"Where do you get your comics printed?" is a question I often get emailed or asked at comic shows...
I've been thinking a lot about printing recently (I know, all aboard the fun train of Tom's mind! Calling at all stations to Boring Pontificating) as I'm trying to figure out how to handle an anthology I want to put together.
This seemed a good place to collect some of my thoughts and maybe help those of you looking for a bit of advice on printing your small press comics.
Keep it simple
You know that famous illustration that appeared in a punk fanzine (Sideburns I believe) with the immortal lines "This is a chord, this is another, this is a third, now form a band"? That's essentially how I feel about starting a comic. If you have a story you want to tell, an idea you're dying to express, a feeling you need to communicate - all you really require is a pen, piece of paper (or fabric, or tissue paper, or whatever you can draw on) and access to a photocopier. Anybody who tells you different is lying and doesn't know the first thing about why comics are so amazing and thus, shouldn't be trusted.
Am I comparing the DIY small press comic scene to the boundless enthusiasm, excitement and creativity of punk in the late seventies? Yes. Yes I am. And I'll fight you if you disagree. My limping, bruised and crippled corpse will still be right.
So. Draw your comic, get it out there. Make mistakes. Find out what works.
You can do amazing things with one sheet of photocopied paper. Folded several times, you've got an eight page comic. At the very least, by finding out what photocopiers end up doing to your artwork, you'll have an understanding of what it was like for those early comics pioneers who had to deal with poor printing quality. Heavily inked linework and halftone isn't just an aesthetic preference at this stage - it's a neccessity.
Eventually, you may want to produce a book with higher production values.
One of the many advantages of doing this yourself is that you're not having to try and publish twenty two pages on a regular monthly schedule. Similarly your print run, at most, will likely be in the low hundreds. This offers some interesting options for how you choose to print your comic.
Matthew Sheret has started a fascinating conversation over at Ellis' Whitechapel board regarding the comic book as an object of graphic art (choice line: "But can it still be a fetish object if you can only get it at obscure shows in small college towns?"). This is the right way to go I think. The decline of print media - or the death of print or whatever you want to call it - will only be limited to that which can be reproduced digitally. So make your comic impossible to read online. People always want something tactile. Artefacts. A beautifully designed comic will always grab a reader's attention.
Even DC are returning to the roots of the newspaper funnies with their Wednesday Comics to breathe a bit of life into the monthly mainstream titles.
Here're some ideas about how to achieve your own boutique small press comic:
1) A key factor is format. Mike Allred's Red Rocket Seven was made to resemble a 7" Vinyl record, Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library is a different size and shape with each issue, the Fantagraphics Ignatz series are published larger than the traditional American comic book size... Think about what your story is, how best the format can service it, and don't let your comic be boxed in by any pre-existing sizes.
2) While you may print the material out on your computer at home, on a photocopier, or at a printers - you can still play with the paperstock. You could experiment with 3D, have pull out sections, use paper that only display illustrations when held up to the light... Just make sure these things are helping you tell your story or get your point across and don't stray too far into novelty territory.
3) You can have the best interior work anyone's ever seen but it's meaningless without an interesting cover. Ware's McSweeney's #13 comes with an illustrated poster that details the history of comics and folds up into a gorgeous dustjacket with pockets for tiny mini-comics that fit inside (in fact, all the McSweeney's are uniquely published and packaged objects. Seek them out). Adrian Tomine's hardcover edition of Summer Blonde has a peephole cut out of the dustjacket which reveals a part of the illustration underneath.
You could print your main interior artwork on your home computer and screenprint your own covers on thick, matte paperstock to give it that hand-made feel. Or even draw a different cover by hand (we are talking small print runs here).
I tend to hand number each comic and offer the first 50 issues of a printrun with a screenprinted envelope. It's worth checking out Philip Spence's work to see some of the lovely boutique comics he creates.
Finding a printer
There's no real easy answer to this one. Set aside a couple of days. Make sure you know what you want - how many pages your comic is, how many copies you want, and whether you want a full bleed etc. etc. - and then start calling around printers for quotes. Browse the internet for numbers of printers nearby. It'll take some time but you'll find one that is right for you.
You might be lucky enough to know someone who can recommend a good printer, but if not you want to make sure you find one you can trust. One that is friendly and helpful and happy to offer advice on any of the issues you may not be an expert in.
A couple of the main things you'll want to find out is whether they deliver the comics to you (if not, how close are they? Can you pick them up with some help from friends? If they do deliver - how much does it cost?), and what the unit cost will work out at. You'll most likely want to sell your comics at double the unit cost so that if you sell out, you have enough to pay for another print run, but if you don't you'll hopefully have made your money back. If the unit cost makes this price seem too steep then start looking elsewhere or inform the printer what you were hoping for. By and large, printers will do their best to help you cut costs and secure themselves the job.
Preparing for print
Most printers will prepare your comic for print if you ask but they usually charge. If you want to save the money and have complete control over the way your book will turn out, it's generally best to layout the work in InDesign or QuarkXPress. This is fairly easy, and if you've drawn your pages with bleed and live art in mind, you shouldn't have any problems. You don't need a design degree to know all this - the basics are online and you'll most likely pick a lot of this up through trial and error. Don't let the rules and jargon put you off. At worst, ask a friend with the software to do it for you in exchange for a drink or two.
When using colour, the main thing you need to be aware of is staying in CMYK mode as that's what printers work with. Try to stick to pantone colours if possible (and various strengths of those colours) so you can tell the printers exactly which colours to print in. Another useful tip is to reduce the saturation slightly when you're finished - the colours always end up being a little stronger than you expect.
I've never used this sort of service, but from my understanding, you can get your comics printed out as and when someone orders a copy. This is not really something that really fits into the way I like to distribute my comics but I can see a lot of advantages to the idea.
I'm not entirely sure what the results are like with the various POD companies. Some specialise in comics, but I have no idea whether you can work in formats outside the traditional ones. Many people I know swear by these sites though. Clearly, I just haven't done my research.
Lulu are the biggest POD company out there right now. With Ka-Blam and ComiXpress specialising in the four-colour-funny medium. There're also some UK based companies out there too such as Fallen Angel Media. I have no idea who produce better quality work.
Get in touch if you use print-on-demand. I'd be interested to hear what it's like. Can you use POD but still create a unique, boutique small press comic?
Distribution on the web
Alternatively, you can try and find a way of selling your comic online somehow. Scott McCloud has a lot of ideas about this. But really, you should go and check out this Clay Shirky piece about the death of print media and the internet revolution - it's a must read.
The screenwriter John August has offered his short story The Variant on his website as a Kindle formatted file and PDF. He's written some interesting thoughts on how this works as a way of self-publishing. As I don't own a Kindle or any kind of ebook reader, I have little idea on how one of these devices might deal with making comic artwork readable on the go but I'm told it wouldn't really work. I'd like to try and make My Fellow Americans work for a Kindle though so will look into that and let you all know how I get on.
Longbox - the "itunes of comics" - seems like a good way to go (read Kieron Gillen's ideas on Longbox for an explanation and sensible reaction to the application) in terms of getting work seen by as many people as possible and I don't think it would damage your chances of people buying a physical version of your comic at a later point (see all the previous points for reasons why). But only time will tell if Longbox has staying power and if it will be easy to sell your work through it.
And that's that. Phew... I can go on sometimes... Hopefully someone, somewhere will find this helpful.
Get in touch by email or leave a comment if you think I've failed to mention something particularly crucial or there's something that I need to clarify.
Any other small press related questions you want answered in the future? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.