Happy Birthday 4CP

The 4CP gallery will be one year old on May 1, and it now contains nearly 300 images. The blog seems to have become, accidentally, the only repository of its kind. Exactly what it documents is an open question, but I think that it is as "finished" as it will ever be at this point.

I never would have predicted that it would become as popular as the Comic Book Cartography gallery, or that I would pursue it to the extent that I have. It has been a real pleasure, largely because there were enthusiastic people out there who made themselves known. I took it more seriously because they did. I'm grateful for that. Thank you.

4CP Coffee Cups

No, I'm not selling them, but it's easy to find a local place that will put a family photo - or anything else - onto a t-shirt or mug. Or you can use an online source. My brilliant wife surprised me with a gift of four of the cups pictured above. They use images from the 4CP gallery that weren't sized for cups, and they look great. Subsequently, I made a few images that were sized specifically for cups (8.5 x 3.5 or close to it), or I paired up a couple of images that went well together. I've also put frames from the Comic Book Cartography gallery onto cups for friends, and those are pretty spectacular too.

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

Full-Page Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. - 1968

This is a large scan of the next-to-last page of "Strange Tales" #168, May 1968. Several details from this issue, including one from this page, are posted here: http://4cp.posterous.com/91-to-94-jim-steranko-1968

We thought it would be worth posting the whole page as a outstanding example of the almost lithographic quality of vintage comics, printed with the old process on cheap, chunky paper.

If you roll over the image, you'll see an option to "download full size." If you click on this, most browsers will actually open a new page displaying the image full size. We recommend that you do this, and dive in.

Praise for 4CP

Thanks to everyone who has enjoyed our gallery.

Art blog Four Color Process... blows up comics panels, and finds the truth about life in benday dots. And it’s a whole lotta truth.

Pop! Pow! Palimpsest! Four-Color Process, a sublime tumblr of comic visuals.
- Matthew Battles on Twitter

As a subscriber, I've been enraptured.
- Jonathan Lethem

Each post... reveals the beauty of the ink lines, the textures of the paper and of course the distinctive color halftone screens that are the hallmark of cheap four-color printing. The images are cropped with great artfulness, and manage to find moments of quiet and restfulness within a style of artwork that has always been about frantic motion, kinetic energy and physical action. Some of the pieces look downright still, as if they were somehow captured from the hidden moments that occur between panels. Even better: clicking on the images reveals high-resolution versions of many of them, where you get an even closer look at the fine details of the substrate and the effect becomes even more immersive.
- Khoi Vinh @ Subtraction.com (http://tiny.cc/ua74m)

This summer, we lamented the wrapping up (after the 100th post) of the terrific blog Comic Book Cartography. But the CBC’s cousin, Four Color Process, is hitting its stride now — and it’s just as amazing.
- Joshua Glenn @ HiLoBrow.com (http://tiny.cc/juw9s)

4CP was featured in the July, 2010 issue of British design journal "Creative Review": http://tiny.cc/vdlxw

Jim Steranko and Four-Color Process, 1968

These four details are taken from “Strange Tales” #168, May 1968. 


Jim Steranko’s 1967-1968 work on “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was a unique combination of Marvel’s previous innovations, commercial design, and pop art – the latter having borrowed from comics just a few years before Steranko borrowed back.

Utilizing halftone, photographic collage, and psychedelic effects – both in his inking and in the color designs he guided – Steranko leveraged everything at his disposal in the comic book medium. Kirby, Lichtenstein, and Warhol are all in there somewhere, along with layouts scented by aftershave ads and liberal cribbing from other comic book creators. Perhaps a great artist, but not a realistic illustrator, Steranko tended to emphasize the flatness of comics even when he piled on the detail. It is design not illusion, dynamic yet inorganic.

All of these factors make Steranko a fascinating case when considering four-color process in the history of comic books. He clearly had an interest in solid colors, embracing rather than running from the limited building blocks of the process. He also freely acknowledged the divide (and the arbitrary yet essential relationship) between the line art and the lurid color that process printing smacked down on top of it. Many of his panels use color as an illustrative element, completely separate from the black ink beneath it. His art was only "finished" in the printed comic book itself.

Steranko’s early work systematically exploits the same aesthetic forces that the 4CP gallery foregrounds as defining elements of mid-Century comic books generally. In 2010, when vintage comic book art is reproduced in crisp, acid-free, book format, the original reproduction of Steranko’s art begins to look and feel closer to fine art lithography. Forty-year-old pulpy reproductions may in fact be the definitive editions, anything else being a cheap approximation.

- John Hilgart