Thursday 17 December 2015

Quick Illustrator Tip#3

Text Boxes

I've had cause recently to work on Illustrator pages that have originally been lettered by other people and was surprised to learn that they weren't using text boxes, but were rather simply clicking on the document and typing on a path.

Nothing wrong with that, but when I queried this, they seemed genuinely unaware that Illustrator can create text boxes, which have certain advantages.

Creating a text box is ridiculously easy:

If you're copying and pasting text from a script, using a text box has one key advantage — you can create a text box that corresponds to the rough area available on the art for its speech balloon. When you paste in the text, the lines will break naturally and it will often become instantly clear how best to stack the text. 

In some cases, the text will form itself into a satisfactory stacking arrangement with no further work on your part.

None of the text in the above example has had any of the lines turned manually (ie: had returns inserted by me to force the lines to break). It doesn't always (or even often) work that way, but sometimes it does, and it's a time saving.

It may not sound like much, but saving a few seconds per page quickly adds up to minutes over a whole book, and minutes saved here are extra ones you can spend making that sound effect look extra-special, or drawing a perfect mask for that speech balloon.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Credit Where Credit's Due…

(That font is Blambot's ProtestPaint BB, if you're interested…)
I'm not really a militant on the subject of crediting letterers; I've never been one to agitate for a front cover credit, for example. Some creative teams or publishers have taken to giving the letterer a cover credit, which is fantastic but I have no illusions — no one is buying a book based on who's done the lettering.
Ours is a contributory, supporting role in the creative process, but that doesn't mean it's inconsequential or unworthy of recognition.

So… what does get my back up is when a reviewer credits the writer, artist, colourist, sometimes even the editor, and doesn't include the letterer.

I'm certainly not asking for reviewers to undertake a detailed analysis of the lettering in every book, but the choices a letterer makes concerning dialogue fonts and balloon styles, the way they choose to handle sound effects, make every bit as much of a contribution to the overall look of any given book as the choices made by the colourist.

You're not supposed to notice the craft of the letterer; it's supposed to be more-or-less invisible. Nonetheless, ours is the hand that ties the writer's words to the artist's images in a fashion that's clear and readable, ours is the stage of the creative process that makes comics, well, comics.

I don't think asking reviewers to remember that is too much.

Thursday 4 June 2015

It gets my back up…!

Or, more accurately, my back-up.

I've been startled over the course of this year so far to see the number of fellow creative professionals who've reported disruption to their schedules, or the loss of their work, due to hardware failure or data loss. Now, admittedly, before my life in comics I spent several years as a production manager, meaning that a non-trivial fraction of every working day was spent worry about contingency plans, but if you do any work of value on your computer, from paid freelance to work to cataloguing family photos to saving your favourite recipies, then, forgive my bluntness, but this is the best advice anyone is going to give you today:

Back your shit up.

(I'm going to talk about Macs, because I own Macs, and I know Macs. If anyone wants to chip in Windows/Linux back-up solutions in the comments, please feel free.)

If you own a Mac, you already have a head start, because you have Time Machine. It's built-in, it's designed to be a back-up solution for people that don't use back-up solutions and people still don't use it! External USB hard drives are cheap. Buy one that's at least the same size as your internal drive; plug it in; your Mac will actually ask you if you want to use it for Time Machine. Click "yes" and you're done. Your Mac will now invisibly back itself up every hour until the drive is full, and then it will ask you if you want to a) switch to a bigger drive, or b) start deleting the oldest back-ups.

Level One:

Time Machine is Level One of my back-up strategy. The external Time Machine drive is twice the size of my Mac's internal drive, so it keeps back-ups of my entire drive going back a decent length of time. I use it less for protection against data loss than almost as a versioning tool, and insurance against accidentally deleting or overwriting files. Meant to go "Save As" to create a new version of your file, but hit "Save" instead? No problem. Do your "Save As" and then use Time Machine to retrieve the old version of the file you've just over-written. Deleted a file only to discover that you actually still needed it? No problem, assuming that it was on your system for over an hour, Time Machine still has it.

If you own a Mac, enable Time Machine. Do it. You have no excuse. Short of USB ports? No problem — Apple sells the Time Capsule, which doesn't even need to be attached to your machine. Your Mac will back itself up over wifi.

Time Machine is great (as an aside, you can also use it migrate the entire contents of your computer* to a new Mac painlessly) but it has one key problem: it doesn't create a bootable back-up.

Level Two:

If your Mac's internal drive fails and your machine won't boot, you can't start it up from a Time Machine back-up. If you hold down ALT (Option) at start-up, your Mac will look for alternative drives from which to boot. If the normal boot drive has failed, it will automatically look for another drive for start-up, and your Time Machine back-up ain't it.

Which is why I have a second external drive hooked up to my machine. This one is a portable drive the same size as the internal. There are lots of third-party back-up solutions, but I use Carbon Copy Cloner

Because you can schedule CCC back-ups, and you can schedule your Mac's start-up time, my machine auto-boots at 6:00am and at 6:15, CCC makes a bootable clone copy of the hard drive, which takes about 20 minutes. By the time I sit down at my computer in the morning, the entire drive has been backed up, meaning that, in the event of a complete drive failure, I can boot from the clone and, at worst, I will have lost whatever work I've done that current day, since the CCC back-up. If you have the luxury of a lunch break, or time when you're reliably going to be away from your machine, you could set CCC to do one or more back-ups during the day.

(This is not to say you can't work while CCC is running — you can, but the machine slows down noticeably, and the back-up takes longer, so there's a trade-off.)

Level Three:

Archiving. Particularly if you're doing a full-time job, internal drives fill up rapidly, so it's sensible to have a third drive for archiving off old jobs. Fairly recently, I realised that this drive wasn't getting backed up by Time Machine. Now, I could add the archive to the Time Machine preferences, but this is largely static data, so backing it up hourly seems like overkill. I used to keep a rolling system of backing up to DVD, but optical media isn't always as reliable as people like to think, and the process was time-consuming and required extra record-keeping to maintain an index of what projected were archived to which disks.

So I bought a 4TB RAID1 drive. It's actually two standard 4TB drives in a single box. In a RAID0 configuration (these sound complicated, but it's literally a tick box to configure in the software) both drives are used to write data and the drive appears as a single 8TB drive.

I have no idea why anyone uses RAID0. You have no data redundancy in this configuration and if either drive fails, all your data is gone. In RAID1 configuration (the default it ships with), identical data is written to both drives simultaneously, so it appears as a single 4TB drive on your desktop.

In the even of a drive failing, I can simply order a replacement, carry on working from the still-working drive, and replace the failed one when the new drive arrives. Yes, it's possible that both drives might fail simultaneously, but we're entering mathematically improbable levels akin to my house being totalled by a falling jet airliner. Possible, but not really worth losing sleep over.

(There are higher RAID configurations, but RAID2, 3, 4, etc, simply describe more complex configurations of larger numbers of drives.)

Level Four:

I haven't yet implemented Level Four, but I'm mindful that I'm still vulnerable to, say, burglary or a house fire, so I'm currently investigating off-site back-up options like CrashPlan. Services like Dropbox might look like an option for off-site back-up, but I don't think they guarantee the integrity of your data, and I'd like something a little more solid. I'll update this article when I've made some progress with this.

For most people, you don't need to go further than Level One, or Level Two, but take a moment to stop and think about what's on your computer.

Now think about how you'd feel if it was all gone. Think about how much it would cost you to recreate lost work. Think about what can't be replaced at all: family photos, correspondence… yes, some of this might be recoverable if you kept it in some Cloud services, but you're entirely reliant on someone else to look after what's precious to you.

Data storage is cheap. Backing up is easy.

Back your shit up.

*Except Adobe CS products, which can't be migrated. You have to de-authorise your current Mac, run a Time Machine back-up, plug the Time Machine drive into your new Mac, restore everything except your CS applications, then install your CS apps fresh from the original installers. Thanks a bunch, Adobe.

Friday 10 April 2015

Illustrator: Quick Tip of the Week #2

A lot of people seem to struggle with the difference between the Selection tool and the Direct Selection tool (the black arrow and the white arrow respectively at the top of your toolbox).

In simple terms, the Selection tool (black arrow, hit 'V' on your keyboard to use) is for moving, rotating and scaling whole objects or groups of objects, while the Direct Selection (white arrow, hit 'A' on your keyboard to use) is for manipulating objects within a group, or individual points or segments of a line within an object.

But you can also use the Direct Selection tool to extract elements from a group or a merged object without ungrouping or releasing.

Assuming that you're using the ALT-Add Shape To Area version of the Pathfinder merge (which leaves the elements of the merged shape as individual objects, rather than creating one new shape) then you can pick up one element of a group with the Direct Selection tool, then cut and paste, which will remove the element from the group and leave the rest of the group intact, which is much quicker than ungrouping, selecting, moving or deleting an element, then re-selecting the remaining objects and re-grouping/merging.

Monday 30 March 2015

Illustrator: Quick Tip of the Week

Illustrator is a strange piece of software, full of not-very-obvious features and counter-intuitive processes. I've met people who've used the application for years and were unaware of tricks and techniques I thought everyone knew…! By the same token, I've talked to people who've only been using Illustrator for a relatively short time who knew things that had passed me by completely…

So… I'm going to post an Illustrator tip every few days until I run out of things to say! Feel free to ask questions or offer tips of your own in the comments. I'm running CS6, so also feel free to correct me in the comments if any tip I come up with works differently (or doesn't work at all) in different versions.


ALT (option) DRAG any object, or group of objects to create a duplicate. The layer(s) of the original item(s) will be preserved in the new versions.

Why not just copy and paste?
Because ALT-DRAG doesn't use the clipboard. If, for the sake of argument, you already have the text you want to use copied to the clipboard and you want to duplicate a balloon and text box so you can just paste the text in, this is the method for you.

Also, copy and paste just dumps a duplicate slightly offset from your original, which you then still have to drag to where you want it. ALT-DRAG eliminates the need for the copy/paste, incorporating the copying into the same action as positioning the new element.

I keep forgetting to hold down the ALT key before I drag…!
You can add ALT to the drag operation at any time right up until you release the mouse button to end the dragging. By the same token, if you change your mind and release ALT at any point up until you release the mouse button, the operation will revert to a normal 'move' instead of a copy.

Monday 9 March 2015

Death and Taxes… but mostly taxes.

Folks, for some of you, this is important!

Non-US freelancers… do you work for any US publishers? If so, do they have an up-to-date W8-BEN form on file for you? This is the declaration that that you are not a US citizen/resident and are not liable for US income tax. If your client doesn't have one of these, the IRS can insist that US income tax is deducted from your payments at source.

You don't have to deal with the IRS in the United States, but you do need to ensure that each of your US-based clients holds a copy of this form for you, assuming you deal with them as an individual (sole trader) and not as a limited company or other trading entity.

You can download a W8-BEN here:

And there are instructions on completing the form here:

To be honest, the instructions are nearly as confusing as the form, but the form is actually pretty straightforward, as far as I can tell.

The only bit that looks a little tricky is Part I, Sections 5-7, which, after some fevered Googling, seems to go like this if you are a UK taxpayer.

  • 5: N/A
  • 6: The UTR (Unique Taxpayer Reference) you use in all your dealings with HMRC
  • 7: Leave blank — this is for your client to add additional info when they submit the form.
Please note that I am not a financial adviser, and if you access to one, or if you use the services of an accountant, I would urge you to talk this through with them.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Happy 2015!


Another year goes past without any content being added to this blog, for which I can only offer my now-traditional apologies.

If anything, this poor, neglected blog has been a victim of my success, with somewhere north of 6,500 pages lettered in 2014, an average of 19 per day, every single day of the year. In all honesty, it was too much, so I've pulled back a little and will try to do slightly fewer books in 2015, but perhaps do them better.

And maybe do a little drawing, and some writing. Some of it may even be in the form of posts to this blog!

In the meantime, get yourself over to Comicraft's website for the traditional New Year's Day Sale — all fonts a bargain $20.15…!

I'd also like to offer my thanks to everyone who's hired me to letter their book or design their logo in 2014. Over-commitment, blood pressure scares and adventures in emergency dentistry have meant this hasn't, perhaps, been my finest year but I hope that hasn't been too apparent in my work. Still, 2015 shuffles into view with moves afoot to address all those things, so it's onwards and upwards.

See you in the funny books, folks!