The History of Comic Book Printing Dot By Dot

Man holding a black and white comic book

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 04:35 pm

Comic books have been a staple of American literature for more than a hundred years. But their history goes back further. The earliest known comic book, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, was published in Europe in 1837 in several different languages – none of which were English.

Four years later, an English version was published in the U.K. The following year, that version was reprinted in New York, giving America its first comic book. The book was side stitched and contained 40 pages with six to 12 panels per page. Instead of using word balloons, text was placed under the panels to describe the story. At the time, nobody had an inkling of what was to come.

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The Golden Age of comic books

Shelves of classic comic books in a book store

The Golden Age of comic books began in June 1938 with the publication of Action Comics #1. The introduction of Superman was a huge hit, and soon thereafter, comic books began featuring all manner of heroes with amazing powers. The popularity of these comic books surged for a decade but began fading in the years after World War II. Marvel Comics sparked a brief resurgence of the genre during the ‘60s with a different type of superhero, but the industry then retreated into a prolonged slump. 

Comic books recaptured the attention of America starting in the 1980s by branching out into uncharted territories. Comic books grew up, so to speak, and began offering darker characters, stories, and plot lines. Antiheroes, introduced by Marvel during the ‘60s, became increasingly popular. This led to what many to call the “Dark Age” of comic books. Today, comic books are more popular than ever and have become part of a billion-dollar industry that includes movies, television series, toys, and conventions.

How comic books were originally printed

In the beginning, comic books were printed on a 4- or 5-color newspaper press, using cheap newsprint paper. Most were printed in spot color, a process whereby the graphic elements are printed in “spots”, one color layer at a time. This took much longer than today’s full-color printing methods where all colors are printed at the same time.

When printing early comics, pages were folded to size then trimmed on three sides with a 3-knife cutter. The cover was printed on a coated or slick paper and then trimmed to size. The binding usually consisted of stitches or staples, similar to saddle stitch booklet printing, as most comics did not have enough pages to need a sturdier type of binding.

A new kind of “spot”

Ben dot printing of a shocked woman

As comic books grew more sophisticated and artists sought better use of color, publishers began replacing the spot method with the Ben-Day dot printing process (named after illustrator Benjamin Day). Ben-Day dot also applies the colored ink using small dots. However, the dots can be closely-spaced, widely-spaced, or overlapping. This made it easier to create secondary colors and shading to give images more depth.

For example, widely-spaced Magenta Ben-Day dots were used to create pink. Pulp comic books used Ben-Day dots in the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to create secondary colors such as green, purple, orange, and flesh tones. It also cost less to produce different color tones with Ben-Day dots.

To apply the Ben-Day dots to comic book drawings, illustrators used transparent overlay sheets with different dot sizes and distributions. They cut the overlay material into shapes that fit the areas needing color or background and rubbed the shapes onto the drawing with a burnisher. The area overlaid with Ben-Day dots provided tonal shading for the printing plate. Ben-Day dots served as the preferred comic book printing method for decades – until something better came along.

How comic books are created today

Producing comic books requires a multi-step process involving a variety of materials and creative abilities. Today’s comic book illustrators can choose from many different sizes, weights, and finishes of paper, as well as a wide array of drawing mediums ranging from pencils and inks to markers and paints.

The writer is usually a different person than the artist. The two work together to decide on the situations, characters, and other details of the story. Then, they decide how to break up the story to fit each page. Once the story has been refined, the writer creates a script that guides the drawings.

The artist first makes a rough sketch of each page, called a thumbnail, and then begins drawing each page in pencil. (It’s not uncommon for multiple artists to work on the same story.) When the pencil drawings are complete, they are enlarged and sent to the inker, who uses a variety of pens and brushes to produce a finished black and white page. The last step consists of adding the lettering for the dialogue, sound effects, and narratives.

For years, the comic industry used a simple, hand separated 4-color system that provided 64 colors to choose from. The colors were easy to reproduce on the newsprint paper typically used for comics, and the comics cost less to print.

Now, most coloring is done digitally. The master pages are scanned into the computer, and the colorist digitally selects and applies each color to the drawing. The computer then assigns a code that identifies the four color components that make up a particular color. When all the pages have been digitally colored, a proof copy of the entire comic book is printed for final approval before being mass printed.

Printing Today’s Comic Books

When printing begins, the individual pages are arranged so that they will appear in the proper order when the comic book is assembled. The sheets of paper are fed between rotating plates, and both sides are printed at the same time. This process is repeated for each of the four colors and called “four color printing”.

On some printing presses, as many as eight pages can be printed on each side of a large sheet. On other types of presses, a long roll of paper is fed between four sets of rollers, and all four colors are printed in a single pass. The printed sheets or the roll of paper are then cut to the proper size, stacked, folded, and stapled or glued to form the finished comic book.

Four color printing has become the printing method of choice for most comic book publishers because it offers many advantages over earlier printing methods. It allows for the most color tones. Artists can create detailed shades that weren’t possible with hand separation techniques. Four color printing works well with offset printing and better quality paper. It’s faster than hand separating colors, and costs less. Did you know Printivity prints comic books? Check out our comic book page  to see all we can do.


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