Exploring the Secret History of Ben Day Dots in US Comic Books

New Fun Comics #1, published in 1935.
New Fun Comics #1, published in 1935.

Over on the terrific Legion of Andy web site the in part anonymous site runner has been publishing a series of articles on what might seem a pretty dry subject – the Ben-Day dots printing process, used to colour comics for many years in the US in the past.

Named after illustrator and printer Benjamin Henry Day, Jr., (son of 19th Century publisher Benjamin Henry Day) it’s a technique dating from 1879 and US pulp comic books of the 1950s and 1960s used Ben-Day dots in the four process colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to inexpensively create shading and secondary colours such as green, purple, orange and flesh tones.

The series set out a while back to try and answer the question: when Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein painted huge, transformed versions of comic book panels in the early 1960s, and said he was painting Ben Day dots…was he really?

The series has followed the Ben Day dot from its beginnings in lithographic printing (1879) through its comic strip ascendancy in letterpress (1890s) to the mature, complex Ben Day techniques used on giant, broadsheet US Sunday strips of the 1930s.

With Part 7, the series has just reached “The Birth of the Comic Book’ – the Platinum Age of Comics and the Dawn of the Golden Age — and notes Ben Day was there, although there were changes ahead.

It’s proven a fascinating series so far and one I’ve mentioned before, not least because “Legion of Andy” looks beyond the US, bringing in British and European comics, too, including early UK titles such as Puck (which used different colouring techniques, as did other titles).

If you’re at all interested in how comics are coloured (or used to be, then do check out this series. Part 8 will cover more on the Ben Day dots in early US comic books, and the faster, cheaper method which replaced Ben Day— Craftint Multicolor — “the most important comics colouring method you’ve never heard of,” we’re told. “Probably…” Plus the best-kept secrets of the Golden Age of Comics revealed for the first time.

The Ben Day Dots Articles So Far:

  • Part 1 — Roy Lichtenstein — the man who didn’t paint Ben Day dots
  • Part 2 — Halftone dots, Polke dots, more Roy
  • Part 3 — CMYK / Four-colour comic book dots vs. RGB dots on screens
  • Part 4 — Pre-history, originsBen Day in the 19th century
  • Part 5 — Ben Day in lithography
  • Part 5.5 — French comic strips of the 1880s. Coloured by relief aquatint.
  • Part 5.75 — A lithographic protocomic (?) from 1885
  • Part 6— Ben Day meets the Sunday Comics in the 1890s
  • Part 6.1 — Tarzan and the Ben Day Dots—secrets of 1930s comic strip colour
  • Part 6.2 — Fun With (Mis-)Registration—when colour printing plates don’t line up
  • Part 7 – The Birth of the Comic Book – the Platinum Age of Comics and the Dawn of the Golden Age — Ben Day was there
The British comic Puck Issue One, published in June 1904
The British comic Puck Issue One, published in June 1904

 

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", working as a freelance editor, as Creative Consultant on the new Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years. His credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel UK and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines. He also edited STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics, including Team M.O.B.I.L.E. and The Beatles Story. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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