The Big Crunch is 16 months old, and like anything in its infancy, it has gone through rapid stages of development in a very short amount of time. What started as a pen-and-ink gag strip with monotone colorization is now a series of entirely digital vignettes, with a visual and narrative complexity that has taken even me by surprise.

As we venture into a new year, I thought it might be interesting to show you how an episode is crafted, start-to-finish. The Big Crunch is no small endeavor. Each Sunday-format strip takes 10 to 20 hours to complete, which can be challenging to scrape from a busy schedule. But working digitally has alleviated some of the more tedious elements of comic making, as well as opened the gates for richer storytelling.

It starts with the words. I use a personal wiki to write the script and backstories of TBC, which helps me track details about Thanova and its inhabitants with consistency. From there, I begin work on the art. I draw in Photoshop CS5 on a Cintiq 24HD, using a 300dpi template with header texts, footer texts and outer borders already established.

Making The Big Crunch: Template

Making of The Big Crunch - LayersWorking in Photoshop effectively means working in layers, and this template is already divided into several. Starting at the bottom and working towards the top, we have the following layers, each of whose purpose I’ll explain in detail:

  1. White Background
  2. Perspective Lines
  3. Red Hue
  4. Sketch
  5. Detailed Sketch
  6. Color Flats
  7. Photo Filter
  8. Shadow
  9. Inks
  10. Light
  11. Speech Bubbles
  12. Borders
  13. Text
  14. Reference Photos

The White Background layer is the digital equivalent of the canvas. The Perspective Lines layer is what I will use to create the construction lines for objects and architecture.

The Red Hue layer—set to an Overlay blend—has two purposes. One, it helps me distinguish between the White Background and Speech Bubbles layers, so that I can see the speech bubbles as I’m working with them. With the White Background layer set to 90% opacity, the Red Hue layer gives the canvas an auburn tone that contrasts with the speech bubbles. Secondly, it gives the Perspective Lines a different color (red) than the Detailed Sketch layer (blue). I like to think of the Perspective Lines as the stage, and the Detailed Sketch as the actor. I’ll demonstrate these layers in just a minute.

After establishing the Black Borders of each panel, the creation of a TBC episode starts with lettering. The reason I start with lettering is because I want to know what space is going to be occupied by speech bubbles, so I don’t waste time drawing underneath it. (Some artists might not find this kosher, but anything to help manage time facilitates a weekly publishing schedule.) I use Lafayette Comic Pro as the font, sized at 11pt with 12pt line spacing, vertically scaled to 90%. Emphasized words are set in bold at sizes 12pt and up. Lettering is placed in the Text group layer near the top.

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Next, I use the Sketch layer to draw rapid gesture drawings, just to establish a rough sense of composition and emotion. I use the Brush tool, colored light grey, which I use much like a 2H pencil. Once I know how each character is blocked, I create the Speech Bubbles. The speech bubble shapes are created using the Ellipse and Pen tools, which are then merged into a single layer and given a center-positioned, 6px black Stroke effect.

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Now comes the heavy lifting with the Detailed Sketch and Perspective Lines layers. I use the Brush and Line tools for this phase. My Brush is set to a circular tip with hard edges and a light blue hue, with opacity and size controlled by pen pressure. The Line tool is set very thin, say 3px, and is used mainly for establishing vanishing points. Remember, because I have the Red Hue layer above the Perspective Lines, they appear brownish without having to change my tool color. Detailed sketching and perspective lines are the lengthiest phase by far.

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Once that’s finished, it’s onward to Inks. I use the Brush tool for this as well, colored black for objects in the foreground and variations of grey for objects in the mid- and backgrounds. Brush opacity is set to 100%, while Brush size is determined in part by pen pressure, so it feels like working with a felt-tip pen.

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Next: Color Flats. A lot of artists use the Lasso tool for this, but I’m clumsy as hell with the Lasso. So I use the Pencil tool, creating a specifically colored border around an area underneath the Inks, then fill that area using the Paint Bucket tool.

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I’ll often use a Photo Filter layer, too, right above the Color Flats to adjust the colors just slightly to fit the atmosphere. In this case, the scene is taking place at night, which on the planet Obescuron is when the Void is out. Here I’m using a purple filter set to roughly 50% opacity.

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Shadows come next, which is where the comic really starts to feel alive and palpable to me. I use the Brush tool set at 50% hardness, with Shadow layers created and set to 25%-30%, which I merge into a single Shadow layer as they’re completed. Sometimes I’ll use the Gradient tool during this phase, too, using the Magic Wand tool to select color areas to shade.

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Finally comes Lighting. Like the Shadows, I will create and merge layers at will, using the Brush and Gradient tools at varying sizes, hardnesses and opacities. Some lighting I’ll keep above the Inks, some below, depending on the desired effect. The Gaussian Blur filter becomes very useful at this point, too. This is also the phase at which I’ll create atmospheric effects like stars, gases, water and smoke.

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At this point, we are ready for publishing. I’ve been saving the layered Photoshop file all along. Now I go to “File” > “Save for Web and Devices” to create the JPEG that will be uploaded to the website. I set the quality at roughly 80% and the image at 960px, 72dpi to optimize it for web display. Thus, an episode of The Big Crunch is born writhing and screaming into the world.

The Big Crunch is a Labor of Love, both of which deserve their capital L’s. If you have any questions or comments about the creative process—or even suggestions on how it can be done more effectively—please leave them in the comments section below.