Pixeling in the Retrosphere

Creating a Comic Book on 1980s Hardware

Pixel Art Comic Project by Marin Balabanov

V. Pixels all the Way

Pixeling the Main Comic

Full of energy and enthusiasm I started with the very first panel. It would be the scene setting image with a large title. At that time, I still wanted to call the story "The Elephant in the Room."

A False Start

I imported the scanned contours of trees, drew a coast line and a horizon, drew a logo like title with an elephants trunk acting as the letter "t", cleaned up the lines, meticulously pixeled all the colors and dithered all the shaded only to realize that...

This was all completely pointless. This was a false start. The scene is not set properly by showing a horizon with a sunset and a coastline without any of our characters. And I also realized that the title "The Elephant in the Room" is not suitable. To a certain extent it reveals the punch line. But most of all, it does not ring true. While the phrase "The Elephant in the Room" usually refers to an important matter at hand that is always overlooked or deliberately avoided, it is simply not suitable as the story's title. I am not sure where the darn elephant is, but most definitely it’s not in the room.

I therefore had to abort my work, scrap the panel and start again. It did pain me quite a bit to discard a passionately painted picture, but at least I can share it here in the project documentation.

A false start - first image

A false start - second image

Figure 36: The roughly colored version of the unused opening panel (left),
and the finished version of the unused panel with the unused title and logo (right)
(Source: MarinBalabanov)

Drawing Panels

This time around, I'd adhere more closely to my sketched out thumbnail layouts. The establishing shot should show the main characters of the story and their location in a clear manner. Additionally, it should have sufficient space for a title. I planned the panel to show our players standing next to the forest then the referee will later release the mouse.

Then I proceeded panel by panel and page by page to work my way through the story.

The method was always rather similar: I copied the scanned elements to an empty image in NEOChrome, resized and pasted them where they belong. I filled in the gaps in the lines and cleaned up the contours. I filled the contours with the main color of the element (e.g. the contours of the referee’s hair are filled in red, the mouse is filled gray). Then I added the dark tones that create the shadows and shades in the shapes. This was followed by the highlights. To make the transitions smoother, I dithered the colors across each other. After another round of clean-ups, I anti-aliased any starkly contrasting contours.

Drawing the comic in NEOChrom - Image 1

Drawing the comic in NEOChrom - Image 2

Drawing the comic in NEOChrom - Image 3

Drawing the comic in NEOChrom - Image 4

Figure 37: Pixeling a panel from the initial coloring and shading to the lettering
(Source: Marin Balabanov)


After making another round of little adjustments like adding and removing a pixel here and there, I started lettering the panels. This was slightly more laborious than it would be using a more modern paint application, because NEOChrome does not have the concept of layers. Every letter and word will irreversibly cover the background it is placed over once I finish entering that line of text. I therefore needed to estimate the room necessary for each speech "bubble" and caption, then draw the necessary boxes to "reserve" the space. Then I selected the smallest legible font in NEOChrome and typed the dialog and captions into the available space. More often than not, this went well.

On several occasions, I had planned for too little space in a panel and had to start the lettering over again. Text handling is definitely not NEOChrome's strongest feature. The smallest font in the application produces odd spacing between the letters. I therefore had to manually adjust the spacing between every individual letter after typing them. In some cases I also changed the shape of the letter to make it better legible.

Compositing the Page

NEOChrome only allowed me to draw images of 320x200. This is an approximately horizontally rectangular aspect ratio. A full page requires two of these images stacked over each other. I could not do this in NEOChrome. So, whenever I finished the two halves of a page, I imported them into a different application: Invision Elite Color. This is an app developed with the successors of the Atari ST and STE in mind, the far more powerful Atari Falcon and the Atari TT, but it nonetheless ran on the Atari ST and the STE.

The version of Invision Elite Color I used was released in the early 1990s and was targeted towards print designs that used the Atari computers for desktop publishing. I never got the hang of using Invision to draw and paint, but the feature I wanted to use was its capability to create images of an arbitrary resolution.

In Invision, I created a new image with a resolution of 320 x 400 and then I pasted the two halves of each page together and saved them in the IFF image format.

Finishing the Comic

The old saying goes that every journey starts with a single step. Once the journey of pixeling each panel and every page was underway, I learned to complete each step faster and more confidently.

After around three weeks of on and off pixeling during free time, I finished the comic story. The journey was nearly over. Happily and proudly I could say: The project is finished.

The finished comics pages

Figure 38: The finished comics pages. Let's take a look at them in detail in the chapter after the next.
(Source: Marin Balabanov)