Why the Comics Take So Long

I’ve got a webcomic. Lately I’ve been averaging one comics page a week, if that. That’s because creating each page is like dragging myself uphill.

Longer stories–like the one I’ve got going now–start with a pile of scribbled notes from three or four different sketchbooks, which may or may not originally have had anything to do with each other. Eventually I seek them out–or at least the ones I remember–and piece them together chronologically.

This is why I usually have no idea where a story is going until I’m halfway through. (Further details, and illustrations, past the link.)

I write the dialogue bits, connecting them any way I can manage, in a sort of script. On the same sketchbook page are thumbnails in which I work out the number and size of the panels, but not what the drawings are going to look like. The hardest part is making sure that each page is a unit in itself: one story beat, one chunk of dialogue that begins in a seemingly natural place and ends somewhere satisfying.

Once I’ve worked out what a page is going to contain I start drawing it for the first time. Some cartoonists work out their drawings in the thumbnails; I work them out in a full-size rough drawn on legal-size copier paper. I’m inept enough to need all the help I can get.

The rough version of page 14.

You’ll notice that some of this is very tight, some is very loose, some is in blue pencil, and some in graphite. The thing is: I’m actually not very good at drawing. I start in blue pencil so that I can do a second drawing in graphite if I need the extra help. You can tell how much trouble I had with each panel by the number of layers I drew.

The last two panels are sketchier. In the first case, it’s because I was going to use a flipped version of panel four for the final drawing; in the second, it’s because it would be simple enough to pull off without much preparation. (So was panel one, really. I don’t know why I drew it so tight.)

When I’ve finished the rough I take a 8.5 by 14 inch piece of bristol and head for the lightbox. Getting a lightbox made a huge difference in my work; previously I’d screwed around with tracing paper sometimes, but now preparatory drawings were easy. I can trace them cleanly onto the finished page, not overworking on the bristol, while fixing problems as I go and retaining some of the freshness of the original drawing.

The first step is just to place the lettering and panel borders. I ink them before I do any drawing at all:

Page 14 with blank panels.

As you can see, I’ve already screwed up two of the balloons.

At this point I put the final page on the lightbox, the rough underneath, and start the final pencilling. The lightbox makes it easier to fix the badly-composed and misplaced bits from the rough. In panel three I’ve moved Bob and the rabbit further up the frame. I’ve been mostly using blue pencil for this, although you can see where I did some further drawing in graphite in panel four. I try to keep this to a minimum since I don’t like to erase.

The pencils for page 14.

Things are looking pretty good. Enjoy it while you can, because now comes the step where I screw everything up: inking.

I have never mastered inking. I’ve tried brushes, I’ve tried pens. Nothing looks right. I’m terrible at placing blacks and tend not to use a lot of shadows, although I tried some here. My original pages are devoid of focal points; you don’t know where to look next. I hide the problem with color, but I’d like to get back to black-and-white someday, if only because the resulting file sizes are huge.

Almost the final page.

My inked pages are usually full of screw-ups. This one came out better than usual, so the next step–scanning and correcting errors on the computer–didn’t take as long. In the past I scanned things every which way and my files are a mess. These days I scan at 600 dpi and keep a clean black and white copy; if I ever need to prepare a page for print I’ll resize to 1200 dpi, then convert to a bitmap.

The last step is adding color for the screen. Lately I’ve been trying to use colors that would look roughly the same in CMYK mode, again in case I ever need to print these.

The final page.

By this point I have drawn each panel at least twice, and maybe three or even four times. I am thoroughly sick of each page by the time I am halfway through. And that’s why it’s taking me so long… although when you consider that a single page represents two or three pages worth of drawing, maybe I’m not doing too badly.

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