The Art of Production

One of my favorite images from 4CP's fantastic gallery of blown-up comic book panels.

I always love the Four Color Process blog but they blew my mind with their expansive appreciation of old comic book print production last week. I try not to urge people to read blog posts too often because of the information overload we all suffer but you probably should read this over your bowl of cereal tomorrow morning.

I’ve always hated the art world’s obsession with the Benday dots and Moiré patterns of old, cheap printed material. Roy Lichtenstein’s reprehensible plagiarism is the worst example but his legacy is even more insidious. My first corporate publishing job was as a comics editor at a mainstream children’s magazine. By the time I arrived their art director had already appropriated the Benday dot pattern as the major design motif of the comics section so there was no getting rid of it no matter how much nausea it caused. To that art director, dots equaled comics and that was the end of the discussion. It didn’t matter to anyone that speech balloons, thought balloons, verbal sound effects, and sequential panels themselves (not to mention the actual literary value of comics stories themselves) were the more significant and pervasive contributions of comics to the culture-at-large.  Lichtenstein’s obsession with printing limitations managed to further diminish the cultural currency of an already critically diminished art form.

People often try to take my Lichtenstein hate down a few notches and that’s fair enough. Why waste emotional energy on an intellectually bankrupt plagiarist who never had an original idea when I can instead focus on the often brilliant innovations of the real artists he ripped off? And, as 4CP has taught me, why allow that legacy to turn off my appreciation of those printing limitations, which did manage to create an art form even if Lichtenstein and his admirers weren’t intelligent enough to recognize it?

As John Hilgart points out in the essay:

Gone are the page, the frame, 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.

John forced me to realize that I have internalized this appreciation of the accidental art of the four color production process for many years in my own design work, in my love of other designers and artists who similarly get it, and heck, even my choice of this blog theme. I’ve spent many hours trying to digitally replicate the visual nostalgic power of a beat-up, aged, disintegrating, off-register comic book, turning cold, flat-colored designs into ostensibly vintage bookstore relics. Check out Jim Rugg’s fine work as an example of this done right. If you love books, and if you love comic books particularly, then you love the four color production process.

John explains:

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 frame taste deeper.

Many more insights, and hundreds more MSG-filled images in the link.

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