The Evolution of Colour in American Comic Books by Robert Lupton

For many young Americans, the colourful world of the superhero comic provides relief from the grey world of school, homework, and chores. However, the world into which the youngsters escape has changed from generation to generation. In the original DC comics of the 1930's and 1940's, colour tended to be eye-catching and unrealistic; just look at Superman's vibrant red, blue, and yellow costume (though there were exceptions, such as the shadowy Batman or the grey world of horror comics). As comics began to take on a more adult audience in the 1970's and 80's, and better printing processes were simultaneously being developed, comic book colouring became more artful. Rather than having brightly-costumed superheroes perform their elaborate dances on flat planes of colour (sometimes simple backgrounds were sketched in, but they were almost always coloured with one flat shade, usually a blue-grey that wouldn't take any attention away from the action), a new generation of colourists became acutely conscious of colouring as a device that could establish mood, character, depth, and dimension.

Art by Don Heck

From Avengers #34, November 1966


By the middle of the 1960's, the colour of American comics was virtually indistinguishable from thirty years earlier. Though advances were being made in the printing industry, the comic book industry's "turn 'em out" philosophy prevented any real artistic strides from occurring. Single artists, writers, and colourists worked on half a dozen or more books per month, the sheer volume of work they were called upon to produce preventing them from concentrating too long on any one aspect of the process.

Perhaps due to the time constraints on writers, colour choices were made on the fly, and if they had any narrative import, it was cursory at best. In the example at left, one can see this in action. In a panel like this, individual colours are so intense that they cancel each other out; the artist obviously hasn't put enough thought into the work to realize that a more deliberate use of colour would have been more successful. For instance, the red beams of light that result from the impact of the super-villain's laser blast hitting Captain America's shield would have been more intense on a field of black, as a black background makes red seem more saturated. If the artist's intention was to create a colour scheme that emphasized the chaos of battle, his choices were brilliant; however, if he was attempting to focus the viewer's eye on the locus of action, i.e. the laser hitting the shield, he could have been more successful.

One can also find some degree of significance in the characters' costumes. Captain America, created during World War Two, wears the colours of the country that he protects, but Hawkeye's bright purple fatigues would do little to camouflage him from a potential assailant (at least in a world with a palette as earthy as ours). In general, the heroes of the stories were clothed in bright, vibrant colours (Spider-Man, Superman, The Flash, etc.) while the villains tended to be rendered in earthy browns and greens and metallic greys (Doctor Octopus, Fing Fang Foom, et al). This dichotomy set up the battles in comics as not only good versus evil, but the world of excitement and colour resisting mundacity and boredom. However, these were only general patterns and rules of thumb, subject to the whims of creators and editors.

One other issue that must be noted when discussing comics before 1980 is censorship. After the publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (a book that linked violent comic books with juvenile delinquency), the comic book industry was forced to police itself, eliminating violent and mature content from its books. The Comics Code Authority was a group created to perform this function, and adopted a set of typically bizarre rules and regulations that would presumably foster more desirable qualities in America's youth. Predictably, most of the standards deal with the content of the story, but the Comics Code's standards did have some effect on colouring. The most egregious example is General Standard A7, "Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated." In practice, torture, physical agony, knife and gun play, etc. were all present in comic books, but the Comics Code Authority refused to place its seal on any comic where blood appeared red, forcing colourists to find creative ways to convey the fact that it was blood the penciller was drawing. Similarly, the stipulation that "Nudity in any form is prohibited" didn't really eliminate sexually suggestive material in comics, but forced artists to find their way around the most explicitly detailed infractions. Though nude women didn't appear in comics, more often than not female characters wore skintight spandex costumes whose only real differentiation from the nude body was its bright colour. At least in regards to these regulations, the artist who produced the black and white line drawings had little to change in his technique, and the responsibility of complying with the code fell to the colourist, who had to present the artist's work in the most innocuous context possible.

By the 1980's, however, the tide was beginning to change. With the success of independently produced comic books such as the phenomenal Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, many of the old industry rules became antiquated. Since the new, edgier independent comics were sold almost exclusively in specialty shops, their publishers had no real reason to submit their work for approval by the Comics Code Authority. Secondly, since many of the smaller-budget comics couldn't be printed in four colours because of cost constraints, they simply printed the black and white line drawings as finished work. Before long, black and white comics such as The Tick and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (both of which spoofed the superhero genre that was the major publishers' bread and butter) made a lack of colour an asset, and more mainstream comics seemed pedestrian in comparison. Finally, with a significant market share, independent publishers could now lure top creators from the two major publishers, Marvel and DC, making artistic freedom a viable issue. Though smaller publishers still couldn't offer very much money, they could offer a smaller workload, ownership of any characters the artist created, and total artistic license. On the other hand, with toy lines, movies, and cartoons constantly in production for the major companies, the comic book version of any given character couldn't differ significantly from the version in any other media, effectively restricting creators from anything other than subtle changes in their characters' appearance or personae.

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New England Comics' The Tick, one of the most successful independents.

Of course the major publishers weren't about to begin publishing their books in black and white, so some small advancements in the technical side of the colouring world were made. The number of dots per inch that could be printed were increased dramatically, resulting in a larger palette and subtler gradients. However, before any really noticeable reforms took place, the post-Reagan recession took hold in the United States, wiping out virtually every independent comics publisher. Even the almighty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles couldn't survive the economic downturn, becoming a nonentity for nearly a decade.  
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Image Comics' The Maxx

During the recession, the major publishers had as many economic problems as the smaller publishers, and new methods had to be found to promote the books, especially to the specialty audience that had solidified during the 1980's. One of the publishers' solutions (Marvel Comics in particular) was to hype not only the characters and stories featured in the books, but the creators as well. Though virtually no one paid attention to who created a comic book twenty years earlier, every comic fan had a favourite writer and artist, and rather then being a lifelong fan of a character, fans now dedicated themselves to creators, following them from book to book. Soon, most creators (artists in particular) were forced to produce only one book per month, and received outrageously large salaries for this significant drop in production. However, the effect was that comic books became much more artful as creators had more time to devote to them. Unique panel arrangements, detailed backgrounds, and progressive plotlines that would have been unheard of years ago were now commonplace. The only problem was that creators enjoyed this artistic freedom so much that they began to feel constrained even by the newly undemanding editorial staffs at the large publishers.

In 1991 seven of Marvel's top creators left to start their own company, Image Comics. Though the split with Marvel was ostensibly due to the fact that the artists had to relinquish ownership of the characters they created, there were countless changes in this new line of comic that would revolutionize the industry.

First of all, the new Image comics lacked the Comics Code Authority's seal of approval. While some creators dealt with adult topics that would not have pleased the Comics Code, and some just wanted some good old fashioned gore, no one particularly wanted to have their newly unhindered artistic vision censored by some antiquated, irrelevant organization. Secondly, in a decision that would forever revolutionize the way that American comic books are coloured, Image comics decided to hire an outside studio to computer colour all of their comics. Also, rather than merely printing the cover on high-quality paper, Image collectively decided that the entire comic should look as great as the cover. Whereas computer coloring wouldn't have done much for the pulpy newspaper stock that Marvel and DC were still using for their inside pages, every drawing in an Image comic could be viewed as a work of art in and of itself.

Note the example from Image Comics' The Maxx above. This mature sense of colour would have been out of place in virtually any comic of an earlier time period. Rather than simply using a single light source that lights the figure, the main panel features a harsh light source that is focused just to the right of the figure, and the blueish tint of The Maxx's back betrays a subtle second light source behind the figure. Both this subtle lighting scheme and the printing process that allowed it to be illustrated so effectively were nothing short of revolutionary, and lend an air of realism even to penciled artwork as overtly stylized as that found in The Maxx

The large publishers raced to catch up with Image, who were quickly eating into the large market share that Marvel and DC had enjoyed during the recession. However, as virtually every comic switched to computer colouring at nearly the same time, there weren't enough colourists to meet the demands, and there was a great deal of on-the-job training. Gary Scott Beaty notes that "coloring was getting out of hand. Every bump was formed with a grad, every belt buckle had a lens flare and every strand of hair was 3D. In my opinion, it took a while for the initial excitement of what COULD be done gave way to a real assessment of what SHOULD be done. I admire the painterly approach, as long as the basics of painting are applied. Much of that early 1990s stuff ignored (A) where the light was coming from, (B) shaping the figure instead of hiding it and (C) separating foreground from background." Another reason for the wildly inconsistent nature of comic book colouring of the period was the lack of editorial control; both Image and the major publishers outsourced their computer colouring to studios like Steve Oliff's Olyoptics, who did their own quality control work. An editor's only real solution to a poor colouring job was to have the book redone, which is almost completely unfeasible for the comic book industry's rigorous publishing schedule.

In today's booming comic book industry, all of the trends in colouring have pretty much leveled out. Virtually all large print-run books are now computer coloured, but the "kid with a new toy" aesthetic is now pretty much gone. Comics are now coloured artfully, and with a conservative sense of style rather than blatant flair. Black and white comics are still largely out of the mainstream, but a few artists have demanded that their high-profile projects be published without colour, restoring the air of respectability to one-colour fare. Also, the Comics Code Authority is quickly losing any last shreds of influence, as the number of comics sold on newsstands rather than specialty shops dwindles ever-toward the zero mark. The progression of comic book colouring is likely not over, though. Constant strides in the domain of computer software and process printing will allow colourists more and more freedom, and even if we have seen the last "revolution" of comic book colour (and likely we haven't), like any other art form the medium will continue to evolve. As pop art, comic books, and their colour in particular, will always be a gauge of the American social consciousness and aesthetic, and beyond their interest as a lively art form, they will always be important because they are the world into which we choose to escape. 

Selected Bibliography: - A concise history of colour in American superhero comics, if a bit on the technical side. - DC comics has been around for more than 60 years, and the the images on their web site will explain to these concepts to the newcomer in terms we all recognize: Superman, Batman, the Flash et al. - A short history of censorship in comics penned by the folks who wish to abolish it, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. - The original standards used by the Comics Code Authority to evaluate comics. An interesting piece of history, but disturbing when one realizes these standards are still being enforced today.