Sunday, October 18, 2009

An Examination of Black &White

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.



ptoing said...

This was a nice read.
I totally agree with you about computer coloured stuff. Esp. the Image style, I can not see that anymore, lasso-select, gradient-fill, done. EVERYTHING IS SHINY!

I for one equally like well done full colour, and well done black and white, esp when it shows that that is what it was meant to be, no b/w gone colour stuff, which more often than not fails.

Helm said...

I like full color when it's not illustrative, realistic, like movie posters. I mean, I respect that tremendously because it takes amazing skill to pull off, but if everything on the panel is explained to me, then there's no part for me to play in the reader - artistry interaction. Like, Moebius circa early to middle run of Blueberry straddles that line very often, and then we goes and does awful, just awful photoshop color reworks of past black and white masterpieces and I don't know what to think anymore.

ptoing said...

I don't think he actually did the super horrible Photoshop stuff himself (like the new DiFool book he made), but yeah.

There is a new french only "autobiographic" series from Moebius, very loose style, simple photoshop colouring it seems, but there it works. It's all very basic. Then again I would probably prefer that in plain b/w too.

Chris said...

A darned interesting look at comics without color, and I completely agree with the opinion that a masterfully done black-and-white comic would not benefit from color at all. I find the aesthetic of the ambiguous and impressionist approach to b&w comics striking and stark, though I think there's something to be said for taking advantage of detailed line work as well. Put together well, the differing approaches contrast to fascinating effect.

I believe one of the strengths of black and white is the ability to allow pure line work to stand out, though perhaps detailed line art may be less engaging as far as artistic interpretation goes. There's nothing wrong with a simply stunning work of line craft, however, and craft is art as well.

Helm said...

As a fan of meticulous linework, I often succumb to vices that decrease the strength of my artwork. The more lines one uses the less the thing will turn out cohesive, some times. Especially with high-contrast work like shown in this post. But I am I and I can't pressure myself to draw like Breccia or Munoz, I can only do what comes naturally.

Thank you for your comment.

time said...

i think Munoz's is not done right many flaws must be better examples like will eisner

Markus Rosse said...

Interesting post and comments. There is really a vast area of styles. Realistic and abstract, in both colored/toned and b/w only. I don't have a big expertise on comics, but in my experience pictures benefits the most if they are left in their original form and are created with pushing the limitations to the maximum (like in pixelart, heh). If that is done properly, a coloring (or grayscale/bw conversion) can only be (in the best case) faithful or (like in most cases) worse.
You posted a example of a bad conversion, please let me post a faithful one (in my opinion). Akira, Original is black and white with comic tones, recolored for a first german release. I scanned both the b/w and colored one and made a quick GIF comparison:

If I remember correctly, this was one of the first mangas which appeared in the german speaking area. Maybe they thought a pure black&white comic would not sell enough (like you said, Helm, reptilian brain maybe), so they did a very expensive recoloring of the original. I say this because Akira is maybe a exceptional case, but a good coversation can be done if you put enough effort (and money) into it. Not that you denied it, I just wanted to give a positive example. I hope you don't mind :)

I'm reading mostly mangas (online scanlations) these days and I saw a small selection of techniques how to use comic tones. I don't really like the ones with heavy texture often seen in shojo mangas (for example in clothing). I prefere simple drawings with crosshatching and tones for distinguish different levels of darkness (in popular shonen mangas like One Piece, Vagabond and the like). My absolute favourite technique-wise is Miyazaki Hayao's Nausicaa, with Moebius like drawings and simple tones to create different levels of darkness.

I don't know many real black&white comics, only a very artistic one and if I remember correctly, it was way harder to read than the popular linework+tones comics. Do you think that's because of the panel arrangement/spacing/composition or is it because more abstract black&white drawings ARE harder to read?

About your own comics. I just looked again throuh your comic book and I see you only (mostly?) use very organic tones instead of simple ordered dither (25%, 50%, 75%, ...). Is that a pure stylistic choice, personal preference?

Helm said...

I won't say the Akira coloring is bad, but the toned version still stands more formidable in my opinion. It doesn't detract from it but besides marveling at how someone would sit there and remove comic tone in photoshop and replace with colors, it doesn't add much to a comic that was made for black and white.

Yes I use either grain tone, airbrush it in manually, or a selection of as you aptly describe them organic textures. I dislike square ordered dither very much (looks like checkerboard... haven't found once where it seemed applicable to use) and although sometimes ordered round halftone is useful, I've instinctively learned to keep away from it because of the dreaded Moire effect.

This happens when you resize ordered dither. Whereas I can and have used it at 600 dpi without resizing it in the least and it does print out at perfect resolution without any Moire, when I make a comic page I might - for artistic or economic reasons - at the end decide to print the page at a slightly smaller - or larger! - resolution. And that's where disaster strikes.

So from the point of view of application and longevity of the art that yearns to end up on paper, not just on the screen (where a simple antialiased and filtered resize will make the tone revert to just gray without much moire) I've experienced that ordered dither that is given to Moire patterns is more trouble than it's worth.

In fact if I ever need an ordered round dither, I'll just use an opaque, clear gray shade of the desired value on a different layer and keep the photoshop file like that and once I've decided on the end print format, *then* I go into photoshop and revert the gray layer into an 1bit bitmap with photoshop's option for turning it into halftone, and it will most likely print fine.

But even that might be more trouble than its worth.

Thanks for the discussion and feel free to ask for any additional clarifications.

Markus Rosse said...

Ah, thank you. I haven't thought about Moiré patterns, makes perfect sense now. While doing the Akira example I made a black&white conversion and experienced exactly this phenomenon while using uneven zoomlevels in photoshop.
I just browsed through your old process posts:
As you can see I try to create a pure binary bitmap copy for printing [...] which at this day and age isn't very needed because even the cheapest digital black and white prints you can get are grayscale. However I do this because a) it pleases me and b) when you have to print comic tone, it really still matters if you want to avoid moire patterns.

Another question if you don't mind. I don't remember the whole process (sorry if you already wrote it) but when doing work for print, do you work in the actual 1:1 print resolution or do you work bigger and then resize it? When I had a short comic course in my school they thaught me to work in A3 and then resize it to A4 because a) it's easier to work in big and resized it looks better and b) because when you have a exhibition the A3 looks more impressive. Interestingly enough I did my comic in A4 because of deadline reasons and then blew it up to A3 for the final exhibition ;)
How do you handle it normaly?

Helm said...

I usually work at double-res if I've got the time (so an a3 page for an a4 print). But a lot of the time I just work at native a4 size.

For this comic I do the pencils on a4 (well actually I draw on a3, but on an a4 crop so I don't have to worry about edges and stuff) and then I scan it in and ink on an a3 600 dpi scale. Which is why the comic is very detailed. The end print will be a4 though.

I don't know, even for exhibitions, I kinda like how compact and full a4 pages look. It's a prize to be able to step back and see the 'holistic moment' of the page on a4, I find.

I've experimented with various sizes. For example Technodrama was printed in... a1

Generally I suggest you work smaller for pencils, then photocopy these pencils in blue and do either final pencils or straight to inks on top of that. The reason is that we draw better when we draw small, at least for motion, body language etc. Sometimes you might draw a little thumbnail of something and you'll find it's full of life with its few lines and symbols, and then you'll struggle to reproduce it at a bigger resolution, so don't. Just blow it up and work on top of the thumbprint.

Markus Rosse said...

Thanks Helm, I enjoy reading your experiences.
Small thumbnails (or generally small drawings) are indeed interesting. I think Arne Niklas Jansson likes to call his thumbnails fuzzy, which is a nice description I think. The vagueness really lets your brain make your own pictures. The picture your brain creates might not be exact or detailed, but it just feels great and important (like you remember a breathtaking dream, but you can't remember it exactly, just the feeling you had is there).
Well, just some thoughts. Thanks again for your time for writing out all these thoughts and experiences.

Conceit Arturo said...

I just wanted to tell you that I really really loved this one blog post, I am really interested in this stuff yet I know almost nothing of it, I would LOVE to see anything else you have to say about B&W at all.