Comic Strip Tutorial
The Best Inking Methods, Tools, Pens, Brushes, and Paper
So, How Do You Create These Cartoons?
Note: I used this method from 1993 to 1999. Check below for my new method.
First I capture my ideas down in a quick stick figure sketch on typing paper. Speed is the key here as a great idea can quickly fade. I’m concerned with blocking, rhythm, the joke itself, and especially language. A punchline or a headline succeeds or fails on the specific words themselves. Words mean something and they are not interchangeable. So if the comic is based on a clever turn of phrase or has specific language that drives the story I make sure to write it legibly so I can read it later. If I have multiple ideas for the words, I’ll write alternate takes on the margins and decide which version to keep later.
If you want to see how they ultimately came out you can go to ‘Cycle of Dependency“, “Politicians Week on Jeopardy“, “Sarge Says Drugs Are Dangerous“, and “Good Ole Farm Fresh Goodness“. They all stayed true to the original sketch but sometimes I’ll change the headlines or drop them entirely as in the case for “Drugs Are Dangerous”.
Once I’ve captured the essence in sketch form, the cartoon is essentially done as far as I’m concerned. Next comes the work – about four hours of penciling, inking, touch-ups, and stripping in the headline and bi-line.
First I grab a sheet of 11″ x 14″ Pentalic Paper for Pens and create a box 9 1/2″ x 9 1/2″ with a technical pencil (HB lead) and a T-Square. In my opinion, Pentalic Paper for Pens, while still the best inking paper I can find, is not as good as it once was. Back in the 1990’s it was thinner, a brighter white, and pencil didn’t smudge as easily. Unfortunately they’ve since changed their formula several times and I don’t think it’s as good but I have yet to find anything better.
So after I’ve created my 9 1/2″ x 9 1/2″ box, I make a 1/2″ strip along the top for the headline. Next I divide the remaining space into four equal sections.
I draw directly with pencil in the first panel and begin blocking out my basic characters, scenery, and dialog. Once it looks right I’ll make a tracing of the first panel on a piece of typing paper using my light table. This will be my template for the other three panels.
Using the light table I then move my template from panel to panel and loosely block in the scene. I know there will be changes in facial expressions and body language later so I focus mainly on proportions and continuity.
If each panel is different, I skip this step as each panel will be blocked out from scratch. No need for templates and tracing.
Now it’s time for the details. I add the nuances and additional dialog. I leave little to chance, so my pencils are well fleshed out before I start inking. Personally, I want to make very few decisions during the inking process. The time for experimenting is during the sketching process.
Dialog is supremely important and the most difficult element to work with. Every additional word takes away from the available space for the drawing. It’s a constant battle, so I never leave an area for a word balloon and then figure out what I’m going to put their later. I need to know exactly what words will be going in each panel, where the line breaks are, and what the size of the letters will be. A bad line break can hamper the readability and even throw off the punchline. Cramped text will turn off your readers and break the flow. Comic strip dialog is much different than spoken words or text in books, for in comics, the words and the balloons that hold them, are also a graphical element that carry just as much importance as the drawings themselves. This is doubly true for sound effects and action lines. Don’t try to toss them in later.
After I’ve finished the words versus drawings battle, and the sketch looks solid, it’s time to start inking. I ink with a Reform Refograph by Alvin (nib size .70 – I know the photo shows a .50 body but the nib is .70) filled with Rapidograph Ultradraw ink. Unfortunately the Reform Refograph is no longer made and they’re very hard to find. I feel the Reform is far superior to the Rapidograph. Large areas are filled in with a cheap watercolor brush. After the ink is dry, I begin clean up with one of those kneaded putty erasers.
Last, I strip in my bi-line that I cut from a master sheet.
After all this I go to the copy store and make a copy at 80% to fit on a sheet of 8 1/2″ x 11″paper that already has my contact info copied on it (I make a big stack of sheets that only have contact info to use as my copy stock). Then I do any additional touch ups (paste up lines, drop outs etc.) before making copies for distribution from this new “master”.
New Method (2000 to Present)
My biggest influences on my inking were illustrators and cartoonists that were using a brush. I didn’t know this at the time, so I attempted to create a “brush look” by using an ink pen. This involved going over an ink line meticulously to create the thicks and thins that naturally occur with a single brushstroke. This was not only tedious but created an enormous load on my tendons.
Later on, I discovered that all these artists I admired used a brush! Wow, that certainly explained a lot. What a much simpler way to create the “brush” effect. The trouble was, I didn’t like brushes, I liked pens and pencils.
I had resigned myself to continued years of finger, hand, and tendon pain until Nina Paley turned me on to the Kuretake Japanese “brush pen”. It has soft nylon bristles and comes with a set of disposable ink cartridges. Don’t use them though. Ditch the cartridges and buy a Lamy refillable cartridge Model Z26 ( I also hear the Platinum Cartridge works great too). I fill it with the same Ultradraw ink that I used in my Reform Refograph. When you attach the Lamy cartridge it will feel like it doesn’t fit. Don’t force it. The neck is very shallow so just use a gentle push and it will be fine. Push too hard and you may crack the lip of the cartridge. Don’t worry, it feels like it will fall off but it won’t.
The Kuretake brush pen changed my life. I can now ink an entire cartoon in a fourth of the time, and without any pain.
Unfortunately, lettering my strip still took a long time and created a lot of hand pain because I was still using an ink pen to do the lettering. I tried the brush pen with it looked terrible. To speed up my lettering I scanned the best examples of my hand lettering and converted them to a font using Macromedia’s Fontographer (now Fontlab). I was now able to type in my lettering in Illustrator (using a template as a guide for placement) print it out, and paste it above the characters. That’s how I do my strip now and I have no intentions of ever going back. If you want, you can download my Sidewalk Bubblegum comic font collection. It’s free.
Cartoonist Nina Paley turned me on to this amazing Japanese “brush pen”. They cost about $35.00 but they’re priceless as far as I’m concerned.
Best Inking Pens Update (November 12th, 2010)
I had a crunch deadline for some poster and storyboard illustrations when my trusty Kuretake pen started crapping out on me. No matter what I did I couldn’t keep a smooth ink flow. The pen was very old and truth be told it’s had a lot of abuse as well as long periods of idle, so I wasn’t shocked.
So I run to the local art store and start looking for a substitute. I go through a bunch of brush markers and they are just awful. I mean truly awful – as in unusable. Just as I’m about to give up I notice the new Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. It looks like the Kuretake and it’s got a $15.99 price tag, which implies some kind of quality, so I buy it.
I must say I’m very impressed with this pen and the stock cartridges have decent ink in them. So I went back and bought another one. I’m leaving it unopened as an emergency backup.
File Under: Comic Strip Tutorial, Best Inking Methods for Comic Strips, Inking Tools for Comic Books, Pens, Brushes, Paper, Comic Book Lettering