Diary of a MAD Job Revisited: Part 3!

September 3rd, 2014 | Posted in MAD Magazine

Once the pencil roughs are approved with the gang at MAD, I can move on to the final pencils. This is the stage where most of the hard work occurs. The first thing I do is transfer the roughs on to the final boards. I do this by blowing up my scans of the roughs to 200% of original size, and then printing them off on 11???17 paper. In the case of a splash, I have to use the 13???19 paper and print the image in quarters, then trim and tape them together. With the story pages, a typical row of panels fits an 11???17 page and I print each row separately. I then use a large, home-made light table to redraw the roughs onto the final boards. I just do very quick sketches at this point, to get the basic shapes and panel layouts on the boards.

I have my reference printouts strewn all around me as I dig into the final pencils on the bristol boards with a mechanical leadholder and an HB or F 2mm lead. Here I need to work out the drawings fully including backgrounds, caricatures, etc. How long this takes me depends on how I am drawing at the time… sometimes everything just flows off the pencil and it’s almost effortless, but sometimes I get stuck on something and it drives me crazy. I will whip out several panels very fast and things will be moving along, then I get stuck on a particular body or hand or some other element. For some reason I can’t translate what I see in my head to the paper. That’s when I need to walk away for a little while and come back fresh. It can be very frustrating. I once set up a heavy bag in my basement and went in and boxed with it to clear my head, then it occurred to me I was smashing my drawing hand over and over with all my might into an 80 pound leather bag of sand… this did not seem smart to me, so now I just go and throw rocks at the neighbor’s dogs for a while.

Usually by this time my previous procrastinating and/or the usual distractions of working in my home have tightened the deadline somewhat, so endurance now comes into the equation. I don’t knock off after dinner every night, but spend one or two late nights working the final pencils up. Not too late at this point… those nights are coming. The pencil stage still demands too much focus and concentration to pull all-nighters.

Final pencils on Strathmore bristol
click for a closer look

I work my drawings up to provide a good base for inking, but don’t add every fingernail and hair follicle… some drawing needs to be left for the inking. I am still very insecure about inking, so my pencils are probably still too tight for their own good. Inking is at it’s best when the inker actually draws with the ink, rather than trying to duplicate the line qualities of the drawing itself. I’m still a little intimidated by the permanence of the ink (White-Out cannot bail you out of everything) so I do more work with the pencil than I need to.

At this stage I am still brainstorming for background gags. Many of the ones I came up with in the roughs I keep, but some I dump and come up with new ones. I try and reference other pop-culture elements or famous people/images that relate to the subject. My favorite sight gags are either total non-sequiturs, or ones that play on current events. Adding Dick Cheney with a shotgun in the background of any scene in the woods, for example, was begging to be a sight gag when the hunting incident went down (see: ancient history). Will Elder filled his panels for MAD with sight gags in a technique he called “Chicken Fat”, squeezing gags into every available space. I have always considered that a highlight of the MAD experience, and try to follow suit. I do try and avoid the easy “sign” gags, though. Sometimes I use them, but I prefer a real sight gag, which makes people think a little.

Concerning caricatures, at this point I am drawing them all the time. Typically I will have to draw the lead characters in a parody between six and a dozen times, at different angles and with different expressions to match the action. Naturally it’s impossible to have reference pictures of each person doing just what I need them to do at the angle I need them in, so many of the caricatures are ad-libbed. The way I do this is I try to pick out what is really important about the subject’s features… the head shape, the mouth, the eyebrows… whatever makes them unique. I then follow through with these elements as anchors in each drawing I do. Along the way, I have several “keystone” caricatures of each character. The keystone caricatures are detailed ones I did from actual reference from the film or TV show. This way, it makes the ones I fake in between more convincing. Of course, if I blow the keystone ones the whole house of cards falls apart, but unless your name is Mort Drucker you can’t win them all.

I also draw the final pencils with bleeds on all panels and page edges. For the outside bleeds, I draw and extra 1/4 inch past the panel edges so at print size the production department has a 1/8 inch bleed to work with. In the gutter between panels, I just draw a line down the middle of the space and draw the panels to the line. Sam Viviano taught me that trick. It’s just important to remember this is wasted space and not to put anything important too close or into this bleed area or it might get lost. You might also notice that I leave all the word balloons drawn in. I will be inking their borders by hand and coloring around them. I never saw any logic in drawing, inking and painting areas that will never be seen. With the bleeds I understand the need, but unless there is some question as to the placement or sizing of the text, I include the word balloons in the final art.

Once I am done with the final pencils they are ready to ink. In very rare occasions MAD wants me so send them parts of the final pencils that might need review… usually only if we changed something drastically from the roughs at the first review stage. Honestly I cannot remember the last time that happened. If everything is a “go” then it’s on to the inking!

Tomorrow: Inking a go-go or scratch-scratch-scratch-SPLAAATTTT!


  1. Thanks Tom! I have read these (maybe the older versions) before on the blog, but I always enjoy a refresher on the behind the scenes of a Mad assignment. Good luck on the 8-pager. Can’t wait to see what deserves/requires an old school amount of Mad page real estate!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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