Below the jump is a spontaneous examination of the properties of black and white comics in contrast to 'comics with implied color' and of course a wonderful excuse to look at the work of José Antonio Muñoz
As a preface I must tell you I am no academic. In fact the subject at hand is the one that proved to me I could never be an academic. I was studying in a Greek school for comics and animation and I was on my third year and I had to write a paper on the attributes of black and white comics, the visual strength of the language, so on. The things I'll very briefly touch on on the below text. As you can see, I'm doing it now, for my own pleasure, but at the time I couldn't find it in me to sit down and write the text 'because the school said I had to'. So I quit that school on the final stretch. I'm not saying this with any pride, just to explain how the below impressions are reflexive and not validated by the academic heavy-lifting of say, writing a 10,000 word piece on it, with 5 pages of awesome footnotes at the end.
In fact, of all the reasons to write something like this, what it took is a comment on the wonderful gaming-and-more Rock, Paper, Shotgun website, about the new comic of Emma Vicelli, which you can read the opening of here. In the commentspace below, the user Dorian Cornelius Jasper said the following:
It’s a shame she’s hid her prettier line art among screentones. It’s always difficult to resist the urge to use tones as for general shading, especially when compared to the alternative of hatching–always a frightening prospect.
Though I find black and white comics, manga-influenced or not, do benefit from playing up their black-and-whiteness and saving the grays for special occasions. Or for scene-setting.
(Come to think of it, a certain Mr. the McKelvie was pretty good at screentones and stark blackywhiteness, both at the same time. Saw it in a comic, I did.)
To which I replied below:
"I do agree over-reliance to comic tone isn’t the greatest idea for a comic not made by a studio. The initial reason comic tone was so widely adopted by the Japanese industry is for fast production reasons. The head honcho would do some vague pencils, hand the page over to the inkers, then over to the comic tone dudes. This is how big Japanese manga studios do 20 pages of comics a week. The reason it’s handy is because the head honcho artist can just write “use screen tone here” inside a hastily covered shape and he knows how, more or less, the end result will look.
Of course 20% inks and 80% comic tone is the aesthetic manga readers have grown used to nowadays, so when it’s used by lone artists, it’s for this reason, that they simply find it aesthetically pleasing on its own. I sometimes do also, sadly not in the case of this – otherwise beautiful and interesting – webcomic.
I strongly agree with you black and white comics should play up their black and white-ness. Ideally (this is what I try to do for my own comics) a good black and white page would NOT benefit from color work. As in, if someone went in and colored it, he’d have problems with the ambiguity of texture and space that the black and white comic used to its own advantage."
And then I proceeded to link to images of José Muñoz, one of my favourite and most accomplished black and white comic artists.
Let's go over this from the top though, for the readers here not intimately familiar with this comic tone business and its artistic implications. Let's look at a few samples:
Here, every filled surface the viewer notes, the grayscale forms and the textures, are all comic tone. They're not real grays, they're made up of small, ordered black artifacts of various permutations (though usually halftone round) that when printed at fine enough resolution (usually 300 or 600 dots per inch) they look like variations of grey or even pre-made textural elements. These tones are cut in the desired shape from a transparent layer and placed in the desired location on the inked art.
Manga artists often go in on the applied tone and rub out areas, effectively moulding highlights on the forms (can be noted above on the bathing suit and the hair). For the purposes of explanation let's think of the above page before it was comic-toned. As I do not have an original, let's just pretend with Photoshop Levels,
(also mentally remove the deep etch jacket patterns)
As you can see, comic tone takes up a significantly large amount of the explanatory and volumetric duties of the illustrations. Without it sometimes it's difficult to tell what something is supposed to be, since the inking supplied is usually just an outline. The inkers employed are fully informed of what the comic-tone artist is going to do next. I submit that the initial premise and introduction of comic tone to the Japanese industry is a technical innovation to help printed comics appear closer to the colored ideal. As it has been often noted, color comics sell more than monochromatic comics, and monochromatic comics sell more that purely black and white comics. It must have something to do with the reptilian brain, if it's bright and shiny, pick it up, if it's black and white, let it lie (and to take it a step further, if it's using the full lightness spectrum, like comic tone lets you do reliably, then it's more interesting to look at than just black and white).
The innovation of comic tone was that it could make work printed out of a purely black and white printer look as if it supported shades of gray. It's a very telling thing also that when celebrated manga artists start a new book in a series, they often debut the first four or five pages of it in full color, as a buyer incentive. This isn't to say that these artists are only doing black and white for speed and because that's how their industry is set, a lot of them seem exceptionally well informed of the properties of clear black and white work. It does say a lot about buyer habits and assumptions when it comes to comics, though.
Of course the aesthetic qualities of comic tone grew into their own even in a deadline-restricted environment as the manga world, as artists experimented with their deployment. Personally I'd rather read a comic with heavy-duty comic tone today than heavy-duty photoshop coloring. There's something pleasing about the carved shapes of the tone and then the rubbed out highlights, and it's something I often do for my own work as well.
However it must be underlined that comic tone often rests in the uneasy between-space of the black and white, impressionist comic art world and the full-color illustrative comics world. When too much explanatory burden is placed on tones, instead of the primary tools of the black and white comics artist (namely, the white of their paper and the black of their ink) then it tends to look like... a color comic someone ran through a grayscale filter. A good test is this: squint your eyes: if you're looking at a gray middle blur of a page, there might be the case that too much comic tone has been used.
Instead, purely black and white comics fully embrace their status as such; Forms are often implied with smart applications of the gestalt principle and the quality of the surfaces, the active texture of the implied geometry is often left in an Ideal plane, for the reader to conjure and apply as they read. This aspect of black and white comics makes the more interactive than fully colored, illustrative ones, I submit. Friend and fellow artist Graham Lackey once said to me "often I think all the surfaces in black and white comics would be made out of a ceramic white substance" which I find very helpful sometimes when I work and I catch myself being obbsessed with conveying a realistic surface "don't bother," says Lackeyghost inside my head "it's all made out of egg shells anyway".
As I said in the initial comment that sparked this whole post, I submit that the black and white comics that arrive to an almost impressionist paradigm through usage of their fundamental building blocks can more easily recognized by a simple test: Would coloring them offer clarification of the forms? Would it increase visual interest or punctuate their design? Most often than not, it's not the case. A startling example is V for Vendetta, by David Lloyd and Alan Moore. It was initially made in black and white, and masterfully so:
and then for the collected book edition they went in and colored it, awfully:
But since we can, let's look at some of José Muñoz's work from his long-running series Alack Sinner for more examples of black and white done amazingly right:
This is early Alack Sinner, highly descriptive volumes, closed forms, could be colored with no increase or decrease in quality.
This is a bit later. The lines are fatter and more expressive. Broken forms leave more to the imagination. Realism slowly drops from the priorities of the artist. A plant is just a collection of abstract geometry, and a parking lot is a white, contrasting, empty form.
Here black and white no longer just dictate outlines and shapes, they also merge with the informational duties others assign to comic tone or cross-hatching or chiaroscuro: the suggest light, compositional focus and direction, flow and emotive cue. What is snow, what is skin, what is cloth, what is brick, they're all one thing, and the other is shadow, darkness.
Sides of books no longer need be explicitly mentioned, the artist trusts the viewer more, more is left to the imagination, yet strangely the scene seems still effectively set and unambiguous.
I could go on and on, but I'll stop here because I have to work on my own comic. Page 23 is going to be finished tonight, and page 19 will be posted tomorrow, as usual. Thanks for reading.