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The Problem is The Voters

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Untitled-1There’s a simple explanation for why the primaries are going so badly. How Donald Trump got the GOP nomination last time. Why Elizabeth Warren isn’t going to get the Democrats’. Etc.

The Voters are idiots, and the system is a bad one because it depends on them.

These are the same people who think that Corona beer or a random person of Chinese ancestry is going to give them a virus. Idiots.

The Founders knew this. It’s why they didn’t let The Voters decide who would sit in the Senate. It’s why they didn’t let The Voters decide who would be President. It’s why they didn’t even let The Voters pass legislation. (Ever notice that there’s no such thing as a national ballot referendum?)

For all of these, they let The Voters pick people to represent them, and those people would make the decisions. People who would 1) presumably be smarter than The Voters, by virtue of having organized a campaign to get elected, and 2) have the time to look into the issues, think about them, and talk them over with other people who’ve also done that. The Founders even made these paid positions, so they could approach it as professionals.

The process of selecting presidential nominees used to have that built into it. They were chosen at conventions attended by the people who’d been selected by The Voters. No, not “delegates” whose names are pulled out of a hat based on who they said they’ve already made up their mind to vote for. The actual named individuals that The Voters elected to represent them.

The presidential primary system that’s currently making everyone angry over what a clusterfuck it is only dates back to the 1970s. It’s mostly a reaction to the chaos of 1968, in which the president dropped out, the leading candidate was assassinated, and a badly managed Democratic convention nominated a candidate who lost. So some moron thought The Voters would handle that scenario better.

The complaint that this system is meant to address is the cliche of the “smoke-filled room” where party leaders would get together and decide who the candidate would be. (Because Eisenhower and Kennedy were such bad results?) The irony is that one of the replacement systems is objectively and obviously worse: caucuses. These are smoke-free rooms in which instead, random people with no qualification except that they had nothing else they had to do that night, appointed by themselves, do the exact same thing.

The biggest critics of the smoke-filled room these days are Sanders supporters, which is loaded with irony, because his main strength is the smoke-free room. They successfully browbeat the DNC into handing even more control over to The Voters by limiting the power of elected officials in the process. In other words, they made the system more like the Republican system which had just nominated Donald Fucking Trump as a demonstration of just what a bad system it was. (If the GOP had super-delegates with the power to veto a Really Bad Candidate, they would’ve been able to stop him, and put up someone more or less competent and less dangerous, such as Rubio, a Bush, or a bush.)

Modern conventions are an exercise in idiocracy. They are not an example of representative democracy. Quick test: who will be representing you at your party’s convention later this year? (If your state hasn’t had its primary yet, substitute the 2016 convention.) You have absolutely no fucking idea. You may have voted for “Jane Popular”, but all that got you was some rando who pledged to support her on the first ballot. If she doesn’t win right then, he’s now a free agent, and the only thing you know about him is that he likes Jane. Now… supposed Jane drops out… or drops dead… or is dropped by an assassin (like RFK). What do you trust this guy to do at the convention? You have No Fucking Clue. How is that better than 1968, when the party picked the sitting Vice President as their nominee?

You know why Joe Biden is doing so well in the primaries, despite having an array of sometimes-brilliant other candidates on display to choose from? It’s because The Voters know him. He’s pre-vetted. And… the Party supports him. The Voters don’t want to sort thru Elizabeth Warren’s policy proposals, Amy Klobuchar’s election record, Bernie Sanders’ promises, Mike Bloomberg’s dirty laundry, Pete Buttigieg’s one-page resume, etc. I think they really want someone that their representatives in Washington approve. Maybe it’s because they’re idiots. Maybe it’s because they sense that they’re idiots.

For the record, I think their choice is wrong. Biden is not the best candidate to go against Trump. Biden is also not the best candidate to be president once he gets there. But he apparently has the support of the party leadership, and he apparently has the support of a lot of the party membership. The thing is: if you want better… simply trusting The Voters probably isn’t going to get that for you. Because trusting The Voters is what the Republicans did four years ago, and it turned their party into cancer.

Facebook Groups

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Facebook’s been running TV ads, promoting their “groups” feature, promising that there are groups on Farcebucket for any interest. Which is only partially true, and is partially a load of crap.

First, it’s interesting that they’re advertising. That’s a good sign: it means they’re worried that people are leaving them for better places on the web.

Second, anyone who uses Fakebook’s groups knows that they don’t really work the way you’d like them to. For example, if you join a group, and you expect to see everything that’s posted to that group… you won’t. If you fuck around in the settings of the group and set Notifications to “all”, maybe you’ll see everything. Otherwise they’ll just show you the posts they select. And no matter what, you’ll miss stuff, in the flood of posts randomly selected from your 873 Friends.

It’s important to note that Facebook doesn’t even create these groups they’re selling: other users of Facebook do. So if you get a petty tyrant or an idiot or someone who just doesn’t give a fuck… but who squats on a particular topic name, you’re stuck with them in charge of it. But at the same time, Fuckbox still has ultimate authority over them, so if a group gets a member who starts reporting art as “pornographic” the admin is powerless to do anything about it.

And I speak here as the admin of a group: Queer Comix. I have some control over who can post stuff to it. But I still live in ongoing anxiety that some dorkweasel from Felchbutt will step in and censor stuff that even I post in it, and block me from administrating it! I’ve had to recruit a backup admin to take over in case that happens.

Social Media sites were a bad idea.

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FarceboxI know this treads closely to backward-looking nostalgia, but I really do think the Web was better with 1) BLOGS for people who have a lot to say, and 2) FORUMS for people who want conversations.

If you wanted to talk about comics with other people who like comics, you’d go to a forum dedicated to comics. If you wanted to follow a public figure and comment on what they say, you’d go to their blog.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are a mishmash of those that does neither well, with the added negatives of throwing everyone into the same crowded room, being controlled by just a few dominating companies, and the whole data-mining business model.

A blog is pretty cheap and easy to maintain. A forum takes a bit more work, but as long as it isn’t huge, and members of the community it serves help, it’s manageable.

A look at Manga Maker ComiPo!

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Manga Maker ComiPo! (originally just “ComiPo!”, so that’s what I call it) is a great/horrible comics-creation program for people who can’t draw (or a shortcut for those who can). It gives the user a complete toolset of panels, sound effects, word balloons and – most importantly – semi-posable 3D-model characters that you can drag and drop into complete comics pages. It’s easy to use, and in many ways it’s really cool… but it’s also frustratingly limited.

I originally bought the program several years ago when it was new, but quickly came to the conclusion that it was of no use to me, even for occasional use: it was far too limited. I set it aside for a while, but out of curiosity, I recently fired it up and upgraded it to the latest version. Updates appear to be free, indefinitely; I’d bought version 1.something, and they let me upgrade it to 3.30, including the switch to Steam as a delivery/DRM system.

The way it works is this: You pick a page layout from a set of panel arrangements. (These layouts can be adjusted as you go.) You select a background for each panel, and drop it in. You select character models (either one of the “stock” models or one you’ve customized) and drop them into the scene. You place them where you want relative to each other in 3D space, resize them, and rotate them however you want them facing.  For each character, you can select from about a hundred pre-set poses. You can’t adjust those poses, but you can tweak them in two ways: bend and turn the head, and change the hands to different gestures. You can also select from various facial expressions: angry, sad, joy, etc. with the eyes looking in different directions, and the mouth opening varying amounts. The way to do this last bit is poorly designed, but overall the system works pretty well, letting your characters “act”. Then add word balloons, sound effects, speed lines, etc. Easy peasy.


It’s obvious that the program is primarily intended for Japanese schoolkids, and anybody else who finds it useful merely got lucky. Its default characters are: a Japanese girl in a school uniform, and a Japanese boy in a school uniform, and the only included backgrounds with enough angles and variety to be useful as a story setting are a school building. The characters can be customized only a little: you can give the boy gray hair and a mustache (labeled “beard” in the software) and scale him larger if you want a teacher. It’s just barely enough to make Yet Another Manga About Japanese Schoolkids.

This limited array of “assets” is largely intentional, of course: they sell expansion packs with more stuff to choose from, mostly alternate clothing and a couple other body types. I was feeling extravagant and got the “casual wear” pack, which includes technically just four changes of clothing (two for the boys, two for the girls), with a dozen coloring options each. The color of the clothes can’t actually be customized, except in terms of picking from their selection (some of which includes patterns).

You can customize these characters with different hairstyles (for eurasian hair only), and a whole array of natural and unnatural hair and eye colors. But you can’t select a custom skin color. In the early version I looked at, this was a hard limitation with no way around it, and this was why I wrote the program off entirely, even for a one-off. Even with characters all the same “race”, skin color varies. That’s part of how you identify individuals… especially important since ComiPo doesn’t allow you to vary the shape of the face or bodies. Evidently they got enough complaints from Western customers that somewhere along the way they added the ability to change skin color on individual figures in the comic. But you can’t set it on the customized characters you create, so if you have a brown character, you need to select that skin color every time they show up. Either that, or you change an obscure setting to make >every< character the same shade of brown. (Yes, Virginia, it is possible for non-White cultures to be racist.)

It’s effectively impossible to import characters other than the models ComiPo provides/sells (which include a pre-teen boy, a pre-teen girl, and a husky businessman). Because of the proprietary design of the way they pose characters, they simply don’t exist. But the program does support plain 3D objects, which can be made using other programs and imported. If you’re industrious – or can find ones that someone else has made – you could create additional hairstyles (e.g. curly, afro). I tried to find an actual beard, but without much luck. If you wanted a heavy woman, you’d have to build the girl-model a fat suit… and you wouldn’t be able to pose her in it.

One area that the developers have paid almost no attention to is backgrounds. As far as the program is concerned, a background is a flat matte painting that you hang behind the characters. They include dozens of images for this, but… most of them are useless: individual random images in different styles by different artists. You can’t mix them, because they’d look absurd together. And except for the school settings, there are almost none that show the scene from multiple angles. Most of the images appear to have been ganked from the internet, with no effort to make them even look like they belong together in the same comic. I went and found my own… coincidentally finding one of the places that ComiPo actually did take free backgrounds from.

So, with all of this complaining, what’s “great” about ComiPo? For what it actually does, the functionality of the program is quite good. Ordinarily I use Clip Studio Paint for soup-to-nuts production of my comics, and for the one episode I did using ComiPo, I was able to replace every last bit of that with ComiPo, even down to adding my copyright watermarks and resizing the pages to post to the web site.

ComiPo uses any of your computer’s installed fonts, but it doesn’t let you mix typefaces in a single word balloon, so you can’t bold or italicize individual words… you’d have to paste together blocks of text for that. (CSP was like that at first… this simply isn’t a priority for Japanese developers, apparently, because Japanese script doesn’t use bold/italics.) But one thing it does better than CSP is using alternate glyphs and ligatures. With any good lettering program and an appropriately designed font, if you type a double letter, it uses two different versions of that letter, to look less mechanical. Or certain letter combinations can be replaced by a special version of them for better visual effect (Google “orthographic ligature” for a better explanation.) ComiPo does that. CSP doesn’t. Its balloon- and tail-making tools are easier to use, too.

I don’t anticipate using ComiPo much beyond this one Tale. I might try to do a Lake Michigan beach scene, using a trick I found for simulating nude models using the “swim wear” pack. I think I might have to produce my own backgrounds for that, though, because what’s available just isn’t adequate. We’ll see. Maybe for another project.

Queers & Comics 2019 conference

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The dates for the 2019 Queers & Comics conference have been announced (May 17–18 in New York City), and I am excessively excited!

I don’t get out much as a comix creator. I haven’t gone to a proper comics convention since the 1990s (which was purely as a fan). This is mainly due to my basket of anxieties: I don’t do well in crowds. But I took a chance on the 2015 Q&C conference, which was low-key enough for me to handle, and I eagerly signed up for the 2017 conference.

For the second conference I managed to finagle my way onto the panel about “bisexuality in comics”. (I think they needed a male.) They haven’t started putting together panels yet for next year, but I’ll try to figure out a way I can contribute to another. (I don’t think I did too badly last year.)

Both locations – the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Midtown Manhattan in 2015, and California College of the Arts near the Mission District in San Francisco in 2017 – are good ones, but I was hoping they’d do the next one in the Midwest, which would be more accessible to me. But going back to the Big Banana is fine. The travel time and expense is a little easier to manage: there are direct 2-hour flights, for probably about $250 round-trip.

Surprisingly, being surrounded by millions of people in New York didn’t trigger my anxiety… I guess the anonymity of the big city made it “safe”. In 2015, I stayed at the Vanderbilt YMCA, which is an easy one-mile walk from CLAGS, and I’ll probably do that again. I ended up paying about $300 for three nights in a little one-person room with a shared bathroom on the floor, which is about the best you can do in Manhattan. I splurged on three nights’ lodging because I had a full-time job; in 2017 I only slept one night in San Francisco, and used my hours of air travel the night before and after for “lodging”.

If I need to go bare-minimum like that for this trip, I could get away with taking the first flight of the day to NYC on Friday morning, and the last flight of the night out on Saturday, and only spend one night at the Y,  saving a couple hundred bucks. That’s kind of a sucky way to visit New York (or any city), though. Having a couple hours to wander Central Park before catching my flight home on Sunday was nice in 2015. There will probably be some social events before and after that I’d miss too… if I’m up for that. I do regret going to San Francisco and seeing almost none of it… maybe in 2021 I can make it an actual visit.

Microsoft Surface Go for digital drawing

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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

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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.

Am I “sex positive”?

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There’s a genre of pornography called “sex positive”. It’s a reaction to the idea that so very much porn is “sex negative”: treating it as something dirty, degrading, and disgusting. It’s a valid criticism of much of the mainstream porn industry. And in principle I’m very much on board with providing alternative porn that celebrates sex as fulfilling, fantastic, and fun. For example, I’m a fan of Smut Peddler, Oh Joy Sex Toy, and Sticky Graphic Novels (for whom I illustrated a story).

Untitled-1But apparently that isn’t the kind of porn I often create.

Nobody’s been giving me grief about this, so don’t get defensive on my behalf. But as I navigate the porn comix community, I see the idea of sex-positivity come up fairly often, and I’m enough of a navel-gazer to realize that my work probably doesn’t always qualify.

You could probably fill an entire psychological academic journal with an analysis of why I make the porn I do, and conclude that I tell stories about unhappy or unhealthy or even illegal sex because I’m full of the sex-negative garbage that my religious upbringing and the commercial porn industry have fed me. I can’t dispute that. But it’s an incomplete picture.

When I write porn, I’m looking for it to reflect some mix of reality and fantasy. Writing about reality was the initial impetus behind JAQrabbit Tales, and there’s a thread of it in even the more fantasy-leaning tales. Reality, as I’ve experienced it, can be positive or negative… usually something in between. Sex can be anywhere from dissatisfying to traumatic, and for the kind of biographical focus that the Tales have, it’s important to me to reflect that. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify them from the “sex positive” label, though.

Untitled-4During development, the Tales also started to deal with fantasy, because – let’s face it – my reality isn’t interesting enough to sustain hundreds of pages of stories. Sex-positive porn does the same thing, but this may be where I part ways with it. That’s because I see fantasy as sometimes based on the idea of sex being dirty, degrading, or disgusting. One of my tongue-in-cheek disclaimers is that I can’t promise that you’ll find JAQrabbit Tales arousing… but I also can’t guarantee that you won’t. And even if I write something that I didn’t intend to be arousing, but it still gives you a stiffy… I’m OK with that.

One of the goals of sex-positive porn is to give people good models to emulate, because a lot of us do get ideas from porn, about how to have sex ourselves. It’s also important for people to see representations of “themselves” in the media (including porn). I try to incorporate that into JAQrabbit Tales, in other ways.

The main idea I try to promote is variety. The main character has sex with bears/jocks/twinks/etc, plays “top” or “bottom” as if those labels didn’t exist, and has everything from anonymous hook-ups to (serial) monogamous relationships. Which isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with people having preferences, but I celebrate the fact that we don’t need to.

20RavingHardOn_009That dovetails with representation. It’s rare to find bisexuality reflected in porn (even then it’s usually a “kink” added to make a homosexual or heterosexual scene more “exotic”), and even more rare in porn comix. (Let’s see, there’s John Blackburn’s “Coley”, and… um…) How often do you see sex between people of different colors (again, unless that’s a specific fetish they’re catering to)? The script I’m working on right now includes a guy with cerebral palsy, and I’ll definitely be doing one involving a deaf character… both disabilities that feature in my life.

There’s another kind of “representation” I am for, and this is part of why I include stories that aren’t… nice. For example, there are Tales about reckless or self-destructive sex, sex for money, sex while drunk or otherwise impaired, and even statutory or forcible sexual assault. These are real things in the real world, and I think there’s value in depicting them. On one hand, people who’ve experienced these things can see that there are others who have. And on the other, people who fantasize about it see that there are others who do that. I realize this is a bit of a “cheat”: trying to have it both ways by presenting them as part of the ugly reality of life, and as fantasy material that some readers will just jack off to. It’s messy, because I’m messy… and remember, I conceded at the beginning of this article that I’m kinda fucked up about this. :/



Tools for Making Comics Digitally in 2018

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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 a 5-inch “digitizer” (as they were called in those day) to my desktop computer. But it’s only been in the past decade or so that digital tools have 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 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 about $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 1980s, 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, even lasting a whole workday.

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 or 1.78 ratio), 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 (1.33 ratio), 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 (1.5 ratio), which is good enough.

The bad news is that, among the pages they stole from Apple, are the ones about not “confusing” the user, by giving them as few buttons as possible. 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 later.)

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 useful 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. This was 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 to Microsoft about this, I get the response that you can flip the pen over to erase things, 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 pen over for every erase doesn’t work for that… this is supposed to be better than traditional media, not the same. This 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.  [Edit: MS has since introduced a slower, smaller $400 model.] 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. Geez!

(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 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 Pro and “Pencil” and love it, and they produce great images with 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.

All of this has been assuming that you want a self-contained tablet: computer, screen, and drawing surface. If you don’t mind being tethered to a desk by some cables, there are some additional options. The first is to pull the drawing surface out and put it on your lap, while the computer and display sit on a desk. This is basically how we did it in the 1990s, using tools like the Wacom Intuos tablets, which are still available, with new ones running $100-200. (Used models and off-brand tablets are even cheaper, and can work pretty much as well.) The key advantage of this is that you can connect it to a computer you already own. Another “advantage” is debatable: it puts the stylus in your lap or on the desk, while your display is up in front of your face. Some people have difficulty getting the hang of this, because it’s unnatural. But it means that your hand and stylus tip don’t get in the way of what you’re looking at.

The other way to separate your components is to pull both the drawing surface and display out, and leave the computer on the floor or the corner of your desk. This is what the Wacom Cintiq (and its less expensive alternatives) involve. Like the Intuos approach, this lets you take advantage of an existing computer. It’s a more natural drawing experience, like on a Surface/MobileStudio/iPad. But an advantage over that approach is that you can get significantly bigger screens this way. Wacom will do their best to break your budget, but Huion, Yiynova, and Ugee have 13″–21″ display tablets at prices ranging from a few hundred to several hundred dollars. (But pay attention to screen resolution: a 19″ screen with the same resolution as a 13″ laptop doesn’t do you any real favors.)


manga_webinar_icon_by_valentinfrench-dbsxa49Hands down, the best software for making comics digitally is Clip Studio Paint, previously known as Manga Studio, from Celsys. 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. 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 full-featured 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 book 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.

A really useful feature for those whose drawing skills are a little shaky is CSP’s line-stabilization. You can set it to smooth them a little or a lot, depending on how much you need. I’ve set up custom brush tools: some with stabilization to draw nice smooth curves, and others without to draw quick scratchy stuff, like shaggy hair.

CSP has tools specifically for making word balloons, and tails that automatically merge into them. You can use standard shapes or draw your own custom balloons. Unfortunately its thought balloons/tails suck.. those are out of fashion, but CSP 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. (I had a coloring job recently who understandably wanted the finished pages as Photoshop files, so I did all the work in CSP then converted them.)

An invaluable 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. Every program used to have these, but amazingly, Photoshop doesn’t: you need to go thru the menus or use keyboard shortcuts! How do people put up with this?

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. But instead of addressing these problems, Celsys is 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. [Edit: the Surface Go is an updated version of the S3, presumably with more horsepower. A new one with a stylus will set you back $500 for the base model… not too bad.]

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. A 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 3 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 required) 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.

ComfortKeyboardSpeaking 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 a cartoonist will 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!