How I Draw a Comic Strip

by Ted Slampyak on August 20, 2010

in Illustration

(This is an "encore presentation" of one of my most popular posts, which after a couple of years and a couple of server changes is no longer with us. Nor, sadly, is Annie, but the article refers to that strip in the present tense.) Welcome to my summary of putting together a comic strip. Or at least, my way of putting together a comic strip. This isn’t going to be “how to draw” (I’m sure I’ll cover something along those lines before too long) so much as it is “how to set up to draw.” Everyone needs a system for putting together a comic strip. Drawing comics is as much a job as it is a calling — and on days when you don’t really hear that calling, it’s still a job. And for most cartoonists, it’s not a very good paying job. So it’s essential that you have a system in place, a streamlined and standardized way of going about the task. I draw seven strips for Annie a week — six dailies plus the color Sunday strip — and I need to get that work done quickly and get it out the door by deadline, and still leave time for other freelance work, my webcomic Jazz Age (I’m on hiatus right now, but it’s usually a full-color strip written and drawn every week) and, if I’m lucky, my family. I don’t want to waste any time here. I need to get the boring stuff out of the way, to give me the most time actually drawing, and get it all done fast. The system I show won’t work for everyone. It may not even work for anyone, except that it works for me. Other comics artists use other systems — maybe some of them will comment here on theirs — but this is the one that has evolved for me. Even if none of this is applicable to you, young apprentice, I hope you at least come away with an appreciation for the need for a system. The process begins with the script, which is written by Jay Maeder and gets to me from my editor, Tracy Clark. the script tells me who’s doing what, who says what and what is being shown in each panel. Since we’ve worked together for some time now — just over three years — Jay and I have a pretty good understanding of what each other wants and expects, so his scripts are not very detailed. He trusts me to know the right angles to show things in, and to make the new characters interesting and appropriate.

After reading through the script, I go to my layout worksheet. This is a worksheet I made up that gives me little boxes, scaled-down versions of the individual strips, and lets me sketch out the six dailies on one page. These layouts are loose and sketchy — since I’m the only one who needs to refer to them and since I’ll be drawing the final art in a day or so, I don’t need to go into much detail — I’ll remember what I had in mind. The most important aspect of the layouts is to show roughly where all the important elements are. The next step surprises some people. I do the final lettering. Years ago I made the best investment of a couple hundred hours I could ever have made — I created a digital version of my own hand lettering, in Fontographer. And I made alternative versions of most of the letters, which you can access by hitting OPTION with the letter, so double letters don’t look quite so obvious. I also made up a library of word balloons in Quark — which I’ve since transferred to InDesign — that I can put the lettering into, and which are resizable and adaptable to any need. Using the layouts as a guide, and an InDesign template that has the strip dimensions preformatted, I create the panel sizes and add the lettering balloons, copying and pasting the dialogue directly from the script emailed to me by Tracy.

Why do I do the lettering first? After years of frustration with trying to make lettering balloons fit a tight space because I underestimated it when I drew the panel, or having to cover up some really nice background art I drew with a balloon, I realized that the artwork was more adaptable than the lettering. It’s easier, in other words, to make a figure, or a face, a little bigger or smaller in the panel to fit the space after the balloons are put in than to make the balloon bigger or smaller to fit the space after the artwork is put in. A figure, or a face, can be partially cut off and still work — words are rarely that flexible.

Once the lettering and layouts are completed, I print them out on good card stock. I used to pay a small fortune to buy Bristol board pads, cut them down to size and throw away the extras — they never did learn to make those pads 11 x 17″ — and then start doing the lettering by hand. Now, I can buy 11 x 17″ card stock and print out the lettering, all ready to go, for a lot less! Even before I got my large printer, and had to email the InDesign files to a printer to output onto the card stock, it was still cheaper than buying the Bristol board. And it works just as well for drawing on. Nearly. It’s not quite as thick, so it can warp if you lean and sweat on it too much. Oh well — everything’s a trade-off. So now, with the lettering and panel borders printed on the card stock — I put two dailies on one 11 x 17″ sheet, or half of a Sunday strip — I’m ready to get down and draw. Which, as I mentioned, I’ll have to cover another time.

With the line art all done, I scan the artwork. Until I invest in an 11 x 17″ scanner, I have to make two scans of each page and splice them together. Then I clean up the scans, and send the strips to the editor for approval. Ta-daah!

For the Sunday strips, after I scan the artwork, I create a color guide for the print house, which they use to put together the final color files for the newspapers. That’ll also be another post. So there you have it. My system. My regular process for breaking down a very large job into bite-size pieces and taking care of them in order. Like I said, it may not work for others, but it works for me. Every week. Now I feel tired.

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