I get two questions about comics all the time. One: ‘Who has better underwear – Captain America or Superman’ (Answer: Superman – dude’s got so much junk in his trunk his underpants need a belt) and Two: ‘How will Moth City work in Print.’
Well Faction editor Damon Keen gave you the opportunity to judge for yourself by asking me to convert my most digitally-digital mini-comic ‘The Reservoir’ so he could publish it in his fancy full-colour Kiwi comics anthology. Never one to miss an opportunity that involves large amounts of unpaid work, I leapt at it.
While the main ‘Moth City’ series is created print-ready with special digital features, it’s off-shoot ‘The Reservoir’ was intended as a purely digital experience, focusing on full-screen images in lieu of smaller panels and large bold type that even a low resolution black and white Kindle could handle. It was as far away from Dave Gibbon’s nine-panel structure in ‘Watchmen’ as you could get and still consider it a comic.
I tried a lot of things, and learned a lot, some technical, some story related. Below are six important things I learned from the process.
ONE: Damon owes me a beer.
TWO: Print resolution can be much higher than digital.
I had created ‘The Reservoir’ for HD screens with a max resolution of 1920 x 1080. I bumped this expectation way up for the main series, but I didn’t know any better then. A full-screen panel was around 2750 x 1570 which allowed for some pinch and zoom and a bit of future-proofing in regards to screen technology.
Using the print-specifications I got from Damon I couldn’t even stretch one of those panels across a single page, let alone do a double page spread.
THREE: It’s all about the bottom right corner.
With digital you can draw out a moment forever. Want more suspense? Add a screen of black with a little text or have a screen with art only. I found that if I wanted to end my printed pages on a certain moments I often had to cut or stretch the moments in-between. Some images just couldn’t make the cut, others had to be tweaked to have additional text.
FOUR: A grid will save your life.
Due to the challenge of hitting the right beats before the page turns, I went with the 3×3 panel grid that Gibbons did in ‘Watchmen’. It gave me sense of pacing that was still flexible, allowing me to absorb a whole row of 3 panels into one landscape panel, or break things down a piece at a time.
My “mini-comic” was stretching to 30 printed pages and I needed to control things better. Initially I experimented with free-form panels, thinking that I could gain something from the organic layout or contrast in panel sizes, and a combination of low-res source material (see TWO) and pacing (see THREE) made this impossible. Back to the grid, baby.
FIVE: Colour in print comics is more enveloping than it is in digital.
I work very hard on matching my colours to the tone of the scenes they appear in, even designing colour scripts that match the overall arc and genre-twists of Moth City. But there’s something about the framing device of digital that stops the reader from appreciating the pages to either side of the current one being viewed. Flicking through Faction, you can relive the whole arc of McCaw’s story in moments.
SIX: Call backs and clues in Digital comics are a pain in the ass.
“Wait, she’s lying, isn’t she?” “Was that a dialogue callback?” “Oh sh*t isn’t that the sailor’s pistol?” These types of questions drive readers insane with digital comics like Moth City. Checking on something is not the elegant flicking of tree flesh, but instead an injury inducing click-fest. Which is a shame, cause I looooove putting in call backs and clues in my drawings. Examples? I can’t be bother finding them in digital either.
Physical comics are fantastic at laying our clear comparisons. With their visual nature it is one of the things that separate it from film, and bring it closer to the form of the novel. I’d suggest it’s superior to the novel in this aspect. Print helps complex visual narratives stories shine.
All visual storytelling relies on the balance of reveals, breaking patterns and flow, so the digital to print transition was not as much work as I feared. ‘The Reservoir’ would be as hard as it gets, much harder than the main series. I’ve been lucky that with ‘Moth City’ I’ve always kept the traditional comic reader in mind; digital elements act only as a bonus element, action unfolds to the right – following the western reading pattern, and print page layout techniques are respected.
If you’re exploring the exciting space of digital comics and you see your work as bigger than a few tricks and gimmicks you might consider walking that line yourself.