Creating a comic strip using open source tools

Some Time Later…

So far, our Elvie strip has taken, typically, a month to produce – but it still won't appear on shelves for several more weeks and won't get to some subscribers for months! If you've ever wondered why there are few topical Elvie jokes, and even some that are long past warranting the "topical" label, that's the reason.

Those overseas subscribers also explain why the Elvie website lags so far behind the published cartoons. From the early days of Linux Voice, Mark and Vince have been putting all their Elvie source files onto GitHub [5] but were requested to include a few months' delay to ensure that all the paying readers of the magazine had a chance to see the strips before they were released to the world at large.

What this means, in practice, is that some months after the strip has been sent for publication, Mark has to pull together the final versions of each source file, tidy them up, remove unnecessary layers, and fix up any spelling mistakes in file or layer names. The Inkscape file is edited to add license information and other metadata; then a PNG version of the cartoon is exported once more and compared to the version sent to the magazine to ensure that no important parts have been missed or broken during the clean up.

In Gimp, the PNG is scaled to suit the website. The colors are not adjusted in this version, since most people will view it online with a relatively bright screen. Apologies to anyone with a properly calibrated monitor who thinks the strips are all too dark! Finally the source files are bundled together, committed to Git, pushed to GitHub, the website updated, and a post made to Twitter and Facebook to announce the arrival of a new cartoon. More than a year after first writing the joke, Mark can finally mark the strip as finished.

Writing the process down like this makes it sound like a lot of hard work, but creating comics and cartoons can also be immense fun. If you've ever been put off the idea by your lack of a Wacom tablet or not wanting to get onto the rolling treadmill of Adobe's subscription products, hopefully you've now got an idea of how to create the next great webcomic using only a Linux box and a mouse. There are a lot of steps to learn and technical issues to solve, but all that comes with time and experience. For now, just start writing and drawing with whatever tools are at hand, and the rest will surely follow.

Cartooning on a Budget

If there's one thing to take away from this article, it's that creating a cartoon doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Many of the available tutorials are based on Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, or they use specialist commercial comic software such as Manga Studio. But with a little imagination, it is possible to apply similar techniques to free and open source applications. The Greys were drawn with Inkscape and a mouse, yet they have appeared in print and were even featured in a museum exhibition. A cheap scanner was used for the hand-drawn newspaper strip, but even a photograph from a mobile phone would be sufficient provided there's enough contrast for the Trace Bitmap command in Inkscape to do its thing.

Elvie required some expense but not much. The first 13 strips were produced using a Monoprice branded graphics tablet that cost less than £50. At the time, a little effort was required to get it working on Linux, but these days it is just plug-and-play. Mark still uses this same tablet for the editing work he does, although Vince has since been promoted to a £250 Wacom tablet for the proper artwork.

In practice, the differences between spending £50 and £250 aren't as great as you might think. Even the budget tablet has enough pressure sensitivity for cartoon work, but the wireless connectivity of the Wacom does make it a little easier to get the tablet into a comfortable working position. The Monoprice tablet also lacks an "eraser" on the opposite end of the stylus, meaning that switching between two tools can only be done by selecting icons or pressing keyboard shortcuts, not by flipping the stylus over.

If you're working on a budget, don't dismiss a secondhand tablet as a viable option. Linux can still support professional tablets that connect over an RS232 serial connection, so you may be able to pick up an eBay bargain if you're prepared to add a suitable port to your PC – or use an adapter. If you're handy with a soldering iron, the WaxBee project [6] can help you convert an old serial or ADB tablet to USB via a microcontroller, so your Linux box need never even know that it's talking to a legacy device.

No article about comics and FOSS would be complete without mention of David Revoy's beautiful comic strip, Pepper&Carrot [7] (Figure 9). Charting the adventures of a young witch (Pepper) and her feline familiar (Carrot), it's notable for its light-hearted plots and imaginative fantasy setting – but even more for the stunning artwork that makes up the bulk of each comic. David creates his imagery mainly using Krita, with Inkscape serving duty for the speech bubbles and panels. The lavish and detailed images take a long time to create, but David is able to work on them thanks entirely to sponsorship on Patreon and similar sites. The finished comics are released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Pepper&Carrot is probably the finest example of a FOSS-created comic – and a great counterpoint to anyone who thinks you have to use proprietary software to create professional looking cartoons.

Figure 9: Pepper&Carrot is one of the most beautifully drawn webcomics there is – and it's all created with FOSS!


  1. Mark & Vince's back catalog of cartoons:
  2. Inkscape:
  3. MyPaint:
  4. The Open Font Library:
  5. Elvie GitHub repositories:
  6. WaxBee project:
  7. Pepper&Carrot:

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