January 24, 2014

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Some Thoughts on Colorists for Colorist Appreciation Day

Adrienne Roy, one of the best
of the old colorists.
While hitting up Twitter earlier today, I was informed that it's Colorist Appreciation Day, which was loosely put together with a hashtag of the same name. I wish there'd been more notice--or maybe I just missed it, because I have been thinking a lot about the way comics are colored and would have worked up a longer blog post about it.

Still, I didn't want to let this go without a few words, so consider this a preview. Some time I might, either on my own or with others, sit down and do something longer on the subject. Color in comics is a very important subject and definitely worthy of further discussion.

Also, please note these are the opinions and perspective of a comics fan. I am not a color artist or any other kind of artist. Things that I think may be way off base because of it. And a final note: I'm sure I'm going to forget to talk about someone I respect and admire here, so I apologize in advance. This is more of a series of loosely connected thoughts to mark the occasion.

I often talk about how I've been a comic book fan since I learned to read. And when I had a lot less comics to read (which, looking back, is both a good thing and a bad thing), I knew them inside and out, right down to dialogue. I carried new ones with my to my grandparents' houses and would read them to other members of the family.

Since I read a lot of Marvel Tales, collecting the Spider-Man reprints, I knew Stan Lee, John Romita, Gil Kane, and many others long before I understood the reasons why Jack Kirby was amazing or that John Byrne was notorious for changing things. While others cooler than me were reading TMNT in black and white, I was still mostly into Marvel books, with a bit of DC here and there.

I knew the books so well I could even tell you the differences in the lettering between Artie Simek and Sam Rosen and why I thought Artie was a bit better. (I've always had opinions.)

But you know, I barely noticed the colorists. And I don't think that's uncommon.

As I grew a bit older, I learned how much I liked Adrienne Roy's colors on the Batman books, but it was mostly a "they're brighter" sort of thing. Very unrefined. Even now, I'm ashamed to admit that beyond Glynis Wein (Oliver), I don't think I can name a colorist from the older books off the top of my head. 

Who Colored This? Not even
the internet seems to know!
Spectacular Spider-Man 200 is one of my all-time favorite comics. I have no idea who colored it, and neither does the Grand Comic Book Database.

Says a lot, right?

If you look at my reviews, I list writer and artist and publisher. But until recently, far too recently, "artist" only meant the person penciling and inking the book. I can pat myself on the back all I want for trying to talk about the line work in things when others sometimes slip into "writer-stuff-only" mode, but for the longest time, I didn't bother with something that's essential to the viewing of a comic book.

When you phrase it that way: "How can you exclude one of the key visual elements of a book?" it seems stupid to even consider. And yet, as a rule, the colorist doesn't get a lot of comments when books are reviewed. 

It took working with David Pepose and the Best Shots team at Newsarama to make me re-think things. Listing the colorist when doing long form reviews made me start taking note of who was coloring my favorite books. I started to notice the way that Ronda Pattison's work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helped the reader know which Turtle we were following so that the line artist didn't have to make artificial changes or constantly draw their weapons or masks. When a book was over-processed, as some of the early Valiant issues were, I realized that wasn't so much the people drawing the book as those coming after them in the coloring area.

Just being forced to list the names of the entire creative team, not merely the "top tier talent" opened my eyes to the fact that comics are so much more than just writer and line artist. I'm still learning about how they work in harmony together (and how they can ruin things, if uncoordinated), and there are times (such writing a 125 word pellet) where discussing the color art isn't one of the three to four things you can mention. But now that I think in these terms, I look at comics very differently.

Bellaire adds blood to Kelly's art.
Take the series "Three" for example. It features Kieron Gillen as the writer, with Ryan Kelly on line art. Kelly absolutely kills the depictions on this thing, which is highly recommended if you haven't read it yet. But the color work from Jordie Bellaire, who for my money might be the best colorist in comics right now, is what seals the deal. Her additions, such as small drops of unrelated blood across several of the pages, makes the comic complete in a way that just giving a tint to the backgrounds would not. 

In another example, Pretty Deadly, Bellaire helps show the reader when the scene has shifted, based on the way she's coloring the characters, the backgrounds, and the objects. We switch freely and easily between Death, Life, and the opening narrative scenes because there are visual clues from the shading, leaving Emma Rios free to use her linework to tell us more about the characters themselves and the world we live in.

It's no coincidence that a lot of my favorite books have "Jordie Bellaire, Colorist" attached to them.

Coloring this monthly has
to suck.
I could go on all night just giving examples. As much as I enjoy Steve Lieber in black and white, Rachelle Rosenberg's colors bring out the best in his work on Superior Foes. (You should get an Eisner nom just for having to keep coloring the Shocker over and over again without needing a trip to Ravencroft.*) But she also did a heck of job with the colors on Alabaster: Wolves. While the overall tune is muted because of the bleak world Dancy lives in, part of why we know it's so bleak is because of the tones she uses. When bright red blood is spilled, it's all the more striking because Rosenberg has kept the shading bland, allowing it to stand out. Little touches abound, such as the slight coloring of Dancy's nose or the bit of dirt on the werewolf's feet in her human form.

Rosenberg, like Dave Stewart, understands that different books require different looks. Stewart is probably the best known colorist in comics today, winning most of the awards available to colorists. While many try to emulate his style--and fail badly--Stewart's look is very deceptive. He works in the world of brows, grays, and other muted tones, but is able to get so much more out of them by knowing just when to keep to the darkness and when to move into the light. He balances dull white, dilluted red, and gray-blue so well in BPRD: Vampire, to name a recent example. Even when I find a book to be pedestrian, Stewart's colors usually will be enough to keep me reading.

The problem is that Stewart has been so successful, some in the coloring world thing that every book needs to look like this. It's essential for Hellboy's world to have a pervading darkness. Batman can live in that world, too, to a degree. But one of the best things that even happened to Daredevil was getting him back to the bright red shades of his early days. I really hate when a colorist tries to be Stewart, especially when they lack his subtle touches. The results can be dark, dreary, and hard to read.

We're not in Mega-City 1 anymore, Toto!
But this is a celebration of color, not a critique of the genre. So let's move on to one last positive example, one that just came out this week. When you think of Judge Dredd's Mega-City 1, you tend to think of a world that's grimy and gritty, right? So when Dredd must go to Mega-City 2, which is the polar opposite of Mega City 1, the last thing you want to do is make it look visually similar to the city we're familiar with.

Enter Ryan Hill. In Hill's hands, Mega-City 2 is a flashy, neon place with plenty of pinks and light greens and other things you'd only see meshed with grimy blacks to create a garish look if we were in Mega-City 1. On the other hand, Mega-City 2 makes these all look normal, because they are everywhere. Even the shading on Dredd is lighter than usual, but he's still the darkest figure in any room he enters. The speed lines are even pink, for God's sake!

When we flash back to Mega-City 1, Hill shifts things, making the same basic colors duller and flatter. We don't need any artificial clues to know the place. Like Bellaire on Pretty Deadly, Hill does the work for the rest of the creative team with the color art. 

Imagine this in dull brown, and weep.
That's the type of thing a good colorist does these days. When they do their jobs as well as the writers and artists we know and love, they are an essential part of the creative picture, and should not be overlooked. In lesser hands, something like Amelia Cole might not feel the same, because it lacks Ruiz Moreno's bright, old-school superhero shades. Imagine that book for a minute, with its little visual touches from artist Nick Brokenshire, buried in a mire of brown because the colorist thinks that's the way all book should look. Would it have sold out at IDW and merit a second volume of stories? 

Maybe, but somehow I doubt it.

So let's take some time to make sure we're recognizing the contributions of these creators who are every bit as important as the writer and the line artist. I can't go back and pretend I always cared, but I can recognize why we should, and vow to do more of it in the future. (I'd like to think I already am.) Not all colorists need to be praised for what they do, just as sometimes a book might feature linework that's just okay and only needs a brief mention, or when a book's art is the draw over the scripting.

But to ignore it is wrong, and far too often, comics fans are guilty of this when the colorist's name isn't the same as the writer and/or primary artist. Let's change that now, and use Colorist Appreciation Day as a springboard to looking more fully and deeply at the books we love to read.

*Yup, I sure did name Marvel's answer to Arkham right there. MMMS, that's me.)