The Japanese Beetle!

How Dave Draws the Japanese Beetle!

Every once in a while I get asked how I come up with strips, and since I'm a process freak, I like to share. So here it is - the official guide to how the Japanese Beetle is drawn. For this example we'll use the 3/2/2004 strip, featuring the Mighty Brain. It's a good strip to use, partly because I made some changes to the strip at every stage in the process. That, and I have a copy of the strip at every stage in the process, which helps.

Okay. Before I do anything else, I sketch some very rough thumbnails in my sketchbook.

As you can see, these are very rough sketches. Usually, I have a pretty good idea of what the strip will look like in my head, so I don't have to play around with layouts very much. I usually try to do the writing and layouts at the same time; the visuals are more important than the words for keeping the flow of the story.

Between panels two and three I violate the 180° rule - that you shouldn't completely reverse the direction of the camera to avoid confusing your audience. I think it works here, though, because both panels feature the commissioner as the focal point, which lets you know how things have moved. Mostly at this stage my big worry is trying to figure out the panel widths. That's what the numbers over the panels are.

If anyone cares, the rest of this page is filled with doodles of Plastic Man.

Here's what that sketch looks like writ large.

Okay. First thing - I draw big. Really big. My originals would measure 7.5" x 30" if I ever laid them out as a strip. Unfortunately, buying Bristol board at that size isn't cheap. So what I do is break my strips into two tiers so I can fit them on a normal 19"x24" pad. After I scan everything, I can just rearrange the panel in Photoshop.

I really don't have much to say about the penciling stage. I usually rough things out with the stub of a 2H or 3H pencil, then go back in and firm up the detail with a larger, sharper pencil. The lettering guides are drawn with an Ames lettering guide set to about 8 or 9, depending on my mood.

One thing I see here that I usually try to avoid - in the first panel, the building in the background forms an unfortunate tangent with the Atkinsoid's left hand. That makes the picture look too posed, and I'd if I could fix it I'd change the position of the Atkinsoid's hand slightly and make the building a little taller.

You'll also notice in the fifth panel I deviated from my original idea - a very extreme close-up through a whiskey bottle. Which isn't a bad shot, mind you, but it should be used at the start of a sequence. Here, the shot was so tight that you couldn't tell it was Ken, so I pulled out a bit. Less cool-looking, better storytelling.

Here's how the same strip looks when inked. I left in the pencil lines so you can see how I deviated from them.

Usually I ink with a #1 round brush, with a Hunt 102 crow-quill to do detail work and a #3 round brush to fill in blacks. At the time of this strip, I'd been lettering with a Rapidograph, but since then I've gone back to Micron pigmas beacuse they felt a lot more natural. I'm going to try out some Speedball B nibs to see if they can do the job better, though.

This strip, on the other hand, is inked with a Tombow brush marker with blacks spotted with Sharpies. Yeah, I know, it's not the best way to do things. But I was in a rush, and couldn't risk slopping ink all over the place.

The first, second, and fourth panels are inked more or less the same way I drew them, though the brush marker wasn't acting up the way I wanted it to so the detail on the Atkinsoid got lost. You'll notice some off-center lettering in the second panel - I left it in, because I can always rearrange things in Photoshop. Same with the whiskey bottle lettering - it's always easier to reverse it on the computer than it is to draw white-on-black on the board.

In the third panel, I wasn't very careful inking the background - that's because I had a computer effect in mind, later. And you'll notice I added some phone noises in the fifth panel, because I forgot to pencil them. I've also rewritten some of the dialogue to be punchier, and enlarged the Beetle's freakishly small left hand.

I use Wite-Out pens for corrections; you'll notice a big smudge in the third panel that photocopied for some reason. Fortunately, it didn't scan at all.

And finally, after scanning and toning, here's what we're left with...

The strip is usually scanned at 300 dpi and then shrunk down to 960 pixels for the web. Yes, my originals are 10 times larger than the finished version. I'm thinking of print, can you tell? Since my originals won't fit on my regular old scanner, I just rotate the bristol to get every corner of the page. It's only a problem when I have a very large (9" long or more) panel.

The first thing I usually do after rearranging the panels and making corrections is lay down the panel borders. Since everthing's a standard size, and the borders are always rectangles, I can just stroke a slection in Photoshop. After that, I just lay in flat tones with the pencil and paint bucket, and add gradients where appropriate. I usually try to stick to flat tones of 15, 30, 45 and 60 percent gray.

Some neat special effects were used here. I blended the cloud lines in the first panel into the background by using the pencil to lighten them to the sky color. Then, I selected the entire sky and applied a simple gradient to it. A similar trick was used on the commissioner in the third panel, to give the impression that he was behind glass. In the second panel, I added some noise to bring out the street to darken it a bit (and also because I don't trust my hatching). The faded-out cityscape in the third panel was an effect I wanted to try, and while it wasn't entirely successful, I think it came out okay. I should probably try it on a panel where the cityscape is actually visible. In the fith panel, I just inverted the whiskey label to make it look like a real Jack Daniels label. I also knocked out the panel border to see if it would help the panel "pop" a bit. It didn't. But I left it in anyway.

And that's more or less it, folks. After that, the strip gets shrunk down, posted, and then not read. Any questions about the process? Let me know on the Message Board.
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The Japanese Beetle and all related characters are copyright ©1998-2004 by Dave "The Knave" White. All rights reserved. Any passing resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead or otherwise, is purely coincidental except when it isn't. Really, we swear. Please don't sue us. Published on line by 741.5 Comics.