Image of Justin's drawing table

Comic Evolution

To the left is a a photo of the drawing table that I draw Chipmunk Bay on.

There are several items spread about the photo there, which I’ll go into further detail a few paragraphs down. In the meantime, here’s a list of what these items are and a link to where you can buy them off Amazon.com. I prefer to buy this stuff at my local art store, but if that’s not a viable option for you (or maybe you’d like to bring a model number or compare prices at your art store) hopefully you’ll find this list useful.

Getting ideas

Image of Ninja Monkey watching Justin draw and ridiculing him

I have a very difficult time siting down and trying to write something funny on the spot. Scouring the web and trying to find a topic that I can make work in comic form is just not the most inspirational method for me, and I tend to end up looking at porn or something else* instead. The comic that results tends to feel forced and I try to avoid it whenever possible.

Usually when I sit down to start my comic I already have a slew of ideas laid out in front of me; I just need to pick which idea I feel like doing today. Anytime I think or experience something funny, I jot it down and file it away in my idea folder. I make sure to be as thorough as necessary in my notes, because in the past I've thrown away several potential joke ideas that didn’t have enough details to let me know what the intended joke was. Writing down “Shawn buys a car” is too vague, and my memory just isn’t good enough to always recall how I thought that was supposed to be funny.

Another reason I like using the idea folder is that I can think of a joke, add it to my idea folder, and then days or weeks later look at it again with a fresh perspective. My best comics tend to be the ones that I’ve written, rewritten, and then rewritten again before it even gets to the drawing stage. By being able to see the comic idea again after I've forgotten about it, I can change it as I need to, strengthening the weaker dialogue, possibly even changing the punch line.

It also helps me weed out the bad ideas. Just because I see or experience something funny, it doesn't mean it'll translate well into a 3-5 panel comic. Some ideas just need too much buildup or extra context. I’ll leave it in my idea folder in the hopes that some day inspiration will strike, but I don’t spend a lot of time trying force it.

So now that I’m sitting down and have selected an idea to run with, I’ll spend some time scripting the dialogue and planning the flow of the comic. It’s in this stage that I decide how many panels I’ll need, which characters would best fit the joke, and so on.

Drawing the Comic

Once I've decided on a storyline and figured out how many panels I'll need, I get out my Bristol Board paper. My ink doesn't run on this paper, and I can draw pretty big and still have plenty of room. Plus it’s pretty thick, so I’m not accidentally putting paper creases down the middle of my comics anymore.

I draw the framework for my comic (5" tall by 16" wide). Bill Amend of Foxtrot fame stated in his FAQ page that he draws his comics at 12"x3.75", so I took that figure and scaled it up, because I wanted to draw on a larger scale. I don’t have to draw my comic at the standard newspaper friendly size and have deviated from this size often, but I generally try to. If nothing else it helps me to tighten up my writing and remove any un-necessary dialogue.

I don’t actually draw any borders or write any text until I’m on the computer, so when I start drawing I simply draw within the confines of this 16”x5” box. I use the script I’ve created to judge how much text I’ll need per panel, and and then just draw each scene at a rough approximation of where they’ll lay in the final version without worrying about exact measurements until I get it onto the computer.

Draw It!

I use a non-photo blue pencil lead to draw the comic. This allows me to avoid erasing my pencil lines when I scan the comic into the computer. I chose to use a technical pencil because that's the first format I found the non-photo blue lead in, but any non-photo blue pencil would do just as well. I mean, come on. They’re pencils.

So now I'm ready to ink. I've tried a lot of various methods for inking my linework, and I've settled on the Faber Castell PITT pens. Faber Castell's ink just lays down onto the paper better than my other pens. I start with the F pen (Fine) and ink all the lines, even the ones I plan to do later with the brush pen, if only because have a hard time drawing with the brush pen and receiving the end result I wanted. Even with the non-photo blue guides.

So now I pop out the brush pen. Same deal, just tracing over the existing lines. Some people use line weight (thickness) to help display movement, or to give a character personality. I just use it to separate the characters from the background because I haven't figured out how to use line weight in those other ways. I don't really bother to fill in the black areas, like Jacob's vest or Kaigon's sleeves, since that's better handled with the computer.

Ink It!

Importing The Comic

After it's inked, the comic needs to be scanned into the computer so I can finish it. My scanner has a size limit of just under 9" x 12", so I'll need to scan the comic twice and then piece it together in Photoshop. I set my scanner settings to 'Black and White', to avoid picking up the blue lines. If I choose Grayscale or Color, the blue lines will show up, so this is fairly important.

I set my scanner to scan at 400 resolution, but can go as low as 300 safely. Much lower than 300 and I run the risk of the comic printing out kind of fuzzy. Much higher than 400 and my computer slows way down when working within Photoshop.

Scan It!

Tweaking the Layout

I find it's easiest to start my layout process by getting all of the dialogue onto the comic so I can get a better feel for how much room I'll have left to display the artwork. Frequently I'll need to shrink the artwork down, or crop some of it out. I've removed entire panels of artwork before in order to get it to fit (such as the example shown to the right). I try to keep a good balance between appealing artwork and dialogue that flows smoothly without sacrificing too much on either side, but there have been times when I've ended up having to cover up or ditch artwork that I really didn't want to lose. I'd rather lose the artwork than sacrifice the pacing of the comic, however.

Along with how much room the text is using, and how much room I have left for the artwork, I also need to consider how much room I'll need for the word balloons and the panel spaces. Sometimes I'll skip drawing the borders and have 2 or 3 panels with a border and 1 or 2 panels without to help save room, but I typically need to leave room enough for at least 2 gaps between panels in every strip.

Add Text!

I use a font I bought from Blambot.com, a fantastic website for finding comic fonts. They have plenty of free ones, such as Digital Strip, which is the font I used for my first sixth months worth of comics.

While I'm typing out the dialogue and arranging it in whatever manner I think will work best, I'll continue revising the dialogue, changing words and tweaking it here and there. Sometimes this is because I think it would read better and be easier to understand with the new dialogue... sometimes it's because I thought of a better punchline or an additional secondary gag to add to the comic... or sometimes it's because I didn't have room for the original dialogue, and I'm looking to shave some of the extra text out.

Word Balloons

To create the word balloons I use Photoshop's Pen Tool. It can be tricky to master if you've never tried it before and it takes a lot longer than the marquee tool when working on heavy dialogue comics, but it gives me so much more freedom and control.

So using the pen tool, I'll enclose each of the clusters of text with their own separate bubble. Each cluster typically gets 2 shapes: one for the balloon itself, and a second shape that connects the bubble to appropriate character (sometimes this means connecting it to another word balloon that itself is already connected to the character). Then I select the shapes I've made with the pen tool, and on a new layer, fill with white. I then add a black Stroke to the selected area about 14px thick (at 400dpi resolution, 14px is still pretty thing) around the outside of my selection to get the black border on the balloons.

For some panels where there are two different people talking, it's the same process, but with two different layers to help show timing. The word balloon I want the reader to read first is on the top layer slightly overlapping on top of the word balloon that's on the second layer.

Re-Arrange and Add Bubbles

Coloring

Now for the coloring. for most of my strips, this is just me filling in with different shades of black, but the process is nearly the same my full-color comics. The major difference is the shading: full-color comics get more shading to add more depth that is really necessary with a black and white comic. Since I like to save my comics as pngs, I try to avoid blending my shadows and highlights whenever possible. Png's don't handle gradiants very well when I'm trying to keep my file size down, so I tend to stick with solid patches of color.

I use Photoshop's Magic Wand Tool to fill most of my solid color areas, and use my Wacom to fill in areas that the Magic Want Tool isn't a good fit for (hair is a good example). Once I've selected an area with the Magic Wand Tool, the next step will be to 'expand' this selection by 3 pixels. I do this so that when I fill with color, I won't chance any white pixels peaking through between the lines and the color. However, since I don't want to fill in over the top of my linework, I'll create a new layer and move it underneath the layer that my linework is on. Then I select my color of choice, fill, and repeat until done.

Color It!

Finished!

After it's done, I upload it onto my site and pray that people will find it as funny as I do. And that's it.

From start to finish, the whole process can take as little as four hours (not including writing the script. that's hard to figure out, since it's typically taken care of before hand via my idea folder), to sixteen hours for a long, detailed, and full color comic. Most of the time, I spend roughly four hours per comic.

I have found a huge timesaver in this process is the Actions feature of Photoshop. In a nutshell, Actions enable you to record various things that you're doing in Photoshop, and then you can have Photoshop DO those things FOR you later (faster). So separating my linework from the background, filling in my word balloons, expanding and filling my selected areas... Photoshop does this all for me now.

And that's it. That's how I do my comics.

But How Do You Draw?

I don't believe that what I do is magical; I've just had more practice than most people. The skill comes with time. I don't think I was any more talented than most when I first started drawing (I was 5 or 6... how talented could I have been?). I just enjoyed it more, so I did it more. Practice Practice Practice.

Other than that bit of advice there's little else I can do to help, other than suggest you study anatomy. Anime is all the big rage nowadays; you can see it everywhere. It's very easy to spot bad anime artwork from good anime artwork. The bad anime is almost always by someone who don't know how the body works. The good anime artists know how it works and they know how a person should look. They just choose to exaggerate the hell out of it and make it look like anime instead. The more you know how something SHOULD look, the better your chances of drawing a solid looking character.

Don't hesitate to use stickmen skeletons when laying out your characters either. Even the pros still use them to line up where to draw the various body parts. They're a handy tool. Use em.

And that's it. Hope you all learned something useful. And if not, well... you can't say I didn't try.