Spotting Blacks

Spotting blacks are an important aspect of cartooning that uses solid black finishes to guide the eye through the comic strip; however, spotting blacks can also create the illusion of depth, mood, or be used as a storytelling tool. It is a subjective process that adds solidity, frames, and emphasizes an object or figure.

Spotting blacks are most often applied during the inking process which, to the inker, is almost instinctive. When something feels insubstantial, spotting blacks can provide enough weight and dimension through shadowing to make it stand out.

Figure 1. The spotting black finishes in Black Hole emphasize the distinction in the panels between Keith’s interaction with his friend and Keith’s internal thoughts about Chris.                                                                                                          Image Source: Charles Burns. (2005). Black Hole 4(1-2).

The first image is the opening pages of issue #4 of the graphic novel Black Hole written by Charles Burns (see Figure 1). Black Hole, with the exception of its covers, is entirely in black and white, turning spotting blacks into an essential tool for conveying the story. This example uses spotting blacks to distinctly frame the conversation occurring across the bottom of the panels and the inner monologue visualized across the top of the panels. 

The spotting blacks allow the visual elements of the top to blend into the bottom. For example, the left-most panel uses a solid black finish to blend Chris’s shirt into the background of where Keith and his friend are driving. Furthermore, the spotting blacks emphasize the intensity of Keith’s thoughts about Chris.

Figure 2. The spotting blacks used in Animal Man emphasize the surroundings of the characters.                                                                                                            Image Source: Grant Morrison. (1989). Animal Man. 18(14).

The second image is an example from issue #18 of Animal Man written by Grant Morrison (see Figure 2). The spotting blacks are used in the middle panel by turning the characters into silhouettes so that their surroundings are the main focus. If the two characters were in full color, the center of the panel would be convoluted. It also helps to convey that they are in another world.

Figure 3. The spotting blacks used in The Killing Joke help emphasize Batman as he arrives at the Joker’s location.                                                                                Image Source: Alan Moore. (1988). The Killing Joke. 39.

The third image is the bottom half of a panel from The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore (see Figure 3). The use of spotting blacks is to draw emphasis to Batman’s character as he arrives on the scene. Each panel uses solid black finishes to highlight a different element, the first being his overall figure and his bat-mobile, the second being the back of his cape, and the third being his mask. The third panel also utilizes spotting blacks to highlight the intensity of Batman’s dialogue.


Jr., Augie De Blieck, and Mario Lebel says: “Spotting Blacks with Jeff Smith.” PIPELINE COMICS, March 28, 2021.

Spotting Blacks.” Iosua Illustrations, February 2, 2017.

Tips and Tricks: Spotting Black Areas.” Big Time Attic. Accessed October 15, 2021.

Date Modified: December 11, 2021

Authors: Alyssa Raybourn, Harrison Hall