Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Drawing my Math Webcomic

Almost three years ago, I wrote a post I called "Drawing for a Webcomic". Back then, what I was really doing was illustrating a serial. Now, it's a legit comic. So I thought I would update the post, in part because I feel like I'm terribly inefficient. Let me know if you agree.
I'd ask Koch, but he only speaks in riddles.

STEP ONE: The script

I write the script in TextEdit on my Mac. Usually about four comics worth at once (roughly a mini-arc), which tides me through a month (I publish every Monday). That said, episode titles and mouse rollover comments tend to be put in the week I thumbnail, unless a really good idea strikes me sooner. The script is also extremely flexible, as you'll see.

STEP TWO: Refining the mental image

This step involves thumbnails, effectively a tiny version of the finished page. I learned about the technique at Anime North 2015, and it makes lots of sense. My thumbnails are set up in columns, even though my final panels are a 2x2 square, in part because I hadn't decided on that format when I started, and in part because I find it easier to fit 8 on a page this way.

You can see strip #22's thumbnail pictured on the right. After drawing it out, I realized I'd put Expona on the wrong end of the bar - she'd be looking off the page in Panel 4, hence my arrows and remark "look left" (to have her face the prior panel). This is where I try to vary the character sizes between close ups and long shots.

STEP THREE: Refining the actual image

I jot down the script (more or less), then fit in word balloons before sketching. This step usually takes a couple of passes, one for the overall setting/character location and one for the detail. Sometimes I will do that on a panel-by-panel basis. Here, still with strip #22, I made two overall passes so you can see the difference.
First pass - words and positions

Backgrounds are a pain in the ass. First, because although this step alone takes about two hours (half an hour per panel), it's somewhat mindless work. Unless I have to account for the position of things in the background - that needs thinking! And I cannot simply drop in a prearranged background, because of how my perspectives zoom in and out.

I had no idea how annoying backgrounds would be when I wrote my "Xeno: Paradox Princess" parody, which required objects for the protractor/chakram to hit. I now hope to avoid objects wherever possible. There's also the fact that I will usually need to do a web image search for a frame of reference with a new item, like the exterior of the "Bowditch" here.
Second pass - Faces and detail

Above, you'll see the second pass. I added a shot glass onto the bar, to try and fill the otherwise empty space. The 'Hmm' in Expona's thought bubble (Panel 1) was an addition for the same reason... and while that word will be at the start of the sentence, the lettering itself is a full step later on.


Essentially a third pass, using black ink. Sometimes I catch minor mistakes here, like the fact that I missed drawing Expona's watch in Panel 2. Basically, this step is exactly the same as it was three years ago. There's merely more ink needed.
Third pass - Refinements

You may notice, I don't ink the panel boxes themselves. That's because they're merely guidelines for me when drawing. Ditto for the words, in fact they'll get erased out (see lettering, below). This is the point when I would ACTUALLY scan the thing in. On the same printer I had three years ago, which only my old computer has drivers for.
Pencils erased, scanned in now

STEP FIVE: Panel Template

At this point, I take the scanned image and grab it, panel by panel, dropping it into my panel template file. The "Any Qs" and copyright are already on there. Aside from those, the template is a 2x2 grid, all panels the same size, and it is layered such that I can put the image under the lines. I grab my squares (as square as possible), then shrink the panel layer down to about 300 by 300 pixels (so roughly 25%). The title also gets grabbed. This is the simplest step, but if I drew outside the guidelines, sometimes I'll need to resize and regrab.
Dropped into the template

STEP SIX: Lettering and Cleanup

I'm getting better at judging the spacing for word bubbles. But sometimes I misjudge, or need to rearrange words in a sentence so they don't escape. This time, I decided to have Expona say 'Trigonometry' rather than 'Trig' in the last panel, thus had to pull her word bubble further apart (rather than pushing it closer together). The text is inserted line by line (line breaks are never positioned properly).

The font I decided on back in August was Candara, size 18. Why? Well, it's free. Also, it has a boldface option that's basically the same size as regular text. (When everything is in all caps, you need boldfacing to imply capitals. With this font, I can simply type over an old word with a boldface version.) It doesn't do "Crossbar I's" though, so I have to adjust those manually.

If you don't know what those are, have a look at Expona's last dialogue bubble: "I MEANT IS THERE..." The first 'I' is on it's own, and thus needs top/bottom bars, whereas the 'I' in 'IS' is merely a stick. Incidentally, the 'LISSA' tag in Panel 3 is a different font, Optima. I don't recall why I decided to change it for character intros.

Once the words are in (and script readjusted), with their bubbles being digitally fixed, I tidy up any other pencil markings I see; areas where I extended a line too long, etc. Then I flatten the whole thing (removing layers), resave it as a PNG, and get ready for the next step.

STEP SEVEN: Colouring

I do this the same way I did three years ago as well - basically reach into the prior file, grab the last image of the character, put it (temporarily) on a new layer, grab the colours with the eyedrop tool, and use them on the new strip. If there's objects being introduced (like the Bowditch here) I mix colours up a bit and see how they work out. The pinkish (on the sign and the stool) was to coordinate with Lissa's hair.
You can read this comic in context too

Sometimes final touch-ups are needed. For instance, I noticed that the shelves looked a bit like sequential bars stretching backwards, so cut and pasted a new line for more dimensionality.


I now transfer everything to my current computer. I have the "Next/Previous Page" table in a file that I can cut and paste into the HTML (exactly like my time travel serial). The comic script can then be pasted underneath that, though sometimes I'll simply retype it. The mouse rollover comment is added through the HTML. After the post has gone live, I can finally add it to the table of contents.

And that's it! The whole process likely takes between 4 and 5 hours, but it's rarely done continuously; I take breaks before the image is inked, then sometimes after scanning and/or before colouring. Three years ago, it apparently took less time, but I was doing less of it.

Now, is that process terribly inefficient? Is it even worth it? I suppose that's for you to answer. Let me know below. Thanks for reading!


  1. Wow. I never gave any thought to how you drew these. If you'd asked me, I'd have said you sketched them and somehow took pictures. Great description.

    1. Thanks! I'm impressed by your faith in my ability to letter by hand. Oddly enough, it never even occurred to me to take pictures as I went, each step above was scanned in separately along the way.