Cartoonist Jonathan Case (Green River Killer, Dear Creature) has a new graphic novel coming out on this fall called The New Deal, a historical crime caper set in the 30s with a subtext of the class system of the time. Here's an exclusive look at his working process for the book, which fuses digital and watercolor for a sharp, detailed look.

My new graphic novel, The New Deal, is a lighthearted caper set in 1935. It follows the (mis)adventures of a bellhop and maid at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and dabbles in race and class politics. It came from my love for old movies, theater, and New York City (the backdrop for so many terrific stories). I wanted its images rooted in the dreamy greyscale that existed from the ‘30s through the ‘60s but to get there, I had to bring together everything I've learned about making comics.

Ten years ago I drew my books in black and white using just pencils and a water brush full of india ink. I made both Dear Creature and Green River Killer this way. With each subsequent project, from Batman ’66 to Before Tomorrowland, I’ve moved further into the digital art space. The New Deal is almost all digital—with a grace note of watercolor wash which came in partway through working on the book, and ended up being essential.

Drawing in a digital space allows me all the best tools for reference, perspective, and control over my lines. It’s terrific to draw with freedom, making choices with the confidence that you can always undo when necessary. Where digital breaks down is subtlety. To approximate the textures of natural media, you have to expend focused time and energy forcing a set of digital tools to produce what a cheap paintbrush can do in milliseconds. Painting a wash with natural media gives me rich tones I can’t replicate in software. It’s also very fast, and as a bonus, it gives me cool multi-layer pieces of original art with print films resting over my watercolors.

Now we come to how the sausage gets made. There’s no getting around the awkwardness of sharing a making-of for a book that you, gentle reader, haven’t read, but for those who are curious, here’s my step-by-step on The New Deal:

Once the script was in good enough shape that I didn’t trip all over plot holes, I started layouts, created, along with pretty much every other part, in Manga Studio (also known as “The Bane of Photoshop”). Drawing in Photoshop’s like that relationship you had that was okay, but not great, and you didn’t realize how much better things could be until you met someone new—in this case, Manga Studio.


I always place rough word balloons at the layouts stage so I can read the whole thing and refine as I go. Text changed a good bit with final art, as you’ll see.

When I finished layouts for the entire book, then came reference-finding. Lots of reference. The biggest challenge I made for myself was setting the story in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In the beginning, I thought that using a real-world location would make life easier, but I hadn’t considered that a building like the Waldorf has been remodeled and revamped many, many times between 1935 and today. Some things, like the lobby, remained consistent/iconic, or were restored to their former art deco glory, but some things I had to fudge. Either my reference material was incomplete, or I needed to prioritize my script’s action above historic accuracy. Figuring out that balance was an occasional time-devourer, but all in all, those real-world details gave a sense of place I needed.

One of my favorite finds in the research hunt was a genealogy website’s collection of Sears catalogs. They had hi-res scans of everything from the 1890s through present day. Hats, shaving kits, underwear, radios…whatever you can imagine being in somebody’s living space, they had it in the Sears catalog. And just look at those hats!

Here’s a crazy bit: In panel two here, I used Google Street View to replicate the angle of an historic photo of the Waldorf’s entrance on Park Ave. By fusing the images together, I expanded the old photo’s field of view while keeping the entrance’s original design. Add to that a couple period cars (one a photo, one a Sketchup model rotated at the correct angle), some civilians in period dress, ink it all up, and voila, you have 1935.

Thank goodness most panels weren’t that involved.

After doing the inks, I printed a contracted blue line version out onto heavy Bristol Board on my large format printer. Printing in light blue meant I didn’t have to worry about the ink bleeding into my watercolors too much, and I had a sense of how the wash would look once I scanned it in and laid the black ink layer on top.

Here’s the final result, with text in place.

Making comics is always work-intensive, but the art for this book came together at a pretty brisk pace thanks to the fusion of tech and traditional art methods. Slowly but surely, I’m learning what works best in both worlds. Because digital freed me from the usual pencils stage between layouts and inks, I could spend more time getting the ink drawings into good shape. Because the watercolor washes have to be done quickly to look good, I saved time that I would have spent just noodling around if I’d tried to emulate that natural look on a computer. There were places where the digital/natural fusion was a struggle, but overall I’m happy with the results. More important, the variety kept it fun.

Now all those many, many drawings are done, they've been sent to my publisher Dark Horse to be prepped for fall publication. I hope that if you choose to pick up The New Deal, you’ll find all this craziness was in service of a good story.

Plus, now you can hunt for all the Sears catalogue hats.