Spider-Verse Ben-Day

Forget Uncle Ben - Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse's real hero is Ben-Day dots

Contributed by
Dec 11, 2018

The most important Ben in Peter Parker's life is, of course, Uncle Ben. How else would Spider-Man have learned that "with great power comes great responsibility?" But the main Spider-Man in the upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse isn't Peter Parker — it's Miles Morales. And while Miles certainly tries to adhere to Uncle Ben's famous mantra, there's a more important Ben in the animated film. Into the Spider-Verse owes a lot to Ben Day. Specifically, his dots.

You've seen Ben-Day dots before. The dots, named for their inventor Benjamin Henry Day Jr., are likely what you think of when you imagine old, pulpy comic books. For comic creators in the early to mid-1900s who needed to make colorful comic books on low-quality paper for as little money as possible, Day's technique, invented in 1879, was essential. Artists would use the four colors involved in printing — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — and overlay them in a regular pattern to create shading and the impression of a wider range of colors, rather than actually printing the solid color.

"It's the little kinda grainy dot pattern," Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, told SYFY WIRE. "It was really prevalent, and it was often not done well. But, even if it's done well, it has a noticeable dot pattern."

Farago says that, while there were many artists who really tried to push the boundaries of the limits of this cheap printing technology, "there were also a lot of deadline-oriented artist and cartoonists."

"Really, as long as Batman was blue and Superman was red and blue, they thought they'd done their jobs," he says.

Batman

Credit: DC

Ben-Day dots — and other similar printing techniques that get lumped in with Day's famous method — weren't meant to be a stylistic choice, just a necessary way to print a hero's latest adventures quickly and cheaply. So, why are they emulated in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a highly stylized and slick-looking animated movie that hits theaters decades after printing technology (not to mention digital comics) made Ben-Day dots essentially obsolete? Roy Lichtenstein, probably.

Farago notes that the famous pop artist is "a controversial figure within the comics community" because he appropriated comics art for his own pieces without crediting the original artists — or really acknowledging that what these comics creators were making was ever art in the first place. Even so, it's probably because of Liechtenstein that Ben-Day dots are synonymous with that classic Silver Age of comics feel, the same aesthetic Into the Spider-Verse is trying to evoke.

"One of the first things that would jump off the page when you would look at a typical 1940s or 1950s comic book was this dot pattern," Farago explains, saying Lichtenstein no doubt recognized this distinctive look hiding in plain sight. "That, in turn, became instantly recognizable as this visual shorthand for comics. A way to say, this is, for better or worse... what comics look like. Instead of this flat color, instead of this even, uniform rigid printing, you've got this weird, kind of hypnotic dot pattern."

Lichtenstein's works, such as "Drowning Girl" and "Whaam!," do not actually use Ben-Day dots, technically. The works were painted, rather than printed, and his dots are not overlays of the four printing colors meant to evoke a wider range of tones. Instead, his dot patterns consisted of one color that filled the space. It's a pop-art take on a workman's technique, and once Lichtenstein's remakes of old pulp comic panels became widely known, "dots" became a part of comics.

"He maybe consummated the marriage between comics and this Ben-Day dot process," Farago says.

Into the Spider-Verse, by virtue of being a computer-animated motion picture and not a 12-cent comic book printed on low-quality paper in the '50s, does not actually use Ben-Day dots in the traditional sense, nor is the entire movie a Trypophobic's nightmare. Instead, only certain parts of the film — which looks like a seamlessly animated collage inspired as much by street art as comic history — bust out that familiar dot pattern. In doing so, Into the Spider-Verse instantly reads like a comic, as it literally looks more like the old comic books were Spidey got his start than any other film adaptation.

Into the Spider-Verse can't claim credit for bringing Ben-Day dots back from the dead in classic superhero comic style, though. Mimicking Ben-Day dots (which usually means mimicking Lichtenstein's version of the style) is a popular tool for current comic artists trying to capture some of that old school, Silver Age charm.

"I couldn't tell you how many artists I've seen use [Ben-Day dots] when they want to indicate that this is a flashback scene," Farago says. "Maybe they want to indicate that this is a flashback scene specifically taking place in the 1950s. It's a technique artists will use when they want to capture a retro feeling."

Through this, Ben-Day dots have a purpose in modern comics, and as seen in Into the Spider-Verse, have even made it to the big screen. You just can't keep a Ben down, unless it's Spidey's Uncle Ben, who is still dead.


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