Tools of the Trade: The Scanner

Being a comic artist involves, as one might expect, quiet a lot of drawing. But, a good proportion of your time isn’t spent on drawing, it’s spent on various admin things. Back in the old days (you know, a couple of years ago or so) lots of that time would be spent dealing with post (packaging art, heading to the post office, waiting in queues, getting annoyed and, generally, NOT drawing). Now, the job a lot of artists dread is scanning.

Every page needs to be scanned and, often, touched up to clear up various things. And, if you’ve only access to an A4 scanner there’s lots and lots of patching things together moving them about and joining them up.

The first scanner I ever owned was a four inch wide hand held scanner (actually, I never owned it, I worked in a shop selling computer equipment – so equipment like that passed through my hands before it ended up with customers). Course, those scanners were useless (though, comparatively cheap), but, to be fair, the computers weren’t really potent enough to do anything with big scanned images.

The next scanner I saw was a monsterous A4 monochrome scanner, costing around a couple of grand (it used a SCSI interface and was lightening fast – in the old days when light travelled really slowly).

Once A4 scanners became cheap, I bought one and have, over time, come to both rely on and really detest the whole scanning process.

I managed, over time, to procure an A3 scanner – a Mustek, horrible it was, slow, grinding, incompatible with mac os x (and, despite new models coming out, one of the most read pages on my old blog was a page explaining how to make it work with a mac) BUT it scanned A3 art – one pass scans were within grasp but it was so shoddy in quality, that, ultimately it sat, dead on the my shelf.

I bought better and better A4 scanners and finally, ended up with a Canon LiDe50. Great scanner, but it had a horrible lip over the border of the entire scanning area making scanning an A3 page in two passes a nightmare (not something I found out until I bought it and unpacked it). Turns out almost all modern A4 scanners had some sort of lip – so I ripped a portion of it off, taped the glass on that side into place and, voila, an A4 scanner that would allow me to scan in two chunks. And, the lip that I left gave me a neat guide to shunt the page into to keep the paper steady making it easier to match up both sides.

And while this was a lot better than the A3 scanner in terms of quality, it was still a pain to have to ensure the pages are lined up perfectly, scan in two passes and then merge together in your graphic tool of choice – sometimes lining the pages up was such a pain, you’d end up scanning in multiple passes – grabbing a panel with each pass.

So, finally, I broke – it was time to spring for an A3 scanner – and THIS time, the market had entirely changed. When I bought the Mustek (£99) the next cheapest scanner was around five grand – my new A3 scanner/printer cost £270. Lots of cash, but worth every penny, and it’s fairly changed how I work.

The process, before, was:

Thumbnail > pencil page > ink page > scan page (avoiding scanning pencils unless I really have to)

NOW:

large thumbnail > scan > print in blue > ink > scan (oddly more scanning, but less effort required to do it)

Tried the new process on a few pages so we’ll see if it sticks, but it’s great. The other thing it’s letting me do, is stop worrying about drawing panels – I now do all my panel borders in the computer on top of the blueline pencils. Print that out and I have a pre ruled page with borders completed, all I’ve gotta do is attack with some ink. Normally, I measure all panel borders out – to try and keep them totally straight, this is a fairly time consuming and laborious process that I’m pretty glad I’ve found a workaround.

Added to that, I can also add photo reference directly to the page, turn it into a blueline guide, print that out (with all the other pencils on a single page) and ink it, thereby totally integrating photos with the art in a way that makes it pretty much impossible to tell photo reference was used.

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The large thumbnails are drawn in a moleskin book and, oddly, the proportions of the moleskin end up being almost exactly right for American comics.

Anyhue, if you’re thinking about A3 scanner/printer combo: The Brother DCP-6690CW is brilliant and worth every penny.

Here’s the key info, if you’re dealing with comics:

Pros

  • Doesn’t take up too much foot space.
  • Prints to the edge of the page
  • Seems happy to take my Canson Bristol Board (220gsm) pages (though does leave an impression/dirty mark on the BACK from the roller when they’re printed and, to be fair, they’re heavier than the manufacturer recommends).
  • Cost £270 from Amazon, ink seems cheap (found unbranded ink for £8 for two sets of all colours+black) – have yet to replace a cart (uses individual cartridges for each of the colours). So I imagine I’ll be replacing the cyan and black a lot, but not the rest 🙂

Cons

  • Weirdly, doesn’t quiet scan to the edge of A3 – you can lose about 2/3 mm from the edge of whatever you’re scanning. Not a problem for 99.9% of things, but a little a mysterious, none the less. This may be a software issue – I’m not sure.

UPDATE

I’ve had the scanner long enough now to form a decent long term opinion, which is: I wish I’d bought one years ago. Scanning A3 pencils, converting to blueline, printing and re-scanning really helped me get Happy Valley in easily within deadline (including a 12 page Megazine story at the same time). Deffo worth the cash.

Murderdrome One Year On…

Murderdrome was an iPhone comic, created by Al Ewing (Script), PJ Holden (Art), Phil Orr (Programming).

And here’s how it came about …

8th July 2009 – I came up with the basic design of an iPhone comic, how it would work, the essence of a business model, etc. At this point, on the app store there are literally six or seven other comic apps on the there – none of which approach comics the way I felt they should be. And yet, I figured what I wanted to do was, surely, the most obvious thing. (see xcake.org wiki where the original details are noted)

I hash out the specifics of the interface, and sit on it, waiting for an opportunity to learn how to program (see full details of the interface here). At this point I was still working part time as an IT supervisor for a charity.

I had some high ambitions, firstly I felt that the only thing worth doing was entirely new content; I couldn’t see how you could chop up existing material and make it readable (and given some of the apps out there that butcher existing comic material, I’m not convinced I was wrong…)

I’d mulled over the idea of open sourcing the app – allowing any comic creator to download and realise material in this way.

And the extras I wanted to put in are still far ahead of what anyone is presently doing.

The business model, which, for me, was the least important bit, but it was, ultimately,  the thing that everyone around me got the most excited about. Even a simple calculation suggested that the iPhone comic model could be a multi-million pound industry. I offered the following simple example:

Take the top selling comic on the market today (at time of writing this article, it’s BATMAN and ROBIN #1 with sales of 168,604)

Now, assume your ENTIRE iPhone comic market can sell the numbers of that single comic per month, in other words, assume the total, potential, cumulative sales of all iPhone comics adds up to JUST the sales of the single best selling print comic.

(Is that a reasonable assumption to make? well, when you’re dealing with speculation in an untested/unknown area, it’s pretty hard to make any kind of guess, but this, at the time, seemed a reasonable way to estimate the potential market.)

Assume you’re selling iPhone comics for $.99 – then your total market per annum is worth just over 2 million dollars.

(As an aside, Apple will take 30% of the $.99, leaving $.69 for the creators, for a print comic, the figures get much more complex and murky, but, simplistically, a print comic will return, assuming a distribution cost of 60% – leaves you with $1.79, then you have to pay for print – which will decrease per issue, but, assuming it’s $.40 you’re looking at a return for creators of $1.39 – that may look like it’s more profitable in print, but your profits from print may not appear at all – you have to pay the printers, often, before you get any money returned from the distributor, leaving cash flow problems that can scupper even popular books. The apple money comes to you without costing you anything more than a once a year fee of $99. In other words, the $.69 of each sales happens on each sale regardless of the sale of the enterprise, print’s demands are much greater)

And those are the lo-ball figures. It was enough to make you and everyone around you giddy. THIS is why digital comics are interesting from a publishers perspective.

Then, on the 31th of July my friend Matt Johnston was married and, at his wedding, I met Phil Orr. Phil had seen what I wanted to do and we decided to let Phil code the app while I started into Murderdrome.

Murderdrome was originally written by Al as a webcomic, we wanted to work together and Al dusted off Murderdrome (originally drawn by Simon Penter) and I set to work adapting the comic art for the iPhone format.

Two weeks later we submitted it to apple. And waited.

Two weeks after that, Apple rejected the app and the rest is a very minor blip in the history of digital comics.

Updated Just wanted to add: the comic strip below, the TWO page full colour strip, was the entire murderdrome comic – it was on the strength of those two pages that everything followed from. Bizarre, innit 🙂

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Thoughts on Digital Comics and Piracy

So, recently I was contacted by Daniel Boswell, a student who’s doing a thesis on digital comics, and I figured ya’all might be interested in some of the questions and answers. These are my first thoughts – and, to be honest, I was a little surprised at exactly how I felt on some of these fronts, but… here they are… and I welcome discussion (and, even, disagreement!)
What issues arise when converting comics to be read via portable digital devices?

For almost all pre-existing comics (ie stuff that’s either been published already or designed for print) the biggest issue is dealing with the size of the screen, and the corresponding ergonomics of the device. Ie, bigger screens are better for reading, but, right now, bigger screens mean that you have to use a desktop or laptop computer – neither of which are particularly convenient for reading comics. Smaller screens have to either cut up the artwork (as iVerse, uClick and other publishers have done), present the art in some smaller windowed format (the comixology app handles that by whooshing the reader around the panels, the Comic Reader Mobi handles it by allowing you to double tap to auto-zoom in on text boxes) the Infurious Heroes comic reader deals with it by presenting the entire page in landscape mode – requiring you to swipe the screen up or down to read, and includes a double tap to zoom.

The issues are different when creating new content.

What digital publishing systems and digital rights technologies are being used to produce comics in this way? Can you also explain how the technology works, in layman’s terms?

Did the above answer that? (If you need more details I’ll happily follow up)

Coming soon is the Longbox project, headed by Rantz Hosely. Longbox promises to be an ‘itunes’ for comics. Although, I think, the issue for digital comics will remain finding the perfect device to read comics on.

You mentioned Murderdrome being banned by Apple. What kind of impediments and regulations are being imposed by its seeming monopoly of portable media (with the iPhone and touch) and what alternatives are there for artists wanting to digitally publish their work.

Well, apple are slowly opening up. When Murderdrome was ‘banned’ (and it, strictly speaking wasn’t – we were asked to resubmit and remove the offending material – a practical impossibility, sadly) there were no ratings system in place for material like comics, Apple have since altered the app store to allow ratings on all kinds of apps (including books). It’s still not a perfect system, many apps, for example, have had to accept a 17+ rating simply because the offer access to material via the internet (indirectly offering access to adult material).

Publishing your work digitally is easy, there are all sorts of ways of doing it (myebook.com, issu.com and simply setting up a blog with a comic on there). The trick is the publish your work and be paid – a much more difficult thing. Apple’s app store was (and still is) the only viable way to manage micropayments to millions of users without the artists/publishers having to deal with any of the corresponding infrastructure required to do so. So, for example, one person could create a comic, publish it on the Apple AppStore and receive micropayments world wide from a captured audience of 14million or more users for a one off cost of $99 (which is Apple’s fee for allowing you to be a ‘developer’). Those costs do not change, as apple take a 30% cut of every comic (in the form of an app) sold. Compared to traditional print, that’s almost a magical option!

What kind of response and consumer feedback is being seen in response to these digital initiatives?

So far it seems to be very positive, everyone recognises that the current method of distribution is ‘broken’.

What do you see as the relative strengths and weaknesses of print comics vs. digital comics?

Print comics can be very beautiful – and remain real objects that people are attached too – beyond their content, the shape of the book, the tactility of it and the smell of print are very attractive for a large number of people (myself included) and that’s something digital comics can never duplicate.

On the other hand…

Digital comics require less physical space (a MASSIVE reason that many people, as the grow older and have kids, find to stop reading comics)
Digital comics are often much cheaper (99cent / $2 is the common price point people are talking about as opposed to $2.99/$3.99)
Digital comics are much easier to distribute (worldwide distribution is as easy as local distribution; 2000AD for example, while very popular world wide is almost impossible to get overseas with any regularity)
Digital comics promise to increase the revenue to the comic creator (in the case of the App Store, 70% of the cost of the comic goes to the comics creators, in the case of print, you’ll be VERY lucky to see any profits at all – and, if you do reach a point where costs are covered you will only ever see around 40% of the cover price – money which will be used to pay for print on the next issue)
Digital comics never go out of print (or out of stock)
Digital comics, like comics themselves, can be created by anyone with a bit of time.

How much of a threat do you consider digital piracy to be and what affect do you think it can have on the print industry (particularly in regard to the market for American works by major publishers like Marvel and DC)?

I think going digital is inevitable, digital piracy is ALSO inevitable, but I’m not sure I’d agree it’s a threat – until Marvel / DC start selling material online in a decent format (ie CBR) digital piracy is not only NOT competing with legitimate sales it’s actually increasing the potential number of comic readers. If you could make ALL pirated content disappear tomorrow (ie unplug the internet for EVERYONE) those people would NOT wonder around looking for comic shops, they’d simply stop reading comics. They’re reading pirated comics because, for them, there are no alternative methods of getting comics (and, in the case of some comics, ie Marvelman, Zenith and others, there are no ways to get those comics at all). Marvel have a digital distribution system but it’s so poorly put together, my feeling is that the only people reading it are marvel ‘zombies’ who are, in all likelihood, already buying the comics.

As with the music industry, until a method of selling comics digitally in a cheap DRM unencumbered format is available, it’s hard to compare the distribution of free CBR/CBZ comics with the lack of ‘potential sales’. If digital piracy where really a big issue, then iTunes would be out of business. Present a central method for people to buy material they want in a fair price without DRM and piracy, while it will never go away, it will certainly never steal real customers.

“Customers think the price is really good where it is. We’re trying to compete with piracy — we’re trying to pull people away from piracy and say, ‘You can buy these songs legally for a fair price.’ But if the price goes up a lot, they’ll go back to piracy. Then, everybody loses.”
Steve Jobs.

Does it pose a risk to the development of digital comics for portable media?

No. Anything that creates more readers of comics is a good thing.

(There may be some follow up questions which I’ll also post here and I could probably do with a good copy editor, but there you have it. Thanks for Daniel for allowing me to post this up…)