Making an Atomic Laundromat strip
I’ve received a few emails asking about how I put together the strips, so I decided to make this little “tutorial” about my process. Please bear in mind that I’m not telling you that this is the way to do a comic strip, but this is what works for me. If this is useful for you – by all means, copy/adapt whatever you want. And if you happen to have any additional questions, you can always shoot me a line.
This is probably the least reproducible part of my process. Atomic Laundromat has a long term story in mind, but at the same time, I do make it a point that each strip has a punchline or stands on its own. People sometimes only have 5 minutes in their day to come to my comic site, so I want to give them something for their trouble and attention. So this dual purpose for the strip makes it a bit challenging sometimes. How I arrive to the idea for a particular strip may be borne out of the situation (take a normal situation, and envision it in a superhero world), a particular phrase or image I want to build the whole strip around, or wanting to try something new.
At any rate, I sketch my ideas in my personalized layout pages. The level of detail I put in the thumbnails vary wildly. I usually do very detailed thumbnails when the joke is either very visual or I there’s a specific detail I want to capture. This particular strip was very dialog-driven, so the characters are only hinted at. And yeah, I can actually make out my own handwriting, so don’t complain about my penmanship. The notes section are usually reminders to myself about plot points or continuity. At any point in time, I usually have a month’s worth of strips written and laid out – but sometimes I’ll have an additional idea and interject a couple of extra strips. For example, most of the strips last week (Angela changing outfits, etc.) were actually last minute additions that were not in the original plan.
2. On to the art
I draw the strip traditionally, and use computers further down the line. It’s not a matter of OMG-IT-HAS-TO-BE-PAPER-OR-IT’S-NOT-REAL-ART — rather, I’m not that skilled at drawing with a tablet. I’m learning, but I’m not quite there yet in terms of art quality. Maybe one of these days!
Most of the times I already have a panel number and a rough idea of the layouts – I do a very light “pre-sketch” of the composition and then get to work on the details. The text balloons are there, albeit very lightly, to work around them.
I use 5×17″ Canson comic strip boards as a medium. The material is smooth Bristol board, it’s pre-lined, and it’s “industry-standard” sized. So basically I don’t need to measure each strip board or worry about the panel lines – the art board already has measures and guidelines in non-repro blue that I can just trace over. If I need a more complex layout (like double strips) I usually print out my own guidelines in 11×17 sized paper. I draw my lines with a .7 Pentel Graphgear 1000 (THE BEST MECHANICAL PENCIL EVER) and non-repro blue leads. I can’t overstate how much I love these pencils – they are made for the Japanese market, but you can get them thru Amazon or ASW – and it’s solid, the grip is comfortable and has a nice heft. I am a really tight penciller, so the art is very defined by the time I finish my pencils. On to inks!!!
I use pigment ink pens to do all my linework – I use an array of nibs, mainly .5 and .7, but there’s a dash of .35 and .1 in there. Some of the earlier strips are done with Pigma Micron pens, but for the last 6 months or so I’ve been using COPIC Multiliner SP pens. They are rechargeable pens, and the nibs can be changed – once again, I’m really liking how they feel for me. You can get them in some art stores, but as usual, the Internet is your friend.
I’ve gotten pretty good at emulating varying line weights with the pens as you would with a brush (I’m to clumsy to ink with a brush), and I enjoy this part of the process greatly. I make very few adjustments to the art at this stage – as I mentioned, my pencils are pretty tight – but this is where I’ll go nuts on the fine detail. I use any permanent marker laying around to fill in the black areas.
I played with the scanner settings a bit for the image above so it would show my inkwork and the blue lines underneath (hence why the blacks seem a bit washed out). This should give you an idea of what my finished original art looks like, should you ever decide to buy some of it (HINT HINT). But once the piece looks like the above, it’s on to Photoshop!
3. On the PC
I have my import routines and my template to cut down on the process. I have an 11×17 flatbed scanner (a no-name Chinese scanner I got for cheap off Amazon which is AMAZING) so I don’t need to worry about scanning in parts and stitching together. After very light processing which renders my original pencils invisible, the strip looks like the image below. It’s looking like a real comic now!
I work at 600 dpi – yes, it’s a ridiculous resolution, but my computer can handle it and I’m used to it at this point. To give you an idea, this is an approximation of my original art scanned in at 100% (“Actual size”). (click on the file for the full view).
I lower the opacity on the background layer a bit and start putting in the dialogue. Sometimes I’ll make adjustments at this stage if something sounds too clunky or doesn’t work. The advantage of writing in advance is that it allows me to put some time between the original draft and the revision, so I can scrap ideas that sounded good at 3 AM a month ago. The screenshot belows shows a bit of my desktop (I have a dual monitor set up at my desk). I usually have my TV and my Internet monitoring station (Twitter/Facebook/Messenger) on my second monitor. Yes, I’m watching Modern Family on the screenshot below. It’s an awesome show, so shut up.
I put the balloons in next, using the Photoshop shapes and the Pen Tool to draw the balloon tails and adjust shapes away from perfect ellipses. I trim away the fat that spills over panel borders. The end result looks kinda like this.
I store away the text on a separate file for the time being and then do the grayscale flats. I already have the swatches saved in my Photoshop favorites (“Angela’s hair”, “David’s shirt”, etc.) so it’s a faster process.
After my flats are done, I do the rendering – adding shadows and accents with different Photoshop tools. I use a very simple method for doing shadows (keeping a cartoony/”cel-shaded” look) and sometimes I’ll add more textures. I try not to overdo it – I do enough to get the idea across and give it a bit of depth, but I don’t want to do filters just for the sake of it.
All that is left is adding the text, and saving in a web-friendly resolution.
And coming up with a silly little rant to accompany the strip!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little behind the scenes look at how I put together the strip, 3x a week (twice on Sundays). You can ask away in the comments, or shoot me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.