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