Panel Discussion

My stars seem to have been in optimal alignment while I was working on my contributions to UAB Public Health magazine last summer.
Not only did my cover drawing (already discussed in an earlier blog entry) win an Award of Excellence from District III of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, but "Neighborhood Secrets," an AIDS-related comic strip I wrote and drew for the same issue (Fall 2006) of the magazine, won CASE III’s Grand Award for Illustration.
If you find the reproduction of the strip above hard to make out (and unless you’re equipped with super-vision I’ll just bet you do!), you can download a PDF version of the magazine and view it at a comfortable reading size. Meanwhile, I’ll indulge in a little shop talk about the steps typically involved in drawing a comic strip like this one.

I’ll use the strip’s closing panel as an example since, while working on it last June, I saved all the stages of its development with this kind of demo in mind.


As a rule, I need to know three things when I begin working on a new comic strip panel: (a) What’s the picture going to show? (b) What words will accompany that picture? and (c) How am I going to fit picture and words together to make a balanced composition?

This particular panel revolves around a mom who is nursing a newborn while conversing with a "Narration Block Lady." With neither a baby nor a lactating mother handy to use as live models, I went searching on the Internet for photo reference material. Google Images provided me with the cozy image you see below.

I downloaded the photo, printed it onto paper, then traced it loosely onto acetate for use as a rough sketch, substituting my fictional character’s face for the real-world one along the way. It was immediately apparent that the image would work best in my composition if I "flipped" it left-to-right once it was scanned.

I placed the resulting mother-and-baby sketch into an Adobe Illustrator file containing text that I had typed out earlier. Illustrator is a great application to use when experimenting with various text-and-picture relationships because of the ease with which you can nudge blocks of words this way and that, changing their line-breaks and tweaking their phrases as needed.

Back when I first began using this system for building compositions I determined through trial and error that if I typed using a plain Helvetica font stretched to 115% of its native width, the resulting stacks of words would approximate the overall spacing of my typical hand-lettering. So typing my narration in advance makes it easy to see how assorted arrangements of words will work visually in combination with whatever picture they need to share panel space with.

Once I have arrived at blocks of typed text that look good to me, I will trace them by hand so that the end result has the warm imperfections that come with hand-crafting.


Turning back now to "Neighborhood Secrets": with my panel composition loosely planned, it was time to send the magazine’s editors a rough version of the art I would later draw carefully.

The first version of the panel (above left) was casually lettered and sketched using felt markers rather than "serious" drawing tools. After scanning this roughly rendered version I digitally added grayscale tones to suggest the color that would be added eventually. There was no need to commit myself to a final color scheme at this point. First I wanted to be sure the editors thought my approach was a good one.

So with the strips preceding panels indicated in a similarly loose manner, I emailed my rough version of the strip to the magazine for approval. The editors liked what they saw and gave me a thumbs-up to proceed with the finished art that the magazine’s readers would ultimately see.

The first step in this final stage of drawing was tracing an enlarged printout of my rough in pencil onto 2-ply bristol board. Then I started inking.

The middle drawing above is my "completed", or fully inked, artwork. I put the word completed in quotes because of the large, obviously empty areas that clearly need to be black but that I didn’t bother filling in by hand (like the mother’s hair, f’rinstance). In olden-days (before the arrival of digital graphics software) a lot of time would have been spent filling those areas with India ink. But that’s a variety of mindless labor that can now be turned over to computers, as long as you don’t mind giving up the pleasure of physical artwork that looks the same as its printed counterpart. Once scanned, I knew I would be able to fill such areas with perfect fields of solid black in the blink of an eye. Photoshop’s wand tool stood ready for action.


I color my present-day comics slightly differently than I colored the illustration used several years ago as a case history in my demo called "How I Color My Comics Using Adobe Photoshop." (For those who are interested, there are several such technical demos residing in the Cartoonists Corner of my main web site.)

The digital coloring method described in that demo is still the one I use for most color illustrations. I’ve modified my procedure, though, when it comes to coloring comics. Comics have special needs. The readability of small hand lettering calls for an extra level of crispness, and pagefuls of black outlines look best when they pop off the paper in a very distinct way, setting off the surrounding color without getting mired in it. At least, that’s how I feel about the comics that I draw!

With those concerns in mind, here’s how I go about coloring a comics-style feature like "Neighborhood Secrets." First comes the B&W line art I’ve discussed above, which is first inked on paper and then scanned and refined in Photoshop. Before color enters the picture I set aside one copy of the art for later use, saving it in Bitmap (line art) mode at a nice, sharp resolution of 600dpi (dots per inch).

I then save an identical copy of that same image file, the copy I’ll be using for the strip’s color. I convert the file from Bitmap to Grayscale to CMYK mode. (For whatever reason, you can’t convert a file directly from Bitmap mode to CMYK.) CMYK is the mode that’s keyed to the primary-colored inks used most frequently along with black ink when printing presses start rolling. (The color you’re seeing on your computer screen right now is RGB color—a whole different ball game. But that’s a topic for another time.)

This CMYK file can be safely sampled down to 300dpi without a noticeable loss of quality. Colors don’t require the level of sharpness that B&W line work does.

In most ways I will color a comic strip like "Neighborhood Secrets" in the same layered manner I describe in the aforementioned Cartoonists Corner tutorial, so I won’t repeat all that here. But there’s one major difference. Once I’ve finished my coloring I won’t flatten my CMYK file until I’ve deleted the layer containing my original drawn outlines.

Why was the outline layer there in the first place if I was going to trash it in the end? Well, it’s been needed until now to serve as a guide for the application of color on layers below it. But with my coloring now complete, such a guide is superfluous. In fact, it’s objectionable! In this file I want color and nothing but color. The strip’s crucial black outlines (and the lettering in my word balloons) will be supplied by the B&W version I saved earlier.


Here comes the final step. In Adobe Illustrator I will stack my 600dpi B&W image on top of my 300dpi color image and save a copy of the result as an EPS file. The black outlines will stay as crisp as one could ask and the colors will stay purer. I won’t be dogged by the darkened, smudgy look that comes with imperfect color-registration once the art goes to press.

This is what is so terrific about the EPS format. You can preserve the two different resolutions and modes in a single file that’s easily imported into most layouts programs. By contrast, the color in JPEGs or TIFF files gets mashed together with the black outlines. You don’t have the option of retaining a sharp 600dpi resolution in a drawing’s outlines if the color in the drawing is saved at 300dpi. Every black line in a TIFF file will always have some red, white, and blue ink in it. If the colored inks aren’t applied to paper by the printing press in precisely the position that they’re supposed to be, color will peek out from the black lines’ edges, making them appear slightly blurred. This happened with some comics of mine that were published in Heavy Metal years ago, and with some episodes of Count Fangor in Fangoria as well. I hate when that happens! I’m for crispness in art as well as in breakfast cereal.


Take a deep breath and prepare for picky details, children. Instead of using SELECT>SIMILAR to isolate all the black pixels on my outlines layer so I can hit SELECT>INVERSE and delete any pixels that aren’t black (as described here), I now activate the "NON-CONTIGUOUS" button in my Options Bar before selecting a random black area. This produces the same effect that a SELECT>SIMILAR command did in older versions of Photoshop; that is, every black pixel in that area will be selected with one click of the mouse. But in Photoshop CS2, non-contiguousness rules in this circumstance.

Got that?

Actually, the old SIMILAR command continues to occupy a slot in Photoshop CS2’s SELECT menu, but for some reason it no longer does what it used to do. At least, not on my iMac.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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