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Athabasca University e-Lab

Comic Book Software for Digital Storytelling


Comics are the fastest growing art form, and they are becoming an influential medium in every form, from novels to films to smart phone apps. This workshop will show you how to use Comic Life Software to create digital comics with your own photographs or remixed image.


images provided courtesy of  Josh McPherson, Andy Qureshi, Sweta Patel, Garrett Patton, Mari Powers

A comic book is an easy vehicle for visual storytelling. Here I have pasted a recipe (with illustrations drawn from an illuminated manuscript) of how to prepare a medieval manuscript. I have divided each step into a comic frame withstemless ‘voice’ bubbles that describe each stage of the process. Where films are time-based media, projected onto a single space, comics are space-based media that are both sequential (like the medieval manuscript recipe) and spatial, spanning multiple times as you move from window to window. Unlike film, we can move within comics both backwards and forwards in time and see two different scenes (represented as spaces or places) simultaneously.


Comic Life has a simple interface that will take only a few minutes to master. As a drawing program for creating comic books with digital images, it does not require you to do any drawing. Instead you can incorporate any digital image. The interface has seven parts.

Indicates the menu bar, which contains design elements, navigational options, and print, share, save and send options.

A. Is the stage or document window where your comic will be assembled.

B. Is the library of page templates. It has a pull down menu with options for many different kinds of comics—from graphic novels to manga to 1940s comics.

C. Is your drag and drop image library. It can access anything that is saved on your hard drive. Notice how you can select your source within this library too, selecting photos from your image archiving program (iPhoto here on a Mac), from the Finder, or from a live webcam connection.

D. Is your voice and thought bubble library. It also includes access to text, text effects, and new frames.

E. Is your styles menu, which gives you options for image editing, and for variations in frame and bubble style. You may have to turn it on with the ‘style’ button in the menu bar to see it.

F. Is the review window that shows you each page of your comic as a thumbnail.


The menu bar, which runs across the top of the software interface, gives you options for sharing, saving and printing, as well as back page and object navigation features. The right hand side of the bar offers basic design features, including access to styles. Styles control the look of each frame on the page and gives editing options for comicifying images. (I’ll discuss this in greater detail later.) It also gives you control over your fonts, allowing you to increase or decrease the size of your fonts just by clicking. Here is also where you find the pickers: the inspector, the colour wheel, and fonts. The inspector is a complex features that gives you control over several different elements in your comics. It allows you to set a page size, to control page numbering, to edit graphics, to edit images, to see and alter the metrics on individual photos. The font controller allows fine tuning of individual fonts from the spacing between characters to the spacing between lines.

Start by selecting a style (from the drop down menu) and then select a panel layout. Then grab, and drag and drop your selection onto the stage.

You can drag and drop any image from your library onto the Stage. This isn’t just for photographs. You can use any digital image, including scans or images you found online. Size or arrange your image to fit. Just a word about copyrighted images. You may want to limit your searches for images to images that have creative commons licenses. Any image that you use needs to have its origin and (if possible) author cited. Don’t forget to include links back to the original images and if you want to publish your work, of course, you’ll need to obtain permission to use those images.


You can drag and drop dialogue balloons, text and 3-D lettering. Remember that you can fine tune your text choices in the Inspector in the menu bar. You can split the stems on voice bubbles as well, to attribute a caption to multiple speakers.

One of the most interesting features of Comic Life is the use of Styles. Styles let you ‘comicify’ your images so that they look like drawn comics. You can also match them to a chosen Style for the whole comic, for example using pencil sketch, greyscale, monochrome or vivid.

Comic Life is so versatile because it will allow the use of any digital image. You can scan images, borrow images, or create them yourself. If you are preparing your comic to be printed you will want to use high quality images. If the comic is destined for the screen or the Web, then lower resolution will help keep the size of your comic small.


Comicifying images gives them an otherworldly feel, making the story that you tell unique.

Primary colors set a larger-than-life tone in a comic.

Monochrome comics or comics with a more neutral palate allow you to focus more on the mood or on the atmosphere in the story as with this noir-styled comic. Try to develop a consistent style for any comic. Try to create a consistent look throughout with a shift in styles indicative of new emphasis.


A neutral palate can look a little edgier and more serious too in keeping with the intention of a work This is the Connect with Hali Kamal game, created by the U.S. Army, which trains American combat soldiers how to negotiate with the locals in a war zone.


Digitally altering your images can produce a greater emotional impact than with conventional photographs -- and create effects that give your works a personal style.


Digitally altering your images can produce a greater emotional impact than with conventional photographs -- and create effects that give your works a personal style.


Simplifying the image also makes it more abstract and amplifies its effect on the reader. Think of how much more universal the characters Charlie Brown or Lisa Simpson are as generic types than they would be if they looked more like real children.


Use styles sparingly. Use style to heighten effect or emphasis.


Saving your image is easy in Comic Life, but you need to understand how to save it. If you merely select ‘Save’, that leaves you with an editable Comic Life file. That’s great if you haven’t yet finished your comic and want to continue working on it. It’s also good for archiving your comic. It is not, however, very good for sharing your comic. It is a very large file and all of your friends can only read it if they too have Comic Life on their computers. What if you want to paste your work on Facebook or email it to someone? Or post it on your website? Or send it to a publisher? For these needs, you will want the ‘Export’ option.

The ‘Export’ option allows you to save your comic in a variety of formats. It will export direct to Email or to Facebook. If you want to save it as images, it will export directly to your image archiving software or to Web-ready jpg files. Each page will become a separate image. If you want to format your creation as a comic book to print or to share electronically, you have two options. You can export to PDF, which gives you a discrete little book you can page through, or you can export to HTML, which will give you a file folder filled with all of the component parts to make a Web-friendly comic book with flippable pages that is ready to be uploaded.


Never underestimate importance of camera angles to your story.

The frame in comics (and storyboards) is the equivalent of camera angles in film. Extreme close-ups produce very different moods and effects from long shots, for example. Think carefully about the effect that you want to create with each and every image. In comics, the first image on a two page spread and the last image each serve a special function of, respectively, introducing a sequence and then creating a suspenseful cliffhanger that makes you want to turn the page.

There is a whole grammar of shot heights that affect how we ‘read’ the context on the screen or on the page. Different genres and schools of film and of comics use camera angle differently. For instance, the Medium or Full Shot is also commonly known as the Knee Shot. It is a trademark of American cinema and isn’t usually seen in the films of other countries.


Another trademark use of camera angles are extreme shots, as in the extreme low-shot so often used in Manga comics. In fact, manga, the dominant Japanese comic book form, has such a trademark form that there’s an iPhone app called Manga Camera that will translate your photos into black and white manga images.


It is important to remember that the camera (represented by framing in your comic) has its own perspective. In fact, the camera can occupy three different points of view.

Comics are the fastest growing art form, and they are becoming an influential medium in every form, from novels to films to smart phone apps. This workshop will show you how to use Comic Life Software to create digital comics with your own photographs or remixed images.


In the objective shot, the camera is in a neutral position. The audience does not take the position of any of the characters. It is most often used in documentaries, sitcoms, interviews

In the point of view shot, the camera occupies the perspective of a particular character. It is highly subjective increases audience involvement.


The subjective shot is the most personal and interactive shot. The camera trades places with an on-screen character, seeing the action through the character’s eyes. Most often used in videogames (known as first-person-shooters), we come to inhabit the character. The subjective shot can also come into play when the character looks in the lens and addresses ‘us’.



I mentioned earlier that you may want to use Creative Commons licensed images rather than copyrighted ones. For most information on Creative Commons licensing, please watch the video called “Get Creative” on YouTube. In some search engines like Behold, the search engine for Flickr, you can tell it that you only want access to images that are free to use. This does not mean that the images are copyright free, but that the creator has licensed the image for free use for some purposes, as long as you give attribution.


Different search engines return different results too, so be sure to try on different search engines for size to see what best fits your current project. Yahoo, Altavista, Wickmedia will each give a unique perspective on your topic.

You can find free photos everywhere on the Web, but that does not mean that they are free to use. Creative Commons Licensed images are generally available free and only require attribution by giving a link or a name. Each Creative Commons image does come with a license that tells you the acceptable uses. You can locate these kinds of images through the above links or just search for “Creative Commons Images” and other sources should pop up.


Thanks for listening. Have fun making your own comics. Don’t forget to look for other workshops at the Athabasca University e-Lab website as well.

We would like to thank Zoomer Media for the funding for this workshop.