BEHIND-THE-SCENES: Comic from start to finish
Even though I’m away for a couple of weeks and there won’t be a new comic, I still wanted to update the site with some juicy content. And since I got some great feedback from my last little behind-the scenes post, I thought I would show you the breakdown of an entire comic and not just one panel. I found it amusing that some readers were surprised by the amount of work that went into one panel and thought I drew polished drawings from the start, just like magic. Man, I wish that were the case! Nah, I don’t have any magic powers. As you’ll see, I slowly and painfully extract the comic out of my head and hands over the course of an exhausting but satisfying week. For this example, I’m using the recent Tim Minchin comic. Also, I got some complaints that the Marc Maron panel I used last time was not appropriate for the classroom so I’ve got rid of the naughty words in this comic so teachers can share it with their students.
STEP 1: The idea
Completion time: Usually a few days to a week, sometimes longer.
Once I find a quote I like, I usually print it out and just leave it on my desk while I’m still working on another comic. I’ll read it a few times, think about it while i’m in the shower, walking my dogs, knitting or doing water aerobics (I made two of those up). In this case, Tim Minchin is talking about being hard on your opinions and that they should always be examined and tested. So eventually I got the idea of a man getting his opinion examined by a doctor just like they would any other part of their body. This didn’t just come to me like a lightning bolt, it slowly formed from other ideas. The initial image I got was a guy actually beating their opinion with a cricket bat because that’s what’s in the quote and is already very visual. That meant the guy’s opinion had to somehow get out of his head which led to a machine, which led to a machine operator, which led to a doctor and so on. It’s very organic. It’s also the most challenging step and the most satisfying when I manage to stumble onto a good idea.
So the final idea I have is a guy who visits a doctor to get his opinion examined. He walks past a beggar and brushes the beggar off. He gets his opinion ‘fixed’ at the doctor and when he leaves, decides to give the beggar some money. That’s the basic idea. At this stage I don’t know what the characters look like, how the opinion gets out of the guy’s head, how the opinion is fixed or anything else beyond the basic idea.
STEP 2: Thumbnails
Completion time: Approx 1-2 hours.
Ok, now I start doodling and attempt to flesh the idea out into a proper story. This is a very important step because I’m plotting out the comic, figuring out what goes in each panel, the pacing, where the words go, which parts need to be emphasised. This is storytelling, the most important skill of a cartoonist. Forget technical ability, how well you draw, how much cross-hatching you can do, how perfect you can draw hair – it doesn’t matter if your story makes no bloody sense! As you can see, my thumbnails are a complete mess and are probably only legible to me. The only goal here is to figure exactly how the story unfolds.
NOTE: You can see below that the quote was originally meant to be longer, but that last sentence didn’t end up being needed for the story I came up with.
STEP 3: Roughs
Completion time: Approx 30 mins.
Once the story is plotted I get on the computer and draw out all the panels. I also paste the words in and then print it out, in this case on six A4 pages. Next I very roughly draw what’s going on in each panel. I then scan them back into the computer, enlarge each A4 page to A3, then print the roughs out in light blue ink ready to start a more detailed drawing.
STEP 4: Reference
Completion time: 30 mins to an hour.
I usually search on Getty Images or Google for various reference pics I need. In this case, some homeless men, medical centres and surgical stuff. Also, I’m not very good at drawing hair so I grab a pic of Mr Labeouf and Mr Clooney, who have the greasy, slick business look I’m going for. Remember, these are just reference photos to help with the drawing and environment, don’t copy poses too closely (or worse, trace them) because your figures will look too stiff.
STEP 5: Pencils
Completion time: A few hours
Now that I have my roughs in very light blue ink on a bigger A3 page (just cheap copy paper), I start doing a more detailed drawing. The drawings are very loose and fast and since it’s on cheap paper, I’m not precious about it. I’m still trying to work out the faces of the characters and in this comic, I really struggled with the main guy’s hair – it keeps changing from panel to panel. You can see in the panels where the opinion is being injected with the needles, it’s a different order and some of the images are reversed. I usually fix any mistakes with panel layout in the next stage.
STEP 6: Tighter pencils on final board
Completion time: A few hours
Once the loose pencils are done I scan those in again, fix the order of the panels, then print it all out in light blue ink on the final art board. I’ve only starting doing this recently, the extra scanning and printing on a clean piece of paper. Before I would draw the complete pencils on the board and ink over it, but my pencils were very dark and the page would get really messy with lots of smudges and it would be a pain to erase. With the rough pencils printed in blue on the board I can do tighter pencils over the top without the page getting too dirty. I’m probably not making much sense – all you need to know is that in this stage I further refine and flesh out the pencils, ready to be inked. I also rule in all the panel borders once the pencils are done.
STEP 7: Inks
Completion time: Approx 2 days
Inking is when a cartoonist goes over their pencils with either a brush dipped in ink or with pens. Originally, this was done so the artwork could be scanned and reproduced clearly in newspapers or comic books. These days with fancy computer colouring, some comic book art teams digitally paint the colours straight over the pencils, no inking required. However, inking is still widely used and is a big reason why a cartoon drawing … looks like a cartoon drawing! I use mainly Pigma Micron pens and some brush pens that I randomly buy from JetPens.com because they look cool. Once I’m done, I erase the pencils underneath the inks and then scan everything in Photoshop and join all the pages together into one long and skinny file that you’re used to seeing. Next is the boring part – I clean up and erase all the dirt on the page, fix any little imperfections I don’t like and fill in all the big black areas. The image below is the cleaned up and polished final ink drawing in Photoshop.
STEP 8: Lettering
Completion time: 1-2 hours
I save a lo-res version of the comic and import it into Adobe InDesign to do the lettering. Some people use Photoshop or Illustrator or do their own lettering by hand. I use InDesign because I used it everyday at my old graphic design job and know it really well. Lettering and typography is a whole discipline in itself and requires multiple posts to be written about it. I’ll explore it in depth when I write that cartooning ebook I keep telling myself I’m going to write one day. Once the lettering is done I export it back into Photoshop and slap it on the comic file.
STEP 8: Colours
Completion time: Approx 2 days
To be honest, colouring is probably my least favourite part of the process. It is essential though, because it really brings the story to life. The colours in this comic are pretty straightforward – the main thing I was going for was using the orange exterior of the medical centre and contrasting that with the blue interior. It just makes it easier for the reader to subconsciously know the man is outside again at the end of the comic.
So that’s a quick recap of THE PROCESS. You can read the final comic with the quote here. There’s no magic involved, just a slow adding-on process like a sculptor adding more and more clay to a wireframe. I hope you’ve gotten something out of it, even if you’re not an aspiring cartoonist. I know when I was a kid, I used to love seeing the process of my favourite comic book artists. My process is not perfect – I spend a lot of time scanning and printing. I’m thinking of trying to use a Wacom Cintiq tablet and doing most of the comic digitally in the future. It will probably save me some time. I’ll try to be a really good boy from now until the end of the year and maybe Santa Claus will buy me a Cintiq for Christmas.
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments so that I can address them in the next Behind-the-Scenes post or in a future how-to ebook.
Adiós from Peru!