Robot 6

Is it round or is it flat? What bugs me about comics coloring

Jones, one of the Jones Boys, was complaining about the recoloring of Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer the other day, and looking at the original and recolored art side by side made me realize what I find so off-putting about a lot of comics art these days: The use of gradients alongside heavy black lines.

Back when I was studying art, I was taught never to do that. The reason: Lines are flat, while shading implies three-dimensionality, and the two compete with one another. That’s an oversimplification, of course — you can create a three-dimensional space with purely linear art, but that’s very different from the smoother, modeled effect you get by using light and shade.

The clash isn’t too bad in the cover that Jones picked out, but the re-colored splash page he reproduces (a bit too sexy to lead this post) is tough for me to look at; the colorist has added a lot of shadows and modeling, and it’s way too busy. The fact is that comics in that era were designed for flat colors, and the gradients that are possible with new technology are doing them no favors. And conversely, if you’re going to paint a comic, don’t run black lines around all the shapes. I think this is one of the reasons I find some modern superhero comics hard to “read” visually. (There are other reasons as well, but you don’t have all day.)

Take a look at Jones’ post and see if you don’t agree.




Gradients are the main reason I hate recolorings.

agreed. I also hate seeing images that are enlarged beyond their capacity, pixalated images appear far too often in contemporary comic books. I read the first issue of Hell Yeah a couple of months ago and that was a particularly bad example. It happens loads in Lorroca’s work on Iron Man too. But yeah, it’s very weird, it feels a bit more like American cable TV than comic book art sometimes.

I see your point, but based on that cover, it is hard for me to judge if you are accurate in this case, because the colors are not balanced properly. Thus it appears flat even with all the shading. I think some color adjustments, and possibly darker shade colors will go a long way to making the cover work much better.

Generally, I think digitally shaded art has the same problem that a lot of CGI has: looks computer generated, and not ‘natural’. This doesn’t have to be the case. It is a challenge that can be overcome.

Brigid Alverson

May 30, 2012 at 5:25 pm

@Erik I agree about the cover, but click through to other images and I think you’ll see what I mean.

I have seen some beautiful digitally painted art, so the problem isn’t the computers, it’s the people using them.

This is very insightful. Do you think its another case of comics trying to be something other than comics? Critics and bloggers discussing writing often note that modern comics attempt to immitate the pacing, dialogue, rhythms and characterizations of movies and prime time dramas when they should instead allow the script to be designed in a structure more unique to the medium.

This seems almost to be a different but equivalent issue with the art: rather than embrace a two-dimensional, 20th century aesthetic, these digital shading effects look like an effort to make the art “pop” in the same way digital animation does. I am perfectly content to let comics look like comics: flat and Lichtensteinian rather than paper pretending its a video game, which is the dissonance you’re talking about.

Again, great piece.

Anyone remember those “remastered” Conan the Barbarian trades that Dark Horse put out a while ago? I wouldn’t have thought you could make Barry Windsor-Smith look horrible but by Christ they found the method and mastered it.

I’m generally not a fan of modern recoloring of older comics and agree that something is lost when you compare those images but I don’t agree with their theory that it is the juxtaposition of black lines and gradients. You’re right that is an old color theory in painting to not use pure black but to me it doesn’t seem like the issue here. It’s more about overdoing it and sapping the vibrancy of color with too much muted shadow work. There are some great colors popping out in those original Stevens’ pieces (the orange curtain, her red skirt, even his pale yellow pants). All of that is changed in the recoloring in an effort to desaturate it and it all gets kind of muddy.

Still, I’ve looked through that Rocketeer book and thought it looked great on its own. I also think that digital coloring is entering a golden period in comics right now especially with digital comics allowing us to see the art in its natural environment. The coloring seems to be the first thing I notice now when I look at a comic on the iPad. It’s almost the key thing that distinguishes digital comics from their print counterparts right now and we’re probably going to start seeing a lot more recognition for colorists because of it.


May 31, 2012 at 1:45 pm

While I agree with the general premise, I think the new Rocketeer looks good. Reminds me of airbrushed rockabilly art. I’m not sure if that was intentional but it’s what I got out of it. I dig!

I do agree, though, that the digital coloring has gotten a bit out of hand and in many cases I prefer the old 4 color format where available…or at least solid colors. A lot of super hero stuff has become unreadable partially because of how ridiculous the coloring has gotten…that and the bad writing :P

Anyway, comments about art theory aside, I love The Rocketeer way too much not to buy this book. Just thought Id add that so its clear I’m not slamming this comic or IDW, which are both awesome.

Leave a Comment


Browse the Robot 6 Archives