Making Comics: Basic Production Part Two by John White

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Another blog post from John White about the basic production of his webcomics. Originally posted on the Between Wars website, we are reposting this piece with his permission.

Creating: ‘Peacekeeper’

An updated look at the production process of my comic.
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“Where do you get your ideas?”

That most often asked question… The Peace-keeper strip idea came to me in a flash, as usual, but this time as I walked with my wife, Gabby from one building to another. In the space of 5 or 10 seconds. I mentioned a kid who used to be in school with me, and suddenly I had the concept of the whole strip in my head. Some dialogue and lot of images.

Developing the idea – scribbles

Of course, once you seriously think about the text and pictures and layout and flow, you realise that you have a bit of work to do. On this one, I did too much prelim work really. So the whole thing took an age to get finished! As usual I scribbled some notes and dialogue in the ruled hardback notebook that I keep for B*W comic strip ideas and – as usual – without thinking, transitioned to rough drawings. It’s quicker to draw it than write it. Sometimes I get too detailed with these, so I end up drawing the whole strip about 3 or 4 times by the time it’s finished.

Above: Pencil sketching the concept and layout on crappy-paper

Above: Pencil sketching the concept and layout on crappy-paper

Layout, Rough Pencils and First-Pass Lettering

Next, I get an A4 sheet of copier/office paper which has been marked to the same proportions (not the same size) as my final inks – and work out the layout and refine the script and lettering placement a bit more – usually in grey pencil. I scan it, place it into my custom Photoshop template and mark the panel borders in thick red lines on a separate layer as a guide for the next step. I save it as ‘strip_peacekeeper.PSD‘, and place it into my custom InDesign layout template which I save as ‘strip_peacekepper.INDD‘.

Above: Rough drawing on A4 . Unusually, this one is in blue pencil. Which isn't necessary at this stage as this is just a rough.

Above: Rough drawing on A4 . Unusually, this one is in blue pencil. Which isn’t necessary at this stage as this is just a rough.

Then I adjust the panel frames and gutters in InDesign (at 50% opacity) to match the red lines that are showing through. Remember I added the thick red lines to my PSD file of the sketch?

Above: Rough drawing placed in InDesign

Above: Rough drawing placed in InDesign

I can then go back to Photoshop, hide the red line layer in the PSD file, and re-save and update that placed PSD file in InDesign, so I don’t see the red lines anymore. Still with me? Well done!

I can also go back to Photoshop and move bits of the rough artwork around or resize it. When I re-save the PSD, I go back to InDesign and update the ‘Link’ to the placed PSD and see the tweaked version. I may then move the letting, word balloons and panel frames around again in InDesign to match the changes or generally improve things. Then I’ll export a PDF of it, and copy that into Dropbox. That’s so when I leave the studio, or go out and about and I have the iPad, I can have an occasional look with fresh eyes and make mental notes of what else to improve or rewrite before I go back and start the pencilling.

Pencilling the Comic Strip

When I’m reasonably happy with the rough stage, I’ll proceed to pencilling the full size comic strip on A3 Bristol Board in Blue Pencil (col-erase). This is so I can later remove this under-pencilling in Photoshop, after I’ve inked over it in black (more later). I’m always nervous at this point, because I’m getting serious. The working out bit is over! Time to commit.

Above: Full size pencils on A3 Bristol Board

Above: Full size pencils on A3 Bristol Board

I still don’t do extremely detailed pencils here unlike most traditional comic artists. Our own, Irish, Eoin Coveney – who works for 2000ad – does beautiful pencils, which he then inks over and rubs out. Aggh! Gene Colan’s pencils for Marvel were stunning! – but got obliterated by ink – especially when Vince Colletta inked them, sometimes just covering whole areas of background detail with solid black – because it was quicker and easier! I should get into more detail but at this stage I feel as if I’ve expended enough time already so, I get impatient. However, this is a trait I’m working on, because better pencils, means quicker inking – and less revisions in Photoshop! Time saved – and better quality result! (Haste = Waste)

Once the pencils are done, I’ll often scan and copy this version into the PSD file and update it in InDesign for another check on how things are looking and make more tweaks to the panel borders and lettering. Then I make a PDF of that and allow myself some time out of the studio to have another look with fresh eyes before returning to ink over it. (Maybe I have more time on my hands than most comic artists?)

Above: Full size blue-pencil as seen in InDesign

Above: Full size blue-pencil as seen in InDesign

Inking the Comic Strip

If I’m happy with that – I start inking over the blue pencils on the Bristol Board. Like so:

Above: Inks over blue pencils

Above: Inks over blue pencils

Then I scan it into Photoshop at 300dpi and remove the blue pencil and do some cleanup. The way I do this is simple (but probably arseways).

Adjust Levels (Ctrl+L) until the whites are as pure white as I can get them without the blacks going grey or jagged. For comparison, I make a layer above with pure white boxes, and look at those and the background paper as I adjust the brightness on the art layer.

Remove blue pencils: I go to CHANNELS and select the Blue channel which – counter-intuitively – makes the blue pencilling disappear! Don’t ask me why.

Then I convert to Grayscale and save as a flat TIFF (having removed the layer with the white boxes)

I clean up the image some more – and make corrections/redrawing bits, and re-save.

I copy this line art into my PSD file, and re-save. Remember that PSD? When I update the linked file in InDesign I’ll magically see the clean inks with the lettering and panels. Whoo-hoo!

(In professional, commercial comic production, inked artwork is usually saved in jaggedy Bitmap Mode – at very high resolution. Just two colours: black & white. This will be sent to a professional Flatter to select and fill-in the main colour areas. I can’t see the point in Bitmap Moding yet, because I’ll copy the inks into the 300dpi PSD anyway and it’ll no longer be in sharp Bitmap mode. And it scares the sh*te out of me)

‘Flatting’ and Colouring

Above: Back into Photoshop to work on 'flatting' the blocks of colour.

Above: Back into Photoshop to work on ‘flatting’ the blocks of colour.

Instead of using a polygonal selection/lasso tool, for blocking in colour, I usually just scribble with a non-anti-aliased pencil tool. Usually, flatting is done in garish colours for total separation of the blocks, but I like to start thinking about the final colour ASAP. Those are my ‘flats’ above.

Above: Here are the same 'flats' with the linework showing.

Above: Here are the same ‘flats’ with the linework showing.

Using the flatted blocks of colour to make sharp, non-anti-aliased selections, I do the more refined colouring and tonal work on lots of separate layers. I the next one for example you can see that shadows and lighter tones, highlights, blush on faces, have been added. Lots of linework has been coloured too – using colour-holds – which I’ll explain in another blog article.

Above: Using the flatted blocks of colour to make selections, I do the more refined colouring and tonal work on separate layers.

Above: Using the flatted blocks of colour to make selections, I do the more refined colouring and tonal work on separate layers.

The Big Finish!

Once I’m happy will all of the artwork in Photoshop, I go back to InDesign, update the linked PSD file, and do any final tweaks to the lettering/script. Then I export high quality PDF, open it in Photoshop actual size > save (JPEG) for web and place it into a new web-page and write the accompanying article.

So many steps… 2 software applications… paper… scanning…

Maybe I need to switch to Manga Studio – and a Cintiq?

You can read the final comic here.