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Matthew Dow Smith shares switch to digital for ‘October Girl’ #3

by  in Comic News Comment
Matthew Dow Smith shares switch to digital for ‘October Girl’ #3

This week marks the release of Matthew Dow Smith‘s October Girl #3, nearly two and half years after the debut of the second issue of the Monkeybrain Comics series. Smith is the first to admit that’s way too long a period between issues.

As part of my continuing effort to have creators open up about their creative process, I asked Smith to share the process for creating a page from October Girl #3. He’s clearly eager to get the next installment of his dark fantasy series into readers’ hands. Understandably, given that the story’s core concept seems delightfully engaging on several levels (a young woman, Autumn Ackerman, discovers that her imaginary childhood friend is quite real).

This is an odd issue to use as an example of my process, since in the embarrassingly long time between wrapping up issue 2 and now, I switched from drawing traditionally (with pen and paper) to drawing on the computer. I’d actually done several different versions of this issue – one done entirely traditionally that I wasn’t happy with, another done on the computer that I was even less happy with, and a second attempt at doing it with pen & paper – before ending up with the final version, which combines bits & pieces of the previous versions into the first six pages, and then switches over to purely digital for the last four.

Yeah … I had some issues to work out on this one, but luckily I managed to come up with a process on the final four pages that allowed me to not only wrap up issue 3, but also to finish Issue 4 and get Issue 5 going, which I’m wrapping up as we speak.

So here’s a step-by-step look at my process for creating Page 7 of October Girl #3, the first purely digital page from the issue, and the same process I’ve adopted for the rest of the series –

Before I start an issue, I break it down in my notebook, making a square for each page and writing a brief description of what happens on it. This is really the only script I ever write for an issue. I’ve been developing this idea so long that I know the story like the back of my hand and really only need to work out some basic mechanics to make sure everything will fit. And even then, you’ll notice things can change pretty radically by the time I start in on the pages. In my ‘script’, I have what ended up as Page 7 marked to be Page 8, but I shifted some things around in the final version for an extra character moment I wanted in this chapter that became Page 8.

Next, I’ll do a quick layout in Manga Studio, using a page template I created especially for this project. It’s already set up with layers for each step I need to create the page so I can just click on the layer I need and start working. The layout layer is set to ‘blue’ and I go in with a thick brush to work out the basic shapes and flow of the page.

As soon as I’ve got that done, I go in and letter it. When I was drawing with pen and paper, I’d usually write the dialogue in the margins during the layout stage. More often than not, I already have the dialogue in my head before I start the page, but I’ll adjust it or expand it depending on the flow of the panels and how it all comes together on the page. Now that I work digitally, I can just go in and write the dialogue in the word balloons themselves while I’m working out the page. I letter everything in Manga Studio with Comicraft’s Hedge Backwards, which is a personal favorite of mine.

Since I’m working digitally, I don’t see any need to do a pass that looks like traditional pencils, but I do go back in with a thick pen and work out the basic lines I want to use for the final page. Again, I do this in blue. They’re really more like a digital rough version of the inks than actual pencils.

Once the rough is finished, I go in and do the final linework. One of my biggest hangups in the transition from analog to digital was trying to find a brush that gave me the same line quality I’d had before. On projects like the X-Files, I had a lot of leeway to change up the art style in between story arcs and even issues, but I really wanted the look of October Girl to stay consistent. It’s meant to work as a long visual novel, so the style can’t really change much without jarring the audience out of the flow of the story. It took more experimenting than it probably should have, but in the end I settled on a customized version of my friend Ray Frenden’s ‘The Natural’, one of the many digital brushes he’s created to use for Manga Studio. I spent weeks tweaking the settings on the brush to get it to look the same as one of the old Microns I inked with, only to have him release a new brush a little while later that’s already set up to look like that – his Mycron series. And the Mycron works even better than what I came up with. So, yeah… I use the Mycron now.

I work out most of the shadows in the digital rough stage, but that doesn’t stop me from adding a few more in the inking stage, as you can see. One of the benefits of working digitally is that it’s very easy to go in a add or subtract shadows after a page is ‘done’, something that was a lot more difficult when all you had to work with was whiteout or masking.

And finally, I add the “blue layer.” When I was still drawing on boards, I would scan the art in and do this simple color treatment to the final page in Photoshop, but now I do it all in Manga Studio on its own layer beneath the black & white linework. When I first started this project, I knew I wanted to have a little bit of color in the artwork to give the images more depth, but since my coloring skills are a little limited, I decided to go with just a simple blue. I essentially treat it like an inbetween shadow layer and keep the shapes simple and graphic, just to help move the eye through the page and add some mood when I feel a page needs it.

So that’s my basic digital workflow on an October Girl page. I wish I could say it came out of months of careful planning and experience, but it just sort of happened. But now that I’ve gotten over my initial uncertainty over the pages, working digitally has really helped me get the series up and running again.