Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Manga Studio 5 EX - first impressions

Manga Studio 5 EX was released last week and, having used version 4 EX (which I reviewed here for MacWorld) every day for the last four and a half years, I was keen to get my hands on the new version. The upgrade from version 3 to 4 had been a great pleasure, so I had held on for the pro EX version, which included the story management features I use to keep myself organised. What I found was, to put it mildly, a mixed bag.

MS5 EX isn't really an upgrade. It's a completely different program. Earlier versions were a westernised version of Celsys Comic Studio. The new version is a different program - Clip Studio.

Sadly, it has not been localised very well. Menu options are sometimes offered in a lousy pidgin English that, while close to comprehensible, still leave one in doubt.  Were this version of Manga Studio a masterpiece of usability, I don't think this would matter. But it's not. It's a melée of menus, submenus, optional customisations, and interface contradictions so gnomic that one is frequently sent into the seven-fold preference menus to try and right things.

Herein lies the contradiction that makes the struggle seem somewhat worth it - at the heart of the madness is an excellent program with which to draw comics. The pen tools are, largely, better. They can be tweaked to your heart's desire. There are new perspective rulers which make a mockery of MS4's fiddly version (though these are retained for those who are used to them). There are a myriad of new colouring features which will please anyone who doesn't want to colour in Photoshop. Huge paper sizes are now available if you need them. It feels snappier. The manual is 650 pages long,  I'm sure that there is plenty more iceberg underwater.

But on trying to draw a comic with the ease I did in Manga Studio 4, I came across several issues that meant I couldn't. I list these merely as a caveat for other upgraders who may be thinking of switching. Such is the nature of the program that, given four or five hours of tweaking, you could probably make it behave the way you want it to - but it seems almost cruel of SmithMicro to offer this software out of the box with so many indiosyncratic differences from its predecessor. Here are ten things that drove me crazy:

1. The pen and pencil cursors are the same. So if you switch between the two with your shortcut key, as I do all day long, you can't tell immediately which one you're using. Of course, should you wish to draw with a pastel, that has its own cursor. Perhaps the pastel lobby is more powerful than the pencil lobby.

2. Correction has been taken out of the pen menus. Good luck digging the mess it is now out and reinstating it. One of the best features of MS3 & 4 was that if you turned correction right up to 20 and drew a stroke, it was a straight line with a variable width based on how hard you pressed down - as if you'd drawn a nib line with a ruler. Now, no matter how you tweak its numerous settings, the super-corrected line shrinks to a razor-thin line. If you relied on that feature to quickly draw lines, you won't be doing that any more.

EDIT: I worked out how to make it work like it used to. Click the spanner (bottom right) to bring up tool settings. Select 'correction' from the menu on the left. Click the check box (the little eye) so the 'post correction' option is visible on the tool menu. Check 'bezier curve' only under that. You'll now get straight, relatively uniform lines like MS4 when correction is switched on.  Feel free to play with the other settings - bezier curve is the one that restores the familiar behaviour.

3. Instead of numerical sliders to change settings, some options are represented by a series of slightly different grey blocks. Good luck remembering which grey box you clicked, and what numerical value it denotes.

EDIT: You can change this. CMD-click on the blocks, select 'show slider'.

4. The straight line and shape drawing tool, panel ruler tools and ruler tools are all under one icon. I found them eventually. Panel cutting was a very neat and tidy operation in version 4, but it's reverted to the complicated setup I think I remember from version 3, generating nested folders and masks. I don't know why. Perhaps someone knows why.

EDIT: You can turn the nested folders off (you'll still get one big nested folder) - in the tool properties for "divide frame folder", select "not change". Not change! Now, when you chop things up, all the artwork is behind one mask.

5. The layers palette has been broken into two separate entities. The relationship between these two is as complex and delicate as the relationship between those four organisms that make up the Portuguese Man O War. And as difficult to understand. Remember when there was a button to make your pencils into a blue line? Now, merge a couple of layers, one blue-lined, and things become very complicated very quickly.

6. Remember the old square eraser that you could turn to an angle? And it was big when you zoomed out and small when you zoomed in? I'm sure you can restore that but after an hour of trying, I gave up.

EDIT: If you want a square eraser (I couldn't work out how to easily angle it), select eraser, go to tool property, select brush shape, click 'material', look for a brush called 'small', it's a square.

7. Everything is set to anti-aliased. Set aside some time to really enjoy putting things back to 2-bit.

8. There are a lot of new pencils, but they look and feel different to the MS4 pencil. You can import your old pencil, but it doesn't look the same. I'm sure this is something I'll get used to, but it would have been nice to have had the option. You can import all your old tools from MS4 if you wish, but the results are a mixed bag.

9. Saving and organising your page templates has gone from placing them in one simple menu by saving the page as a template, to having to select a load of layers, make them into material, then place them on a paper template, after digging them out from all the other templates provided.

10. The interface is a huge mess. It's a disaster. I heard complaints over the years that MS4 had an ugly interface. It wasn't beautiful, but it worked, and it was easy to get by with a bare minimum of screen real estate lost. The new version is almost exquisite in its visual bloat.

I don't think this a bad piece of software, per se. It's learnable. But I honestly think that SmithMicro are dishonest in pushing this as the same line of software. Customisable as it is, they could have made at least some concession to their existing users. Out of the box, it is more disruptive than helpful to long term users. For six or seven years, I've touted Manga Studio as software that makes making comics easier and more pleasant. This is the first version I've used that doesn't do that. And that's a shame.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Tall comics

For the new Bad Machinery story I decided to do tall comics. I had been working in a landscape format for three and a half years, and for most of that time I had felt completely constrained by the format. Landscape creates a world of problems with pacing. Or rather, it created a world of problems with pacing for ME. I found myself slicing my two rows up into ever smaller slivers in an attempt to move things along.

The new format I'm drawing in isn't really double the size of the old pages - that would take twice as long to draw - it's probably a third to a half more real estate. I am sure that some kind of mathematical hero will tell me exactly how much more room to manoeuvre I have. But the additional space has already started to change the comics - there's room to be thinky and (hopefully) funny at the same time, to switch scenes mid-page, and explore ideas without running out of page.

The change of format feels right as well because Bad Machinery is about characters who are getting older with each case, and as they get older, the nature of the comic will change. The adventures of 11 year olds are distinct from what 14 year olds would get up to. I think there's room to make these changes, and define the cases from number 7 onwards differently.

(Case number 6 feels awkward and transitional to me, I'm not sure I want that one to come out as a book. But you can see what I was heading towards now)

When I've seen the Bad Machinery book racked in bookstores, it's a little disappointing to see it next to Batman, rather than with the kids' books. Needless to say, I intend to capitalise on this placement by including a violent night vigilante in all future stories. But the one thing I do like about the landscape format is how much wider than Batman my books are. Stuff you, Caped Crusader.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Flatting & trapping for scared webcomics artists

I was near-apoplectic with fear before I handed my pages over to Oni Press. I was sure they were going to tell me off for my unflatted pages. All I have ever done is scan my linework at 600dpi in black and white, converted to RGB, coloured white bits between the lines with the paint bucket, converted to CMYK, and prayed. (Sometimes I didn't even pray.)

There's a lot of nonsense talked about flatting and trapping comics for print. There seems to be a huge hangover of ancient lore. Whenever I see a post where someone describes painstakingly lifting their linework up and filling the areas behind it - whether with the BPelts plugin or otherwise, I feel sorry for them. If you work with black and white line art, you don't need to do this. You don't have to try to colour a page, pre-monstered with the BPelts multifill, that looks like this:

(My apologies to the artist in question, who I am not singling out for criticism. Quite the opposite - he/she is plainly a brave soul) 

On my older books, just the act of converting to CMYK turned the RGB black into a very rich CMYK - too rich really. But I got away with it. Before I sent my art to Oni, I tried to find out what the correct rich black ratio was. I figured that was the only way I might get away with not having to painstakingly recolour hundreds of pages.


If your line art is solid black (ie scanned at a high resolution and not anti-aliased), colour the page any way you want, then convert to CMYK if the page isn't CMYK already, select all the black linework at the end and fill it with a 60C/40M/0Y/100K black. That's it. I've done this for multiple major comic book publishers, as well as on my own self-published work, and it is apparently wholly acceptable in preventing trapping errors (white hairline gaps around the lines when pages aren't properly registered).  

NOTE: Don't colour your lettering this way. Keep it 0C/0M/0Y/100K or it will look slightly fuzzy on the page.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I've had a number of messages from people struggling to get the Bad Machinery book outside the USA, particularly in the UK and Australia. Here's what to do:

1. If you have a local comic shop, they can order it for you if it's not in stock. Just ask! It's in the system.
2. In the UK? Amazon.co.uk has it. If you use this link, I get a little bit of extra cash that way. Hate Amazon's tax-dodging ways? Use Foyles.
3. In Australia? Kings Comics has it.

I'm afraid you can only get the hardcover direct from Topatoco or direct from Oni Press. If you want a personalised book, I will be selling adhesive personalised bookplates from the beginning of May.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible

For the last fifteen years I've thought it a criminal waste that no one really took notice of Scott Miller, the polymath frontman of Game Theory and the Loud Family. He released ten albums of varying ambition but relentless quality. Albums that I found it hard to pass on to others but that, to me, felt like a precious roadmap to the emotional tundra of a man's early twenties, just as Scott's carefully compiled album charts unlocked huge swathes of music for me and encouraged me to compile my own.

With the exception of a brief collaborative return in 2006, Scott stopped making records in 2000 - two years after I first heard his music. Through second hand shops, Amazon, kind friends and music blogs, I was able to plug all the catalogue gaps left by bad deals. The further away we became from this music being made, the easier it was to actually hear it.

But it was Scott's writing on loudfamily.com, which never went away, that was his greatest influence on me. Answering fans and allies' questions with exacting precision, he treated pop music, art, literature and science with the same rigour and humour. His answers were gracious, thought-out and kind. When people began to write to me about my own work, I used Scott as my template. I didn't have to think about how to relate to "fans". It was easy. You treated them like smart people. You wrote back to them the way Scott Miller did.

His writing on music in recent years was arguably, even better. In a field where drift and posture often stand in lieu of knowledge and perspective, he made the rare distinction of having both.

Of course it would take his awful, early passing at 53 for voices to unite in support of this great, thoughtful man. Some of his answers revealed a painful self-deprecation in his awareness of the rock career arc, his withdrawal from the game to avoid pressing on to minimal return. To be told today that he was just about to come back to music was heartbreaking. But that's a selfish feeling. With the words he wrote, with the records he made, he'd done enough. He'd done more than most.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Bad Machinery vol 1 is OUT NOW!

I'm very proud to announce that the first Bad Machinery book, The Case Of The Team Spirit, is now available from Topatoco! Published by Oni Press, it contains the first Bad Machinery case (and the pre-amble). Running to about 140 pages, it features many new pages of story and loads of extra material, including an in-depth guide to the fake history of English football that I can only describe as "dense", "nutty" and "extremely time-consuming to write".

The book is available in standard paperback and strictly limited hardback editions. Unlike my Scary Go Round collections, it is not a bijou volume. It's HUGE - 9 x 12 inches - and beautifully designed.

As I've said before, these stories were meant to be read as books, and I'm grateful to Oni for giving me the chance to put them out in such lavish fashion. I hope to collect all the stories this way and get them to the widest audience possible - and needless to say, I can't do that without your help. Recommendation to friends, a Goodreads review, a mention anywhere that you can tell someone that something pretty reasonable is going on here.

A NOTE FOR PEOPLE OUTSIDE THE US/CANADA: The book is also available from your local comic shop. You can just walk in, give them some money, and walk right out of there completely satisfied. Give it a go! What's to lose? Good comic shops in England: Page 45 (Nottingham), Gosh!, Orbital (London), Dave's (Brighton), Travelling Man (Leeds, York, Manchester, Newcastle). But wherever you go - comic shop or normal bookshop, if they don't have it, they can get it for you.

If you have any questions about this volume, post them in the comments section and I'll do my best to answer them.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Spot the difference

I'm currently working on the second Bad Machinery book for Oni. There's a lot of new material in the book version of The Case Of The Good Boy, and there are a lot of fixes to do - I took a rough and ready approach at the time that has meant endless touch-up to make the story fit for the large format books that they're coming out in. Enjoy a game of spot the difference with this page (maybe the worst I had to work on for mis-shapen, off-model figures, unfinished lines and slapdash colouring).

If you feel like posting "I preferred the original," oh, go right ahead. I don't mind.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Post webcomics

Occasionally I become concerned for the future. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I break a sweat, and my face twists into an appalling rictus. Tearing up floorboards, earth and finally the living rock itself, I attempt to bore into the earth's molten core until the local council or a concerned family member intervenes.

For the last ten years, I've made my living through a bizarre system. I put my work up for free, and through a combination of merchandise sales, advertising, freelance work (that I only get because I'm known through my free work), I've been able to sustain myself at a modest level. Through my own hard work and the efforts of a few others before and after me, I've existed within an ecosystem which can support someone with a decent readership.

In the last few years, the Internet has begun to change fundamentally. For a lot of people, social media ARE the internet. Comics like mine used to build followings through a system of patronage and word of mouth via links from other comics, popular blogs - in essence, journalistic models. The barrier to entry, pathetically low compared to the agonies of making one's niche work known pre-Internet, still required a certain amount of negotiation. You had to be able to make a website. You had to do a bit of networking. You had to be able to FTP something. You had to put in a modest amount of effort.

A few years later, we have Tumblr. There are people who put all their work up on Tumblr, and don't put it anywhere else. It's so easy! Drag and drop! Their comics exist, contextless, in a stream of other people's work. They're measured by a meritocracy of Notes, Re-blogs and hearts. They have little control over the environment in which their work is displayed. Pageviews on a website are how you make money. A website is a venue to curate your work. It's how you get someone to PAY ATTENTION TO YOU AND ONLY YOU.

Art isn't democratic. It doesn't take place in a caring, sharing environment. It is a huge "look at me". We are the pre-schoolers who can still point at what we've done and get a sticker, and we want to keep getting those stickers forever.

I would never decry any service as worthless. There are people who have caught mass attention via Tumblr, and sold great piles of things as a result. There's a use for everything, and an exception to every rule. The exceptions are the reasons that others try. But Tumblr sets the bar of success incredibly low. The payout will almost always be zero. Not beer money, nothing.

When I exhibited at San Diego Comicon, the main sellers were t-shirts. Most of the people at SDCC don't really care about your comic. They're there for some fun, they couldn't give two toots about your comic. A fun tshirt hit the spot in the way that a 200-page book you spent a year working on wouldn't. And fair enough. But the pattern of the day was exhausting. Every two minutes or so, someone would walk past your table, point at something you'd made and say "that's funny," before walking on.

Funny... but not funny enough to buy. Which is fair enough!

Tumblr is the "that's funny" archetype writ large. A million bells and whistles going off at once. To attempt to "win" on Tumblr, you have to drive your work down to the lowest common denominator, collect your "that's funny", and then, that's it! It's the equivalent of pasting your work up on bus shelter glass in a rainstorm. The sun comes out, your work is gone, no matter how many people laughed at it.

The arguments for loss of "ownership" of intellectual property when people reblog your work are something else altogether. In the end, once you put something where you can get it, someone will have their fun with it if they want to. My great fear is that, in throwing work up into the air with a thousand other things, rather than nailing it down, what makes something special is gone.

Maybe Tumblr isn't the issue, maybe the world is changing. Why should it stop now? But I know that the reason I have a living at all is because I was able to build a relationship with my readers through my work. The less tangible that relationship is, the less special what you are doing seems, the less likely you are to be able to go from a hobbyist to a professional. My job is one of my greatest joys and there should be room for plenty of others to feel that way. I could never have got into the industry pre-webcomics. I don't want there to be a post-webcomics.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

My top forty albums of 2012

Here are my top forty albums/EPs of 2012. I can't believe there were forty!

1 PLUMB - Field Music
2 SWING LO MAGELLAN - Dirty Projectors
3 SUNKEN CONDOS - Donald Fagen
4 MAC DEMARCO 2 - Mac Demarco
5 YOUNG MAN IN AMERICA - Anais Mitchell
6 IN OUR HEADS - Hot Chip
8 TRAMP - Sharon Van Etten
9 CHOREOGRAPHY - Weird Dreams
10 SILVER AGE - Bob Mould

11 ATTACK ON MEMORY - Cloud Nothings
12 CHARMER - Aimee Mann
14 CRYK - Cate Le Bon
15 EKSTASIS - Julia Holter
16 METZ - Metz
17 SHIELDS - Grizzly Bear
18 MATURE THEMES - Ariel Pink's Haunted Haunted Graffiti
19 CLEAR MOON / OCEAN ROAR - Mount Eerie
20 MID AIR - Paul Buchanan

21 THE CHAD TAPE - Chris Reimer
23 I KNOW WHAT LOVE ISN'T - Jens Lekman
24 MAKING IT - Stew & The Negro Problem
26 SILENT HOUR EP - Daniel Rossen
28 POSITIVE FORCE - Delicate Steve
30 FIN - John Talabot

31 AWE NATURALE - THEESatisfaction
32 BBC RADIO 3 SESSION - Field Music & Warm Digits
33 ALWAYS EP - Summer Camp
34 CENTIPEDE HZ - Animal Collective
35 DJANGO DJANGO - Django Django
36 ELECTRIC CABLES - Lightships
37 VET DREAM EP - Grass Cannons
38 ON THE HOT DOG STREETS - Go-Kart Mozart
40 INTO THE WAVES - Sophia Knapp