The Tiny Universe of Dot Screens

all images from John Hilgart's 4CP blog  
Last post I noted the upcoming American Printing History Association annual conference on color. I'm looking forward to seeing Dr. Sarah Lowengard who will present “Why Color? On the Uses, (Misuses) and Meanings of Color in Printing”. From what I know of her she's smart and brings a multidisciplinary philosophical/critical eye to a seemingly narrow subject. I wrote about her, and her fascinating thesis project on color in the 18th century, in an earlier post, Arsenic, Sheep's Dung and a Yellow called Pink.

Another talk that stood out in the APHA roster is Gabriella Miyares' “Worlds, Dot by Dot: 4-Color Process* in the Age of Pulp Comics.” The look of classic pulp comics— cheap paper, ragged printing, colors made up from overlaid fields of dot screens and a welter of misalignments and fortuitous mishaps— is something that resonates in the collective pop cultural consciousness. From Roy Lichtenstein to designers today who ironically try imitating that haphazard mechanical look with the intensive digital precision of Photoshop filters.

Gabriella is a graphic designer based in New York City, working in stationery design but her background experience includes experimenting with letterpress, screenprinting, and intaglio. Last year she attended a course at the Rare Book School at UVa that had a mini-section on early, cheap "pulp" color printing, which got her thinking about "how superheroes, and comics, have that very specific "look" -- those ragged dots and misprintings and very specific color palettes." Gabriella shared with me some of her research for the talk: 
"Hands-down the best visual resource I found was John Hilgart's 4CP blog (http://4cp.posthaven.com/). In looking at these magnified and cropped examples it became clear that the artists were rather limited by a very imprecise printing process, but at the same time the look has become something iconic and beautiful in its own right. That I think was the germ of the idea for this talk. I wanted to explore how these comics were actually made, how much control the artists actually had, and also how emerging technology made this process/look extinct (though it is still imitated with Photoshop!)"... Another incredible visual resource in The Digital Comic Museum (http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/). This website is all volunteer-run by comics enthusiasts who... scan the comics that qualify as copyright-free and post them for anyone/everyone to enjoy. Many of the represented comics are specific genre comics (romance, sci-fi, crime, and propaganda comics) ...  I'll be covering the idea of nostalgia in my talk and I think this site is proof of nostalgia for this aesthetic. In the forums you can see a lot of people lamenting that the art of comics today just doesn't match up to the beauty of what it once was -- which on one level is very funny because back then the process was so crazy : colorists basically submitted a watercolor "guide" to a color separation house that would then do all the color, and there was usually no time/money to proof so you just had to hope they got it right...
I'm late to the party in discovering Hilgart's 4CP | Four Color Process: adventures deep inside the comic book site where he scans and artfully crops tiny sections from his seemingly vast comic collection— then blows these up to monumental proportions. His meta- musings on the worlds of dot screens on cheap paper is erudite, lyrical, singularly obsessive, and a little bit whacko. John is a former english teacher and his formidable command of language and literary references spar nicely with the simple subject at hand. His lengthy "manifesto" on "the scopophilic impulse that drives 4CP blog" and on the dot screen itself is well-worth your time and attention. A taste:
[T]he dots provide the visual experience of granular detail that the art itself cannot. Every detail is more detailed, while realism is systematically undermined. Crucially, this perforated universe and molecular level of detail are unintended and have no intrinsic relationship to the illustrative content of comic books. Four-color process delivers surplus, independent information, a kind of visual monosodium glutamate that makes the comic book panel taste deeper.
High-tail it over there.
* "Four color process" is the mechanical reproduction — or simulation—of colors created from overlaying fields of dot screens of cyan, magenta, yellow and black-- the four "process" colors. Comics were printed cheaply and fast in a particularly coarse screen (fewer dots per inch) on pulp paper that absorbed the ink. The resulting registration misalignments, ham-fisted color representation, and ink "bleeding" are what we enthusiasts find so compelling.


John HIlgart said...

Thanks for the appreciative thoughts! You reflect me back to myself in terms that make me happy, right down to "a little bit whacko," which I suppose is irrefutable. Wish I were in NYC for the print conference.

Angela Voulangas said...

Nice to "meet" you John— thanks for commenting. Fantastic blog and commentary. I'll be back to explore further!


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