Look closely—very closely—at a Sunday comic strip in a printed newspaper. You might need the magnifying feature on a smartphone or a loupe, a small magnifying device, to see the dots that make up most areas of color on Sunday pages, and all of the tints in black ink Sunday through Saturday.
Clustered dots of varying sizes fool the eye into seeing tones. Just four ink colors—black, cyan (light blue), magenta (a rosy red), and yellow—can combine in different densities to form most colors, though some appear garish or washed out. Newspapers began printing color in 1894 using this process and continue today. The dots used to simulate tones are referred to generically as a screen or in photos as a halftone.
Cartoonists don’t create these dots—they’re added during print production. Cartoonists started with pen and ink on paper. Starting in 1894, their drawings were shot as photographic negatives, which were then exposed under intense light onto photosensitized zinc metal plates.
To add tints, cartoonists (or often an assistant or colorist) roughly marked up their drawings, indicating which grays or colors should appear in which areas. Comics syndicates created a limited set of colors to choose from based on mixing tints at different percentages, and those numbers would be marked on the comic. Some cartoonists used color pencil or watercolors on their original or a copy as an additional guide.
In production, engravers took these zinc plates—a single black plate for weekdays, and four separate ones for Sunday color comics—and painted around each area that needed tone using a water-soluble material called gamboge. They applied an oily ink to a sheet in a frame somewhat resembling a silk screen called a Ben Day screen that was covered with tiny dots for the desired tint. The engraver then placed the screen over the areas on the zinc plate that needed tint applied and used a burnisher to rub down the Ben Day pattern. They then washed the gamboge off. They might have to do this dozens to hundreds of times for a Sunday strip.
The zinc plate subsequently went into an acid bath that etched areas unexposed to light and those not covered by Ben Day dots. This left all the exposed and inked areas in relief for printing. Newspaper printing and nearly all other printing through the 1980s relied on inking these raised surfaces and pressing them directly onto paper. (By the 1980s, a flat-plate process called offset printing had replaced relief printing.)
A syndicate took these plates and under pressure created paper molds (or “mats”) in the hundreds or thousands to send to newspapers around the country. Newspapers cast lead alloy plates from the molds for their presses.
Today, cartoonists work in full color and rely on a digital process to separate their colors into CMYK, but the same tiny dots rule the Sunday roost.
–Glenn Fleishman, Independent type and printing historian specializing in comics print production and materials.
A color guide created for a Milt Gross Sunday comic used watercolors to indicate tints. Only the first instance of each character or element is typically colored as a guide for the etcher. (1928) Press Publishing Company.
The color guide for this Hi & Lois Sunday strip used markers to flesh out details with corresponding numbers found on a production company’s color chart. The artist also marked areas to “air brush,” or overlap tones in a gradation. (2012) ©2012 Comicana, Inc., Hi & Lois.
A four-color separation of a Peanuts Sunday comic in flongs, or heavy paper molds for casting, showing blue/cyan, red/magenta, yellow, and black/key plates. These unused flongs were shipped to a Stockholm newspaper and then sold in an estate sale to a thrift shop nearly 50 years later. (August 1, 1976) Peanuts.
A stereotype plate of a daily comic showing the Ben Day dots etched as tints; the plate is mirrored here for readability. (May 27, 1966) Blondie.
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