How to Make a Webcomic: Layout & Design
I drew the first two issues of Lovecraft is Missing on paper, but have now switched to all digital. Why? Speed. It is hard enough to keep up a regular schedule without adding steps that don’t add to the comic. Scanning in pages eats up a couple of hours that are better spent on the story and art.
Photoshop and a 9 x 12 Wacom tablet are my primary tools for drawing and coloring, though I now have a Modbook which lets me work on the go. ‘m also now using Flash to ink. I have a Master Page template set up in my LIM folder that saves me a few minutes on each page, and those minutes do add up.
The Master page is 11 x 17 inches, at 300 dpi, and, as you can see from the layers palette, has a number of layers. The bottom one is simply a scanned sheet of comic book blue-lined paper, for registration. I put a white layer over that for reasons that have more to do with color than anything else, so I’ll talk more about that when I get to color.
I also have multiple panel layout layers ready to go. I use the 9 panel page a lot, but I use some four panel strips, and some larger panels. All the sizes I use most are on layers, so I can knock together the layout of a page really fast. Sure, it’s not that difficult to make new panels, and when I need to, I do, but I am telling you, every second saved can go into the important stuff rather than the prep. (See the gallery at the end of this post for all the variations I mention that aren’t shown alongside the text.)
I also have a layer of a variety of balloon shapes. I can mix them, match them, overlap them, resize them quickly and easily. The only design aspect of balloons I care about is how the sit in the panel. Other than that, I don’t care if they are all basically the same shape.
Next, I lay out the panels, the number per page as well as what goes in them. The fewer panels, the more variety of sizes you can have, but you have to take into consideration what is going to be in those panels. Big. empty panels always look to me like the creators don’t have enough story to tell.
And how do you decide what to put in the panels, and which to emphasize? Well, that’s the art part and is totally up to you, but whenever I get stuck, I have one question I ask myself : what do I want and need the reader to see at this moment?
Simple. Difficult. If you can’t answer it, you don’t know your story well enough.
The panel layout is also an integral part of your story. Some people have found my panel layouts a bit on the unexciting side. However true that may be, it is done with intent: my story is set in the 1920s, and the period is a really important part of the story, of the mood, and of the pacing. You can’t just stick an old car in the frame and evoke anything other than a genric period.
Snazzy modern ways of laying out comic pages would detract from the feel I’m going for. The 9 panel page lays down a kind of steady drumbeat that makes deviations from it a bit more expressive.
Think about your own story this way. For instance, a hip modern story and character could be played out in hip modern styling OR you could tell that same story and use the LIM way of doing things. Each would affect your story in different ways, even if everything else was the same. The reverse, a period piece with modern layouts, would also have a different feel, and so would the million variables in between.
Since I’ve been writing the script, I already have a pretty good idea of how many panels I have, which ones to emphasize, etc. I am always willing to change if a better idea comes along, and I do that all the way up to posting, but basically I first do a real rough version of what I have in mind. Really, it’s a scribble that has no meaning to anyone other than me, kind of like my first draft outline.
I adjust my panel size as necessary, delete any layers I am not using, then–very important–I use Save As to set up a separate file. No time is saved if you have to go back and constantly recreate your Master Page.
I use Lafayette Comic Pro as a font, and I lay in my dialogue and captions at this point, so I can see where I will have to adjust the picture. If a panel is too wordy, I may move a sentence, or rewrite it more concisely, but by the time I am done, I have the dialogue and balloons in a little folder in the Layers panel. Once I have the little roughs arranged, I turn the dialogue folder off so I won’t be distracted.
Step number next is to refine the rough a little more, but I still don’t get into much detail. If I were sending it on to an inker I would draw it out more, but since most of us are lucky if we just have enough time to do it ourselves, I rely on the inking stage for details.
Inking is one of those areas where I want to spend all that extra time I’ve saved. I have a shaky hand and I try to use it to my advantage, but some things just don’t look good that way. By saving each rough image as a jpg file and importing them into Flash, I can use the brush tool to get a richer line weight, plus there is the wonderful Optimize menu selection which lets you smooth out your drawings for a sharper, crisper look. I usually set the slider to 25, then export the image as a jpeg file.
When I open the images in Photoshop, I copy and paste them on the page, adjust them to my roughs and I’m pretty much done.
I take all roughs and any reference I’ve put in the file, drop in a folder marked ‘outs’ and turn it off. You never know when you’re going to need those pieces again, so don’t delete them just yet.
I collapse all the final art down into a layer named, what else, ‘finals’ BUT I keep the panel layer separate for now. For one thing, it’s easier to clean up any little line nubs that overlap the panel frame without messing up the frame itself. Plus, some things may still change.
My last step is to add a layer for base color. I don’t always use it, but it helps me visualize the page if I can see the art through a particular color. But that’s another topic.
Have a good weekend.