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Making Digital Comics

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Making Digital Comics


Manga Studio 4 Debut (SmithMicro Software, $49.99) is the consumer friendly entry-level comic book creation program for both PC and Mac. It’s built to specifically make comics, but blends in lots of the kinds of general tools you’re used to from other drawing apps. And while some of the limitations of this hobbyist version of the program are frustrating, it is still packed full of features and is well thought out from start to finish. You need to provide your own art skills, though. They can’t help you with everything.

If you’re familiar with Photoshop, you’ll have a jumpstart on Manga Studio 4 Debut. Many of the keyboard shortcuts are the same, and the modular window system will be familiar. There’s even a tool palette that’s laid out similarly to Photoshop or Illustrator. The layers window is laid out the same way, though with its own functionality that’s specific to Manga Studio. Circling through the drawing tools with the ‘P’ [pen] key and adjusting their sizes with ‘[‘ and ‘]’ are huge jumpstarts. If I had to relearn all those commands from scratch, my initial impressions of the program would be a little more frustrated.

The program is laid out specifically to create comics, as its name no doubt clued you in. You’re not just drawing on blank canvases. These files are laid out as comic book projects. Each page includes the blue lines for show the guaranteed print boundaries (the safe areas). The pages are adjustable and you can even adjust the safe areas, too. You can add pages to a project, so that your final comic is one big file containing all 22 pages, or however many you wish to use. You can lay out page numbers as you like, as well as some meta-data.

More importantly, the workflow is tailored to comics creators. There’s a Beginner’s Mode that makes this all the more apparant, but you can walk through the process with steps that take you from first sketches to finished inks, then tones, panel borders, lettering, and more. The panel borders process even has things built in to help organize your layers and eliminate lines from bleeding out. You even get sample page layouts. Tell it how may panels you want in your page, and it’ll give you several examples to pick from, if you need the help. You can always lay them out however you wish. The sample format I’ve seen are nice grid layouts, two or three or four tiers, depending on how many panels you’re looking for. Nothing too splashy or show-offy.

The lettering section offers a series of balloon shapes to pick from, organized by the emotional state of a character. That’s coming from the manga world, and it’s brilliant. There is a lot of repetition across emotions, but there are enough overwhelming differences to make this option attractive. I haven’t played with the mechanics of lettering too much yet, but it’s not vector-based, so it couldn’t possibly live up to Illustrator for industry standard quality. For a webcomic, though, it’ll be fine if done as a large size to begin with.

They’ve thought through to the small things that show comic book fans that SmithMicro understands its audience well. There’s a neat trick to turning all the pencil art into blue line art. It’s stupidly simple: Push the button on the layer and all your light black pencil work becomes a light blue color, so it’ll be easier to ink over. Brilliant.

If nothing else, Manga Studio will give you new respect for inkers. They’re not just tracers. I’ve always known that, but walking a quarter mile in their shoes is enough to give me a headache. Taking out a pencil and loosely sketching something is easy. It’s very forgiving. The looser the line, the easier it is to get away with mistakes. The eye corrects them for you.

The second you lay down a solid black line, though, that forgiveness is gone. Suddenly, your art is whittled down to the essential lines, and every one counts. Every thickness counts for something, and every line can be used to show depth in subtle ways. It’s not easy. Doing it with a brush gives the best results, but they’re harder to handle and learn properly. That problem gets doubled with digital inking, I think. The Wacom tablet I use is pressure-sensitive, which puts it leagues ahead of the iPad, where apps compensate for lack of pressure sensitivity by tracking your speed and adjusting the line accordingly. (See my “Paper” app review earlier this year.) Higher-end tablets include more sensitivity than mine, but there’s enough there for me to be dangerous.

The biggest problem I’ve had so far is in drawing longer lines, particularly circular shapes. This isn’t the fault of Manga Studio. This is a general digital drawing issue. You need to nail that circle in one line and if you’re varying the weight of the line along the way, you have to think in two directions at once. It’s not easy. I can lightly sketch in a circle without a problem, because I used multiple lines. Trying to nail it in one clean line? Not for the feint of heart.

This experience made me dig out a “Bone” collection. I can’t think of a better craftsman with an ink brush than Jeff Smith. Mark Farmer might be close, but he works on a different style of book that’s much busier. Smith’s cartooning exposes everything. As I was inking in Manga Studio, I found myself visualizing Smith’s work and falling painfully far short. Maybe with another 20 years of practice, I can get to the same ballpark. Or neighborhood. OK, at least I can hit the right time zone.

The other problem is with digital art in general. It’s so easy to make all sorts of changes that it’s tough to stop. It’s easy to become a crazed perfectionist when drawing like this. You can take bits of the art and move them around, shrink them or grow them. You can erase stray lines. You can erase the tone separate from the art itself with the proper use of layers. The fun could almost never end, if you didn’t control yourself.

The one bright side is that you don’t need to erase all the initial pencil marks. You just turn off that layer and they disappear. That’s a fun trick to play. When a good colorist turns off all the layers but the colors, it suddenly looks like a painted piece of art. You can see everything, even without the black lines. It’s an awesome trick to play on a finished page. You can color your work now in Manga Studio, starting with version 4, and replicate that trick. For me, it’s equally fun to look at art as just the toning layer(s).

I’ve played in the past with SketchBook Express on the Mac. (My short review is here, from January 2011.) It uses a Skottie Young-drawn splash screen, and works for me as a sketching app. I like the controls and it has enough of the basics to give me what I want to get done. Manga Studio goes much deeper than that, focusing not just on the interface, but also on the process of creating a sequential story, graphicly. But it’s more than just being able to hold dozens of pages in one file to better manage projects.

There’s one neat trick that made me fall in love with the program: Toning. Manga uses a lot of it for all sorts of things, from bursts to speed lines to shading to background drawings. Manga Studio gives you nearly-full control of the shapes used in your tones, as well as their angles and sizes. In short, you can effectively Duo Tone/DuoShade your digital comics quite easily with this program. It gets to be habit-inducing. Like any new technology, I plan on overusing it until it makes me dizzy. I’m loving every minute of it. When I sketch with a pencil, I’ll often use the side of the lead to shade in areas along one side or the other. You can sorta fake that by drawing in a soft marker type tool with gray tone in the other sketching applications, but nothing replicates the adjustable tones that Manga Studio gives you. I want everything I draw in this program to look like something John Byrne might have done on “Namor” twenty years ago. I’m obsessed. (Byrne used multiple types of tone, overlapping them at different angles for dramatic effect.)

I used Manga Studio 4 Debut for this review. The difference between it and Manga Studio 4 EX is $250 and a few features that most “amateurs” won’t need. If you’re a comics professional, by all means go for the EX version. You get vector art that way, more tones, and more unlimited features. You can see the full comparison here.

I found the lack of a few tools to be very annoying in Debut. Chief amongst them is the lack of an eye dropper tool. If you use a custom color in one part of your page, do something else, and then want to get back to that color again? You need to recreate it. You could create a separate layer for each color you use and then put them into one big layer folder, though that seems tedious. A simple color palette that you can save to would be far preferable. It looks like EX includes that. If you have Photoshop or Pixelmator, just use that. I learned this lesson the hard way the first time I tried to color in a drawing. I could never replicate a unique color and the drawing had to stay black and white.

I would have liked Full Screen Mode, too, though it isn’t a necessity. It’s part of the professional EX edition, too.

You can try it before you buy it, in a way. There is an upgrade path to get you from Debut to EX. It’s $129, which gives you a total cost of just $179 for EX, which is normally $299 on its own. Trying before buying seems like the best way to go.

If you’re serious about drawing comics, this is a great tool to try. That goes doubly if you’re planning on being a primarily on-line kind of comic artists. It’s a direct download from SmithMicro’s website, and works with either PC or Mac.

Keeping everything in your workflow digital could prove to be an asset further down the road. Manga Studio 4 Debut thinks like a comic book creation app, and includes everything you need to accomplish it. Like I said at the top, the biggest obstacle in your way isn’t the software; it’s your ability now.

I’ve only been using the program for a week, but I will be using it more in the days and maybe even weeks ahead. As things turn up, I’ll report on them in Pipeline.

Special thanks to Chris Eliopoulos for pointing me to Doug Hill’s training vidoes for this program. They were a quick and easy way to get into things. Various Google searches took care of the rest.


A couple of weeks ago, I was struggling to remember who it was that DC had once fired by fax. Thanks to “saidestroyer” in the Pipeline message board, who pointed out that it was Alan Grant. A quick Google search pulled up an awesome interview with all the details. Here’s the beginning part of it:

AG [Alan Grant]: Because they didn’t know what a good story was or what a good villain was or anything else they were really incapable of making that decision. So anyway, one night at midnight my fax went off so I came up about half an hour later to check the fax. It was a four page fax from Scott Peterson, who was not my editor, Denny was my editor on Shadow Of The Bat and Scott Peterson was the editor on Detective Comics. The fax was from Scott. Basically it said, “You guys are probably wondering how the Cataclysm storyline is selling. I’ve got to tell you it’s getting great reaction from the fans, retailers love it, Batman sales are up,” I’ve still got it, the original fax. I kept it because it’s an historical document because there’s so much pish contained in it, “Sales are going through the roof, they love it,” and it went on like this for half a page. I honestly was thinking the guy was leading towards the fact that it was going so well, even though you thought it was crap, it’s going so well we’re going to give you all a $10,000 bonus. When I finally got halfway down the second page it got around to saying, “What’s all this got to do with me as a Batman writer you’re asking? Well the answer is this: as of next month you will no longer be writing Batman. That’s right. You are off your title. We will be getting other writers in to take over.” They sent out the same fax to Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon.

NB [Norm Breyfogle]: That kind of demands an explanation after all that praise. Did he offer any kind of an explanation?

AG: There was no explanation.

It goes on and gets worse from there, if you can believe it. Click through for the fun.

Gail Simone is back on “Batgirl” now. Alan Grant wasn’t so lucky.


In my very first column for CBR back in 1999, I discussed a little about what I’d like to see in a first issue. It holds up today, I think, though I don’t remember enough about “Aria” #1 to comment on that anymore:

So what should a successful first issue encompass? Basically, everything that ARIA #1 did not. It should tell a complete story. Writers hate for me to say that, but that’s what I want as a reader. I don’t want 22 pages of teasers for the series. I want a real story which introduces me to the character or characters who act as the protagonist of the series. How am I to know if I’m going to like the series if I can’t get to know the characters? There has to be something else exceptional about it.

All things being equal, I want a real story in that first issue. Not a teaser. Not part 1 of 6. (The way I read comics today, I wait for that 6 issue arc to be done before reading it all in one sitting. If I don’t like it then, you catch my wrath here. =)

(My apologies for the emoticon in the text there. I try not to do that anymore.)

While I still like that outline for a solid first issue, I’m more open today to letting the first issue be just the first part of a larger story. I’d like there to be enough for the reader to understand what’s going on, though. If I’m lost for 22 pages, then I don’t want to read the second issue. DC’s New 52 did a nifty trick when it started of having strong cliffhangers to bring readers back for their second issue. That’s a good technique, too.

The problem is just when a writer knows so much about his world that he forgets that the reader does not, and mistakenly assumes knowledge on the reader’s part that would be impossible to have. That’s the biggest sin for too many first issues. THe other is in explaining too much, dragging the reading experience down to a slow crawl.

More of this can be had in the recent Abhay Khosla versus Eric Stephenson debate. For what it’s worth, I agree with Eric Stephenson: Expecting everything to be explained and foretold in the first issue is a bad road to go down. Give me enough to understand the world and be comfortable in it. That’s all I ask. If I can’t follow the story because the writer is being too obtuse, that’s a problem. If a writer spends the first issue explaining everything in graphic detail, that’s just boring.


  • Worst press release headline of the week, and I swear this is a straight-up copy-and-paste: “BRAND NEW TITLES RELEASED FROM BLUEWATER THIS WEEK ­ LET’S HERE IT FOR THE KIDS!” I don’t need to put the ‘[sic]’ in there for you, do I?

  • “Invincible” #99: Needed more “DOOM”s.

  • Tim O’Neil offers an interesting analysis of the mutant comics world of the 1990s. He’s focusing on the crossover events of the period, but there’s some astute analysis of the general scene as well.

  • “Zed: A Cosmic Tale” is coming from Image Comics in January. While I’ve read most of the issues (and reviewed the first three back in 2002) I never saw the last couple of issues, as they were released during my con retirement. I look forward to seeing everything under one cover now, though. Creator Michele Gagne is an interesting talent to watch. Just check out the way he draws explosions and special effects type stuff. He’s done that for a living in animation before, and it translates ridiculously well to the printed page. And Zed is a cutie, too.

  • A link from earlier in the month, but still funny: “When I Met Stan Lee.”

  • Merry Christmas!

  • Happy New Year! || || Original Art Collection || Google+ || Twitter || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

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