Screentones, Hal-Con, Thieves & Kings

I’m just back from Hal-Con, where I was helping man the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia recruiting table. It was an interesting time. There were some good costumes, though I found the cosplaying at Animaritime the two years I was a guest there to be less self-conscious, more playful, somehow.

Anyway, over in the vendor’s room there were a number of people promoting their comics, both print and web. A couple of Halifax-based comic artists there were Rich Morris and Josh Rodgers. Dave Howlett was there too with his new comic Slam-a-rama.

For me, though, discovering Thieves & Kings was the highlight of the con. This is a great secondary world fantasy graphic novel series, by Mark Oakley. It began in 1994, and by now the story is out in several book-length volumes and still going. The style reminds me of the art in Nausicaa (the manga). The storytelling is great. Most of it is in conventional panels, but every so often he has a section of narrative, one or several pages, with illustration just framing it, as though it’s an illustrated fairy tale, to use his own description. I really like this combination. It allows him to fill in the backstory or to carry the reader forward to another point in time. As anyone who has read the Torrie books knows, I like framing narratives. (Not to be confused with the illuminated manuscript effect of the art framing the narrative!) Come to think of it, there are frames in The Warlocks of Talverdin II, III, and IV, as well. We’re using a framing narrative in the Storyteller manga too; actually, in the manga, there are three layers of storytelling going on: we the creators are telling the whole story of Ulfleif telling the story of Moth telling the story of the escape of the devil Ulfhild-Vartu. Working out how to do that visually (since thus far we’re not using Mark’s technique of full pages of narrative) has been a fun creative challenge.

Unlike the toning issue, which is a creative challenge, but not a fun one.

Best of all, I had a long talk with the author-illustrator of Thieves & Kings on various aspects of his art, most crucial of which to report on here is … of course … toning. We went through all the steps Connie and I had followed in generating our less-than successful tones, and concluded, well, actually, that we shouldn’t have ended up with the bad moire we did. (I prefer to call ours argyle, anyway. Or just plain plaid.) Also, Mark observed that 600 dpi is actually a fairly low resolution to be printing manga at, which I’m going to think some more about, but that’s beside the point for now. (Point – pixel – pun, heh heh. Sorry.)

Although he couldn’t pinpoint the source of our problem exactly — we ruled out resizing, anti-aliasing, compression, etc, etc, all those things I knew I wasn’t doing as the file travelled through PhotoShop, InDesign, and Acrobat, something Mark said in discussing his own digitally-generated tones gave me an inspiration. He was talking about the lpi (lines per inch) he used for different types of tones, and all the numbers he was mentioning were much lower than what I’d been using. So … home to develop some new tones for our pattern fill.

My steps thus far:

– fill a 2×2 cm square greyscale file (600 dpi as this is what it will be printed at, or that’s the plan, anyway) with the desired shade of grey.
– convert it to bitmap mode using halftone screen. (Note, this isn’t the filter thing, but an option that’ll come up when you change the mode of the file to halftone.)
– do that change using 600 dpi and an lpi of 45 or 53. I’m trying both, as 45 is a number I found recommended online somewhere for doing screentoning in Photoshop and 106 lpi is what the publisher will print at (53 is half of that, which suggest to me a nice even division of lines). I had used 100 lpi in generating the earlier tones, and that, I suspect, may be part (dare I hope all?) of the problem.
– make sure it’s round dots and not square.
– make sure there is no anti-aliasing on, though I don’t think that’s actually possible in a bitmap. (You might end up with irregular edges if you put something anti-aliased into a bitmap, though.) Generally (see the earlier post on anti-aliasing in colour on colour text), I find it’s best to have anti-aliasing as something you only turn on when you actually need it for something specific. Saves nasty surprises and fuzziness where you don’t want it.
– save that as a pattern. I’ve been making long pattern names that code what I actually did, the shade of grey, etc.
– I tested this by drawing some black outline blob-shapes (in a greyscale file), filling them my new patterns, turning that all into bitmap mode using the 50% threshold, and printing on both our laser and inkjet printer. Hey presto, no moire. However, and that’s a big however, I didn’t get moire last time either at this stage … I think. But I have a good feeling about this.

Possibly unwarranted, of course.

But bloody-minded hope in the face of all reality so often seems to be what trying to make a living telling stories, in any form, is all about.

Please note: I don’t actually know if this will work and will solve the problem we’ve had. It will be some time before we can get a test printing from publisher’s printer to find out. If you’re experimenting with digital screentones for print yourself, please please please don’t assume that I know what I’m doing or that these numbers and this process will generate moire-free results!

Caveat toner.


About KV Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and the forthcoming Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at
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One Response to Screentones, Hal-Con, Thieves & Kings

  1. KV Johansen says:

    Well, all that, and after discussing the problem in detail with the publisher’s printer, we’ve been told that they simply can’t print screentones. They didn’t go into the technicalities of why, but my guess is they do in effect re-halftone everything, 600 dpi and 106 lpi to start with or not, and that creates the argyle / moire / plaid interference pattern. On the other hand, we’ve decided that we can do pretty good continuous tone shading, so why keep on attempting to imitate something that was intended to print efficiently and cheaply under completely different conditions? We’ll do what will look best with the technology we’ll be using. So … onwards!

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