Skip to content

Microsoft Surface Go for digital drawing

No Comments

If you’re looking for a fairly affordable tool for digital drawing, the upcoming Surface Go looks like a viable option. Microsoft doesn’t seem to have a coherent strategy for the Surface line, but this is effectively the replacement for the Surface 3 (cheaper, smaller, and less powerful than the Surface Pro 3) which they discontinued a couple years ago when they upgraded the Pro model to version 4.

I used a Surface 3 for about a year, before the screen started going bad on it. (I bought it used, so no warranty.) It ran Clip Studio Paint well, for most things. Using complex brushes, or high stabilization caused it to lag, but straightforward sketching and inking went smoothly. The CPU in this model has better benchmarks than the one in the S3, so this should do a little better. I wouldn’t recommend trying to run Photoshop on it… that’s getting bloated.

My biggest frustration with the S3 was the size of the screen, and this one is even a little smaller: 10 inches instead of 10.8. That means working zoomed out more than I’d like, or not seeing the whole panel. The Surface Pro models are better, with their 12+ inch screens. 14 or 15 would be ideal for me… anything bigger than that I wouldn’t take advantage of, and it wouldn’t be portable anymore.

The $400 price tag of this is really attractive. But it doesn’t include the $100 pen (which sucks by the way). It also doesn’t include the keyboard, but for a drawing tablet that’s a waste of money.

CNET has a more general preview of it.

The Dangerous Book for Boys

1 Comment

Bryan Cranston is making a TV show out of the bestselling book The Dangerous Book for Boys. Two thoughts about that:

1) Between this and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s clear that you don’t need to have a story for your “property” to be adapted into a film/show. It’s about exploiting a brand. See also: Clue, and any number of other games that have been gotten the feature-film treatment (not always good).

Dangerous may be a really good show, and if a talented A-lister like Cranston is involved, there’s a good chance of it. But he’s totally making up his own story for it, because he had to.

Besides, even if you do have a story, the studio’s likely to chuck it and write their own. Which sometimes works out great (e.g Guardians of the Galaxy) and sometimes utterly sucks (e.g. Man of Steel).

2) There fucking better be an adaptation of The Daring Book for Girls in the planning stages, too.


Tools for Making Comics Digitally in 2018

No Comments

This is the latest version of my guide to doing digital comics illustration on a budget.

I’ve been using digital drawing tools since it first became possible, first pointing and clicking with a mouse on pixelly screens, then connecting 5-inch “digitizers” (as they were called in those day) to computers using RS-232 or ADB connectors. But it’s only been in the past decade or so that (in my opinion) they’ve become good enough to be empowering tools for serious artists. You can skip traditional media altogether, and go from sketching a layout, to finishing the work, all on a screen.

But there’s a common misconception that this requires spending a lot of money. You can. And if you have it, you probably should, because you can get some pretty fine tools by for, say, $5000. But you don’t have to. You can equip yourself with the same tools that I use, for under $500. And if you’re intent on it, you can at least get started for $50.

I’ll go into other options in a bit, and I’ll get to the how-to-do-it-super-cheap even farther down. But this is going to be a long article, so I’m going to start with the gear I use and recommend: my tablet is a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (the mid-line Core i5 model), my stylus is a Wacom Bamboo Ink, and the main software I use is Clip Studio Paint EX. None of these is perfect, and in fact I have some gripes about each of them. But they have some significant – sometimes profound – advantages over the alternatives.


I’ve been using Apple computers since the 19-fucking-80s, and have a long-running dislike for Microsoft as a company. So I’m as surprised as anyone to really like the Microsoft Surface. I still hate Windows, including version 10, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. Windows is just a layer of software that I install my drawing software on top of, and once that’s running, I mostly ignore the OS.

731201435441PM_635_microsoft_surface_pro_3With the Surface, Microsoft’s latest CEO stole a few pages from the Apple design manual, and engineered a top-quality piece of hardware. It’s physically in the same class as the iPad: thin, light, and no keyboard dragging it down (like there is on almost every TabletPC device made during the old regimes). I can’t say enough good things about the ergonomics of these: how easy to hold they are, and well-built. The battery life is fantastic, lasting a whole workday, easily.

And it’s a “real” computer inside. Once you get past the early crippled “RT” models, a Surface can run all the same software you’d run on a laptop or desktop. This is key.

One of the best features of the Surface line are the screens. They’re sharp, with super-high resolution… almost iPhone sharp. And they’re the right shape. Every hardware company (but Apple, sorta) has been going wide-screen (16:9), basically assuming that the main thing people are going to do with their devices is watch movies on them. That’s a horrible format for… anything else. But especially for drawing. Apple’s iPads are 4:3, which more closely matches the shape of a book (or painting or whatever), and can be used vertically or horizontally. The Surface isn’t quite that nice, but it’s 3:2, which is good enough.

The bad news is that among the pages they stole from Apple are the ones about giving the user as few buttons as possible to get confused by. The Surface tablets have exactly four: Power, Volume Up/Down, and Windows-menu. The old TabletPC clunkers usually had some user-programmable buttons on the bezel somewhere, to make up for a physical keyboard not being available. You could configure them for “Save” or “Undo” or – if you’re an artist – “Shift” and “Ctrl” to use as tool modifiers in Photoshop. Surface doesn’t. (But there’s a work-around that makes this tragic omission fixable. I’ll get to that in a bit.

They crippled their stylus the same way. (They call it a “Pen”. Apple calls theirs a “Pencil”. They aren’t: they’re all styluses. (And yes, it’s “styluses”… this is English, not Latin.)) For years, Wacom styluses have had four fiddly-bits: the tip (for drawing), the other tip (usually for erasing), and two buttons on the barrel (which could be set to do any of a bunch of things). At first Microsoft copied this design (with the half-clever variation of treating the top end of the stylus more like the clicker on a ball-point pen, and letting you use it to launch an app, which turns out to be not be useful for anything). But they skipped the part about letting you program the buttons on the barrel. Annoying, but at least they picked the two functions most-needed for drawing: erase and color-pick.

Then they read another page of the Apple manual, and the new stylus removed the buttons, replacing them with a clickable side. You might reasonably argue that this general squeeze-to-activate design is not a bad idea, but they kept the less-useful function, eliminating the press-to-erase feature. Every time I’ve complained about this, I get the response that you can flip the pen over and erase that way, but that’s such a disruption to the way I’ve been drawing with a stylus forever that it’s useless. I sketch with it: making marks, erasing the ones that aren’t right, making new ones, erasing more, etc until it’s what I want. Flipping the fucking pen over for every erase doesn’t work for that. Which wouldn’t be an issue if they’d just let us select the functions for the button(s), but they can’t be bothered.

Which is a long way of saying that the original two-button Surface stylus is OK, but sadly it’s no longer in production. And I’ve had three of them stop working on me (or get really glitchy, which is just as bad). If you can get a few of them so you have a spare, it’s a good option. But the current model is useless to me.


Fortunately, Microsoft has seen fit to license their stylus technology to Wacom, of all companies. So Wacom now makes the Bamboo Ink, a “universal” stylus that works with both Microsoft and Wacom tablets. It has two buttons. They aren’t programmable (that’s Microsoft’s fault: it’s a software feature), but at least the second button provides the press-to-erase feature. (If only they hadn’t swapped the buttons from the positions Microsoft used.)

So, if you’re going to use a Wacom stylus, why not a Wacom tablet? There are three reasons: the price, the cost, and the expense. Wacom’s cheapest MobileStudio Pro is $1800. Microsoft’s is $800. Wacom understands the value of having buttons, and the MobileStudios have plenty of them with their “ExpressKeys”. But they aren’t worth paying a thousand bucks for. (You can probably do better by shopping for the earlier Cintiq Companion models, which are pretty much the same thing.) And they have a 16:9 aspect ratio… I’m not drawing movies, Wacom.

(On the other hand, one reason you might want to go with Wacom is size: the MobileStudios comes in two sizes, and one of them is big. It’ll cost you big bucks – they start at $2400 – but they have an almost-16-inch model that’s the size I’d really want to use. This is what I was talking about with spending lots of money if you have it. Microsoft also has some luxury-priced big Surfaces, if you have money to burn.)

A third option is Apple, and I’ve already touched on the problems there. The screen and weight and battery life are fine, but Apple has the whole Apple design manual, and they’re True Believers. The iPad Pro has the same buttons as the Surface, but no hacks are possible to make any of them useful for drawing. Their stylus has no buttons on the barrel at all. You can’t even flip their “pencil” over and use the other end as an eraser. The only way to erase anything is to select an eraser tool in the app, erase, then select the original tool again. I… can’t… I just can’t. To be fair, I know some people who have an iPad and “Pencil” and love it. The new 10-inch model for $330 that works with the $100 stylus is a good price, and will be even better once they reach the second-hand market. I just can’t imagine trying to use one myself.

Another mark against the iPad is that it runs iOS. Nothing against the operating system itself, it’s actually well suited for a drawing tablet. But it doesn’t have the same range of software available for it as Windows (or macOS, if it was available in a tablet), and the software it does have – Autodesk’s Sketchbook seems to be a favorite – tends to have fewer features. OK, so let’s talk software:


manga_webinar_icon_by_valentinfrench-dbsxa49Hands down, the best software for making comics digitally is Clip Studio Paint, previously known as Manga Studio. It’s available for both Windows and macOS, which is handy if you use both. (For example, I do lettering on my Mac Mini, because it has a keyboard and a mouse. I use Dropbox to synch everything between my Surface and my Mac.) There’s also a version for the iPad, but it requires a monthly subscription, which is a horrible way to license software, and it doesn’t synch files as easily as just using Dropbox.

The most common alternative to CSP is Photoshop, which also requires a monthly subscription now, making it infinitely more expensive than just buying a license to Clip Studio Paint EX (the full-featured version). But Photoshop is an inferior tool in many ways. As the name indicates, it was designed for things other than drawing, and retains those features at the expense of a drawing focus.

CSP was built specifically for making comics. For example, the EX version supports multi-page documents. Each page is its own computer file, so you can work on a 200-page graphic novel without bringing it to its knees, but you can manage the whole thing within the program.

It has tools for making panels: you just slice up the page and it gives you panels with gutters between them. And you can configure it to treat each panel as its own little universe, so that if you scribble into the gutters, nothing shows up. Or drop a background into it, and it stays within the panel.

CSP has tools specifically for making word balloons, and tails that automatically merge into them. Unfortunately its thought balloons/tails suck. Thought balloons are out of fashion, but they really should do a better job of this. (And to put it in context, Photoshop doesn’t even know what a thought balloon is.) The lettering tools overall are kinda weak, to be honest. For example, the program doesn’t do ligature substitution, and you can’t rotate text or put it on a curve. But for the basics, the tools are easy to use.

One of my favorite features of CSP is how the magic-wand tool works as a coloring aide. You can set it to ignore small gaps in the lines, so if your ink lines are a little sloppy, it won’t autoselect the whole page. You can also set it to automatically over-select by just a little bit, which is invaluable in making sure that you color all the way up to (and a little under) the black lines, without little white gaps or a “halo”. These two features are giant time-savers in coloring, and since I found them in CSP, I haven’t used Photoshop to color a single panel.

An important feature for working on a tablet is a customizable button bar that lets you save, cut/copy/paste, and every other function just by tapping on them. Amazingly, Photoshop doesn’t have this: you need to go thru the menus or use keyboard shortcuts!

CSP has its faults too. The menus, error messages, and other on-screen prompts are all written in Engrish, which can be difficult to decipher. I’ve already bitched about the lettering tools. And instead of addressing these problems, they’re working on new features like animation, which is a scary digression away from tools for making comics. But even so, it’s still the best toolkit out there, and definitely the best for the money.

On the Cheap

So let’s talk money, and how to save it. I put together the hardware and software I’m using for under $500. That required “cheating” by buying my Surface Pro 3 used. It set me back just over $300, plus $80 for the Bamboo Ink, and $80 for CSP on sale. The newer Surface Pro 4 and newest Surface Pro We’ve-Decided-To-Stop-Using-Numbers appear to be better machines, but they’re more expensive. For a year, I used the smaller Surface 3, which was… adequate. The screen is smaller, and the low-power CPU is underpowered, which can result in more lag when using stabilization or textured brushes. It cost me about $200 used. I replaced it because the screen is going bad, which is apparently not a common problem, but it happens enough to be wary of.

Before the Surface, I used a couple of TabletPC “convertible” laptops. I’ve already called these “clunky”, and they are. They’re laptops that let you swivel the screen around and fold to use them like a tablet. They’re much heavier than a Surface, MobileStudio, or iPad, and the designs for folding away the keyboards are… clunky. But they run full versions of Windows and apps, and use Wacom’s stylus technology, and they’ll get the job done. And because they’re “obsolete”, you can pick them up on eBay for even less, maybe $100–200. Mine was a Lenovo Thinkpad X201, if you want a model to look for. The Thinkpad X60 served me before that if you’re looking for the cheapest usable device possible.

If you’re in the position of saving up pennies for digital drawing tools, you might want to consider going old-school instead. Before people started drawing right on screens, we used tablets as just input devices sitting on the desk or in our laps, with a desktop computer. You can pick up a used Wacom Bamboo or Intuos and add it to a computer you already have, for well under $100. Then down the line someday, you’ll be able to pick up a used Surface Pro 4 for $100.

A penny-pinching option for software is the misleadingly named Clip Studio Paint Pro, which takes out some of CSP EX’s features at a much lower price: $50 every day, and it periodically goes on sale for even less. EX normally sells for $220, which isn’t bad, but also goes on sale for like $80 from time to time.

affinity_photo_available_on_the_mac_app_storeIf you’d rather have a more general-purpose tool similar to Photoshop, look at Affinity Photo. It’s a $50 program (no subscription) that can serve as a drop-in replacement for Photoshop. And if you want something like Illustrator, Affinity has Designer. Both are a great deal if those are the kinds of tools you want.

If you absolutely don’t have any spare money to spend on software, you can search out a download of Adobe Creative Suite 2, and the activation key that Adobe published for it when they dropped all support for it. Note: it won’t run on modern macOS, and there are some tricks to getting it to work well on modern Windows. There are also some free/open-source programs to try: The GIMP for Photoshop-like tools, and Inkscape for Illustrator-style tools.

Essential Hacks

One problem with touch screens is that every time you touch them, the computer thinks you’re telling it to do something, even if you’re just resting your hand on the screen to draw more comfortably. Tablets that combine touch and stylus input use a technology called “palm rejection”, which is supposed to ignore casual contact by your hand when you’re using a stylus. It doesn’t work well enough. I thought there was something wrong with my Surface or CSP until I figured out that the random dots it kept putting in my art were because my hand touched the screen briefly. Plus there were times when it would mistakenly think I was trying to scroll, pinch-zoom, or something. Being able to manipulate the app with your fingers is a nice idea, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Go into the Device Manager for Windows and disable the touch-input device. You’ll thank me later.

ahk-logo-no-text241x78-180The Surface’s shortage of buttons is annoying, but there’s a way to overcome it. There’s a two-way rocker button on the edge to adjust the volume, but Microsoft doesn’t give you a way to configure it to do anything else. For that you’ll need a program called Auto Hotkey. I’ve used it to reconfigure those buttons to mimic pressing the Shift and Ctrl keys. This enables me to use Shift to constrain tools in CSP (such as to draw a perfectly horizontal panel line) and Ctrl to select multiple items by clicking on them one at a time. You could change them to any other keystroke, such as Ctrl-Z or Ctrl-S, but CSP has on-screen buttons for those functions, so I’d recommend using them for Shift and Ctrl, which you can’t do any other way… except the on-screen keyboard.

Speaking of which, Windows 10’s on-screen keyboard is a glitchy badly designed mess. There are actually two different systems: one for tablet use, the other a leftover from the TabletPC era. Both are lousy. But from time to time you need to use a “keyboard” on the Surface (like to fix a lettering typo). Comfort Software’s on-screen keyboard takes up less space on the screen, you can call it up or close it whenever you want, and it lets you select which layout to show you. It’s a good little utility, worth paying ten bucks for.


So there you go: everything you need to make comics without touching a sheet of paper! Don’t get me wrong: I like traditional media, and the people who make comics with actual pencils, pens, and brushes get my respect. But those tools were holding me back, and the ability to undo all of my mistakes has been a huge liberator for me. Let me know if I’ve missed anything, gotten anything horribly wrong, or you have questions!



FarceboxI’m not quite ready to #DeleteFacebook. But recent events have me thinking that I need to move it away from the center of my online life.

Most people these days are concerned about how Falsebook is 1) mismanaging our personal information, and 2) helping Russia/Trump/etc use it against the people of the United States. And that’s a factor for me. But I’m also thinking about how Farcebook’s censorship system – with no clear guidelines and no appeals – is actively threatening to lock me out.

The overall problem is that I – along with so much of our society – have bought in too heavily into the use of Fuckedbook. They want us to use it for everything… and we’re doing that for them.

Back in olden days there was a service called AOL, and they tried to do the same thing. And it worked for a while, because there was so little else on the internet to use. But then the World Wide Web came along, and suddenly there were unlimited alternatives. You could get e-mail from one place, find web sites with forums on different topics, buy stuff online directly from retailers, and so on. There was also porn. We saw that the walled garden of AOL was putting limits on us. But Facebox has been luring us back into their own garden. They’re AOL 2.0.

So… moving away from that. What does that involve?

To start, I’m going to get this blog of mine active. I set it up a few years ago, and I’ve occasionally posted to it, but not much. Instead I’ve been posting on FB every day. Going forward, I’m going to post more things here – on my site – and let that get echoed to FB. So the folks there will still “see” me, but every post will be an invitation to come here. And as a side benefit anybody who wants to stay off Fascistbook won’t have to go there to keep up with me.

Shawn Kerri’s “Skank Kid”

1 Comment

You probably don’t know the name “Shawn Kerri”, but if you read CARtoons magazine back in the day, or were a fan of the LA punk scene, you’ve seen her art, which was found in countless concert leaflets, tour posters, liner notes, zines, etc. Her best-known piece is one that the Circle Jerks appropriated for their logo/mascot, featuring a character she’d created as a composite of all the white punk boys she knew, generally known as “Skank Kid”. The other day I got inspired to do a version of that piece.

She’s commonly rumored to have died, but those reports appear to have been exaggerated. See her Wikipedia article for more info about her.


Locker Mocker

No Comments

“Locker Mocker” is an all-ages (well, teens-and-up) adaptation of a story I did for JAQrabbit Tales, called “Bully”. It was included in You Are Not Alone volume 2, published by Grayhaven as a collection of stories about bullying. My focus, of course, was on the kind of hazing that gay and bi boys get in middle and high school.




Code 288

No Comments

Police misconduct is a problem that’s finally getting serious attention, most commonly focusing on the treatment of African-Americans by white cops. This can take an even worse turn when the suspect is not only black but gay. “Code 288″ is police code for “public indecency”, and this story is about the different ways that’s often treated, depending on who’s being “indecent”. This story was done for APB: Artists against Police Brutality published by Rosarium Publishing.





For Those About to Rock

No Comments

The title of this is a little joke. “For Those About to Rock” is a famous album by the band AC/DC. Which is an old slang term for a bisexual person. This story was done for an anthology published by Geeks Out, a social/advocacy group focusing on comics and LGBT folks. I don’t do much with superheroes, but the theme of the book was “Power” and I decided to combine a few different senses of the word into a short story: electrical power, super powers, and the personal empowerment of being open and honest about being bisexual. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I kept the story down to two pages, so I could crank it out quickly.


“Faggot”s in Comics


I was frustrated to read online that one of the owners of Whatever, reportedly a very good comics shop in San Francisco, was threatening a boycott of Brian K. Vaughan, over the use of the word “faggot” in the first issue of his and Cliff Chiang’s new series Paper Girls. And speaking “as a gay man who owns a comic book store” he called out Image for allowing the creators to use that word.

As a gay man who makes comics, I am troubled by this reactionary outburst.

Cougarich* seems to take his inspiration from the old Comics Code, which categorically banned certain words and subjects from comics in a misguided effort to protect children from them. “Zombie” was banned.  “Crime” couldn’t be in the title. Etc.  “There is NO place for this word especially in comics,” Cougarich declares. But this draconian standard overlooks the important matter of context: immediately after one of the characters calls someone a “faggot”, another character says that you shouldn’t do that.

Under the original terms of Code, it wasn’t permitted to depict drug use, even to condemn it. In order to tell a story showing the dangers of illicit narcotics, Marvel was forced to publish an issue without Code approval. It was actively counter-productive, and the Cougarich Code, with it’s appeal to the Word Police, would do the same thing, disallowing this “teachable moment”.

In a less heated mood, perhaps Cougarich might permit this usage, in the same spirit that the Code would permit the depiction of robberies as long as the perpetrator was properly punished. But even that rule was wrong-headed, and harmful as a universal requirement.

APB_004I’m a bit baffled that one still has to say this in 2015, but: comics aren’t all for children. As an adult, I don’t need a publisher to teach me these life lessons, nor do I need a retailer to protect me from stories that don’t meet his standards of moral obviousness. I recently made a short comic about police brutality, which includes an officer calling characters both “cocksucker” and “faggot”. No one corrects him. He doesn’t get punished for it. Because it’s not that kind of comic. It’s a comic about harsh facts of real life, and it’s intended for readers who are prepared to read about that and to reach their own conclusions about it.

If I was writing for children, I’d avoid those words, because children may not fully understand that context. And if I was writing something for adults that was intended to inoffensive, I’d do the same. But when I’m writing a story for adults about serious matters, I’m going to dialog it with the vocabulary that serious adults use. If someone doesn’t like that, then they are not my audience, and they are invited not to read it… whether they are a puritan from my hometown in the Midwest, or a gay couple from San Francisco.

I am a fierce defender of free speech, but I’m not saying that anyone can write what they want with no consequences. If a retailer feels that someone’s work is offensive, they have a right to say so, and even not to sell it. But I would hope they would apply a more insightful standard than this. And I also have the right to speak up and say when I disagree, and in this case I do emphatically.

And I do this because I am a gay man, one who labors under burdensome rules saying that I can’t post (this), and I can’t sell comics containing (that). I would very much like to sell my comics in stores, but because of the explicitly homosexual content, the number who would carry them is very small. And it’s sadly ironic that, because I use the word “faggot” in dialog – because people do – a store owned by a gay couple would be on the side of those who would not.

* Since the statement was posted under an account shared by the owners I don’t know which of the two was the author, so I’ll refer to them by the name used on the account.