Offset printing for comic artists

Deviation Actions

Majnouna's avatar

Literature Text

Comic authors today benefit from increased choice in terms of how to
publish. Digital publishing, aka the way of webcomics, are the obvious
nearly-universal choice for both those who wish to print at some point
an those who don't intend to. Print-on-demand (PoD) similarly makes it
possible for everyone to make their work available as a book; despite
its many limitations it's better than no possibility. Digital printing
and various means offered by copy centers also present opportunities for
enterprising artists to print small runs of books at a relatively
modest cost, with more control over the final product than PoD allows.
But the most exciting development, as far as I'm concerned, is that
today sites like Kickstarter give everyone a chance to access good old
offset printing, which this post is dedicated to. Here I list a number
of things to know, do and avoid in order to make the most out of offset
printing, based on my training and personal experience printing comics
and other books with various printers (with a lot of trial and error.)

Why bother with offset in the first place, given its cost and the fact  
you'll have to stock the books? Because nothing out there matches the  
possibilities and quality it offers. You get to pick the paper type,  
weight, color, size and to control the quality of the result. If you  
fancy it, you can include inserts, die-cuts or special inks. It also is
far superior printing to anything else out there for books. It all  
depends on how much you see your final product as a beautiful object to
be kept. It is also necessary if you have a mind to get your book into
bookshops (but that's a matter I won't go into right now).

If there's even the remote chance you might go the offset route when your comic is completed, it is best to work for offset from the very beginning.


Never work under 300 dpi. That is the lower limit of what is acceptable
for a good printed result, despite the fact PoD accepts resolutions as
low as 150 dpi (which tells you something about the relative quality of
PoD!) Many recommend working at 600 dpi, which is a good idea for a
black and white comic, but unnecessary for color (the printer will just
convert it down), especially if it's more than your computer can handle.
My printer, for instance, recommends I give him 350dpi files, and the
result is incredibly sharp, much sharper even than I can preview on my

Never ever work at a low resolution and size it up before
printing. That's an absurdity, it completely misses the point and you'll
end up with ugly artifacts as if you'd taken a jpeg from the net and
sized it up. If you decide to print a comic you've created at low-res
you will have to redo it for it to be suitable (as I had to do
with my senior year project â€" the lesson sticks!) So don't get into that
bad habit. Always work in high-res.

Color space:

We probably all know this, but in a nutshell: light-based color is
worked in an RGB space (Red, Green, Blue), while pigment-based color
requires a CMYK space (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black). This means that a
comic made to be seen on a screen is in RGB, but to be printed, it needs
to be in CMYK.

What to do about this? There are 2 possible approaches:

• Work in CMYK from the beginning. This is fine if you're not publishing
online; you'll notice some Photoshop features and filters are disabled
in this mode, but this should not be a problem because you'll be working
with paper in mind. However, if like me you want to have your pages
available online and they need to look as good on a screen as they will
on paper, this is not ideal: CMYK pages tend to look duller on-screen,
even after the automatic conversion to RGB when saved as .jpg or

• Work in RGB, so you get all the benefits of that, and convert before printing. This can work, but don't, seriously DON'T convert your pages to CMYK yourself.
You will have no idea what you've done to your work until the printed
book arrives. Such a conversion will add black to all your colors. In
the best case scenario it'll mean the colors are not what you intended,
but if your work is dark to begin with, this can be disastrous. Since
you're working with a printer, there is no need whatsoever for you to do
this yourself. Send the printer your flattened RGB files as .psd* and
let their professionals convert them as needed. They will apply the
necessary profile and make  the needed adjustments so that the printed
page is as close as the one on your screen as it possible can be. By the
way, you're getting charged for "color correction" even if you try to
do this job yourself, because they always have to do something to your files before sending to print.

* Leave the text on a separate layer.
If it's black on white, they'll  want to strip it from all channels
other than black, so that it prints  solely as K. Otherwise, it'll print
as 4 colors and the slightest registration error will make it fuzzy.

If you really want to do this yourself and have managed to convince the
printer not to bill for color correction, at the very least you need to
ask them for a color profile. You will have to convert your pages to
that color profile, not to plain CMYK, for the conversion to happen with
the least possible loss.

This  profile (something.icc) should be saved where you won't misplace
it. To apply it, open the file you wish to  convert and go
Edit>Convert to Profile. Select your profile and  you'll be asked
whether to flatten the document. I recommend flattening  so that any
blend modes you have don't go all funky on you. Save as a  copy, and
review the page for anything that may need re-saturating  (that will
usually be light effects, as they suffer the most from losing the white
of a light source for the white of paper).

Finally, whichever way you went, I highly recommend requesting hi-res
color proofs for a few key pages. This is the only way to see, on paper,
the exact colors as they will come out, and so to catch any problem
before it's too late. Printers may or may not charge for these, but this
is not something I would try to economize on. You may not need more
than 3 or 4 pages: the cover, the darkest and lightest pages in the
book, and maybe a random one or one from a sequence where color scheme
is particularly important.

Page size:

As a rule, comic artists who work on paper always draw at a much larger
size than will be printed. This is only logical, as there's a limit to
how fine one can draw and ink, and the scaling down process is very
favorable to any kind of line work: small defects disappear and the
whole is tightened. This also applies to artists who work digitally,
despite the zooming function that makes it possible to work at a very
small scale.* Working at 150% or 200% of your final printed size can
really sharpen your result â€" if that is what you desire, of course.
Another distinct advantage is that you never know when you're going to
want a larger  version of a page, either to sell as a poster, or to
exhibit, or other unexpected things. I've had to exhibit pages on a
number of occasions by now, and I was really glad to have applied this
policy from the beginning.

* This can actually cause real
problems. Technically, you may end up drawing too finely for your chosen
printing method. Visually, we're not supposed to see small details
clearly: as objects shrink or become more distant, so the amount of
details in them drops for the human eye, and it looks very odd when that
is not observed. On paper it happens naturally due to the limits of
drawing at a tiny size â€" on a digital canvas, one must be careful to
keep the overall balance in sight at all times.

Page position:

This is where the publishing platform influences the very writing of the
comic (and only one of the ways in which is can.) As this is not
applicable online, it tends to become a lost art, but the importance of
page position returns to the fore when a webcomic makes it to print and
lacks this consideration. In a book, a page is never isolated, but is
either on the right or the left side of a spread. A story is enhanced by
proper planning of this, and weakened by its neglect. A basic rule is
to keep cliffhangers at the bottom of the right-hand  page (recto, or
odd-numbered page), so that the reader doesn't discover what happens
before they turn  the page. All surprises and, if possible, changes of
location, should go on the left-hand pages (verso, or even-numbered).
The turning of the page acts as a cut, which is why in a similar vein
some things are best kept within a spread, which works as a unified time
and space â€" especially if those moments take up just 2 pages. Splash
pages are particular instances where you have no choice at all, you have
to work it so the previous page is odd-numbered. This planning takes
place at the writing and sequencing stage, and I often find myself
having to condense a sequence or expand one because certain pages
absolutely need to be odd or even. Commercial comic just insert ads
where needed, if they even take that into account. If you're taking your
webcomic to print and find yourself with some awkward page positioning
and nothing you can do about it now, consider inserting a pinup or some
other nondisruptive full-page art (more creative solutions are
possible!) â€" just make sure to insert it somewhere the pause makes
sense, such as at the moment of a change of location.

Number of pages:

While diversification of printing techniques means this is no longer
always an issue, it remains an issue to be aware of when printing with
offset. I am talking about the fact the number of pages in a book needs
to be a multiple of 16. This is due to the way offset printing, which
makes use of large plates, works:

These signatures of 16 pages are bound together to form a book of 32, 48, 64 etc pages.

Based on the above, let's clarify: to get your money's worth, the
number of pages needs to be a multiple of 16, because you're paying for
16 pages at a time anyway. The plates represent the biggest part of the
cost, and one 16-page signature in full color requires no less than 8
plates (1 for each of the 4 CMYK colors for each of the 2 sides of the
sheet). No matter how much or how little contents there is, a 16-page
signature must be produced using these 8 plates*. Therefore, a 36-page
book and a 48-page book cost the same, which is 3 signatures, but the
36-page one is wasting 12 whole pages. They won't show up as blank pages
because the printer will remove them, but if you're printing 1000
copies, that's 12,000 wasted pages you paid for! If the number of pages
isn't a multiple of 4, however, there will be blank pages by necessity.

*There are ways to reduce this, for
instance by having every other page blank or a single color, or using
special plates, but this really requires working with the printer  and I
won't attempt to suggest them here â€" if interested, it's as  simple as
asking your printer "What can I change to cut printing costs?"

This is why it's important to have an inkling of how many pages your
story will take up. If it runs just a little over a multiple of 16, it's
worth condensing it a little to save you a whole signature's expense.
If it falls a little short of one, plan for bonus contents to fill up
those pages. Make sure to take metacontents into account, such as the
title page (this can eat up to 4 pages) and anything else that needs to
be included (in my case, the language notes on the last page). Comic
pages plus metacontents should be equal to a multiple of 16.

If you're publishing a series, planning is even more important as it's a
good idea to keep all volumes the same number of pages. If printing
cost varies greatly from one to the other, they will have to be priced
differently, and also, if page count i.e weight varies, shipping cost
will also vary. Believe me, you don't want to have this kind of
complication within the same series when you sell it on your website or
send it to bookshops.

This is assuming you're not an eccentric billionaire making comics in
your spare time. When expenditure is not an issue, such rules can be

Margins and bleeds:

In a  printed page, the inner edge gets eaten up by binding and the
outer  edge by cropping. Exactly how depends on binding type:

- Saddle stitch is when the book is folded down and stapled, as
is the case with floppies. Note I don't recommend this at all because it
looks so cheap, but if your book is too thin for other types of
binding, you may have no choice. In any case, this is what happens with
this binding:

Notice how much more of the inner pages get cut than the outer pages. If
your margins are just enough, they may look fine on the first pages,
but near the middle of the book they'll get very thin and some of the
art may even be cut. On the other hand, the inner margins are fine
throughout, as this binding allows the book to open almost flat at any

- Perfect binding is when pages are glued together to the spine
and the cover wraps around that, allowing for a title to be printed on
the spine if thick enough. The glue can be reinforced by sideways
stapling, but that is quite hidden. It looks cleaner, more professional
and makes a much better impression, but can only be used starting from a
certain thickness (more on that under Paper considerations). With this binding:

The damage to the outer margins is much less, because pages are put
together in smaller signatures (fewer are folded together). On the
inside, however, there's a slight cut just to remove the thickness of
the fold, and a full 0.5 cm eaten up by glue and by the fact you can't
open the pages fully without breaking the spine. This is where the inner
margins need to be given ample space. My advice would be to always aim
and work for this type of binding: a graphic novel has nothing to gain
from saddle stitch, and if it's too short or flimsy for perfect binding
it may not be worth the expense of offset printing â€" best wait to have
several chapters and print something more substantial.

- Let me also mention hardcover binding, though this is not
usually affordable without a successful Kickstarter campaign or some
other funding. This is the king of commercial bindings, with signatures
stitched together so the book is flat and even when closed, and opens
neatly anywhere.

The outer edge of the pages is cut but as signatures are 16 pages, there isn't a dramatic effect as with saddle stitch.

This was so you can visualize how to plan margins depending on future
binding. Before getting down to preparing them, we need to discuss
bleeds. A bleed is when the artwork extends to the edge of the printed
page. This is not a necessity, plenty of comics and graphic novels keep
away from it, and they can ignore this bit. However, if your artwork
bleeds, then it needs to bleed beyond the edge of the page. Cutting is
never completely accurate (we've seen how binding influences where it
falls), and if the art doesn't extend enough, you can end up with a very
unsightly white line on the edge of the page. The industry standard for
bleeds is 3 mm (at least on my side of the ocean): that's 3 mm added to
the size of your printed page, on each side that will be cut. To
clarify this, let's create a page template that you can then use for all
the pages in your comic. If you work on paper, this is still useful for
calculating measurements.

Decide on your margins. There’s no set rule for their size, but they
should not be thinner than 1.5 cm. 2 is better, and they can be much
broader to create a certain effect. If at a loss, examine comics of the
same size as yours. How wide are the margins, and do they seem right, or
too thin, or too much?

There's one more step to complete! This is the page at printing size,
but we want our template to be at working size. This is where you
increase the size of your template by going to Image > Image size and
entering the value that works for you, for instance 150% or A3. The
reason we started with final size and worked backward is that it's a
headache to calculate what a margin should be on the larger size so that
it becomes 2 cm when reduced. I made the huge oversight, when I first
started, of adding my bleeds to an A3 page, so that they were much too
thin once scaled down â€" but I never realized until the book was
completed, and I had to go and rework them all!

Once you have this template done, you can create all your pages from it
and know they will be correct when rescaled. Don't forget to create a
template for even-numbered pages, by flipping the canvas horizontally
(this will reverse the guidelines as well.)

Choice of paper:

One of the prime advantages of offset is that you have the full range of
paper at your disposal, including metallic paper if you so fancy! Visit
the printer or at least ask for samples, because even supposedly "plain
white" paper comes in a variety of textures and coating. There's no
right or wrong here, you need to choose based on your own vision of the
look and feel of your book. I imagine many people won't want to go so
far and just want simple white paper, but be at least aware of this: the
standard paper types of the book industry will come at least as
uncoated, coated, semi-gloss or glossy. Uncoated is like your average
printer paper, fine for novels but not recommended for color work as the
surface is rough and the ink will spread a little. Coated is better for
fine printing, but dulls colors. Glossy is the finest but the shiny
pages are distracting and they take fingerprints like nobody's business.
Semi-gloss is the best compromise and will keep your colors vibrant
without attracting attention to itself.

Now an important consideration is the paper weight, and this is where
sitting with the printer can really pay off. What is too thin, and what
is too heavy? It would not be useful for me to give numbers, because
that varies subtly with the nature of the paper, but as an example, I
use 135gsm paper for my comic's contents, and 250gsm for the cover. At
first I used heavier paper for both, but with the second volume my page
count rose and what was a beautiful balance became very heavy and
problematic. Here are things to think about:

- Heavier paper: it looks better, makes the book feel more valuable. It
also makes it heavier, hence higher shipping costs. It also makes it
thicker, so it's quickly too thick for stapling, but by the same token
it allows you to use perfect binding with less pages. Finally, thicker
books mean they take up more space wherever you're stocking them.

- Lighter paper: if it's too light it feels flimsy and cheap. But if you
have a lot of pages, it can make the book lighter and less onerous to
ship and to stock. It can force you to use saddle stitch if your page
count is low.

A printer can upon request (if they're good with clients) make a mock-up
of your book using blank paper of the weight requested, so that you can
see exactly what it feels like, how thick it is, and how much it
weighs. This way you can conceivable tailor a book to look as good as
possible while remaining within a certain weight category, if most of
your sales will be by mailing the book yourself. For the cover at least I
can say that 250 is almost ideal for a softcover: lighter than that and
it doesn't feel like a cover, heavier and it can create problems during
binding. Always have your cover laminated to give it that quality
finish that will also protect it.

Finally, think of the planet.

Some printers have converted to eco-friendly  printing processes. They
use water-based inks and plates that degrade without poisoning the
environment. These printers may be a little more expensive, but that is
something we owe. In the end, our work is not a necessity, and no matter
how many people derive pleasure from it, printing it remains a little
act of vanity that consumes paper and energy. The least we can do is
give a little extra to limit the harm we do in the process.
A guide I put together for and, covering everything about offset printing that needs to be borne in mind during the making of a comic. Testing the writer in the process... So far it does very strange things to my formatting.
© 2011 - 2022 Majnouna
Join the community to add your comment. Already a deviant? Log In
yamad-a's avatar
Thank you for this, it was really helpful ♥ :tighthug:, but I am so dumb that I still can't understand some things.
I wish someone could show me how to do it with my specific sizes and bleed areas, because I am so confused when it's only theoretical. NOOOO sobbing - crying