Basic Hardware/Software Cartooning Setup?

I had a friend ask me recently for advice on putting together a basic hardware and software setup for comics-making–with budget in mind. Here’s my response to her:


Clip Studio (formerly Manga Studio) is a great program (and reasonably priced). The standard/pro version is sufficient for most drawing needs and goes on sale occasionally for as little as $20. It’s definitely a specialized program though, that’s entirely geared toward comics-making. You can draw, digitally ink, lay out pages/panels, letter, color, etc. all within it. 

SketchBook is a great simple drawing program with an innovative interface that’s designed specifically for tablets. It’s already pretty cheap and it’s actually free for students and teachers.

I currently have an older version of Photoshop, but I’m trying to wean myself of Adobe stuff because they’ve stopped selling their software the way they used to. You can only get their stuff now by having a monthly subscription, rather than just buying the software and upgrading every once in a while. It’s $50/month, which is too much for me. If you can get an older version of Photoshop somewhere, that’ll probably be sufficient for doing anything you need to do outside of Manga Studio, though.

There’s also a free image manipulation program called GIMP that you could look into. ( http://www.gimp.org/ ) Like a lot of open source stuff, the user interface isn’t anything to write home about, but it gets the job done–and it’s free. There’s also a version of GIMP that’s been tweaked to have as Photoshop-like an interface as possible, GIMPshop: http://www.gimpshop.com/ The only thing that I do regularly in Photoshop that I haven’t been able to figure out how to do in GIMP is photomerging–having the software assemble a page that’s had to be scanned in two or more pieces. It also doesn’t have a CMYK mode, but this will only matter to you if you’re doing professional work that’ll be printed on an offset press. 


Scanners are a real problem. You can get an 8.5 x 11 scanner for dirt cheap, but if you want something larger, suddenly the price increases exponentially for some reason. I bought an ancient (1990s) Microtek 11×17 scanner with a SCSI connection for around $250 on ebay and have somehow gotten it to work via a crazy daisy chain of adapters and some software hacks. New large format scanners are super-pricey, though. I’d be cautious of Mustek scanners. Get the user manual from their site and make sure that whatever model you’re looking at scans at at least 600dpi–and make sure that it’s not listed as “interpolated” dpi/resolution. Basically, that means that it’s scanning at a lower resolution and then using some software shenanigans to make up the difference. I do know several people, though, who use and are happy with this almost reasonably priced Mustek large format scanner.

I’ve also seen people recommending large format combo printer/scanners. These two are the ones I bookmarked. A large format flat feed printer can be really useful as well: you can scan roughs, enlarge them, convert them to non-photo blue, and then print them out onto sheets of Bristol board.

All that said, you can get by with a regular old cheap 8.5 x 11 scanner. I did a 140 page graphic novel back when that’s all I had. You just have to scan every page of art three times and then put it back together in Photoshop or GIMP. It’s a pain in the ass and it takes a long time, but it can be done.

If you’re going to do anything with digital color, I really recommend getting a tablet. There are some really good low-priced alternatives out there to the standard super-expensive tablets. I know people who swear by this $60 Monoprice tablet.

So, the bottom line: if you can afford a $2200 Cintiq digitizing monitor and $50/month to Adobe, by all means do it, but you can also get by pretty well with Manga Studio, GIMP, a small scanner and a tablet–all for around $150 total.


  1. Greg Carter says:

    For $250 I got an HP OfficeJet 7610 that scans AND prints up to 13×19″. The quality is fantastic. Perfect for scanning comic boards. Epson and Brother make comparable versions now so you can find it for even less than I paid. Scan your art and make prints to sell from a single machine – it pays for itself.

  2. Brad says:

    Great article! I had to replace my scanner last month and after a bunch of research I ended up getting an Epson WorkForce 7510 Wireless All-in-One Inkjet Printer (amazon link: http://goo.gl/oUVMQ9).

    The main reason I went with the Epson over the others (Scanning wise) is that the Epson didn’t have a slight drop down “lip” around the bed of the scanner, so you can scan in much larger sheets if you need to without getting those annoying blurred edges from the paper being bent by the lid or edge.

    On the printing sides of things I’ve used my Epson workforce 1100 to print all of my blue lines, and it is still working great (I’d buy 3 more in a second, but they don’t make them anymore). But since I decided to get an all in one, I figured I might as well get a backup wide format printer. The problem with all of the new wide format all in one printers, is they do not have a bypass tray and can’t handle Bristol board correctly.

    The Epson 7510 did the best job out of the ones I could find and has the best print quality by far. It can handle card stock, but It cannot handle Bristol board. I ink on paper so It’s not a deal breaker for me, but my Epson with the bypass tray can printer on very thick water color paper with no trouble at all.

    I didn’t see a bypass tray listed for either printer you listed. Do you know if they have one? If so those 2 would be a great deal.

    Sorry for the long rambling comment, I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in. I scoured the internet looking for an article like this last month and couldn’t find anything.

  3. Eric says:

    FYI, if anyone winds up with an old Mustek USB A3 Scan Express, you can still get the drivers through Archive.org: http://web.archive.org/web/20100328031513/http://www.mustek.com.tw/Support/

    And set up on Windows Vista / 7 like so:

  4. Ben says:

    @Greg – Thanks for the info. This old timey SCSI scanner is gonna give up the ghost soon and I’ll definitely be needing something along those lines.

  5. Ben says:

    @Brad – I don’t know about the bypass tray thing… but that bit about having an beveled up edge is good to know about for future scanner shopping. You really can’t see the interior of the scanner bed in any Amazon pics, unfortunately.

  6. Ben says:

    @Eric – Good gods… that tutorial sounds like what I had to go through to get this SCSI scanner working. Among other things, I had to manually edit a driver with a text editor. Good times.

  7. Eric says:

    Worth it for a $20 11×17 scanner, though! I picked it up on Craigslist. One thing to know that might not be apparent to folks who work mostly digital and haven’t had to deal with a printer before is that A3 = 11×17 (roughly).

  8. Isaac says:

    To the information above, I’d add that if you’re trying to take stuff to the print shop these days, it’s worth also having a layout program that works like InDesign. And there’s a free one: Scribus.

    Scribus will let you lay out pages of a booklet at whatever size and resolution you want, and it’ll turn the whole thing into a PDF (or other format) document to your print shop’s specifications.

    It’s a hassle to have to go from PhotoShop (or, presumably, Manga Studio) into yet another program before taking stuff to the print shop. But going through Scribus isn’t that bad.

  9. Ben says:

    @Isaac – Oh, yeah. That’s absolutely true. I totally spaced on that. I use InDesign at the moment, but if I’m gonna really go Adobe-free, I’ll definite look into Scribus.

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