The use of black areas in comic books
I was never really a big reader of comic books when I was a kid. I've become more interested in them as an adult, and now that I'm working on one of my own, I'm enjoying learning a bit about comic book art and the unique aspects and challenges of the artform.
One of the most easily recognizable aspects that makes comic books unique is the way comic book artists traditionally use areas of black ink.
It seems pretty obvious how the use of black areas in composing comic book panels came about...I'm not an expert on the history of comic books, but it seems apparent that the first comic books were either printed in black and white, or with rudimentary flat color (because that's the only kind that was available with early printing technology).
Because early printing had such limitations, the first comic book artists faced certain unique challenges. Artists traditionally rely a lot on color, tone and value to give dimension, depth, drama and texture to their artwork. Working with just black and white makes achieving these things more difficult. And artwork that lacks dimension, depth, drama and texture can be pretty dull indeed! When you're trying to tell an exciting or dramatic story, those elements can come in very handy.
So it seems like the use of black areas was the only way for early comic book artists to get those things into their drawings in a way that could transfer to the printed page.
Comic book artist Michael Cho wrote a great handout a few years ago that explains the uses of black ink in traditional comic book inking very concisely and clearly.
Years ago, I discovered the Belgian artist Franquin and became a fan of his early work.
I was excited when I found out that they were going to reproduce Franquin's artwork in black and white in a series of books called "L'Integrale." However, when I looked at the artwork reproduced without the color, I was surprised that the work didn't "read" as well as I thought it would (I apologize for the scans, the books are thick and don't squash flat on my scanner very well).
Now, don't get me wrong: I love his work and, even as line art, it retains the charm and appeal that first attracted me to his drawings. But I had always found his work very clear and easy to follow in color, and looking at the black and white versions, I found it took more time to look at the images and discern what was happening in the panels.
Here are a couple more pages, with the finished color versions for comparison:
You can see from these examples that color adds a lot of form and depth to the panels. It's very easy to distinguish objects from each other and read the backgrounds because of the great color work. In color, everything is separated and distinct.
As Michael Cho pointed out, that's one way blacks are typically utilized: to separate objects from each other for clarity. Clearly, Franquin didn't use black that way. I assume that he knew his pages would be seen in color, and so didn't feel the need to use black to separate everything. In these pages, Franquin is using black areas sparingly, mostly only to add drop shadows beneath the characters and to fill in areas of local color (by that I mean that if a character has a black shirt, Franquin colors the shirt black).
He may also have had an aesthetic reason for being so sparing with his blacks: the more black you add to an image, the more heavy and dramatic it starts to feel. So, because his Spirou comics were meant to be comedic, maybe he consciously avoided an excess of black area to keep the panels looking light and fun.
By contrast, years later, when he did a series called "Idees Noires", he used black interior lines and textures extensively on his figures and in his compositions. The whole point of the series was to portray darkly funny ideas, so the use of more black areas may have seemed like a more appropriate choice for the material. By comparing these examples with the Spirou pages above, you can see how much depth and texture black can give you and the effect it can have.
As I said, the more dramatic the tone of a story is, the more the use of black can help in giving the panels a feeling of mystery and drama. Will Eisner is still considered the master of using inky black areas in "The Spirit" to maximize that effect.
Jordi Bernet's "Torpedo" series is set during the 1930s and features gangster stories with a very film-noirish tone. The use of black is used very effectively to create a sense of mystery, drama and danger (similarly to Eisner's work on "The Spirit").
Modern printing has made it possible to use a much wider range of colors and print them in any shade and value. As a result, some modern artists seem to rely more on color (rather than the use of black ink) to separate the objects in their panels, create shadows and establish mood.
John Romita Jr.
And then again, some artists still use black in a more traditional way.
There's no right or wrong approach. I always like to see artists use traditional methods when it works for them and abandon traditional methods when it's not the best approach for the story they're trying to tell. I think too often (and I'd say we're especially guilty of it in animation), artists follow conventions for no other reason than because we're simply following techniques that have been established by the artists that came before us. I think we should always question our techniques and ways of working and be willing to adapt and change as we discover better ways of working, and as technology offers new avenues to explore.
Here are some other pages by contemporary comic book artists to compare the use of black areas:
J. Scott Campbell