it to the artist to decide how to pace out the story, what beats to focus on, and so forth.
Q: Why did Stan do that?
A: Because he was writing and editing eight books a month.
Q: Ouch. How long does the penciller take to draw the comic?
A: For the average 22 page monthly, about a month; most artists work at a rate of one page a day. A penciller generally starts with a series of "thumbnails" (sometimes provided by the writer), a very simplistic series of drawings showing the layout of the pages and the key visual elements of each panel. Then the details are filled in. Throughout this process, the writer and penciller are in contact, working out the storytelling and addressing the challenges and new ideas that come along.
Q: So, what happens after the penciller is done?
A: The writer takes a look at the pages and adjusts his script as needed, changing dialogue or narration as he sees fit. Meanwhile, the pages go off to the inker. Now, inkers get a bad rap as just "tracers…"
Q: Yeah, there's this funny bit in "Chasing Amy…"
A: Yes, we've all seen it. Don't interrupt me. Inkers do more than trace the pencils, though; they define the lines and shadows of the art, giving it greater weight and depth, heightening the impact of certain elements, sometimes even fleshing out loose pencils, or "breakdowns," into a fully-realized piece of art. Sometimes, the inker and the penciller are the same person; others, the inker is skipped altogether, and they move straight to coloring.
Q: That looks like a segue.
A: Good eye. Colorists, once they have the finished art, add even greater depth and tone. In color comics, there's no greater definer of mood. Depending on the palette chosen, the art can become subdued and introspective, or loud and brash. A good colorist knows which colors and tones will best serve the story. Colorists will often also work from the writer's script, picking up on subtle nuances of theme to guide them.
Q: That's a lot of work. I'd rather be a letterer.
A: Don't haul out the Playstation just yet. Even in this age of digital fonts, the letterer still has an important job. Besides picking the right typeset for the dialogue and narration (which can sometimes vary between characters, as with the Endless in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or the late '90s Thor), the letter must (again, working with the writer) decide where to place the words on the page to get the maximum effect without covering essential parts of the art, and select and place sound effects. In fact, the letterer is responsible for the lion's share of a comic's approximation of the sense of sound. Those goofy effects from the Batman TV show notwithstanding, SFX are an essential part of the comics experience, and almost an art of themselves.
Q: Wow. I guess everybody has their part to play. What does the editor do?
A: The editor makes it all good. He oversees the process at every step, making sure the creators meet their deadlines, suggesting (or sometimes demanding) certain changes, facilitating coordination, and keeping the rest of the company apprised on what's going on. At Marvel and DC, an editor oversees several books, and often has assistants helping with the process. One of the best perks of being an AE used to be writing the letters page, although you don't see too many of those anymore.
A: Tell me about it. Now, all of the above applies mostly to the process as it exists at the major companies. In the independent world, very often these duties are filled by just one or two people. Jeff Smith, for example, did all of the work on his landmark series "Bone" save editing and marketing/publicity.
Q: How does that change things?
A: Well, for starters, most writer/artists don't bother with scripts, instead moving straight to the thumbnail phase. Also, many "indies" are in black-and-white, eliminating the need for a colorist, while dramatically increasing the importance of the inker.
Q: Which process is better?
A: Whichever one best serves the story being told.
Q: How much does each gig pay?
A: Everyone but the editor generally works on a freelance basis, receiving a page rate commensurate with their experience and talent. Most freelancers work on more than one book at a time to make ends meet. Lately, though, there's been a trend of signing popular writers and artists to exclusive contracts that see them treated as salaried employees for a set period of time, receiving a monthly paycheck and benefits. That's all corporate, of course. Independent books are usually creator-owned, and thus the creator only gets paid if the book turns a profit.
Q: Sweet gig.
A: Beats working at the video store.
Q: Some shitheel shoved gum in the locks again.
A: Buncha savages in this town.