by Ron Wimberly; Published on The Nib
Lighten Up, a short comic by Ron Wimberly, relates an anecdote where a Marvel editor asked him to lighten the skin tone of a character. The comic gracefully presents a nuanced look at how this request made Wimberly feel and explains why these issues matter. Lighten Up is a powerful comic where someone says something important and deserves to be read and thought on. Lighten Up is also a brilliantly composed comic that is really interesting in both compositional choices and in format. Since looking at what makes good comics work on a technical level is my thing, I want to try and explain what makes Lighten Up such a fantastic craft.
Specifically, I want to talk about how Lighten Up uses juxtaposition to tremendous effect and the role format plays in experiencing the comic.
First though, go get your smart phone. Then go here on your smart phone and read Lighten Up. I'll get into this below, but Lighten Up reads *MUCH* better on a smart phone than a full browser and you really need to encounter it in the best format. If you have already read the comic on a full web browser, I would even encourage you to try it again on a smart phone, it's really a different experience.
There will be *SPOILERS* beyond this point. You've read the thing by now, right?
The comics engine of Lighten UP is, I think, how effectively it sets up and uses juxtaposition. This is why format, whether you read the comic on your laptop or smart phone, is really important. On a full internet browser, you can see four story unit blocks on a screen at a time and you are forced to navigate through the story in tiered rows of two. This let's you kind of see upcoming story blocks in the periphery and leads to a zig-zag, meandering reading path. On a smart phone the comic scrolls one story block at a time along your screen which dramatically tightens the focus and enforces the order of reading. On a smart phone readers have the pace and order they encounter each panel controlled so that the more dramatic transitions are revealed perfectly. Which taken together really works to optimize the comics ability to set up juxtapositions in the most emotionally effective ways.
Also, I found reading the comic on a smartphone a much more intimate experience. There is just something personal about reading something on my phone; a device I use to text love ones, check emails from people I know, and engage in social media; that doesn't translate onto a laptop experience; the device I use for work stuff, reading magazine format websites, and professional email. This might be an idiosyncrasy of my own, but the experience of reading Lighten Up on a smart phone made it feel more personal than if I were reading it on a computer.
Which, collectively, is why I think it is so important to read Lighten Up on a smartphone.
Whether it be from literal contrast, some sort of mammal-brain reaction to light and shadow, or cultural conditioning, there is just something dramatically striking and final about black and white juxtapositions. The sharp divide jumps off the page and demands attention in a way that more nuanced blending doesn't as effectively. Moreover, black and white contrasts also, at least for me, set up ideas in direct stark, binary situations. Things are either one way or another way, black or white, which leads to moments of confrontation or conviction in compositions.
Lighten Up has several key moments that use black and white story blocks to create moments of binaries (is this racist? y/n) and moments of dramatic and uncomfortable comparison.
One of the smartest aspects is how the comic uses Hex colour code. Under hex code, colours are broken into Red Green and Blue over a six digit code (######). In this scheme each pair of characters represents the value of a single colour (RRGGBB). Because computer coding likes to be needlessly complicated, digits in this scheme don't directly correspond to the colour intensity, but instead arise from converting the intensity into a different code. In this scheme each digit of hex code is assigned a value from 0-9 or, for values 10-15, a value of A-F. In Hex code, the colour of Ron Wimberly's skin, in particular light conditions, is #5c4653. The colour black, which is a lack of reflected or projected colour is #000000. The colour white conversely, is the colour that comes from all of the colours being projected at once and has the highest code, #FFFFFF.
Ron Wimberly uses this code, the stark difference between the colour white and black, and the tightly focused stacked narrative to deliver a truly staggering moment of comics:
Which is an incisive and difficult criticism, but also a truly astonishing feat of comics storytelling. Lighten Up is technically so, so good.
Maybe the most meaningful juxtaposition in Lighten Up is how the comic contrasts the black and white world of binary race with the more complicated and nuanced reality of diverse people. The comic clearly shows that real people aren't categories but are complex individuals who are cartoonists or reporters (and X-girlfriends). Even when looking at something as skin-deep as flesh tones no one is actually #000000 and #FFFFFF, but instead mixtures of more complex Hex codes. And yet #FFFFFFF and #000000 persist and skin tone is given enough consideration to kick off the central anecdote of this comic. Simplistic, binary portrayals of race still exist and still hold power. The way Lighten Up manages to show the friction between and simultaneous existence of both viewpoints, of colourful diverse panels with myriad hex codes as well as stark black and white binaries, I think showcases that both worlds must ultimately be reckoned with. And I think this point is built structurally into the comic in a deeply nuanced and clever way.