Creating Comics that Get Attention
By Laitainë Hinnim

I’m finding that in spite of my best intentions, I’m becoming a cartoonist. That’s not a bad thing, I don’t think. At least I hope not. Anyway, this article is for those of you who are finding that you, too, are aspiring cartoonists.

Step One – An idea

This is the hardest part of making a comic in my opinion. There’s no set formula for this, but something that may help get you on track is to ask yourself “What if…” questions. In my case, the question I usually ask myself is “What if Middle-Earth was more like real life?” You might think of others, ranging from “How do you know when you’re too obsessed with LOTR?” to “What if Legolas wasn’t so pretty?” to “What if Frodo refused to go on the quest in the first place?”

From there, you might start listing out possible answers. In the case of my first question, I started to come up with answers like:

~ Luthien would have pepper-sprayed Beren when he jumped out of the bushes.
~ Finrod Felagund’s harp would have needed to be tuned (all harps always need to be tuned…)
~ Elrond would have got bored waiting for the Fellowship to arrive
~ “Dernhelm”‘s helmet might have stuck at that crucial moment
~ Goldberry’s cooking might not be very good
~ Arwen might look like hell in the morning

…and so on. Write them all down, the good ideas as well as the bad ones. There’ll be time to judge them later.

Step Two – Sketch them out

Personally, four panels seem to work best for me when I draw a comic strip. That doesn’t mean I won’t use more or fewer if I need to; four just seems to be my comfort zone. The first sets the scene, the second is the action, the third is the reaction, the fourth is the punchline and result. So I get out my trusty sketchbook and I start to draw four different pictures.

~ First picture: Luthien is dancing in the forest glade. You see bunnies, birdies, trees, and all is lovely.
~ Second picture: Aha! Beren jumps out of the bushes and declares his love for Tinuviel. He’s been in the woods for four years, so he must look skuzzy.
~ Third picture: Well, how else would she react? Luthien has the daylights scared out of her. Draw her with bugging out eyes, wide mouth, sweat drops, hair standing on end; all of the signs that she’s startled.
~ Fourth picture: The result? Luthien pepper-sprays Beren and the text says something about the dreaded Pepper Spray of Doriath.

Don’t draw your pictures in a tiny size here, and don’t worry about making them all the same size. Draw them at whatever size you’d normally be comfortable with drawing, because later on you’ll shrink them down to fit. Draw lightly with pencil, experiment with different angles and compositions. Remember that the usual rules of proportion don’t have to apply with cartoons. I can make Luthien extra long and thin and delicate. I can make Beren extra blocky and clumsy-looking. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate features if you must. If you want to emphasize Legolas’ prettiness, you might draw extra-long eyelashes and fingers on him. If you’re drawing Arwen’s bed-head first thing in the morning, you might draw extra black bags under her eyes and stray hairs standing straight up. Widen the eyes into circles with tiny pupils and a few bloodshot vessels.

Block out spaces where the lettering is going to be. It can’t be stressed enough how crucial it is to make your lettering readable. Don’t cram it into small balloons; instead, make your balloons, lightly pencil your letters, and make the rest of your picture fit around them.

Universally used text balloons:

People (in the Western hemisphere at least) will normally read comics left to right, top to bottom. This goes not only for the comic panels but also for the text balloons in each panel. If two people talk in the same panel, you’ll want the first person’s words to be up and towards the left, and the second person’s to be lower and maybe more to the right.

Step Three: Ink, Lettering, and Color

Once you’ve drawn your sketches and laid out where the text will go, it’s time to make your images a little more permanent. I recommend using black ink in the form of Sakura Micron pens, which you can find at an art-supply store. Ballpoint pens and felt-tip markers tend to smudge when you’re erasing your pencil marks. Go over your lines with ink, outline your text balloons, and if you’ve got good lettering then do the letters. If not, you might decide to make your letters on the computer instead. Remember to choose a readable font over a “pretty” one.

Use a white eraser to erase your pencil. Pink ones smudge and wear away paper. White ones are meant to remove pencil but not smudge ink.

If you choose to use color, this would be the time to do it. What I personally do when I add color is the following: I scan the inked pictures into the computer, and then I use a graphics program (such as Photoshop or PhotoDeluxe) to add color. A gradient makes a great easy eye-catching background. Choose colors that match the mood of your comic: silvers and greys and blues for a nighttime sequence, strong reds and oranges for a battle scene, calm greens and blues for a peaceful forest. Remember also that you don’t necessarily need to use color at all. In some cases, color can hide or distract from details that you want seen.

Add exactly as much detail as you need; not too much, and not too little. Too much detail will distract from your comic itself, and too little can make the comic hard to understand.

Step Four: Putting it all Together

If you haven’t yet scanned your images, do so now. I suggest using a higher resolution when you scan, and then lowering the resolution (and thus the memory size) later on. Open up a graphics program on your computer and line up your images so that they’re all the same size and in order. This is when you shrink down your images to comic strip size. If you notice that your letters aren’t readable at this size, “paint” over them with white and add them with the computer instead (see above).

Once your panels are a uniform size, arrange them in order: left to right, top to bottom. Straight black lines clearly divide the different panels. You may choose to outline some panels but not all of them for a more dynamic look. Once this is done, save the whole comic strip in .gif or .jpg format.

Final Touches

Make sure you’ve added your signature or initials to the comic! Most comic artists will hide their initials unobtrusively somewhere in the comic strip.

If you’ve saved your strip and found that it’s just too big, then open it back up, change the size, and save it at a smaller size. Or, you may just need to change its resolution. When you’re saving an image on PhotoDeluxe (the program with which I’m most familiar) you’ll see an option to change the resolution of your picture to 72 dpi. You want to do this. It lessens its memory size considerably, making it load more quickly and take up less space.

Test your comic out on your family and friends. They don’t necessarily have to laugh out loud and lavish it with praise for you to know it’s good; if they smile and are genuinely amused, that will work. If on the other hand you get a blank stare and and “I don’t get it” then it may be time to go back to the drawing board. Note that I said “may”. Test your work out on different people to see if they get it. If every single person is baffled, ask yourself how you can make your message more understandable. More (or less) detail? Another (or one fewer) panel? More (or less) dialogue? Any one of these could be your solution.

Look at other comic strips and see what gets your attention and what works. What is it that makes one comic more appealing than the other? Is it the way it’s drawn, or the color? Is it easier to read? Does it deal with things you can relate to? Really study this and see how you can use that in your own comic strip.

Finally, just keep at it. As with most things, you’re sure to improve with plenty of practice. Don’t think that every comic strip you draw has to be brilliant; draw ones that are brilliant and ones that are lame, and then just show off the ones that are brilliant. Keep the ones that are lame as a learning reference. Good luck and happy cartooning!

Here is one of Laitaine’s comics.

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