Thursday, April 16, 2009

The colour of Life

I never thought I had a problem with black and white comics. Growing up on a steady diet of 2000ad goodness meant I had to read each issue printed on paper stock that was roughly one level up from the stuff we use in the toilet. This printing budget also meant the readers had to make do with one simple dose of colour on the two-page spread in the middle.

This tiny section, usually reserved for Judge Dredd, was the only burst of four-colour goodness outside the covers, with some occasionally dodgy results. (One case, from an early-eighties issue, still stands out in my mind as the single worst bit of colouring I've ever seen in a professional comic, taking some of Ron Smith's gooey and detailed artwork and splashing random dollops of colour all over it, with one pile of dead mutants painted a bright aqua.)

On top of that, black and white Australian reprints of American comics were a regular feature of New Zealand bookstores right up to the late eighties, with companies like the mighty Murray and the slightly slicker Federal often packing together 100-page comics of vaguely themed super-hero or horror comics into one big package, offering the cheapest of thrills at the cheapest of prices.

Eventually the Australian reprints faded away (although still exist in some form, with slick, bright and colourful reprints of Spider-man, Simpsons and Transformers comics), while 2000ad made the gradual transition to full-colour. Even if the first few years saw an unfortunate tendency to attempt to copy Simon Bisley, leading to some awfully brown and sludgey books. Considering the bright and vibrant blues and oranges Bisley brought to his own paintings, this was even more regrettable.

By the time I got on the internet in the mid-90s and was exposed, for the first time, to the whole range of comic fandom, I would come across some readers that simply could not read any black and white comics, a position that I found more than a little baffling. By this time I was convinced that Love and Rockets was the greatest comic I'd ever read, (something I still tend to believe every time a new issue comes out) and was regularly enjoying work by Dangerous Dan Clowes and Pernicious Peter Bagge. To even refuse to open these comics because of a lack of colour seemed, frankly, fucking retarded.

But hell, maybe they have a point, at least when it comes to superhero comics. The use of black and white in the alternative world may stem from cheaper printing costs, but many creators have so much bloody talent they have turned it to their advantage. Jamie Hernandez, for example, may produce work that looks gorgeous in the few coloured pieces he has done, but his use of heavy inks and smooth lines just looks a whole lot better in monochrome.

On the other side of the comics divide, DC and Marvel have both produced thick, cheap collections of their large back catalogues, something they should be credited for. But to actually sit down and read an entire collection of, say, silver-age Aquaman comics quickly becomes an absolute chore. The sheer simplicity of the art styles and repetition of story tricks becomes wearing long before the book is finished. They're still fine to dip into and read the odd story now and again, but too much too soon, and it all blends together.

I never really noticed how much of a turn-off it was until I recently bought a couple of silver-age Adventure Comics and World’s Finest issues, and saw all that lovely Curt Swan art the way it was originally intended to be seen, with these bright capes and shining icons, all helping each individual issue stand out from the next.

In another case of colour bringing joy and life, I recently got the first couple of Jack Kirby Fourth World omnibus books out from the local library and enjoyed the hell out of them, reading the whole damn thing in one sitting. Granted, this is The King we're talking about, and it's the King working at his most imaginative, let off the leash and throwing fantastical ideas all over the place, backed up by a crazy ear for dialogue, (which isn't anywhere near as bad as sometimes made out).

But the colours bring the whole damn thing to life. With decent paper stock and a dose of pure primary colours, the stories scream for attention, smacking the reader over the head whenever the attention starts to wander. It’s a technocolour blast instead of a monotone dirge, and allows the New Gods to blast off the page straight into the head.

I enjoy the simpler colour schemes of these comics a whole lot more than modern colouring techniques. Today's comics might do all sorts of interesting things with tones and shadows, but simple colours just look better on flat two-dimensional pictures.

For me, no Spider-man cover of the last 20 years has been as effective as those produced right up till the 1980s, each providing a variation on a scene from the comic inside in bright yellows, reds and blues. It's almost like the trend towards CGI actors, which still have a long way to go before they stop looking so fucking creepy. When it comes to animation and comic colouring, simpler really is better.

Sometimes we think of the past as monochrome, but it never fails to amuse me when I visit a museum and they have a display showing what all those marble columns really looked like, smothered in bright orange and red dyes, vivid splashes of tasteless green and purple shining through.

Human beings have always liked splashes of colour and they still amuse us on some primal level. If we can see the wonder in a field of yellow grain, or the clear blue sky above us all, then we shouldn’t ignore a slice of such beauty in our comic books.


Zom said...

I found myself thinking about colour a lot when I wrote my last two Daredevil pieces. I adore the minimalist techniques demanded by the technology of the day: the stark blue skies, the sheer whiteness of the snow, the powerful contrasts, and that the detail is found in the inking. I should probably write something about my love for 80s colouring, actually.

That said, I also found myself thinking long and hard about where aesthetic appreciation ends and nostalgia begins. While I think the lessons and virtues of the past should be recognised (see the abominable recolouring of Moebius's work that David U and Jog went over recently for an example of something that was made considerably less good by the implementation of modern techniques) It strikes me as patently untrue that colour was always or even often better in ye olde days.

Zom said...

I adore the minimalist techniques demanded by the technology of the day: the stark blue skies, the sheer whiteness of the snow, the powerful contrasts, and that the detail is found in the inking......Oh, and it's almost abstract quality. Mustn't forget that.

By the way, doesn't this get on your nerves? It keeps bumping you on Google!

Bob Temuka said...

There are certainly some striking things that can be done with modern colouring techniques, but I still feel there is still a long way to go before the perfect balance between simplicity and showing off is achieved. It should be fun to watch.

And nah, I'm not bothered by the original Tearoom. They got there first, by a long way, so fair dues.

Zom said...

But you win.

You think that there's a long way to go before the perfect balance between simplicity and showing off is achieve in all instances, or just some/the majority?

Bob Temuka said...

Oh, it will never be perfectly achievable, as there will always be people conducting misguided experiments. I still reckon it will be a while before the majority settle down, because there are some extraordinary advances in colour technology that are still unfolding and we need to see how those turn out.