Since some people have expressed an interest in how I make the comic, so in lieu of a Ustream broadcast this week here’s a run-through of how I put together a page. The creative process, from start to finish!
Step 1: Pacing.
First of all, once I’ve got a general idea of what’s going to happen in the story I put together a little mock-up booklet and use that to establish the overall pacing of the story. The Well of Stars is a sixteen-page story arc, so my mock-up is a sheet of A4 paper torn into four quarters, then folded in half to make a booklet. Or maybe a comiclet.
Using a trusty HB pencil and a putty eraser, I then scribble a rough panel layout for each page. The small size of the booklet (74 x 105mm per page) means I can’t get too carried away in rendering fine detail. This is a good thing at this stage of the game. If you click on the image in fig. 1, that’s about actual size. You will also be better able to appreciate the sparkling dialogue (abridged).
Step 2: Page Layout.
That done, I need to work out precisely how big each panel is going to be. I work digitally at 300dpi (since the comic is in black-and-white this resolution is necessary to get a nice crisp print, when I eventually have enough comic to turn into a book), so each 6″ x 9″ page ends up as 3600 x 5400 pixels. Knowing this, I can divide that area up into appropriate-sized panels. The HB pencil and putty eraser come into play again as I jot this information down onto a handy Post-It™ note (fig. 2).
Step 3: Pencils.
I draw each panel in a separate file, as this reduces the burden on my poor overworked computer. I sketch in blue at 40% opacity on a layer clearly marked as “Pencils”, partly because blue is easier to distinguish from the black linework that is to follow, and partly because it makes me feel like a Proper Comics Artist™.
You’ll note that the actual composition of this particular panel (the big one at centre-right in fig. 1) has changed between layout and sketching, because I felt this camera angle worked better. You’ll also note that in this iteration Davas has horns. This is because I’d originally conceived him as a Tiefling, but changed my mind.
Step 4: Inks: Linework.
Another vaguely-anachronistic term, since I work predominantly in digital media nowadays. I draw in Photoshop with a hard-edged 3px brush on a layer above the Pencils, with copious erasing of surplus lines. This is pretty straightforward, though it gets less so when I’ve rushed the Pencils stage.
Step 5: Inks: Fill.
The Magic Wand tool is quite useful at this point, as I either select the areas inside the lines that need filling and hit them with the Paint Bucket tool, or flood-fill an entire layer black and use the Magic Wand to select areas to clear. It depends on whether the panels is mostly-black or mostly-white.
Step 6: Inks: White Linework.
A duplicate of the linework layer is made, and the colours inverted – black becomes white, which picks out the linework that would otherwise be obscured by the fill inking. Selective areas are erased, such that the white linework is left only in areas that are shadowed.
Step 7: Lettering.
At this point I fill in the dialogue and draw in the speech balloons, using a combination of freehand and the Ellipse tool. For dialogue I use Digital Strip, which is a nice easy-to-read free font from Blambot Comic Fonts & Lettering. Go check ’em out.
At this point I would also insert any sound effects necessary, though I tend not to use them too much – it’s sometimes hard to come up with onomatopoeia that doesn’t just look kind of goofy.
Once the inking and lettering is in place I save the panel both as a .psd file (which preserves layers) and also as a black-and-white 300dpi .bmp file, suitable for printing.
Step 8: Assembling the Page.
Once I have followed steps 1-7 enough times to have a full page of panels it’s time to bring them all together. This involves opening a 3600 x 5400px file, importing all the .bmp files of the various panels, and putting them where they’re supposed to go. Kind of like a jigsaw. If I’ve done my arithmetic right all the panels should fit together without any gaps. If I’ve done it wrong then I cuss and try and make up something easy to go in the extra space.
Importing the panels as .bmp files minimises the number of layers I’ve got to deal with at a given time (typically one layer per panel), and thus reduces the load on my computer.
Step 9: Gutters.
Gutters (the white spaces between panels) are important as they break up the page into easily-assimilated chunks, and make it clear that each panel represents a distinct viewpoint or moment in time. Panels that butt up against one another get visually confusing, especially when there are vertical elements involved.
To get my gutters nice and tidy I have a cunning trick. First, I create a layer above all the other layers and flood-fill it white. Then I ctrl-select a given layer (which creates a selected area for the panel on that layer), contract the selection by about 20px, and use that to clear a “window” on the topmost white layer. Repeat for all the panels, and you end up with neat, evenly-spaced gutters. Ctrl-select the gutter layer invert the selection (ctrl+shift+i), go to the Paths tab and hit the button that turns your selection into paths. You can now stroke those paths with a slightly thicker brush to give you clean panel outlines.
Ta-da! A page!
Step 10: Save and Upload.
Once I have the page complete I save it as a .psd file (again, to preserve the layers), then flatten it to greyscale. I save one copy as a 300dpi .bmp file for print, then resize it from 3600 x 5400px to 706 x 1050px, crop it to 700px wide (because I like round numbers) and save it as a 128-colour .png file for the web. This gets uploaded into my installation of ComicPress and set to publish at 7am on the appropriate Tuesday.
Repeat the above steps for each page, and that’s about it. It’s a workflow that I’ve used over the past dozen or so pages, and it serves me pretty well.