HOWTO: Using Vector tools to create comic bubbles

We needed to use vector shapes as our dialog bubbles in one of our upcoming comics, codename: Midigan, so I threw together a sloppy guide in case our artist, Joe, didn't how to make them. It's a little ugly, but I figured I'd share it with you guys anyway:

 

-Eric

A Comic Is Born, Part 4: Contents May Shift In Transit

The last post in this series wasn't so hard to write. It was an opportunity to throw up some of our in-progress images and document what we've been doing for 4 years.

This post however... makes me feel rather inadequate. Just last night I was staring blankly at 45 Photoshop pages that refused to do anything but kick my ass over and over. It reminded me that in an area that I should be nailing down to a science... I'm still basing most of what I do on superstitions. 
 
And so I present to you, the first 9 months of my adventure in Image Mastering. 

 

 
So you'll need to take this post with a grain of salt. Do what works for you, and if you find strong evidence that I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments so I don't keep making the same mistakes! 
 
That said, it seems straight forward enough: you're just saving out jpegs right? But the reality is a that it's a multi-disciplinary technical endeavor with a dozen things that can go wrong.
 
"Image Mastering" is the name I've given to the last step of our comic creation process. It involves bringing all the art, text, and technology behind Carpe Chaos into one cohesive whole. The end goal is to ensure that all our hard work comes through in the most absolute crystal-clear perfection that we can muster. I'll hit each area that I've identified individually, and I think that will highlight how many ways this process can go wrong.

Color Profiles

Have you ever looked at the sky and wondered if the color you call blue is the same color that someone else sees? It's puzzled philosophers for centuries.

But have you ever looked at your computer monitor and wondered if the shade of blue you see is the same as someone's else monitor? The answer is a clear no. 

Everyone's monitor shows different colors. Because it's a different model, or its settings are set differently, or even for no other reason than it's older. Colors fade in monitors just like they do in clothes. Once you throw an image out on the Internet you don't have any precise controls over how it looks on the other end, but you can keep the colors consistent before you actually put it out there, which will improve what the viewer sees regardless of how bad their monitor is.

The way you do that, is adopting what's called a "Color Managed Workflow".  The gist of it is that you can set all the computers that work on your image to use a specific color profile, and that will help maintain consistency whenever your file is opened. Think of a color profile as a gigantic 32 million color paint pallete. (Or something like always using paints from the same manufactuer and batch number.)

Color profiles are a whole topic on their own, and I can't tell you everything there is to know about it. In fact, I can't really add anything to the discussion that G. Ballard hasn't already said. He'll teach you everything you want to know and back it up with live examples.  I'm just here to tell you that you should do it. ;)

If G. Ballard is tl;dr, just change your Photoshop settings to match mine:

Too lazy to read G. Ballard's guide, but you had enough energy to check the alt text?

 

Make sure all the computers that edit your art have the same settings, or you'll have problems.

A quick note about sRGB and the web.

sRGB is the defacto standard for color profiles on the web. Like any good dictator, there's no way around the iron fist of sRGB. Don't forgot to convert your images to sRGB before you publish them online, or work in sRGB to begin with. In Photoshop CS3+, the Save For Web And Devices... dialog will automatically convert your images to sRGB.

Automatic Color Calibration

When I started to learn about color profiles and the differences between monitors, I started to think "Wouldn't it be cool if I had this robot... and this robot had a big specialized eye on the front, and he could walk up to my monitor and stare intently at it for a few minutes and then whisper delicately to my monitor until its contrast and color balance were just right? I mean... it would be cool if I had a robot that didn't do any of that. He could just stand around looking roboty."

This is exactly what I was expecting when I opened the Spyder 3 box.
Tripod Backhoe from Untold the card game. http://www.untoldthegame.com/

My hopes of such a device sailed when I heard that a Spyder 3 Color Calibrator was available for an attainable price. We bought one. I unwrapped it. I was disappointed that it didn't spin silicon webs. Alas.

I calibrated my laptop and the change was very noticable. Then I calibrated my desktop monitor, and everything looked purple.

So I had to do a bunch more research and I learned what a color calibrator was actually doing. The reason my monitor looked purple was because I had left a flourescent light on while calibrating (and Spyders HATE flouresent lighting).

I also learned that our eyes are really spectacular at adjusting for unusually colored light, and even if our monitor has an odd tint to it, we eventually adapt to the shift. Most color problems aren't about your colors being too blue, or too red, or too green, they're about the colors not being evenly spaced, or spread out wide enough. The reality is there isn't an Ideal Blue or Canonical Red, or even a Pure White that you can standardize on.

As I understood color more I began to realize the oversimplified view I had taken. Photographers spend their entire careers chasing the perfect hue, and color calibrators are actually designed to make your monitor look a much like an image printed on paper as possible. The only reason for this is that you can control an image on paper. If I print something out and hand it to you, I know it looks the way I want it to because I can see it before I show it to you. So my life is easier if my monitor looks like the paper I'm going to print on.

Unfortunately the Internet doesn't work that way. I don't get to see what my image looks like on your monitor. It doesn't matter the slightest whether my monitor looks like what my printer prints... 'cause I never print any of this stuff.

So was the Spyder a waste? Nah, it solves some obscure problems with our brightness, and it fixed some very poorly calibrated monitors, and it certainly improved the color on our printed posters that you should buy from our webstore. Truth is, it's a good deal for what it is, but if your monitor isn't calibrated by a sweet robot buddy, you can still get by without it.

Resolution

At Carpe Chaos, we've always had plans to put our comics as anthologies in printed books, so that's limited the aspect ratios we can choose from.

On the web, there are a bazillion options, columns, horizons, and stuff that's not possible on paper, but books can only be a few inches by a few inches, and if you want to do graphic novels on the cheap, you should print two copies on a single press sheet. Press sheets are the big pieces of paper that book printers use, so if you print two books on one sheet, you can cut them apart and dramatically cut down your printing costs, so your book will be about 5" x 7.5", the standard size for Manga.

That said, the actual resolution you display your comics at should be decided by your reader's screen size. If you're publishing on the web, and not doing some kind of sidescrolling comic like The Pale, your horizontal resolution should be limited to 1024, cause people HATE horizontal scrolling. More than 99% of our readers have a screen width of 1024 or larger, and over half of those who don't are on iPhones, which have browsers that cope well with pages that are wider than their screen. Add a little space for scroll bars and margins and 900 pixels wide is a safe bet.

Since there's no standard resolutions to follow on the web, we decided that we wanted a resolution targeting displays capable of showing 1080p video, since those displays are likely to become more common in the future. However, having a giant 1920x1080 comic is too big for smaller screens, so we also create a 1280x720 version of the comic. 1280x720 is just big small enough to fit on most laptop screens, but it's a very tight squeeze, and if the reader has any toolbars installed in their browser, their screen won't be big enough. If we started over again, we'd choose a smaller resolution. Maybe 900x680.

I really appreciate the way Earthsong uses a resolution of 500x694, so as you read through the pages you don't have to scroll in ANY direction. You can just leave your mouse in one place and click "next" over and over.

Compression

There's really only two choices on the web for comics, jpeg and png. PNG will look better, but the file sizes can be enormous. If your pallete is simple, you might be able to get away with using PNG, but for the rest of us, jpeg compression is the only acceptable choice.

When using JPEG on the web, it's important to turn off Chroma Subsampling, which is the ugliest part of JPEG compression. In Photoshop's "Save As.." dialog that means you need a quality setting of 6 or more, and in the "Save For Web..." dialog that means you need a quality settting for 51 or higher. Other programs usually offer a checkbox that controls whether Chroma subsampling is on or off.

Batch Automation

The length of this post testifies to how many things need to be taken into consideration every time we make a page of Carpe Chaos. Keeping track of all this would be an enormous burden if we had to do it by hand. Sort of like catching catchfish with by hand. 

Accessible in Photoshop under Window-->Actions, Photoshop's Action tools can record anything photoshop does, and with the File-->Automate-->Batch command, you can run the same action over and over on any number of files.

To make a new action, just hit the record button:

The record icon is that red circle.

Then do whatever you want to be in the action, then hit the stop button:

The stop button is that teal square.

You can even record other actions being played, which lets you create common functions to be used in multiple actions.  Here're the actions I use to mater the pages of our comic:

Carpe Chaos has a bajillion different actions required to master it's comics.

 

And that's it. I queue up all the pages in the chapter, run the batch operation, and get myself a sandwich. Before long, the comic is born.

 

-Eric

Last month's post on the art of
our comic wasn't so hard to write. It was an opportunity to throw out some of our in-progress images and document what we've been doing for 4 years.
 
This post however... makes me feel rather inadequate. Just last night I was staring blankly at 45 Photoshop pages that refused to do anything but kick my ass over and over. It reminded me that in an area that I should be nailing down to a science... I'm still basing most of what I do on superstitions.
 
And so I present to you, the first 6 months of my adventure in Image Mastering. 
 
So you'll need to take this post with a grain of salt. Do what works for you, and if you find strong evidence that I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments so I don't keep making the same mistakes!
 
That said, I've spent dozens of hours researching this, and I've been doing it for the last 6 months, so unless you're professionally trained, you should probably just shut up and do it the way I say. :) It's a topic that seems straight forward enough: you're just saving out jpegs right? But the reality is a that it's a multi-disciplinary technical endeavor with a dozen things that can go wrong.
 
Image Mastering is the name I've given to the last step of our comic creation process. It involves bringing all the art, text, and technology behind Carpe Chaos into one cohesive whole. The end goal is to ensure that all our hard work comes through in the most absolute crystal-clear perfection that we can muster. I'll hit each area that I've identified individually, and I think that will highlight how many ways this process can go wrong.
 
Last month's post on the art of our comic wasn't so hard to write. It was an opportunity to throw out some of our in-progress images and document what we've been doing for 4 years.
 
This post however... makes me feel rather inadequate. Just last night I was staring blankly at 45 Photoshop pages that refused to do anything but kick my ass over and over. It reminded me that in an area that I should be nailing down to a science... I'm still basing most of what I do on superstitions.
 
And so I present to you, the first 6 months of my adventure in Image Mastering. 
 
So you'll need to take this post with a grain of salt. Do what works for you, and if you find strong evidence that I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments so I don't keep making the same mistakes!
 
That said, I've spent dozens of hours researching this, and I've been doing it for the last 6 months, so unless you're professionally trained, you should probably just shut up and do it the way I say. :) It's a topic that seems straight forward enough: you're just saving out jpegs right? But the reality is a that it's a multi-disciplinary technical endeavor with a dozen things that can go wrong.
 
Image Mastering is the name I've given to the last step of our comic creation process. It involves bringing all the art, text, and technology behind Carpe Chaos into one cohesive whole. The end goal is to ensure that all our hard work comes through in the most absolute crystal-clear perfection that we can muster. I'll hit each area that I've identified individually, and I think that will highlight how many ways this process can go wrong.
 
sdadasdLast month's post on the art of our comic wasn't so hard to write. It was an opportunity to throw out some of our in-progress images and document what we've been doing for 4 years.
 
This post however... makes me feel rather inadequate. Just last night I was staring blankly at 45 Photoshop pages that refused to do anything but kick my ass over and over. It reminded me that in an area that I should be nailing down to a science... I'm still basing most of what I do on superstitions.
 
And so I present to you, the first 6 months of my adventure in Image Mastering. 
 
So you'll need to take this post with a grain of salt. Do what works for you, and if you find strong evidence that I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments so I don't keep making the same mistakes!
 
That said, I've spent dozens of hours researching this, and I've been doing it for the last 6 months, so unless you're professionally trained, you should probably just shut up and do it the way I say. :) It's a topic that seems straight forward enough: you're just saving out jpegs right? But the reality is a that it's a multi-disciplinary technical endeavor with a dozen things that can go wrong.
 
Image Mastering is the name I've given to the last step of our comic creation process. It involves bringing all the art, text, and technology behind Carpe Chaos into one cohesive whole. The end goal is to ensure that all our hard work comes through in the most absolute crystal-clear perfection that we can muster. I'll hit each area that I've identified individually, and I think that will highlight how many ways this process can go wrong.
 
Last month's post on the art of our comic wasn't so hard to write. It was an opportunity to throw out some of our in-progress images and document what we've been doing for 4 years.
 
This post however... makes me feel rather inadequate. Just last night I was staring blankly at 45 Photoshop pages that refused to do anything but kick my ass over and over. It reminded me that in an area that I should be nailing down to a science... I'm still basing most of what I do on superstitions.
 
And so I present to you, the first 6 months of my adventure in Image Mastering. 
 
So you'll need to take this post with a grain of salt. Do what works for you, and if you find strong evidence that I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments so I don't keep making the same mistakes!
 
That said, I've spent dozens of hours researching this, and I've been doing it for the last 6 months, so unless you're professionally trained, you should probably just shut up and do it the way I say. :) It's a topic that seems straight forward enough: you're just saving out jpegs right? But the reality is a that it's a multi-disciplinary technical endeavor with a dozen things that can go wrong.
 
Image Mastering is the name I've given to the last step of our comic creation process. It involves bringing all the art, text, and technology behind Carpe Chaos into one cohesive whole. The end goal is to ensure that all our hard work comes through in the most absolute crystal-clear perfection that we can muster. I'll hit each area that I've identified individually, and I think that will highlight how many ways this process can go wrong.
 
Last month's post on the art of our comic wasn't so hard to write. It was an opportunity to throw out some of our in-progress images and document what we've been doing for 4 years.
 
This post however... makes me feel rather inadequate. Just last night I was staring blankly at 45 Photoshop pages that refused to do anything but kick my ass over and over. It reminded me that in an area that I should be nailing down to a science... I'm still basing most of what I do on superstitions.
 
And so I present to you, the first 6 months of my adventure in Image Mastering. 
 
So you'll need to take this post with a grain of salt. Do what works for you, and if you find strong evidence that I'm wrong, please tell me in the comments so I don't keep making the same mistakes!
 
That said, I've spent dozens of hours researching this, and I've been doing it for the last 6 months, so unless you're professionally trained, you should probably just shut up and do it the way I say. :) It's a topic that seems straight forward enough: you're just saving out jpegs right? But the reality is a that it's a multi-disciplinary technical endeavor with a dozen things that can go wrong.
 
Image Mastering is the name I've given to the last step of our comic creation process. It involves bringing all the art, text, and technology behind Carpe Chaos into one cohesive whole. The end goal is to ensure that all our hard work comes through in the most absolute crystal-clear perfection that we can muster. I'll hit each area that I've identified individually, and I think that will highlight how many ways this process can go wrong.
A Comic Is Born, Part 3: Preserving the Perception of Perfection

Last month I told you about our art creation process. This month I'm going to tell you about the steps we take to make sure our art makes it to our readers in all its glory: what I've come to call "The Image Mastering Process". It may seem like a relatively straightforward process (you're just saving some jpegs and posting them on the web right?), but there's a lot that can go wrong, and getting everything right is a bit of a technical science. 

As evidence of that, even after dozens of hours of research and 6 months of doing this, I still have to rely on a few superstitions and occasionally find a new way of doing it wrong. ;) So if you see any ways I can improve this process, please jump in on the comments section. If you do your own comic and you've never considered whether your readers are seeing your art the way you intended then look sharp, cause you might find something you've been doing wrong!

File Versioning

The first step in making sure your audience sees what you want them to see is making sure you don't lose all your work!

When you work on a project by yourself, its a good idea to keep backups of your files in case you screw them up. When you work on a project with 2 artists, a creative director, an editor, a printer, and some other miscellaneous staff, you're pretty much bound to end up with SOMEONE screwing up your files. Face it, there will be deleting, mangling, destroying, and formatting hundreds of hours of work. You've got to find a way to deal with it.

For all our notes about the Carpe Chaos universe, we've found a great solution with MediaWiki, although I'm starting to wish we wrote story scripts in Google Wave and we might be headed in that direction in the future.

For 80+ MB Photoshop documents however, we can't use a html based system like MediaWiki. Instead we drew from our software development experience and decided to use SVN to keep our files safe. SVN keeps track of all the changes that each of our creators make to all our files. Each version is stored, and creators can leave a little note about what they did. If anybody does something we regret, we can revert the files to an older version. SVN also allows us to lock files, so only one person can work on them at once, this prevents two people from making changes that overwrite each other's work.

SVN has its drawbacks. It's really intended for software code and doesn't deal that well with image files. Some corporations use software like Sharepoint or Alfresco, and if I were to start over from scratch, I'd put a lot more research into those. As it stands, SVN does the job, and switching would probably be more effort than it was worth.

Cleanup

Once our completed files are secure in SVN, I do a little basic cleanup. I check to make sure the fonts are vectors (more on that later), there are no stray marks in the gutters or word balloons, and all of our two-page spreads line up. I have Photoshop set to warn me of any color profile errors (more on that later as well).

This is also the stage where I get to use Photoshop's most Scifi-like tools: the Heal Tool and Content-Aware Fill. I've got a computer science degree and I've been watching Scifi for years, and I always thought that stuff was Hollywood fakin' it. But through some amazing super-powers, Photoshop delivers.

I'm still not convinced that Adobe hasn't discovered some kind of witchcraft to power Content-Aware Fill:

Fonts

Typography is an area where its easy to assume that it can't be that hard, but the reality is a lot more complicated. Fonts aren't just a collection of pictures of letters. Good fonts also contain information other important information like:

Kerning (how far apart letters should be from each other)

Ligatures (when two letters can connect together)

and Hinting (subtle changes in the shape of the font at different sizes).

If you use a crappy font, like Comic Sans, which has horrible kerning, its gonna look glaringly bad next to your art. But there are also ways that you can screw up a fairly well designed front like Ronaldson Bold or Nyala. Font hinting and anti-aliasing handle how letters are drawn at very small sizes. 

Here are some of the typographical pits I've fallen into.

Never Rasterize Text

If I showed you this page in a new tab and asked you if anything was wrong with it, what would you say? Nothing? Now open this page and switch between tabs to compare them. Pay particular attention to the capital O in the second bubble. Something's wrong isn't there? It's because I resized that text after I rasterized it. The difference is very subtle, but now that I've pointed it out, you realize the first one is harder to read and less crisp. Worth avoiding, eh?

When you rasterize text, it strips out all the features of the font that make it flexible at different sizes. If you resize the text after this, it's gonna look blurry and ugly. This goes for flattening text into images as well, since flattening is inherently a rasterization process. 

Never Stretch Text

Typographers put a lot of work into optimizing the readability of their fonts, and when you stretch them or make them taller, you throw a wrench in that. Much like rasterization, you rob yourself of the typographer's expert optimizations. Stretching might work when the fonts are huge (like the title on a cover), but never do it to any kind of dialog or narration text. If you're ever using the Move tool to resize dialog in Photoshop, ur doin' it wrong. Change the font size instead.

Faux Anything is Faux Pas

If your font doesn't have Bold, Italics, or SmallCaps support, you might be tempted to use the Faux Bold, Faux Italics, or Faux Small Caps options in Photoshop:

But these features are actually just an easier way to stretch or distort your fonts (see above). You should try to avoid it. You might slip a few by in a squeeze, but when a graphic designer or typophile looks at your text, they'll recognize it, and immediately think you to be unprofessional. Truth be told, just because your average reader can't articulate that it looks bad, doesn't mean that Faux Text doesn't decrease their subjective opinion of your work as a whole.

Omenitions Of Next Time

Next time we'll talk about this topic a bit more, touching on Color Profiles, Compression Formats, and Resolution. In the mean time I want to leave you with another one of my theories of design, in case you're still not convinced that these details are important.

When we look at a design or piece of artwork with obvious flaws, we can pick them out and articulate "This design looks bad because of this and this." Everybody can see the obvious mistakes, and we need to fix those. But there are other mistakes, things that are just beyond our ability to articulate, but not beyond our ability to perceive that also influence our opinion of the work. Here, I'll show you what I mean.

Consider Samuel L. Jackson's acting. If you don't recognize the name, here's what he looks like:

Now wait a minute. There's something wrong with that picture. Look again. Weird. It's like his face shines too much.... THAT'S NOT SAMUEL L. JACKSON!! THAT'S A WAX FIGURE!!

When you investigate, and really think about it, you can see what's wrong with that picture, but if I hadn't said something, you probably wouldn't have thought to figure out what was wrong, and you would have just had a weird feeling about it, "Something's not right...", and went about your business. 

The best art pushes one step past this "weird feeling". At that point, it's gone so far that even our subconscious mind can't notice it:

You'd think he'd paint something more interesting if he was going to invest that much time.

That's a painting by the way. ;)

Of course, if you let it, your perfectionism will drive you insane and deadlock you into never getting anything done. There are much more forgiving mediums than wax figures and photorealism. If you want to be a productive artist, you need to stop once you've gone one step past what people expect. Roberto Bernardi, who painted the soup cans above, calls this picture a "work in progress". Clearly, he still thinks it has flaws. If you let it, your perfectionism will drive you to your grave.

So one step past perception, but no more.

-Eric

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This blog records the adventures we have making Carpe Chaos!

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