Make Comics Forever!!

Make Comics Forever is a forum for cartoonists dedicated to improving their productivity. This is not a forum for wimps! This is not a forum for flakes! We are here to share tips and techniques on how to produce more work and better work. Become a comic-making machine! Join the discussion now! To become a member, email a request to robyn @

Friday, January 12, 2007

Techniques and secrets!

One thing that I love about artists/comics creators blogs lately is the trend of technique discussion. Lots of "to do this, I do this", and I eat that stuff up with a spoon. With the crowd gathered here for Make Comics Forever!! I think we have a great chance to share some techniques with each other and our faithful readers. Plus it's easy stuff to blog about and can really help all us comic creators out.

Let's pull back the curtain a bit, and I'll start with a post on lettering balloons in Illustrator this week. I've been reading more indy books lately and the balloons in the books are driving me CRAZY. Not a lot of variation in shape, and really awkward arrows. As a designer I guess I'm extra sensitive to that sort of thing, so it's something I can speak too.

You game, gang?


At 12:32 AM, Anonymous The Masked Retriever said...

I've been doing baloons (freehand) with the same pen I use for panel borders for a long time now. I've also been drawing baloons by hand on paper, then doing lettering after the fact, often rewriting dialog to fit the baloons.

This is a compromise which really bugs me because it feels like I'm changing the story to fit my poor planning but the speed is worth it so I keep doing it.


My Tool Flow

First stop, the sketchbook. I will let myself just blow ideas around on the page, 'cause after all it isn't going up on the main website and if I spoil something nobody'll know. Sometimes when I'm working on a comic I'll practice angles or expressions here, but usually once I move on to the next step, it all happens on the page.

I got my hands on one of those transparent gridded rulers divided up into half-inch squares which are further divided into eighth-inch squares in red. EXTREMELY HANDY for panel placement and pencil lining. For my twice-a-week comic, I put two long rectangles onto a page and call that two strips.

Perhaps owing to the heritage of my strip process (I used to print out pre-drawn four-panel layouts) I just start writing dialog on the page. Usually I'll at least throw in some circles indicating where the heads go, but when the dialog is finished there's usually a fair bit of pencilling left to do. I use a mechanical pencil out of habit, but the hard lead also leaves pretty light lines which don't show up too bad on scans.

The gridded ruler doesn't have a bevvled edge, so when inking starts I switch to my trusty plastic ruler with Inking Edge. For panels and speech baloons, I'm using a (relatively) cheap india-ink felt which leaves a nice, fairly uniform black line. Once the panels and baloons are in, the real fun begins: brushwork.

Lately I've been doing my comic exclusively with a brush, although I have spent a lot of time using fixed-width felts. I have the damndest time maintaining brushes, lemmie tell ya. Not to mention it took me like, years not to totally suck at them.

With inks down, it's off to the scanner, in "lineart" or "black and white" or whatever you call a 50% threshold. Doing the threshold in PhotoShop *would* be more precise, allowing me to be especially picky about what goes in and what doesn't, but eh, who has the time?

However, and I cannot stress this enough, I START WITH BLACK AND WHITE. Anti-aliasing is banished from my work until the final cut. That's just the way it is.

Text in, paint down, pretty straight forward there. Lately I've taken to adding special effects at this point, but by "special effects" I mean that I paint in color using the tablet. The transition from inks to Comic Sans MS is jarring enough without CG backgrounds and lens flares.

Big current wants: a better lettering font which looks more like my handwriting, a way to keep brushes from clogging up that doesn't take half an hour of cleaning per use, and a nice cheap alternative to heavy art-store bristol, which I'm currently replacing with 67-weight Vellum cardstock from Office Depot.

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Troy Little said...

Myself I hand letter everything unless using text helps serve the needs of the story.

I pencil my lines out loosely with a roll-o-ruler I picked up at Staples. Screw Ames guides, the human eye is all you need to judge your line spacing, and besides it allows more freedom to play with your lettering.

I'm either working on a smooth Bristol board or S-172 Illustration board depending on the book I'm working on. I tend to letter using a 0.35 Stadler rapidograph.

I also like to play with the balloons themselves, trying to find ways to use them to underline or enhance the feel of the dialouge.

My beef with using computer type overall is how cold and monotonous it looks. It's not very expressive unless you put a lot of work into editing it and even then looks font like. I like the organic feel of hand lettering; it gives the sense of the work being molded my human hands.

That being said, I've seen a lot of small press artists who don't understand a few basic principles in lettering like:


Or when the text looks crammed into a word balloon 'cause the artist did a poor job planning the layout. I always ink my lettering and balloons before I start to work on the art. The ballons themselves are part of the illustration and need to be designed in context, they are not seperate entities!

Okay, I guess I'll cool my jets and let someone else have a turn.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger matt said...

I've developed a process based on the one Jessica Abel teaches to make sure that balloons are always an integral part of the drawing.

First, I've learned approxamately how much space a certain amount of text will take up on the page, and when I thumbnail, I always start with panels, then balloons. At this point, I can already check for two things. For one, the page should read clearly with just panels and balloons. If it doesn't, I re-thumbnail the page. Second, the page should still look like it has plenty of room for the art. If it looks cramped, it will be, and I throw away that design and re-plan.

Then, when I start on the final art, I pencil in a similar sequence: Panel borders first, then rough lettering, then rough balloons, then rough art, then tight lettering, then tight balloons(excepting tails), then tight art (adding tails), then I ink the borders, then the lettering, then the balloons (which by this point have had several chances to be corrected for crowding and shape), then, and last, the art.

This also means that the most fun part of the process, the inking of the art, comes last, like dessert.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous The Masked Retriever said...

For me the best part is when the scaffolding falls away at last, and the comic is shrunk from 300 dpi down to screen resolution (roughly 70 dpi), and I am at last able to look at the comic for its positive qualities instead of going over it with a comb looking for flaws.

I try hand-lettering every now and then but it adds a lot of time to an already time-stripped process...

Maybe I'll experiment with hand lettering when I go into that graphic novel...

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Mal Jones said...

I letter on the computer, just for the sake of correcting my terrible typos and I've found a lettering font I really love: Comicraft's Tim Sale font (now seen on Heroes!).

I pencil in lettering placements as I draw, but draw balloons using Illustrator. The big key for me making balloons that don't jar me out of the piece is taking the time to tweak each balloon's points so it's not a perfect oval. Same with the curve of the tail.

Making sure they aren't perfect ovals and really fit well with the text takes a ton of extra time, but it's worth it in the end product.

At 1:01 PM, Blogger E. Will said...

I letter by hand, also with no Ames guide. It often looks very sloppy once I erase the guidelines, and a guide likely wouldn't help that. I just need to either slow down and do it more carefully, or I just need more practise.

I have a thing against computer-generated anything, but my lettering is SO bad that I might have to re-do it on the computer once my comic is finished...sigh...

Oh, and I lightly sketch in the balloons on my rough drawings and scribble in the dialogue. (I sketch the entire page on cheap typing paper and when I'm done I trace it onto bristol to be inked. That's because of all the embarrassing mistakes I make when sketching. Erk!! :/ ) After I'm done tracing I re-do the lettering properly and then ink the balloons using templates. I don't know how I survived without these templates.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I've always hand-lettered my comics. When I was drawing on paper I used an Ames guide and Rapidographs, using several different thicknesses for boldface lettering.

Now that I work on the computer, I hand-letter my comics using the tools in Painter or (more recently) Manga Studio. I make a pen/brush with a bit of thick/thin variation but not much. I've created a lettering template in Illustrator that I load into my comics page as a layer and letter on top of it.

A particular pet peeve of mine is OVAL-SHAPED BALLOONS! Don't use OVALS! The straight oval shapes as generated by Illustrator look tacky and amateurish. Use balloons with a nicer shape to them, where the top and bottom of the balloon are a bit flattened.

It requires a little more playing with the bezier handles but it's worth it in the look of your comics page.

I also rewrite dialogue to fit balloons, but I don't have a problem with that. Until I've got a perfect sense of how many words will fit in the available space, I'm happy with editing both the text and the image until they work well together.


At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Tim said...

First off..a gag or idea for a gag comes up. Often from something someone says or does..which is cool, because my 'toon is based on stupid things done or said. Then,I sketch out roughly a couple of scenarios. These tend to help me 'weed' out whats not goingto work and what will.Usually though,I find that the gag I laughed out loud to earlier isn't so funny after all having done this.Once a sketch is acceptable to me, I 'fine-tune' it and scan it thru Photo Shop ( a older version, but hey ! what ever works .)'s on to color..text..sound effects, if any and a print of a hard copy for my files. There ! certainly nothing vastly mysterious about that.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Mal Jones said...

Seems like everyone here really digs hand-lettering for their projects (except for me, HA!).

Is there some strong computer lettering in print now that you think works really well? I think the letter on the first arc of Desolation Jones was some of the best lettering I've seen in ages.

Todd Klein did it I think and used balloons in a variety of shapes and curves to fit the text in with JH Williams art, as opposed to laying it on top.

At 1:05 AM, Anonymous The Masked Retriever said...

I've got nothing against CG lettering (hell, I use it all the time!) but it's not always easy to find a font that isn't jarringly artifical looking or so familiar as to tip everyone off immediately, YES I'M LOOKING AT YOU COMIC SANS MS!

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Colin Tedford said...

I'm not crazy about computer lettering, but it depends on the context & techniques used - the main thing is that it harmonizes with the comic.

I letter by hand, no special technique. Often just freehand, though sometimes I'll break out the Ames. I'm still working on my balloon-drawing, which is slowly improving. I leave more space around the letters than I used to. I'm not crazy about rectangular balloons, but I considering switching to them for a while b/c of the wasted space with ovals.

I'm still a bit stuck on having fairly complete hard-copy originals, but I suspect that attitude may erode over time. For now, if nothing else it means I have fewer pieces to worry about losing.

At 10:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 10:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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