A Comic-Making Walkthrough from Tony Cliff

(author of the to-be-published-tomorrow Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant)

Making comics starts the same way for every good comics creator, and I am no exception. I think about a thing I would like to make for weeks, maybe months. I procrastinate by cleaning the house, or playing video games, or discovering that maybe I do, indeed, like exercise? It’s certainly easier than sitting down to start all this nonsense.

Eventually it has to happen, though, because the alternative is going crazy. Admittedly, my house would be really clean, I’d be in excellent shape, and I’d be so much better at Call of Duty than those pre-teens online. Creatively dissatisfied, though, oh woe is me.

I ease into it by jotting down little notes and ideas in a sketchbook. It’s important to me that the sketchbook is cheap, that the pages are easy to remove, and that the whole thing’s just the right size – small enough to be easily portable, but large enough to fit enough work on it. It took trial and error, but eventually I found the perfect book for me. The “cheap” part is important because if it’s expensive, I’ll never want to use it for fear that a dumb idea will foul up this precious, precious sketchbook. Cheap garbage sketchbook? No stress, let’s get those dumb ideas out. After all, in order to have NEW, GREAT ideas, you have to get the dumb ones out and written down first. Think of a sketchbook like a ghost-trap for your creative ideas. You wanna get them locked away in the containment chamber so you can be haunted by better ideas. This is what a few of those pages look like – they’re mostly brainstorming, lists, short dialogue exchanges, and ideas for things that seem clever, like jokes, callbacks, story symmetry ideas, or parallel ideas.

TCliff-DDProcess-01 TCliff-DDProcess-02

Putting down these notes and brainstorming could go on forever, so once some sort of external impulse pops up to say, “okay, make the thing now,” or once I become bored of Call of Duty, I flip through all the notes and start organizing the promising bits into a storyline. Generally this looks like pages of point-form story beats. I’ll rearrange them mentally as I go. Usually I’ll make one pass, then another. I’ll highlight things that seem strong and excise things that seem like dead-ends or distractions. One such sheet might look as follows.


Getting the story to feel the way I want it is difficult – I visualize it like a polygonal circle, with points sticking out or being recessed corresponding to… you know? I’m not sure. It’s all very airy-fairy and intuitive and I don’t really understand it. I just know when I look at my materials whether the story feels like it is a gross, lumpy, lopsided shape or not. Generally, at this point, it is still very lopsided, with a few spikes here and there. I often use the term “beating a story into shape” around this part of the process, similar to the way a blacksmith might hammer a lumpy old piece of copper into, say, a smooth, round, shiny buckler. That’s right, I DO make it seem totally macho.

I’m not trying to say that I want to iron out all the peculiarities or weirdness from the story. I want to keep those things that give the story its unique flavour and texture. I want the final product to be a little uneven. Not perfectly symmetrical, not perfectly tied-up, but unified in a pleasing way. To throw another metaphor into the metaphor soup, I want a weathered, quirky old farmhouse, not the polished concrete and glass of a Yaletown condo.

I keep trying to beat the story into shape as I jot down story beats as two-page spreads, loosely estimating what I can fit on a page. It looks like this (below), and this is usually where the most rearranging gets done. I get a better sense of what elements are really sticking out or pulling the book off-balance, and can adjust accordingly.


From there, I move to thumbnails. Here, I try to establish a very basic sense of composition on the two-page spreads, as well as indicating what is required, story-wise, from any dialogue or other text on the page.


Things are still pretty malleable as I move onto roughs. These are pages of plain old 11×17 paper folded into 8 sections, each of which ends up being roughly comic-book-page sized. As you can see from the two images below, I’ll try the same idea in a few ways to get to something that works. Dialogue is getting more well-defined and I’m getting an even better sense of what I can fit on the page.



Those roughs all get scanned into the computer. For this particular project, I went through and tidied up the line art digitally and added some values in grey, just to increase readability and establish that silhouettes are reading clearly. I also add in digital word balloons and text. Then, I pass this around to a couple people whom I trust to give me honest, constructive feedback. I’ll make notes (the pink Post-Its below). For this project, I think I went in and made the requisite changes digitally.

TCliff-DDProcess-09 TCliff-DDProcess-08

There – the tough part is over. The rest just involves making the art. I take those digitally-cleaned-up roughs, remove the dialogue and the grey stuff, and print out the rough line art in very faint blue lines onto 11×17 illustration paper. I use pencil to draw the final line art above the faint blue lines.


After all the line art is complete, I’ll scan the pages back in, digitally remove the blue lines, and play with the contrast to get the line art looking its best. I add the balloons and text back in and proceed with “flatting” – a process establishing the different areas to be coloured on the page, all separated on different layers. It is the digital equivalent of masking off a piece of a painting or creating hundreds of little stencils to control where the paint goes. It’s not technically necessary, but I find it helps speed up the colouring process.

If you’d like to see all this work in person (and you happen to be in Vancouver), drop by the PROCESS COLOUR exhibit at the Hot Art Wet City gallery. Stick your nose right up close to all the notes and read all the embarrassing abandoned story ideas. There are similar process artefacts on display from Rebecca Dart, Brandon Graham, and Simon Roy, documenting their creative workflow.

The show runs until Friday, August 30th, 2013, culminating in a launch party for DELILAH DIRK AND THE TURKISH LIEUTENANT!