Back in the early 1950s, Bwana Devil, a low-budget 3-D movie, did more than cause a stir in the film industry, it set to boiling (if only for a short time) a pot which had been simmering for many years--active exploration of 3-D in American popular art. The first 3-D comic books came off the presses not too many months after theaters began raking in the profits from Bwana Devil. The very first to hit the stands was Mighty Mouse from Archer St. John. Quite a number of titles followed suit as various publishers scrambled to cash in on the latest fad. Jack Adler (now retired from DC Comics) developed a technique of using layers of cels to create the 3-D comic art panels.
"I was working at DC, which was then known as National Periodicals, doing color separations for them," Adler recalls. "There were rumors in the industry that someone was toying with the idea of 3-D for comics. Sol Harrison came over to me and asked if I had ever heard of such a thing and could I do it? I said, yes, it could be done. And he said, 'Do it.' It was just as simple as that.
"My interests lay in the area of optics and photography. In the natural course of exploring optics, I learned about 3-D photography, how and why it worked. The very day Sol Harrison asked me about 3-D comics, I took apart a panel and reassembled it on cels to show how it could be done. I took a panel out of one of our books--I think it was of two mice chasing each other.
"I worked out a formula that would allow you to create the illusion of correct relative size and distance. In other words, you could create the effect of something being 10 inches or 10 feet in front of you. Eventually, I applied for a patent for my method of creating 3-D drawings, but I was turned down on the premise that I used materials and methods from other things."
Back in the 1950s, a 3-D comic cost 25¢, while ordinary four-color 2-D titles sold for 10¢. Publishers wrang their hands nervously when they realized that when a reader spent 25¢ for one 3-D title, that represented two of their comic books that wouldn't be bought.
The era of 3-D comics was very short lived; most of the 3-D titles were published between October 1953 and February 1954. As the public interest in 3-D waned for both movies and comics over the next 30 years, only a handful of new 3-D titles appeared.
Recently, 3-D comics appear to be undergoing a rebirth. In the space of the past several years, more than two dozen new 3-D titles have appeared. They are making money, and interest seems to be growing. The man responsible for all this dimensional fervor is listed in the art credits of most of the new titles: Ray Zone.
"We are living in a different world now," says Zone, explaining the new interest in 3-D. "We are living in an age of information and there is a new visual acuity among the general public. The new 3-D comics are making money, in part, because of the direct distribution market, as opposed to newsstand distribution which is what we had in the 1950s. Also, in the '50s, there was no such thing as a black and-white comic. Today, there is a market for independent publication of black and-white comics.
"What I have been working for, once having achieved visibility for 3-D comics--bringing them back--is a permanent niche in comics publication for 3-D and that seems to be happening. I see no reason why comic book fans and 3-D fans--people who don't necessarily read comics--shouldn't have a steady supply of 3-D titles to enjoy."
It would seem that Zone has succeeded. A number of classic titles have been issued in 3-D, including Will Eisner's The Spirit, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon. There has also been some interesting work by new artists with such titles as: Alien Worlds, Twisted Tales, DNAgents, Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Merlin Realm and Mr. Monster's 3-D High-Octane Horror.
"Direct market sales have made the difference in the survivability of the medium. There are about 3,500 comic book specialty shops in the country. The people that go to these shops know what they want. I would say that there are at least 10 people who go to every one of these shops specifically to buy 3-D . These are the hardcore 3-D fanatics who are going to support the publication of 3-D comics at an independent level. What we have now is a situation in which independent publishers can survive by doing an edition of 10 to 20,000--and still make money. Under the old '50s system, that was an impossibility. Marketing circumstances have created a renaissance of new comic art, a part of which is 3-D."
Ray Zone's job is to take the original comic art panels created by the illustrator and transform them into 3-D--creating the different right and left eye views that are essential for the 3-D illusion; or, as Zone puts it, "I make a binocular stereogram from a monocular piece of art.
"Most of the time, l don't talk to the artist. Sometimes, they do call me and I give them a little input. In the case of the Normalman 3-D Annual, I worked very closely with Valentino to create a book that was specifically designed for anaglyphic 3-D. But most often, I simply take the art as it is given to me. "
Over the past few years, Zone estimates that he has converted more than 400 pages of artwork for the new independent publishers. "I am a proponent of 3-D as an art form which is really very much like rendering," Zone comments. "I take a piece of art and bring out something which is latent in that art: parallax and depth. The 3-D art form manifests the depth which is latent in the image."
Zone approaches his work with a fervor that is almost religious in nature. He has never forgotten that magical moment back in the 1950s when he first slipped on a pair of 3-D glasses and turned the pages of a comic book. Each panel opened up to him an individual universe--a miniature world into which he could let his imagination travel.
Now, Zone proposes to let comic art fans travel along with him in a new series he will publish which debuts this year. The Zonevision series will be the world's first comic line which is strictly 3-D. The series will feature 3-D conversions of classic material. Each issue of The 3-D Zone in the Zonevision line will be a 24 or 32-page comic book with four-color covers, printed in deluxe format English finish bright white paper. The first issue will feature the late Wally Wood's 26-page graphic novel adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was originally done in 1950.
Issue #2 will feature the weird tales of Basil Wolverton and some of the great apocalyptic SF stories that he created in the early 1950s. In addition, there will be a gallery of end-of-the-world illustrations Wolverton did for Ambassador Press' Book of Revelations. Zone has been bent over his work table unlocking the third dimension in Wolverton's astounding images with rains of fire, great cities collapsing--Armageddon in 3-D.
On a lighter note, George Herriman's Krazv Kat from the Sunday pages will also take on new depth in the Zonevision project.
One of the things that is keeping 3-D comics alive this time around is the superb quality of the work. For Zone, 3-D comics aren't just a way of earning a living. He's passionate about his work and he wants the reader to feel some of that passion. The result is 3-D work on a level that was never attempted in the 1950s. Back then, most panels had two or three levels of depth with maybe a few splash panels breaking out into six or seven distinct planes. Zone rarely works with less that six and some of his splash panels have more than a dozen separate planes of depth. Of course, the complexity of any given panel is predetermined largely by the original artist's layout.
Special effects are something new in 3-D. Zone will create the illusion of transparency, color tones, smoke and fog effects by deliberately creating "false" information for the right and left eye views. Ghosts shimmer on the page, explosions appear as hazy clouds with floating debris, blinking, flashing and even limited animation effects are incorporated into the panels.
To his fans, Ray Zone is the "King of 3-D Comics." If anybody can find a niche in the publishing world for 3-D, Zone can. Though publishing 3-D comics himself, Zone will be continuing his association with Eclipse Comics, Kitchen Sink Press, Blackthorne Publishing and other publishers for whom he produces dimensional conversions.
first published in STARLOG Magazine, March 1987