The Case for New Comic Book Colouring Directions

This comes up every time we talk about reprints and collected editions:

Should original colour separations be used, or should the colour be updated to take advantage of improved production and reproduction methods?

And unfortunately, the discussion is often limited by the artificial binary choice of the original hand-cut separations with a limited colour palette intended for low-quality newsprint, or the over-the-top gradient and highlights we get in current comics.

I would agree with most in that imposing the full modern method on the ink art of generations past doesn’t look great. We’ve seen some pretty hideous results, and I’m not going to name names. We all have our own Hall of Shame.

Sure, for readers of a certain age – I’m in my mid 50s – there’s a strong memory of being that kid passionately reading the latest issue of our favourite book, and how it looked and felt in our hands. It’s very easy to let our instinct for that nostalgic feeling wash over us when the relative suckage of middle age can make us wish for more moments of pure, carefree pleasure.

But I believe limiting ourselves to technology and methods of those past times does the art just as much a disservice as does overcolouring it does, because it says that art can only be appreciated one way, locked in its past. And those colour schemes transferred faithfully to the better presses and white papers of today look garish, losing the mood they created back in the day on newsprint. Noted colourist José Villarrubia has done side-by-side comparisons demonstrating this point clearly.

It’s unfortunate that DC and Marvel have not looked to break the limitations of the two types of packages they’ve offered offered us so far, because there is a whole world of nuance in the space between these two divides.

Colour is key to creating emotions and moods. Ink art can only create so much as far as lighting effects go (unless you put days into each page which is outside the scope of regular North American monthly comics). So colour creates lighting: warm, cold, soft, intense, blinding, harsh, objective, subjective, and so on. That’s something older, flat colouring could only do in shorthand. What separates a snapshot from a commerical photo? Composition and lighting. What separates home video from theatrical film? Composition and lighting. It should be no different for sequential storytelling printed on paper or viewed on a display.

Without thinking that modern colouring is about those gradients and making things POP all the time (like setting all your text in italics, when you make everything stand out, nothing does), it would be more useful to discuss colour in terms of the DEPTH it can create. Depth of feeling. Depth of space. And by limiting depth by providing clear focus in each composition, whether it be in a single panel or across a page or spread.


THE EXAMPLES

Claw #1 Page 1 Published

1. The Comic Book. Just a scan of the first page of Claw the Unconquered No. 1. Printed in 1975 on newsprint. The paper is no longer a fresh off-white. The inks soaked into the paper as was intended as part of that process. Colours are muted and flat. The black has no punch.


Claw #1 Page 1 Art by Ernie Chan

2. Art. A scan of Ernie Chan’s original art.


Comic book art production by Scott Dutton

3. Cleaned Up. Increasing contrast, and doing a bit of retouching to drop out the blue pencil and dirt, and to make the blacks crisp and solid.


Comic book colouring by Scott Dutton

4. New Colour. I don’t usually break down a page describing my thinking and choices, but it’ll help what I’m trying to convey, so here we go.

The overall. The shadows indicated by Chan are at an angle. The day is getting on (or it’s dawn, but for my thinking it’s afternoon). They’re not dressed for winter, and it looks like some exotic bazaar, so warmer colours are in order. Building materials are natural. Technological development is that timeless mish mash of bronze and medieval times that fantasy worlds gravitate to.

The captions. I like these to be clearly readable, but not attract attention to themselves otherwise. They’re foreground, but background at the same time. Colour them all the same here because there’s no big excitement in any of them. An off-beige that should be reminiscent of old parchments in the readers’ minds fits the world they’re in.

Panel A. Claw striding through. He’s the focus, and with those raggedy bits of white fur hanging off him, it’s simple to keep those high key and your eye on him. Plus a couple of hot hits of pure red on his metal glove to show why he’s what you want to pay attention to.

The girl gets the secondary focus with her classicly comic-pink skin and her brightish dress. She cues the reader that he’s a desirable hunk of beef and now the average boy reader wants to be Claw. The reader is walking inside the character now.

The background characters get varying colours to show the colourfulness of the bazaar, but none are as punchy and vibrant as Claw or the girl. And with that idea of depth, the walls of the city and the sky keep the recession into the background consistent.

Highlights are consistent with the direction Chan established in the lineart, with Claw getting the big hit of sidelight, the girl a little bit less, plus some light on the ground. BG characters get only tiny hits to show they’re in the same scene and not pull them off the background.

Panel B. Claw glistens in the sunlight, unawares as he considers the tavern in front of him. The thief gets a bit of light so you know to pay attention to him, but his hands are a grimy contrast against Claw’s furred butt. The background remains consistent to Panel A to transition you from one panel to the next.

Panel C. He’s a scummy little cutpurse, his face and hands modelled to make him look like a nefarious character. And he has bad oral hygiene habits. It’s his one and only moment in the story.

Panel D. It’s all about Claw’s glove glowing and the wide-eyed white eye on the thief. Everything else fades away into dimness around that important bit of storytelling.


One of the reasons why I think this is such an important subject is that the readers who champion original colour schemes are not going to be around forever, and I include myself in that aging demographic even if I don’t share their colouring preference. Will the next generations care about superheroes or comics as a whole? I don’t know. I do know they will have no attachment to the precious objects of our youth and the forms they took. They WILL care if something looks dated, and thereby ignore it, so in pure market terms it would be to the industry’s benefit to package material in formats that feel like they belong to the world of today while respecting where they came from.

Intelligent colouring that benefits from today’s reproduction strengths and the sophistication we have from absorbing decades of evolution in creating comics should not be dismissed, and can only increase profitability of back catalogues. It also has something to teach modern books that emphasise over-rendered sheen over content.


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