Comic Book Inking: How Do They Do It?

Noeska Smit, a PhD who deals with all things Medical Visualization and Other Things That Are Way Above My Head asked me to write a blog piece on the basics of comic book inking and, more specifically, on the do’s, don’t’s and why’s of it all. And so I did, and it turned into a full-blown essay. Let me know what you think of it! Did I miss anything or leave anything out, or make any mistakes in it?

André Franquin. Hergé. Mike Mignola. Frank Miller. Moebius. Berni Wrightson. Even if you have but a slight interest in comic book art, these names probably ring a bell; though, of course, some more than others. In part this is because, well, they have been of influence in shaping the creative output of various household names. Not without reason of course. They were, or still are, masters in their craft, each in his own right an inspiring, imaginative character-creator and world-builder. They all also had, or have, a very distinctive style of inking. And that’s what I’m going to talk about: comic book inking.

But first, for full disclosure, some expectation management. I am not a scientist like you are. At least I assume you are. Why else would you be reading this blog? I’m but a struggling self-taught illustrator. I haven’t won any Eisner Awards (a.k.a. “the Oscars of the comic book industry”) yet. You know what my last commissioned work was? A t-shirt design for a newly formed death metal band with an online reach of well over … their nuclear families. So, no, I’m not much of a known expert. But I was asked, nonetheless, by the blog’s host to write a thing or two on inking, since comic book-inspired shading and cross-hatching are, I am told, kind of the cat’s meow in the current field of illustrative rendering. And I happen to be reading into this very subject. So what to expect, then? Simple. Nothing but a modest write-up of some general do’s, don’t’s and why’s of inking.

First of all, let’s talk texture. If you look at an object, whatever object it may be, it has a certain look and feel. A wooden plank looks and feels different from a fur coat, as does a brick wall from a rough cotton sweater. But you know this already. Right? Right. When laying down inks, it’s best to try to convey the look and feel of the material represented instead of just using the same lines for different textures. This may seem obvious think to do, but in actuality, only a few, like Wrightson (see Fig. 1), have made, or make, a conscious effort in this area; generally, most artists give little thought to the nature, age and mood of whatever it is they are drawing.

Fig. 1: Swamp Thing #4 (1973); art and inks by Berni Wrightson.

At this point one cannot but mention the ligne claire (“clear line”) style, pioneered and put to excellent effect by Hergé. For those unfamiliar with it, he always used the same unvarying (or, in industry terms, “dead-weight”) lines for any object he drew, whatever its material. Supposedly so as to allow easy identification of characters and their environments by the reader. But that doesn’t fly with me. While Hergé’s drawings are clean, clear and figurative and, of course, obviously iconic, I do very much think something a bit more textured has it advantages visually, especially if one were to remove the colors. Compare, for instance, a panel from Tintin (see Fig. 2) with one from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, inked by Klaus Janson who used a variety of materials and rendering techniques (see Fig. 3), and note the difference. Wouldn’t you agree that in Janson’s panel its easier to differentiate between focus and context? But, there’s a point to be made. One could argue that Hergé’s clear line style was always more of a narrative device and less of a stylistic device, pushing the attention forward from one panel to the next instead of having of every panel screaming, “Yo’, wuzzup y’all? This artist got the skillz to take any texture to the next level. DAMN!” But then, sometimes a grimy, textured look is as much a narrative tool. As an example, we look at Moebius who’s probably most known for his own clear line style but who also pulled out all stops to portray the sand-dusty plains of the Old West in his Blueberry series (see Fig. 4). Here, a sterile look that is so suited to dreamlike sci-fi extravaganza wouldn’t show off the American West’s rugged desolation and the era’s hardships that made men rough, tough pioneers.

Fig. 2: The Adventures of Tintin #7 (1975); art and inks by Hergé.
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Fig. 3: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986); inks by Klaus Janson.
Fig. 4: Blueberry #19 (1980); art and inks by Jean “Moebius” Giraud.

Line Weight
Another signature mark of the clear line style: the use of the same dead-weight lines for all object lines regardless of position in the image and regardless of distance. Oh, sure, again Hergé made it work, but you will find that most other comic book artists and cartoonists vary line weight lines so as to emphasize perspective and thereby convey the illusion of three-dimensionality; they do this by using thicker lines for foreground objects and thinner lines for background objects (see Fig. 5). And, while on the subject of of three-dimensionality, lighting also comes here into play. It’s a rule of thumb that thick lines represent the shadowy sides or surface junctions while thin lines are used for contour lines of areas facing the light. However, some mainstream artists today don’t follow this rule of thumb. Instead, they juxtapose bold dead-weight contour lines with thinner, interior detail lines to give it a stylized feel (see Fig. 6). So that’s another way of doing it.

Fig. 5: The Walking Dead #4 (2); art and inks by Tony Moore.
Fig. 6: Batgirl #45 (2003); inks by Jesse Delperdang.

Spotting Blacks
So far I’ve talked about inking contour lines. But sometimes you want or need to splurge a little and take it further by laying down some solid blacks. For years now, ever since I was but a sprout of a boy, I’ve been reading comics, and I always assumed “spotting blacks” — which isn’t just a thing to do while watching the Oscar’s but is also a term that many comic book artists and cartoonists continue to use — was a stylistic choice to give an image a distinctive shadowed quality. But now I know better. Now I know that spotting blacks is also done to add solidity to a figure, and perhaps more than anything else, to dramatically frame and emphasize an object or figure. If you were but to look at, say, Frank Miller’s Sin City or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, you would know too (see, respectively, Fig. 7 and 8). You’d see how blacks can be and are being used in comics as a means of eye focus control. Basically, it comes down to leaving bits of white in masses of black or adding bits of black in spacious white, and this then creates a contrasting tension which immediately and invariably attracts the eye’s attention. So, as you can surmise, a common mistake here is to leave unwanted white space in an area that should be only black, or vice versa, because, indeed, this will result in the attention straying from the focal point (see Fig. 9).

Fig. 7: Sin City: That Yellow Bastard (1996); art and inks by Frank Miller.
Fig. 8: Hellboy: Seed of Destruction (1994); art and inks by Mike Mignola.
Fig. 9: A quickie, done for my own study, that hopefully gets the point across. First though, you might want to imagine someone standing talking in front of a rock, saying “Text … text.”

Screen Tones
The moment you start spotting blacks, you create contrast in values — light versus dark — through which you can create a sense of depth. What is commonly done is to place heavy blacks in the foreground and to drop out all the blacks in the background (see Fig. 10). But of course, this isn’t always possible; sometimes something black or something “focal” occupies a space on a background plane. Here one has to be careful not to position an equally black foreground element, e.g., a silhouetted figure, next to it, because this would make it seem like foreground and background elements are placed on the same plane. Rearranging a panel’s composition is sometimes not an option due to time constraints or because it would break the comic page’s overall structure and layout — i.e., its macropanel or “metapanel,” if you will, to borrow a term from Will Eisner. But just leaving areas unfilled might not be an option either because, perhaps, of critical framing considerations. So what then? Well, back when full-range grayscale printing had yet to become pervasive, it was a common practice to use stippled screen tones to add a tone of gray. This meant that one didn’t have to do all spotting with just blacks or whites. And, like pens and inks, these screen tone patterns could be used, and have been used, for shading, coloring, texturing, framing, and so on (see Fig. 11). And no wonder, for long, the application of screen tones has been, and still is in the Japanese manga — i.e., black-and-white, comic-style paperbacks — arsenal, a staple technique. Anyway, here also, the rule applies that it’s best not to position same-valued elements next to each other. In addition, one has to bear in mind that too much gray is boring; the eye hungers for more tonal contrast.

Fig. 10: Batman: Gotham Knights #1: “To Become the Bat” (2000); art and inks by Jim Lee.
Batman: Black & White, Vol. 3: “Day & Night in Black & White” (2008); inked by Terry Austin.

So, as stated above, sharp contrast makes for makes for dramatic punctuation and that’s all great, but there are times you want to soften the transition between the blacks and whites in an image, e.g., to render the perhaps jarring edges somewhat less attention-grabbing. Now, you could use a palette of shades of gray to smooth things out in a gradient manner, but that just makes for muddy confusion in which nothing stands out as distinct and separate. So how then to give a softer edge between masses of black and white? A common technique here is what is known as “feathering,” which refers to drawing repetitive lines emerging at an angle from a heavier line like barbs from a feather (hence the term “feathering”) (see Fig. 12). This softens up the edges while still maintaining a high-contrast look.

Fig. 12: Batman: Gotham Knights #47: “Riddle Me This” (2004); inks by Sal Regla.

Now, feathering isn’t about just putting down some lines to create a graduating tone, it is also done to bring out the form and volume of the object being drawn. The, if you will, barbs must, namely, follow the object’s dominant shape and orientation (see Fig. 13). Sounds easy enough, right? Still, all too often, it is done wrong. Like when the feather lines don’t blend smoothily into the black edge, but instead meet it at right angles (see Fig. 14, left). This results in something that looks unnatural, especially if the feathered object is of organic nature. What you want is negative white space poking like little needles into the thick black (see Fig. 14, right). Sometimes there’s a need for horizontal feathering. Here you want the feather lines to blend into the black, getting thinner as the graduate out from the shaded area, lest you end up with that looks more akin to ornamental striping than like proper shading (Fig. 15, compare left and right).

feather 2
Fig. 13: Batman: Black & White, Vol. 2: “Stormy Nether” (2003); inked by Tom Palmer.
Fig. 14: This is but a simplified example to illustrate two approaches to feathering, one wrong, the other right.
Fig. 15: Another simplified example, this one illustrating two different approaches to horizontal feathering.

Last, but not least, I want to talk about crosshatching. It’s a technique by which you layer several sets of parallel hatching that crisscross each other, creating a dark mesh-like tone. The rule of “less is more” applies here. However, a lot of artists and their audience alike mistakenly place too high a value on visual busywork as a sign of artistic skill while, in fact, it’s actually the opposite in that, it just distracts the eye from poor figure construction and overall composition; it indeed takes more actual skill to render a scene with as few lines as possible. (Did anyone say ligne claire?) But crosshatching has its purpose and place. But even then, it has be done right; otherwise, the shading looks “off.” Perhaps you think, “How hard can it be, crisscrossing lines,” but it is easy to mess it up. For instance, if the lines in two layers get close to being parallel, the resulting shading looks jarring (see Fig. 16, left). Another example of how not to do it: Say you want to delineate the shadowed contours of the human body. If you put down some same-length lines with intersections at right angles, you’ll end up with a mathematical pattern that looks monotonous and unnatural (see Fig. 16, middle). To get that natural look, something else is needed, namely, e.g., rows of shorter or brokes lines that get heavier as they merge into the black (see Fig. 16, right).

Fig. 16: Three approaches to crosshatching, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

To conclude, some trivia: Have you ever wondered why crosshatching and feathering is commonly seen in American comics and in Franco-Belgian far less so? Well, of course, other than the unhealthy obsession with Olympian-like figures that lend themselves to a bonanza of shading, with their defined muscles and taut tendons, rather than with plain, oval, round-based figures like those seen in say, Asterix, it has everything to do with the economics of printing. In Europe, comics have since long been published in quality editions with quality paper and printing, while overseas in the United States, comic publishers were initially — and for quite a long period — bent on publishing their comics in cheap format, printed on pulp paper and with little color. That meant that American artists had had to work their magic with heavy inks.

Well, uh, that about wraps it up. I hope you enjoyed this read from top to bottom or even found it useful. If not, well, you can just go f… Oh, you know what the music means, our time is up …

Ik heb een nieuwe liefde…

Saga2Anders dan Amerikaanse striptekenaars vertonen Europese striptekenaars een beeld van bonte verscheidenheid, elk gebruikt karakteristieke teken- en kleurtechnieken; bovendien experimenteren zij vaak volop met teken- en kleurtechnieken gedurende hun hun carrière. Vergelijk maar eens het oude werk van Olivier Ledroit (Chroniques de la Lune noire) met het nieuwe (Requiem Chevalier Vampire).

Maar er zijn ook Amerikanen wier werk afsteekt tegen doorsnee-Amerikaanse strips. Mike Mignola (Hellboy, Baltimore). Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night, Wormwood). Ashley Wood (Hellspawn, Zombies Vs. Robots). Een triade die mij sinds jaar en dag inspireert. Weet je wat het is met hun werk, hun strips? Ze doen niet Amerikaans aan. Nee, zo zeg ik het niet goed. Het zijn niet van die overgepolijste risicoloze superheldenstrips. De tekeningen zijn meer meer figuratief. Stilistisch markanter.

Nu, na zojuist Saga, vol. 1 gelezen te hebben, kan ik niet anders dan Fiona Staples aan het rijtje toe te voegen. Man, wat een fris tekentalent! Heerlijk bizarre karakterontwerpen. Nonchalant inktwerk. Dromerige achtergronden. Wat wil je nog meer!