Vintage Comic Book Cover Tutorial
My friends Carl and Rachael got hitched last year and I really wanted to do something special for them, but since you can’t rush creativity, I didn’t think of something quick enough. But while we were at their reception, the light bulb went on and I had my idea. Carl is a huge nerd (and I mean that in the most loving and cool way possible). We’ve been friends for years, dating back to when we used to stock shelves at the grocery store. He loves comic books, so I thought what better way to capture their “moment,” then to immortalize them in a comic book cover. And while I was halfway through making it, I thought why not document the process as well.
Reference & Arranging the Composition
With just a seed of an idea, when the reception was ending and before everyone left, I had them pose in the middle of the dance floor and had some of their friends and family gather around them in celebration. I didn’t tell them what I had in mind, and for all they knew, I was just posing them for a nice photo (I’m sure they just assumed that crazy Lee had something in mind). This shot would become my main reference photo for the composition. You don’t really need a reference photo, but they really do help. I was lucky enough to have one in this case.
I went back and forth between using all Photoshop, all Illustrator, or a blend of both. These are the tough decisions artists and designers need to make. I wanted the flexibility of a vector image, but I ultimately decided to go with all Photoshop. To account for the possibility that I might want to print the final image larger, I’ll make the file dimensions twice the size of my intended print dimensions.
Next, I’ll import the source photo I took of Carl & Rachael (hereby known as “C&R”) to a new layer above the white background layer, and scale it to where I want them placed in the composition. I’ll rename the layer so that I can easily recognize it, because I know that as I go on, I’m going to get more and more layers. Then lock this layer. The one thing that I can’t stress enough is the organization of your layers, both by naming them appropriately, grouping them into folders, but also by color coding them as well. Also, while I’m on an organizational tangent, I think this might be an appropriate time to call attention to the History Snapshot tool. I never knew about this. Anyways, by clicking the camera icon at the bottom of the History window, you can create a snapshot that you can revert to if you need. Just remember though, your snapshots disappear once you close out your file. You can learn more about that function here (scrub to 10:00 if you want to go right to where she discusses Snapshots). Okay, I digress. So, I now have my source photo in place where I want C&R to be in my composition. I’ll just drop the opacity of that layer down to 50%.
Now that I have the source photo in place, I’ll create a new layer that will be where I will make the initial pencil sketch of C&R. Before I began this project, I did a bunch of research on custom PS brushes; especially brushes that replicated real pencils. I created my own and tried a few out, but ultimately settled on the “Real Mechanical Pencil” one from this set by Soenanda. I also downloaded her great Real Pen and Marker PS brushes set as well, which I will use later on in this tutorial. I’m using these brushes in conjunction with my Wacom Intuos 4 tablet so I can get the awesome pressure sensitivity and line variations I need to make it look as real as possible. You’ll need to adjust the brush’s size to your liking. Making the color a darker gray, such as #48494b, I’ll loosely sketch the general composition of their shapes and positioning. Now, I want to make them both into superheroes, so I’ll improvise in a few areas such as C’s muscles and costume, and R’s boots and mask she just took off and is holding. While doing the sketching, I go back in occasionally with the eraser tool and varying the opacity of it I’m able to either completely erase lines or only slightly erase them to make it appear the marks are still there but very faded like real pencil lines are that are hard to completely erase. It doesn’t have to be perfect at this point, but just enough of a reference for the inking that will come later on. I’ll turn off the visibility of the C&R source layer so I can only see the pencil sketch.
With the C&R sketch done, I now want to put in their framily (friends + family). Because I want C&R floating, I need to place their framily lower on the page. So, I duplicate the original source photo layer, rename it, place it below the C&R pencil sketch layer, set it’s opacity to 50% (if it isn’t already), and then using the C&R sketch layer as a guide, position and scale it to where I think they should be placed. Once it’s in position I’ll lock the layer and toggle off the C&R sketch layer. Now I’ll create a new empty layer and place it above the framily source photo layer but below the C&R sketch layer. Now I’ll use the same brush as I did with the C&R sketch and I’ll start to sketch the framily. The tricky thing with this part is that I will need to draw their heads to be looking up in the direction of C&R. Because their framily will be in the background, I’m not going to give them too many details. In this case, I need to rearrange some of the people some more, like taking those on the right and moving them to the left between C&R’s feet. Once the framily sketch is finished, you can lock this layer (I like to lock layers because it makes me feel safe and I can sleep better at night).
As I mentioned earlier, I downloaded Soenanda’s Real Pen and Marker brush set because of their high quality and realism. I also purchased Frenden’s Photoshop Inking Brush tool presets for a mere $4.99. Both are really top notch PS brushes and I’ll go back and forth between a few from each. To start, I’ll create 3 new layers–one for the black outlines and lines, one for the ink fills (usually I use a wide ink-brush with a lower opacity for this), and a white pen layer to add in highlights and outlines– and place them in their own “INK” folder directly above the two sketch layers. I keep the sketch layers visible so I can ink right over them. For inking, I set the color to black and make sure the pressure sensitivity is turned on.And then I go to town inking it up and adding the highlights, all the while making sure that I’m aware that I’m doing the right marks in the right layers (it just makes it easier to keep track of and go back and fix if I need to). I actually picked up The DC Comics Guide to Inking while working on this step. It never hurts to “brush” up on these things now and again. Get it? “Brush” up. Because traditionally you’d ink with a… never mind.
After the inking is done, I make a duplicate group of my pencil layers (because I had them grouped in a folder) and turn the original pencil sketch group off (hide it). The reason I’m doing this is because I want to decrease the opacity now of the pencil lines and erase some of them. I still want pencil lines to show through in the final image, but I don’t necessarily want all of them or want them as dark as they are (this also depends on how dark you made your under sketch). I like to keep my original pencil group just in case I want to bring something back or see the original sketch. But again, I will just hide the original group.
Note: I ended up re-drawing and re-inking the framily part because I wasn’t exactly thrilled with how they turned out the first time. I’m not sure what more to say in this part, other than I know that I could use some practice with inking.
Now we’re getting to the fun part. There’s more to a comic cover than just the artwork. There’s the title, any text or dialogue bubbles, the company name, date and number of the issue, etc. The first things I did, was research old original comic book cover art. There’s a ton of good reference material out there. So, I found one of the highest quality images through Google I could find, which was Iron Man #1.
The name of the comic was irrelevant. What I needed was the photocopied template. Opening the Iron Man cover in a separate file, I’ll desaturate the image, and play with the levels until I get a straight up black and white image. Then I erase a lot of the elements from it, such as the artwork, comic info, and the Comics Code logo. I’ll then erase all of the white areas as well so that they’re transparent, leaving only the black. I’ll duplicate this layer into my working file and then scale it to where I need it. I have to scale it up a little, but it’s not to the extent that it will degrade my image too much. I rearrange the template layer underneath the pencil and ink layers.
Once the template is in place, I need to work on creating the title logo. I figure, let’s just do something real simple and call it “Carl & Rachael.” I put Carl on top of Rachael (hey now, don’t even go there) because it would just look weird having a longer name on top. I decided to go with Capital Darren as the title font because it seems very bold and Captain Marvel-ish… nothing too spacey and nothing too comic-y. I create the type on an arcing path to make it more dynamic. I also think that I don’t want “and,” or “&,” or even a “+” between their names. So, instead, I’m gonna add a star (or a star inside of a star) between them. Then, to take it to the next level, I’ll use Photoshop’s 3D space to give the names and stars some depth (I gave the star less because I wanted it to look like it was just sitting on top of the letters). Now, I’ll slightly scale and re-position the title so it is directly behind their heads and in the upper third of the page.
Most of the title will be blocked out anyway because of their heads and upper bodies, but I think that makes it even cooler looking. I’ll end up doing some more title treatment later on in the process. In the meantime, I’ll place this underneath the template layer.
Then there’s the lovely old “Authorized by the Comics Code Authority” stamp. I never knew the history of this until now. Check it out here. I found a nice high(er)-res version and I’ll place that on its own layer, positioning it in the upper-right of the cover. There are other graphic elements that go on top, so I’ll make a folder called “Top Graphics,” place it above the inking layers/group and put this layer in it.
As you can see in the Iron Man comic above, there’s the issue’s information area in the upper-left corner (I’m not real sure what the technical term for that area is). I erased the information in this part earlier and I wanted to customize it with a new company name, issue number, and price. C&R have the cutest chocolate lab named Penny. Why not make it Penny Comics Group? I just love how “Penny” stands for their puppy as well as insinuating “inexpensive”… especially because we’re going to make this cover look really dated. So, I grabbed a nice photo of Penny off of Carl’s Facebook page without him knowing. I’ll do some tweaking to the image to get it to where it’s a clear black and white image with just enough detail so you can tell it’s a dog. I’ll also change the title of the comic company to “Penny Comics Group,” change the price to “15₵” (representing 2015, the year they were married) and change the issue number to “21 June” for the month and day they were married.
And it wouldn’t be a wedding issue without it saying so on the cover, right? So, I’ll create a sharp-angled burst dialogue bubble that reads, “Special Wedding Issue,” to place in the lower-right-hand area. All of these elements–Penny’s photo, the issue information, and the wedding issue burst graphic–will live above the inking layer of C&R.
Moving on, I want to give these elements I just made this photocopied feel to them–solid in some areas, sparse in others. So, I found a few good texture images of broken photocopier prints. These are really great to add a stylized grunge factor to the elements I just made. So, I’ll just paste the photocopy texture above the graphical element layers and then create a clipping mask of them so that the texture is now replacing the black parts of the graphics to give it that cheap and raw feeling. I’ll do this for each of the graphic layers, including the title that’s behind C&R. After that’s finished, I’ll tweak the blacks using a Levels adjustment to give it just the right amount of contrast I need.
To give some depth and that collaged look, I want to print these elements out on regular copy paper and then re-scan them back in. Scanning them degrades them slightly and also adds that really slight drop shadow around the edge if they’re not completely pressed down on the scanner bed. This is great for making it look like I just pasted together those elements of the comic back in. After scanning, I’ll just resize, crop, and rotate them over their original layers and then hide the original ones. We’ll come back to these in a little bit to finish them off, but first we need to take care of some other business.
Okay, so the hard work is finished. Here’s where it gets fun (I know I keep saying that, but isn’t every part fun?). Remember that old Iron Man cover? Remember how much character it had with the yellowed color and stains on it? I want to give this cover the same feel. I’ll start by setting up the base and getting a nice yellowed, stained paper texture. There are tons of these out there to choose from (free and for-purchase). You’ll just need to find the right one that fits for you. I found this one on ThinkStock. Now I’ll import it into its own layer and place it below all of the other layers. More than likely this will be one of the bottom layers (I actually have a solid white layer right underneath it, so for me it’s technically the next-to-the-bottom layer). Now I’ll play around with the levels, contrast, brightness, and pretty much any other tool to get it to where it looks right. For me, the original image is just too strong, so I’ll drop the opacity down to about 30%. This still gives me the texture I want.
Of course, now that the image has completely changed character, I’ll need to adjust the graphic elements I just placed from the previous steps. What I’ll do is just make a color overlay via Layer Style of a really pale yellow. Remember you can always adjust the opacity of the overlay. I do want to keep the “cut-and-paste” elements a lighter color than the rest of the piece to show a varied discoloration. Next, I take the Burn tool, drop the exposure down real low, and go back along the edges of those scanned in elements to just slightly darken them to give a slight depth that the edges are resting on top of the paper surface. I’ll burn a little extra (emphasis on little) on the bottom edges to give the illusion that there’s a light source from above.
Now that our colors are on point, I’ll take it to the next level and add some more texture to it. For the overall texture, I want to make it look somewhat dented and creased. Typically, comics are originally drawn on a type of Bristol board, which is a thicker paper. So, I’ll take a piece of card stock paper and just distress it a little bit–add a crease or two, dent it, but not crumple it into a ball. I’ll scan it in at a decently high resolution, maybe 1200dpi. I just want to be sure that I can enlarge it without too much degradation. After it’s scanned in, import that into it’s own layer directly above the template layer (the one with the borders and “Yellow TS” writing on) and background texture (the yellowed one). Set the blending mode to “Multiply” and then play with it’s opacity until you find the desired look–I found my sweet spot at 86%. You could probably make a displacement map at this point with most of the layers, but I’m not.
Now I’ll grab a nice fine felt-tip marker brush, change its color to red, and just scribble something like the name of the comic at the top left. This is just adding more character nuances to it, almost like the artist was just scribbling or something. I’ll then sign my name with a pencil brush at the top-right (usually stuff is signed at the bottom, but the bottom is too busy). I’ll place these two writing layers can towards the top of my layers stack.
For the last step, I’ll make a displacement map to warp the “Special Wedding Issue” burst. I found a great texture of what looks to be paper that has been dried after it was wet–you know, that rippled look. So, I want that burst graphic and text to take on that rippled texture. First, I’ll import the texture to it’s own layer and place it above the burst graphic (if there’s any adjustment layers for it, place the texture above them). I usually just change it’s opacity a bit so that I can see what’s underneath it and get it in the right place. Once the texture is in place and the opacity and levels, contrast, etc, are to your liking, you’ll need to save ONLY this layer as a PSD file. You’ll need to do this in order to make your displacement map. So, right-click the texture layer and choose “Duplicate Layer,” then select “New” from the drop down. This should create a new document with the texture in it. Convert this image to just grayscale by desaturating it. Save this new document and call it something like “DisplaceMap” and save it as a .PSD file. Now, I’ll go back to my original document and create a clipping mask for the texture so that it will go into the white area of the burst shape. Next, select the burst shape layer and choose Filter > Distort > Displace. Set the vertical and horizontal scales to 10, click OK, and select the DisplaceMap.PSD file you just saved. By applying the displacement map to the layer, the layer will take on that ripple texture and distort itself to it. Here’s a nice tutorial on displacement maps.
I want to give C&R something nice to hang on their wall, so I got some sample giclée papers from FinerWorks and picked out the Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper for this one. Their website was very easy to use and upload my file. And it came back AWESOME! It’s rare these days to see your digital work make it to print, so the few times it does, it’s really nice to take it all in. I definitely recommend FinerWorks to anyone looking for Fine Art printing and I’ll definitely be using them again.
I want to distress the print a bit more, so I’m going to dull down the corners and give a slight tear in the one corner–nothing too major, but just enough to make it look legit.
To finish it off, I’m taking it to to my go-to framer John Hobbis from Keypoint Frame & Art in Berwick, PA. John and I have had a really great artist-framer relationship for so many years now; he just gets me. He doesn’t try to go the easy route, he listens to what I want to do and using his expertise helps find the best solution to finish off my work (plus he’s a Green Day fan as well so we do a lot of talking about that too). To finish this piece off, John did a shadowbox type of mounting so that it gives that floating feeling. And with the nice black frame, it really has this great archival feeling about it.
Carl & Rachael loved it as I hoped they would and as much as this was for them, I really got a thrill out of doing this for myself as well. They’re two wonderful people and I’m just happy that I could do this for them.