Sunday, December 23, 2012

Comic Book Inking and the Use of Black Areas

First off, I'd like to say that I apologize for not posting as much in 2012 as I'd like. I will sincerely try to do better in 2013. I still love writing posts, but it takes a lot of time and energy and I've definitely used much of the energy I used to put into the blog to work on my graphic novel over the past two years. Speaking of which, this post is about comic book artwork and observations from someone who is not all that familiar with the history of comic books and comic book artwork in general, so forgive my naivete when it comes to talking about this stuff. Somebody more knowledgeable can correct me where I go astray...

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.

Jordi Bernet

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

Darwyn Cooke

Jeff Smith
Andy Kubert

Greg Capullo

Mike Mignola


Pancho said...

No sin city examples?
Thanks a lot for another insightful post.

Unknown said...

Awesome post. Thanks

Alex said...

Might wanna check out Charles Burns to, he's a master of this sort of thing.

will krulee said...

Awesome post! But how could you bring up this subject without any Alex Toth examples?!

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for the comments. I know everyone has their favorite artists...but just to clarify: most of the examples I picked were to illustrate how modern artists use black areas in conjunction with modern color printing. It wasn't really meant to be an exhaustive list of comic book artists.

Thanks for the input though!

Joakim Gunnarsson said...

The earliest comic books, like Famous Funnies, used reprints of newspaper comics to flll their pages, and they were originally meant to be seen in black and white. So I guess that when orignal stories were produced for the comic books they followed that route.

However, when I do a comic book page I usually add spots of black to the page to make it more visually appealing. I think Toth once called it "color proofing" (?). So no matter how bad the colorist was, the page would still look good and appealing in print.

iPhone Application Development said...

Really very nice information. Great job. I love these all comics.

CS-Cart Development said...

Thank you for your feedback. I know everyone has their favorite artists ... but just to clarify: most of the examples we have chosen to show how contemporary artists were black pieces used in combination with a modern color. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of comedians.

iPhone Application Development

Luca Carey said...

This was sort of enlightening because I've always preferred my darks with a lot of texture and I tend to prefer the dark and dramatic. On the other hand, I highly dislike black inks couples with saturated colors. Color holds are a must for me in any good comic art; otherwise it just looks like they're maintaining a tradition and throwing all objectivity to the wind.

Anonymous said...

Frank Miller's "sin city" is a somewhat awful example of BW usage. It's not even really good, it just was weird and different, so it helped the sales, conjointly with the name "Frank Miller".

The over-reliance on high-contrast B/W makes it look as if every "scene" is being lightened by a lightning bolt. It's even somewhat hard to look at, if feels as a super-bright screen from very close.

And in some panels you even take a little while to make sense of what's supposed to be depicted there, even after you get used to it. Sort of like that classic "gestalt" picture of a Dalmatian dog that isn't obviously a Dalmatian dog at first sight, but just random black spots all over.

IMO the priority should be "image-readability", not "coolness". Unless you deliberately want to confuse the reader for a moment, but that won't usually be for a whole story.

Better examples of B/W art in comics can be found in the horror comics from the 70s and 80s. Wally Wood is one of them, but there were quite a few Hispanic and Spanish guys who were also really good.

They may not have been as good storytellers/"sequential storytellers" as Frank Miller, but their picture-makin/"single panel storytelling" is/was superior. These are not quite the same thing.

I'm not speaking about crazy photorealistic detail here, just plain "readability". You look at, and you know what it's depicted instantaneously, no need to figure it out.

PS.: I don't hate Frank Miller, or Sin City. I just think that visually all his stuff prior to Sin City was superior. It would have been simply amazing to have something like he did with "dark knight", but with some gray washes instead of watercolors for Sin City.

It wouldn't have looked so strikingly different, though. But it would have been way better, pictorially.

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