Constructing a comic-book cover in the Comic Draw app

14 November 2018

Buffalo Bill Amos Rides Again!
At first it was an app on my computer that I simply never used.

A few years ago I was contacted on my Twitter account by a company called Plasq. At that time I was using a cartoon-page construction product of theirs called Comic Life for a number of my published artworks and I had recommended the software to my followers online.

I’d first come across the Comic Life software when it was bundled on a Mac computer that I’d bought ages ago, but at first it was an app on my computer that I simply never used. It was a programme that seemed to be aimed at children who could use it to upload photos and add speech balloons to make the kind of comic-book stories that are often referred to as fumetti. It was never a comic-book form that interested me and I thought the software would be of no use as far as my cartooning work was concerned.

In those days I was producing a number of weekly cartoon strips for magazines and newspapers and I had my production process pretty much buttoned down. I used to start the process of a comic strip by laying out the boxes in a word-processing package. I had a number of pre-built templates that I worked from depending on which strip I was working on at any time. In the same word-processing package I then added the words for the word balloons to each of the panels and then printed the page out onto art paper that I could then draw the cartoons onto.

It seems a clunky way of doing things now, but adding the drawings and word balloons to the already ruled out and lettered pages saved me loads of time compared to my previous method of drawing each page of panels from scratch and hand-lettering each word balloon.

Obviously I could have done all those things and more in Illustrator or Photoshop, but the complexity of using those programmes, for me at least, was something I simply found too daunting. I knew plenty of people who used Photoshop all the time, but by and large they were people who used it as part of their job and I really did think even the basics would be a steep learning curve for me and I didn’t have the time to do that - my weekly commitments to the five or six strips I had to produce was quite enough for me to do on top of the day job.

The picture here is one of the comics I produced at that time for a Financial Times Business magazine called Pensions Week. That weekly series ran for five years in all and quite apart from thinking up the subject matter each week for the strip I had to put aside enough time to physically draw it which took around five or six hours from start to finish.

The word-processing package allowed me to use all the different fonts I needed to make the work look more interesting (in this case some fonts I’d bought from a company called Comicraft) and gave me all the flexibility I thought I’d ever need (although every now and then the magazine editor would ask me to change a word balloon or two and that was a bit of a nightmare as I had to print out the revised text, cut it out with scissors and paste it onto the original artwork and, often, re-draw the word balloon around the text and then re-scan the whole thing and re-send it to the printers).

All in all though I thought I was pretty much using technology back then about as efficiently as someone with my limited experience could hope to do. And anyway, like I said I didn’t really have time to think about things that much, I was producing six weekly strips; Planet Stakeholder; Pension Conversations; Penpushers’ Progress; and the Money Management pocket cartoon (all for FT Business); as well as my Stakeholder Society strip for the Independent on Sunday and my Captain Romford strip for the Romford Recorder. That kept me pretty busy.

I don’t know when I first saw it, but I read an article online about the Plasq Comic Life software. The article was written by a cartoonist who said he liked to use it for his cartoon strips because it came with a number of pre-installed page layouts and a superb word balloon feature that allowed you to edit balloons and move them around and re-shape them, clip them into panels or let them run outside panels or whatever. In fact he was sort of raving about how easy Comic Life was word-balloon-wise when compared to Photoshop.

He also said something that simply had never occurred to me even though I’d been familiar with Comic Life for some time. He said that even though the software seemed aimed at helping kids put together cartoon strips based on photographs there was no reason why comic-book artists shouldn’t import their drawings into the panels and then add their word balloons on as another layer - something he described as child’s play.

To tell you the truth, that article hit me like a rocket. I wondered why I’d never thought of that. I also wondered why Plasq didn’t market the software as that too, but most of all I wondered how I might use Comic Life and change my entire cartoon-strip production method.

The strip here is an example of a whole page of comic-book work that I put together entirely in the Comic Life software. The strip was for the Citywire magazine and also ran on the Citywire website and was called Finance Fiction. It featured PensionsGuru and Mrs Guru as well as my characters Neville Rebel and Emma Leaven.

I drew all of the characters and backgrounds separately, colouring them digitally with a programme called Colorize) and combined the artwork in layers in the software. All of the cutting out and layering was done in Comic Life. It was a bit fiddly to do, but with practice I got quite efficient at it. The word balloons and lettering really were a massive step forward for me though. I felt that I was able to put comic pages together just as someone might on Photoshop, but without all the complexity that came with that. The software really was intuitive to use.

It was writing something like that on Twitter that resulted in Plasq getting in touch with me and asking me if I was interested in getting involved as a beta-tester for a new piece of software they were developing that was to be called Comic Draw. I jumped at the chance, not least because it gave me a cast-iron excuse for buying the then new iPad Pro and an Apple iPencil, both of which would be necessary to take part in the beta-test.

I have to say at this point that working with Comic Draw has been one of the pleasures of my life. I went almost overnight from being a traditional pen and paper cartoonist to being a digital cartoonist; something I thought was totally beyond my capabilities.

Drawing with the iPencil on the glass surface of the iPad Pro was something that took a bit of getting used to, but these days two years later on I hardly ever draw with pencil, pens and paper any more. Everything I draw for publication now is drawn on my iPad Pro and within the Comic Draw software.

To give you a flavour of how Comic Draw works I thought it might be useful if I went through the processes that I used to put together the front cover of my Buffalo Bill Amos Rides Again! comic book. The cover that is shown at the start of this blog.

All of the characters in the picture were drawn separately in the app. Firstly as pencil sketches, then as inked artwork and then as flat-coloured art. There’s an example here of that three-stage process with my character El Swains:

The finished artwork for the other characters, Buffalo Bill Amos, Shotgun Shorten and the Frinto Kid are shown here:

Having sketched, inked and coloured each character separately the Comic Draw app then lets you save each one as a separate file and with a transparent background. Something that is really simple to do and that is done automatically for you by the software with no need to cut around the drawings or anything like that.

What you end up with, or so it seems to me, are drawings that are a bit like the stickers that children stick into their sticker books except that you can move them around each on its own layer, resizing them as you wish and make up complex compositions with them. You can also move the layers forwards or backwards and thus move a character in front of or behind another. It really does give you the ability to try out different ideas and designs with multi-character compositions. I absolutely love to be able to do this and I will often try out ten or more versions of a crowd scene until I get the feel for what I want just right.

But it’s not just the foreground characters you can do this with, it’s all the background and scenery elements too. Here’s the basic sketch of the townscape in this picture (you can see the pencilling layer has not yet been turned off):

This next picture shows the flat foreground colour that I added to the buildings and street. I did this by putting a new layer on top of the inked work and tracing the outline of the underlying drawing with a fine pen tool with ink selected in the flat colour I’d decided to use. Having blocked that out and filled it with the colour I then moved the blocked-colour layer behind the inked layer and got this:

I was then looking to add a dramatic sky as a backdrop. To do that I experimented with the watercolour brushes in the app and played around with the merging parameters and watery effects and whatever just to see what outcomes I could get. I think this was the first time I’d tried anything other than flat colour work and the first time I’d even used the brushes rather than the pen and pencil tools. Really just an experiment and, interestingly, one that I didn’t feel under any pressure with as I was doing it as a completely separate file. The resulting image that I decided to go with was this:

It had the ‘feel’ I wanted and that I remember from the cowboy comics I used to read when I was young. In those days the comics were not coloured in the modern style, but used flat colours, black shadows and watercolour backgrounds, particularly for western skyscapes - a style I still admire and that has influenced my own cartooning style I guess.

For me, being able to produce this kind of background effect from within the Comic Draw app using only an iPencil and the iPad Pro seemed quite miraculous. Not that it could be done, there’s nothing really that special or different about that these days, but that I could do it and do it so easily.

And that’s the point really. If I can do this with no special training and through nothing other than trial and error, I would say anybody can.

Combining the townscape picture with the sky as a background layer gave me the basic structure of the design:

From here on was the fun bit where I simply added the four main characters, Buffalo Bill Amos, El Swains, Shotgun Shorten and the Frinto Kid to the foreground, each on their own separate layer and positioned in the most dramatic way I could get them.

Following that all that was left to be done was to add in the lettering layer and the publisher’s logo and then make a duplicate of the file. The reason for duplicating is one of choice for me. I like to keep one file with all of the layers intact in case I need to come back later and make any changes to a page. The other copy I then merge all of the layers to get just one layer with everything on it (with the exception of the lettering layer which remains separate).

Once I have everything on one layer I then add the details like highlights and a little shading here and there. I also, in this picture, added the gunfire flash from El Swains’ gun and the smoke from Buffalo Bill and Shotgun Shorten’s guns. This is just the way I’ve chosen to work I guess, but it’s a way that suits me and I feel I’m still in control of everything.

That’s more or less it I suppose and the finished page came out pretty well I think. I’m pleased with it anyway…


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