Four Ways To Give Your Comic A 1990s (or 80s)-style Look

Yes, I couldn't resist making a "Transmetropolitan"/"Sandman"-themed sketch today

Yes, I couldn’t resist making a “Transmetropolitan”/”Sandman”-themed sketch today

Generally speaking, my knowledge of comics is probably slightly limited. For starters, apart from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and Garth Ennis’ “The Authority: The Magnificent Kevin”, I’ve never really liked superhero comics.

So, this won’t really be an article about superhero comics – which is just as well, since their heyday was apparently in the 50s and 60s, rather than the 80s and 90s.

But, although I’m not a fan of superheroes, many of my favourite comic series – such as “Tank Girl“, “Sandman” and “Transmetropolitan” were in their heyday in the 1980s and 90s. And, although there have obviously been great comics and graphic novels produced since then, it’s still my favourite time period for comics – both in terms of writing and art.

So, I thought that I’d give you a few tips about how to give your next comic project or webcomic more of a 90s (and late 80s)-style “look” and atmosphere.

1) Traditional art: Although digital art was in it’s infancy in the 80s and 90s, most comic artists back then worked using more traditional mediums – and, in many ways, this is part of the signature “look” of 80s and 90s comics.

It’s also one reason why the art in comics from back then looks slightly simpler and less “hyper-realistic” than most modern professional comics do.

So, in other words, you should use pens, pencils and a scanner (or, at the very least, a good digital camera) for your artwork instead of just reaching for your graphics tablet. Likewise, the dialogue in your comic should be lettered by hand (rather than typed in on a computer) too.

Of course, once you’ve scanned your art – you can correct any mistakes in it digitally, but try to do this in a subtle way that your readers won’t notice – since the goal of doing this is to make it look like your comic came from a time before graphics editing software was commonplace in the world.

2) Block colours: I haven’t studied the history of printing in a huge level of detail, but it should be obvious to everyone that commercial printing technology has come along quite a bit since the 80s and 90s. This is especially true when you take a look at comic books – which were often originally designed to be printed fairly quickly in large quantities.

Whilst comics in the 80s and 90s had, for the most part, moved on from just using about four colours (like comics from the 40s-60s), the printing technology at the time only really allowed for solid areas of block colour a lot of the time and the colour palette was still at least very slightly limited.

If you want to see an example, take a look at this image – notice how even the shadowy areas of the image are made out of hatched lines of different colours, rather than a seamless blend of blue and black. Likewise, notice how the image only contains about seven different colours (black, white, pale blue, dark blue, red, bright yellow and pale brown).

This is also one reason why old comics have a very “cartoonish” look rather than the hyper-realistic “painted” look that most modern professional comics have.

So, if you want to make your comic look like something from the 80s and 90s, stick to just using simple primary and secondary colours and don’t have any areas in your art where two colours blend into each other.

Or, of course, you could just make your comic in black and white – this is pretty much timeless and, of course, was also at least slightly more common in previous decades (since it was easier and cheaper to print) than it is today (where it’s only really done for stylistic reasons).

3) Setting and storylines: One of the things which should probably be obvious if you’re making an 80s/90s-style comic is that you can’t really include too much in the way of modern technology and cultural references in it.

In other words, you shouldn’t show your characters using smartphones, talking about modern movies/TV shows, using modern MP3 players, watching movies on DVD (although DVDs existed in the mid-late 90s, VHS was a lot more common), talking about most commonly-used modern websites (except for the ones which actually did exist back in the 90s) etc….

Another thing which might be slightly less obvious – at least to people like me who were young kids in the 1990s – is that the types of storylines that were popular in the 90s were very slightly different to the ones that are popular today. I mean, have you ever wondered why the villains in “realistic” 90s TV shows, comics etc.. were almost all slightly unrealistic, had slightly over-the-top evil schemes and were often from fictitious countries?

Well, the main reason for this was that the 90s was (for the most part) an unusually utopic, optimistic and relatively peaceful decade in western history. The villain of choice in western media from the 50s to the 80s, the Soviet Union, had finally fallen and it would be another few years before 9/11 and all of the dystopic stuff that followed it would begin.

So, on the whole, the 90s was an unusually utopic and relatively peaceful decade (yes, there was the first gulf war, the last parts of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the conflict in the Balkans but there was no real impending threat of nuclear war and/or world war). What this meant for comic writers is that, if they wanted to come up with a “realistic” villain or a group of evil terrorists – then they had to literally make it up.

Likewise, the 1980s and 90s were the first decades where mainstream comics were finally able to be more “dark” and “edgy”, as well as being able to feature “anti-hero” characters. Yes, American horror and crime comics were kind of “dark” and “edgy” in the 1940s and early 1950s – but, of course, the repressive strictures of the comics code completely ruined that.

And, although this only really applied to America (although, amusingly, there are still 1950s-era restrictions about selling crime and/or horror comics on the statue books in the UK, even though they are thankfully unenforced these days), it had at least some level of indirect influence on comic creators in many other countries at the time.

4) Clothing: Again, this is an obvious point – but fashions were at least very slightly different in the 90s than they are today. Although fashions in the early 1990s were still heavily influenced by the 1980s, there are at least a few unique subcultures and fashion styles (eg: grunge music/ fashion) that emerged in the 90s.

Ok, the differences between 90s clothing and modern clothing probably weren’t that huge but, if you don’t want to do a lot of online research on Google Images – then make sure that your characters are wearing slightly “timeless” and “generic” clothes. You know, things like jeans, T-shirts, trenchcoats, business suits etc…. Since, to be honest, this was what most people were wearing in the 1990s anyway.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


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