Issue #11 – Tools of the Trade

A few months ago, I went out to my car to go pick up some lunch, and found a flat tire. I knew I had a spare, a jack, and a lug wrench, so I figured changing it wouldn’t be that big of a deal (other than it being 115 degrees outside (ahh Phoenix in July)). So, first things first, I went to remove my hubcap. I should mention now that the vehicle in question is a 1997 Ford Crown Victoria. My previous vehicles have been an 86 Crown Vic Wagon, an 83 Buick Riviera, a 78 Pontiac Catalina/Bonneville mix, and a 1974 Buick Electra. I’ve change the tires on two of those vehicles with no incident. Yet after trying a crowbar, hammer, screwdriver, and various other prying tools, I could not get the hubcap off this wheel! Two hours and buckets of sweat later, I resorted to extremes and read the user manual. Apparently, these new-fangled cars come with a special key for the hubcaps, so people can’t steal them. So I used the key (which was in my glove compartment, conveniently), and in about ten minutes the tire was changed and I was on my way to my local shop to get it repaired.

New tools for old jobs.

I’ve spent a lot of time researching what people who do print comics use as the tools to get the job done. Other than a mechanical pencil and some paper, I haven’t used any of the “traditional” tools for comics until relatively recently (last six months). As I try to see what these other tools can do to improve my end product, I have to pass them all through the filter of what I use as my main tool – my computer. A lot of the results I come up with have been disappointing, a few have been amazing, but all of them have been a lot of fun to explore.

In at least the next installment or two, what I really want to delve into is the difference in using tools for making print comics versus making web comics. Are there tools that work better for one than another? In what ways are people using traditional tools in unique ways for their web comic production, and vice-versa?

My proficiency with using a computer as a tool for artwork is what pushes me to do comics online versus on paper. I can do rough sketches on paper, scan them in, and do all of my inking and coloring in my graphics editing software. Mistakes in coloring and inking are far easier to fix on a monitor than on a sheet of paper. At the same time, though, when I successfully ink and color something nicely on a sheet of paper, I have a different sense of satisfaction. It feels more accomplished, more alive. Am I losing some of the art’s “soul” by creating it primarily with a graphics tablet and mouse? As I get better at doing artwork outside of the computer, I’m really questioning some things I do on the computer that, in a way, feel like cheating.

For now, I want to open up the floor to comments, then draw some conclusions (if there are any to be drawn) in my next article. I sent out an e-mail to a few people I thought would be a good sampling of different ways of thinking on this matter. I didn’t get much feedback from that, but here are the questions and the feedback from the person I did hear back from.

Iain – How do you feel about the relationship of the tools you would use in creating a traditional print comic in the context of creating comics specifically for the web? (note: This is a horribly worded question, I know, but I wanted to keep it as it was in the original e-mail for consistency’s sake. I’m just trying to ask how tools used for print comics translate to doing comics for the internet).

Jon Rosenberg (of goats.com) – I’m not sure what you mean by this question. Certain tools are better geared for certain things, but in the end, they’re all just tools — a means to an end.

Iain – Is there such a thing as “cheating?”

Jon – I used to think that there was, but I’ve changed my opinion on this. I used to complain that doing the art on a computer, cut-n-paste style, was cheating. Seeing characters in static poses for four panels is always a bit unnerving to me. Years ago, when people started to use this technique, I assumed that anything done in illustrator or photoshop or whatever would be done in this cheap, obvious style.

Since then, a number of individuals have convinced me otherwise, specifically Gabe of Penny Arcade (whose art style and variety has come a tremendous way since those early days of cut ‘n’ paste) and John Allison of Bobbins and Scary-Go-Round (who showed me that vector art can have soul and life). I’ve been impressed with their work so much that I’ve been dabbling in vector art a bit myself. That’s not to say that it is no longer possible to make cheap, obvious comic strips using cut-n-paste. People do it all the time. But no one confuses those people with professionals.

Iain – Do you think the availability of tools like Photoshop, Illustrator, scanners, graphics tablets, etc. will have an effect on the quantity of quality online comics, or will it just lead to even more to sift through in order to find the gems?

Jon – The availability of software and hardware geared towards art production will, naturally, enable more people to create online comics, much in the same way that the proliferation of crayons and construction paper have enabled many 6-year-old proteges throughout the ages. Like the work of 6-year-olds, much of the work that people will create with software will be crap. It’s inevitable, no matter what the tool. The ratio of good-to-crap will likely remain the same.

I think the availability of a medium in which that work will be published (i.e., the web) is the real catalyst for the growth in online comics, not the tools. People do the work because there’s no print barrier keeping them from reaching an audience anymore. The software tools are simply a part of that process.

Iain – What tools do you use for your online comics work?

Jon – I use a crappy Canon scanner, Photoshop, Illustrator and Fireworks. I use HomeSite to write HTML. I use FTP Voyager as my FTP program. I use a small glass to keep my scotch’s surface area to a minimum.

There you have it. Where applicable, I’d like anyone interested in this subject to answer the same questions. Better yet, pose some questions of your own. The ultimate purpose of this topic is to educate and hopefully get some ideas flowing that can improve the work being done in online comics today.

As always, if you’d like to comment on anything, toss one my way.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.