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Comic Printing 101: Understanding the Basics of Comic Book File Setup

    Comic Printing 101: Understanding the Basics of Comic Book File Setup

     Over the years, we’ve encountered a lot of disgruntled comic book creators whose files were sent to the press by their printers despite having layout discrepancies.

    Let’s just say that the results of their print runs with the wrong specifications were nothing short of heartbreaking.

    This is the reason why it’s important to be aware of the technical side of printing a comic book to avoid problems down the line.

    Setting up your comic book files for printing in itself is actually a lot simpler than it would seem. Dealing with Trim, Bleed and Safe lines isn’t that difficult, but it’s very important to know the technical aspects behind it to avoid disrupting a print run and wasting hours in file revision.

    So, whether you’re a professional comic creator, self-publishing indie or creating comic books for fun, understanding the basics of file setup is essential.

    Basic File Setup Guide

    Because most comics are saddle stitched (staple bound), this will just be a basic guide and won’t cover other types of comics. Perfect bound (PUR) and hardcore cover graphic novels require a slightly different approach when it comes to creating print files.

    For a more realistic example, we have also taken a page of comic art, which is not perfectly laid out to the page size. We did this for two reasons. Firstly, to better demonstrate how the different Trim, Bleed and Safe lines work. Secondly, because we know from experience that many people are so busy bringing their stories to life and that they only consider how to print right at the end of the creative process.

    Paper Size

    Before anything else, you need to choose the size of your comic. US Standard (6.7″ x 10.2″) is the most popular, while Manga Standard (5″ x 7.5”) and UK Standard (6.2″ x 9.4″) sizes are less common, while some people prefer print typical industry print sizes such 8.5″ x 11”, 5.5″ x 8.5”, A4 and A5.

    In this example, we are going to look at US Standard, although the Bleed and Safe areas are typically the same regardless of your chosen paper size.

    What is Trim?

    Let’s start with the Trim line. This is where, in a perfect world, you would want the page of your comic to finish. When working on your layout, be mindful of where your Trim lines are located, because there is always a margin of error where your layout is printed and cut. This is why we have a Bleed area, which exists outside of the Trim line and a Safe area, which exists further inside of the Trim line.

    What is Bleed? 

    See the part of the print file that’s highlighted in red?

     This is the Bleed area and this is where the blade typically falls outside of the Trim line during the paper cutting process. Basically, you need your artwork or background to extend into the Bleed area, while expecting most of this area to get cut off. If you don’t have a Bleed area and the printing machine cuts your paper where the Bleed should be, you’ll end up with a white edge from where there is no ink on the paper.

    Why does this happen? This is because print is more art than science. While we’ve become accustomed to uploading artwork to exact pixel measurements online, printing machines cut hundreds and thousands of sheets of paper to size in a manufacturing process, which is not so precise.

    This cut can be affected by many things such as paper thickness, finish and the set up of the machine itself. All of which can cause tiny shifts in where the blade falls.

    Anyway, Bleed is the printing industry term for any solid color that extends to the edge of the paper. To create a Bleed area, you simply add 0.125” outside of your Trim line, to the top, bottom, left and right of your design.

    Creating Bleed protects you from printing errors as it helps ensure that your comic book design will fully extend to the edges. Imagine if you print your file in its exact final output size without adding a bleed area and the printing shifts your layout by a few millimeters? You’ll definitely end up with a blank white paper peeking on the edge of your page.

    This is why it’s crucial to not put texts or images near the Bleed area, because it could be at risk of getting cut off. You can see in the photo how the tip of the speech bubble at the top of the page is likely to be chopped off!

    What is a Safe area? 

    While your biggest concerns will be your Trim line and Bleed area, the Safe area is also important, because the cutting blade could also fall inside of the Trim line.

    You can see the Safe area highlighted in yellow on the example print file.

    How big you want your Safe area to be is completely up to you. Some people place their Safe line the same distance as their Bleed line inside from the Trim line. But we recommend that it is 0.25” inside of the Trim line, just to be “extra safe”.

    Due to mechanical variations in printing, where the blade falls could occur anywhere between the outside Bleed line and the outside of the Safe line. See what I meant about printing being more art than science?

    Don’t worry though, this is to allow for small shifts in the alignment of the paper as its stacked high on large print runs and put through the guillotine. The dimensions of the paper and your design will always be consistent, but the alignment may move slightly in one direction during the print run.

    So while you should expect the cut to fall within the Bleed area. It is advised that you keep all your important texts and images inside the Safe area as a precaution.

    Tips in Setting Up Your File

    Here’s a quick summary of everything we’ve gone through and recap of all the lines and areas on the print file itself.

    • Always expand your design to cover the Bleed area and prevent the appearance of irregular white borders from cutting.
    • The Bleed area starts at the Trim line and finishes 0.125” outside of the Trim line.
    • Keep the important parts of your illustrations and texts inside the Safe area.
    • The Safe area begins 0.25” inside of the Trim line.
    • Don’t forget to turn off the template layer before sending to print!

    About the Author

    Adam Smith lives a life of swashbuckling adventure at Mixam – a little print company with big ambitions! And they have been gaining a reputation for their comic printing services ever since they printed the Etherington Brothers’ Kickstarter How To Think When You Draw.

    Artwork by Sires Jan Black.