Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga ComiPo!
by Jason Thompson, Sep 15th 2011
Episode LXVII: ComiPo!
I bet most people reading this column want to draw manga. C'mon, don't you? Doesn't everyone want to be a producer of art and not just a consumer, unsustainable though this artistic food chain might be? Doesn't everyone have some idea for a manga/anime/movie script/novel hidden away? Since manga and anime became popular in the U.S., it seems like every year there's 10 new books claiming to teach you how to draw it, and that's just by Americans, that's not even counting translated Japanese books like the How to Draw Manga series from Graphic-sha. If the advice is sometimes of questionable quality, well, manga is often of questionable quality too.
Some people claim they can't draw at all. When aspiring artists ask me how to draw better, I always tell them, TAKE FIGURE DRAWING CLASSES. Not only is it great practice doing quick sketches of the human figure, you'll get to see naked people! (In fact, I think it was the first time I ever saw naked people of the opposite gender, like Jiro Taniguchi in his autobiographical manga A Zoo in Winter). To learn to draw, you need to practice drawing everything, especially the difficult and boring stuff, like backgrounds, plants, animals, liquids and vapors and shadows. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. Robert Crumb at one point filled an entire sketchbook just drawing the random stuff on city streets: electrical cables, telephone poles, lamp posts. And of course don't just draw sketches and illustrations, draw actual comics, so you can practice your pacing, panel layout, the balance of text and artwork, and all that good stuff. This stuff, the storyboarding phase (known as the "name" phase in Japan), depends more on your storytelling than your artistic ability; in Bakuman. for instance, even though Takeshi Obata does the final art, scriptwriter Tsugumi Ohba sketches out each chapter first with stick figures in the "name."
If you're like Ohba, if you know how to write and storyboard manga but all you can draw is crappy stick figures, now there's a program for you. That's right…don't waste another minute begging artists to draw your comics for the promise of future royalties! ComiPo!, a Japanese PC program from Web Technology Com Corp., is a manga-creation program for people who can't draw whatsoever. Not a drawing program like Photoshop, Painter or Manga Studio, it's a layout program that lets you create manga by creating panels and then arranging images, word balloons and SFX inside them. Furthermore, ComiPo! features fully 3D models of characters and objects with an adjustable 'camera' so you can show the same figure from any number of poses and angles! "Good news for people who can't draw!" says the ComiPo! website. If you want to draw so much as a single line, you'll have to export your comic into another program like Photoshop first, but if you want to make manga from a library of preexisting tools and images (plus the ability to import JPEGs from your desktop for background images), that's what ComiPo! does.
Although I'm the kind of person who prefers cel animation to 3D animation, I have to admit, it's a pretty brilliant idea. 3D rendering is the ultimate expression of the "chiseled realism" that many manga artists aim for, which is probably why so many anime nowadays use a mixture of 3D and 2D. (It certainly creates a more authentically manga-like effect than Flash animation, whose flat stage-like feeling is better suited to traditional Western cartoons and comic strips.) Mixing 3D foreground characters with flat 2D backgrounds is basically what a lot of manga artists do already; in Gantz, for instance, Hiroya Oku renders all the characters first and then draws over them in pen. Software like Poser makes it easy (well, fairly easy) to make 3D comics by creating scenes and characters and setting the camera angle.
I received a reviewer's software key from the ComiPo! people, so I tried it out. I borrowed a friend's PC, since the program isn't available for Mac, and got to work. When you sign up for the English edition, you receive a user policy and email in Japanese. As promised, the program was easy to use. When you open the program or create a new page, it gives you a choice of various layouts from one panel to six panels, but you can move and rearrange the panels as you wish, so layout is easy. (I couldn't figure out how to make a panel that wasn't square or rectangular, though.) Very soon I was clicking and dragging 3D figure models into the panels in various embarrassing poses.
The core of the program is the 3D models, and this is where you really see ComiPo!'s strengths and limitations. The basic program comes with four models designed by Kumi Horii: a schoolgirl, schoolboy, and male and female teachers. (Technically, there's eight models, but the second four are just duplicates of the first four with sillier facial expressions.) I don't know what the polygon limits are for the software, but I didn't have any problems stuffing five figures in one panel. You can move the characters on the X, Y and Z axis, and zoom in and out, although you can't shrink them beyond a certain point. It is a little tricky shrinking the characters; when you zoom out, the visible part of the character's body doesn't automatically widen, so instead of being able to see the character's whole body, you might just see their head and upper torso floating in space. Fixing this required some annoying toggling. You can also add 3D item models from a preset props list which shows the program's school-manga focus; for instance, there's desks, shoe lockers, and seven different types of cell phones. The 3D models are assembled in layers, and you can move things into the foreground and background, although they don't really interact with one another; unlike a program like Poser, there isn't actually a shared 3D space.
Also unlike Poser, you can't put the figures in any position. You're limited to a preset menu of 100+ poses, including standing, running, fighting, sitting, lying down, the kamehameha pose (yes!!), and various hand gestures. You can adjust the angle of the characters' heads, making them look left and right, up and down, but if you want someone's elbow to be crooked at a slightly different angle, you're out of luck. Creating a comic in ComiPo!, thus, becomes a game of going through the pose reference library and figuring out what pose is best suited for what you want. It'd be easier if the preview images in the pose menu were better, but the preview images are very small and don't always seem to show the accurate pose. You can adjust the characters' hands in a separate submenu under "accessories," but adjusting their hands doesn't adjust their wrists, so it can lead to some weird gestures. Some poses come with an auto-generated item, such as carrying an umbrella or a schoolbag, or eating with chopsticks. You can also give characters items (from a limited list) in the same accessories menu.
Drawing cute characters has always been tough for me, so it was fun to get to use ComiPo!'s preset figure models. I love to draw detailed backgrounds and monsters, but characters are my weakest point, and of course cute characters are important: in Graphic-sha's "Compiling Characters" book they advise you "Even when drawing minor characters, be sure to make them cute! You never know if one might become more popular and you might want to give them a bigger role!" (At one point I even considered teaming up with someone else who would draw the faces and let me draw everything else, kind of like the reverse of how Takao Saito does it.) Unfortunately, although ComiPo!'s figures are indeed cute, they simply don't offer enough customization. Not only can't you change the characters' clothes, you can't even change their skin tone. You can make minor adjustments to the face and eyes, and add things like glasses, but for hair and eye colors, you're limited to a small number of preset choices in a text menu. Why isn't there a real color palette? Why can't I give a character bright green hair, instead of just lime green or dark greenish-brown? Don't even think about being able to adjust a character's measurements; bakunyu and hiinyu fans will have to be content with just nyu. And the preset hairstyles don't include a single spiky shonen-manga haircut. Basically, you can't design your own characters with ComiPo!; you can only make slight changes to Kumi Horii's characters.
And yet, I had a lot of fun playing with ComiPo!. Although it's more of a clip art program than a drawing program, you can do great things with clip art. Half of the fun is figuring out what preset pose or expression works with what you're trying to do. Although you can't put actual 3D light or shading on the figures, you can create shadows by dragging and dropping 2D 'light' and 'shadow' filters, which works surprisingly well. The ability to import images (although not TIFFs, and not images with transparencies) lets you easily create comics set in your own house, school, workplace, the Gaza Strip, or wherever. The preset 2D images are also awesome, beautiful clip art and color images of typical manga backgrounds (landscapes, the sky, grassy fields, school settings, Tokyo Big Sight) and mood pieces (sparkly lights, zoom lines, fiery determination ,etc.). You can change the colors by adjusting the hue, brightness, saturation and RGB sliders—for instance changing a blue splash of water to a red blood-splatter. By combining color effects, blurs, transparencies and brightness effects, it's easy to create the illusion of light, shadow, foreground and background (for instance, putting a shadow underneath a walking character to look like they're casting a shadow on the ground, or desaturating one of the 3D models so they fit the mood of a photo-background better). Sound effects are preset, with a good variety of Japanese FX and a few English ones (a shame you can't type your own). Word balloons are easy to create, although annoyingly, you can't center-justify or right-justify text; you can only left-justify it, or vertically justify it if it's in Japanese. (On the other hand, you can write text in Japanese, as well as Arabic, Hebrew and a bunch of other languages.) There is a limit on the number of characters you can have in a word balloon, which my wordy comic bumped into more than once.
Basically, ComiPo! is a toy, not a serious tool, and anyone who's familiar with the versatility of something like Photoshop or Manga Studio won't find it here. But I have to admit, it's entertaining, and it's interesting how much actual manga storytelling you can do without ever drawing a line. The program's many limitations, such as the severely limited number of character models (and some gaps in the background images: for instance, there are no household interiors) will hopefully be corrected in future downloads and updates. (The ComiPo! website promises "monthly downloadable assets.") The most recent Japanese version apparently includes the ability to import 3D models, although this isn't available in the English version yet. Currently, ComiPo! is obviously designed for making school gag manga like Azumanga Daioh (four-panel gag manga is the first layout in the menu of preset page layouts), but if they start adding more 3D models, and more ability to adjust those models, the sky is really the limit. There's a lot more they could add to it, but the foundation is sound.
It took me about eight hours to complete a five-page comic in ComiPo!, inspired by the recent case in which an American citizen, flying to Canada, was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography due to some dojinshi he had saved in digital form on his laptop. (You can find more about the case here.) Speaking of creating comics with ComiPo!, I have to mention some murky copyright issues: the ComiPo! user license promises that ComiPo! "will not make any copyright claim" against the comics you make using the software, but it also says that you may not copyright or trademark any visual representations of the ComiPo! characters, and you may not "create any product or provide any service" which incorporates ComiPo!. So basically, ComiPo! won't try to make money off the comics you make using their software, but you can't make money off them either. I have more of a problem with the other fine print in the user license, which says that you may not use ComiPo! "by means against public order or morals." Really? So we can't create horrible, obscene, filthy manga with ComiPo!? I have to tell you, ComiPo! staff, I tried to break this part of the user license immediately. On that note, please come out with a set of yaoi character designs and removable clothes in a future update, so that I can make the ComiPo! manga I really wanted to make. I'll be waiting.
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Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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