As regular readers of this site probably know, I’ve been going through yet another phase where I’m absolutely fascinated by vintage American horror comics from the 1940s and 50s. Anyway, one of the things that always astonishes me about old is that, although the art looks fairly detailed and “realistic” at first glance, the amount of detail in it is actually fairly low.
I was reminded of this the day before I wrote this article, when I made some pencil and ink studies of the art from several panels of old horror comics to see if I could learn anything from them. Although I won’t post the studies here for copyright reasons, the thing that surprised me was how the detail was distributed throughout the pictures.
In areas where I’d expected there to be lots of detail (eg: facial expressions), the artwork was relatively simple. And, in areas where I’d expected there to be less detail (eg: shading, creases in clothing), there was a lot more detail than I expected. Even so, the overall level of detail was still very much on the minimalist side.
Of course, there are a lot of obvious reasons for this. The first is that these old comics were published monthly or bi-monthly, so the artists didn’t have time to make all of their art super-detailed. The other reason is, of course, that the limitations of mass printing technology at the time meant that comics often couldn’t contain too much in the way of fine detail.
Then there’s also the fact that old horror comic artists were all using traditional art mediums. This is one of the main things that sets old comic books art apart from the much more realistic digitally-painted artwork that appears in more modern comic books. If you are using nothing but traditional mediums, there are fewer shortcuts and fewer ways to correct mistakes -so, every line matters a lot more in a traditional drawing.
Because of time and format limitations, comic artists had to use a lot of clever tricks in order to make their comics look more detailed than they actually are. Some of these are fairly obvious tricks, like keeping the level of background detail in most (but not all) of the panels to an absolute minimum. Since the audience’s attention is focused on the characters and the dialogue, the lack of complex background detail in many panels isn’t really that noticeable.
Likewise, by including a few panels that do have complex background details (eg: a “splash” panel on the first page etc…), the audience quickly learns what the backgrounds are supposed to look like. Because of this, their imaginations will quickly “fill in the gaps” when they see less detailed versions of the same backgrounds throughout the comic.
The same trick is sometimes used for facial details too (eg: there will be a close-up of a character’s face in one panel, but they will be more distant and/or undetailed in most of the other panels).
But, my studies of these old comics also taught me another clever trick. Earlier, I mentioned that facial details in old comics are often fairly minimalist (eg: the eyes are often drawn with a couple of lines and a dot, expressions are shown using just a few lines etc…).
This is probably because everyone already knows what a face looks like, so the audience can easily “fill in the gaps”. However, this ‘unrealistic’ lack of complex detail is compensated for by including lots of subtle realistic details (eg: shading, shadows, creases in clothing etc..) that people expect to see without even realising it.
Yes, these extra details may look complex but I’m guessing that once you’ve fully learnt the “rules” for how to draw them (something I’m still learning), then adding realistic shadows, shading, creases etc… is probably second-nature. If you know how to do this, then it’s probably significantly easier, simpler and quicker than drawing detailed and realistic faces etc…
So, yes, old comics are often a lot less detailed than they might appear at first glance. Not only is this a demonstration of the kinds of clever artistic trickery that every comic-maker should learn, but it’s also one of the things that gives these comics their very distinctive “look”.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂