School’s Out––For the Fall!?


ON TUESDAY, most of Oregon will go Back to School. By contrast, Monday will be my first in 10 weeks in which I’m not dragging books to Portland State University for my summer class, “Contemporary Comics Theory.”

Last Monday, I got back my final paper, a survey of different techniques in the restoration and recoloring of older comics for new, archival editions. I looked at the different approaches publishers take and attempted to figure out the ideologies behind them and, to a lesser extent, the effect they have on the reading experience. I couldn’t get too deep in the limited space I had (regular readers of this site (hah!) know that I do like to go on), but I’d like to think there are some good insights and that the paper represents a good start to a wider study of these issue.

As I did with the midterm a few days ago, I’ve decided to inflict the final on the Internet, though this time with lots of pictures! If you know much about coloring comics, then you probably know more than me, but if I’ve done my job at all, I’m presenting a few things to think about.

(Note: just to add another layer of complication, I should mention that these images are, of course, scanned from the books and, in most cases, I’ve altered them to more accurately match the pages I scanned them from. This means adjusting the brightness and contrast, deepening the blacks and lightening the whites here and there. In just a few cases, I’ve removed art from adjacent panels that came too close to the panel borders; I cropped the image of Galactus that was too big for my scanner and came from a book whose spine was never going to let it lie flat; and in the case of the panels from Understanding Comics, I combined panels from two tiers into one. Therefore, even in the seemingly simple stage of including the images to talk about them, you’re not seeing exactly what I’m talking about, as I’ve added the quality of my home scanner and my own judgement into the mix. My head hurts.)



Remembering History Through CMYK-Tinted Lenses

Pastiche of mechanical colors from Daredevil: Golden Age.

In Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s 2005 storyline, Daredevil: Golden Age, flashbacks to the exploits of a previous King of Hell’s Kitchen take on the appearance of old color comics, complete with yellowed pages, large dots of color, and colors that leak outside of the line art. Bendis and colorist Dave Stewart use the imagery associated with the mechanical coloring techniques of older comics to show that scenes take place in an earlier era without having to indicate the flashback through text. Ironically, most modern reprints of such material released contemporaneously with Golden Age don’t look like the flashbacks in the story. The technology that produced those comics has been replaced by digital coloring and separation processes, and those processes are applied to new reprints. These upgrades raise questions about how modern technology and economics affect the authenticity of reprints and different approaches to the problem reveal different values at work. The tension is primarily between how much reprinting an old comic is about re-creating the original object and how much it is about using new technology to clarify the original and even attempt to reclaim original intent. This paper will contrast several reprint methods and attempt to identify the values and commercial factors behind them.

Before digital production, comics coloring was laborious and imprecise. A colorist indicated color choices from a limited palette and the resulting color guide was separated onto acetate screens of cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black) dots in densities of 20-, 50- and 100-percent (McCloud 187). Once printed as overlays, this process produced the 64 colors that made up the full range of available tones. In addition to the limited number of choices, color selection was influenced by the dulling effects of the cheap newsprint and the limited color density of large dots with white space between them. Brighter colors were chosen to compensate for the brightness lost to the printing. With many colorists and separators working on a series and with the necessity for fast turnaround, mistakes and inconsistencies were inevitable, while publishing budgets and deadlines often made proofing the completed colors impossible.

Panels from Understanding Comics.

Digital production has greatly increased the number of options available to colorists, as well as sped up the process considerably, while making steps like separation much less complicated. Better paper and the ability to produce proofs in-house has improved fidelity between the colorist’s work and the printed page. As a result, modern color comics look very different from those of the mechanical era. Today’s comics have a practically limitless palette and can achieve both greater brightness and greater subtlety of tone than earlier color comics. It is also possible to apply these styles and techniques to reprints of older material. With today’s impulse toward archival collections of classic comics, how to reconcile the original material with new approaches is a question that must be asked with each reprint project, and there is no consensus on what constitutes authenticity, or how to balance authenticity with updates.

The relatively muted effect of upscale newsprint, seen in a panel from the OMAC Omnibus.

The most common approach to recoloring at the largest companies, DC and Marvel, has been to stick closely to the decisions of the original colorists while improving production values and making minor tweaks. Regarding the Marvel Masterworks line, Tom Brevoort explains that at Marvel “we try to match the original coloring, just with better separations and a slightly wider ranging palette” (Brevoort 2001). Marvel often retains the inconsistencies and mistakes of the original comics, as in The Fantastic Four Omnibus vol. 2, in which Galactus first appears colored red and green, but is purple on every other page. The result is a series of books that are deeply conscious of the actions of colorists, but which dismiss the technological and commercial conditions of the original comics, as the better printing and paper applied to the same color selections produce different effects such as greater color density and much brighter, more garish colors. DC has taken a slightly different approach in the recent Jack Kirby Omnibus volumes, correcting coloring anomalies like Mr. Miracle’s uncolored costume on one cover, but printing on an upscale newsprint rather than glossy paper. This approach maintains the somewhat less saturated colors of the original, though DC also improves the color density.

Detail of Galactus as he first appears in the Fantastic Four Omnibus, featuring his original color scheme, but with colors pumped up by glossy paper.

Approaches like these fall somewhere in between the extremes of dramatically updating the colors in reprints, an approach favored by Neal Adams, and presenting as close to a facsimile of the original comics as possible, sometimes utilized by Art Spiegelman. Adams displays an enthusiasm for newer coloring technologies. He has overseen the recoloring of much of his 1970s and ‘80s work for DC and other publishers, and has said he’d like to see more artists’ work treated the same, stating, “If you really want to see Jack Kirby and Wally Wood modernized, y’know, brought up to date, and something you can be proud of, [it] ought to be done.” Of the changes to his own work, Adams remarks that if “fanatics” disapprove, “they can go out and buy the old comic books” (Siuntres, 2005). In this philosophy, the underlying work exists independent of the objects they were originally printed in and an application of new technology not only doesn’t compromise it, but can be an improvement.

By contrast, Spiegelman writes in a New Yorker profile of Jack Cole that, “the reproduction in [DC’s Archive Editions of Plastic Man] stinks—or maybe it simply doesn’t stink enough,” and admits a preference for the originals (“Comix 101” p.76). In Spiegelman’s later book adapted from this essay, several Plastic Man and other Cole comics are included. The stories are printed on pulpy paper and appear to be scanned and reproduced directly from the original comics, capturing the original printing process and showing the dirt and fading of age. Here the physical reality of the original comic book is an inseparable part of the experience, and even the way its appearance changes with age is important. Spiegelman is not just reprinting a story, but an artifact as well. (Spiegelman gives the same treatment to the comic strips reprinted in the back of In the Shadow of No Towers and takes a similar approach to that of Bendis and Stewart when he references those strips within Shadow itself.)

Panels from two different Plastic Man reprint projects. Art Spiegelman prefers reproducing the look of the original comics (left) in Jack Cole and Plastic Man, while a panel from DC’s Archives Sampler cleans them up.

At first glance, Spiegelman’s method appears the best for re-creating the intentions of the original artists, particularly in the case of someone like Fletcher Hanks, who colored his own artwork. Paul Karasik, editor of the recent Hanks collection, I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets, describes Hanks as “a one-man band, an auteur with a distinct personal vision that he burned into the pages of his work” (Daniels 2007). Reprinting scans of the original comics emphasizes Hanks’ palettes, which were unusual and innovative given the technological constraints of the day. In the context of serious analytical books like Spiegelman’s Jack Cole and Plastic Man and the public domain comics reprinted in each issue of The Comics Journal, the choice also carries the association of historical value, lending the book a sense of importance. Finally, pages which appear unaltered create the illusion of the reader discovering the work themselves, unmediated, rather than an archivist carefully restoring them for a new audience. (It is worth noting that, while Spiegelman states an aesthetic preference for such a presentation, it almost always has economic factors implicit in it as well; it is difficult to image The Comics Journal commissioning new colors for its public domain comics section several times a year.)

However, there are limits to even this approach. In discussing the facsimile edition of Fantastic Four #52, Erik Larsen observes, “It was considerably grayer and less vibrant than my copy of the actual comic and a large part of that is due to the scanning process involved” (“One Fan’s Opinion” #62). Even when attempting a direct copy of comics pages, there is a technological intermediary that must be compensated for, at which point second-guessing again becomes necessary. Furthermore, Hanks is a special case; most comics artists do not color their own work and their intentions may not have been fulfilled when the comics were first printed. Additional opportunities for discrepancies and errors come from the fact that coloring and separation of the day were often done at the printer by craftspeople, not by artists at the publisher (Farmer 331), and technical problems were also a factor. Larsen recalls spotting the effects of reversed color plates reproduced in the Devil Dinosaur Omnibus, even though the mistake was caught and did not affect the entire print run of the original comic, a case of a color reconstructionist arguably defeating himself by not second-guessing the source material. He argues that such mistakes “should be corrected” rather than a publisher going out of its way to “recreate[sic] their screw up” (“One Fan’s Opinion” #79).

The reconstructed colors of most of the American Flagg! Definitive Collection.
The digital colors of the book’s new story.

Larsen’s own forays into color reconstruction reveal a sensitivity to these factors. Though completely digitally recolored, the recent American Flagg! Definitive Collection retains the flat, muted tones and Duoshade textures of the original comics it reprints. The colors themselves are not exactly the same, as an early attempt to match the look of the existing comics resulted in “Flagg running around with salmon-colored boots for the entire book,” which was deemed unacceptable (Thielman). The changing colors from issue to issue of the original series have also been made more uniform. An approach like this suggests a desire not unlike Adams’s to clarify the material to the best of current technology’s ability, severing it from its original physical context, though it puts greater emphasis than does Adams in retaining the link to its temporal context. The inclusion of a new story complete with rendered colors and digital effects speaks to the success of the older material’s preservation through its striking visual contrast with the rest of the book. The original comics are revealed as a product of their time and the new story a product of its time.

The widespread publication of archival collections of classic comics shows that there is interest in this sort of separation of the contents of old comics from the physical conditions of their original production. Comics are in a period of repurposing material from cheaply produced objects which were considered disposable as permanent editions, and the associations and commercial realities inherent in the process demand some alterations. A Spiegelman-like approach to reprints undoubtedly has value from an historical and nostalgic point of view, though the emphasis on comics-as-artifact competes with the story and artwork for attention, just as an old movie with damaged or missing frames can interrupt the viewing experience. On the other hand, while it is hard to imagine telling an artist like Adams that he isn’t free to recolor his own artwork, some measure of a comic’s place in time is lost in the process (a reader unfamiliar with Adams’s work could be forgiven for looking at the colors in a reprint like Batman: Tales of the Demon and thinking his contribution was drawn two or possibly three decades later than it actually was). The inexpensive black and white reprints of older comics which have proven popular are an alternate implementation of this notion of separating story and line art from the original package––in this instance driven by economic factors such as production costs and affordability rather than ideological or technological ones––with the side effect of creating a product that emphasizes composition and linework over mechanical processes.

1970s Neal Adams art with 1990s colors––note especially the photorealistic texture of the cave walls in the background.

There is truth in Adams’s exhortation that those offended by his decision seek out the original comics (a suggestion ironically echoed by Spiegelman, who unlike Adams prefers them to cleaned-up versions, in his piece on Plastic Man (“Comix 101” p.76)): the reprints are a different animal from the originals and serve a different purpose. However, purchasing original comics is not always economically feasible, particularly with older material. Therefore I am most sympathetic to Larsen’s approach, which is not bound by the mistakes and inconsistencies that created the source material, but takes into consideration that source material’s look and feel. Every method surveyed in this paper requires a certain amount of guesswork and decision-making, and some are more applicable in certain circumstances than others. Debate over how best to represent older work in new editions will continue, but there is a certain excitement to the existence of so many different formats and it is encouraging to see that approaches have become increasingly sophisticated in the last few years.

Works Cited:

Daniels, John L., Jr. “Interview: Paul Karasik on Fletcher Hanks.” 12 Sept, 2007. Date of access: 14 Aug, 2008.

Farmer, Clark. “Comic Book Color and the Digital Revolution.”
International Journal of Comic Art. 8.2 (2006): 330-346.

Larsen, Erik. “One Fan’s Opinion #62.”
Comic Book Resources. 3 Nov, 2006. Date of access: 15 Aug, 2008.

______. “One Fan’s Opinion #79.”
Comic Book Resources. 20 July, 2007. Date of access: 15 Aug, 2008.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics.
New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1994.

“Neal Adams Interview.” 11 Dec, 2005. Podcast.
“Word Balloon with John Siuntres.” Downloaded: 19 Dec, 2005.

Spiegelman, Art. “Comix 101: Forms Stretched to Their Limits.”
New Yorker. 19 Apr, 1999: 76-85.

Thielman, Sam. “Image and Dynamite Finally Raise American Flagg!”
Publisher’s Weekly. 15 July, 2008. Date of access: 15 Aug, 2008.

“Tom Brevoort Talks Masterworks with Comic Book Marketplace.”
Marvel Masterworks Resource Page. Date of access: 14 Aug, 2008.


3 Responses to “School’s Out––For the Fall!?”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Sept. 2, 2008: We’re number 43! Says:

    […] Brendan Wright compares and contrasts the differing coloring strategies used in legacy-comics reprint […]

  2. Joe Procopio Says:

    Thanks for posting this excellent analysis.

    This is a subject that I, too, have given much thought to over the past few years. I have two observations on your piece. First, I believe that if you had compared the exact same panel from the two separate sources for the Plastic Man reprint projects you would have a fairer, apple-to-apples comparison. (Personally, I disagree with your assertion that the Spiegelman reprint is the “better” of the two, and I think this would be even clearer if you could have reprinted the exact same planel from the DC reprint.) Second, I would venture that if the artists from those time periods were alive to ask for their preference, most would be closer to Neal Adams in desiring some intervention or updating to not only the coloring, but probably also to the fidelity of the line as it was put on the page. Seeing original comic art from before the 1980s compared to the printed reproductions reveals all sorts of ways the artist’s intentions were poorly served by the limitations of the day’s technology (e.g., in the form of line drop out, line congealing, etc.)

    Thanks again!

  3. Brendan Wright Says:

    I wouldn’t say that I think Spiegelman’s presentation of Plastic Man is better. However, his book is more about Cole than it is Plastic Man, so the less mediated approach to reproduction is more effective in presenting Cole’s artwork in the context of his era, and creates the illusion of digging up the actual comics themselves.

    That said, when actually reading the story, I find the inclusion of misplaced colors, yellowed paper and overleaf show-through distracting, so I would be more likely to go through an Archive edition than an entire book reproduced Spiegelman-style. I’d say the two approaches have different strengths based on the effect that each project is going for, and I’m happy that both are available.

    As for the different panels, I would have preferred to be able to contrast the way the same panel looks in each project. However, I only had immediate access to an Archive sampler, which only includes one Plastic Man story, and it’s not one included in Spiegelman’s book, so I had to make do. If I come across the actual Archives at the library in the future, I may correct this.

    Thanks for reading and responding!

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