Black and White

Feb 5, 2012

About once a month, I’ll have a fan write in and ask why I don’t do use color on Drunk Elephant Comics.

It’s a legitimate question, and in this day and age of computer coloring, it might make my answer seem strange, especially since I digitally draw this comic. The answer is made up of two parts.

First, I’m trained as a graphic designer by trade (I initially got into design doing paste-up, even). I love how the digital revolution streamlined my workflow. However, when I was in school, we were taught about creating identity marks and logos, about how your mark needs to stand on its own two feet in simple black and white, as that is the simplest form of reproduction possible. It needed to be able to be photocopied, faxed (how quaint), etc. And above all, it had to maintain the brand at even its crudest form.

We were taught to strip everything down to the bare essentials, and in doing so I came to love minimalism in nearly everything.

Which tied into an interview I read with Will Eisner between himself and Frank Miller as they spoke about the virtues of black and white art. I’m paraphrasing badly since I don’t have it in front of me, but the gist of it was that your cartooning should be able to stand on its own and not use color as a crutch for shoddy storytelling.

Now, obviously since both men’s body of work have a great deal of color in them, they are not naysaying color, per se. But I challenge you to go out into the sea of webcomics out there and really look at the ones that use color. You’ll start to see how true that idea they shared really is. Color is used instead of drawing backgrounds, or to show an emotional state rather than convey it through their characters’ faces. And that’s sort of the sorry state of cartooning today, I feel. There are more cartoonists out there than ever before, but they are relying too much on professional, yet accessible, tools to create their work. They have a cheap Wacom tablet, a copy of Photoshop, and a handful of fonts for their lettering (which is a whole other blog post there, but let’s not get off track).

Sadly, the only thing you need to be a professional cartoonist are even cheaper than this. A good brush or set of pens, an Ames lettering guide, a pencil and bristol are the only tools you really need. Then all you need is a shitload of patience to get good at these tools, and a great deal more to get good at storytelling.

Which brings me back to minimalism, and why I draw the strip the way I do. I feel that doing this comic in black and white is a daily test for me, a challenge to see what I can do just making marks on the page. There is nothing more simple (and to me, more beautiful) than black and white comics. They are easily reproducible; I can make a Drunk Elephant Comics collection with merely a photocopier if I chose. Truthfully, however, I do it because I want to get better than I am.

One of the great things about being at the Center for Cartoon Studies is that I’m surrounded by probably 50 plus cartoonists everyday. We talk. We share. We learn from each other. Could you learn everything here on your own? Possibly, with enough effort and ambition (the ones that do are obviously all working professionals later in life). It may take you ten years though. I’m doing it in two. Two very intense years of study.

I believe that you can see the work I’m putting in outside of this comic reflecting back at you since September when I arrived at the school. One of the luxuries of being here is having access to a fantastic library. As I was working on the comic leading up to the year, one of the things I started to notice was I was thinking about using color, because it seemed like it needed something to help anchor it down. I really couldn’t put my finger on it, but I finally realized one day in class that I absolutely sucked at laying down spot black. Spot blacks anchor your lines, and are almost mandatory when doing work in only black and white.

And I realized that my problem was that I was torn between representational spot blacks (shading a figure, for instance), and graphic spot blacks. Then I remembered Jaime Hernandez.

So, I’ve been studying. I’ve been reading. I’ve been doing experiments on the side that I don’t share with anyone else. Seeing how I could possibly get that good at spot blacks, to anchor my work like that. I’m not just focusing on him solely (remember, I have that giant library at my disposal); I’m going back and looking at Caniff, and Toth. At Eisner. All of it. I’m learning how to create greytones with a series of quick pen hatches. I’m figuring out when and how much black a character should have on them at all times.

You see? Black and white is hard, and frankly, I’m just getting started with getting good at it.


By the way, here’s my classmate Sophie Goldstein’s webcomic, Darwin Carmichael Is Going To Hell if you want to see a cartoonist who is using color not as a crutch but as a powerful tool in her storytelling toolbox. I just finished a project with her where we were coloring together, and she really knows how to use it effectively.


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