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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

In his 2011 “Black & White to Color and Back: What Does It Mean (not) to Use Color?” Jan Baetens observes: “a global theory of color in the comics field is still missing” (111), resulting in “color-blind” scholarship where “color is either neglected or seen as a less essential feature” (112).

Patrick Johnston in his 2016 dissertation, Working with Comics: Labour, Neoliberalism and Alternative Cartooning, observers similarly that comics studies “currently offers little in the way of analysis of comics’ use of colour” (113), but that “a full integration of colour is necessary” to understand “the specific nature of individual comics” (153).

When Leigh Ann Beavers and I published Creating Comics in 2021, we left out all discussion of color and included only black and white images in the anthology section. That was mainly for practical reasons: color is more expensive (a point Johnston explores in depth about the comics medium). I just published The Comics Form, and though my analysis of transparent and non-transparent images applies to color, I don’t discuss color directly.

I’m in the early stages of a new book now, The Color of Paper: Representing Race in the Comics Medium, and so I’m starting to address Baeten’s “color-blindness.”

Working toward the integration of color into comics theory, Johnston asserts that black and white images are inherently more “abstract,” meaning they convey less verisimilitude than do color images. For corroboration, Johnston cites Lindsay Smith who describes black and white photography as an “incomplete, or intermediate stage of representation which can but suggest mimesis even with its glaring lack of coloration” (149). Also citing Scott McCloud’s claim that “colour will always look more ‘real’” (141), Johnson concludes that “Black and white comics are, of course, an abstraction” too (142).

Smith, however, is analyzing photography, where the level of verisimilitude-producing detail is the highest possible, including for color. A black and white photograph is more “abstract” in contrast to a color photograph because its lack of color is the most non-realistic quality of either image.

The same is not necessarily true of drawings. A color drawing and a black and white drawing may share a range of non-realistic qualities, many much more “abstract” than lack of color. If the black and white image is rendered in a photorealistic style and the color image is a cartoon, viewers will likely perceive the black and white image as significantly more “real.” Color is not determining.

Bill Sienkiewicz’s and Steve Ditko’s renderings of Kingpin are a clear example:

The challenge stems partly from the ambiguity of the term “color,” which encompasses a range of techniques and, more importantly, effects, some significantly more verisimilitude-producing than others. If a black and white photograph were colorized with discrete shapes of solid colors within the limited palette range of the four-color separation process that dominated twentieth-century comics, the effect may instead be an increase in abstraction due to the non-realistic colors contrasting with the other realistic details. Andy Warhol spent much of his career exploring that contrast. His Marilyn, Prince, and other photo-based series feature blocks of vibrantly incongruent colors added to black and white images for non-realistic effects.

At minimum, McCloud’s claim that “color comics will always seem more real” needs to be divided into kinds of “color comics” (192). While it’s obviously true that we “live in a world of color, not just black and white,” it is also true that we do not live in a world of “flat-color,” where “bright, primary colors” are “held by bold, simple outlines” (189, 187). Baetens describes the “‘clear line’ aesthetics” of many bandes dessinées similarly, noting that “color never blurs the black contour line, which remains always perfectly visible” and “is always monochromatic inside the surface delineated by a contour line” (2011: 117). Baetens, however, does not assess the relative verisimilitude of color hues in relation to their resemblance to the hues of the subjects they represent. What Baetens describes as “monochromatic” and McCloud as “flat” applies not to hues but to how hues are applied, or what we might term the color units.

Though acetate color printing is a mechanical form of pointillism, because variously colored dots are identically spaced in combination with the surface color of the paper to a create a single uniform color within each discrete area, those areas rather than the internal dots within them are experienced as the units of color composition. When a comic originally printed with acetate color is reprinted with digital color, those some areas are uniformly colored without the pointillistic combination of the original dot process.

When Milestone Comics produced its first comics in 1993, color artist Noelle Giddings used colored pencils and watercolors, and so the color units were pencil marks and brush strokes. Though the units combined for unified effects, the colored areas within black contour lines contained gradations independent of the area-delineating black lines.

Milestone’s printing process produced more realistic effects compared to traditional acetate printing because, to paraphrase McCloud, we live in a world of gradations, not just monochromes.

If a color image has small units of gradations, its overall effect may be realistic—provided its hues are also realistic. If a color image features small units of gradations, its overall effect may be realistic—provided its hues are also realistic. Terminology is problematic. The adjective “realistic” (like its synonyms “verisimiltudonous,” “mimetic,” “literal,” “transparent,” or its antonyms “abstract,” stylized,” “impressionistic”) describes a representational image’s resemblance to what it represents without indicating the basis of the assessment. Rather than providing evidence for a claim of realism, stating that an image is realistic because it has realistic qualities (such as realistic color) is a circular restatement. Though the terms are not more precise, for consistency I suggest “naturalistic” and “non-naturalistic” for assessing the qualities of representational color.

Color needs to be assessed along at least two spectrums. One spectrum refers to hues; the other to the amount of differentiated detail. Combining spectrums creates four combinations, ranging from most realistic (naturalistic hues in small gradating units) to least (non-naturalistic hues in large monochromatic units), with two opposite mid-points (non-naturalistic hues in small gradating units, and naturalistic hues in large monochromatic units).

The four can be represented by a 2×2 grid:

And that grid can be filled-in with examples from outside the comics medium:

The bottom left combination describes color photography, such as Lynn Goldsmith’s 1981 photograph of Prince).

The top right describes many works by Andy Warhol, such as his 1984 Orange Prince, in which the background and the singer’s face are uniformly colored an inhuman shade of orange. (I wrote about this series last year here, and the Supreme Court will be hearing an appeal this fall to determine whether Warhol infringed on Goldsmith’s copyright.)

The top left describes works in the comics medium that feature acetate color separation. Warhol’s 1962 Orange Marilyn is another example. Unlike Orange Prince, the Marilyn silkscreen has only an orange background, but the interior of the face is uniformly colored a light pink that roughly suggests the color of the actress’s actual face, and the area of the hair is uniformly covered gold that roughly suggests blonde hair. The hues fall on the naturalistic side of the spectrum, but their monochromatic application falls on the non-naturalistic side.

The bottom right combination of non-naturalistic hues applied in naturalistic gradations is less common in art, but is commonly achieved by photoshopping photographs. Since grays are colors, black and white photographs belong in this category too, including the one taken by Eugene Korman for the 1953 film Niagara that Warhol used for his Marilyn series.

Since these are spectrums and not binaries, many images fall between poles.

Shepard Fairey’s 2008 HOPE digitally adapts a photograph of Barack Obama (taken by Mannie Garcia for the Associated Press who later sued for copyright infringement before settling out of court). Fairey explains his use of non-naturalistic hues: “I wanted it to be a portrait that was political in nature and that would de-racialize Mr. Obama by using a red, white, and blue colour palette that was patriotic.” Fairey also reduced the photography’s facial gradations to four monochrome areas (red, blue, beige, and beige/blue) plus black contour lines and shapes outlining and punctuating the interior area. Traditional comics acetate coloring, like Warhol’s Orange Marilyn and Orange Prince, often feature only one interior skin color.

HOPE, while clearly using non-naturalistic hues, may fall between naturalistic and non-naturalistic units:

If naturalistic hues are all that matter when assessing color, then viewers would describe Orange Marilyn as more realistic than HOPE. If they instead describe the image of Obama as more realistic than the image of Monroe, then perceptions of realism must rely more heavily on naturalistic units than on naturalistic hues.

You tell me:

Or perhaps the contrasting hues and units cancel each other out to produce similar levels of overall realism?

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