step-by-step: the making of a comic cover

I recently put together a cover for Big Dumb Fighting Idiots, anticipating the eventual need for printing as we enter the final chunk of the story. Thus, I decided to document the process to show how I did it from beginning to end. While this is by no means the ultimate way to make a cover, it should serve as a nice overview of the way I work on this kind of stuff.

Step 1: Coming up With the Idea

Before you begin on a cover you should have a rough idea of the kind of layout you want. It needs to be something you could see standing out on a shelf. Even if it’s never going to make it to a shelf, just think about what might make you want to pick a comic up from the crowd. Naturally, the idea for this one came to me right as I was trying to go to sleep, so I grabbed my phone and jotted down  some quick notes.

Most of this ended up making it to the final cover! All except for that COMIC ON FIRE text at the bottom, which mostly sounded like a cool idea at 11:36pm.

Step 2: Logo Work

Since I just post BDFI on this website, I rarely have need for a logo. I find it really difficult to come up with cool logos, but thankfully I still like the one I made way back when I first drew these characters. Here’s a flashback to that original drawing:

I still had the logo sitting around somewhere, so I dug it up and scanned it in like so:

I set this file aside for…

Step 3: Digital Sketch

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I use Clip Studio Paint, AKA Manga Studio, for everything. It’s a great program for comics—even in the case of the cheaper version, which is just about $50 when it’s not on sale—and it doesn’t take long to learn. My only major complaint: it isn’t primed for printing. Clip Studio only produces images in RGB, which is great for online. It doesn’t output in CMYK, though, so if you want to print anything color from the program you’ll want to tweak it in a program like PhotoShop first.

I always see people setting their backgrounds to grayscale when sketching, but I never understood why. Well, I do now! After reading up on it some and trying it myself, it made it much easier to get in a nice blue-lined sketch to ink over, and gave me a more reliable view of the page’s overall space. Here’s how it looked once I worked out a rough sketch and dropped in/cleaned up the logo:

Step 4: Inking & Layering

Alright, this part is going to involve me trying to break bad habits. While inking on a separate layer, I basically had to force myself to start titling said layers. I knew this would end up having quite a few—especially considering the effects I had in mind—so I went against my typical lazy instinct and employed a simple naming convention for each. It probably sounds like a no-brainer for some of you, but I have a horrible tendency to end up with 45+ layers all named “Layer 16,” Layer 38,” and so on, which means I have to click them off and on just to make sure I’m on the right one.

Step 5: Final Inks & Background Work

I laid the rest of the inks down until I was able to remove the sketch from the equation and start working on the background. Most of the background is going to be color-based and not dependent on ink outlines, so it’s pretty simplistic at this point.

Step 6: Flame Effects Time

This was the biggest challenge I gave myself from the concept stage. The idea alone kind of made me hate Past Joe, but I have a hard rule of at least attempting everything I tell myself to draw. If I have the confidence to put it in an outline or in a set of thumbnails, I can work out a way to bring it to life. The fire effects ripping away at the page ended up being a combination of multiple brushes, primarily the Colored Pencil brush and the standard G-Pen I use for almost everything else. I basically played with it until I liked the way it looked, and topped it off with some spray from one of the Airbrush sub-tools.

Step 7: Character Flats

Flat colors were up next! This step is pretty straightforward. I just made a layer right under the inks to color in Trunk, Wizz, and the pair of Frogmen surrounding them. I use the G-Pen tool for pretty much all my coloring, and while I change character tones a lot in the comic, I went with the classic hues for our heroes.

Step 8: Logo Colors

I actually ended up changing this a few times throughout the process, because it’s tough to tell what really works until you have the entire image together. The colors I started out with were a little garish, but they worked fine as a placeholder until I figured it out. Like the composition itself, the logo has a split second to draw someone’s attention, but you don’t want to go overboard.

Step 9: Background Colors

Sometimes I find backgrounds intimidating. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do with this one, but it started to come together once I filled in the brick wall and added a few lighting effects to that and the fire escape. When I popped in the night sky and stars the trick to filling in the background Frogmen was clear, so I worked in some shadows, added a few glowing eyes, and made detail marks on the concrete for good measure.

Step 10: Shading Wrap-Up

I always save shading for last. Not just because it’s a good final detail, but because I’ll occasionally look at a drawing or panel and decide it doesn’t need shading at the last minute. This is a cover, though, so of course it needed some good shadows! There’s also the matter of the fire, which I still had to add on Wizz’s shoulder as he feverishly attempts to blow and wave it out. That brings us to the final version of the cover below!

Odds of me finding a mistake I made or seeing something I need to change: HIGH. For now, though, I’m happy with it.

To recap:

Step 1: Coming up With the Idea
Step 2: Logo Work
Step 3: Digital Sketch 
(or physical if you’re on paper)
Step 4: Inking & Layering
Step 5: Final Inks & Background Work
Step 6: Flame Effects Time
Step 7: Character Flats
Step 8: Logo Colors
Step 9: Background Colors
Step 10: Shading Wrap-Up

Creator Spotlight: Wes Black

L0l87UOi_400x400.jpgIf the name Wes Black doesn’t ring a bell, clearly you haven’t been reading this blog for very long! That’s okay, because we’re here to introduce the man/myth/legend/etc. in our very first Creator Spotlight. This series is exactly what it sounds like: I’ll be shooting questions at artists and writers behind comics and other creative endeavors, finding out more about what fuels their work. 

As a quick catch-up, Wes co-wrote Two of a Vine with me and both Post-Nuke Pre-School and Neon Starlight Express are his feral brainchildren. 

I’m going to pepper this spotlight with unseen Raisins art. I think this was one of the first drawings I shared in our Two of a Vine notes email.

subhumanzoids: Hey, you’re our first creator spotlight! No pressure, but this has to be really good. For right now maybe I should just write “Wes says something funny here” and fill it in later.

Wes Black: Remember when that homeless guy with the high-pitched voice chased us into a Japanese video store on his bike, and then sat parked in the doorway, taunting us by ding-dinging the bicycle’s bell? That was funny after we realized we weren’t going to get stabbed. I recall us having a good laugh about it.

Regular readers of subhumanzoids may know you from two of the “Big Three” on the site: Two of a Vine and Neon Starlight Express. What was your writing process like for each of these comics? 

I love giving myself lots of extra work. For Neon Starlight Express, I wrote a pitch (which I sent you to gauge interest) then a 17-page plot, followed by a full script — a script with way too many panels per page. After you sent me the finished art, I got mad at myself for using too many goddamn panels, and then rewrote most of the dialogue and captions, because half of it wasn’t needed. Despite this, I still managed to saddle you with pages and pages of overstuffed word balloons.

Two of a Vine didn’t have this problem so much, since we wrote that together. Except for the parts I went off and wrote on my own. Those definitely have too many panels. And words. For the past couple of years, I’ve found myself unable to read a comic without counting the panels and word balloons. I’m very good at ruining the things I love.

This was one of the first sketch samples I made to give an idea of how Vine might look as a comic. I guess that tall-headed Raisin is supposed to be Jamain.

Two of a Vine basically stars us and the California Raisins. Were you ever worried said Raisins would emerge from your TV screen to strangle you for twisting them into the deranged creatures we created?

That or a cease & desist letter. I went in fully prepared to make the comic about The Delaware Dried Prunes in order to appease big corporate lawyers or murderous California Raisins.

Prior to this, you had more experience writing spec scripts for movies and TV. How does your approach to writing comics differ?

There’s slightly less anxiety involved, mainly because I’m confident you’ll fix things to where I won’t look like a complete moron. Honestly, I wish you could just illustrate all my pilot scripts.

The fact that we practically share a brain definitely makes communication easier. Have you written comics for people who aren’t named Joseph Luster? How did that go?

I haven’t, but I imagine I probably wouldn’t be able to use “that thing Craig T. Nelson pukes up in Poltergeist II” as shorthand. Sounds terrible, actually.

I know you’re primarily a writer, but do you have any of your demonic drawings to share? I feel like that’s a little known aspect of Wes Black.

I think most states have some sort of law on the books preventing that.

This sketch comic was based on an early concept of, uh, some kind of goo the Raisins subsisted on? Our email chains are like spitball snowstorms.

Regardless of what you’re writing, what’s a typical day like for Wes Black?

Usually I start by staring at the ceiling, then I talk myself into writing, and try to get down as a much as possible before the self-loathing really kicks in. After that happens I still keep on writing, but things tend to move a tad slower. I like to follow that up with a nice long walk while listening to a podcast (Shock Waves and Pure Cinema are faves). Maybe slip in a movie late at night — most recently 1987’s Dragnet, which has aged wonderfully. Expertly strides the line between spoof and straight buddy-cop film in a way that I feel wasn’t fully appreciated at the time of release.

Alright, speed round time: What’s your current regular comic roundup looking like? 

Kill or Be Killed, Misfit City, Alien: Dead Orbit, Black Hammer, and Rock Candy Mountain. Plus early ’90s-era Valiant.

Favorite movie of 2017?

Does the new Twin Peaks count?

Might as well. Best kung fu movie ever made?

8 Diagram Pole Fighter.

Put 10 grand on it: McGregor or Mayweather? 

Mayweather in the third, unless he accidentally KOs Connor while toying with him in the first two rounds.

Dream project? 

A live-action Gantz TV series.

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This is a good example of your average dumb email idea we shoot back and forth. In this one, the Raisins created a bridge across some sludge in the flooded shower room. They LOVE doing stuff like this, of course.

Alright, thanks for not messing up our first Spotlight, Wes! I’m writing this in advance assuming we didn’t totally beef it. Any parting thoughts or plugs?

I have a towel stained with the sweat of professional wrestler Kazuchika Okada that I keep hidden in my closet. Since I don’t have a will or anything, I’d just like it in writing somewhere that I want to be buried with said towel in the event of my death. It’s yellow and was made to look like a $100,000 bill with Okada’s face on it. That’s all, really.

Follow Wes on Twitter for a closer look at what watching a ton of wrestling and mainlining movie marathons will do to even the boldest of brains. 

cut. it. out! crafting comic flashbacks from construction paper

The latest update for Big Dumb Fighting Idiots may not have clocked in at a whopping 10 pages like the one before it, but it had a few tricks of its own. Besides playing around a little more with colors and shadows, I decided to do something special with the Mayor’s flashback sequence. Going against the traditional style of the comic for flashbacks—whether they’re a single panel or multiple pages—has been my goal since the early pages, and this time I busted out the construction paper and got to cutting.

I could probably leave it at that and most would get the picture, but I didn’t start out with this exact idea in mind. The reason I went with it is entirely thanks to the way I drew the thumbnails for the page. I was originally just planning to make the Mayor’s flashback consist of purposefully bad drawings, but the sketch accidentally gave me a better idea.

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My sketches already looked enough like cutouts…

The second panel sparked the idea: Why not just get a bunch of different paper and start cutting directly with scissors? Sketching the characters out beforehand would be too accurate. I wanted it to look kind of bad, which is a great way to turn your brain off and avoid overanalyzing whatever it is you’re doing. In fact, if you really want to just mess around, you might want to do the same kind of exercise in a sketchbook. Not with paper cutouts, but with extemporaneous drawings that may or may not go anywhere.

I ended up doing four panels like this. I cut the shapes I wanted for each character—separate cuts for arms, torso, clothes, and facial features, for instance—and used a cheap glue stick to put them together.  I didn’t bother gluing any of the figures to the background itself, because I wanted the freedom to move them around if I didn’t like the composition. The final results came out exactly how I pictured them in the first place.

Clockwise, L to R: Mayor Mustang socks a frog, Trunk looks dumb, a robot goes ballistic, the Mayor is surrounded.

The pressure was off to make these the very best. I knew if they even looked marginally decent they’d serve their purpose and look cool next to digitally-illustrated panels. Once I took photos of each collage, I opened the page up in Clip Studio Paint and simply imported them into their respective panels. I made sure to have room in each for text, which is something you should always keep in mind in advance when laying out panels.

And now I have Mayor Mustang himself on my shelf!

Also starring: Finn, Rush, and a head-splitting Garbage Pail Kid

So, to recap, I:

    1. Drew thumbnails
    2. Cut out individual shapes
    3. Assembled characters with glue
    4. Placed and photographed each panel
    5. Imported photos into Clip Studio Paint
    6. Added text overlays and polished the page

Hopefully I’ll get to do something like this again, but I don’t know if there are really any flashbacks coming up! (pssst, I’d do clay for the next one if I could.)

catch one of my comics in comfort food zine!

Heyyyy… I’ve been busy! Sadly, most of what I’ve been busy with is stuff I can’t post on the blog, hence the lack of updates. Anyway, here’s one for you. I recently contributed a two-page comic to a zine by Lauren Jordan called Comfort Food Zine. The book was successfully funded through Indiegogo, and in it you’ll find a bunch of food-related comics by myself and 33 other artists.


My comic, naturally, is about bagels. Here’s what it looks like in the book:


It’s pretty simple. I did it all on paper in brush pen with Photoshop for the grays and a tiny bit of gradient. It was fun.

As far as I know Lauren has had the book with her at various conventions, and will be updating her store with them at some point. If you’re really interested in one you can contact me, because I have about 5 on hand.

That’s it for now! I also still have a very small amount of SLIME minis still available on the bigcartel store.

slime gets its first review!

Hey! It’s hard to believe but it’s been over a month since I debuted Slime, and amazingly there are only a few copies left before the first printing is completely out. I’m not sure if or when there will be a second printing, so if you planned on getting one be sure to grab it while it’s hot.

If you need more than my string-bean synopsis to go by, small press comics review site Optical Sloth has the very first review of Slime up now!


Elsewhere (as in, like, right here at this very desk, but whatever), Wes and I have been hard at work on the next issue of Two of a Vine. It’s almost done, so go ahead and catch up on the series to prepare for the next sizzling chapter!