January 6, 2015

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A Look at the Coloring in Dash Shaw's Doctors

Whit Taylor already reviewed Dash Shaw's Doctors on the site back in October and put together a nice overview on how the various pieces of it all work together, but I wanted to dig deeper into what he does with color in the book.

Shaw has put a lot of thought and effort into how he uses color in his comics. In 2013's 3 New Stories and New School he applied a variety of widely different color schemes sometimes layering swirling pant or different colored shapes on type of his pages.  Someone on Tumblr compared this effect to a Fernand Leger painting. Generally this works to illustrate the inner state of the characters or to heighten the intended emotional effect of the page.  Dash Shaw responded to the observation saying he was "thinking more about Picabia's transparencies, which came out of doing all the overlays in BodyWorld."  

An example of Fernand Leger's work.

I have a friend who is bread-and-butter adventure comics type of person (i.e. he likes Saga and Preacher) who isn't a fan of this.  He feels like the colors pull him out of the story. I think that's a fair criticism, and the colors definitely work differently in a single image painting than in a narrative based comic. It's worth considering how stopping to decode everything you are seeing impacts the experience.

Consider the page below from New School, the green and mauve painted squares are queasy and disorienting, reflecting the drunken state of Danny.  The colors here work like another whole painting has been layered on top of the cartooning.  It's not hard to imagine taking those squares off and putting them on a canvas by themselves where they would stand alone as an independent piece of art with its own distinct meaning.  That's not something you can say about the typical color in a comic book.  
From Dash Shaw's New School
The most successful example of this technique was the riotously colored smudgy dots overlapping each other during the riot in the children's prison in 3 New Stories. This works like a soundtrack on a film, but not a subtle string score that you don't notice.  This is a big obvious gesture like David Fincher playing the Pixies "Where is My Mind" in Fight Club, or Scorsese playing "Jumping Jack Flash" during De Niro's entrance in Mean Streets - it's loud and obvious and doesn't take much effort to decode.  But I've also never seen anything like it in a comic book and it's one of the single most memorable pages Shaw has made.

From Dash Shaw's 3 New Stories
Where I disagree with my friend from above (the one who doesn't want to be pulled out of the story) is I don't think you actually need to stop and decode the additional layer of this coloring effect to feel the emotional impact from it.  When De Niro walks in the room with a woman on each arm you don't have to know who the Rolling Stones are to know he is bad news.

In Whit Taylor's review of Dash Shaw's Doctors last month she describes the colors in the book as "rang[ing] from deep purple to jarring yellow. Certain panels or images differ from the rest of the page. This color instability contributes to the uneasiness and unpredictability of the piece and is crucial in setting this story apart from others like it."  The major effect of the colors in the book work like a low rumbling synth note.  It doesn't distract you from the narrative but as Whit says, it does make you uneasy.

It's clear that Shaw is approaching color with a different strategy in Doctors than he did with 3 New Stories or New School. The colors feel more closely aligned with the cartooning and don't seem to so obviously reflect the emotional state of the characters on the page.  There seem to be five distinct things he is doing with color in this book:

1. Uneasy background colors - This is the primary technique that Taylor was referring to in her review.  Shaw starts out with just this but adds other techniques as he progresses.


2. Spot colors to highlight - Spot blacks are a comics building block but he uses other spot colors like the spot white on this page to draw your eyes to the house of cards.

3. Spot colors to break up monotony - These yellow backgrounds breakup the monotony of the composition in a way similar to spot blacks.


4. Colors to delineate different locations - This is especially helpful as Shaw's drawing style is sparse and there is not much detail in the backgrounds.  As the POV jumps from one location to another the use of a different dominate color helps orient you to a physical location.  But note that the colors never give an indication of the difference between the real world and the mysterious after-life - that distinction is left vague and disorienting.


5. As we approach the end, Shaw pulls together all the different techniques he has used throughout the book in what amounts to something almost like a Fourth of July fireworks grand finale.


To bring it back to the film score analogy: If New School and 3 New Stories had soundtracks with big pop songs that mirrored the emotional state of the characters on screen, Doctors is doing something more subtle, steering you in certain directions and guiding your experience in ways that aren't obvious and often feel unusual and a bit off.  It feels more like a John Carpenter score than a Martin Scorcese score.