How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And Imagined

Mike Mignola returned to monthly comic books with Hellboy in Hell (December 2012). He hasn't drawn a regular Hellboy series since The Island in 2005. I enjoy his storytelling, drawing style, humor, and design so I was excited when Hellboy in Hell #1 hit shelves. I can not remember the last time I went to a comic book shop to buy a new comic book on new comic book day. This was going to be great!

Except, it wasn't.

Outside of motion comics or other newjack media, we tend to think of comic book art as a constant across print and digital, a thought problem for zooming and resolution, and nothing else. Comic artist Jim Rugg has written a pretty compelling argument about why that's not the case.

I was a little disappointed but couldn't figure out why because Mignola's drawing and storytelling were great as usual. When I spoke to Jasen Lex about it, I learned he thought the new comic was fantastic. After a brief conversation, I realized that Lex had read a digital copy (on his beautiful Mac display) while I had read a print copy.

We decided to compare his digital copy and my print copy page by page, panel by panel.

I found the digital copy stunning in comparison. The subtle palette's warm and cool colors complimented Mignola's immaculate compositions and storytelling in ways I had missed on my readings of the print edition. *(It should be noted that the digital copy also lends itself to zooming in and out of the artwork and focusing on individual panels, as a fan of Mignola's compositional choices and drawing, this definitely adds to my enjoyment.)

I had to take back all the negative thoughts I had been sending Dave Stewart's direction. Each panel and page looked great.

But the print edition now looked even worse compared with the digital copy.

How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And Imagined

Hellboy in Hell #1, page 8: digital (left), print (right) – notice how dark/low-contrast the print version is, particularly the underwater creatures

I believe that Scott Allie and Mike Mignola are great at their craft and committed to this work. Dave Stewart is widely regarded as one of the best contemporary, mainstream colorists.

So what's up?

The function of print has changed dramatically in the last decade. I speak to many people who produce or want to produce printed editions because they are stuck in a 20th century mindset when print was a commercial or mass medium. A printed edition represents a certain validation or sense of a "real" object. This desire often supersedes any consideration of the nuance of printing as part of the creative process or for its expressive possibilities. We fell in love with print comics, and that's what we want to make (yes, I include myself in this camp).

How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And Imagined

Hellboy in Hell #1, page 13, panels 1-3: digital (top), print (bottom) – in panel 1, Hellboy's arm tends to merge with the "BOOM" sound effect in the print version which has a flattening effect since the sound effect is in the background; panel 3, print version is dark, low-contrast

Media guru Marshall McLuhan suggests that when a medium is no longer considered mass media, it needs to redefine itself or it becomes obsolete. I heard Art Spiegelman apply this notion to comics as "Comics now either will probably become an art form or disappear."

When creating a printed document many choices must be considered in order to create the most complimentary presentation of the content and the best experience for the reader/consumer.

For one, print is not as precise as digital. A copy of a digital file can retain 100% of the information contained in the original, while every printed copy is going to be unique with the degree of variation based on factors such as printing process, paper, moisture, ink, etc.

In the last couple of years, as I've learned more about print making, I've learned to adjust levels of contrast, brightness, and specific colors for print depending on where and how a file or piece is being produced.

For Afrodisiac, I looked at a number of paper samples and talked to Adhouse Books' Chris Pitzer about our options. Ultimately I chose a matte coated stock that I thought would be perfect. When copies arrived, I found the uncoated end pages more attractive and changed paper stocks for subsequent editions.

How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And Imagined

Hellboy in Hell #1, page 25, panel 2: digital (left), print (right)

DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, IDW, and every other publisher have had varying degrees of success when it comes to printing and reprinting comics. One of the archival collections I thought was well produced in the last few years was Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibi. The paper used in this reprint was the result of a printer error. However, that error resulted in what the late, great Bob Ross would dub "a happy accident." When the topic was broached at a panel at San Diego Comicon in 2007, the crowd actually applauded in regards to this paper stock.

The reason for the varying degrees of archival reprint success stems from paper and coloring. In the past colorists developed styles and palettes based on printing on web-presses (lots of slipping) and how ink looked on newsprint, which absorbs ink only slightly less than a paper towel, causing a dulling effect of the color. When low-quality newsprint is replaced with glossy coated paper (like the initial Marvel Masterworks) the result is drastically different than the original printing. I'm not going to argue about whether individual results are better or worse, that depends on the readers' opinions. The important note is that colors will vary depending on the paper stock.

So why is the print edition of Hellboy in Hell #1 so different from the digital edition?

Compared to print, today's digital displays are extremely subtle, capable of displaying millions of colors. I assume Dave Stewart colored Hellboy in Hell #1 digitally. Then digital proofs were shared with and ultimately approved by Scott Allie and Mike Mignola. These are probably the versions we see in the digital copies of Hellboy in Hell #1, and they are striking.

I think this might be where one problem occurs. It's like riding a bike. When you learn to ride a bike, it is almost impossible to unlearn it. And after you've spent hours staring at an image (on screen, paper, or canvas – it doesn't matter), like the cartoonist, colorist, and editor presumably have, it's hard to approach it with fresh eyes. Heck, after I looked at the digital edition of Hellboy in Hell #1, I was able to appreciate some of the details I had missed in the print edition because I knew where to find them.

Furthermore, if you get a copy of the print book a few days or week before the book is hitting shops, would anyone besides Chris Ware destroy the print run because the contrast is a little less than perfect?

Another possible explanation for this issue's appearance is that print changes. The way different paper and ink is manufactured can change from batch to batch. Printing processes and software continue to evolve. What worked great a year ago, might not even be an option today.

How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And Imagined

Hellboy in Hell #1, page 26 (detail): digital (left), print (right) – I failed to notice the face in the torso before I saw the digital version

The three components of the print process that can be adjusted are printer, paper, and palette (in this instance, palette refers to the actual colors in the digital file that is sent to the printer). For the sake of practicality, I'm going to focus on paper and palette.

Here are a few strategies that I thought of based on my own work and limited experience:

1. Adjust levels. This is the easiest, though possibly not the best solution. If printer, paper, and palette stay the same, I would guess this would improve the clarity of the printed book to an acceptable degree. This would basically enhance the contrast. I tend to do this step with my own work because I've noticed that what I have on screen loses contrast and appears darker when printed. Assuming I have the image right where I want it on screen, I will usually raise the shadow input level by 5-10 and reduce the highlight input level by 10-25. This requires some experimentation and will be unique to the creator's preference, their monitor, and the output device. Since Hellboy in Hell will probably be printed by the same printer on the same paper, this is a solution that might work fairly well.

2. Paper and printer. There are a lot of great papers out there. Sadly, better paper may add to production cost. But it's possible that it wouldn't and may be worth investigating. I personally would love to see some experimentation with spot varnish on the pages – either on the panels or on the gutters surrounding the panel. A lot of photography books and art books use this process to enhance the dimensional quality of the printed work. I think it could be interesting with Mignola's work, but would definitely add cost and require a bit of experimentation. I would also be interested in seeing Mignola's work presented on an uncoated stock. I think a little more tooth would add a complimentary textural quality to his pulpy subject matter.

I want to call attention to another recent comic book – Prophet #29. This book achieves stunning results with a limited color palette. I can't tell what the difference is in printing and paper. But considering how effective the value range is in this example of grays, I would be curious to know the entire production/printing process of each book to see if there is a production difference or if it's something in the palette. The blacks also appear to be different.

How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And Imagined

Prophet #29, pages 8 and 9

3. Palette. Another solution that I find intriguing is to create a separate palette for the print edition that features fewer colors and relies less on subtle gradients. Once the digital version is approved – the print edition, a simplified, exaggerated version could be produced and approved separately (maybe with a paint-by-numbers approach using an intern).

I would love to see a Mignola Hellboy story that uses a limited palette – think of those old Marvel monster comics, but with a carefully designed palette of colors that print well on coated paper! Richmond Lewis' incredible Batman: Year One coloring is an examples of this. The original comics were gorgeous and used the limited palette of 25% screens that was common through the majority of comics history into the early 90s. When the comic was reprinted on higher-quality paper, she recolored the story.

How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And Imagined

Batman #405, pages 10 and 11 (top); Batman: Year One, pages 34 and 35 (bottom)

Anyway, as a collector and fan of printed matter, I was disappointed in the printed edition of the first issue of Hellboy in Hell. Mignola's storytelling is as good as ever though, and fortunately the digital edition is beautiful. Hopefully the printed editions will catch up.

If you'd like to read more about Hellboy in Hell #1, I recommend David Brother's insightful critique. Brother focuses on the way Mignola uses atmosphere and humor to great effect. And if I'm not mistaken, his review is based on the digital edition.


How Digital Comics Change the Way Comic Books are Drawn—And ImaginedJim Rugg is a cartoonist, illustrator, and designer. He is the co-creator of Afrodisiac, Street Angel, and the PLAIN Janes. His work has been recognized by Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, American Illustration, Print, AIGA 50/50, and Best American Comics. His podcast returns to Boing Boing in February, and his forthcoming book Supermag will be out in mid-2013.