HOW *I* DO IT :: Comics Process

For the preceding parts of this series:

Part 1: Tools Baby Tools
Part 2: Secondary Tools

As with my previous two posts, I can’t stress enough that whatever process or tool or whatever you use matters MUCH less than what you do with it. So do whatever works for you, but here’s what I do.

Okay, so over the last two weeks I went over tools, albeit in a very minor sort of way, if you think about how many different tools there are out there. Way way more than I use myself, and they all work for somebody, maybe you.

This week I’m going to go over the actual making of a comic, a recent one I did about the Declaration of Independence. You can see the final version here. This wasn’t one of my best efforts, which makes it a dubious choice for a whole big process thing, but on the other hand that can be illuminating too, I think. It’s certainly been illuminating for me to think about as I’m writing.

The two big problems this strip has are 1) too much closeness to a general Kate Beaton feel; and 2) a thin punchline, in relation to the amount of effort that went into the rest of the strip. I’m an enormous fan of Kate Beaton’s, and am hugely influenced by her–and before I’d even heard of her I was fiddling somewhat with history comics here and there. So biting her style is a constant danger for me, especially since I lack the lyric grace that her drawing has. While I satisfied myself that it’s “mine” enough, it still bothers me on some level. But not as much as the boring joke. Trying to stay on a weekly schedule and build my “real” comics-making muscles back up (after a year of mainly just diary comics) means that sometimes I have to go with the idea I’ve got.

But enough self-loathing–let’s talk about ideas. I keep them (ideas) in a number of different places–I use an iPhone app called AwesomeNote that I stick ideas into on the go (plus my grocery lists and to-do’s and all that). If I’m at home or near my sketchbook, I’ll just stick an idea in there, or jot it down on a scrap of paper and tape it to the side of my drawing board so it can stew in the background for awhile. Then when it’s time to do a strip and I don’t have a better idea, I grab one of these slips of paper and try to crank something out that’s not too terrible.

Click any of these photos to view larger versions:

The first thing I do is write a little script. Not so much like a “full” script, just a collection of beats and a rough idea of what words might go where. I have the luxury of only working with myself, so these little scribbles are the iceberg tips, with a collection of images lurking somewhere in my brain to match. I have to say, I’m not wild about this part of the process, but it’s the habit I’m in right now. I worry it makes me tend toward more wordiness–which is the norm for me–rather than less wordiness, which is where I want to get. Words for me are the great necessary evil in comics.

So when it works best, I might write 2 or 3 versions of a little script, or heavily edit the first one. My editing process is almost always reductive–the strip I’m working on for next week has 6 panels, and I’ve gradually honed the words down to about half of what I initially had, where possible just taking them out altogether and letting the drawing do the work. I passionately think that comics work best when the word/image ratio is weighted heavily towards the image side–so much of the magic of what Scott McCloud calls “closure” happens in a reader’s mind. You can never hope to duplicate that immersive participatory feeling with words, so wherever possible it’s good to allow the reader to make the connections, to build the world you’ve created in their own minds.

I say all that, but if you look at my comics, they’re wordy as all get-out. Hey listen I’m trying here.

Check out my sweet thumbnail! Don’t worry, that’s ink in my fingernail, I wash my hands sometimes. Like my scripting style, I can’t recommend my thumbnailing style either. Composition is my #1 challenge in comics, and the whole point of thumbnailing, for me, is making a clean, tight composition. But I always lose my patience with thumbnailing, and end up just wanting to skip ahead to the actual drawing. I’m so envious of people who do really strong thumbnails, because 9 times out of 10 when I finish drawing a strip I feel like it has a deep fatal flaw that I could have addressed early in the process and yielded a much stronger final result.

But enough complaining. The few things I do accomplish with thumbnails are the rudiments of comics composition I do understand. Essentially trying to control reading direction. Which for me, at my lower level, is wrapped around placing blacks strategically and positioning speech balloons, captions, and sound effects in such a way that the eye naturally tracks the way I want it to, so the strip “reads” just right. The longer it takes for a reader to “figure out” a panel, and by extension a page, the less control you have over the rhythm the story is moving at for them.

Once I have things worked out in my head sufficiently, I try to sketch anything I think might be harder than normal to draw, or in this case things with some level of specificity, in terms of historical figures having recognizable faces. For this one I’d hunted up all the dudes on Wikipedia. I’d already drawn Jefferson and Adams before for strips, so they were easy, and Ben Franklin is a natural cartoon, but the other two guys, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman, I’d never heard of them. Making them look just right wasn’t all that important, since they’re not all that physically recognizable. No disrespect to them, I just mean it doesn’t matter for the strip to come across. The handsome dude in red in my drawing is some guy from a cologne ad in Rolling Stone magazine. Man, Rolling Stone is terrible now, btw. Oh! Also btw while I’m talking about it, check out how Scott C drew all these history dudes in his Document Writing Party storyline from his Double Fine Action Comics. Good gravy that guy’s good.

Now that the planning is all done, I use this little Illustrator template I whipped up last year to print out blue lines of a six-panel, 2×3 page. I work at a very specific size, for a very specific print trim size, so it saves me a ton of time measuring and ruling borders to do it this way. Although I do sort of enjoy doing that, but still. The whole post about that template is here, and it includes a downloadable, editable pdf. So get up in that!

Once I get all that worked out, I start drawing. The first thing I do is rough in the basic shapes, then do all the lettering. Since I carefully planned where the lettering balloons would go, I anchor things around those. Doing them first gives me a place to start, and doing the letters is my favorite part–it’s predictable, it rarely goes wrong, and I’m super good at it, much better than I am at drawing or writing.

If I remember right, I got the idea for doing lettering first from Kevin Nowlan, in a book called Panel Discussions. You can check it out here, but I bet tons of comics shops have them. They would love to have your money, which Amazon has plenty of already anyway.

See check it out! That’s how I roll, dawgs. The basic shapes are worked in, and I make any little changes to the working script at this time. For instance if I think something looks too cramped, or if the wording seems clunky on the page–or if I’m really smart, I can figure out a way to just get rid of some of the words period, that’s the best.

Inking the letters is my favorite part of the whole enchilada, probably. Something about the Ames guide pencil lines with inked letters over them is like ambrosia for my compulsive tendencies.

For this strip I inked the parts where Jefferson is reading the Declaration with a Hunt 108 flexible nib, to give me those thick chunky verticals and finer horizontals. Everything else I inked with Rapidographs or a Hunt 102.

Once the letters are done, I finish drawing in the rest of the forms. I like to pencil pretty tight–I’m too careful to be good at inking on the fly. Which sucks, but them’s the cards I got dealt.

All done with the inking and the drawing, now time for the inking.

Before I ink the figures, I go back and ink the sketches I made in my sketchbook. It limbers up my fingers to ink the real thing, and also lets me see where problems might be, which lines will look sweeter fat and which should be thin, etc. And most of all it shows me what mistakes I’m about to make–a cartoon looks a lot different in its final inked form than it does all sketchy and cool-looking in your sketchbook, so it’s good to tighten things up at this point, usually in terms of character design. “Oh, those little lips I drew look weird when they’re inked,” etc. Check out that handsome dude, just relaxing with some founding fathers!

All done! Now that I’m finished with the inking, and have filled in all my blacks and so forth, I go back with my FW white ink and paint over any little mistakes, any stray lines, etc. I don’t do a lot of correction, and none at all where I need to draw over white paint. For stuff like that, I do the correction digitally. I’ll get into that sort of thing in a later post maybe, along with coloring. I know for this strip I ended up relettering all the regular speech parts (“hear hear”, for example) and then compositing that in digitally. The original letters looked a little too big and clunky for my tastes.

You can check out the final here. If you have your own methods, I’d love to hear about them–I soak up stuff like that. I got a lot of emails and comments on my previous post, so I know there are at least a few other people interested in this as well. Share and share alike, baby!

11 thoughts on “HOW *I* DO IT :: Comics Process

  1. Ian

    These posts are awesome Dustin! Not sure if I missed it in the tools post, what do you use to flat your blacks? Curious since I remember you said you tend to care about the physical page a lot. Curious because any time I do flat black it always looks really bad on the original and while it cleans up fine after scanning it’d be nice to know how to get it looking good on the original too. From the last picture it looks like yours are really nice and black.

  2. Costa Koutsoutis

    Holy cow you thumbnail small…

    I’m nowhere near your level of cartooning career-wise or skill-wise, but I see you do what I started doing recently the same, with putting words/sound effects in BEFORE you put the word balloons in. I used to make the mistake of doing it the other way and only recently figured out how putting the writing in first is so much more helpful when hand-lettering.

  3. DHARBIN! Post author

    Ian–that’s the magic of Dr Ph Martin’s Black Star! It’s REALLY black! I use it for everything, including in my Rapidographs.

  4. Shannon Smith

    My process is pretty close to this as far as this part of comics making goes. I too use good ol’ Dr. Ph Martin’s. My main 2 differences are:
    1) Size. I’m working about 1000 times bigger. Basically only one to three panels per 8 1/2 x 11 sized board. I’m using brush more and more and I just can’t ink small with a brush. Not yet anyway.
    2) I’ve stopped inking on my pencils. I’ve replaced the whole erasing and pencil cleaning step by scanning in my pencils, cleaning them in photoshop then printing them out blue. I then ink over the blue lines. I don’t always do this of course. Sometimes I might just decide to dive right into the inks when I don’t have a computer or scanner near by. But it works for me when I have the patience to do it.

    Oh, and the biggest thing that I would hope your readers would get from this is “lettering first”. You totally need to have your lettering at least blocked in first. Trying to squeeze lettering into a drawing after the fact is always going to turn out awful. (And by awful, I mean that it will look like most of the comics DC and Marvel put out. Balloons and text boxes all over the place. People talking out of their feet. Yeesh!)

  5. Sheikasaurus Rex

    Your thumbnails are literal thumbnails! I have no patience for them myself, I usually end up abandoning them halfway through and just draw.

    Definitely going to check out Panel Discussions. I think lettering is my weakest point.

  6. Wesley

    The thing that revolutionized my comics process was a lightbox. My drawing skills are still nowhere near where they should be at this point in my life. I pretty much need to draw everything two or three times to get it right. With a lightbox, I can draw overworked full-size roughs on a sheet of legal-size typing paper, then trace the final results onto bristol, correcting weird proportions and fixing broken compositions as I go.

    A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about my process, with illustrations.

  7. Gabe Swarr

    Love your stuff Dustin! I think your method of page layout is super essential. I work really hard at that for my comic too. Even though I work all digitally, I shrink my rough blocking pass way down to the size of an index card just to concentrate on how the viewers’ eyes are being lead through the page. All comics need that solid foundation or there’s ne reason to move to the next step.
    I use evernote instead of awesomenote. I would lobe to see how you format your scripts, i.e. what’s being shown as apposed to the cations/word balloons.

  8. tim warnes

    Normally i work as a children’s book illustrator, so having any kind of lettering on the actual art is a big no-no because of foreign editions. So when I started out with my online strip, I penciled the lettering in, then did final art and scanned it for my archives before inking the final lettering. Once or twice this has caused a problem, so maybe I need to shrug off my illustrator’s coat and embrace the future of lettering first! (By the way, I rough out a scribbly version first in my sketchbooks then enlarge to the correct size on our photocopier, trace through final design onto layout pad before using a lightbox to get it on to watercolour paper).

  9. Mansell in Distress

    You once told me that elves assisted you– you liar!

    Besides you’ve been doing these Hystorical Comics long before Ms. Beaton was even born–here’s proof–look at that time stamp in your first panel.

    OK, I’ll go now…Great article.

  10. Michelle Kondrich

    Thanks for this, Dustin! I know just what you mean about an inked image looking different than the penciled version. Sometimes when I erase the pencil lines I feel a little pang of sadness because the combination of the too adds so much depth to drawings. These tutorials are awesome.

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