Comments on “Zip-A-Tone” and “Ben Day” with respect to “Rusty Riley” daily art . . .

During a fairly extended period of time, probably years, I have occasionally looked into the subject of manufactured dot-patterns as often found on the original art for Rusty Riley daily strips. Overall, the results of my informal and non-comprehensive investigations have been nothing to write home about.

Almost always, when such patterns are mentioned in connection with Rusty Riley daily art, the reference is to Zip-A-Tone (variously spelled), or Zip. I think that once or twice I have seen them called Ben Day (also probably variously spelled). I guess I have largely been skeptical of the use of any of that terminology, or maybe it would be better to say that I have never been comfortable with it. Or maybe for a while I was comfortable, and later became less comfortable.

I don’t want to launch into another Wikipedia critique at this time.  However,  the Wikipedia article on “Ben-Day dots” refers to the “Ben-Day dots printing process.”  Huh? And if you read the rest of that article, you will see that it does not specifically address black-and-white newspaper strips.  It also indicates that the “overlay material” was “rubbed onto the specific areas of the drawing with a burnisher.”  Again — huh?

The Wikipedia article on “Screentone” mentions Zip-A-Tone in passing (along with other products) and says:

A traditional screentone sheet consists of a flexible transparent backing, the printed texture, and a wax adhesive layer. The sheet is applied to the paper, adhesive down, and rubbed with a stylus on the backing side. The backing is then peeled off, leaving the ink adhered to the paper where pressure was applied. 

Oh.  So the dots are applied and the clear backing is removed.  Well, that might be one view of Zip-A-Tone, but that is not on any Rusty Riley art, as far as I know. Also, I believe that is completely inconsistent with every other reference to Zip-A-Tone that I have ever seen.

I guess my point is that the topic never seems to be discussed from the point of view of the comic-strip art-collector, who just might want some specifics on what is found on the art.  Maybe it has been so discussed, actually, but I don’t know where. I am not talking about comments like, “The dot pattern is Zip-A-Tone, and it was glued on by the syndicate,” which I do not consider very helpful.

I have the impression that Zip-A-Tone itself was a “self-adhesive” material, and if that is the case, then plainly the material on the Rusty Riley strips was not Zip-A-Tone.

Probably the best discussion of Ben Day and Zip-A-Tone I know of is found in the “Words and Pictures” blog.

The “Words and Pictures” blogger is quite clear on two points that are directly relevant here:

1.  Ben Day is “a process by which dot or line patterns were overlaid photographically during negative making.”

2.  Zip-A-Tone was a self-adhesive material.  Also, “[F]or years illustrators used its trademark as a generic name for this type of product.”

(The quotations there are directly from the “Words and Pictures” blog.)

So, as to Ben Day, it appears that this never affected the actual art (other than by the blue wash).  And, as to Zip-A-Tone, maybe I am attaching too much significance to the self-adhesive aspect.  However, Zip-A-Tone or not, I don’t think I have ever seen a dot-pattern on a Rusty Riley daily that was not glued on.

—Tom Sawyer

April 20, 2012

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