by Jeff Ellis
Here is a breakdown of my process for creating a page for my webcomic. I am also using Adobe Contribute to make this post, so I can hopefully learn something at the same time you do.
Teach English In Japan is a collaborative effort between myself and my friend Jonathon Dalton. We’d both been abroad to teach English for a time; Jonathon was stationed in Taiwan and I was in Japan. For this comic, we are trying to combine our experiences together into one cohesive story. The main characters are hybrids of our own personalities and all the supporting characters are based on people we met along the way.
Step 1: Storyboard
It all starts with a brainstorming/scripting session, usually at a coffee shop. Here we work out the moments of each page and Jonathon will create a very rough thumbnail “storyboard” of events which then gets broken down into panels and pages. Like so:
You can see we have some very simple panels and dialogue roughed in and they get divided up into pages. In this case, pages 15-17. Page 15 will be used as the example for the next few stages.
Step 2: Rough Drawing
So for page 15, the next step is for me to plan out the page with a rough drawing, I usually use a scrap 8 1/2″ X 11″ for this. It’s at this stage I plan the basic character positions and panel compositions. I also write in the sound and dialogue so I have some idea how much space to leave for speech balloons and effects.
It ends up something like this:
Step 3: Research for Visuals
On this page, the two James are taking their train ride to the town of Myori (where most of the story will be taking place). There’s no dialogue here so I fully concentrate on the imagery.
I want to have a train riding past Mt. Fuji, so I do some Google Image research to find some reference for the scene as well as the interior of the train.
It is here that i realize we are getting out first introduction to Myori with a shot of Myori station. This is a fictional location so, unlike Fuji or the earlier shots from Tokyo, I can’t use Google Maps. After consulting with Jonathon, I make a plan for how Myori station will look. It’s going to be a very small station, much smaller than the station of the Japanese city I lived in. I use another smaller neighbouring station as a starting point. I also take a bit of a sidetrack and plan a rough map of the town of Myori so I have a better idea where my characters are going to live and how close they will be to each other and important businesses.
I also realize that in the rough, I have depicted a Shinkansen traveling to Myori, but since we plan to keep Myori in the Yamanashi prefecture in the center of Japan, it would make more sense for the characters to travel by Express train. Therefore I reference the train I always used to ride to and from Tokyo: a Chuo Line Azusa Express.
Yes, I am an obsessive anal-retentive. Let’s move on!
Step 4: Pencil Drawing
I love my photo so much I decide to keep the composition even if the Azusa’s use a different track. I feel keeping a striking image of Fuji is more important. I lose the snow cap since the story is set in the summer. After some work I finally get the pencils done. I usually use a vellum bristol (Recently Strathmore). I like vellum bristol because it has a bit more tooth to it. Smooth bristol tends to smudge on me. I usually just clip my pad to a board and I’ll pretty much draw in any room in the house or at the Grind during a Cloudscape meeting.
I tend to keep my pencils pretty loose as that I tend to put a lot more effort into my inks. I work best listening to music but sometimes will instead while watching a TV show. I might have been watching Mad Men or Doctor Who while I penciled some of this.
Here’s the finished piece:
I made some adjustments to the composition here, like moving the two James’ tot he front so they are less blocked by other seats. Myori station also came together well. I have a bus loop in front of the station and put a statue of the samurai Kôsaka Masanobu (who I dressed-up as once for a parade). This is based on the statue of Takeda Shingen at Kofu station; Kôsaka was one of Takedas generals. I also added a pile of discarded bicycles to really make this an authentic Japanese train station. Now comes the inking.
Step 5: Inking
Here is my inking station:
I like to use a #1 series 7 sable brush for almost all my work; you can get almost any line you want from this brush if you have the right touch. I also have a smaller #0 and a larger #3 that I occasionally use. I keep some brush soap on hand with a small metal cup of water for cleaning my brushes between uses. I highly advise you clean your brushes and take good care of them, if you do your brushes will last much longer.
I will also use a small dip pen when I want to do crosshatching like on my rendering of Fuji. On very rare occasions I use a Copic micron for technical details and type. I swear by Speedball black India Ink which I keep in a special holder I make by cutting an X into a piece of paper and taping it to my table, this also doubles as a blotter.
I use a roll of toilet paper as a blotter, something my teacher got me started on and I use Dr. Martin’s Bleed-Proof White for my mistakes. I tend to work really fast and sometimes should wait for things to dry properly before moving forward.
Eventually I get here:
Part 6: Scanning it to the Computer
My page is larger than my scanner so I usually need to scan it in 3 or 4 sections, once it’s all scanned I will use the Photomerge function to get Photoshop to stitch all the pieces together. File -> Automate -> Photomerge… I’ve found this tool works really well.
I usually scan my work at 300dpi at 100% because I plan to print my work some day.
I love to get caught up on all my podcasts while I do my computer work.
Once I have the merge I check for errors and if it looks good I flatten the image and run levels to boost my inks and lighten my paper. Once that’s done, I drag guides to mark off all my panels. Then using the guides I drag selection boxes over all my panels using shift to make multiple selections. I usually inverse my selections and delete any marks outside the panel areas. Once that’s done, I reset the selection and convert the selections into work paths. Then I set a 3-5pt black pencil and stroke the work path.
I do this because I find it gives a nice straight and consistent line that I just can’t create by hand. Now this is where the art is at:
Part 7: Convert to Grayscale
Now is the fun part, which is the toning. I will usually convert to Grayscale so I can focus on the grays. I will duplicate my layer and set it as a multiply layer so I can paint on it while retaining my black lines. I generally use a small bamboo tablet with the pencil tool; it works really well.
I will try to outline an object and then flood the rest with the paint bucket.
Eventually I get it toned to a point I like; I try to use the tones to add depth to the work without going overboard.
Part 8: Signs
I also add some extra effects to the artwork by creating signage for the train station.
I make all my signs in Illustrator because it lets me make flat 2D designs with type quite quickly. In this case, I designed the sign for the train station:
Once I have this created, I can select all the elements and copy and paste them into Photoshop as smart objects. For this image, I can leave it flat as is and just scale it to size, but I did have to use the skew and distort tools to put it on angles and in perspective.
Here we go, ready to letter now!
Part 9: Lettering
I like to keep a copy in layers in case I need to make changes and I save a flattened copy as a 300dpi grayscale tiff using LZW compression. This file can be used when I print my comic in the future.
I decided to add some text to this page. The train arrival wouldn’t be complete without the conductor loudly announcing the stop. So I will add some lettering using Illustrator.
I use Illustrator to letter for a few reasons. One is that Illustrator is what professional letterers at companies such as Marvel and DC use. Another is that Illustrator makes the letters as vectors so they stay much crisper and cleaner than in Photoshop. Lastly, I am much more comfortable working with Illustrator.
I will place my flattened tiff in Illustrator and lock that layer. Then I will create a second layer to do my lettering. I’ll start my drawing an oval with a 3pt black stroke and a white fill using the oval tool.
Then I will use the crystallize tool to make it a spikey oval:
Next I will draw another oval inside this shape. I will use this oval as area type to keep my letters inside the shape. In this case I will have the added challenge of typing in Japanese and adding the English “subtitles” underneath in gray.
Once that is done my page is ready to publish.
Part 10: The Final Copy
I just use the “Export for Web” function in Illustrator to make a JPG copy. Then I don’t have to worry about resetting the colours or the resolution.
I can upload my web optimized JPG to my Comicpress and that’s my web comic ready to roll!
Since I am planning to print my work I will save my high-res tiff and illustrator file in a special folder. Eventually I will delete the image from my Illustrator file and combine the letters file and the image file using InDesign which will make my finished book. But that’s a whole other blog post!
I hope this has been illuminating on my comic making process.