Daredevil #228 (1986), page 20 panel 2. David Mazzucchelli.
Let's think about line for a second. From Crumb to Moebius and back again, comics art has seen a staggering amount of pure, seductive beauty made up of little ink trails. Line is lovely, instinctual -- the immediate response of the artist, pen in hand, to his environment. By and large, line is how the vision gets put down. Everything that comes after it is refinement. Comics, for most of their history, have been made of lines: panel borders, letterforms, speed lines, impact lines, hatching lines, the shapes of word balloons. From the days when the only thing that would come out of the heaving, grimy printing presses right was strips of black ink, the line has made comics what they are. Early comics artists like Winsor McCay and Lyonel Feininger were in love with it, eschewing spotted blacks completely for the shapes their pens outlined and space left open for pure color. George Herriman downright gloried in it, bringing line away from its existence as a tool for pure depiction and into the realm of the instrument, signifying vast blurs of true expression with riotous, scratchy bursts of it.
The line is in our blood, the medium's heritage, and that alone marks comics out as different. Because take a look across the gutters into fine art and it loses precedence like crazy. Line in painting is a secondary tool at best. In sculpture about the only thing it's good for is preparatory drawings. Photographs don't use it a whole lot unless the artist's doing something weird in the developing room. And in film it's pretty much impossible to even make one. No, the line gets into art through pure necessity, and that's why media that had their start in mass produced print (comics and illustration, basically) have made the most use of it. And in comics, which needs to hit hard and fast with its pictures to get you to the next one, it's really been about the outline, the contour. In the panels as we read them, light and tone and detail are all secondary to getting down the basic shape so we can follow it. McCay knew: he always did his characters' silhouettes at least two times as heavy as the lines he drew inside them. And just notice how iconographic the basic outlined shapes of all your favorite characters are. Dick Tracy's got the hawk nose, Batman's got the pointy ears, Nancy has that weird stuff coming out of her hair, et cetera.
But the line is a two-way street. It's a tyrannical thing, especially in genre comics: if you're "inside" comics as a longtime reader it's tough to notice it, but just look what an overwhelming majority of the stuff outlines its characters with the little black trails that don't exist in real life and then works in, as opposed to finding some kind of inner core before sculpting out. To give everything to shape, the way everyone from Kirby to Ware has, is to lose light and the incredible things it can achieve in art. For a long time there was no way not to do just that given the production process and ridiculously unaesthetic coloring methods comics employed. And I'm not saying comics made of lines are bad -- by and large, those are our masterworks. But it would be interesting to see more that was different. More like the panel above.
David Mazzucchelli broke more or less free from dependence on line in last year's Asterios Polyp. That's not to say he didn't use plenty of it, but there wasn't a black trail in the book. It was all colored line art, which gave him space to work in different gradients, worry less about the shapes themselves and more about what was inside them. (Which actually ended up as a not-insignificant theme of the comic itself.) But when this panel was drawn in '86, Mazzucchelli was hackin' out phenomenal action comics on a monthly deadline, working in four-color newsprint, the belly of the beast that birthed comics' dependence on contoured blacks. Look at the panel, though: the interest in light, in texture, in the stuff of reality that can't be gotten with the harsh contrast of black and white, was already there. And in an underwater scene, where the whole world fades to shades of gray, he got the chance to do something about it.
Zip-a-tone has to be the most interesting device in the comics toolbox to come as a response to the limits imposed by cheap printing. Those matrices of dots basically turn two-color pages into three-color ones, the evenly spaced black-white pattern evoking gray if not actually putting it down. Considering it takes no small talent just to swing a black and white comics page into something interesting, it's probably no surprise that only the very best have created good work with the stuff: Roy Crane and Noel Sickles were early masters, Bernard Krigstein did straight murder with it, Jim Steranko had his moments, and then Mazzucchelli got interested for a bit. As an iconographic device that screams comics, zip is great, but what's really fascinating about this panel is how it engages with Mazzucchelli's drawing. In the days before computer tones, this stuff was adhesive tape that you'd cut into the exact shape you wanted and then stick down onto the art board: a laborious, inexact process that no one could ever get to look as elegant and finished as their inkwork. Zip-a-tone always brings out a tasty roughness in its users, and the thick stops and starts that swirl inside the massive screen of it Mazzucchelli lays down here are no exception. The lines of tone and open space don't look like the linework in this panel: they're less exact, more spontaneous, in a lot of ways more real.
But that roughness is counterpointed by a considerable grace: Mazzuchelli's working with black and white both against what's in effect a gray background, and that gets him out of the line-driven mode of straight black on white. The torrent of water spilling into the cab is highlighted with a few pen scratches, but it's mostly the pure, rushing blues of the non-toned, non-outlined space (made, I'd imagine, with Wite-Out brushstrokes drawn over the tone). It's got all the shimmer and glow and force of an actual spigot of water, something line and shape's crystal solidity can't evoke half as well as a drawing of the way the light looks hitting it. Then look at the other pure-blue areas: it's the highlights on Matt Murdock's head and the bubbles drifting up from the cab, the brightest things in the scene. The art, set loose from the white background, becomes painterly, lightening the page as well as darkening it. It's the dynamic contrast between the two that really pulls the weight of the picture-making here. The blacks that form the shape of the face are chiaroscuro, a pure mass of shadow rather than mere marks. Same thing with the cab's rearview mirror off to the left: it's a big smudge of dark, the bar attaching it to the car suggested rather than shaped by its line. The whole panel is that way, really: lines acting as guides to shapes rather than defining them, the play of light left to really make them what they are.
It's worth noting that Mazzucchelli could be so confident in his approach because the times were changing. Color in mainstream comics, though it wasn't anywhere near where it is now, had at least been acknowledged as an element of the art rather than the production, and actual artists were beginning to get involved in the work. Richmond Lewis, who would later do incredible pure-light painted color over Mazzucchelli's work in Batman: Year One, adds the last essential element to the drawing here, erasing the need for a contour line around the figure with the perfectly placed dab of green jacket. The kind of rapport between artist and colorist that Mazzucchelli and Lewis had is rare, to say the least (they're married), but a similar single-purpose focus comes to the fore a lot in work by the increasing amount of mainstream artists who are coloring their own stuff. As the necessity for black line art fades and dies, we appear to be moving slowly towards a future in which there won't be any need for this kind of extraordinary effort to wrench something hi-fi out of the lo-fi. But as a picture by an artist struggling to expand his form's range -- and succeeding! -- this panel is great.