DENNIS WHEATLEY’S ONLY COMIC STRIP

Paula has probably not been seen since its original 1946 printing

The Creative Team

Dennis Wheatley, British author of famed occult thrillers like The Devil Rides Out (1934) was also a writer of conventional crime and war thrillers. In 2013 a number of his books were reissued by Bloomsbury. Neil Gaiman got in on the promotional campaign for this. He told how he had enjoyed being titillated by these perennial bestsellers from the age of ten. Wheatley’s sex ‘n’ satanism shockers were not aimed at children, and most British schoolboys of the 1970s (myself included) were probably a bit older than that when we got into the books.

Gaiman wheatley

Paula   ̶  a crime story set in the world of British movie-making, which ran in the Daily Express from September to November 1946  ̶  was Dennis Wheatley’s only newspaper comic strip.

Wheatley was by this time a well established best-selling author. Paula was actually co-written (possibly “ghosted”) by T.E.B. “Tibby” Clarke, as noted in the Express‘s September 23rd text intro:

Paula intro text 23 Sep 46_72 dpi

T.E.B (Thomas) Clarke was a scriptwriter for Ealing Films, and a former policeman. He wrote Johnny Frenchman (1945) and Hue and Cry (1947). He would go on to write The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (which won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1952) and several novels.

His brother, Brigadier Dudley Clarke, reportedly “did as much to win the war for the Allies as any other individual.” Dudley Clarke was a pioneer in Britain’s military deception operations during World War Two. These involved deceiving the enemy with leaked false orders of battle, dummy tanks & planes and even whole “phantom armies”. Clarke had set up a successful unit in Cairo before returning to London in late 1941 to help create the London Controlling Section, LCS. One of the planning team at LCS was Dennis Wheatley.

Wheatley (born in 1897) had fought as a 2nd Lieutenant in the British Army’s Royal Field Artillery in World War I,  before being gassed with chlorine at Passchendaele in 1917 and invalided home. Despite having documented fascist leanings, Wheatley was patriotic when it came to the 1939 war, and keen to contribute. He had contacts in the security services, but was initially unable to find his way into any war work. His wife Joan worked as a driver for MI5, and through this connection Wheatley came to submit numerous advisory papers to the War Office in 1940-41. This led to his recruitment to the LCS. The web site DenisWheatley.info has this page about his work there; http://www.denniswheatley.info/museum/room.asp?id=8

Wheatley and LCS were involved in the planning of several projects which have become almost legendary  ̶  Operation Mincemeat / The Man Who Never Was, for example, and the major Operation Fortitude, which convinced the Nazis that the D-Day landings were to be well north of their true destination, and was vital to D-Day’s success.

MAN WHO NEVER WAS, THE MWNW 001 POSTER

Wheatley left the LCS in 1944. How he met “Tibby” Clarke we may never know, but the connection with Dudley Clarke and the LCS  seems likely to have contributed. Phil Baker, in his very good biography of Wheatley, The Devil Is A Gentleman, confirms that he had an enduring friendship with Dudley Clarke. “Tibby” is not mentioned, and nor is the obscure Paula.

The third creative contributor to Paula was the uncredited artist, Eric Parker. I found out about the strip while looking up Parker’s work. He has been a favourite of mine for many years, since I started collecting Anthony Skene‘s Sexton Blake stories featuring Blake’s antagonist Zenith the Albino. (Zenith was famously one of the influences on Michael Moorcock‘s sword & sorcery character, Elric Of Melniboné.)

Eric Parker illustrated many of the Zenith stories, both cover art and interiors. These were text stories, appearing from 1919 to 1941 in the various magazines which carried Blake’s adventures  ̶  Union Jack, Detective Weekly and The Sexton Blake Library. Savoy Books republished Skene’s only stand-alone Zenith novel, and have a page on Zenith at http://www.savoy.abel.co.uk/HTML/zenith.html, as does Jess Nevins, http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.geocities.com/jessnevins/zenith.html&date=2009-10-26+22:36:42

My own Eric Parker cover gallery is here: http://www.jacktrevorstory.com/new_page_15.htm

BLAKEvaliantPIC01parker

Eric Parker Sexton Blake illo from the 1968 Valiant Book of Sexton Blake

Parker is possibly best known for his coloured illustrations and comics strips, usually on historical subjects, for Boys’ World, Ranger and especially Look and Learn in the 1960s. The Illustration Art Gallery has a great Parker biography by Steve Holland here http://illustrationartgallery.blogspot.co.uk/2012_07_01_archive.html and some artwork for sale. A personal reminiscence by W.O.G. “Bill” Lofts appears here: http://www.jot101.com/2015/05/the-eric-parker-story-dun.html

ParkerHorseSoldiers

Though Sexton Blake comic strips ran in many venues over the decades, regrettably only a few weeks in the Knockout comic of 1949 were ever drawn by Parker. His other newspaper strips were also few; Steve Holland lists Pepys Diary (Evening News), An Age of Greatness (Daily Globe), Our Gang (Sunday Pictorial) and notably, Making A Film for the Daily Express. I know nothing about this last one except its title. It sounds like a factual account. Perhaps it gave Parker some background for drawing Paula; maybe vice versa.

A Few Technical Matters

Paula has never been reprinted as far as I know. The Denis Wheatley.info site has only this photo of the first instalment:

Paula 01_enh

The version I have accessed, from an online newspaper archive, is taken (I think) from a microfilmed image. The whole page of the full-sized, pre-tabloid paper is represented, and each Paula daily strip is a small fraction of the image, which I have cropped out.

It looks like this (the first instalment):
Paula 01 72dpi

As usual, a slightly larger version can be seen by clicking on the image.

I tried cleaning up some panels, initially thinking I could simply fill in some black areas. This looked pretty awful, with such marked contrast between my blacks and the other snowy lines. So I tried correcting other parts of the drawings too, but found it very difficult work out what was Parker’s ink line and what was an artefact of the patchy reproduction. I could not correct all of the drawing, or the word balloons. After a lot of work I decided it wasn’t really worth the effort:

Paula 01 RT 72

This was another attempt. I really couldn’t decide what was going on with this guy’s left eye, gave up, and blacked it all in. This convinced me I was on a hiding to nothing.

Retouched 02

So, Paula will be presented in Super-Special Snazzy Snow-Vision until something better turns up. Firstly, some observations about individual moments from the strip, then the first two weeks of continuity.

A few thoughts arising from the strip

Tommy Trinder was a successful British comedian of the 1930s and 40s on the variety stage and radio who also appeared in a number of films, including Ealing Studios’  Champagne Charlie in 1944. His catchphrase was “You lucky people”.

TommyTrinder portrait

Given his fame, one might think his appearance in Paula would have been trailed in its introduction. Parker’s caricature is not at all bad, but Trinder’s name on his dressing room door in strip 5 ensures that readers know who he is. In strip 6 he is presumably playing up to his perceived public image when he flirts “humorously” with a young actress.

DETAIL_Paula 05_Trinder smaller           DETAIL_Paula 06_Trinder

The opening panel of strip 1 seems very clumsy to me. Starting in the middle of an argument with the word “Then” is an odd choice. It sent me looking around to see if I had missed the actual opening strip(s), but no, this really is how it starts. It is an attempt introduce Paula herself as continuity girl, but a better introduction of setting and characters should have been expected. I suspect this poor beginning reflects the lack of comic strip experience of both writers.

DETAIL_Paula 01_01

And there is no attempt to explain what the role of the continuity girl actually is. Perhaps all Express readers in 1946 already knew what a vital member of the film crew she is, checking that everything in camera view is just the same between takes  ̶  right down to a stray lock of hair or the length of a partly-smoked cigarette.

In strip 7, Paula’s concern for the “stand-in” suggest Thomas Clarke’s scripting hand:

DETAIL_Paula 07_stand-in

Finally, in the same strip, the lack of sugar in the Turkish Delight reminds us of Paula‘s post-war setting. Sugar rationing did not end in Britain until 1953.

DETAIL_Paula 07_no sugar

The first two weeks of Paula

Paula ran from September 23rd 1946 for nine weeks. It appeared every weekday and Saturday during that period, six strips per week. Most days it was the only comic strip in the Express, though it was occasionally accompanied by a dire “humour” strip called  ̶  no relation  ̶  The Parkers (“by Hodges”).

After nine weeks  ̶  the mystery concluded  ̶  Paula rather abruptly ended. The adventures of the plucky continuity girl were not to be continued. History does not record the whys and wherefores.

And I must ask: if anyone thinks they have rights in this intellectual property, and that I have made anything other than fair use of it on this not-for-profit, historical-informative blog  ̶  please get in touch.

As usual, clicking on the small image should take you to a larger, more readable version  ̶  as readable as Snazzy Snow-Vision is ever going to get, anyway.

Paula Week One: September 23rd to 28th, 1946:

PAULA week 01

Paula Week Two: September 30th to October 5th, 1946:

PAULA week 02

That’s it for now… you lucky people!

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BEN DAY DOTS, PART 3

RGB dots on the screen. CMYK “four-colour” in the comics. Etc.

A201merge

The Avengers, Captain America and Daredevil are Copyright and TM 2015 Marvel Characters Inc.

1. THE INTRO

Some decades ago, before the internet changed this kind of inquiry forever, I got interested in what everyone called benday or Benday dots. There were two reasons for this; I loved the comic books that were supposedly printed with actual (tiny) Ben Day dots, and I loved the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, who was said to have painted giant Ben Day dots. (I’ll go on calling them Ben Day dots from now on, as that was their original name, and because it commemorates the man who invented them — Benjamin Henry Day Jnr.)

Here is a detail from a panel in a DC romance comic — one which Roy Lichtenstein did not borrow. This shows the Ben Day dots used to print our heroine’s skin tone and pale blue eyes… or so you might think.

From Girls’ Romance 81. Art by John Romita.

Many years ago I read in a book or magazine that “The dots you see in the comic books are NOT Ben Day dots” — or words to that effect.

I wish I’d kept that piece, as it went on to explain its seemingly controversial statement. If I had it now, I could quote what it said and be done. Instead I have tried to rediscover the details behind that assertion. And while the internet has been useful, particularly in locating old books, most of my information has come — fittingly enough for such ancient and largely forgotten wisdom — from those dusty old paper pages.

Now I’m ready to tell the real story of the true Ben Day dots.  Including — has this typical lovelorn DC Comics blonde got Ben Day dots on her face? The answer is a very definite “yes and no”.

I will come back to the real, historical Ben Day dots in Part 4. I know, I did promise the full gen on Ben Day dots here in Part 3. But first, I want to look at how the images we see around us today are made. Ben Day dots used to be almost as big a deal as pixels are now. They dominated their field for more than 50 years, from their beginnings in 1879. In trying to understand not only how they worked, but why they were so successful, I found it useful — and fun — to look at their modern-day equivalents.

So, I’m starting with the here and now, before working backwards into the past. This post will look at two other relevant subjects — the RGB and CMYK colour systems — before I get back to the Ben Day dots themselves, and the comic books.

COLOUR IN MANUFACTURED IMAGES

This is what Ben Day dots seem to us to be all about — colour in the mass production of images. But the Ben Day process can — or could (the past tense really is correct here) — be used to print dots of any colour you liked, including black. And while people did increasingly find uses for coloured dots, for decades, every day around the world, millions of black-and-white images using Ben Day dots were printed in comic strips, graphics, advertising art etc. These used the dots to print shades of grey.

From the 1890s, newspapers increasingly used colour as well, as weekend colour sections took off in U.S.. In the colour Sunday comic strips, the dots really came into their own, used to make a huge variety of colours. For example, yellows mixed with varying densities of blue could make a wide range of greens.

The dots below aren’t Ben Day dots from a Sunday strip, though. They are from a 1950s comic book.

green 2

But I am getting ahead of myself. Or rather, behind — in the past. I’m supposed to be working backwards, from where we are now. And where we are now is the world of:

2. RGB COLOUR — RED, GREEN & BLUE DOTS. On a screen near you now.

Most of the manufactured images we see these days (as opposed to the images of the real world coming straight into our eyes) are on TV and computer screens. Most of these screens (some book reading devices excepted) are emitting light from millions of little rectangles called, as we all know, pixels. (Short for “picture elements”.)

Nobody would call pixels a type of Ben Day dot, and quite rightly, though they are doing much the same job as their historic forebears.  That is, they are creating an illusion of uninterrupted colour from a huge number of tiny dots, so close together that we don’t notice the individual elements — or at least, we can forget they are there.

Though today’s screens can show us thousands, even millions, of colours, these are all made up from only three colours of dot, Red, Green and Blue — hence the name RGB. These colours add together to make, for example yellow, which is red plus green. The white part of a screen is emitting all three colours, as seen in this diagram:

220px-AdditiveColor_svg
From Wikipedia

Actual pixels doing this on a real laptop screen can be seen below, photographed at 20-times magnification. (I turned the picture on its side so it looks more like the RGB diagram above):

20X RGB 3

Below are the three RGB colours in close-up, photographed at 400-times magnification from the same screen. They look as if there is too much black on the screen to make a “solid” bright colour. In reality each pixel is of course blazing with light. So what your eye sees is the colour shown in the smaller square on the right:

400X R = Square R

400X G = Square G

400X B = Square B

And below are the colours from the overlapping areas of the RGB diagram, also at 400X. These are known as Cyan (the pale aqua blue), Magenta (the pinky red) and straight Yellow:

On-screen cyan:

400X C = Square C

On-screen magenta:

400X M = Square M

On-screen yellow:

400X Y02 = Square Y

That last one above, as an example, doesn’t really look very yellow, does it? At least, not when magnified 400 times. Try looking at this detail of the yellow part of the RGB diagram (below) at 20X magnification, with its green and red components also shown. How’s that looking? (Clicking on it shows a larger version):

20X Y

Are you starting to see how the illusion of yellow is created? (Getting a bit further back from the screen than usual might help.) It’s an “illusion” in that there are no yellow pixels, only red and green on a black background. Certainly looks like yellow by the time it’s been through your eye and reached your brain, though, doesn’t it?

And this is how your screen shows you white at 400X:

400X white = Square White

And below, photographed at 20X, is the white background behind a familiar blue “e”:

e

Likewise this doesn’t look very white, though you know it “really” is.

And if these enlarged images of “screen yellow” and “screen white” don’t look as if they should really work, that may not be the only thing about RGB colour which seems “wrong”, at least compared to the colour mixes we see or paint on paper.

The RGB model, so familiar on our screens, is quite different from another kind of colour mixing that we also think we know very well… the kind we learned in painting classes. What happened to the famous “three primary colours” we were told about at school?

They are not the Red-Green-Blue trio of RGB, but “The three colours, red, yellow, and blue, that can be mixed together in different ways to make any other colour,” as the Cambridge Online Dictionary says — often shown like this:

Primary colours

Well, those primaries may work (up to a point — see below) on paper or canvas. But these three primary colours were conceptualised by François d’Aguilon in 1613 when the colours of pigments used to make oil paints were the key factors in people’s minds. This was before full-colour printing on paper was even possible; light came from candles, not light bulbs or LEDs, and screens were things you sat behind to confess to your priest. Electricity only entered someone’s life if they were unlucky enough to be struck by lightning.

And the lit-up electric-powered screen is a very different thing from a painting or a print on paper. On a screen we see additive colour, made with transmitted / emitted light, and the three screen primaries are clearly red, blue and green. These three colours add together to make the various combinations — clearly shown in this photo of three spotlights shining the RGB colours onto a wall. (Possibly a little Photoshopped… but an illustration that makes its point!)

RGB_illumination
Thanks again to Wikipedia for this photo

Isn’t that what we do when we mix colours with paint, though, or print with coloured ink on paper — add colours together? Strangely enough, no. What we are doing then is taking colour away — subtracting it. We are taking colours away from white.

White paper is not emitting light. It gets its whiteness from reflected light. The white reflected light is still made up of all the colours of the spectrum mixed or added together, just like the white light where those three spotlights overlap. This is seen when prisms or raindrops split white light into its component colours, and we see a spectrum or rainbow.

prism-spectrum_enh
https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/tag/robert-hooke/

What makes colour subtraction different from addition is that paint or ink put onto white paper absorbs some of that reflected light, taking it away from the white. This is in some ways the opposite of what happens when light is emitted from a screen.

So: on a screen, colours mix in an additive process.

On paper, colours mix in a way which is called subtractive.

Which neatly brings me on to:

3. CMYK COLOUR

The computer screen may bring us most of our images, but we are still living partly in the world of paper, and probably have to print stuff out now and then. Your home or office printer is a place where you will see CMYK colour at work, as anyone who has changed its ink cartridges may have noticed. As with the RGB pixels on screen, the printer uses its own tiny dots to build up images, and a very limited number of colours — in this case not three, but four.

C, M & Y are the Cyan, Magenta and Yellow that we met a while back, where the R, G & B overlapped. K is Black. Obviously. Even if my Epson ink set calls it BK, just to be awkward:

72_ cmyk cartidges

Below is a picture of the Legion of Andy. I have printed out a copy to show how my Epson inkjet printer makes the image.

Legion of Andy

Andy 20X flesh  Andy 400X flesh 02

Above: Andy’s skin at 20x and 400x.

Below: Andy’s cigarette end, ditto.

Andy 20X cig  Andy 400X cig end

As with the pixels, I don’t think anyone would call these printer dots “Ben Day dots.” They are too irregular in shape and pattern. People tend to use the name “Ben Day dots” for neat, regularly spaced, round ones — and they are largely right (of which, more later).

So, my/your printer is using a subtractive CMYK process. And most things printed on a surface — such as paper, but also other packaging materials — will be printed using CMYK (some exceptions will be shown later).

The colour diagram or “model” of CMYK will look fairly familiar to anyone who ever mixed their own paints:

SubtractiveColor_svg

Picture from Wikipedia

In the centre is a black area, where all the colour has been subtracted from the white light by the overlapping cyan, magenta and yellow. In real-world printing, the overlapping colours tend to make something that isn’t really good enough, and black is added to improve the final image. (Some black dots are visible on Andy’s red cigarette end, above.)

As we will see later, in the days of the real Ben Day dot, and in the comics, the black part of the image was even more important. In fact it was known as the “key”, which is where the K for black in CMYK comes from. (Some sources suggest it was called K rather than B so as not to get muddled up with B for blue. This may have been helpful in some circumstances, but since the blue is actually called cyan or C, it is less likely than the “K for key” story.)

In the CMYK system, it is cyan, magenta and yellow which are the primary colours, not blue red and yellow. These are the colours that really can be “mixed together in various ways to make [just about] any other colour,” as the dictionary had it.

4. THE ROAD TO CMYK

CMYK or standardised “four-colour” printing really only arrived in the early twentieth century. Here’s a very condensed version of the road to CMYK:

Pictures and words carved onto wooden blocks, inked, and printed onto paper were probably first produced in China around the year 200. Reusable “movable type” printing blocks, for printing words, were also developed there in about the year 1000 CE/AD. It was in the 1400’s that both these methods came to Europe.

Most pages were printed in black or one colour. Coloured illustrations were usually only achieved by hand colouring, which in larger editions increasingly came to involve stencils. Only a “solid” colour could be stencilled on, with no gradations. A red ink could not be broken up into dots to make pink, for example. This example below, from http://www.prepressure.com/printing/history/1800-1899, is said to be a “nineteenth century penny print” using three “spot colours”:

printing-history-penny-print-jan-de-wasscher

In the very early, experimental days of colour printing, from 1710 onwards, pioneer Jacob Christoph le Blon did use the three old primaries, red, blue and yellow, with black. He engraved four copper printing plates (shown below) by hand for each print, using a mezzotint method — one of the ways engravers created grey tones in B&W prints. This allowed for gradations of colour. But his method was very expensive and time-consuming, and did not catch on.

LeBlon_1738

What took colour printing forward were advances in lithography, invented in 1799, initially using stone printing plates, then metal. The images on the printing plates were still drawn by hand, then etched into the stone or metal with acid. In 1837 Godefroy Engelmann patented his technique of chromolithography (colour lithography) which dominated colour printing for decades to come. In the making of high end prints, for framing on the wall, several colours might be used, including two different reds, two blues, even blended shades of black, for example. Inks could be mixed to suit the job at hand.

This one, “Love or Duty“, an 1873 chromolithograph by Gabriele Castagnola, is frankly just showing off:

Litho 01

By the late 1800s, relatively cheap colour lithography was being used to make large editions of greetings cards and book illustrations. This birthday card from about 1888 is a more everyday example:

litho 05

Newspapers, printing mainly words set in metal type, remained black-and white at this time. They used letterpress printing with metal plates, and cheap very absorbent paper called “newsprint.”

The rotary printing press (using cylindrical printing surfaces, not flat plates) speeded up printing from 1843.

The revolutionary web rotary press — the classic newspaper press with the vast rolls of paper being fed through continuously, and printed on both sides at once — was invented in 1870.

In 1892 the colour web rotary press arrived — another revolution. At first only the big city papers, which owned their own printing presses, could afford the new technology. The first newsprint weekend colour supplements were printed in Chicago in that same year, 1892 — more in Part 4.)

I think this picture below is a web rotary press, circa 1940:

press c 1940 b

For some years, each newspaper’s staff chose which colours of ink — up to four — to use. But as colour printing spread, it made sense for every mass-production printing business to be offering pretty much the same four colours as everyone else.

The standardised cyan, magenta and yellow arrived in 1906, when the Eagle Printing Ink Company of New Jersey introduced a new type of wet process inks, in the CMYK colours. The colours themselves had been around for a while. Now, in an evolutionary process comparable to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” these four colours really came into their own.

Cyan is the name given to a printer’s (or “process”) blue which effectively has no red or yellow in it. (The name cyan was reportedly first applied to a printer’s blue in 1879, the same year that Ben Day launched his dots.)

Here is a quote from Wikipedia about magenta, which was: “…first introduced as the color of a new aniline dye called fuchsine, patented in 1859 […]. Its name was changed the same year to magenta, to celebrate a victory of the French and Sardinian army at the Battle of Magenta on June 4, 1859.” 

Magenta, a.k.a. printer’s red or process red, is quite different from the scarlet, “pillar pox” or “fire engine” red we were given at school as a “primary” colour. I can’t have been the only schoolkid who ever got upset because mixing my red and blue paints made a nasty brownish colour, not the purple I was promised — due, as I now know, to all the yellow in my “primary” red. (Perhaps by now art teachers have wised up to this problem? PLMK!) A variety of pleasing dark blues and purples can be mixed from cyan and magenta in various proportions, without brownness creeping in.

Printer’s or process yellow is similarly a neutral yellow. As shown on the CMYK diagram, “fire engine” or “pillar box red” is a secondary colour in this subtractive colour model. That is, it’s what you get when you mix two other colours — in this case, magenta and yellow in equal proportions.

Speaking of which, take another look at the additive and subtractive colour diagrams below, now seen side by side.

5. CMYK vs. RGB

The overlapping (secondary) colours in the RGB / additive system are the same as the “pure” or primary colours in the subtractive CMYK system, and vice versa — the three pure RGB pixel colours show up where two CMYK primaries overlap. And in the middle of one diagram the colours overlap to make white, in the other, black.

Two models
The RGB colour model (on the left) and the CMYK model (right)

I was fairly gobsmacked when this fell into place for me. It seemed almost crazy, but on the other hand, it helps to show that the two processes really are in some ways opposite to one another.

This may also help explain something that you might have noticed in the real world; getting a coloured image on your screen to print out faithfully is not a straightforward matter. Partly, of course, this is because ink on paper lacks the brightness and vibrancy of a light-emitting screen. And in practice, process cyan, magenta and yellow are not exactly the same hues as you see on your screen. But it’s also because the computer/screen combo and the printer are using completely different colour systems, pretty much opposite to one another. In practice, some very clever software is needed to translate RGB into CMYK.

Where that translation needs to be extraordinarily good is in the world of photography, where a top-quality print is required. But it is also important when reproducing colour pictures in books, magazines, comics and newspapers — and on cereal packets etc..

Which brings me to my next section:

6. FOUR-COLOUR PRINTING WITH CMYK IN NEWSPAPERS, COMICS… etc.

Your printer is one place where you might see CMYK in action in today’s world (for the benefit of future scholars, that is the world of 2015).

Here is another. These images appear on every page of my daily newspaper:

Newspaper CMYK 02Newspaper CMYK

They have been set up to show at a glance if the four printed images that make up the page — still one for each colour, just like M. le Blon in 1710 — are printing well, and are lined up (or “registered”) correctly. The set of registration marks above looks pretty good. The marks below are from a page that is slightly misregistered, with a close-up of the top of the cross. None of the four images is precisely aligned with any of the others here:

News CMYK off reg  News CMYK off reg 3CU

Mass-produced printing has moved on a long way since 1961, when Roy Lichtenstein started making advertisements and four-colour comics his source material. Most newspapers have colour on every page now. In those days, most daily papers were printed only in black and white. The more expensive coloured sections were confined to the weekends, mostly Sundays. In the Sunday comic strips, and in the U.S. comics, printing of this standard (seen here at 20x, an image from few years after 1961, I know) was fairly common:

CA 104 d

Today’s newspapers rarely achieve anything that dramatically bad, and if they do, those pages are unlikely to be let out on the streets. Comics have improved even further than their newsprint cousins, relatively speaking; they long ago ditched the cheap “newsprint” paper, for a start. And they print with much finer dot patterns, giving a smoother look to the artwork. Many have digital / on-screen editions too, of course, or are even screen-only.

But the relevant point here is this: very few of the mass-produced paper media that you will see every day (including the comics and the newspapers) are printed by digital means — unlike the pages you make for yourself with your desktop or office printer. There is an intermediate stage in mass-production, as mentioned above — the printing press.

And while your own printer prints out a CMYK page in one go — all the coloured dots, of all four colours, being laid down in a complex sequence as the paper moves once through the printer — the printing press still uses four stages in printing, one for each of the CMYK colours, one at a time. Four different images are printed one after the other, progressively building up to the full colour version. That’s why the four images need to be very closely lined up with each other. Otherwise the final result is something like poor Captain America, above.

Early comics used metal (letterpress) printing plates, transferring coloured inks straight onto paper — like early newspapers. By the 1950s, most newspapers and magazines used web offset printing, in which curved metal printing plates (stereotypes) carried the inks onto rubber blankets, and the blankets carried the image onto the paper. Printers of comics also moved over to offset printing, but is not clear exactly when they switched. For example, World Color Press in Sparta Illinois, were printing DC comics from 1955, and World Color reportedly started using web offset printing in 1956.

Marvel only switched to World Color in 1969, having printed before that with Eastern Color in Connecticut (as DC previously did too). I have been unable to find out whether Eastern Color ever switched to web offset.

The colours used were (and are) CMYK whichever actual printing method was (is) used.

In 1977, World Color published a promotional comic book showing their web offset printing methods, illustrated by Joe Kubert (see http://ohdannyboy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/the-marvel-dc-crossover-by-joe-kubert.html):

MAGAZINELAND

CMYK is a four-colour process, and everything printed using CMYK is four-colour printing — a name which was often used in the printing and publishing business as shorthand for CMYK.

On the letters page of Boys’ Life magazine for September 1954, Vance Everett of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, wrote to the editor: “You said the Outdoor Code in the March Boys’ Life is in four colors. I counted more than four colors. Who goofed?” The editor replied: “No-one goofed. You have just learned one of the terms of the printing trade. Actually the page was printed with four different colors of ink, skilfully blended to bring out practically all the colors possible. Printers and journalists refer to full color reproduction as four color work.”

But the name “four-colour” stuck particularly to the comic books, perhaps because their crude printing — those dots! that poor registration!— made the process more obvious than the sophisticated half-tones used to reproduce photographs etc. in glossy magazines.

Dell comics published over 1,000 issues of their Dell Four Color Comics between 1939 and 1962, featuring a revolving line-up of characters including Santa Claus, Francis the Talking Mule, and the gun-toing Dick Tracy.

Dell 4-C 96

Dell Four Color Comic no. 96, 1946

Publishers like Dell, fans of comics, and other commentators might use the name in a neutral way — e.g. “four-color fantasies” — but it is also very likely to be found in negative terms like “four-colour nightmares” from the time when comics were being persecuted in the 1950s.

Did I mention cereal packets…? My morning breakfast cereal comes in a box printed with CMYK plus 1 — the +1 is a dark green ink. This is not unusual in packaging. Here’s the cereal box registration mark and a close-up of part of the product’s logo. This shows that most of the green is still made up of blue and yellow dots. Only part of the logo uses the green ink:

Oatibix 2b   oatibix 4

These dots are one kind that people will often call Ben Day dots. “If you blow up a printed picture like this,” they will say, “you can see the Ben Day dots.” This is not true. These are halftone dots, as seen in Part 3 in black & white photos prepared for newspaper printing with a “halftone screen”. These are the modern, colour, equivalents, produced by software rather than by glass screens in a camera. Not Ben Day dots. Different animal.

By contrast, this cellophane wrapper (below) for Swizzels’ Fizzers is only printed with solid colours of black, white and pink, no CMYK at all, and no dots. Also still common in packaging, though much more common in days gone by.

Fizzers

Meanwhile, back at the  the four-colour process, here’s Cap again on the cover of Avengers 201, cover-dated November 1980. The printing of this comic was basically the same as it would have been in 1960. Some details were different, but surprisingly little had changed even since Cap first hit the printed page in 1941! (It was in the 1980s that changes — mostly for the better — really accelerated.)

The next eight pictures are scanned directly from four actual test printouts — “proofs” — sent to Marvel Comics’ art department from the printer for approval. (A few red marks can be seen on the black and white picture, indicating corrections needed.)

To start with, here are the four images in CMYK order:

A201 B  A201 M

A201 Y  A201 black

They are printed on clear plastic (acetate) at the same size as the comic, and are exactly the same as the four steps in printing, if they were done individually.

On the printing press the four individual prints would not be made like that. The order of printing was yellow, red on top of the yellow, thirdly blue added, then black. The acetates were stapled together for the editor to view in this order, on a white backing. Laying the transparent images over each other is just like watching the progressive printing process happening. Hence sets of acetates like this are called progressive proofs. Again, these are real scans of the actual acetates:

A201 Y then A201 Y&M then

A201 no black  and  A201 full .

The Marvel staffer saw the final version first, and could look underneath to view the lower layers if flaws were apparent.

Comic book publishers in those days only viewed proofs of the covers. Making advance proofs of the interior pages would have been too costly and time-consuming. Apart from anything else, these were physical objects which had to be mailed around the country. Imagine that!

Finally, here’s another one I really love, but don’t — alas! — own: the cover of Daredevil 38, March 1968. Progressive proofs were printed on paper, not acetate, in those days, and these were photographed rather than scanned.

DD38_prog_Yellow  DD38_prog_MagentaYellow

DD38_prog_CMY  DD38_prog_CMYK

In Part 4 I will look at how four-colour comics images were produced after the penciller and inker had done their jobs and delivered a black-and-white drawing. Will that — finally — involve Ben Day dots? Again, “Yes and no.” You will , I promise, find out why I keep saying that.

And I promise that Part 4 will bring this essay to an end, and it will contain:

The true and complete history of the Ben Day dot — everything I could find, anyway.

More secrets of the comic book colouring process than you ever thought possible.

And more…

…slightly more.

See you then, I hope.

Posted in Comics, Avengers, Comic-book art, Roy Lichtenstein, Newspaper comic strips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

JIM STERANKO — TOO SIXTIES FOR THE COMICS?

Strange Tales of a Contessa’s Bottom

144_ST 167_cover

The soi disant bon viveur and stage magician Jim Steranko had an innovative and rightly acclaimed run on Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.LD. strip in the late 1960s. It peaked with the last few issues of Strange Tales, then a few early issues of Nick Fury’s own comic. After this Steranko drew two X-Men and three Captain Americas, a couple of short stories, and then, as if in a puff of smoke, was gone from the comics field — occasional covers and sideline projects excepted.

Nice copies of original Steranko comics fetch premium prices these days. Reprinted editions exist, but are of varied quality, especially if you value the original colouring above the modern versions.

Excitement has been stirred in the hearts of Steranko fans recently by the publication of beautiful, gigantic, hardback, pricey “Artist’s Editions” of his Nick Fury strips, each page lovingly scanned from the original artwork — black and white, of course.

But I bring you news of something genuinely rare these days; a real Steranko collector’s item that is well within the means of most collectors. An actual comic-book, by golly.

Firstly, some background:—

Steranko was definitely hip to all sorts of cultural novelties in the sixties and wanted to reflect these in his Nick Fury pages — in both style and subject matter. Plotting / writing and drawing what was basically a “superhero James Bond” strip, Steranko inevitably pushed the comic-book limits not only of derring-do, spy gadgetry, and frankly psychedelic sixties-ness, but also of sexual imagery. Any Bondesque fiction, after all, demanded some Bondish “Babes” — and a bit of love action.

Steranko introduced the Contessa Valentina (approximately) Allegra de la Fontaine (the spelling varies) as a S.H.I.E.LD. agent who becomes Fury’s girlfriend. Possibly inspiring the Black Widow’s introduction in the film Iron Man 2, the Contessa throws Fury to the floor with a judo move during their first encounter. See below — panels from Strange Tales 159, August 1967

144_ST 159 Val intro

There are a few nice Nick / Val romance pages in Steranko’s all-too-brief run, oases of calm in the hectic lives of these busy super-spies. Check out this one from Nick Fury 5, October 1968:

144_ NF 5 Oct 1968

An earlier page, in Nick Fury 2, had been famously censored. Too racy for the times — or at least, for a mainstream comic of the times — no fewer than 4 panels of this page (below)had to be redrawn. The Comics Code Authority vetted all Marvel artwork, and could demand changes. Stan Lee, anticipating problems, would sometimes pre-censor panels before submitting them for the Code’s approval. Below is the original art, scanned by owner Richard Martineshttp://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryPiece.asp?Piece=198008&GSub=17004

He says “The [censored] panels were covered up with stats.” It looks as if they have been carefully restored to their original sinful form.

Warning: snogging, cleavage and an off-the-hook phone ahead! Only view if legal in your local jurisdiction!

NF2 page 5 OrArt

Full details of the changes inflicted on this page can be found here:

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2009/08/06/comic-book-legends-revealed-219/

Less well known is the page shown below, which was also subject to censorship. Again the Contessa Valentina was at the bottom of it. This page is also mentioned at the Legends Revealed blog (at the above link) but until last weekend I had forgotten all about it. It’s from the last 60s issue of Strange Tales, no. 168, cover-dated May 1968, after which Dr Strange and Nick Fury got their own comics. Inks by Joe Sinnott.

ST 168 Val page

What I can now happily add to the account on Legends Revealed is that Marvel published a pretty handsome reprint of this story in Dark Reign: The List – Secret Warriors One-Shot no.1, Dec 2009. And there, somewhat to my surprise, you can see the Contessa’s uncensored rear view pretty much as it left Steranko’s drawing board.

SWos_Val page

This comic is still easy to find at a cheap price, making it a genuine new (-ish) collector’s item for Steranko fans. It may have slipped beneath the radar of many of them.

The colours are a reasonable reflection of the way the book was initially done. (No fancy digital effects which look great on artwork done with them in mind, but can jar so badly with the line artwork of the old comics.) Suffering slightly from bright white paper and garishness, but less than some.

I am massively indebted to Andy Williams who drew my attention to this little gem at the London Comic Mart last weekend. Andy may not have known quite what an important bottom he had his hands on, but at least he showed it ’round. For that generous act the world owes him its thanks.

SW The List Cover

I note also that Steve Ringgenberg wrote about Val’s posterior in The Betty Pages magazine no.4, 1989 — http://www.thedrawingsofsteranko.com/bettypages.html and showed a B&W image of the uncensored Val (also borrowed by Legends Revealed). Ringgenberg’s article also details Steranko’s interest in vintage pin-up art.

ST 168 Val B&W

It looks as if Tony Lewis used the Ringgenberg image to recreate a colour version of the Strange Tales 168 page as it should have looked — http://thewastebasket.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/steranko-uncensored.html . Kudos to Tony, but the Secret Warriors reprint is a superior image taken, I suspect, from the original art or a good stat.

Questions remains.

How did the original version of Val’s rear survive intact? Was a good quality stat taken before the original art was blacked in, or was the blacking in done on a stat of the page? Perhaps a small piece of white board was glued onto the original art, the new black bottom drawn thereon, allowing for removal later.

The original art of Steranko’s cover for Hulk Special no.1, 1968, has similarly survived, the published version having had the face redrawn by Marie Severin (and, I think, Frank Giacoia).

72_Hulk special cover 72_Hulk special 1 colour

But why was the Strange Tales 168 strip simply dropped in at the back of the Secret Warriors One-Shot with no fanfare — indeed, with no comment at all? It isn’t mentioned on the cover or even on the contents page. It’s just there, after the main story finishes.

Was this reprint chosen very specifically? Did One-Shot editor, Tom Brevoort, know what a major step he was taking in showing this uncensored artwork? The Comics Code Authority was long gone, and far more overtly fetishistic female anatomy had graced the pages of Marvel comics prior to 2009. Mr Brevoort was not pushing any boundaries here. But he may have realised he was filling a gap in many people’s Steranko collections.

It is conceivable that it was just a happy accident. Alternative versions of Marvel art have popped up from the files over the years at random — occasionally, if not exactly often.

If he knew he was doing it, and was in any way embarrassed about reprinting Val’s shiny bottom, he could have claimed he was reprinting the story because it won fandom’s Alley Award in 1969 for Best Feature Story published in 1968.

Perhaps it has been reprinted elsewhere, and this actually was / is no big deal? I know of at least one (digitally recoloured) book reprint of the censored page (see below; it’s from 2001, Andy Williams tells me). If anyone knows about another uncensored reprint, do please let me know. I’d also like to know which version is in the recent Artist’s Edition.

Shield_Countess

(Tony Robertson has commented (thanks Tony!), letting us know that the 2009 Marvel Masterworks hardback, Nick Fury vol. 2, had the uncensored art. That would make the Secret Warriors One-Shot something of a promo piece — or would do if they had remembered to mention the hardback in the comic. Tony also says the 2013 Complete Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. Collection book had the censored version. However this reasonably priced paperback does have the two censored pages in B&W in its back pages, Tony reports. He also points out that the Artists’ Edition with this strip is not out yet… any day now though!)

Perhaps drawing attention to Countess Valentina’s bottom was, in 2009, still considered in some way in poor taste? It is a potentially sensitive subject.

It obviously wouldn’t do to over-emphasise the censored (or uncensored) portion of the image too much. On the other hand, it would surely be remiss not to show a clear comparison of the 1968 and 2009 versions.

Twin vals 01

And, just for those who like to figure out precisely how the artwork might have been altered:

Twin vals 02

Final point about this historic page: seriously, sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar…

ST 168_cigar

… something clearly understood by Lee and Steranko, as shown by this panel from the final page of the story:

SW_cigar 2

And just for the heck of it, here’s another fondly remembered Jim Steranko page — printed as drawn, as far as I know — from Captain America no. 111 (March 1969). Inked by Sinnott again. He got all the crap jobs.

144_Cap 111 MH

Yes, these uplifting images of Madame Hydra killing a henchman were untroubled by the censor’s inkpot. The Comics Code Authority and / or Stan Lee presumably felt that her large shiny, tightly-clad breasts and her whip were acceptable reading matter for young people, unlike the Contessa’s shiny and tightly-clad buttocks.

Chacun a son gout, as they say in Gay Paree.

Posted in Comic-book art, Comics, Jim Steranko, Superhero movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

PETER BAGGE: CONVERSATIONS — A MUST-HAVE DOUBLE-BAGGE ITEM

Possibly the best book on an individual comics creator to date

Peter Bagge : Conversations

Edited by Kent Worcester

The University Press of Mississippi, Feb 2015. Hardback, 208 pages (approx.), 6 x 9 inches, 9781628462043

Amazon US has this book as a $40.00 hardback and cheaper Kindle editions, and buying looks straightforward.

Amazon UK has it at £25.00 but says it will take 1 -2 months to get hold of.  Hmm… other sellers are listed, or maybe the Kindle edition at £18.61 (!) is a better bet.

Cover

Kent Worcester: Do you think of yourself as an “equal opportunity” satirist, taking shots at protestors, yuppies, hipsters, and suburbanites alike?

Peter Bagge: Well, sure. I don’t think any particular subset of our society is more deserving of ridicule than another.

Or, as he might have added, any less deserving.  Though after some 35 years on the job, Peter Bagge may be found analysing subsets of society more often than he ridicules them these days.

The University Press of Mississippi is to be congratulated for adding this excellent book to their already substantial series Conversations with Comic Artists. There seem to be at least seventeen other books in the series, including Conversations with Carl Barks, Charles Schulz, Alan Moore, etc.—the full list can seen here:

http://www.upress.state.ms.us/search/series/10

I mention this in particular because the Press does not list or promote those other books in the Bagge volume, though they helpfully list 22 books by Bagge himself on the indicia page.

And while I’m digressing, before discussing this book about a lapsed Catholic cartoonist, I need to get some personal confessions out of the way. Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned…

Firstly, I have to confess that I pretty much lost track of Bagge’s work after his Buddy Bradley comic Hate  ceased regular publication, somewhere around the turn of the century. I bought a couple of Hate Annuals in the early noughties, but that was about it. Over the years I have rather randomly seen the occasional issue of Reset and Apocalypse Nerd but not followed them — as I can’t remember much about those comics, I must assume they didn’t grab me the way Buddy & co did. I did enjoy one of Bagge’s DC comics, Sweatshop but initially missed out on his childrens’ comic Yeah! (drawn by Gilbert Hernandez).

I was barely aware of his Spider-man and Hulk contributions, and here in the UK Bagge’s contributions to libertarian magazine Reason and other US publications have been easy to miss.

I am guilty of locating Peter Bagge’s work in the past, when as this book makes clear, he continues to write and draw interesting material. Thanks to Conversations, I now know a lot more about this later work, and I’m grateful for it.

Secondly, I have to confess that I am a contributor to this book. The second of its fifteen conversations is with me “and others”. As an avid reader of his at the time, I interviewed Peter Bagge on stage with an audience at the Glasgow Comic Art Convention, GlasCAC, in 1992, and wrote it up for a zine I edited, Comics Forum. Audience questions were included and I also spoke to Bagge with his wife Joanne, and two friends of mine, Jenni Scott and Andy Roberts, after the public event. Conversations reprints the piece as it appeared in Forum, with those others’ contributions intact.

Comics Forum 2   144_P Bagge and J Scott

Jenni is seen in the photo above talking to Bagge at the convention (photo by Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker — thanks to Jenni for the photo and to both for permission to post it.) Andy Roberts, very sadly, was knocked down by a motorcyclist in 2005 and died from his injuries. I am reminded of him often by one thing or another, and intensely so by reading these words in print.

Which brings me to my third confession: when I agreed to the interview being used in Conversations, I didn’t think twice, and didn’t look at the original magazine version. I didn’t remember that Andy and Jenni had been involved. I couldn’t ask his permission, but I should have contacted Jenni. Apologies are due and hereby given.

So, to the book itself. Editor Kent Worcester has chosen very well indeed from the available material (previously published interviews with Bagge) and also provides an excellent introduction and Peter Bagge timeline. Worcester also brings this up to date as of 2014 with a new, unpublished interview.

Conversations runs its interviews in chronological order. Many of them go back over Bagge’s earlier days, but often from different angles, so there is more new information than straight repetition. The cumulative effect is of moving onward through his career as the book goes on. There is no doubt that Bagge’s work has evolved over time, in both words and pictures. This book is excellent in mapping the changing territory of his stories and ideas.

For a sense of his artwork’s parallel evolution, the reader will have to supplement Conversations with other input — like my Bagge gallery below — because like all the volumes in this series (AFAIK) the book is black and white, and text-heavy. In discussing a medium with such a visual element as comics, this is something of a weakness. There are a few pictures — panels and full page strips — but a magnifying glass will be helpful in trying to read them. However, as the publisher’s name suggests, it is a quasi-academic text, aimed partly at students who wish to read up on Bagge in libraries. Budgetary considerations doubtless preclude any full-colour printing. A few larger pages of B&W art could perhaps  have been included, but possibly only by sacrificing text pages.

Having said that, Conversations is not in any sense a “difficult” read. The interviews are often almost as entertaining as Bagge’s comics. They are taken from diverse general — i.e non-academic — sources. There is no thesis-speak or surfeit of polysyallables. Indeed these texts present such a complete “picture” of Peter Bagge that I barely missed the illustrational side of his work while reading. Afterwards I did Google up some pictures, mainly to look at some of what I’d missed over the last ten or so years. Using the wonders of modern blognology I can of course give you more pictures than University Press of Mississippi can — and I will, at the end of my review.

I won’t dwell on Bagge’s childhood and personal life, though you will find them discussed here, including how they influenced his work. Nor on his progression from punky New York City self-publication, via collaboration with underground comix legend Robert Crumb, indie hit-dom with Seattle publisher Fantagraphics (with Neat Stuff and Hate) and points between, to in-demand political commentator and biographer. All this is covered very well in Conversations, and the accompanying changes in drawing style are discussed, if not shown.

Two things stand out from the rich and varied subject matter of this book.

Firstly, Bagge is a unique talent who draws like no-one else. He discusses various possible roots of this style (Charles M. Schulz, Harvey Kurtzman) but it is clear that there is also some individual, indefinable something at work in the eye, mind and hand of an artist like Bagge which makes his work solely his own. Unlike other stand-out artists in the comics field, Bagge has not spawned a legion of imitators.

Perhaps this is because his artwork has never been bland or eager to please. Bagge’s first decade or more was spent being actively confrontational, and that includes both his subject matter and his actual style itself. The self-portrait on the cover of this book is a choice example. At first glance simply hideous, I have to say that this drawing would not have been my first choice as cover art. It repays further scrutiny, however.

144dpi SelfP

Bagge portrays himself as one of those Margaret Keane-type Big-Eyed Kids which are hideous enough in themselves — the more so as this one has scars, a Catholic bleeding heart on his shirt, and a tarnished halo. He is the artist as martyr to the various forces working to finish him off — stabbed by the knife of Public Preconceptions and Apathy, drinking from the bottle of Bitterness and Resentment. He is even being given a hot-foot by Demanding Fanzine Publishers. (Oops. Mea Culpa.)

This single picture tells us far more about Bagge than many a more “attractive” picture would. Not only in its overt content, but also in its multi-levelled parody of the confessional underground comic, the Big-Eyed Kid painting and the political cartoon. It seems to raise the question: does Peter Bagge — at least, the Bagge of 1988 when it was drawn — take anything seriously?

Well, that is the Second Thing that leaps out from the pages of Conversations: Bagge’s progress as political and social commentator. In his earlier days Bagge was keen to distance himself from any political implications of this work, though by 1992 he was almost ready to concede that there might just be some:

Interviewer: Do you see the strips you’ve done until now as having a political dimension?

Peter Bagge: This is kind of a cop-out answer, but… I’ve now learned, thanks to my British friends — and this is something that I think applies to a lot of Europeans in general — that everything is political [laughs]. But I do see that now, I’m not totally disagreeing with that at all.

Later in the same piece he appears to retreat into a more strongly apolitical stance:

Interviewer: You’ve said that you want to do stuff about blue-collar life in America […]. There’s a political dimension right there isn’t there? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of dissent in American fiction or cartooning?

PB: It’s not a clearly defined tradition. […] I don’t think anything in my work has ever been overtly political. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be.

Interviewer: But it definitely challenges the phony American myth of “the family” and the whole self-image of American society […] Undermining that is in itself a political statement.

PB: But I’m not consciously doing that. I’m just trying to tell you stories, as they come to me […] about the way things are in day-to-day existence […] And Americans will say, “Oh, that’s funny” and “I can relate to that.” But it’s always Europeans who’ll say what you said. “Exposing the myth of American culture, this is the ugly underbelly” and all that kind of thing.

In recent years Bagge has done strips for a libertarian magazine, Reason, and has said that his own politics can be considered libertarian (with caveats, for example, about the kind of libertarians who run for office, or have the name Ayn Rand). Here is Kent Worcester from the previously unpublished 2014 interview which closes the book:

KW: Have your politics fundamentally changed since the 1970s-1980s or were you always a libertarian, even before you had the vocabulary to articulate it?

PB: The latter. I always believed in freedom and autonomy for all […] In my younger days I described myself as a liberal, and I still think that word applies to me […]

And later:

KW: Do you look back fondly on the days when your work was 100% laugh-oriented, or do you feel that it’s important to make readers think?

PB: Everything has political content to some degree if you look for it, including my own work. […] I started writing overtly political work when I was specifically asked to do so, in my case by Reason magazine.

In between these poles, other interviews touch on Bagge’s journey towards maturity and/or explicitly political work (which includes convention reportage). I’m also intrigued by the revelation that, in more recent strips, Buddy Bradley has gone from marginally hip seller of collectibles (Star Wars toys etc.) to the more mundane (and blue-collar) role of scrap metal dealer.

And so to Bagge’s recent contribution to the growing field of Graphic Biography. Others have tackled Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Sally Heathcote, to name but five. Bagge has taken on the life of Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966), feminist, educator and birth control pioneer.

sanger bagge

His route to this book is in itself intriguing, as he tells Derek Parker Royal in the interview here from 2013:

PB: I was primarily interested in female literary figures from the mid-twentieth century, specifically Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Inglis Wilder), Zora Neale Hurston, and Isabel Paterson […] Besides being talented writers, these women also helped define a political philosophy—one that celebrates freedom and autonomy—that I very much share, and they also lived their lives accordingly. […] These women weren’t encumbered by unwanted pregnancies either. So that got me interested in what kind of birth control was available at the time, and how available it was. This research led me to Sanger.

More about Sanger and Bagge’s book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAA2eK1K3pw

In both Parker Royal’s piece and editor Kent Worcester’s 2014 interview, Bagge discusses how his idiosyncratic style can be seen as unsuitable for a serious biographical book. The pages reproduced in Conversations show that Bagge can carry it off, no problem. Words and pictures work seamlessly together. There is no lack of storytelling clarity, and the shifting emotional states of his characters come across effectively.

No abrupt compromise of Bagge’s individualist style has been needed to achieve this. He retains his truly unique way of seeing the world, in particular us awkward humans who populate it — rarely so awkward, perhaps, as when drawn by Peter Bagge.

Finally, a word about what a splendid achievement this book is. Kent Worcester has assembled an excellent collection here. He brings to the subject a perspective which is arguably as unique as Bagge’s own — Worcester is not only a professor of political science with a deep and abiding interest in the comics medium but, like Bagge, also a guitar player. This musical bent informs Worcester’s questions too. His own conversation with Bagge is perhaps the best interview I can remember reading with a comics creator, and the outstanding contribution to an outstanding book about an outstanding artist.

A PETER BAGGE GALLERY

Comical Funnies Studs 1980

Comical Funnies Junior 1980

The scratchy thin pen lines of the early strips which introduced Studs Kirby and Junior (in Comical Funnies 1, 1980) were those of an artist waiting to discover the right tool for his job — the brush pen.

Neat Stuff 2 1985Neat Stuff 6 1987

Neat Stuff 9 1988hate-bagge

This new tool gave Bagge a thicker and more varied line. Along with thinner pen lines for shading and detail, this came to define the Bagge style, as in Neat Stuff in the 1980s, and Buddy Bradley’s 1990s star vehicle, Hate. At times on Hate Bagge had an inking assistant. Latterly he seems to have simplified his overall look, losing many of those thin line details. Particularly for colour strips this has been a fruitful approach.

Martini Baton b Weirdo 28 1993

Bagge’s early confrontational years… I can’t show you the top tier of the last Martini Baton strip from the last Weirdo (no. 28, 1993) as it is rude. I even censored this part of the strip. My changes are very subtle; you probably won’t be able to spot them. By this time Bagge’s editorship of Weirdo had ended, and Aline Crumb was in the chair for this final issue. Bagge did Martini Baton from drawings by New York artist David Carrino.

Sweatshop 3Yeah 1

Bagge takes his humour mainstream, and indeed to kid level, with mixed results. Sweatshop, 2003, may have toned down the confront-o-meter, but it was a very funny take on the world of newspaper cartooning (and the youngsters who slave for the crotchety “Man”). Yeah! (1999) has had a book collection, though I bought the comics out of a bargain bin in 2014.

baggehulk-1

He did both Spider-man and Hulk comics for Marvel, given pretty free rein — though the Hulk strip took years to see print.

bagge randReason bagge1

Strips from Reason. More here:  http://reason.com/archives/2015/03/29/life-out-on-the-political-fringe

Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.

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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON—Hail the Vision! But will we see Adam Warlock in the MCU?

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS (later—I’ll warn you when) for AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

This is not a review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have been more than enough reviews. This is more of a personal response.

AOU poster screen

But firstly… about those reviews. A fair few critics have disliked this film, the second in the Avengers series. Rotten Tomatoes, summing up, reckons it scores 74% positive, averaging 6.7/10, with the “professionals”.

The first one, in 2012, got an impressive 91%, or 8/10.

The figures from the viewing public are more consistent. 91% liked the first Avengers flick, only dropping to 89% this time around.

While I still think the first one has a massive amount to recommend it, Age of Ultron seems like the better film to me. Maybe the critics are getting superhero fatigue.

AoU is admittedly a bit overstuffed. There are just too many good things in it, and the length had to be trimmed back, so a few scenes feel truncated and crammed in. It’s a bit of a bludgeon first time around too. Possibly 3D did the film no favours. It may have contributed to the disorienting effect of the fast-paced action scenes. It was at my second viewing, in 2D, a week or so later, that I really fell in love with the film.

One of the best things in what could be the best Marvel film yet is the origin of the Vision.

For a lot of comics fans of my generation, the character has been quite a favourite. Roy Thomas’s original stories—starting in 1968—were good, classic superhero stuff when I was a kid. Steve Englehart developed the Vision later, as he did so many other Marvel mainstays, keeping them interesting for maturing readers.

When I found out the Vision was going to be in the second Avengers film, I sent Joss Whedon a tweet: “Thanks for putting the Vision in your film. Now please don’t f*ck him up.”

And Joss didn’t.

(He usually listens to me, I find.)

AOU Vis 01

The Vision’s origin story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is similar to its comic-book sources in many ways. This being the MCU, it is also substantially different. As they often do, Marvel has struck a good balance here. They may change the facts of a story quite substantially, but they manage to remain faithful to the spirit of the comics. As with the first Avengers film, I don’t think anyone but Whedon could have pulled this particular one off—or nowhere near so well.

A possible point of contention: no Hank Pym in Age of Ultron. This bothered me when I heard the news, which was long before seeing the film of course. Teaser images and mini-trailers showed pretty clearly that, in the MCU, Tony Stark was Ultron’s “dad.” How could Ultron be created by anyone other than his comic-book “father,” super-hero science whizz Dr Henry (Ant-Man, Giant Man, etc.) Pym?

Yes, it bothered me. For about five minutes. Maybe a few days, in real time.

A little reflection and it became clear why it had to be Tony “I am Iron Man” Stark who creates the MCU’s Ultron.

It was clear that there would be, could be, no Hank Pym involved because there are already two super-hero-scientists in the MCU’s Avengers—Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. No room for another one. It’s that simple, it seems to me. It was OK to fill up the pages of Marvel’s ever-expanding (at the time—the 1960s) comic-book line with super-scientists, both heroic and villainous. The repetitive trope would have worn pretty thin with MCU audiences. And the Avengers films couldn’t afford any more clutter. Joss Whedon was already juggling a large cast, and not without some difficulty.

(Also, as Whedon has said recently, Hank Pym was already taken, by Edgar Wright—at least, back then he was; Peyton Reed is director of the Ant-Man film which will be out soon—which must have made Whedon’s decision easier.)

So I relaxed and figured that Joss Whedon would find a way to make it work without Pym.

And yes, the MCU Vision’s new origin is extraordinarily well done. Better than I could have hoped for. It’s still tied in inextricably with Ultron’s origin, as in the comics. But it is both more credible than the comics, in a general sense, and more satisfying, specifically, in how it ties in with the MCU’s meta-story in unforeseen (exciting!) ways.

And that’s where things get really interesting. That’s where my narrative shifts to another old favourite character, Adam Warlock. Many of us have been led to believe that we will be seeing Warlock in the Marvel films sooner rather than later. Bear with me while I rehearse some background material, before getting to the meat of this.

(No film spoilers in this section. Maybe a hint of one…)

Warlock crucified 02 Starlin

Like the Black Panther, the Inhumans and the Silver Surfer, Warlock started out as a supporting character in the Fantastic Four comic of the 1960s.

The credits of Fantastic Four 66, September 1967, simply informed readers that “Stan (The Man) Lee and Jack (King) Kirby have done it again!” Scripter/editor Lee was blurring the distinction between writer and artist, partly to acknowledge what a large contribution penciller Jack Kirby was making to the plots of the stories. In many cases Kirby was also creating those new supporting characters, both the endless stream of new bad guys the comics obviously required, and others. Some of these others were a lot more ambiguous—they might fight against the heroes at first, only to switch sides later.

The major new character in FF 66 & 67 does something new in the Marvel universe—though quite similar to the Silver Surfer some months before. He fights against his creators, but not against the Fantastic Four. Uniquely, our heroes don’t even meet him.

In FF 66 we meet those creators, the Enclave—a bunch of sinister scientists who have hidden themselves away in order to create a perfect new artificial being. Having kidnapped Alicia Masters, the blind sculptor, they tell her that their motives are noble. In fact they wish to use their new creation to rule mankind.

Here they are in flashback, next to the creature’s gestation chamber. Doesn’t it look a lot like the one the Vision emerges from in Age of Ultron? Hmm…

FF 66 cradle

In FF 66, their super-powered creature has woken and emerged from his Life-Cell Tank too soon, before the Enclave could establish control over him. He has been fighting off their attempts to recapture him. They can’t even get near him. Neither the Enclave crew nor we, the readers, get to see this being until a long way into the story. He is also nameless, being referred to only as “Him”.

Like the monster in a low-budget movie, he is glimpsed only as a shadow, or a burst of light and Kirby-krackle energy. But Kirby, of course, is not keeping him out of sight for budgetary reasons. It wouldn’t cost him even one new pencil to draw Him in a few panels. He is teasing his readers, having learned the value of antici…

…pation. In fact, throughout FF 66 the creature is not seen at all. Then on page 10 of no.67, Alicia confronts him—but he is now inside a cocoon, waiting to be fully born, so he remains hidden.

FF 67 page 10

Even after emerging from the cocoon, he stays off-panel as he continues to wreak destruction on the Enclave’s secret HQ. The Fantastic Four, having found their way there and rescued Alicia, escape without finding Him. On page 20, the 40th and final page of the story, the “monster” is seen at last, as he confronts the scientists who made him.

FF 67 p 20 Him

He is golden, beautiful, more of a god than a man or a monster. (In 1967, was Kirby’s imagination already turning to the creation of new gods?) After the final confrontation, having announced that our planet will not be ready for him for another millennium, he flies off into space.

He doesn’t get far.

Thor 165 cover

In Thor 165, June 1969—another Lee/Kirby production—after a mishap in outer space, Him finds himself back on Earth, in another cocoon. Waking from this, the still immature being decides he needs a mate, and fancies Thor’s lover, the Lady Sif. This provokes the god of thunder into a violent condition called the Warrior Madness, in which state Thor beats Him within an inch of his artificial life (Thor 166). He retreats into another cocoon and once again blasts off into space.

Somewhat matured mentally and emotionally, the perfect artificial man hatches again in a new comic, Marvel Premiere (1 & 2, 1972) by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. He begins a series of adventures on a very imperfect artificial planet called Counter-Earth. It’s so imperfect it’s almost exactly the same as the world we live in. This is where Him becomes Adam Warlock, and gains the green Soul Gem in his forehead—a gift from Counter-Earth’s god-like creator, the High Evolutionary.

MPrem 1 cover

Warlock’s role on Counter-Earth is to be a super-hero Messiah, saving mankind from the satanic Man-Beast (and of course, from its own base nature). He was promoted to his own comic, but like other superhero comics which tackled the Burning Issues Of Our Time (e.g. the Silver Surfer and DC’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow) Warlock was not to last. After 8 issues, it was cancelled, and the storyline concluded in The Incredible Hulk 176-178 (1974).

Back in those far-off days, I initially fell for the messianic Warlock. In retrospect I later felt the grafting on of Silver-Surfer-like characteristics was all a bit clumsy and second-hand. Still, when Warlock was actually crucified in 1974, one had to admire Marvel’s chutzpah, and then to see him resurrected…! Subtlety was rarely a feature of Marvel comics, and they certainly didn’t want anyone to miss the Jesus comparisons here.

(How very different from the home life of our own dear Superman—before Messiah of Kleenex Man Of Steel, anyway.)

Warlock crucified

Most of all, though, I was a fan of Jim Starlin’s revived Warlock (in Strange Tales, then again in his own comic) whose adventures spanned 1975 to 1977. Here, the apparently helpful and empowering Soul Gem on his forehead was revealed to be a soul vampire. This—especially to a fan of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and his soul-stealing sword Stormbringer, not to mention the same author’s Dorian Hawkmoon with the soul-eating jewel embedded in his forehead—should perhaps have seemed like yet more ripping off of other people’s ideas. Somehow Starlin pulled it off as what I saw more as homage (though later I was to discover that Mike Moorcock himself saw it as straightforward stealing of soul-stealing).

Warlock soul stealer

Jim Starlin took his grim Warlock through some fairly hard-hitting outer-space adventures, but there was also one detour into outright satire. How many readers spotted the parallels between this scene and the comic-book industry?

Warlock diamonds

This saga culminated in a Big Confrontation with Starlin’s purple-skinned uber-villain, Thanos, in which Warlock teamed up with the Avengers, Spider-Man and the Thing from the Fantastic Four. (Avengers Annual 7 and Marvel Two-in-One Annual 2, 1977). Warlock met Thor again, who remembered him from before—and the Thing for the first time, since they had not actually encountered each other in FF67. Warlock even met the Vision… which is moderately interesting, as we shall see below.

In this story, Warlock’s Soul Gem was revealed as one of the six massively powerful Infinity Gems. Thanos had stolen the power of all six gems, to use in his universe-destroying schemes.

Which brings us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the Infinity Gems (or Stones as they are known here) are a major plot device linking the movies together.So is Thanos, for that matter, since his teaser appearance at the end of the first Avengers.

And, among the now-traditional MCU “Easter Eggs” of recent times, we saw what seemed to be Warlock’s cocoon in the Collector’s collection as far back as the post-credits scene of Thor 2. And there it was, in the same place, in the film Guardians of the Galaxy. Warlock fans in all four corners of the internet rejoiced. Surely here we had evidence that our golden lad was heading for the big screen, perhaps in GOTG 2.

Sif n coccon

But hold on… James Gunn, director of both GOTG and the closing scene of Thor 2, has said different things about this cocoon as time has gone by. Firstly, he said that he threw a few fairly random cool things from the Marvel Universe (and elsewhere) into the Collector’s cases, and the cocoon from Warlock’s comic-book appearances was one of them. For instance, if the quotes in this article are accurate, he actually stated the cocoon was Warlock’s, at the time GOTG was released:

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/guardians-galaxy-james-gunn-confirms-that-adam-warlocks-cocoon-1459695

“There are the slither creature from my movie Slither behind The Collector, those guys are pretty obvious. You have Adam Warlock’s cocoon, you have all sorts of other characters from Marvel movies.”

Later however he pulled back from this position, saying that it was just a cocoon which resembled Warlock’s.

http://www.slashfilm.com/james-gunn-new-guardians-of-the-galaxy-2-characters/

http://comicbook.com/2014/11/18/james-gunn-on-if-there-were-beta-ray-bill-and-adam-warlock-easte/

A quote from the second page above: ‘”You have what’s commonly known as Adam Warlock’s cocoon, which is based on Adam Warlock’s cocoon but which I really didn’t intend to be Adam Warlock,” the director admitted.’

At first, I took this with a pinch of salt. Gunn, I thought, was just teasing us. But—months before seeing Age Of Ultron—a process of niggling doubt began, and this was the sort of thing that was going through my head:

The Vision is a synthetic humanoid, resembling a human with red skin, but actually an artificial being, the product of super-advanced Earth science. Created for an evil purpose, he has developed a will of his own, rejected his creator’s designs, and is going his own way. He turns out to have emotions and ethics very similar to the best a true human could aspire to. Also, he’s a heavy hitter—Thor-type strong—and he can fly. Not only that, but he has a neat golden gem stuck in the middle of his forehead, which absorbs solar energy, and can blast it back out again as extra villain-zapping power.

Adam Warlock on the other hand is a synthetic humanoid, resembling a human with golden-orange skin, but actually an artificial being, the android product of super-advanced Earth science. Created for an evil purpose, he has developed a will of his own, rejected his creators’ designs, and is going his own way. He turns out to have emotions and ethics very similar to the best a true human could aspire to. Also, he’s a heavy hitter—Thor-type strong—and he can fly. Not only that, but he has a neat green gem stuck in the middle of his forehead, which can blast forth extra villain-zapping power.

The list of similarities, in other words, was long. Perhaps too long. As with Hank Pym and the Bruce’n’Tony team in Age of Ultron, maybe I just had to face the facts: the MCU ain’t big enough for the both of them.

Having had that thought, James Gunn’s strong denial really seemed to set the seal on it: Warlock wasn’t going to be in GOTG 2. He probably wasn’t going to be in the MCU at all.

And now, I must repeat my SPOILER WARNING! If you haven’t seen AoU yet and don’t want a major plot element revealed… come back another day.

1827_Vision_AAofU_50

So, if you haven’t seen the film yet, you have now gone away? Good. Let us steam into the final act of this post.

Now we have seen Age of Ultron, and we know that in the MCU, the Vision doesn’t just have a solar battery set in his forehead, he actually has an Infinity Stone. Just like Warlock has in the comics. The Vision’s Mind Stone has even been seen to steal people’s wills, not entirely dissimilar to how Warlock’s gem stole their souls.

And if logic and James Gunn’s denials had pretty much implied it before, surely we now know it’s true: the MCU definitely isn’t big enough for the both of them. The MCU Vision has just too many many things in common with the comic-book Warlock. With the addition of an Infinity Stone, he very nearly is Adam Warlock, in everything but name.

Of course, this doesn’t prevent the MCU from having a different version of Adam Warlock. But in my view, they have made him basically redundant and are not likely to go there. Anything too far removed from the “real” comic-book Warlock would probably be seen as too much of a disappointment.

It seems very likely that Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige planned from way back that the MCU Vision was to be an amalgam of the Vision and Warlock—and decided that this meant Warlock himself could not be in the MCU.

In which case, James Gunn may have made a bit of a mistake with that cocoon.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s likely that an error on that scale would happen in the tightly planned MCU continuity. Isn’t it more probable that the whole thing was a big tease, a neat bit of misdirection?

I’m not the only one to see the Vision / Warlock similarities, and draw some of the same conclusions (though I would like to state that I came to my own conclusions before seeing anyone else’s). See for instance Latino Review’s Marvelous Daze, captainzach616, and a few other perspicacious commentators online.

http://www.latino-review.com/news/marvelous-da7e-93-seeing-adam-warlock-and-details-on-martin-freemans-role

https://captainzach616.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/the-vision-warlock-theory/

avengers-ultron-vision

If Warlock had arrived in GOTG 2, the combination of outer-space settings and the CGI-rich magic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would’ve done him proud. I was looking forward to seeing him as one of the Cosmic Characters inhabiting the farther reaches of the MCU. So again, as quite the fan, after I had the Big Realisation that Warlock was not likely to appear, a feeling of disappointment descended. And this lasted longer than the five minutes allocated to Hank Pym and his non-appearance in AoU.

But that was before I saw Age of Ultron, which at the same time as twisting the knife in the wound—making it pretty certain that we really won’t be seeing Warlock on the big screen—paradoxically also takes away most of the hurt. Because having seen the MCU’s Vision portrayed so well, I am almost completely happy. If we speculators are right, and we are to have no MCU Warlock, there is still a sense of loss. But with what we have been given, I think we should feel intensely satisfied.

If it had to be either Warlock or Vision, all else being equal, I couldn’t really say which I‘d rather lose. But, with the Avengers having such primacy in the MCU, and Vison being so much a part of Avengers mythology, Whedon and Feige have probably reached the only possible conclusion. Having two such similar characters in the MCU really could not have worked. And giving the Vision an Infinity Stone was a stroke of genius. (Sadly, Joss’s parting stroke. But that’s not today’s topic.)

AOU vision 03

Finally, a few more ramblifications…

Thanos planted the Mind Stone on Earth in the sceptre he gave Loki. His original plan was that Loki would lead a successful Chitauri invasion of the planet, after which Thanos would presumably come and get what he wanted.

Whatever else Thanos wants from MCU Earth—and as far as I can recall we really haven’t had any hint of that yet—we can assume he wants his Mind Stone back. He is, after all, trying to collect the set.

So, sooner or later Thanos will be coming to get the gem out of the Vision’s head. People are already speculating that Thanos might kill the Vision. The MCU has shown that it is willing to kill off a new character pretty quickly.

Which raises another intriguing possibility…

Maybe the Vision doesn’t so much die as… goes into a cocoon and comes out… changed…?

Nah! That’s not going to happen. The Vision isn’t that similar to Warlock. I don’t believe Marvel intends to evolve him into Warlock, in any literal sense.

But maybe he will be almost dead and in need of a Warlock-style resurrection. Similar to this classic Roy Thomas / Neal Adams story in Avengers 93 (1971).

Vision dead

So… here’s a bit more speculation that might just be closer to home. Maybe the Vision looks pretty much deceased, but the Avengers figure out a way of rebooting his synthetic life-force—effectively, of bringing him back from the dead.

Conventional operating theatre techniques are useless—they can’t operate on his super-strong body, and on the inside it is nothing like a human being. Maybe if they had a super-hero who could shrink down to tiny size and actually go inside the Vision’s synthezoid body, and find the right part to repair…

He’d have to be strong and resourceful enough to fight off the automatic defence mechanisms he will meet in there. Perhaps he’d benefit from having some tiny allies…

No, that’s too crazy, isn’t it? That kind of thing might just work in a 1960s Raquel Welch movie, or a comic book like the classic Roy Thomas / Neal Adams Avengers 93, below… but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when are you ever going to see a tiny weeny super-hero like that? Never going to happen, surely ?!

AoU Antman

Ant-Man MCU 01

PS: Beta Ray Bill… in the Marvel comics he’s an orange skinned non-human who is so noble he can lift Thor’s hammer.

The MCU Vision is a red-skinned non-human who is so noble he can lift Thor’s hammer. You see where this is going…

Is the MCU big enough for both of them?

Anyway, this is only fun-packed speculation, and we could still see Warlock and/or BR Bill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But as they say in the funny papers… I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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FRITZI AND PHIL & NANCY AND SLUGGO (1942)

Ernie Bushmiller with a couple of gags about words… and other stuff.

Researching my magnum opus on the Ben Day dot, looking for some 1940s Sunday strips to put under the microscope, the first pages out of the box were from the St Paul Pioneer Press, November 8th 1942.

By pure dumb luck I found myself reading a genius page by Ernie Bushmiller. Two half pages, in fact, starting with Fritzi Ritz. Fritzi of course used to be a carefree flapper. Then she was Nancy’s Aunt Fritzi, living with her rotund niece for reasons never explained (though Unca’ Mickey and Unca’ Donald would probably have understood).

By 1942 Nancy had her own Sunday strip (it started in 1938) and it was often (not always by any means) on the same page as Fritzi’s. Then Nancy was in more papers and Fritzi was in fewer, until Fritzi finally bowed out in 1968.

Both these strips are about language. The Fritzi gag, involving longstanding boyfriend Phil Fumble, is pretty good.

It’s the Nancy strip which I find really outstanding.

Citizens of the USA & elsewhere often think that we British, subjects of Her Majesty, obsess endlessly about the issue of Class.

Here, in a riff on My Fair Lady, is the Queen of Manhattan trying to educate her boyfriend Sluggo how to talk proper.

If the final gag isn’t about Class (though a very NYC take on the subject) then as I’m sure one will agree, it ain’t about nothin’, buster.

FRITZI RITZ Nov 8 1942 St Paul Pioneer Press 144dpi

NANCY Nov 8 1942 St Paul Pioneer Press 144dpi

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BEN DAY DOTS, PART TWO

ALSO LICHTENSTEIN, HALFTONE AND POLKE DOTS… plus the ones in the comic books.

Follows on from Part One: Roy Lichtenstein, the man who didn’t paint Ben Day dots.

See also Part Three

Many of you reading this post will know what Ben Day dots are… or at least, you might think you do. They are the yellow, red and blue dots used in cheap printing to make lighter tones of those primary colours, and secondary colours like orange, green and purple. Yes… I used to think so too!

CA 104 d

The familiar Ben Day dots. Or… are they?

Ben Day dots are not exactly a common topic of conversation in households across the land, but thanks to Roy Lichtenstein, they have had a new lease of life. When they come up, it is very likely that they are associated with Lichtenstein’s name and art.

After all, he was the man who created the single best-known Pop Art style using those dots—a style which has come to define for many people how both Pop Art and comic book art look since the early 1960s.

Previously on this web site I asserted that Roy Lichtenstein did not, in fact, paint Ben Day dots. I illustrated the point with a simple comparison of two pictures. I showed some dots from a comic book and some of Roy’s dots and suggested that they did not look all that alike. I suggested that Roy painted “Roy Lichtenstein dots,” something of his own invention. I will revisit Roy Lichtenstein dots in more detail in a later post

Romita benday detail

Comic book dots. Magenta colour, regular “square” grid (Art by John Romita)

Girls' Romances 105 M-maybe dots square

She’s so square

Roy L Sleeping Girl dots detail_100dpi_brighter

 Roy Lichtenstein dots (detail of Sleeping Girl, 1964). Scarlet colour, offset grid (no squares), exaggerated size.

M-maybe dots square

Triangles, hexagons… no squares

In fact most academic writers on Lichtenstein agree that he painted dots “derived from” or “similar to” the Ben Day dots of the comics. It is mainly journalists and non-professionals who actually state outright that he painted Ben Day dots. Or, more commonly, Benday dots. Or… hang on, Wikipedia currently has an entry on Ben-Day dots, with a hyphen. Webster’s online has “benday.”

OK… how are we spelling this, exactly?

Like pretty much everyone else who ever wrote about them, I originally called the dots in the comic books Benday dots. Most of the time that’s how they are referred to. In printed interviews with Lichtenstein, from early on, this spelling was used. In his 1946 booklet How Comic Strips Are Made comic strip scripter Russ Winterbotham refers to the “the Benday process” and the “Benday room” where it was done. Marie Severin’s colour guide for the cover of the EC comic Weird Science Fantasy no. 25 (cover date September 1954) refers to “Benday” in the margin notes. Adam Gopnik, in his dissection of comics and art in High & Low (1990), calls them Benday dots.  So does Harry Cooper in his essay ‘On The Dot’ in the catalogue of the Tate Modern’s 2013 Lichtenstein retrospective.

However, looking into their history, I soon found out they really ought to be called Ben Day dots—two words, both capitalised, no hyphen. (I have gone back and corrected my original post.)

Why Ben Day? Luckily that’s an easy one to answer. They were invented in 1879 by a man called Benjamin Henry Day Jr, and the company he founded to market his invention was called the Ben Day Company.

After that everything gets more complicated. In fact, whereas I thought I knew a lot about Ben Day dots, I found that most of what I knew was wrong. Starting with the Ben Day dots on the pages of the comics themselves. It turns out they aren’t really Ben Day dots either—not if you want to be really accurate about it.

So… what actually are Ben Day dots?

Firstly, something which they are definitely not—halftone dots. Ben Day dots and halftone dots are often referred to as if they were interchangeable, or Ben Days were a type of halftone. Neither is strictly correct, though even Roy Lichtenstein was known to have made this rookie error.

OK… what is a halftone dot?

The halftone screen was perfected in the 1880’s (after many failed attempts at something similar). It provided a method for breaking up a continuously toned image, made up of shades of grey—such as a photograph—into thousands of tiny black and white dots. (A similar process can be applied to colour images, but let’s keep this simple and 19th century.)

And yes, a photographic print is already made up of a lot of very very tiny dots—but they are irregular in shape and greyness and too tiny to be of any use in printing the photo. They effectively make up continuous grey tones, as far as both the human eye and the printer’s engraving process are concerned.

Halftone screening was needed because continuous grey tones could not be printed by simple, cheap letterpress printing, of the kind used for newspapers, magazines, comics and most packaging. Letterpress either prints black (or solid colour)—where metal coated with ink meets paper—or leaves a white area, where no metal presses on the paper, and no ink transfers.

Letterpress can handle a line drawing, words set in metal type, or a solid block of black (or another colour). Before halftones, a photograph could not be transferred effectively to a printing plate. In the acid-etching stage of photoengraving, the metal printing plate would keep only the darker parts of the picture as a solid printing surface—printed black in the image shown below. The lighter areas would make a crumbly mess which would literally break away from the metal, leaving non-printing areas—white in this example.

DALGIN 46 05sDALGIN 46 04A photograph and an unscreened print 

(taken from the book Advertising Production by Ben Dalgin, 1946)

The original version of the half tone screen was made by engraving two pieces of glass with parallel lines of mechanical exactitude, very close together. These were filled with black paint, leaving clear lines in the glass between black lines. When the pieces of glass were placed at right angles to each other, the resultant “screen” allowed light to pass through a regular grid pattern of clear squares, acting like thousands of tiny pinhole cameras.

DALGIN 46 03

Close-up of part of a halftone screen (from Dalgin)

Placed at the correct focal distance from a photograph or negative, the screen could be used to project a clear image in which the grey tones now appeared as patterns of dots. Pale greys became regular areas of small dots, darker greys were made up of larger dots, mid tones looked like a tiny chequerboard, and darker greys were white dots on black. With good technique, white remained white and black black. A positive or negative image could be made, according to requirements.

DALGIN 46 02

The same image printed after screening

This image was suitable for letterpress printing. The number of lines per inch (or lpi) used to create the dots was varied according to the final print quality. Glossy magazines might use 150 or even 200 lpi. Printing on newsprint most commonly used 65 lpi in 1946, according to Dalgin.

DALGIN 46 01

Detail of the halftone image, from Dalgin

Joseph P KennedyClose up Joseph P Kennedy

Another fun one. This is Joseph P. Kennedy—JFK’s dad

The key thing about halftone dots is that they vary in size. Ben Day dots, as we shall see, are all the same size in a regular pattern. Halftone dots create the illusion of continuous shades of grey. Ben Day dots are intended to create an illusion of areas of “flat” tone or colour.

Sigmar Polke is probably the best-known artist to incorporate halftone dots, blown up to large (easily visible) size, in his work. Quite different from Roy L’s dots, as you can see.

Polke Bunnies 1966

Polke dots—Bunnies, 1966

Roy Lichtenstein used some halftone-like, varied-size dots later in his career, but for the first few years his style was based on uniform dots similar to those produced by the Ben Day Process.

Self portrait 1978s

Roy Lichtenstein, Self Portrait, 1978

So are you finally going to tell us: what are Ben Day dots?

Of course. In Part Three… coming soon.

All about Ben Day dots—honestly. And, if the dots in the comics aren’t really Ben Day dots… what the heck are they? All will be revealed.

Plus some great pictures like this:

Thor 154_144dpi M print

Oh, isn’t he Mighty Thor?

No, he’th fine. He got a new thaddle.

Back to Part One: Roy Lichtenstein, the man who didn’t paint Ben Day dots

 

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