In Defense of Dots: The lost art of comic books

A photograph is a universe of dots. The grain, the halide, the little silver things clumped in the emulsion. Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event.

This is what technology does. It peels back the shadows and redeems the dazed and rambling past. It makes reality come true.

—Don DeLillo, Underworld (1997)

From the 1940s to the 1970s, comic book art and comic books were the same thing. In the decades since, the art of comics has been carefully separated from the original physical conditions of its reproduction. Elevation of the 20th century art form has resulted in the erasure of the 20th century mechanical processes that enabled comic books to exist and thrive – for ten, twelve, fifteen, or twenty cents, millions of times over.

It was an economic bargain that significantly defined the aesthetic terms of comic books: cheap paper, cheap printing, and four-color separations that could not hide their limitations. These accidental aesthetics governed the experience of comics for generations, were appropriated for fine art in the 1960s, and today fall into the “retro” category of graphic design.

Four-color process and mid-20th century comic art have gone their separate ways – one travelling as a computer-assisted simulation of archaic print culture and the other as computer-assisted art books, featuring crisp black lines, bleed-free white paper, and “reconstructions” of the original colorists’ designs. There are no stakes in privileging one comic book reproduction format over the other, but there is no denying the difference between the two.

One way to think about the art in the 4CP | Four Color Process gallery is as an examination of this difference. It tries to minimize what we think of as the content of comic books, while radically magnifying the four-color process itself. At their original size all the images in the gallery would cover a few square feet of printed comic book space. Blown up to monumental proportions, many of these minute fragments could fill a two-page spread.

Gone are the page, the panel, the plot, and localized contextual meaning. What remain are the color process and what are generally called the “details” of comic book art. These are the two lowest items on the totem pole of comic book value – poor reproduction and the least important, most static elements of the art itself. Our proposition is that these elements are important and aesthetically compelling.

Who is responsible for this art? At the level of a square inch of printed comic book, no one was the creative lead. 4CP highlights the work of arbitrary collectives that merged art and commerce, intent and accident, human and machine. A proper credit for each image would include the scriptwriter, the penciller, the inker, the color designer, the paper buyer, the print production supervisor, and the serial number of the press. Credit is due to all of them, to differing and unknowable degrees, for every square inch of every old comic. The hand of fate created this art, and it guides our hand as we search for 4CP images: We move a tiny Ouija board pointer across mid-Century comic books, looking for beautiful ghosts.

Comic book creators fought a constant battle to give depth to an insistently flat medium. There is always, by default, an absolute limit to what we can see in the art – the last black line, the final detail – beyond which there are only fields of color and paper.

Color was an ally in creating depth, while four-color process was an enemy. Bleeding below the black lines, it could not match the level of detail of the artwork. Rather than creating a continuous perspective, it at best established a finite number of planes, rarely an illusion of space to match a good artist’s line and shadow work.

However, in the decisive, paradoxical twist, four-color process created a form of depth even as it fought against illustrative realism. Whereas contemporary reproductions of mid-century comic art are truly closed and flat, old comic books are visually leaky and deep. Four-color dots perforate the flat surface of the universe, opening onto nowhere – some uncharted cosmos.

At the same time, the dots provide the visual experience of granular detail that the art itself cannot. Every detail is more detailed, while realism is systematically undermined.

Crucially, this perforated universe and molecular level of detail are unintended and have no intrinsic relationship to the illustrative content of comic books. Four-color process delivers surplus, independent information, a kind of visual monosodium glutamate that makes the comic book panel taste deeper.

Or, more provocatively, four-color process ensures that two separate universes – out of register with each other – constantly coexist on the comic book page. Some theorists wager that desire and meaning reside in the space of difference – of discrepancy and unexpected metaphorical relationships. What can’t be pinned down is a promise that can’t be exhausted.

Perhaps the irreconcilable visual universes of four-color comic books function the same way, creating a whole that is never the logical sum of its parts. Perhaps four-color process was essential to comic books’ wild success not simply because it was cheap and colorful, but because it catalyzed them into visual crack.

Dots emit radiation. As you get closer to them, they begin to vibrate and pulse. Moving closer still, the color separations become dramatically separate: Solids become very solid and the black ink holds together, while the CMY dots fly apart. Foreground and background, positive and negative space, reverse unexpectedly. Orange, green, brown, and fake gray give up their secrets, and the basic building blocks of a universe reveal themselves. Unstable molecules, built of primary colored atoms, buzz at different frequencies. Vectors of visual force, experienced implicitly at original size, become intense. Behind everything is wood pulp paper, a still deeper layer of creation, with its own unstable properties.

The images in the 4CP gallery attempt to isolate and exploit the unpredictable energies of the four-color process. We seek panels within panels, where a balance can be struck between motion and stillness, uncontrolled radiation and a compositional containment field. Cut free from context and the intrusion of elbows and speech balloons, the comic book subconscious becomes the speaking subject.

The illustrative content of the 4CP gallery generally fails to meet the terms on which comic art has risen from junk culture to (almost) high culture in the last 20 years - the brilliance of particular artists and the possibilities of sequential art. Think Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Chris Ware, dynamic motion, control of time, film technique, innovative use of (or destruction of) the panel, etc.

Most pages and panels from old comics don't rely on that kind of dynamism. They are just static illustrations alongside speech bubbles and a box of narrative copy. People stand around talking a lot, in offices, homes, headquarters, streets, and blank spaces.

These panels are what we might call diegetic – the mode of storytelling in which events and information are summarized rather than enacted. The realistic conventions of the day required not that detail be reduced to that which was organic to the shot, the mood, the sequence, or the story, but that a complete Hollywood set be built for nearly every panel, with changes in location and perspective as often as possible. Rooms are furnished, city blocks constructed, people created - and everything colored - for precisely one panel. 

The classic comic book panel is an overstuffed box of visual information that is the functional opposite of disciplined sequential art. It doesn't compel us onward to the next panel; it invites us to sit down and stay a while. The point where narrative essence gives way to supporting information is hard to define, but terming the latter “detail” understates its consequence in the visual encounter with comic books.

In the mid-20th century comic book, millions of details undermined sequential art time by making readerly time infinitely variable. Details – along with the color process – provided textures, way stations, and destinations for the eye. Choose your own adventure. Find your personal fetishes in the nooks and crannies. Comic book art’s backwater of purely instrumental and often arbitrary visual information was the horizon of meaning, the place where the reading experience became most individual. The tightly controlled wish fulfillment strategies of plot were unhinged by free-floating objects of desire – the details just out of reach, gazing back at us through the electrical field of process printing.

To paraphrase Delillo in our epigraph, the 4CP gallery attempts to peel back the shadows and redeem the dazed and rambling past of comic books, making their reality come true: eternal moments, radiant with unspecified meaning.

John Hilgart, December 2010

46 responses
As art dances away from the mechanical process of the 21st c. it still represents an ephemeral universe of dots, even in vector.
This is a very nice bit of writing. I really appreciate the work that went into this. Cheers.
Hi, i got a blog in spanish obout graphic design, typography and print. I love this article and i really like to know if i can translate this.
This image, like the car over America, speaks unconsciously and un-self-consciously about the history of the world since 1945. I love the images you've "curated" for this page. The essay is brief, but excellent. BRAVO
this is the best thing I've read in a month about comic book art
Very interesting essay … the infinite recursion of the printed image is dizzying. Today's North American comix ethos of cultivating storytelling over artwork will not lend itself to such a nostalgic exercise in 50 years, methinks
great article. There is definitely an aesthetic draw to printing, paper stock, etc.

As an artist that's done his own printmaking and matrix creation, selections in those factors can do a LOT to increase the aesthetic appeal of a piece. As a reviewer of collected editions, it's often hard to make a call on a particular volume.

It's amazing how divided the comics community is on the subject of how to treat reprints.

There are so many factors that come into play - the artist's original desires, historical value, the original presentation, the fact that some artists worked assuming that original presentation but that they may have changed it if they could have - or even aging artists questionable changes to their past material (neal adams, etc.)

Fabulous essay: a compelling point poetically made. I love the wildly evocative language. I feel the same way about old video tape. There are unintended effects created by the limits of the technology that provide all sorts of touched and bent spaces for the viewer to get lost in.
I love your collection here and intro, and have reblogged it here: Thank you so much for your research and ideas here, its something I've often thought about, but never expressed.
You've given us a truly beautiful reflection on the power in those ephemeral bits and pieces of comic book images.

You've taken me back to my childhood: sitting on the basement floor in the half-light of a naked light bulb, poring over my older brother's comics, and losing myself in the spaces between an off-register line and the field of red Benday dots behind it.

Thank you. I've found my new favorite blog.

Thanks for posting this. I've felt the same way about the recent Golden and Silver age reprints, but never had time to articulate exactly why. Publishing the old Chemical Color palette on nice paper without the dots looks worse than torreneted scans of the same material. Restoring these old classics for a new audience (digital or print) ain't easy. Lots of intuition, intelligence and passion go into every little decision ... because there is no little decision.

David Marshall

John--just iscovered this than to Facebook! Haven't even read it all thru yet! But, as the author/designer of the coffeetable comic book history book The Silver Age of Comic Book Art (, I'm all about those DOTS vs. current printing modes; here's what I wrote in my preface: "...artists whom I think rank among the greatest American artists of the 20th (and 21st) Century. Artists for whom there has never been a coffeetable book celebrating their work, the actual printed comic book art as it was transmitted and perceived by the readership, printed with ben-day dots on cheap newsprint—not the black and white original art, as beautiful as it is; that’s production art, as far as I’m concerned. And certainly not the recent spate of reprints, which, though they serve a noble purpose, remove the original coloring and replace it with garish colors on harsh white paper. I wanted to create the first true art book about the art of the comic book artists of the Silver Age of comics. Now it is true, that most of the comics in those days were poorly printed, with mis-registrations rampant; yet there is also something beautiful about them, too, and in trying to capture the integrity of the original printed art while also “cleaning” it up, I assumed the more accurate role of art restorator: not recoloring, but retouching..."
This is my favorite essay on the whole www. I tried to spread the good word whenever I could. Brilliant!
great essay!!
"There are no stakes in privileging one comic book reproduction format over the other"? I think there are, if only in "heating up" (Marshall McLuhan's term) a "cool medium." There is less room for the imagination to fill in the tactile image. Cartooning becomes overdetermined.
Donald, I'm not confident I understand which format you're praising!
I really love your posts and as an artist I appreciate how you dig into the details and see thru the real world of the art. :)
Please contact me by email thank you
Hi, Carlos. How do I contact you by email?
Fabulous stuff. You set a standard probably no-one has lived up to yet, John. I somehow managed to forget to link here when I did a post about 4-colour & comics some months back. It was Part 3 of my mammoth History of the Ben Day dot. Have now corrected this oversight, Also tweeted and facebooked the link.
PS I have more to come on Ben Day in the comics specifically.
PPS Since the URL didn't show itself it is here:
Guy Lawley! Your research and articles are great! Mostly new information for me. I couldn't figure out how to get in touch with your directly.
Love it!
Great essay. The story telling in comics exists as much in white space of the gutter as it does in the panels themselves. By zooming in to an Ant Man perspective you remind us that the effect of the coloring is also made as much by the white space as the dots themselves. I worked in the comics biz when the four color process was all there was. It provided a subtlety that can't be reproduced. Most attempts to recolor classic comics are doomed to failure. They use the old comics as a guide but the process is so different it just doesn't seem right. Or they attempt to recolor the old pages using a modern aesthetic and it looks all wrong. Inkers now step back and let the colorist do part of what used to be their work. It sometimes looks great -- but of course it's not the same process and doesn't work for the four color jobs. Thanks for a great article.
First I am a total comic book fan. Too young to have any of the original art that is depicted in this article, but have held them in my hands. 2nd I am a print producer. I have procured and printed peoples designs over the last 16 years and I have to say, never has someone been able to articulate that which is the hidden world in printing until now. I am elated! When I have trained people to work under me in this business, my very first love has always been to give someone a loupe, and to watch as their eyes widen to see the "code" that is hidden in a 4cp printed photograph. It makes me a giddy nerd! Love love love this! So much I shared it by copying the link from my browser. Wish I had waited and shared from the page. But hey, it's out there.
I apologize for not responding to comments in a while. I am overjoyed that my archaic, aesthetic pleasures are shared by others. Everyone, please feel free to contact me for further communication and support at
Great article! I often feel Photoshop has ruined comics art by making it much more sterile, and less alive.
Revisiting your site to enjoy the images again, and while trying to crystallize ideas about the "comic book aesthetic." my latest post is up at - Part 8 of my history of Ben Day dots - looking at the lost art of Craftint Multicolor, which replaced the Ben Day process in the comic books of the 1930s. Lots of line tints!
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