diy: making minicomics
Hey cartoonist! So glad you've found this resource to get you started with DIY publishing!
Making comics is really challenging, so if you're ready to publish, that deserves major congratulations. But if you're finding yourself stuck in the process, that's totally normal, too. And maybe I can help.
I help creative people to take control and implement giant, overwhelming projects (like graphic novels!). If that sounds like something you could use, check out my FREE Creative Engine Masterclass to figure out where you’re getting blocked, and start finishing your awesome book!
This is a guide on how to put together a minicomic that I last updated in about 2004 (and it shows: a lot of the photocopying, collating, prep stages are now best done on a computer). It's all still totally valid, and also a similar, but much more comprehensive guide can also be found in Appendix E of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, as well as in the last 4 chapters of Mastering Comics (an even better version with book binding ideas).
What is a minicomic?
The word “minicomic” does not mean “small comic”. The “mini” in minicomics is a reference to a relatively small print run, and also how much personal labor on the part of the artist and friends is involved. A professionally-printed comic with a print-run of 3000 that is 4” X 5” is not a minicomic. A photocopied comic with a hand-printed cover that’s been folded and stapled by the artist his or herself and that is 8.5” X 11” is a minicomic.
Why make minicomics?
The first and most important reason to make minicomics is that comics are essentially a form of printed multiple. That means, the comic is the printed thing of which there are many, NOT the original drawn page. A comic, in some ways, is not a comic until it is printed. Everything you do on your original art needs to be done with the printed final comic in mind. In this way, comics are similar to etchings or silkscreens. The original is the print, not the plate or screen you print it from. With that in mind, in order to start to understand how your comics look and read to an outside reader, you must get distance on the work, and you must see it in its intended form, and that means you have to print it. And, you need to print it in book form so you can see how the pages look juxtaposed to each other, and feel what it’s like to turn your pages. Plus which, the first time you see your comics in a book form, you’ll be shocked, and amazed, and proud. It’s a great thing to do.
Secondly, with a minicomic, you have your work in a neat package that you can give to editors as a portfolio (they will always want to see your work in mutiple-page sections, not just pinups in your sketchbook), to artists you admire for possible feedback (sometimes they’ll write you back) or just to let them know you like their work, and to friends, family, and fellow cartoonists. You can also sell them to people you know or, sometimes, through your local comics or record store. Ask if they’ll do consignment. It’s essential, as a cartoonist, to get people to be aware of you and your work. That’s how you eventually get published by someone other than yourself.
What should you put into your minicomics?
That part is very much up to you. You can put a short story or several in there, drawings and pin-ups, or a serialized part of a longer story. You can even put prose stories, essays, or pictures of yourself in there. Whatever. However, it bears remembering that most people who get your comic may only ever get one issue. That’s just how it often works out. If you put a serialized part of your magnum opus in there, your readers may have no idea what’s going on, and thus not be interested in it. Just keep that in mind. Also, anthology editors who see a short story they like in the mini you give them might just offer to reprint it in their book. You never know, it could happen!
Minicomics can be any size, shape, number of pages, and format you want, limited by a few factors: Money, paper size, time, paper shape, and money.
Let’s get to basics first: any piece of paper, any size and shape, obviously, has two sides. Grab a sheet of scrap paper and try this: if you fold it in half, it will have…let’s say it all together…
FOUR sides. And if we fold it a second time? Count them if need be.
Eight sides. You can even fold it a third time, though this is pretty much the limit. Three folds will create…
Sixteen sides. You can see already how the folded paper looks something like a booklet. You can also see how the size of the paper you originally folded will be reflected in the final shape and size of your booklet-to-be.
If you fold standard photocopy paper (in the USA, we’re talking 8.5” X 11”) in half the long way, you get a booklet of…
5.5” x 8.5”. This is the most common and cheapest format for a minicomic, and it’s called “DIGEST SIZE” (Cheapest because the paper is cheap and photocopies on it are usually the cheapest available at any copy place). If you fold it again the long way, you get a booklet that’s…
5.5” X 4.25”. This is possibly the second most common size, and it’s called “MINICOMIC SIZE” Take note that for this book to open and read, you will have to trim one edge after you staple it. And the final fold, the long way, will create a tiny book that’s
2.25” X 4.5”. This is called “MICRO SIZE”. In this format, you have to cut two edges off after it’s stapled.
Without getting too monotonous about it, keep in mind that beginning with a different size sheet of paper will create different size minicomics. If your original paper size was “legal size” (which is 8.5″ x 14″), the folded-once-the-long-way version would be 8.5″ x 7″, and the folded-once-the-long-way version of “tabloid size” paper, which is 11″ X 17″ would be 8.5″ X 11″. And so on.
All that’s well and good, but what if you take your standard office-size photocopy paper (8.5″ X 11″), and fold it the SHORT way first? Here’s what you get:
It’s 4.25″ X 11″. It could be great for a comic about tall buildings, or one bound calendar-style of daily comic strips. Then what if you fold it again, this time the long way?
You get a book that’s the exact same size as “minicomic size” (above). but ITS “SPINE” IS ON THE SHORT SIDE, which makes it a horizontal book.
Format doesn’t stop there. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Your minicomic can be folded up like an accordian or a roadmap and it’s still a minicomic.
Now let’s start talking about YOUR minicomic, instead of in generalities.
Step 1: Decide on a format
Keeping in mind the possibilities discussed above, the first thing you have to do when you are considering making a minicomic is decide what size and shape it will be. You can do this one of two ways:
Look at the work you want to print, and decide what size and shape of book will fit it best.
To do this, you should measure the pages you want to publish, and figure out what shape and size page would fit it best. Are your pages close to a 2 x 3 proportion, like traditional American comics pages? Then you may want to stick with the standard “digest size” mini. It’s a bit tall and skinny, like your art. Are your pages more squarish, like European comics pages? In that case, a legal-size folded in half or maybe a “minicomics size” book would fit better, since they are more square-shaped. Once you know your ideal mini format, use your proportion wheel to figure out how much to reduce your pages and continue from there (see below, step 2 for more on that).
Decide on a shape and size for your mini and draw new work to fit.
This is the best choice if you want to do a mini in an unusual format, or a really small one, or something. Your pages that you draw at 10” x 15” won’t look good reprinted in a “micro size” mini.
To do this, figure out the page size of your mini by making a mock-up blank book to figure out the format, then measure the pages to see what your final size should be. then use your proportion wheel to size those measurements up 125% – 200% (see step 2), and draw the comics at that size.
Step 2: Use the proportion wheel
The proportion wheel is a tool used to figure out how much bigger you need to draw art, or how much smaller you have to make art to print it. It has three main parts.
You can set a proportion wheel in one of two ways.
1) You know the final print size, but not the original size.
Let’s use a print size of 4″ x 5″ as an example.
Find one of the final dimensions on the inner ring. Say 5″. Set the number in the window to the proportion you want to use (in the picture, it’s set to 150—that’s 150%)
Match up the number on the inner ring with the number on the outer ring to find 5” at 150%. It’s 7.5″.
So that’s one of the dimensions. Now, without moving the rings (because both dimensions are being sized up 150%), find the other dimension on the inner ring (4″) and then match it up with the outer ring. It matches up to 6″. so you need to draw your original at 6″ x 7.5″. If you’re metric, the same principle holds, of course.
2) You know what size your art is, and what size the final print size is, but you don’t know the reduction.
For example, let’s say the original art is 10″ x 15″ (a standard size to draw comics originals) and the final print size is to be 4.75″ x 7.75″ (which is the size of the print area in a digest-size minicomic).
In this method, you line up the length of the original art (on the outer ring) with the length of the print size (on the inner wheel) and look in the window to see what number is at the pointer.
Then, you do the same again, but with the width of the original, and the width of the print size.
Why do you do this twice? Well, You saw that you came up with two different numbers. If the art and the printed page are not exactly the same proportion (and they rarely are) you will get different numbers for the length and the width proportion. You have to choose the smaller of the two.
Why is that? If you use the bigger proportion, so your art turns out bigger, it will run off the edges of the page when printed. Try it, you’ll see. So that means that for this exercise, you should reduce your art at 47%.
A few other considerations:
Remember that photocopiers can’t copy all the way to the edge of a page. They always leave some white space. The “print size” of a standard digest size mini, therefore, is not the full size of the booklet (8.5: x 5.5″), but is at least 3/8 of an inch smaller on all sides. In other words, your print size for a digest mini would be, at the maximum, 7.75″ x 4.75″ You can go smaller, but you can’t go bigger, because your art won’t fit on the page.
If you want to use a “bleed”, i.e., images that run off the edge of the page, you will have to hand-trim your mini after you’ve bound it, which is a lot of work.
Step 3: Make a list
OK, so now you know what shape your mini will be, and what will go in it, either a collection of finished work or all new work. Now you need to decide HOW MUCH work you’ll put in there.
If you are using the DIGEST format, meaning paper folded once, no matter what size it is, you will have to fill pages in multiples of four, since each sheet of paper folded in half has four pages.
If you are using the MINICOMIC format, you will have pages in multiples of eight.
If you are using the MICRO format, you will have pages in multiples of 16.
Make a list of what you want to put in your comic, and count them to make sure you have the right number. Add and subtract pages until it comes out right. Make sure you are adding a front cover (FC), back cover (BC), inside front cover (IFC), and inside back cover (IBC) into your page count.
Make sure you are planning to print an indicia of some kind. An indicia is the basic legal and personal information you want to have in your book. At the minimum, you want your email address and a copyright notice of some kind. You might also have your street address, information about your stories, thank yous, whatever. This information is commonly found on the IFC or BC.
Keep in mind contents pages, empty pages, title pages, ads, or anything else you might want to add.
Now look at your list and think about order. Remember some basics about the reading experience: in the Western tradition, people expect to start new stories on a right-hand page (also known as “recto”), which are always odd-numbered, and end them on a left hand page (AKA “verso”), which are always even-numbered. If you can respect that tradition, your readers will thank you. (Obviously, that expectation is reversed in Asian tradition, and in any culture where books are read by opening the left edge of the book.)
Work out the final order of stories (it will probably take a few tries of re-ordering them), and you’re ready to go.
Step 4: Cover design
Now that you’ve made the big decisions about shape, size, and content, it’s time to think about presentation. It goes without saying (but it’s not a bad idea to say it anyway) that the cover is the part of your book people will see first. If your cover does not attract their attention, your art on the inside will not have a chance to do so…your potential reader will be long gone.
There are an incredible number of options available to you to make your mini stand out from the crowd. They are limited only by your imagination, budget, and the time available. But these are not idle concerns. If you design a cover that takes you 20 minutes to prepare, you are going to get very tired of putting your books together, very fast. As a result, you may end up making only a few copies of your mini, when you might have intended to make a huge pile. Similarly, if you design a cover that involves expensive materials, you may not be able to afford to make many of them, or you may need to charge so much money for them that they’re hard to sell, or you may find it difficult to make yourself give them away. You have to strike a balance between these factors.
Above are some examples of creative minicomics design.
In his 24-hour comic, “Puppy”, Jensen used two simple ways to decorate the cover for Puppy. First, he photocopied a drawing of a puppy onto a different paper stock, and glued it on his cover, then he used a kind of Asian semi-transparent rice paper as an over-cover. Bishakh Som also used an overlay to jazz up his cover for his mini comic “Angel”. He photocopied the swooping angel in the image onto colored vellum (tracing paper), and the rest of the image onto plain white paper. When you lift the outer, orange cover, the angel disappears, implying that it exists in another level of reality.
In “Dumb Cluck” by John Kerschbaum, the cover is very simple. It’s blank except for a round hole punched out so that the little illustration underneath can peek out. The back cover was given the same treatment for balance. Hole punchers like the one Kerschbaum used come in different sizes and shapes and can be found in craft stores.
The Tompkinses created their cover for “And I Saw Edgar Allen Poe” by airbrushing or spray-painting a stencil of a raven over the cover, which is a sheet of opaque fancy paper.
In “The Origami Pet” by Dan Moynihan The words of the title were first hand drawn and colored. Later Moynihan scanned that art and inkjet-printed it on colored card stock. After binding the minicomic together, to add onto the origami theme, a strip of Japanese origami paper was glued onto the book’s spine which also conceals the staples, giving the book a more professional look.
Step 5: Photocopying work to final size
Photocopying is an art, not a science. However, there are a few unyielding truths about it. First of all, the cheapest copies are black and white. They call it that, “black and white” for a reason, and that reason is that there is no gray. There are black plastic bits melted onto white paper, and that’s it. If you try to copy lovely subtle washes, they will get blotchy and washed out, or overly dark, because the machine is struggling to decide whether a given area is closer to black or white.
Which is the second hard truth about photocopying. Because of that need to decide whether an area is black or white, copies always go lighter in the light areas and darker in the dark areas. In other words, stay away from tone: washes, pencil, even screen tones (zipatone) can get muddy and messed up, especially as you copy your copies and get several generations from your original. The blotchy exaggerations that still look OK in the first generation will get exaggerated again in the second generation, and even more so in the third.
Train yourself to think and DRAW FOR REPRODUCTION. Comics are not the drawings you make in your sketchbook or even the original pages you slave over. They are the reproductions you distribute for people to read. That’s what you’re working for, so keep it in mind.
Also remember that all photocopiers are not created equal, and, even if they were, they’re sure not equal once a bunch of idiots in a copy store get a hold of them. MOVE AROUND the copy store, try the different machines, and use the best one, even if you have to wait for it.
Self-serve machines are the cheapest, but they are also the most messed up, so you’re sure to find some really bad ones. If you need help, Ask one of the nice workers to teach you how to make double sided copies . Ask them to demonstrate if you are still confused. Bring more money than you need because you will screw up somehow.
You can pay the people behind the counter to do your copies for you, but remember that you’re paying a surcharge for that, and that they may not understand what you want them to do, or they may just be dumb, and so you may have to fight with them about it if they screw up the job (happens more than you’d think). Mostly, at this stage you will want to make the copes yourself, so you have control over how the masters come out. But when it comes to reproducing the whole book (step 8 below), if you can afford it, it’s the easiest and most relaxing way to make comics.
And on that note, if you have access to a public photocopier (at your office or school) USE IT! I’m not going to be the one to tell you to steal copies, but making minis can be quite expensive, so if you happen to have a friend who has a friend…
Step 6: Make a mock-up
I cannot say strongly enough: this is a VITAL step. You MUST make a mockup of your minicomic if you don’t want to make a screw-up.
A mockup is a deceptively simple thing. Start with your list from Step 3. Let’s say that you’ve decided to make a 20-page digest-sized minicomic, including 16 pages of comics, a FC, a BC, a blank IFC, and the indicia on the IBC.
20 pages in a digest-sized mini…how many sheets is that? There are four sides to each folded-once sheet, so that makes five sheets.
Take five sheets of scrap paper, fold them in half the long way, and you’ve got the basis of your mockup.
The next step is to refer to your list once again and to label each of the pages in a bold, visible way with both page number and what goes on that page. Make sure that you underline the “6” and the “9”, for accurate future ID, since they are inverted versions of the same shape. Also underline any number that could be read the same way upside down, like the “1” and the “8”. Make sure your notation system is something you’ll understand after you put this away and come back to it. That’s it! (see right)
Using the mockup is a bit more complicated. first, you unfold it, and lay it flat. Pick up the top sheet of paper, what was the center of the book. Notice that is has pages 10 and 11 written on top.
Now, flip just the top sheet over. Pages 9 and 12 are next to each other.
It’s very confusing, really almost impossible in all but the simplest books, to try to figure out these juxtapositions without the help of a mockup. particularly if you’re making a comic that requires more than one fold. Above you can see what an 8-page mini-sized imposition guide looks like.
You can see that the pages aren’t even all facing the same direction.
Step 7: Master copy
Now you’ve got your artwork scaled properly and photocopied, and you’ve got a mockup/imposition guide of your minicomic. The next step is to prepare a master from which you can copy your comic. I will start by explaining the process with Olde-Fashioned scissors, tape, paste, and whiteout, but many people now do this on the computer. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you get the pages in the right order!
What you’ll need: your imposition guide, your photocopied-to-size artwork, as many clean sheets of paper as you planned for your minicomic (and, of course, the same size as you planned), a black pen or marker, white-out, scissors, and tape or paste. A ruler wouldn’t hurt, either.
First of all, set your imposition guide out in front of you, open it to the center, and get a clean sheet of paper. Following the numbering on the imposition guide, carefully trim and neatly paste or tape down the corresponding pages of your artwork.
Then, flip the master page over and also flip the imposition guide page over, and paste the pages of your art that correspond to that side of your imposition guide onto your master copy. Use a ruler, keep it neat.
Proceed thus through your entire imposition guide, so that when you finish, you have a stack of pasted-up master copies that correspond exactly to the order you figured out with the imposition guide. Gently fold the master sheets (without creasing them) and page through the “book”, double and triple-checking that everything is in the right order. THIS IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST PLACES WHERE MISTAKES HAPPEN. CHECK THREE TIMES!
Now, go through the master copy, whiteout blobs and marks, and blacken-in grayish bits. Remember that everything that is on these pages will be on your final mini. Be picky about it.
“Paste-up” on the computer
If you know how to use InDesign, or Photoshop (or whatever) and have access to a good scanner and printer, you can “paste up” your master copy on the computer. Basically it’s the exact same process; you still need an imposition guide on paper in front of you, you just don’t need to cut and paste physically.
Note: make sure your scans are good enough for print. they should be at least 600 dpi for grayscale, and 1200 dpi for linework (bitmap). If you want to use graytones, try to stick to three values at the most (i.e 30% , 60% and 90%), since a photocopier will exaggerate them, making darks darker and lights lighter.
You are not immune from triple-checking just because you are using a computer. Just the opposite, probably. Print everything out using high-res settings, stack it like the imposition guide, and gently fold it into “book” shape, without creasing the pages. flip through it and make sure it all looks OK. If you like, you can use paper clips to remind you which sides should be back to back.
Printing from the master
You can either print your mini directly from this copy, or you can make a two-sided photocopy of each page and use that. The advantage of the first choice is that your final mini will be one generation closer to your original art, and the disadvantage is that it’s more delicate, which means you can’t use the automatic paper handler on the photocopier (which means more opportunity for messing up the copy order and orientation). The advantage of the second method is that you can run that master through the automatic paper handler in the photocopier, and let it do the double-sided thing for you, and collating, too. If you use the second method, be sure to check for shadows or dark lines on the second-generation master made by the edges of the pasted-up pages, and cover them up with whiteout.
Computer paste-up people have the same question as for the Olde Fashioned paste-up people, above. Either make copies directly from the prints you made, or make one set of double-sided photocopies, and use those as the master.
Last chance before you spend the big money to check your master!!
Step 8: Photocopy your mini
Refer back to Step 5 for notes about photocopying, but remember this also:
The biggest problem you will run into at this stage is copying the wrong pages onto each other, or in the wrong orientation to each other (i.e. one is upside down). Now is not the time to quit checking your work! Check and triple-check that you have the right pages backed with the right pages, the right way around. Use your imposition guide to check the copies against.
Step 9: Collating
When you get your copies, often they will be in separate stacks of all the same pages, instead of collated sets. Here is a method for collating in an organized manner.
1. First, arrange the pages into piles that form an assembly line. Clear the space of a table or a clean spot on the floor for this. Lay out your imposition guide in the same way to make sure they are all right side up and in the right order. Your center page should be on the right, center spread of pages facing up, then the next page out, and so on.
2. Place the stack of covers on the right of the order.
3. Pick up a center page, lay it on the next page, and pick one of those up, and then the next, until you pick up a cover on the bottom of your little pile.
4. Stack the complete pile horizontally and then stack the next one vertically to keep them separated and make picking up the piles for folding and binding easier.
Step 10: Folding
OK, OK, you all know how to fold paper. But there are better and worse ways to do it, and if you want a professional-looking publication, it’s wise to use good folding technique. It’s also faster and easier.
First off, you should get yourself a bone folder. It’s a simple, inexpensive tool that will save your little fingers a lot of pain and misery. And yes, it is really made of bone. You vegans can get a plastic version, though.
Hold your paper or stack of papers so that the inside is upwards and the future spine is facing you. Pinch it on both sides and bend the closer edge upward.
With your index fingers on top and your other fingers inside the book, fold the near edge over the far edge. DO NOT CREASE IT YET. Looking down on the fore edge (the part where the book will open, top of picture 2), line up the corners as accurately as possible.
Using your non-dominant hand (I’m a rightie, so it’s my left hand) press down on the fore edge and clamp it in place, so the corners can’t move out of alignment. Then, use the tip of your bone folder (or your finger, or a (closed) pen), put it on the rolled paper, and pull it towards you, drawing down the center of the fold, and crease just that center point.
Using the edge of your bone folder—and now is when you start to be really happy that you got one—put it down in that little crease in the center, and draw it out towards the corner, as well as towards you, in a sweeping motion. Remember to keep your other hand clamped down hard on the paper so it doesn’t shift.
Starting from the center again, crease the other side with the same kind of sweeping out-and-down motion. Voila! perfect fold.
One more thing:
If you are going to fold the paper again, there is another bone-folder trick that will come in handy.
When you are at the “sweeping” stage, go ahead and crease the corner where the pages are open, but stop your motion when you’re working in the other direction before you get to to the corner where you are folding the already-folded edge. When you get there, you’ll see that the paper has a tendency to want to bunch up there, and wrinkle, and mess up your nice alignment (this is especially true when you’re doing a third fold). So. Put the point of your bone folder just inside the corner, press it gently into the crease, and draw it out towards you. This will help straighten out the wrinkles.
Now proceed with creasing the spine.
If the spine still doesn’t want to straighten out, before you crease it all the way you can pull it out a little and crease a little and then pull it out again, working it into the fold bit by bit. With just one sheet folded twice, or thin paper, you may not need to use this technique, but it’s very useful as the stack gets thicker.
Step 11: Binding
The easiest way to bind a comic is to staple it. There’s not a lot to explain about that, except for the fact that most minicomics (especially digest-sized and up) won’t fit into a standard stapler, so you have to use a specialized one. There are two types: a long-neck stapler, which is quite cheap, but also hard to use accurately, since it’s basically just a regular stapler with an extension on the back with an adjustable stop. Better, but also more expensive, is a “saddle stapler”, which has a shaped base to put your folded booklets on. You can often use the long-neck or saddle stapler for free at the photocopy shop where you’ve copied your pages.
Two stapling tips: Make sure the fold of the spine is centered directly under the place where the staple points come out, and make sure to use at least two staples, even on small booklets, since one staple will not give you sufficient stability. Oh, and remember that the teeth of the staple should be on the INSIDE of the comic.
OK, that’s out of the way. Now let’s talk about how, just as with every other aspect of your minicomic—shape, size, cover design—there are endless possibilities for binding. some simple ideas come immediately to mind:
- You can run your comics through a sewing machine (Sample from And I saw Edgar Allen Poe by David & Jerry Tompkins)
- Use a hole punch and yarn
- Use manufactured binding systems like sliding metal straps and things that you can get at office supply companies. Kalah Allen used brass turn buttons on her comic (Sample from: Jar of Pennies by Kalah Allen)
There are also lots of interesting traditional book bindings that do a great job on minis.
And, hey, impress us! Come up with something new!