Comic tech

Comparing movies with comic books – including the whole gamut of graphic novels, bande dessinée, fumetti, manga, and more – is interesting if ultimately frustrating.

Besides the gulf in social acceptability throughout the English-speaking world that still remains among many, movies have been much quicker to harness technology for the elaboration of their art. As sound, then colour, optical effects, and most recently digital image manipulation have been incorporated, so we are served modern blockbusters such as the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. Despite their obvious success at the box office, though, comparison with the works of Carl Theodor Dreyer shows how technology can never supplant art.

Few comic books take full advantage of modern printing technology, as most artists are apparently content to continue working in black and white, or comparatively crude colour. This is perhaps most surprising in manga, where more colourful departures such as Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface are in the avant garde. Even in that bold move, much of the book remains in black and white.

Manga Studio EX 5, developed in Japan by Celsys and distributed for the last eight years by Smith Micro, provides a remarkable set of tools for electronic production of manga and other black and white comics, that is justly popular in Japan. Its earlier versions supported only flat or cel colour, placing great emphasis on its library of tone fills, but it has recently gained more tools and features to create far more realistic colour images.

Although there have been some British pioneers, such as Don Lawrence who with others brightened my childhood in Look and Learn, anglophones have generally lagged.

Francophone bande dessinée artists have been more adventurous in exploring sophisticated graphic styles, including the extensive use of colour. François Bourgeon has shown how watercolour can enhance already exquisite black and white drawings, in his classic series Les Passagers du Vent, Les Compagnons du Crépuscule, and Le Cycle de Cyann. Several other artists such as François Schuiten (Cities series with Benoît Peeters) and Jean-Pierre Gibrat (Le Vol du Corbeau), have also brought delight to the eye. Gorgeously rich-hued paintings by Ana Miralles have breathed life into Jean Dufaux’s tales of Africa in their Djinn series.

Ironically it has been an American, Alex Ross working for Marvel and DC Comics, who has pushed the envelope furthest with his photoreal pictures, seen best in Marvels and in the large-format The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes. If you want to aspire to such stunning work on your Mac, you may still need Corel Painter, Adobe Photoshop, and/or the pair of new Affinity apps; but Ross has made it clear in the account of his technique given in Mythology (ISBN 1-84023-941-7) how much time and effort he spends developing fully rendered images in greyscale before starting to apply colour gouache. Although this may seem clumsy, this is the classical painter’s technique of grisaille underpainting, and is readily adapted to working in layers.

Of course sophisticated colour artwork alone does not make a comic great, just as the many millions spent on recent movies cannot make them as great as Dreyer’s masterpieces. Great comics can still use very simple drawings, as in Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography Persepolis. But increasingly capable software tools are making it more practical to create comics that are graphically rich, rivalling the most magnificent of movies.

As Jean Dufaux assured his readers in the special supplementary volume of artwork for the first cycle of Djinn: “Above all, don’t think of cinema. It’s the cinema that must think of you.”

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 22 issue 11, 2006.