Splashes and Speech Bubbles: A Comic Book Lingo Primer

Cover scan of a Wow comic nº 38.
Cover scan of a Wow comic nº 38. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are some terms unique to the world of comic books that every interested party should know when stepping into this brave new world. Despite what a certain section of fanboys would have you believe, there’s no shame in not knowing the difference between single-issues and graphic novels, or what an inker does, or even confusing Marvel and DC. Knowing the vernacular is useful though, if you wander into a comic book shop looking for something specific, mostly because it’s the native tongue for shop employees. Allow me to introduce you to some of the common language.

The Big Two – in the world of comics, the Big Two refers to Marvel and DC, the companies that publish all those superhero books the kids are talking about. Marvel has the Avengers, DC has the Justice League. Easiest thing to hold onto is that Marvel has Iron Man and Captain America, DC has Batman and Superman. No matter what anyone tells you, you are allowed to like both.

Single issues – these are the skinny, floppy, held-together-by-staples serialized stories you might associate with classic Archie. They’re usually about 22 pages long. Some people pay big bucks for the really old ones, though I don’t personally see the appeal.

One-shots– short stories contained in a single issue that usually take place within an existing universe. It might focus on a side character, or a flashback that isn’t part of the main narrative.

Graphic novels – ‘graphic novel‘ refers to either a single story done in the comic book style but only released in book format (like Persepolis or My Friend Dahmer), or a collected edition of single-issues. These are also known as ‘volumes’ for ongoing series, usually contain five to six issues at a time, and are titled based on what arc has been collected. (Such as Fables Vol. 6: Homelands, which collects, among others, several issues labeled “Chapter (X) of Homelands.”)

Original Graphic Novels – sometimes known as OGNs, an ‘original graphic novel’ is a book with a story arc that was not featured as single issues before it was published. Usually it’s associated with characters from an ongoing series, or even considered a step in those series, but is released as a book, rather than month-to-month.

Trades – periodically you’ll hear graphic novels referred to as ‘trades‘ or ‘trade paperbacks,’ sometimes ‘soft covers,’ which refers to the physical format of a collection. If a comic has been released as a trade, then it means a collection of issues is available as a paperback graphic novel. Still with me?

Creative team – usually refers to the writer and artist behind the story, sometimes the editor and colorist as well. In comics, often the artist has just as much input in the creation of the story as the writer.

Creator-owned – Some publishers own the rights to characters and then assign writers to tell their stories. This is mostly common in Marvel and DC and allows them to have long-lasting franchises. Independent publishers like Image and IDW often have ‘creator-owned comics‘ which allows the writer and artist who came up with the idea to maintain control of the property.

Inker/Penciler – The person or persons responsible for the primary design of the panels. Pencils come first, establishing character position, panel distribution, and other important arty details. The come the inks, the stark lines for the finished product.

Colorist – often an unsung hero in the comic world, the colorist, well, adds color to the inks. It can completely change the way you see the art – for better and for worse.

Letterer – even more often unappreciated, the letterer is responsible for, you guessed it, the letters. All those speech bubbles, all those captions, these things fall under the purview of the letterer. Most lettering is done digitally these days using fonts designed by letterers to imitate hand writing, but some artists evidently prefer to have letterers work directly on the penciled pages.

Splash – a panel that takes up an entire page, often used for emphasis on the first or last page of a single issue.

LCS – shorthand for Local Comic Shop, i.e. ‘My LCS sold out of the latest Ms. Marvel before I got there.’

Valkyrie – a woman who works in a comic shop and belongs to the organization started by Kate Leth. We share information, offer each other support, talk shop, and do our best to promote books we love.

I’ll continue to update this page as any other comic slang comes to my attention.

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