The CVRPG Comic Creation Process:
Author's Note: For those of you who have read through the site before, this article replaces the old "How to Make a Comic" article. That page never really suited my goals, and it's better forgotten.
Some people have asked me how it is I make my comic. I expect it's because they think that asking me will inform them, in great detail, about how it is that I can make a comic, not just the actual creation process, but how ideas come together, and where my ideas come from, and how they can become an awesome comic artist.
Of course, the fact that they are asking this of a guy that (a) makes a sprite comic, and (b) tries to do as little work as possible during said sprite comic creation seems to completely elude them. I can't say, specifically, how it is I am able to bring together "ideas" and create "art" (ha!), but I can go over my comic creation process, the steps I take day-to-day, and maybe that will help illuminate the matter a little.
Step 0: The Before-hand
On any given day, my comic creation process will start sometime around 11:00 at night (EST, if you want to get really specific). I try to put off doing the comic for as long as possible, instead choosing to stay up watching TV (the CW superhero shows likely candidates for potential distraction). Once I've spent enough time stalling, I'll kick on some music, put myself into the "right" mindset -- somewhere between mild disinterest and shockingly cold apathy -- and open up the Adobe suite.
While my programs load, I'll take a look back over the current archive, check to see what characters I haven't used recently, and see if I think they're ready for their next strip. Often times I have three or more plot-lines going, and I have to make sure to pace how often they appear, and how long their off-time should be so that everything appears to move at a realistic pace.
Pacing is important. You can't have one set of characters be about to reach a boss and then shift to another set of characters for eight or so strips, only to come back and have that first set of characters still almost about to reach that boss. Shouldn't they have, in comic-time, reached said boss already and, possibly, killed it by now? (this is actually useful, as if you don't want to show something on screen you can always cut away and use natural pacing to have those events happen while you're away).
If I'm really strapped for ideas, I can hit a little Notepad file I have with the over-all comic arcs plotted out. There's no more than a few brief sentences to encompass each of the games (so, around 300 to 500 comics), but it does help to get me refocused and make sure I haven't forgotten some hugely important plot point (I have done this before).
Remember, CVRPG is not really planned out. Day-to-day I will decide, right at this step, what the comic that day will be about. There's little pre-planning, and all the jokes just happen as they happen.
Step 1: Comic Layout
Comic idea in hand, my first real job is to layout the comic. Usually I'll put down three panels (of varying sizes and layout -- it's good to shift layout often so things don't become stale) of background, and then try to think if that's enough to write all the dialogue I want. Sometimes I only need a panel or two. Other times, I have to stretch the comic out for a while (six or more panels) just to do justice to the bit of story I'm telling that day.
Since my comic doesn't always have a fixed height I can fit the comic to match my idea (CVRPG uses a fixed height template currently, but I'm free to add on "deleted scenes" at the bottom, with the commentary, any time I have more ideas than I can fit into the strip; meanwhile DSWC is much more freeform). It's freeing, really. I'm sure some people do quite well with the limits imposed by a three- or four-panel, fixed-size, fixed-frame layout, but I just can't do that. Not only would I get bored, but sometimes I like to have my characters be really talky (or, very occasionally, I want to do a big action sequence), and I just can't make the comic be 600px (or less) no matter what.
On the flip, if I think a comic is just not funny at all, I'll keep adding panels to it until I get the characters to a point where they are funny (I believe one comic got up to 2500px in height before I finally found the funny).
Of course, laying out the panels first implies that, by this point, I sorta know what I'll be writing -- which I do. I'll have the basic character interactions in mind, having been thinking on them while I was browsing the archive in step zero, and refining it while I layout the comic backgrounds. It's a process I'm used to by now, after thirteen years, and if for some reason you decide to do things the way I do (I don't know how many people could, or would honestly want to), then you'll just have to practice to get there.
An important point to note is about the actual balance of the layout: make sure the comic feels balanced. This is about the height and alignment of the various elements. If you have all the panels off to one side, or all the characters and text on one side or the other (or all at the top or the bottom), then that's a lot of wasted space. Why crunch everything up? Really, you should space everything out, give it a balance of weight, or just make a thinner comic.
Step 2: Placing Characters
Once the comic is laid out, I'll pull open the sprite sheets for the various characters I'll be using for that day's excursion (either the classic 8-bit and 16-bit comics if I'm doing a DSWCl hand-drawn vector sprites for CVRPG). The placement of the characters is the most time-consuming part of the whole process -- especially if I have to make any new frames just to do the joke I want to do. Each character has to be placed, specifically in the right spot (it's noticeable if there isn't continuity in character placement), and each character has to have shadows added afterwards (I could, probably, have the shadows on the characters in the sheets, but what if the characters are out in low light, or at night, or in a weird quasi-dimension -- all of which has happened).
With the characters set, I double-check to make sure I left enough room for all the speech bubbles and text that will be going on afterwards. I'm particular about how I like my layouts, and I don't like speech bubbles (speech lines, really) to cross or for text to overlap talking characters (especially text from one character to overlap another talking character). If everything looks good, it's time for the next step...
Step 3: Dialogue
If any step comes easy, it's this part right here. I'm good with dialogue. It's not being immodest -- CVRPG is a talky comic, and I've been doing it for a long time. If I wasn't good at it by now, I should stop what I'm doing and do something else (maybe erotic origami).
Since I know what I want the characters to do (and they should be doing it, as they're already there just waiting for me to bring the funny), it's my job to write it all down. I do all of this, on the fly, right onto the comic (and not first in a word processor, which is why sometimes there's typos). Now, sure, I could write it out in Word (or whatever), but I don't. Dialogue is crafted not only to fit the situation for the plot, but also to fit into whatever layout I setup. Any time I try to script outside the comic layout, I always end up with more text than I can fit, and the comic feels cramped. The best way I've found to make the art and text blend is just to commit at the start and write on the fly.
This step is where I add the speech bubbles. And, if, for some reason I think the comic isn't funny enough yet, this is also where I add more frames and sprites (and deleted scenes), and then more text. The funny is key.
Step 4: Uploading and Touch-ups
This key rule here is "check, check, look at porn, double-check" (porn optional, although sometimes encouraged). When I upload to the site, I check the comic against any site text (make sure everything is spelled the same way), check the comic for any typos (just to be sure), and check to make sure all the incidental links and everything else around the comic works as well. I hate it when I miss something and the comic doesn't go up just right (makes me look more unprofessional than I do already).
Then, after all of this, I go away and read something else for a while (yay porn) then come back and check everything again -- vitally important, as sometimes, even on a check run, you'll miss something. Refreshed eyes see new things.
"That's Great, But It Doesn't Help Me"
I never said it would, I just said I'd show what I do. But, if you want some ideas of ways you can improve your own comic:
Never Use MS Paint: I can't stress this enough. MS Paint is evil. You can't move anything around after you've put it on the screen (not easily). You can't do nice effects with text... Really, you just can't do much of anything. Please, for all that is holy, never use MS Paint. If you have the cash, get Photoshop. If you don't, at least use the GIMP. This is a favor to yourself, and future you will thank past you for your considerate gesture.
Know What You're Going to Do Before You Do It: I know it seems hypocritical for me to say this, but even I know a little about what I'll do before I go into making the comic. I may not spend more than 30 seconds thinking about that day's issue, but I think about it, and so should you. This is doubly important if this endeavor is your first comic: you are not an improv genius. You'll have to develop the skill to write creatively on the fly. Make notes, plot out ideas, and make sure you know what your big plot arc will be. Your reader will appreciate the fact the comic is going "somewhere", and if even you fail to have any good ideas, that pesky plot is always something to fall back on.
Don't Beat Jokes to Death: A running gag is one thing. A tired gag is another. Use a joke a couple of times, then let it roam free, elsewhere, for a spell, before bringing it back. The more often you use a joke, the more time you need away from it before the next time you use it (three times in one week is too much, while just once after a year away is usually just right). Part of the fun of a good running gag is not seeing it coming until it's run up behind you... Okay, I need to stop using this metaphor.
If You Don't Have Ideas, Don't Make a Comic: For some, this would be a no brainer... and yet I've gotten emails asking me for ideas to help someone make their own comic. If you're already stuck for ideas now, it's going to be really bad once you're a few months in. That struggle will be unbearable. Maybe a comic just isn't in the cards for you.
Have Fun: Finally, you need to make sure that what you're doing is enjoyable. If you like the comic, and have fun making it, that will come across to your readers. If you hate what you're doing, then just don't do it.