Hail the Hallowed Halo
Many years ago Jim Vadeboncoeur and I interviewed the late John Buscema about his early career. At one point I asked him why he and other comic artists of the 50s and 60s put "halos" around characters rather than letting a black background touch them. Here's an example of what I mean, from a Golden Age Ruben Moreira story:
The halo preserves the outline of the co-pilot's face. In the printed comic the effect might be subdued by running a dark color over the halo so it becomes part of the background:
Too often comic book colorists chose a bright color, giving the character a radioactive glow:
When you look at it closely, though, the halo wasn't necessary. Had Moreira left the guy's nose open instead of in shadow, the background could have met the face and the face would have read just fine.
But comics artists often used halos when outlines didn't need preserving. Here's a particularly egregious example from Milton Caniff, who of all people should have known better. [Sidebar: I'm not convinced this is 100% Caniff; I suspect ghost work.] With the exception of Terry's left arm and Dude's shirt front, none of these edges needed saving. The halos here were apparently artistic, not practical, choices.
As for Buscema, he shrugged halos off as a stylistic trick comic artists adopted from illustrators they'd admired in school. This intrigued me, so I pulled out some tearsheets and went looking for halos.
I found quite a bit of evidence to support Buscema's theory. Many illustrators lightened the areas around characters, especially around their heads. Here are a couple of 1944 advertising examples.
The group of women is from an ad for Eureka vacuum cleaners. Note how each head is haloed. I understand using a halo to highlight the main figure. But halos don't make sense on the secondary figures, like the elderly woman and the one with the cap to the main figure's right. In the full-size reproduction we see that the grey background tones are hatched in with a brush, just like Caniff's black background.
In another ad, one pushing Wilsonite sunglasses, W. Calvert also uses a halo to emphasize the main character. I confess I reproduce this ad not only to show its artwork, but also to share the wonderfully-awful wartime pun in the headline. Anyway, consider the halo around the aviator. It certainly draws attention to the his face, the most important part of the picture. Unfortunately it also eats away much of a background figure. This partial figure looks really weird. Calvert would have been wiser to move him further back and to the right--or to leave him out altogether. I speculate that this figure was indeed fully painted at first. Calvert might have sponged out the halo later to prevent the background interfering with the aviator's head.
Which led me to wonder if some comic book halos weren't style at all, but the result of insufficient planning. Consider how a cartoonist can handle a large foreground black area. The classic choice is to position it against a white (or grey) part of the background. But what if the background is also black? There are two options. We can deliberately lose the foreground black into the background. George Tuska did that with Buck's hair in this Buck Rogers daily:
As long as you plan the black areas properly, the viewer will understand the drawing. As we'll see later, you can lose quite a bit of foreground black without your drawing becoming unreadable.
The second way to avoid losing a foreground black is to provide a rimlight to illuminate the endangered spot. That's what Austin Briggs did on Ming's helmet in this Flash Gordon panel:
A rimlight keeps the light "inside" the drawing. The result is a natural light effect instead of an artistic gimmick like a halo. Like the last one, this technique requires forethought. If you don't plan ahead you wind up with an abomination like this William Overgard Steve Roper panel:
This could only have happened if Overgard had drawn and inked the foreground completely, then decided he wanted a solid black background. Since the story takes place in a darkened room, you'd think he'd have inked the background first so he'd know which foreground blacks he could afford to lose. Or he could have spotted blacks in the pencils, so he'd know where he was going when he began to ink.
Working from dark to light is a great way to control blacks, but it's difficult to master and not many artists use the approach. Milton Caniff wrote that Noel Sickles worked dark to light, massing in all his shadows with a brush before indicating outlines with a pen. This work flow made panels like this possible:
Had Sickles outlined in pen first, we'd see more linework in the light areas. Instead he used the barest of lines to hold the foreground figure's face. The shadow carries the rest. The speaker's face is made entirely of shadow. The one exception is the line of his chin. Leaving that line out would have let the face run into the drapery.
Caniff said he tried to emulate Sickles' approach but gave up in frustration and went back to outlining everything in pen. Having tried both ways, I can appreciate how he felt. However if you can master working dark to light, you open up a whole a new world: the world of "invisible lines." Rather than describe what I mean with words, I offer a panel by one of the world's masters of black and white, Arturo del Castillo. Devour this:Every time I look at this panel I drool. The massing of blacks borders on audacious. With an alternating pattern of darks and lights del Castillo gives the figures a full three dimensions. Hardly anything has an outline. The exterior contours of hats, heads and bodies are defined entirely by the shadows enclosing them. Where there's no shadow there's no line. The viewer's brain provides the line. The middle man's back is as solid as can be, yet most of its light side doesn't exist! And how about the face of the guy on the right? It consists of nothing but perfectly placed chunks of shadow. Wow!
Here's another del Castillo panel, in which he pushes the imaginary outline to its maximum. Take a look at the white hat at the left.That hat's crown has height, depth, and roundness. Yet it's not there! The crown is all in our mind...the only things on the page are two big chunks of black. No halos here. None needed!
For my money this is the sort of thing to aspire to. Think ahead. Bravely allow those black backgrounds to touch your figures. (Of course, as del Castillo demonstrates, being a genius helps.)