This is basically an aborted script for a video i dont plan on making. Like all my writing its probably terrible.
When it comes to making comic books probably they most underrated member of the production team is the colorist. While coloring occasionally will be talked about its rare that anyone has a “favorite colorist” they can pick out, whereas even they most entry level reader can pick at least one writers or artist they like. This is a shame to me because coloring beyond being just visually appealing when done right, can also give us a deeper insight into what the comic book is trying to convey. It also is probably the biggest way that comic books, at least American comics is distinct from manga. In light of this I will attempt to demonstrate some clever ways comic books have used coloring throughout the years.
To start off let’s talk about my favorite series being published right now, Paper Girls a series which is currently colored by Matt Wilson, and its use of color is used to clearly define the era the characters are in. Paper Girls is a series which starts out in the 1980s, then moves towards the 2010s and as of late the prehistoric era. For each time period the color changes, with the 1980s coloring using soft pinks and purples, contrasted with bright yellows, evocative of the era. The modern era keeps the soft purples and pinks, but removes the bright yellows giving a sort of sobering atmosphere emphasizing the depressing outcomes of its characters in the future. The prehistoric times eschew all of this for a palette of greens, and blues, showing a disconnect from the other two eras, with a more natural color scheme. It’s a visual signifier of setting within the series and is great shorthand for someone to instantly tell what when the story is taking place. The colors define the era and thus also the setting of the book.
Another great use of color to define time is in the Batman story zero year, where the colors, done by Dave Mccreig, are meant to call back to the era of 4 color comics where batman first appeared in, emphasizing purples and bright yellows in environments where they really wouldn’t appear like caves. It’s not so much a way to define the era the comic is set, but rather pay homage to an era long gone.
To return to the use of coloring as setting, its time to talk about the big daddy of all comics, Watchmen, colored by John Higgens, which famously uses a color palette of secondary colors like brown, purple, and yellow, rather than the primary colors used in comics. It gives comic a gritty noir inspired vibe that presents a much darker world than you would see in normal superhero comics. Its been mentioned that primary colors like red have been used for shocking scenes in the past but this is far from all that watchmen does with color. For example in issue 2 while rorshach is intimidating molach it flashes back to when the Comedian is confessed to Moloch each panel of the grid is either purple or yellow reminiscent of a chessboard. This is broken up by the final panel of these two pages where the last two panels transition from the comedian grabbing moloch in a pov shot with orange coloring to that of Rorschach doing the same pose but with the dominant color being yellow. It provides a break from flashback to reality that is startling while at the same time somewhat smooth, the contrast being the actual line art and the coloring amplifying the discomfort one is supposed to feel. There are numerous other great examples throughout watchmen but fellating watchmen is a well covered field at this point, and one I will certainly return to so for now I rest my case and jump back into the world of modern comics with one of my favorites Shade the Changing Girl.
Shade which is colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick uses coloring to express mindset more than setting. In the series Loma Shade is an alien who travels to earth using the madness cloak which visualizes her emotions and feelings about the world around her. The use of a broad spectrum of bright poppy colors all across the comic express how Shade is being almost overloaded with new sensations and emotions on earth. It gives off the impression of being both beautiful and overwhelming, which ties in to how shade must keep the madness caused by the cloak in check. It allows us to see the world through shades eyes giving life to her visualizations of human interactions. It also sets the book apart from nearly every other dc book which is always a plus against the tide of homogeneity that threatens to overtake comic books every year.
Jumping back to another Alan Moore comic that takes a similar approach to exploring the psyche of its characters through coloring, the original 1988 coloring of the killing joke, once again colored by Higgens is a masterful in its use of color. The kaleidoscopic color scheme of the book gives it a absolutely disorienting feel to match the story of insanity. In contrast to watchmen the colors, are more at home with colorful superhero stories of the time but taken to an extreme degree. It matches well with the message of the comic which recontextualizes the classic narrative of batman vs. the joker as a tragic cycle of violence and obsession, slowly leading both deeper and deeper down a hole.
Notice how the color green is used to represent whenever someone is being psychologically taxed or in a state of madness. For example when gorden is being tortured by the circus freaks nearly every shot we have of him prominently features the bright green of the grass. This is used most effectively during the jokers origin story where the color green is completely absent until we see jack diving into a green pool of chemicals, which transform him into the joker. This culminates in the hall of mirrors scene which is awash in green light while joker is giving a speech on his philosophy until batman rebukes him by smashing through the mirrors, which breaks up the colors showing his rejection of the jokers worldview. Also of note is the Killing Jokes use of reds for high stress situations such as the attack on Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordons torturous ride through the amusement park, the moment when Joker pulls a gun on batman which turns out to be fake, and when Jack puts on the Red Hood helmet. In the moment when the character is put under the largest amount of duress he has been throughout the entire comic he is literally wearing a red helmet and cape which tin everything he sees with the color red.
This sadly is lost in the recoloring by Brian Bolland years later, which is sadly the version that is most widely distributed and available. It marks a trend in comics of unnecessary recolors which provide uninteresting changes to their original works. The Killing Joke recolor makes it look like an ugly grey mess, while the recolor of the Morrison and Quitely’s classic miniseries flex mentallo for the trade gives the art tones which look less colorful and more realistic, a strange choice for a book with such a surreal and whimsical tone. Most egregious of all is the series of Noir books that DC is now publishing which strip works of their coloring entirely leaving everything in black and white, which for a cash grab is one that’s pretty worthless and detracts from what there trying to sell. It only serves to illustrate how underrated the colorist is in the process of making comic books. So next time you sit down to read your favorite comic try and give the coloring some thought while your flipping through. For all you know it may completely change how you view the comic.