A hand-crafted book, complete with pink plastic window

When I set about making the new chapter of The Ragbox, I knew I wanted to make something with more of a handcrafted feel. The reality of the market is that my little books might sell decently in local comics shops, but they’ll never move in a traditional bookstore. At only 20 pages (or 16 pages with the last book) the books have to be staple-bound and thus have no spine. If the books are not on face-out, they’re completely lost in the shelf. So, all the better reason to make a more personal, more unique object.

With the previous book, I started designing with a die-cut in mind. However, the more research I did, the more I realized how daunting it was to do a decent job of it. In order to keep costs reasonable, I realized that the cut would have to be a simple shape: a circle, most likely. By why just cut paper? Why not use it as an opportunity to throw in some additional color?

Design

The inspiration was simply an window envelope, the type that bills are mailed in. Having never worked with that type of plastic material before, I ordered three different kinds of from Amazon, ranging in thickness: wrapping paper-type cellophane, a thicker cellophane sheet, and a professional lighting gel. The latter seemed like overkill, but it turned out to be just the thing. The lighting gel plastic is far more durable and the wide assortment of tints allowed me to get a closer color match to the printed pinks.

Getting comics made is, in large part, an exercise in time management. The deadline for the completed book was the M.I.C.E. show in September. In about three weeks time, I had to test the materials, design the cover and back cover, get it to the printer, check the proofs, get the final prints, then cut, glue, dry, and re-flatten the entire print run.

Line Olsson did the line art for the cover, of course, as she was the artist for the whole chapter. I can’t draw worth a damn. The tasks were divvied up so that I’d create the concept, which she would turn into a finished page, which would then go back to me for coloring and text elements. We didn’t have a solid idea at first, just the vision of a pink cellophane circle. So I created a reference sheet for ideas. As you can see, some of the references contributed a lot, while others just served as a color suggestion or a feel I wanted.

A loose series of ideas that helped me brainstorm for the cover composition

Line nailed it. No surprises there. But a black and white cover doesn’t sell books, and it’s not as much fun to look at, either. I’d never really done color work before (the lacking of shading or a definable light source probably gives me away), but I knew black, yellow, and pink would be the right combination.

The cover as it was printed

I also left myself an “out” in the design. Because I’d never used a circle trimmer before, I had to factor in the chance of failure. However, I didn’t want to pay for the printing of an unsalable book, so in the place where the translucent pink plastic was to go, I colored the area in pink. That way the intention of the design would at least be approximated. Fortunately, I was able to make the trim & glue process work, but it’s good to have a back-up plan.

Trimming

Fiskars circle cutter did the trick. Once the tools and materials were in hand, the finishing work took about two evenings to complete. The first step was trimming the circles in the cover. If you’re trying this project, be sure to use a self-healing mat. It not only saves your surface area from getting scratched up, but helps the blade to stay sharp longer. When using a circle trimmer, the paper has a tendency to shift around, which can create a mis-aligned and ragged cut. To prevent this, I wrapped the book around the edge of the self-healing mat.

Prevent the paper from shifting around

This particular trimmer allow you to lock the blade into a position pretty securely. It’s not a particularly precise tool, but at $30, what do you expect? It took some trial and error to get the diameter right, which I did on dummy copies of the cover.

Setting up the paper trimmer

Glueing

The pink plastic lighting gel arrived in a 20 x 24-inch roll. These were cut into 2 x 2-inch squares, carefully handled to avoid fingerprints. I had no idea how to glue the plastic to the paper in a way that would last, but also in a way that wouldn’t warp or bleed through the paper. I contacted former Boston Comics Roundtable member Matt Reidsma, who has made some really gorgeous handmade comics. He recommended PVA glue, the old standby for librarians everywhere. Former Ragbox alumnus Joel Christian Gill chimed in to recommend using flat strips of paper rather than a brush to limit the amount of glue. Very clever! The paper stock I used for the cover had almost no absorbency, so any excess glue just dribbled out from between the paper and the plastic gel.

PVA glue applied with strips of paper rather than a brush

Once the plastic gel was affixed and any excess glue was wiped with a damp paper towel, the books needed about 8 hours to dry.

A firmly glued-in-place window

Flattening

All this manhandling of the books had the unfortunate effect of making the spines pop open. Staple-bound books are hard to keep flat at the best of times. Classic Graphx, the printer, scored the paper before binding it, but now I had to re-flatten it to make them look their best for sale. Fortunately, I have a book-press that I designed and built a few years ago for just such an occasion. This is another project all on its own, but it was fun to build and damn useful if you make a lot of books on your own. Read the tutorial here.

Homemade book press comes in handy

Cost

Should you choose to do something like this yourself, the financial cost of the project is largely determined by the printing specs, not the other materials. The number of books, the number of pages in each book, the paper quality, the printing technology, and negotiations with the print company all factor in. That will run anywhere between $1o0 to $1000, roughly. By comparison, the circle cutter, lighting gel (or similar material), and glue are negligible – maybe $50 in total. The real cost here is the time. As if writing and drawing and printing a comic isn’t time consuming enough, further handcrafting can feel onerous. I did this because I thought it would be fun and my print run was quite small, only a 100 copies. If I was printing 500 or more, I probably would have looked into professional die-cutting. Be sure you allot yourself enough time to hit your deadlines and don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s only in the doing that you’ll find the book you want.