Make a horror comic page
Dave Kendall takes you from script to finished page for the animated graphic novel Houses of the Holy, created for Madefire motion books
Dave Kendall uses Manga Studio and Photoshop.
Houses of the Holy has been a part of my life for many years. It was one of the first sample strips produced for a fledgling company called Madefire ( www.madefire.com). The first six pages became part of the funding portfolio, alongside Dave Gibbons’ Treatment, and Liam Sharp’s Captain Stone and MONO. Since then this Mike Carey-scripted horror tragedy, featuring the vampire Magda, has punctuated my past four or five years. As Madefire has grown, Magda’s life and mind has disintegrated. Madefire is a digitally driven storytelling platform that runs on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. It takes advantage of sound, layers and the ability to shake up the usually static pages of the comic book. The app is free to use and enables you to experiment with your own stories.
In this workshop I’ll take you through the process for producing a Houses of the Holy page for Madefire. I’ll explain the layering aspects of the comic and storytelling ideas. I’ll be reinterpreting one of my early pages and significantly changing it, especially where the final reveal is concerned. So let’s join Magda’s father as he escorts his newly infected vampire daughter Magda through the woods. She’s getting a little peckish…
1 Words and pictures
The first step before you even pick up a pencil is the script. So get comfy and start reading. Don’t touch that pencil. I tend to read it through a couple of times and start making notes on the third pass. I allow the dialogue and mood to dictate my decisions. The story must be served first, so make sure it’s clear in your head. I’m very well served in having Mike Carey, one of the most respected writers in comics, as the father of this story.
2 Arboreal framing device
This is a reinterpretation of a page I produced a couple of years ago. Inspired by Sergio Toppi, an Italian illustrator, I decide to use a tree to provide a framing device rather than a simple grid. The first two panels are framed by the branches of a tree that dominates the final panel. In Madefire the panels can be isolated with a large reveal that would build the suspense, making the dominant panel visible at the very end.
3 Gesture sketching
I never go straight in with highly accurate drawing. Instead, I start with gesture sketches and build up the accuracy, either with successive drawings or by using layers in Photoshop. This enables me to keep the energy of the initial sketch while refining anatomy and details. Here you can see examples of my sketchbook, to show how I develop panel ideas.
4 Digital blueline
I scan in some of my more promising sketches and ideas to use as a base for designing the panels. I set the sketches as a layer. I apply another layer and fill it with a light cyan. If you set the blending mode to Screen it gives the underlying sketch a blue line effect. This colour cast enables me to differentiate between the refined pencils that I’ll use above the sketch layer.
5 Simple brushes
For digital drawing I use simple brushes – I don’t want lag because of a complex brush. Here I use the Manga Studio digital pencil. It’s a brush with a light softness that, although it doesn’t emulate pencil, gives a good base for painting. I enjoy drawing comic pages out in line. I could use block-in techniques, but drawing gives you a personal fingerprint.
6 Defining elements
I import the image into Photoshop. Normally I wouldn’t worry about extracting and separating elements, but Madefire’s experience can be enhanced by the power of its engine, and having separate layers makes construction easier. I use the Magnetic Lasso tool to roughly mask the pencil outline. The mask can be further refined with the Quick Mask feature.
7 Working in greyscale
Once I have masks for my separate pencil elements, I create layers with those selections filled in white, and apply my greyscale work. I isolate the layer (Ctrl+click) and apply a simple white-to-black gradient set on Multiply to build up the tones. This can give you a sense of lighting. I then place the highlights and shadows with simple brushes. I don’t touch the drawing layer, which should be above the painting layer.
8 Refining the values
Once I’m happy with my values, I flatten the pencils to the greyscale layer and continue to refine the tonal values, using simple brushes. I carry out this simple value exercise on all the separate elements on the page. Because I’m working with multiple panels, I use the Group/Folder option to separate and lock them. Working on the wrong panel is frustrating!
9 Night colours
I apply a Color Blending layer to the whole page. Colour alters the hue without touching the values. I fill the layer with a twilight, night-time hue. Once the basic colour is set I work flesh tones and other colours into Magda, the horse and her father. Because it’s a night scene I don’t want to make it too saturated, so I move carefully, feeling my way.
10 Marrying colour to elements
Because all my elements are on separate layers I select the pixels on each layer, and lift an Identical selection from the colour layer. I pair the colour and greyscale layer together, and flatten them. After this stage my figure and background elements are independently coloured. If some colours overlap, I remove the offending areas with a brush set to Color Blend.
11 Colour refinement
The layers look a little anaemic to me, so more work is needed. I enhance the colour using an Overlay layer. This mode can affect the values of the image, so working colour into a separate layer gives you more control. I gently enhance areas throughout the page, usually working on one element at a time. Multiply and Color Dodge is useful in small amounts.
12 Cleaning up and enhancement
I’ve now tackled every panel and worked up the colour to a level I’m happy with, but I find there’s always room to tweak and enhance. I notice that there are some small artefacts arising from the layering process, so I erase here and there and tidy up whatever is glaringly obvious to me.
13 Tailoring it for Madefire
Although this strip would work without square panels, I add some to give more options for Madefire. When working on Houses of the Holy I design the pages to work as a digital solution with the option of a printed book. People still like to hold the physical object. I’m told Houses of the Holy in tandem with Madefire’s engine has induced jumps and shocks.