The comic life

Most of the software I review in Mac Gems fills a clear need; in other words, I can usually imagine someone out there wanting the software’s specific functionality for their daily grind. Today’s Gem isn’t one of those products—I just can’t see someone saying, “I desperately need to be able to make comic book pages from my images!” But there must be people like that, somewhere, and our Macs are more fun now because of them.

I’m referring to Plasq’s $25 ($20 education, $40 household) Comic Life 1.0.1 (   ), which is an amazingly clever app that lets you easily make comic book pages, or even an entire comic book, using your own images or drawings as panels. If you’ve ever used iPhoto’s Book feature, Comic Life is very similar except that all of Comic Book’s layouts look just like pages of a comic book.

The first step in making your own comic book is to choose your “paper” size and layout. (Comic Life’s Page Format dialog includes presets for everything from standard paper and photo sizes to Web page, blog, and iPhoto Book layouts.) Then the fun starts. A page templates box to the right of your “drawing space” includes over 40 different comic page layouts—a single panel, multiple panels laid out in various patterns, picture-in-picture panels, and more. You simply drag a layout to your first page and the page takes on the attributes of that layout. (You can use the Details tab to customize your layouts, including the fonts used; you can even save your custom settings as a new style.)

Comic Life Layout

Once you’ve got a layout, you need images, and Comic Life provides access to your entire iPhoto Library right there in the main Comic Life window. By default, you see your full image Library, but you can also browse by Album using the Album pop-up menu. If you’ve got images on your hard drive that aren’t in iPhoto—such as sketches or drawings you want to use for cells—you can click the Finder button to browse the Finder instead. In either case, you get resizable previews without having to switch to another application. Once you’ve found the right image for a cell, drag it into that cell; it’s automatically cropped to fit. To change the crop, just drag the image around within the cell; resize handles on the edges let you zoom in and out. Finally, if you want to rotate the image within the cell, a handy rotation tool appears in the center of the image.

(I should add that whenever you perform actions in Comic Life, comic-appropriate sound effects can be heard. For example, resizing an image within a cell results in a cute “stretching” sound. You can disable these sounds if their novelty wears off.)

Now that you’ve got a cell “painted,” you need some verbiage. The bottom of the Comic Life window includes a number of different text bubble designs, including ones comic aficionados will recognize as whispers, exclamations, and thoughts. There’s even an “extension” bubble, which can be added to another bubble to link the two, and a caption box for narrations. Drag a bubble to a cell, position it to taste, and then type your text. You can resize the bubble to fit more or less text, and the Bigger and Smaller buttons in the toolbar let you adjust the text size. You can even move the bubble’s “tail” to the right length and angle.

Finished Page

A nice touch, especially if you're designing an action-oriented comic, is the requisite “sound effect” badge, which allows you to graphically express your sound effect of choice—pow, smack, thud, etc.—and then resize and distort the graphic for the intended effect.

You can add additional pages to create an actual comic book, or limit your creation to a single strip. Alternatively, if you’ve got an album in iPhoto that you want to turn into a comic, Comic Life’s Quick Comic feature lets you choose the album, a layout, a stylesheet, and a page format, and then creates the entire comic for you, sans text, using what it determines to be a good combination of page templates—you just need to add text bubbles and captions. This option is a bit like Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” search—it may not be exactly what you wanted, but it’s interesting to see what turns up.

Once your comic creation is complete, you can print it, as you would expect, but you also have some other nifty options. You can export the comic as an HTML file with images; as just images (one image per page); as a QuickTime slideshow (each page is a slide); or as an iPhoto album—if you designed your comic using one of Comic Life’s iPhoto Book layouts, exporting your comic book to iPhoto means you can then order an actual printed copy! Alternatively, if you have a .Mac account, you can publish your comic book to the Web using your .Mac account’s Web space.

Comic Life also includes a good number of layout-related features that let you tweak spacing, text, styles, layouts, and even cell borders, so even more advanced users will likely be pleased with its capabilities. But regardless of your level of design expertise, you’ll surely find Comic Life to be fun. It's one of the coolest products I've seen this year.

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