I recommend you jump for the fanciest program you have access to. If you don't know how to use it, learn. Paint.NET is quite popular, definitely your best bet if you don't want to spend any money, but I use IBM Perfect Photo, an ancient program I got for free through my dad, who works at IBM. I wouldn't recommend finding it or trying it yourself, but I've been using it so long and am so used to it that I know how to muscle it into doing what I want. Anyway, there's no shame in just using Paint, either. This guide will cover how to make comics in in Paint, the medium that any beginner should start with, in my opinion. The skills you'll learn here are transferable to any other program you might be using.
Whichever program you ended up with, start by making yourself a big canvas with some panels.
For the purposes of this tutorial, I've formatted this strip to be 1x4, like you usually see in newspapers, perfectly horizontal. However, you should carefully consider how you want to format your own comic.
For instance, some people like to have really, really big panels to work with. If you make the overall comic size too big for your lay-out, you might stretch out the page. It's not the worst thing in the world, but it's kind of bothersome to read, and you should be doing all you can to please your readers. Remember, if you have a widescreen monitor, what looks fine to you might be too big for somebody still stuck on a smaller resolution (*cough*me*cough*)
So depending on how big you like your panels and exactly what format you're using, you might want to reconsider your panel arrangement.
Another reason to consider having a vertical comic is if you don't intend to stick to just 4 panels all the time. If, like Linko Man, your strips might be short sometimes and long other times, making your comic vertical means you can add on all the panels you want without pushing the limits of your layout.
Something I don't recommend is making your comic both tall and wide. Even if your panels are really small and a 5x5 comic would fit on the screen just fine, it makes the direction of your comic confusing. That's just my opinion.
Something else a lot of people do that I dislike is this:
It's just a big black backdrop they stick panels onto. When done wrong, it's a mess: the panels are askew, looks sloppy, and people usually don't bother to keep their speech bubbles within their boundaries. It also promotes the use of "LOL BLANK SPACE," which, by the way, you should NEVER do.
If you have your heart set on this method, just keep in mind that when it's done, we shouldn't be able to tell that you did. The boundaries between panels should be straight and rigid without any breaks.
Whichever method you use, once you have all your panels, visualize what the finished comic will look like.
This is not a necessary step, but it makes the comic-making process faster and more organized if you have a vague idea of what action and dialog will be in each panel. Just a guideline that helps you place your sprites and text as you go without running out of room or messing up the oh-so-important timing.
Either way, at this point, it's time to start by laying the background. You can make your own, Bob & George style with a plain background and floor, or you can swing by someplace like The Background HQ and find something appropriate. Since the comic I have in mind is a Sonic comic, let's find a Sonic background.
At this point, I need to explain how Paint handles transparency. See this little icon under the tool bar?
It means that when making a selection, it'll treat the secondary color:
As though it's transparent. Here's a demonstration. Currently, my secondary color is white, but the "solid background" is selected. If I select this sprite of Mario...
... and move it onto the background...
... the white is still there. However, if I do the same with the "transparent background" icon selected...
... the white is treated as though it's transparent. It's an important part of making comics in Paint. If you've got something better than Paint, it probably actually uses transparency, so you'll have it easier.
Now, here's how you get that background into your panel. First, make sure transparent backgrounds are on and that your secondary color is white. Now select the entire desired panel, border and all. You'll probably want to zoom in to make sure you're getting down-to-the-pixel precision.
Now drag the selection onto the background. Just like a movie director making a box with his fingers to frame a shot, move it around, picturing how it'll look as a panel in the comic. When you find a spot you like, drop it and de-select.
Copy the frame and put it back in the comic, background in place.
And there you have your background framed as part of the comic. This will leave the a big, mutilated hole in the full background, but if you need it again, just copy it back in from the internet.
Now, if you're not using Paint, chances are you're using a program that uses layers. In that case, you've got it made: instead of going through all this selecting, moving, de-selecting, re-selecting and moving back, you can just place the full background on a layer behind your panels (make sure the inside of your panels are transparent), then achieve the same framing effect simply by moving the full background underneath the prospective panel. From there you can copy out whatever part of the background you find acceptable and dispose of the rest. I recommend you keep all individual background panels on their own, separate layer, just to keep them loose and free in case of necessary rearrangements.
Time to put in the sprites for this comic. Find the sprites you want online (check the credits for Linko Man for some good sprite websites) and copy them into a new Paint window.
Because sprite sheets are usually big and cluttered, you don't want them in the same space as your workshop. Instead, we'll just take the sprites we're about to use and copy them into the main workshop window. If you're using a program that uses layers, keep in mind that sprites should have their own layers.
The sheet we got Sonic from had a blue background, which we need to get rid of since we're using the color white as transparent (by the way, since it's common practice to use white as a transparent color or background color, make sure anything white on your sprite is actually a slightly different off-white). You can use the fill tool to change every bit of blue to white, but there's always a chance, often with more complicated sprites you'll miss a small patch of blue hidden in some crevasse. To be careful, you can use the eye-dropper to change the secondary color to that same shade of blue. Select the Sonic sprite, and "cut," so that he disappears onto your clipboard, leaving behind a big blue square. Fill in that blue with white, then paste Sonic back into the picture. Since blue is now being treated as transparent, the blue surrounding Sonic will disappear and be replaced with the white behind it. Once you're finished with this step, do not forget to change your secondary color back to white.
These sprites could also stand to be bigger. Another problem I see with a lot of sprite comics is that they don't know how to focus the attention on their characters. If all they're doing is standing around talking, zoom in on them a bit. For this comic, 2x is all we should need.
Presto, now it's perfect. Do the same for the rest of your sprites.
A word of warning: never size your sprites anything other than a multiple of 100% (200%, 300%, etc). Doing this will make a mess of the sprite itself, doubling up on some pixels and leaving others by themselves, making it look like crap. Only when you zoom by multiples of 100% will it come out fresh and in proportion.
Another thing to be careful of is if you're not using Paint to resize; many high-end image editing programs actually cater to people working with photos and such, so when you stretch an image, it adds a bit of blur around your pixels. This is nice if it really is a photo or piece of art you're resizing, but for sprites, you've got to keep those nice, sharp edges so they look just like they do in the game! If your image program is causing blurriness during resizing, just open the sprite in Paint and resize it there instead, then copy it back into whatever other program you were using. It may sound inconvenient, but you get used to it.
Now, the final touch: put all your sprites in the frame!
If you visualized your final comic, then you can do what I usually do and finish the rest of your panels before putting in text. Repeat the previous steps until you've finished the rest of the comic.
If you'd rather add text to this panel right away, that's also cool. However, at this point, what some spriters using Paint like to do (including my friends over at That VGC Show, I'm told) is save the comic as-is and use a different program to add cleaner, nicer text. If you've got something capable of that, great, but if not, here's the one and only really good way to do it in Paint. Begin by typing in the raw text somewhere below the panel. To be neat, make sure it's all centered. That just looks better.
Next, choose one of the shapes on the tool bar to serve as the "bubble" of your text bubble. The circle takes up WAY too much space in my opinion, but a perfect square gives that impersonal "text box" feeling, so I go with the "Rounded Rectangle."
Once you've framed the text inside the bubble, you've hit a snag: if you try to move the bubble onto the panel now, the automatic transparency we've set up for the color white will ruin your new text bubble. To fix it, change the secondary color to something else (I used hot pink) and fill the area around your text bubbles with that color.
This way, when we move the bubble onto the panel, it'll be the pink that's made transparent instead.
Before I go any further, there's a very important point I want to make at this point in your comic construction: the WORST, most amateurish thing you can do to your comic is to place the first text box lower or farther to the right than the second. ALWAYS place the first text in a higher and/or farther to the left position than the second text. There's no excuse, that's just how the English language is meant to be read. If you insist on doing it manga style, the same rules MUST apply, just do it right-to-left instead.
Okay, put the first text box in the appropriate spot. Now, there are a few ways people identify which text box is whose speech. Some people put tiny mugshots inside the bubble, some color code it (similar to how the text in Linko Man is colored, but if you're going to do that, make sure the colors aren't hard to read), but for this one, we'll just make the traditional pointers. Take the line tool and make a little triangle coming out, pointing at the speaker. Fill it in with white.
Now put the next text box in the right place. If you're covering up part of the pointer of the other text box, make sure it's still 100% clear who it's pointing at. Make a pointer for this one, too. Continue until you're done with all the text boxes for that panel.
Easily done. Now repeat these steps for the rest of the panels until the entire comic is full of delicious text bubbles.
Quick note about panel 2: although I've botched it a little, sometimes it's really important to show off what's in the background, and you can't let the text get in the way. Although you already know what it is back there, your audience is seeing it for the first time and needs to know at a glance what they're looking at. Make sure your text bubbles aren't covering up anything important.
Now for a step many amateur spriters forget: crop the sides of the images to fit the panels! Many spriters accidentally leave giant white spaces on the sides of their comics they forgot to close in. Just find the borders of the image and shrink them to fit the comic within.
Et voila! A finished comic. I hope yours is funnier than this. You might noticed that this is slightly different than what I envisioned in the beginning, and that's okay, slight changes are normal. Save that bitch and upload it to your hit SmackJeeves comic website.
I hope these steps have helped you first-timers form a comic. Here are a few other general tips to remember:
1. When in doubt, think of how a DC or Marvel comic would look. They're the professionals, do your best to imitate them.
2. To reiterate, ALWAYS begin your text bubbles in the highest, farthest-left area and continue going lower and/or to the right. I mean, don't necessarily make a diagonal succession of text boxes, but you know what I mean, you've read comics before.
3. Your panel boundaries should almost NEVER be violated. If your character has a lot to say, have them say it over two panels rather than letting one huge text bubble crowd the next panel. It not only promotes cleaner panel divisions, it's less troublesome to read.
4. I think I already said this, but if for whatever reason it's convenient to have an odd number of panels, leaving you with a blank space, don't point it out by writing "LOL BLANK SPACE!!" in that spot. Take your own comic seriously or no one else will.
5. If you don't have a good idea for a sprite comic, don't even start. Think about it, something will come to you. Whatever you do, DON'T just start a "randomness" comic unless you KNOW, based on the opinions of many credible readers, that you can actually be funny and consistently come up with ideas while just being "random." It takes a certain sense of timing and irony that many people are incapable of.
6. No matter how hard up you are for an idea, don't bug accomplished spriters asking them to let you use their characters. Nor should you ask them to put your character in their comic, especially if it's clearly not a comic that ever does cameos (That means Linko Man. Sorry guys, I love that you like my comic, but cameos screw up my continuity!).
6. Spell check, spell check, spell check. As I said before, you HAVE to take your own comic seriously, and no one wants to read something that's a crime against the English language.
7. A banner that's nothing but a pile of characters from the comic isn't the worst thing in the world, but if you can make it something more interesting, see what you can do with it.
8. Sometimes people take a huge background and use that as a single panel. First of all, that's a HUGE waste of space. Second of all, it lacks focus. Characters are all over the screen, and the reader has no idea where to look. Remember what I said about professional comics? In Spider-Man, do they draw every one of the panels as a bird's-eye-view of the streets while a very small Spider-Man does battle with Doc Oc? No. They're focused, with dynamic angles. Do your best.
9. If you're collaborating with other authors on a comic, do NOT use the comic browser as a place to share backgrounds and sprite sheets. It's unprofessional for the viewers' reading to be interrupted with a sprite sheet. Use PM's or emails or something, or, since you clearly don't mind sharing your sprite sheet with the general public, create a custom page on which you can all post available sprite sheets and backgrounds as a resource for authors.
10. Unless your comic is supposed to be author-themed (something I generally don't recommend in the first place, but oh well), you probably shouldn't appear in your own comic as some all-powerful being. It's been done, nothing you can do with it is funny anymore. If, like Linko Man, you want to use your self-image sprite as a character, that's okay, just as long as they're actually a character and not "the author." Think of it as being an actor in a play.
11. Many comics center around fights, tournaments, other kinds of struggle, etc, and while that's never a bad thing, make sure to balance the attacks of all your character. Take it easy with the ultimate attacks; no giant laser beams, gigantic energy flares, yadda yadda. Not every character has to be Sephiroth, that's just not interesting. Instead, maybe one character is JUST a swordsman, another is JUST a mage, or perhaps each character specializes in ONE magical element (bolt, fire, ice, heal, poison, whatever else you can think of. I'd stay away from things as cliche and abstract as "light" and "dark" unless you have REAL explanations for 'em).
12. Finally, and possibly most importantly, save your files in a format that does NOT mess up the quality. That means no jpegs, and for Paint, no gifs. Paint-users, always save your finished product as a PNG. No one wants to read something speckled with artifacts and screwy colors.
I might add more to this last section as stuff comes to me. Until then, be sure to check out Some F*cking Sprite Advice for more tips, and good luck with the comics!