Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How I Make Comics

I created a flipbook about how I make comics to present to kids when I was the Cartoonist-in-Residence at the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. I thought it might be interesting for others to read as well, so I thought I'd post it on my blog.

1. An idea is born

I create one comic every year. As I write autobiographical comics, the comic is usually based on a theme of that year and is usually an issue I'm struggling with in my life at that time. For example, "Death, Dating and Other Disasters" was written the first year after my divorce when I was experiencing a lot of grief and also learning how to date again. The idea for each comic often occurs to me when I'm waking up in the morning – thus my first comic was entitled “Hypnopompia,” which means “the partially conscious state that precedes complete awakening from sleep.” As the comic goes on, more and more is revealed to me, often at that same time of day.

2. Create an outline: first draft

Example from "Crash Course" cartoon outline

Page 5
1. I hate driving.
2. I seriously do.
3. I hate traffic.
4. If I was the only car on the road, it might not be so bad, actually.
5. But unless I only drive between the hours of 2am and 4am every day, that’s not too likely.
6. And even then, I’d probably have to be at least 20 miles from any signs of civilization.
7. Okay, so what’s so bad about driving?

Page 6
1. [me unlocking car door]
2. [me behind the wheel, adjusting mirror]
3. [rear-view mirror showing gap in traffic]
4. [me looking back at gap in traffic]
5. [view of my car pulling out of parking spot]
6. [aerial view of both cars with other driver’s thought bubble “Oooh… Don’t you think I’m gonna let you in here” and “Zoom!” coming out of muffler.]
7. [ME blissfully moving ahead, oblivious]

Page 7
1. I’ve never owned a car before.
2. Well, I did drive around in my ex’s pick-up truck on a regular basis
3. and owned a motorcycle for a brief time.
4. But I hadn’t driven on a regular basis since I moved to San Francisco in 1998 [show MUNI bus]
5. I don’t remember other drivers being so aggressive.
6. Admittedly, my ex used to tease me that NYC cab drivers would lose in a game of chicken with me.
7. But times, they have changed.

This actually didn't all end up in the final version of the comic, but this is an excerpt from the first draft.

3. Conduct research to flesh out story (optional)

I've actually only done this for two of my comics - Bewildered Bisexual and Crash Course. But I like including some educational elements in some of my comics. As an example, for Crash Course, some of the data I collected included information about car accidents.

A recent study conducted in Europe discovered that
o 80% of drivers involved in traffic accidents believe someone else is at fault, and
o 5% take responsibility for their actions,
o while the other 15% represent varied combined responses.

4. Sketch out the panels

I'm kind of old school in that I like to do my initial sketches in pencil. With all the technology that is out there, more and more folks are going digital, even in these beginning stages. But I'm hoping I'll always hang onto pencil and paper. As you'll see in the later stages of my creation of comics, I definitely take advantage of other means of using technology to make comics.

This sketching usually occurs in multiple stages. I'll often start with a simple stick figure to represent the image I want. Or sometimes I'll even just write the word, such as "car door" and then circle it to indicate to myself what I want to draw in that space. I will then get more and more specific and detailed until I have a final sketch in place.

I used to draw in a moleskin sketchbook, but as you can imagine, I am having to erase my pencil lines over and over. This often led to pages getting ripped or just simply worn down, so more recently I've switched to drawing on bristol board.

5. Find models or on-line photos to assist with body positions

Some people can draw amazing figures directly out of their heads. I get very clear images of what I want in my head, but I have trouble bridging between that image directly onto paper. I usually start by searching on-line for the perspective I want (usually a google image search), but oftentimes I can't find that exact view. So I often ask friends to model what I want.

Again, this is done in pencil. So stick figures are erased and become more developed figures and images.

6. Inking

Once the final sketch is completed, I begin to ink over the pencil lines. I like inking and find it very meditative, so I'm actually a little impatient and begin inking as soon as a sketch is complete. Some people finish sketching out their entire comic before placing ink on the page. This is smart, because if there are any changes to the plot, I'm not able to move an image once it's inked. But I get so much satisfaction out of seeing the final image appear as I erase the penciled sketch and that enthusiasm fuels me to keep going in creating my comic. I'll admit this has caused me extra work at times when I've needed to re-draw an entire page because I needed to add a frame. Once or twice I've used Photoshop to move frames around because I'd inked them and then decided I wanted to do things differently.

7. Scan

Next, I scan the image into my computer. This can be challenging at times if I don't consider the size of my scanner before I start drawing.

I have a flat bed scanner that can accommodate a 8.75" x 12" image. However, I like to draw on a larger sized Bristol Board pad. I try to remember to keep my page size within the confines of the scanner size; however at times I forget and have drawn larger pages. In these cases, I make multiple scans and then cut and paste them together on Photoshop. However, that is not my preferred method. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson and not repeated that mistake more than once, but... When I get into that creative zone while drawing, things like measurements are not usually in the forefront of my mind.

Over the years I've gone through two scanners. Both times I've purchased flat bed scanners. Perhaps I will try to find one with a larger screen the next time.

8. Clean off dust particles in Adobe Photoshop

Inevitably in the scanning process, dust from the face of the scanner, pencil that didn't get fully erased or remnants of eraser particles will get picked up in the scanned image. So I always go through the image inch by inch in Photoshop to remove any of these blemishes. I will also occasionally do some minor editing in this process. I hand write all text in my comics. I have a strong preference for handwritten comics. So sometimes, I'll have to fix the dot on an "i" or close the inside of the "e" and such.

9. Collaborate with Colorist (optional)

In October of 2008, I made my first (and only, as of yet) full-color comic, Bewildered Bisexual. Due to the complexity of both the research it required and the emotional toll of some of the content, it took me a full year to complete this comic. At the end of the year, however, the final comic came to only 12 pages. I didn't feel the 12 pages adequately reflected the effort I put into that comic. So to make it more special, I decided to print it in color. I explored coloring it myself. I considered water color, but wasn't confident enough in my watercoloring skills. I considered crayon, but was concerned that medium would somehow "junk up" my art. So I finally settled on having it digitally colored. I talked to multiple friends in the cartoonist community in San Francisco about how to go about coloring the comic. In this process, a friend introduced me to Nicholas Iannone. He had just left a job where he had been coloring the Sunday syndicated comics that you read in your local newspapers. So I decided to pay him to color the comic for me. This turned out to be a very expensive endeavor between the cost of the colorist and the cost of the colored printing and amped the cost of that comic up very high. So I ended up printing a limited edition to justify the price. As you may be able to guess, I have not done a full color comic since then. However, I have continued to use a colorist to color my covers. As you can see in the example (taken from Bewildered Bisexual), the color really brings life to the art. I've begun to explore digitally distributed comics (on the internet and the iPhone), which may make color comics more affordable (without the printing costs). So you may see another full-color comic from me in the future.

10. Format page layout in Microsoft Word

I have been making zines since 2001. Back then, I wasn't as computer savvy and there may have been less software options for self-publishing. But in any case, I created my first zine using Microsoft Word. It's a long and arduous process. First I format the pages horizontally with two columns. Then I print them out. Then I cut the pages in half so that I can lay the pages back to back in the order they would be read in. Then I make sure I have the right number of pages, so the center won't be two blank pages. Then I tape all of the pages together. Then I go through and cut and paste the columns into the print-order in Microsoft Word. Not ideal, huh? But because I started out doing it this way, I have not been able to get myself to try anything new. Maybe someday I can get myself to try a more efficient software that is made for this purpose.

11. Print Master to take to Copy Shop

Again, somewhat old school. I have at times emailed a digital copy to the copy shop I use, but I have created my own "Melaina Comics" font that I use to type up things like the "About the Author" page and my copy shop gets upset when the font doesn't come through correctly. They don't want to keep a copy of my font on their computer just for me. So... again, all old-school like, I walk a copy over to the copy shop.

For "Bewildered Bisexual," I did use an on-line print shop for the colored images. I used ComiXpress and was incredibly happy with them. The comics came out great; color was in integrity with the images I'd provided them and they had awesome customer service. So I would definitely use them again.

12. Fold & Staple

And finally, the last step in my process for making comics! When I first started making zines back in 2001, I used a standard stapler and just bound the books with slightly crooked staples. I now own a saddle-stitch stapler (see illustration) which makes nicely aligned staples in the binding of my comics. However, I've been compiling a lot of my shorter comics into single issues. And as a result, they have gotten relatively thick. So more and more often, I'm having to ask the copy shop to fold and staple for me. But it's a relatively expensive service (sometimes as expensive as the actual printing), so I do it myself whenever possible. If the comic is long and the print shop is doing the job for me anyway, I'll usually ask them to also trim the edges. If you fold several pages together, you will notice that the inside pages stick out more and more the more pages you add. So at the print shop they will cut all of that excess off, so the pages all line up neatly. Again, for the larger comics, this can make a pretty big difference in their appearance.

So! You now know how I go about making my comics! And you may have thought the drawing was tough! There is so much more to it than that, huh? So I hope you enjoy all the effort that gets put into your comics, whoever you read!