Care and Feeding of the Leroy Lettering Set


You may not know exactly what a Leroy Lettering Set is, but if you’re interested in comics, I’ll bet you’ve seen the results of one in action. Leroy lettering was used most notably by publisher EC Comics in books like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror. (Harvey Kurtzman’s EC war stories in books like Frontline Combat and Two Fisted Tales were the exception and were hand lettered by the great Ben Oda.)


You may also have seen a Leroy Lettering Set in action in the early Wonder Woman comics. Here’re a few (cough, cough) typical WW panels from the William Moulton Marston era:



You’ll stumble on this lettering here and there in old comics printed up until the early 60s or so. Interestingly, most of it was done by one couple, Jim and Margaret Wroten, who you can read about here.

Despite its clunky mechanical look that (objectively, anyway) doesn’t go very well with hand-drawn comics art, I’ve always had a strange fascination with Leroy lettering. There’s a free font based on Leroy lettering that I’ve used in a few odd projects, but I was curious about how the actual lettering set worked. I was surprised to find that the sets are not rare and they can usually be had for between $35 and $50 on Ebay. I bid on and won a complete set for $35.00. Here it is:


And here are a couple of the lettering templates:


How Does it Work?

The Leroy Lettering Set is basically a pantograph. One end of it traces the letters off the template, moving the other end of it which has a pen attached. More specifically, the key to its operation is this component, called the scriber:


Here’s how it works:

  1. This is the tracer pin. You stick this down into the grooved letter forms on the template.
  2. This is a little clamp (tightens with that black rear-facing knob) that holds the drawing implement.
  3. This knob is a little adjustable “leg” that supports the drawing portion of the scriber–the part that’s over the paper/holding the pen.
  4. It’s hard to see in this picture, but there’s a dial here that changes the slant of the letters. This is how you make italic letters–as in the Wonder Woman samples, or the bold words in the EC sample.
  5. This is the tail pin. It just stays in the bottom groove of the template like a train track, keeping everything aligned correctly.
  6. These little hash marks correspond to the size of the letters on the template, allowing you to pencil in rough letters. Obviously, you have to fudge things for letters like “I” and “J” that are thinner.
  7. Each template has a pen size. The numbers correspond to the Leroy pen tips that come with the kit… which are identical to the same-sized Rapidograph tech pen numbers.

Drawing implements:

The kit comes with its own refillable ink pen tips, but it’s a whole lot easier to just use a tech pen. As far as I can tell, only actual tech pens will fit into the clamp. I tried mine with Rapidographs and with Staedtler MarsMatic tech pens and they both worked fine because they have this “barrel” for the clamp to grab onto:

penpointsOther pens I tried, most notably Microns, don’t have anywhere like this for the clamp to grab, so they didn’t work.

None of the mechanical pencils I had around would work with the scriber’s clamp, but Leroy made special mechanical pencils/lead hodlers specifically for the set. The set I have recommends a “22” model, but there were several different types made that would accommodate the scriber’s clamp.


Here it is in action. As you can clearly see, I’m still getting the hang of using it. Getting it placed correctly so the letters are properly spaced is pretty tricky, as is picking it up without leaving an ink smudge on the letter you’ve just completed.

YouTube Preview Image

The Verdict

I’m sure things go faster once you’ve put in some hours getting used to lettering with the Leroy set, but I’m pretty stunned that people would do whole comics with this thing. I can’t imagine any scenario where this actually takes less time than hand-lettering a comic. I’m glad I bought it, though, and I’m going to continue to practice with it. The free font I linked to above is probably sufficient for anyone who wants to get the look of old-style Leroy lettering.

Feel free to ask me any questions you might have in the comments.


My Schoolism Digital Painting Class Experience

As Oyster War neared completion toward the end of last year, I wound up doing some soul-searching about where my current cartooning skill set was currently and where I’d like it to go in the future. While I could have compiled a pretty extensive list of deficient areas to address, I came up with three that I wanted to focus on in the coming year: better figure drawing/gestures, more interesting/advanced digital coloring, and really pushing my character designs. I tabled character design for the near-term but decided to apply for a local arts grant to address the other two, in the form of figure drawing sessions and an online digital panting class. I was quite lucky to have my grant request approved, and thanks to the Arts Council of Winston-Salem Forsyth County I began by enrolling in Introduction to Digital Painting with Andrew Hou at

Quick overview/review:

The class comes in either a self-directed version or a version with regular video feedback from the instructor. I did the latter. The class was structured with seven lessons that stretched over ten weeks. The weekly video lessons were quite extensive and were usually well over an hour each. For each lesson there was an associated assignment that was due before the next lesson began. For each turned-in assignment, I received extensive detailed feedback from the instructor. In most cases, he worked over my submitted work, sort of redoing it as if it were a piece he himself were executing. Most of his feedback (not surprisingly) was about painting/coloring techniques, but he had some really helpful advice about character design and other related areas. As I said, the feedback was always very thorough–anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the piece. I was 100% happy with both the classroom material and the feedback I received from the instructor.


The class started off with a basic introduction to Photoshop. I was fairly familiar with the nuts and bolts of Photoshop, but I was glad to see this included. Any class that has the word “Introduction” shouldn’t presume the students know anything about the subject at hand, in my opinion. That said, I picked up a lot of really useful tips and shortcuts for things that I already knew how to do in other ways. The lesson continued with some methods for sketching in Photoshop. While I do most of my drawing (as opposed to coloring) in Manga Studio, the methods shown here would work in either and it was fun to get the feel of sketching in Photoshop.

The assignments built on each other so I really don’t remember how things broke down lesson-by-lesson, but the  first few assignments all dealt with a single character. The initial assignment was to do a rough digital sketch. Here’s mine:


Here’s a later iteration of the character that’s been revised based on feedback. It’s now got a lot more value laid in, a definite light source, and some adjustments to the overall design:



And here’s the character again, now with color added using only layers with various blending modes–almost no actual rendering with brushes:




He still looks a bit hazy and indistinct to me, though. If I were to dig back into the drawing, I’d probably go in and add some more dark/high contrast areas to define details more fully.

Cel shading was the next technique covered. This was the closest to home for me as far as my usual style of coloring. There’s no solid black ink outline, as with my usual comics work, but the actual application of color dealt more with solid planes of shadow than with any rendering:


The next–and most difficult for me personally–assignment was doing a more traditional digital painting, rendering form with brushes rather than doing a detailed value drawing first and then applying layers with blending modes. I found this old ballpoint pen drawing of a fantasy battle beast/pack animal and did a painting based on that. Again, this is a version revised based on feedback from the instructor:




There’s obviously plenty of room for improvement here, but I have to admit I’m surprisingly encouraged by how this turned out, considering this is the first time I’ve really attempted anything like this.

The final assignment was a big two-part project doing a full scene–figure and background–using any of the three painting methods covered in the class. With the instructor’s permission, though, I modified this assignment a bit and used it as a way to develop the cover image for Oyster War.  I wound up doing a traditional inked drawing (inked digitally in Manga Studio, unlike the rest of Oyster War, which was all drawn traditionally) but then used the cel shading techniques I learned in the second class assignment to color and light the characters. I’m really happy with the way the image turned out. It’s obviously a bit different-looking than my usual style of drawing, but I still think it’s still (hopefully!) not too radically different than the interior art. Here’s the final image, with all of the trade dress added by Oni’s designer, Elaine Lin:




I’ve been incorporating some of the techniques I learned in class to my recent work. Here, for example, is the image that will be used for the back cover of Oyster War (The big empty sky area is there to accommodate some text blurbs):

back-coverAnd here’s a character design for a possible next comics project. This style–without any traditional black inking–would be a pretty huge departure for me.

character_05Finally, here’re just a few random post-class take-away thoughts:

  • Always be learning – I’ve been drawing and making comics for a long, long time. I’ve been to art school. I teach at an art school. But there’s still real value for me in learning from someone else. I’d love to take another course of this sort soon.
  • Custom brush obsession – I’m as guilty as anybody of getting overly worked-up about custom brushes for Photoshop and Manga Studio. The instructor for this class did nearly every painting demo and critique using Photoshop’s basic round (or sometimes square) brush with size pressure sensitivity turned off and his results were fantastic.
  • The power of masks and layer blend modes – Before taking this class, I barely used masks for anything and the only blend mode I used was “multiply” on my ink layer. Seeing some of the instructor’s techniques in this class really opened my eyes to how powerful and useful masks and layer blend modes are–especially when combined.
  • On flat color – I’d always been a big proponent of sticking with flat colors, rather than blending/rendering things and using lots of lighting effects. I still think that it’s much better to err in the direction of being too conservative with these sorts of techniques rather than overdoing them, but seeing some of this stuff in action has made me come around a bit to the idea that you can use some of these techniques (in moderation) and not have it necessarily “clash” with a line art drawing.

So… that’s about it. Feel free to ask me any questions you might have about the class in the comments!

And of course, my most sincere thanks again to  the Arts Council of Winston-Salem Forsyth County who enabled me to have this wonderful learning experience!




Oyster War – Coming This Fall from Oni Press!


‘I’ve been waiting a looonnnngggg time to be able to make this announcement! Here’s the official press release:

Oni Press, Portland’s premier independent comic book publisher, announced today Oyster War, a colorful, comedic historical graphic novel by three time Eisner-nominated cartoonist Ben Towle (Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean). Oyster War will release on September 23rd, and will be an SPX debut.

OWARV1 – 4×6 COMP SOLICIT WEB In the coastal town of Blood’s Haven, the economy runs on oysters. Oyster farming is one of the most lucrative professions, but also the most dangerous. Not just from the unforgiving ocean and its watery depths—there are also oyster pirates to worry about! Commander Davidson Bulloch and his motley crew are tasked with capturing these ne’er-do-wells—but they don’t know that Treacher Fink, the pirates’ leader, possesses a magical artifact that can call forth a legendary spirit with the power to control the sea and everything in it!

“I started work on Oyster War five years ago with a very specific vision,” says creator Ben Towle. “I’d done several historical fiction books previously and now I wanted to jump squarely into the realm of the fantastic. Oyster War is a nautical adventure story set in a not-quite-real late 19th century US that’s full of pirates, brawlers, sea serpents, and shape-shifters. It’s far and away my favorite work to-date. I couldn’t be happier with the way Oni’s bringing the Oyster War print collection to life. Presentation was always in the back of my mind as I worked on the story. From the get-go I conceived of Oyster War as a big, hardcover, European album-sized book with high-end production values—and that’s exactly what’s going to wind up in readers’ hands!”

Yep. I’ll be at SPX this year, tabling for the first time in a long while! Come see me for a copy of Oyster War from Oni Press.


On Comics Sound Effects

I–along with writer/cartoonist Ryan North and visual linguist Neil Cohn–was recently interviewed by Greg Uyeno for Slate‘s Lexicon Valley  language blog. The subject of the article was how sounds and sound effects work in comics. You can read the whole article here:

KATCHOW! How to Write Sounds in Comics

Greg wound up highlighting parts of our discussion relating to choices about sound effects in my own comics, but  I got permission from Greg (and Slate) to post here the full email interview we conducted, which covers more general territory.

1) Let’s start with a warm-up: Do you have a favorite comics sound effect? (What is it?)

I don’t have a single favorite sound effect, but I certainly have some particular comics sequences and artists that I favor in the sound effects department. Walt Simonson and John Workman’s sound effects in their run on Thor in the mid-80s are really a high-point for graphic sound effects in comics. What makes this material so notable in my mind is how seamlessly and organically the effects lettering blends in with the other artwork. That’s something you don’t see much these days since sound effects lettering (and all lettering, in fact) tends to be dropped in digitally after the fact. There’re sensible pragmatic reasons for doing this, but to my eye it creates an odd effect where the sound effect words seem to be floating on a plane over top of the other art, rather than being part of an integrated whole on the page.


I’m also generally a fan of sound effects that aren’t actually sound effects at all–things like when a character enters a room accompanied by a “BARGE!”. That’s obviously not intended to evoke an actual sound, but I love how it appropriates some of the formal language of comics in a hilarious way. Here’s an example from Peter Bagge:

2) How do you use sound in your comics? Are you hoping to visualize sound in a way that the reader can “hear” the sound you intended, or is there a different aesthetic?

Designing your sound effects lettering so that the reader “hears” the sound when reading seems like a logical approach–and I’m sure that’s the intent behind a lot of the most commonly used sounds in comics–but I’m not positive that’s how they actually function. I know I for sure don’t really hear sounds in my head as I read comics. I think they work more just as a “this thing is making a noise” indicator–in the same way that a curvy word balloon indicates, “this is something a character is thinking.” I’m thinking, for example, about sound effects like “SHATTER!” That’s not so much an actual connotation of a particular sound, but rather an indication that something has broken and is making a sound in the process.

So, I usually try to throw in something visually that’s not simply imitating or evoking a sound. So, take this sequence:


 In panel one, I’m aligning the words with the direction those knives are moving as the character pulls them out. They’re evoking a sound, but also reinforcing the directional indicators. The second panel’s pretty straight-forward, but still, I’m hopefully reinforcing the directional movement of the bullet with both the placement of the word and the slight color gradient. With the final panel I’m hoping the downward lilt of the lettering and the shape and placement of the balloon tail will pull the reader’s eyes downward, mirroring the character as he falls to the ground. I went with the “dripping” balloon in an attempt to evoke liquid, blood, gurgling, etc.

3) What are some of the techniques you use to visually represent qualities of sound in your art? I know that two basics are text size = volume, and repetition of letters = duration.

Those are the biggies of course. There’re other techniques as well, like having the lettering suggest objects or materials, as I’m doing here with the bubbly, rounded lettering that mimics the splashing water:


I sometimes also use a particular sound effect to link two spatially disparate scenes together chronologically. Here, for example, we see a character falling off a peak and down into the water below:


Then, on a later page, we see a different character who’s below the peak as the first character lands in the water behind him:


I’ve used the same lettering and coloring for that sound effect to connect the two events. The reader doesn’t necessarily need this to follow what’s going on in the narrative, but I think it helps.

4) There are some standardized sound words, some of them specific to comics. <POW!> <whoosh> etc. When do you use these? What do you do when you need something different?

I do sometimes fall back on the “old standards.” Flipping through Oyster War, I’m seeing a lot of “BAM”s and “KABLAM”s, but I think cartoonists often avoid using those sorts of sound effect words in a large part because of the tired “Blam! Boom! Pow! Comics are whatever…” headlines that have been plaguing us since the mid 80s. I try for words that evoke sounds, but I also take into account that those words create a rhythm when read on a page. I try to establish a nice sequence of varying words, typefaces, colors, and sizes whenever I can. It’s particularly important, I think, in pages that are all sound effects, as here:


Even totally leaving out a sound effect in an otherwise obvious spot–as in panel nine here–is a conscious decision on my part. I’m trying to create a little “breather” at the end before the end of the sequence, where all of this character’s fighting prowess ultimately winds up not saving the day.

5) For non-standard sound words, how do you decide on a spelling?

That’s easy! I just make up something that looks and reads well. Or, I throw the question out on Twitter. There’s more than a few sound effect words in Oyster War that were suggested by folks on Twitter. Kind of appropriate for a social media service that’s itself a sound effect word, eh?



Faves of 2014

I don’t really have the time  available to do as extensive a “best of” list as I’ve done in some past years, but just for fun here are a few of my favorite comics- and drawing-related things from last year. Note that I’m listing my favorite things, not the best things; these are just things that I happened to enjoy this past year. Some of these are things that appeared in 2014. Other are old things that I just discovered or re-discovered in 2014.


Webcomic – The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo by Drew Weing 

It was great to see a new comic from Drew Weing in 2014.  This is a wonderful all-ages comic about a kids, monsters, and “paranormal investigator” Margo Maloo. The drawing’s beautiful and the story is a ton of fun. I’ve read it twice so far–once on my own and once to my daughter–and we both loved it.

Find it here.

Podcast - Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men

This podcast launched in the spring and I’ve been a loyal weekly listener ever since. The hosts of the show, Rachel and Miles, are X-Men fanatics. They’ve been going through the series (and some of its offshoots, mini-series, etc.) in roughly chronological order and discussing them in exhausting–and often hilarious–detail. I’ve read only a small fraction of the material they discuss, but it’s a blast to listen to anyway.

Find it here.

Reread - X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga – by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

Speaking of the X-Men… The X-Plain the X-Men two-part episode on the “Dark Phoenix Saga” prompted me to go back and re-read the collection. I hadn’t read any of this stuff since it came out in the 80s and it was a ton of fun to re-read. Other than maybe God Loves, Man Kills, this is the definitive X-Men story arc–and I think I’ll always favor it over God Loves just because it’s the classic Claremont/Byrne combo.

On Comixology here.

Tumblr - Fabien Mense

Fabien Mense is a French cartoonist who’s pretty much at the top of my “why is no one translating this person’s work into English?” list. Even if you can’t read French, it’s worth picking up his series, Agito Cosmos, from Comixology just to look at the beautiful artwork. You can find his work in a lot of different places online, but his tumblr is a great place to start. Check out some of his amazing (and befuddling) process videos to find and subscribe to his YouTube channel.

On Tumblr here.

YouTube - Croquis Café

Like a lot of us, I really need to do more figure drawing. That can be a tall order, though, depending on your schedule, location, and finances. While it’s not a perfect substitute for in-person life drawing, the Croquis Café is pretty darned close. It’s a fantastic resource. I favor the longer videos, which are about 20 minutes long usually and start with very short poses that gradually increase to a final five-minute pose. I’m mainly interested in working on gesture and line of action, so this format is perfect for me.

Find it on YouTube.

All Ages GN – Jim Curious: A Voyage to the Heart of the Sea by Matthias Picard

The cover is one of the few images I could post for this book, since the majority of its pages are in glorious 3-D. Put on one of the two pairs of included 3-D glasses and be immediately blown away by this cartoonist’s gorgeous,  intricate undersea landscapes. The narrative is charming as well; it’s not so much a story as a visual exploration.  Tone-wise it reminded me a bit of Crockett Johnson’s children’s books. Every person I’ve shown this book to has been completely floored by it.

Buy it here.

GN – Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment – Roger Stern, Mike Mignola, and Mark Badger

This Marvel stand-alone graphic novel came out in 1989, but I’d not heard about it until just this year. Dr. Strange and Dr. Doom team up and go (literally) to Hell to fight demons in a story written by Roger Stern, penciled by Mike Mignola, and inked/colored by Mark Badger? Sold! This book’s a ton of fun and stars Marvel’s two best occult characters. The old-school coloring by Badger is absolutely gorgeous and it’s really interesting to see Mignola finding his style pre-Hellboy. This book was out of print for a long time, but is now available again.

Buy it here.

GoComics Account – Origins of the Sunday Comics – Curated by Peter Maresca

There are several interesting historical accounts currently running on GoComics, most notably Peanuts and Little Nemo running chronologically from the beginning, but this one is my absolute favorite. The account updates a few times a week with early (late 1800’s – early 1900’s) Sunday newspaper strips. Some are things you can find collected elsewhere, like the currently running Kin-der-Kids, but the bulk of the material is more obscure, including a lot of early work by cartoonists who would later become giants in the medium–George Herriman, George McManus, etc. I love seeing comics from this highly creative period before the “rules” were solidified.

At GoComics here.

Art Book – Gus Bofa – L’enchanteur désenchanté – by Emmanuel Pollaud-Dulian

This one’s a bit tricky/expensive to get a hold of in the U.S., but it’s well worth tracking down. Bofa was a WWI-era French illustrator who was a big stylistic influence on later generations of French cartoonists–most notably Jacques Tardi. This book seems to be part of a current Bofa rediscovery/renaissance going on, coming out just a year or so after a big Bofa retrospective at Angoulême. His influence aside, Bofa’s a flat-out amazing illustrator and this 550 page book is full of beautiful illustrations in a variety of media and styles. The text is in French, but the artwork alone makes this one of my favorites of 2014.

Get it here.

Non-fiction Book – Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present – by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner

I’ve already written about this book in a post, but in a nutshell: This is a much-needed history of modern comics stretching from the late 60s to the present and–most important–covering a considerable swath of the globe. There’s some material here about North American comics that you probably already know well, but the bulk of this book covers comics developments in France, Belgium, Japan, Spain, Mexico, and more–all areas we hear precious little about state-side.

Buy it here.

Online Reviews – Minicomic Minute by Jon Chad


There’s a lot of interesting content at the new-ish comics website, Festival Season, but my favorite feature by far is Minicomic Minute. The writer/host is Jon Chad (himself the maker of some great minicomics) and in each installment he picks a notable minicomic and does a short 2-3 minute video review of it, showing off pages, production features, etc. It just started running in December, so there are only a few reviews posted as of yet, but I’m really looking forward to seeing this continue into 2015.

Collected here.

Comic Books – Detective Comics #35 and #36 – by Benjamin Percy and John Paul Leon

We don’t get to see nearly enough interior art by the amazing John Paul Leon. I dig his covers for The Massive as much as the next guy, but I was really excited to see that he would be doing interior art for a self-contained two part Detective Comics story. The story itself is a solid Batman story of the sort you’d expect to see in Detective (a mysterious occurrence, Batman susses out the solution, culminates in a fight) , but the art is what really sold this in my book. Leon’s got a loose lively line and an amazing mastery of spot blacks. Check these issues out if you like Year One-era Mazzucchelli or Jorge Zaffino.

Get them here and here.

Comic Books – The ‘Nam #1-#12 – by  Doug Murray and Michael Golden



I bought a few issues of The ‘Nam as a youngster back when it originally came out, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Michael Golden had been coming up in “shop talk” conversation a lot recently, though, and so I tracked down most of the first 12 issues that I was missing and finally read all of the Micheal Golden issues. It’s amazing in retrospect–remember, this was running concurrent to Marvel’s licensed GI JOE comics–that a gritty true to life Vietnam War comic like this ever got off the ground, much less continued on for 90-ish issues. The 12 issue run is largely great stuff, albeit with a few hiccups when Golden jumps off art here and there. The first issue, though, that’s penciled and colored by Golden with inks by Armando Gil has gotta be one of the best single issues of the 1908s.

Get them… well, by digging through dollar bins like I did, I guess. (There’s a collection, but I’d avoid it unless it’s done with the original coloring.)

GN – Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët

This is on tons of folks’ “Best of 2014″ lists so I don’t have a whole lot to add here other than “I agree.” Beautifully drawn, psychologically complex, funny at times/highly disturbing at others–I read this when it came out in the Spring and I’m still thinking about it.

Get it here.

Documentary – Stripped – Directed by Dave Kellett and  Frederick Schroeder

I have a few qualms about how some of the latter webcomics-related portions of this documentary are handled, but that in no way mars the rest of this film, which is wonderful documentary about newspaper comic strips and the cartoonists who draw them. We comics folk devote a lot of energy to engaging comic books and graphic novels, but seem to forget that newspaper comics are not only still out there, but are the most read form of this art form we all love. The array of people interviewed here is stunning–and even Bill Watterson came out of his secret underground lair to chat.

Get it here.

Video Tutorial – Character Design by Drew Hill

One of my many drawing-related New Year’s resolutions is to really work on better character designs. I was digging around for tutorials on the subject and stumbled on this incredibly helpful process tutorial by character designer Drew Hill. He walks through the creation of a couple of characters from the idea phase to completed, rendered images. This video is packed with useful information.

Embedded above, or on Vimeo here.


Gallery of Pages From My Most Recent Sketchbook

I’m a firm believer that working regularly in a sketchbook is a really beneficial practice for artists. I know there are some really phenomenal cartoonists who pretty much only draw when they’re working on an actual project, but I’m just not at that level skill-wise. For me, that’d be like just showing up for the game, but never showing up for practice–and I for sure need all the practice I can get drawing-wise.

That said, I don’t get to work in my sketchbook nearly as much as I should ideally. I just ran out of pages in this particular sketchbook which I started at the end of June last year. It’s an 80 page book and I draw on both sides of the page, so that comes out to just a couple of pages a week. On the other hand, though, that’s all pure sketchbook noodling. I thumbnail my comics on loose printer paper.

Anyway, just for fun here’s a gallery of a handful of pages. You can see that in addition to my usual subjects of made-up faces, hands, and clothing/drapery, I’m trying to work on using black for shadows (AKA “spotting blacks”) and on getting better with the human figure/lines of action. Those are two areas that I’m definitely going to continue to work at in my newly-started sketchbook.



A Gallery of all my Aquarium Drunkard Musician/Band Drawings

One of my (many) trouble areas art-wise is facial likenesses. If you follow my work you probably recall that in 2011 I set about trying to improve in this arena via a weekly “portrait night” drawing–you can see the end results in a gallery here. After that concluded, though, I wanted to find a way to make myself draw facial likenesses on a regular basis, even if not as frequent as once a week.

As you can tell by the subjects of the original portrait night project, I really enjoy drawing musicians–so it seemed natural to devise something music related. So, I reached out to the folks behind one of my favorite music blogs, Aquarium Drunkard, and volunteered to do some illustrations for them. They have a regular feature called “The Lagniappe Sessions” in which bands/musicians do covers of some of their favorite songs by other artists and I began doing illustrations for this feature in mid-2012. I’ve gotten too busy at the moment to continue doing it, but I wanted to post a gallery of my drawings here since I haven’t really been posting them anywhere else.

Incidentally, if any artists/illustrators/cartoonists out there are interested in taking up the Lagniappe Sessions mantle, contact Aquarium Drunkard’s Justin Gage.  It’s not a paying gig, but it’s sure great practice!

As with any project of this sort, some turned out better than others. If I had to pick an absolute favorite, I’d probably go with Benjamin Booker. (Also: his self-titled record is fantastic and easily one of the best releases of 2014.) Here they are.


Books about Comics: Some Short Reviews

Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present by Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner

I’ve been pretty vocal on my Twitter about the lack of a solid English language history of Franco-Belgian comics, so I was delighted when I caught wind of this book. It actually bites off a significantly larger geographic chunk than just French language comics, though, and attempts to cover comics history in the US, Japan, Europe, Scandinavia, and more. A lot of this information will likely be new to U.S. readers (much of it sure was to me) and it’s fascinating stuff.

The book is obviously trying to cover a lot of ground and by its nature requires the authors to pick and choose what to include and what not to. If I were pressed on it, I’m sure I could come up with some nitpicking in that area, but nothing stood out to me as either a glaring omission or an unwarranted inclusion.

One of the book’s best attributes is the attention it pays to stylistic trends and visual analysis. One of the authors is a cartoonist himself and I’m betting that’s where a lot that attention to art and process is coming from.

My only real complaint about the book is that, because of the way it’s organized, I found it difficult to know what things were happening concurrently in the different regions that the book covers. The chapters are grouped into three sections by era (1968-1978, 1978-1990, 1999 Onward) and then divided by region within those. It’s a good way to organize a potentially overwhelming amount of information, but it would have been nice to have something like a visual timeline to see what events in different parts of the world were concurrent with one another beyond those three general groupings.

Buy at

The Princess of Tennis: The True Story of Working as a Mangaka’s Assistant in Japan by Jamie Lynn Lano


This is–like the title says–the story of a westerner who winds up working as an assistant to a prominent mangaka in Japan’s manga studio system. The title of the book is a play on the title of the manga she worked on, Takeshi Konomi’s Prince of Tennis.

The book is self-published and it reads less like a finished memoir than a really, really long blog post (emoticons and all)–which is, in fact, basically what it is; The author chronicled her experiences first via LiveJournal before collecting them into an ebook.

I was far more interested in the bits and pieces of information included in the story about the actual process of manga production in the Japanese studio system than the author’s personal goings-on, romances, etc. I think the intended audience here is not so much people like myself who are interested specifically in manga, but more people who are immersed in J-culture in general. This book, though, should definitely be required reading for the throngs of western manga fans who think that they can just hop over the pond and land a job in Japan in the manga industry.

Buy at Sparkler or Amazon.

The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images by Neil Cohn

While I found this book fascinating, I can only fully recommend it for the wonkiest of comics formalists. Despite being largely (thankfully) free of academic jargon, this is in fact an academic book, written by an academic. Cohn, a linguist, is setting out here to prove that comics is a visual language–and not “visual language” in the “yay, team comics!” way folks like me often throw around the term, but an actual language in the most technical of senses.

The author systematically goes about breaking down how comics work to tries to show that comics constitutes an actual language and that, like other languages, it operates via a hierarchical grammar that governs its structure. It’s definitely not intended as a how-to, book, but I found myself thinking a lot about how I structure my own comics as I read through this. It’s not for the casual reader, but if you’re interested in the underlying ways that images combine to create meaning in the comics medium it’s absolutely worth a read.

Buy at

Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels by Brian Michael Bendis

This book is probably a godsend for a person with a wholly different comics background than I, but I found myself skimming a lot of this book, hoping that I’d eventually get to a section that dealt with the actual craft of writing–story structure in particular. Bendis, though, focuses on things like script formatting, how much description to put in your scripts, dealing with editors, etc.

The middle section of the book is mostly round-table discussions where he’s asked groups of writers, groups of artists, and groups of editors a series of questions which they each respond to. There’s some valuable information here for sure–and some really great process information from the artists, including a full issue’s worth of David Aja Hawkeye thumbnails–but it seems to be assumed here that you already know the nuts and bolts of narrative.

Buy at

The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by Julian Darius

Despite pretty much completely disagreeing with the author’s basic conclusion about Kirby’s work, I really enjoyed this book. The author goes through Kirby’s unfortunately difficult to track down 2001: A Space Odyssey adaptation issue-by-issue and evaluates it mainly on a basis of how well he feels Kirby’s version stays true to the film… which is, I think, a criterion that’s bound to make you not enjoy the comics.

70s Kirby is at its best when he’s going full throttle Kirby, and there’s almost no better example of that than 2001. One of Kirby’s most interesting traits as an artist is that everything he touches becomes “Kirby-fied” and, again, this is exactly what makes the 2001 comics so amazing. At one point the author complains that Kirby (I’m paraphrasing here), “Just uses the obelisks as an excuse to do any kind of story he feels like.” For me, that’s not a problem; it’s why the comics are great.

Kirby’s actual artwork receives surprisingly spare treatment here which is I think a symptom of trying to derive enjoyment from the wrong elements of Kirby’s 2001.

Despite the above, though, I enjoyed this analysis a great deal. It’s a must-read for any Kirby enthusiast.

Buy via



Interview: Comics and Teaching

I was recently cleaning out a bunch of old documents that had accumulated in my Google Drive and I stumbled on this interview that I did a while back about teaching with comics. I honestly don’t remember what it was for–it may have just been an email interview with a graduate student, or something similar–but it dates from 2012. Reading this over now, it seems like the questions have a “comics vs. prose” undercurrent to them that I wasn’t responding to. I’ve never been really invested in any conversation that “pits” comics vs. other media–particularly the old “comics can do X, which movies can’t” saw. Anyway…

  • How where you first introduced to comics?

I guess the first comics I was around regularly were some books of Rupert, a British comics character that my great aunt and uncle had in their house.  I think my great uncle must have brought the books back from Europe when he returned from World War II.  I remember reading those over and over again as a very, very young child.  Around that same time, I would spend time, while my mom was at work during the day, with an older retired couple who lived next door to me; they had some classic strip collections in their house that I used to really like–Betty Boop, Little Orphan Annie, that sort of stuff.

As far as comic books go, the first of those I remember having were the Marvel adaptations of Star Wars from the 70s.  It used to be that comic books were for sale at pretty much any drug store, grocery store or convenience store, so one didn’t really necessarily need to be “introduced” to comics as a youngster; they were fairly ubiquitous.

  • Do you have any experience teaching with comics?

Yes, I’ve taught comics classes at colleges, high school summer programs, community art centers, libraries, and workshops around the country.  What I’ve taught, though, is not so much teaching with comics, but rather teaching studio classes giving instruction on how one creates comics.

  • What do you think is the biggest difference between a comic book and other teaching materials? (i.e. books, novels, pictures)

Well, since I’ve not taught classes in areas other than comics (and a few other art-related areas), I can’t really compare and contrast teaching comics vs. teaching other subjects.  There is, though, certainly some anecdotal evidence from the teaching community that using comics is quite effective with “reluctant readers” as well as with situations like English as a Second Language programs.  Other than the peculiarities of comics’ visual language, I don’t know that there’s any real fundamental difference between using, say, MAUS, as a primary text vs. using a pure prose book.

  • Have you experienced first hand how comics help students?If so, can you explain the process?

The most obvious benefit of teaching comics is really the same benefit you get teaching any narrative.  Again, I don’t think there’s a huge substantive difference between using comic vs. pure prose literature.  It all comes down the quality of the book you chose.  As far as a story of any particular student goes, I don’t know that I have one, but in general I do find that students who are already interested in comics and graphic novels are often quite excited and passionate about studying them since they often perceive them to be worthy of close examination, but rarely find teachers who are willing to engage them in a classroom environment.

  • How effective do you think teaching with comics/graphic novels is?

Again, as mentioned above, I don’t really have a point of reference to compare teaching with comics vs. teaching with other source material.

  • Why do you think this medium is being used more than before in teaching?

I think there are probably two main factors: 1) There is now a critical mass of teachers who grew up reading comics in the post-MAUS comics environment and who understand and appreciate the art form.  These folks have been instrumental in pushing the art form into areas of academic and cultural prominence that they previously would not have been able to make much headway into.  2) There is, combined with this, a generation of students who have grown up in a world that’s largely centered on visual literacy… and many of whom are steeped in the influence of Japanese comics and animation. Also: it would be difficult to underestimate the incredibly important role librarians have played in moving comics into the mainstream as far as reading/teaching materials go in schools.

  • In your opinion, is the comic industry falling, or in the contrary, growing?

My impression is that the portion of the industry that deals with monthly, serialized genre stories (superhero companies like Marvel and DC) are pretty much holding their own, but not really expanding.  On the other hand, I think publishers that publish graphic novels are generally doing really well.  Certainly there are now a larger number of big previously prose-only publishers as well who now have graphic novels divisions.  The publishing industry as a whole is feeling the effects of the current recession, but proportionally GNs are still doing quite well.

  • Do you think that using comics or graphic novels in teaching have a limitation?

Certainly, like teaching with anything else, it’s limited by the quality of the source material.  You’re unlikely to be able to do high quality teaching with a low-quality book, whether a GN or pure prose.

  • What do you think about how people used to see comics in the past and how they see them now?

Comics in the U.S. have been the subject of varying public opinion over the last century or so.  I think that currently they’re accorded higher status than they have been for quite some time among those “in the know”–people up on what’s current in the literary world–and also among people under, say, 20 years of age or so.  I don’t know that your average person on the street, though, (particularly older folks) have much of an association with comics beyond comics-related cultural signposts: Hollywood movies and whatnot.


Oyster War Is Now Complete. A Few Thoughts:


(An early sketch of Davidson Bulloch)

I can’t exactly remember when I started working on Oyster War–I found some initial character drawings in my sketchbook from as long ago as 2008–but I posted the last page, page 128, earlier this month. I say in this post’s title that Oyster War is “complete,” but that’s not entirely accurate; I’m currently hard at work on doing corrections and edits in preparation for a print edition that will hopefully appear in the latter half of 2015. I say “hopefully” because I have not yet signed on the proverbial dotted line. I’m pretty excited about the prospect of a nice print edition of the story and I couldn’t be happier with the publisher I’ve been speaking with. I hope to be able to make an official announcement soon. In the meantime, though, here’re a few thoughts on the whole process of putting together the story, partially just for my own edification, and partially as advice to folks considering beginning a long-form narrative webcomic:

  • Buy a domain name and use it. – For reasons that I can’t now recall, when I first started Oyster War, I decided to host it on Tumblr. Oyster War‘s tumblr URL was, which was well and good until I decided to switch to a different platform. Since that’s Tumblr’s URL not mine, I couldn’t take it with me. If I’d purchased from the get-go I could simply have re-pointed it to the strip’s new location. In addition to the inconvenience to readers, I wound up stuck with a bunch of promotional materials (mainly bookmarks, I think) with the old tumbrl URL on them that I had to just pitch.
  • Tumblr is a terrible platform for long-form narrative comics. – Tumblr is a fantastic platform for any kind of comic that can be digested in its entirety within Tumblr’s page posting limit–which I think is ten images total per post. It is, though, not a great platform for posting page-by-page stories. The default page width is far too small (something I solved with a workaround), but far more important: navigation becomes extremely difficult once you’ve got a substantial number of pages posted.
  • Use your personal Twitter account for page updates. – I set up a separate @OysterWar twitter account that just posted page updates. My thinking was that some people might want to receive reminders about page updates without being subjected to all of my personal blather about arcane comics-related stuff that they’d get from my personal @ben_towle account. I never really, though, got a lot of followers to the Oyster War account–and a lot of the ones I got were people who also followed my personal account. The appeal of social media for a lot of comics folks is interaction with creators, so give it to them. If they want just page updates they’ll use an RSS reader. I also had a separate G+ Oyster War account–also a bad idea, for the same reasons.
  • RSS is still important – You don’t hear folks talking about RSS much these days, but just anecdotally it sure seems like tons of people who I talk to about webcomics use RSS readers to keep track of their reading progress.
  • Whatever social media you use, you’ll get out what you put in. – I got the most traction on my comic from twitter and Google +. Not surprisingly, twitter and  G+ are the social networks I’m most active on.
  • Post your comic at one website. – By the end of the strip, Oyster War was being posted at three different sites: my own, on G+, and at Not only was this a lot of work, but I was likely diluting my audience. Since I was getting paid based on page visits at GoComics, I probably should have redirected there and just posted links at G+.
  • There’s no easy way to post stuff across multiple social media platforms. – I looked into this several times while I was doing Oyster War and unless I missed some important piece of software, there’s really no easy way to do this. You have to just bite the bullet and do each manually. I posted on Wednesdays and I allotted myself around 40 minutes or so just for posting. I scheduled three tweets each Wednesday on Twitter (from two accounts), G+ (from two accounts), and Tumblr. I also made sure to respond to anyone who replied with comments about the strip and I kept a text file of everyone who RT’d my updates on twitter so I could thank them the next day.
  • Include a picture when you post to social media. – For Twitter and Tumblr, I excerpted one panel from the page I was posting and included it with my page updates. This seemed to get more traction than tweets/updates with just text and a link.
  • Spend some real time doing character designs. – I have a terrible habit of not spending the amount of time that I really should designing my characters and getting comfortable drawing them. Oyster War is no exception. I started doing finished pages before I really had my characters nailed down and I wound up with a lot of “character design drift” (where the character changes appearance over the course of the story) and some characters that I just don’t like that much visually–Tevia and Lourdes are two in particular that I wish I would have done a better job with design-wise.


(Top: original panels from early in the strip. Bottom: corrected panels with the character now on-model)
  • Assume that your comic will be printed, Part I. – You may just be planning on throwing some stuff up online and seeing what sticks, but you can make some serious trouble for yourself down the line if you wind up deciding that you want to print your comic if you haven’t been doing some basic “just in case” things. Thankfully, I did the most basic of these with Oyster War–more just out of habit than good planning. Work in CMYK. Exporting CMYK to RBG is a lot less prone to problems than vice versa. Also: work at print resolution. I keep my line art at 1200 dpi and my coloring at 300 dpi. Again, it’s easy to export all that down to 72 dpi for screens… but there’s no way to do it in reverse.
  • Assume that your comic will be printed, Part II. – Some print-prep things that I really should have done, I didn’t start doing until about half way through. I wish I’d done them from the get-go. First: coloring with a K-free palette. Despite Oyster War being my first long comic I’ve done in color, I knew good and well that it’s a best practice to do CMYK coloring with little if any black (K or “key”) values in your colors… but, I foolishly took a “I’ll figure it out later” attitude, and now I’m having to go back and color correct a lot of early pages. I felt especially dumb when I finally decided to remix the color palette I’d been using to get it K-free and it took all of about 45 minutes to do. Other things I should have done from the get-go that are now costing me time: digitally blacking in areas of spot blacks that didn’t scan as completely black, superblacking the color under the line art.
  • Approach the right publishers at the right time. – Publishers tend to be interested in comics at two points: at the very beginning or the very end. Either you’ve got such a great, commercially viable idea that some big trade publisher will give you an advance to get it done (usually this is an all ages/YA book or “graphic novel memoir”), or a publisher will look at your comic once it’s done (or almost done) and decide they’re interested in it. Also, as Chris Schweizer points out so well here, for any given comic, there are really only a small handful of publishers who it even makes sense to approach. I initially took Oyster War at far too early a stage to a (great) publisher that wouldn’t have been a good fit.
  • If you get asked to syndicate your strip at GoComics, do it. – About halfway through the strip’s run, I got invited to start posting at GoComics. If you’re already doing a strip, it’s pretty easy to get set up at GoComics. The pay structure is based around the number of hits your strip is getting, so you’re not going to buy an island in the Caribbean with your revenue if you’re doing a weekly updating narrative comic, but you will make some money.
  • GoComics, Part II. – Really more of a benefit than money, GoComics comes with a built-in, engaged reader base who actively comment on pretty much every update. It’s like having a free editor–or just think of it as a “test run” for the print version. I kept a printed-out binder of Oyster War in-progress, and I made notations whenever dialog or particular scenes weren’t communicating the way I’d intended them to (or even when readers caught typos)–and I’m now using those notes to revise.
  • Pick a Posting Schedule You Can Handle, Then Stick With It. – I got some grousing from my readers about how slowly I was turning out pages, but I felt like it was better to pick a reasonable schedule and then stick to it. I committed to a page every two weeks and once I’d settled on that, I never missed an update. The pages were big, four rows, and full color; they took a while to produce.


(Promotional Oyster War bookmark)
  • Next Time: Better-Looking Website. – I was never really happy with the look or navigation of I could have spent more time trying to get it to look nicer, but frankly I wanted to spend that time drawing. Next time, I’ll probably pay someone to do a custom WordPress design/theme for me.
  • Next Time: Horizontal Format. – I’d imagined Oyster War first as a print book and only after getting about ten pages in did I decide to set it up as a webcomic. The pages are formatted “portrait” for print and don’t read very well on a monitor. With whatever I do next, I’m going to format the pages such that they can be posted  horizontally and then “stacked” for a print edition. That’ll mean having two concurrent “dummies” at the thumbnail stage, but I feel like it’ll be worth it in the end.
  • Next Time: No Adobe Products. – This is more of an ideal than an attainable goal at this point, but I’d love to ditch Adobe products entirely. Their new subscription-based pricing model is loathsome and support-wise they seem to only really care about Wacom-based drawing setups. Photoshop CC 2014, for example, doesn’t do pen pressure with many non-Wacom products and Adobe doesn’t seem to really care. Unfortunately, there’s not a good alternative to PS right now for doing professional coloring for CMYK printing. GIMP’s CMYK support is still fairly rudimentary and Manga Studio has real problems with the way it deals with ICC profiles and exporting to CMYK.
  • Next Time: Digital. – I’m thinking pretty seriously about doing my next book all digitally. I’ve grown to really love drawing in Manga Studio and the time advantages of working digitally would allow me get pages done faster. Maybe I’m not seeing my work objectively enough, but I feel like my digital drawing looks pretty much indistinguishable from my traditional stuff.
  • Next Time: Bigger but Less Frequent Updates? – I know this goes against the grain of most webcomics advice you’ll hear, but I’ve been thinking that the webcomic reading experience for long-form narrative work might be better if I posted short 6-10 page “scenes” every six weeks or so, rather than posting a page/week.

Oh, and one last thing: A big thanks to everyone who read and supported my efforts on Oyster War! All the support, kind words, and RT’s/shares meant a lot. Stay tuned–I’m hoping to be able to release some good news about a print collection soon…

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