Last week, I posted two pages, side by side. One had been done in 2013, and the other was done at the time of the post. They were two different versions of the same page. They were also two different points in time in my life. What I didn’t share was the original version of the page. I’ve drawn the same page three times in a row. I think this is an opportunity to share my comic creation process as I start this “new” graphic novel. This will be a multi-part series that will share the entire process.
In the beginning…
In late 2011, I was in my first semester at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Our final project was to be an anthology. We split into small teams and needed to come up with a theme. My group decided to create a science fiction anthology, and each story tied to one of the five senses. SCIENSE was born. I chose to do a story based on “touch.”
Sciense Assembly Party.
I created a story about the last astronaut on a space station. The program he had been a part of was being abandoned by the government, and he was awaiting transport home. Have you been alone for a significant period? It can do some amazing things to you, both positive and negative. I drew on my own experience. In the months before I moved to Vermont, I was by myself in my house, waiting for it to sell. I was avoiding dating. I wasn’t happy at work, which made me withdrawn. I swear there were days I didn’t talk to anyone but my dog. It made me focused; I was drawing comics like mad at night. It also made me introverted, beyond what I was. I was pouring over old emails and text messages from prior relationships. Where things changed. Why they ended. Positive and negative, like I said. A certain amount of self-reflection is good, but this was going to an obsessive level.
The other thing I noticed is how powerful it is when another human being touches you. The hairs on your arm stand at attention and your heart rate explodes after isolation. We are social animals. We need to be touched, to be cared for, and to be around each other. What happens if you were by yourself in space for an extended period of time with no way to get home?
What if it was your plan the whole time?
That was the premise to my story. The rest of what happened was predictable. I think I drew the whole thing in a weekend. It was 16 pages.
On team projects, those of us with any sort of print/design background are all-stars to our teams. If it was a gym class, we would have been first round choices. My job was to setup the InDesign files. At that point in our academic career it was a mystery to my classmates (no longer the case, I assure you). Since I was a little pressed for time, I drew the comic in Adobe Illustrator near the deadline.
I don’t want to say that it was a hard critique. I will say that Steve Bissette drew on little post-it notes to show how I should draw things. Basic shit, like a hand, for instance. It was a humbling wake-up call for me. I started to drift away from digital tools because of this crit. But, everyone liked the story! My execution was a little flawed, but there was something to explore.
What was I thinking here?
At the beginning of the next semester, I sat down with Jason Lutes to talk through the flaws in my storytelling. He agreed that with some revisions, it could become great. I wanted to make the story part of a trilogy based on EC Comics. Short genre stories that had a punch. I took a lot of notes and set it aside until I graduated. I had signed a contract with a publisher, and I was ready to go when I moved home to Omaha.
Little did I know I was slowly dying. I began to feel the effects of heart failure in mid–2013. I had created a cover and two pages for The Walk by the time I started as the Creative Director at B² Interactive. You know how you start a new job and you are kind of worn out the first few weeks? I chalked up my fatigue to that. In September 2014, I contracted strep. The doctor noticed my heart murmur for the first time. After some immediate trips to the hospital for tests, I knew why I felt awful.
Also, I’m an idiot.
Wally Wood. Kind of lazy.
I can’t blame this lack of progress completely on my heart. I was in my damn head. Remember how I said I wanted to make this story part of a trilogy in the style of EC Comics? If this was my sci-fi story, why not draw like Wally Wood? Draw with rendered, lush brush lines. Draw my ass off. Why not?
There were some problems with this line of thought. I wanted to draw in that style. But aping that is ridiculous. Why make a shitty version of an EC comic? I can produce superior lettering and coloring. Know how I am not superior? I cannot draw like Wally Wood. Why on earth would I try? It is beyond antithetical to my beliefs as a cartoonist that I cannot believe I entertained the notion for two years. I crippled myself out of the gate.
Back to basics
One of Ivan Brunetti’s New Yorker Covers
After open heart surgery, I had more energy and focus than I had in a few years. I was reading a lot of books during my recovery. One I consumed was Ivan Brunetti’s Aesthetics: A Memoir (Amazon Affiliate Link). I’ve always appreciated his minimal line work. But I had no idea that it’s partially the result of his failing eyesight. And then that a light turned on in my head.
I’m never going to be on top of my drawing game again. I mean, my surgery was successful, and I feel great. But I was gutted like a fish and another human touched my heart. It has changed me and my habits in immeasurable ways. I cannot sit at the board for hours at a time. I tried and paid the price while I was working on a Spongebob assignment. In my youth, I think I’d try to muscle through it. I’m a bit wiser. It is time to change how I draw from the ground up. Minimalism, something I have appreciated in an artist, is going to become my best friend.
Tone and style
Harvey Kurtzman’s legendary “The Big If.”
In the past when I’ve stripped my style down or used a “fun” line, it’s been in the service of comedy. It is a hell of a lot more fun for me. When I put in a lot of effort in the art, it looks like I’m not having fun. Because it’s true. But this story isn’t a comedy by any stretch. Weirdly enough, I looked at the work that Harvey Kurtzman did for EC Comics. His war work in particular is stunning. Instead of being overtly rendered, everything is graphic. Every line has a purpose. There’s precedence. I also reviewed the works of Sammy Harkham and David Mazzucchelli for inspiration.
Last week, I sat down at the board and started fresh on page 1. I hate to tell you that I redrew the figure five times. I kept trying to over-render it. There is something in my head that tells me that I’m not working hard if I’m enjoying myself. And I didn’t do anything as dramatic as run my hand down the giant scar on my chest, but I did take a break to refocus. I am happy with where this page ended up. I texted several friends to get their opinion, and they agreed.
Now I’m drawing again. In the coming weeks, I’m going to go through every step in my process. I hope it helps some cartoonist out in the ether of the Internet. Or at least shows the labor involved to produce a comic. My next post will be about how I wrote The Walk.
The takeaways from this post?
- Get out of your damn head.
- Know your limitations.
- Embrace your limitations.
Signs and Meanings page. Words by Kevin Church and art by Max Riffner. Rick Hiltbrunner hadn’t touched the colors yet.
Create comics in Adobe Illustrator? Yes, it can be done.
I originally wrote about my process of how I create comics in Adobe Illustrator in November of 2005. It was one of my more popular posts from my previous site. Probably because it had something useful in it. I would use the same process in 2015. But first, I think the I need to answer an important question:
Why would you create comics in Adobe Illustrator?
In the year 2000, digital storage was expensive. I spent an arm and a leg on a 3gb hard drive. Digital workflows were just coming into vogue, and of course everyone who was drawing comics digitally used Photoshop. So that’s what I used. But I started to notice a difference in vector file sizes. There were other benefits. Resolution independence. Stroke hinting. Less files (remember, there was an art file and a lettering file). I could do it all in Illustrator.
Another benefit at that time were multiple Undo’s. I was a horrible inker, even on my own stuff. I couldn’t use a brush to save my life, even after hours of practice. It was like watching a little kid try to ride a bike and just falling time and time again. Illustrator became my training wheels. I created comics in Adobe Illustrator for over a decade. When I came to the Center for Cartoon Studies, I picked up a brush for the first time since my earliest attempts and I was suddenly very good at it.
I realize that this is weird. Every time I’ve explained that I create comics in Adobe Illustrator, other cartoonists are flabbergasted. It’s just the tool I keep coming back to. If you are willing to experiment, give it a try! And reach out to me if you need help.
After suffering through 60 plus pages in Photoshop on a beige Mac G3, I had enough. I was creating Golden Boy in a twelve step process:
- Draw panels in Macromedia Freehand.
- Print Freehand/Panel layout.
- Draw rough pencils on layout.
- Scan layout.
- “Ink” the pencils in Photoshop.
- Pray Photoshop doesn’t crash.
- Worry (or obsess) that I should be saving it in a higher DPI.
- Convert blacks to blue and color the page.
- Make low-res version of the page to import into Freehand.
- Letter the page in Freehand.
- Copy and paste my word balloons and lettering back onto the page in Photoshop once it was finished.
- Make sacrifice to sequential art gods, save final page as a humungous EPS RGB file.
At about that time, I finally decided to get a new Mac capable of handling OS X. I purchased a 1 Ghz G4 tower. A month later I purchased a copy of the Adobe Creative Suite with the sole intention of learning how to create comics in Adobe Illustrator.
One of the primary functions I serve my employer is how to streamline processes. I can strategically look at it from all angles and find where to cut steps and improve the end result at the same time. I almost can’t help but do it, to constantly re-evalute a step-by-step scenario. This is true also in my personal work. I wanted to cut the worry and stress out of this 12 step process and achieve better results in a 5 step process. Adobe Illustrator helped me get there.
First, I downloaded and experimented with a trial of Illustrator CS and my Wacom tablet. If I could keep all my art in Illustrator as a vector file, I knew I would have the freedom to export the art in any DPI I wanted: any size printed material would no longer keep me up at night. Also, a vector file would be smaller than a bitmap, raster file from Photoshop, so I knew I would be saving on memory too. And the multiple undos would be a plus also.
After some quick tests, I was sold. I drew the last 30 pages of Golden Boy in Illustrator. I’ve refined my techniques with Quick Step. The following slideshow represents my new 5 step process.
Step 1: Pencils and Scanning
First, I start with the pencils in a normal sketchbook. I’ll then take the pencils and scan them in at 150 dpi to import as a template layer in Illustrator.
Step 2: Inks and Finishing the Linework
After firing up Illustrator, I start with a template page from ComiXPress. Then I import the pencils in as a template layer, which is locked and dimmed by 50% transparency. I open a new layer named “Inks” and start drawing with the Brush tool. I use three brush sizes: 1pt for background and fine detail, 3pt for figures and foreground objects, and 7pt for filling in blacks and greys quickly. I try to stick by one rule with technology: keep it simple. Three brushes is enough.
Step 3: Greytones
Third, I lay down the greytone(s) in a separate layer under the inks. In this case, I wanted to challenge myself to only use one tonal range – 30% Grey, and to see if I could use different textures to keep it from being monotonous.
Step 4: Panels
Next, the panels are drawn. I just use the square Shape tool and use the pencils as a guide. I give each shape a 1pt black stroke and a transparent fill. I then duplicate the layer. On the duplicate layer, I draw a giant white square covering the black stroke panels. This white square is the same size as the page. I then “Select All” and use the “Exclude” function in the Pathfinder palette. This makes a mask over the art! I then move the first Panel layer over top so the panel strokes are well defined.
Step 5: Lettering*
Finally, I letter the page. Illustrator has long been used in the comics industry for lettering, and Comic Book Lettering: The Comicraft Way (Amazon Affiliate Link) is a great book to refer back to for this. This is where I most often see great art fail miserably; you can be the second coming of John Byrne**, but if your lettering doesn’t look professional, your art will suffer for it.
*A note on digital lettering in the year 2015
Don’t use a font. There are times to use a font, sure. Some publishers even require it, especially if there is a chance that your work is going to be translated in the foreign market. But if you are creating something just for you, there is a way to letter it “by hand” digitally. I cannot take credit for this technique. Andy Warner explained his process to me and it blew my mind.
- Type out your text, set it to your blue line, and then trace over it. That’s it.
It helps if you set your text large. I set mine basically where I want it in the panel, copy it, and then paste if off the Artboard somewhere. I make the type 100pts. Trace over the large letterforms, then take your “hand drawn” text and shrink it down to the same size as the original text in your panel. It instantly warms up your art and makes it look less “digital.”
Digital “hand drawn” text, as well as my Layer set up.
**A note on John Byrne
I apparently thought John Byrne was Jesus Christ or something back in 2005. For that, dear reader, I apologize.
I had one month to complete my thesis to graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies. This is my process for how to draw a 50 page comic in a month. I hope someone can use the information in their creation process.
Every class at the Center for Cartoon Studies has to complete a thesis to earn a degree. That thesis must prove a year’s worth of work. For most cartoonists, that means about 40 to 90 pages of all killer, no filler work. One of the benefits of my experiences is that I know almost to the hour how long a project will take me. Years of tracking my time at advertising agencies to the quarter hour pays off. I spent 9 months making thumbnail drafts of my 50 page story (about 10 in all). I knew I could blast through the art. Yet, the professors knew that I could do that also. It was a calculated gamble that paid off. I graduated, and my thesis is now published by Fantagraphics. By spending over a year refining my story, I was able to settle into the act of drawing it. And I used every cheat, hack, and shortcut I could think of to get it done.
Use the following at your own risk. This worked for me because I knew exactly what each page would look like after so many drafts.
How To Draw Comics Quickly!
Adobe Illustrator is not my favorite tool, but it is my best tool. I made all my panel layouts on Illustrator documents 150% larger than print. Make the panel borders black; this will save you headaches later. I didn’t have time to do them by hand, but it won’t matter anyway.
In the same Illustrator documents, I created all my word balloons and lettering. But I set them to 30% Cyan. I created four fonts based on my own hand lettering from MyFonts.com for free. They have specials and coupons if you look. Each one varied for different effects. I also created all my sound effects here also using the same technique.
Sidenote: the fonts generated by MyFonts.com have atrocious kerning. You’ll see it right away once you start typing. Set your type from Metrics to Optical, so each letter gets an equal amount of space around it.
Print at Size
I then made a PDF in InDesign of my entire story with my Illustrator files. A friend volunteered his printer, which is capable of printing on bristol board. I’d get them ten at a time so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed.
Once I got the boards, the first thing I would do is sit down and letter each page. For speed, I used a .08 Micron, and a Brush Nib Micron for bold letters and balloons. Normally, I’d letter with a nib, but speed is of the essence here, remember? I didn’t have to use an Ames guide to rule out my lettering either. The font was already my handwriting and kerned. Added bonus: I was able to spell check everything first also. Handlettering just sings off the page in a way that a font won’t.
My story contained a great deal of spot black. One reason was because I’m obsessed with graphic spot blacks. They add weight to the page aesthetically and from a storytelling perspective. The other reason was another cheat. When I had my pencils done, I inked over them with a Pentel brush pen. Again, not dipping in an inkwell saves a lot of time. I also left my blacks open. I would fill them in Photoshop once I scanned and cleaned up.
Replacement drawings for bad panels.
Scan as you go
Once I had a page done, I’d scan it immediately. When I finished scanning all my pages, I cleaned and filled blacks. It’s easier for me to just do them all at once. I always start to notice inconsistencies much better that way. I will be better able to fix them when I look at all the work.
That’s the basic plan! Once the art was all done, I made a PDF and didn’t look at it for a week. That’s enough time to disassociate yourself from the art. I had a more balanced take on my work then. I did extra panel corrections after that time had passed.
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