One Fan's Opinion: Issue #62

Fri, November 3rd, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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Do black and white reprints violate artistic integrity?

There's some question about that. Certainly, black and white versions of previously colored comics are becoming more common. DC has their "Showcase" line, Marvel has their "Essentials" line - and reprints of comic strips such as Dick Tracy or Peanuts routinely omit color.

Even at Image Comics, which revolutionized color in comics, black and white collections have made it into print. Hell, I'm doing a collection of Savage Dragon comics in black and white relatively soon.

So, do Essentials - black & white reprints of comics that were originally printed in color - violate some possible standard of "artistic integrity?"

Some would argue that they do.

Me - I'm somewhat torn.

Those that take the side that they do often argue that color is as essential as the story and art and that the art is incomplete without color.

I had someone tell me that, "Color is everything in the Dick Tracy strip."

And I think that's overstating it a bit.

I don't feel that the color in Dick Tracy Sundays is anything other than perfunctory. I've seen quite a few Sunday strips and, in most cases, the color is simply there. There's no mood created for the most part - the color isn't stylized in a unique way, and it's not a particularly interesting choice of color - it's the obvious choices. Color is there because Sunday strips are supposed to be in color. The strips read just as well in black and white and in a collection like the recent IDW release - they fit together with the daily strips that much better because the color isn't there.

But that's me.

I've heard others argue that if someone thinks it makes no difference whether the original is reprinted in color or not, they do not fully appreciate the comic book art form.

The thing is, these collections - be they "Essentials" or "Masterworks" or "Showcases" or "Archives" - aren't comic books. Not in the way comic books are comic book, at least.

And even with color they're not going to be the comics they were intended to be. These are reprints in a different format.

The work was done in black and white - the art is in black and white - if it were hanging on a wall on display it would have to be in black and white.

Does it lose something to omit the color?

Sure it does.

But it's enhanced at the same time. Removing the color allows you to see the artists' work that much better. It transforms the work, making it into something else.

One could argue (as I will now) that good printing similarly destroys the work - that although Sue Storm's hair was colored 100% yellow her hair was never supposed to actually be 100% yellow in the truest sense.

Coloring was garish because the printing took it down a notch and what was left was subtler. Was Shang Chi ("Master of Kung Fu") supposed to be bright orange? Was he supposed to have the exact same skin color as the Thing? Was the Yellow Claw supposed to actually be yellow - or were those colors chosen because of the limited pallet available and the poor printing that came along for the ride?

Four-color comics, for years, had an extremely limited pallet. The four colors (yellow, magenta, cyan and black) could be 25%, 50% or 100% and nothing else. If a character wasn't Caucasian (25% each of magenta and yellow) it could present serious problems. There simply weren't viable options available.

So, do we "fix" those things? Do we pick a better color that more accurately represents the skin tone of a Chinese person? Do we crank Sue's yellow hair back a notch?

And what about the rest? Is glossy paper really giving you the authentic feel that you'd get from an actual old comic book? And what about that old comics smell? Are we to try and replicate that?

Should we add wood pulp to glossy pages and tone down the color?

I don't think that's a viable option either.

The problem is, each individual comic book is unique. The printing in one issue of "Iron Man" isn't the same as in another issue of "Iron Man." I've had comics where the magenta plate went missing for a few pages and then there were the inevitable screw-ups - Captain America with magenta and yellow stripes - Superman with one yellow boot or worse - swapped plates so that characters had purple or green skin! Are these screw-ups to be cherished as well? If not, why not? Should the intent be to try and duplicate the same reading experience we had as kids or to create something new?

The original comics were 32 pages long with ads throughout for Grit and Sea Monkeys and Charles Atlas. They weren't 600 pages long! The original comics came out a month apart - you couldn't flip the page to see a story's resolution - what's lost there? A lot, I think.

Clearly black and white printing is an economic shortcut. If color was an option, it would have been used. But I think what's gained is substantial as well. There are details we could never have seen through dark colors and crappy printing that are visible for the first time.

The thing is, the comic books exist and if we, the readers, want to experience them in their original form, that option is available to us for a price. These reprints don't destroy that original work just as an awful adaptation in a movie doesn't diminish the original work.

I like the "Essential" books - I like the comics and I buy the "Masterworks." I get something different from every format and I wouldn't want either of them to go away.

Where do you draw the line? "Captain America" #207 had two pages printed out of order - should an authentic reprint include that flaw or correct it?

In the "Punisher" #25, there's a page, which was almost entirely black and white. The mistake was caught in the middle of the run and fixed. Some copies have the black and white page - some don't. Which is the "real" version? The splash page of the "Amazing Spider-Man" #329 had a section where the shading film was damaged - again, mid-run, the problem was caught and corrected. I've seen both. Which is the "real" version? Which reader gets to see his version collected?

Now, "Essentials" are not some line of artist-appreciation editions. Their point isn't to exhibit art and see raw Kirby pencils the way the "Kirby Collector" is (god bless it). They're not specifically designed for fans of line work or aspiring artists to study and enjoy (although they can certainly be used in this way). "Essentials" are an otherwise complete reprint line, which makes no bones about sacrificing color for a lowered cover price. And there are those who get bent out of shape about being told (in a manner of speaking) that, "Color is not that important- it's the story and art that matter, not the color."

It's a valid point that the creators of this work intended it to be in color. There can be no denying that. These pages were drawn with the idea that they would see print in color.

Some would argue (and have) that while producing inexpensive reprints for fans is laudable, giving color the old heave-ho is inexcusable. They feel that the custodians of this art form have a "higher duty" and that color emphatically Does matter. Dark Phoenix's red costume is crucial, they'd say - and how does one get across the notion that the Fantastic Four is a team and how can we see that they were an imitation of the Challengers of the Unknown (who all had matching suits) without seeing that their outfits did in fact match and weren't green, blue, purple and red? That's something black and white reprints lose entirely.

And it's hard to argue with that logic.

But then, one could argue that movies should never be shown on TV or available on videotapes or on DVDs because they were meant to be seen on the big screen. And what was one to do back in the day when TVs were only black and white?

In some cases, color is more essential than others. In the case of "Daredevil," when Klaus Janson was inking and coloring the book, Klaus' colors were as much a part of the finished work as any of the other components that went into it, but that didn't stop me from drooling over black and white versions of pages in the "Essential Punisher" or when they ran in interviews in the "Comics Journal."

Artists leave art "open for color." Howard Chaykin's original run on "AMERICAN FLAGG!" was drawn for color. Printing it in black and white would violate the artist's intent. Chaykin maintained strict control over the coloring on those stories and clearly viewed it as an integral element.

Howard Chaykin's "AMERICAN FLAGG!" is a subject I'm all too familiar with as coloring it presented numerous problems.

First, the guy who re-colored the (still) upcoming trades was instructed (not by me, mind you) to scan in the printed comics and use an eyedropper tool and match the colors as they saw print. That meant that while the coloring might have looked similar to the way it was printed, the colors would not have been the original colors that the colorist had intended. Reds wouldn't be 100% red - blues wouldn't be 100% blue. There was also the scanning process and converting from RGB to CMYK which causes pages to look more washed out and add more gray.

I went in and fixed all that - matching the original colors - but the second problem was that this version included new pages that had been added to the first trade years ago and those pages were colored with a wider range of color and they wouldn't look anything like the rest of the book. Coupled with that is that the first three issues had been similarly re-colored and that was the version used in here as well.

And then there were effects that looked fine on newsprint, but would look like crap on nice paper - green on faces that was too harsh. They looked fine in the comics, with crappy printing and washed out color, but they would look awful here.

What to do...what to do...

I've done effects in "Savage Dragon" emulating the color holds Klaus Janson did in "Daredevil" when he was inking and coloring Frank Miller on that title - big dot screens and all that. The thing is, with good printing the blue dots are way too harsh and dark (as my early efforts, painfully showed me) and they really don't look what the printed versions in "Daredevil" looked like. I've taken to taking those dots and making them 75% blue instead and the printed results look fine, but again, it's a different animal. Purists here would demand 100% not 75%. When Sue Storm's hair is colored in the comics, they may use 100% yellow, but it doesn't look like 100% yellow on newsprint. These comics were colored incredibly garish in order to compensate for crappy printing. With the crappy printing taken out of the mix, everything is affected.

With "AMERICAN FLAGG!," we ended up using the original colors as much as possible and tried to reconcile the new pages and make judgment calls when necessary. Chaykin drew a lot of double lighting that wasn't colored double lit and there were a few places where I took it upon myself to make it look good.

At the end of the day these won't be perfect facsimiles of the original Comics - but they will look as good as we can make them look and if that means better, I'd hope folks could learn to live with that. These books will, ultimately, outlive us all and we wanted the finished product to be as good as we were capable of making it. I toiled over the pages for months. And it was time well spent. I learned a lot and I'm a better colorist because of it.

I had a fan suggest matching the original, however it needed to be done, in reprints of colored comic books. So if they used 100% yellow for Susan's hair and it came out looking yellow-brown in the original comic, that he'd prefer them to do whatever it took to make the hair in the reprint look yellow-brown as well.

But the problem there is, it's inconsistent. Sue's hair gets lighter and darker depending on the printing and the page and it varies from copy to copy. I've seen books with gray covers that looked purple or brown depending on the saturation of the ink. Old comics tend to Yellow - newsprint can be anywhere from off white to brown. There's really no way of matching all versions - or please everybody. Flagg had salmon-colored boots when I got ahold of the "AMERICAN FLAGG!" files and that simply would not have looked good.

Did you see Marvel's recent facsimile of FF #52, made from scanning in a printed copy of the book? 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. Colors don't stay true and need to be adjusted to match the "real" colors - and they werem't in this facsimile edition.

Do you want printing defects and chunks of wood floating around on the pages of other reprints as well?

It's hard to know where to draw the line.

I've had comics where plates shifted wildly out of alignment, where plates were reverse so that skin colors were green or purple - where colors were omitted entirely. How often did Superman have one yellow boot or Captain America have yellow and magenta stripes? How much are we, the publishers, supposed to try give readers the same reading experience that they'd get from the actual printed comics?

I like the fact that Marvel is now embracing the original colors. I think it's cool that readers get to see Galactus in red and green, but there's a lot more to it than that - or there can be. There are colors that, printed on nice paper, simply overpower the line work. A responsible person re-coloring this stuff needs to be aware of this and make adjustments where necessary.

I liken those that avoid the black and white volumes to those that don't care to look at original art - "because it's too big and not in color."

That (to me) is madness.

These things were drawn in black and white - the artists involved often had no input in the color at all and the coloring (in many cases) was uninspiring at best - coloring the Thing orange in every panel because he's orange without any thought in regard to lighting, mood or aesthetics. I don't look at the "loss" of color as a loss - as often as not, there are all sorts of things to see that were buried or obscured by poor color choices and hackwork.

I like the stuff in color, sure, but I am very happy to see this stuff in black and white - sometimes it's cool to look under the hood and see the engine buzzing around.

But they're called "Essentials." Isn't the color essential?

At this point, I thing we're hair-splitting. If it's the choice of the word "Essential" that's the debate, then Marvel's "Essential" line is misleading while DC's "Showcase" line is perfectly fine and both books do essentially the same thing - reprint color comics in black and white.

But they are essential in the way food and water is essential. Sure, more choices would be better, but this is all you really need in order to read the stories in question and, again, it comes down to numerous other contributing factors.

I'm often left cold by the "Marvel Masterworks" because they're too perfect. The flaws that gave them their haphazard quality are gone. Color is flat and even and seamless. It's always perfectly aligned and the printing is clear. There are no ads for American Seeds and Onion Gum and Fitness manuals and all the rest. There are no Stan Lee soapboxes or letters pages or ads for other books. It's all on slick paper - not newsprint - and the colors that looked muted and warm on newsprint are harsh and garish on slick paper. That is the perfect solution?

I'm not convinced.

Now, I'm not suggesting that "Marvel Masterworks" and "DC Archives" should be done away with - not by any means - I'm merely suggesting that the "Essential" alternative is a viable one. Their cheap, thick and they're on newsprint - just like they used to be.

I buy both - for different reasons - and in many cases, I end up chasing down the original comics as well.

But that's me.

There's also an economic reality to consider. Printing Strips in color is expensive. IDW would like to print all of the Chester Gould Dick Tracy strips. If they insisted on color, there's a good chance they wouldn't get more than a book or two in print before having to call it quits.

Would I have liked to have the book with the Sunday pages in color? ure. But given the choice of black and white or nothing, I'm willing to take black and white.

And then there's "Bone."

Bone was drawn in black and white. Bone was released in black and white. Bone was reprinted in black and white. Bone was collected in black andwhite. And now it's being colored and reprinted and released for a new audience that will never know that the comics were ever in black and white.

Is that as messed up as the "Essentials" collections? Are folks going to get as worked up about aesthetics and artistic intent? What if Jeff Smith said he always wanted the comics to be in color, but couldn't afford to have them colored? Would that make a difference? (And I have no idea what he's said on the subject, mind you - I have no insights on this one, sorry to say).

I dunno.

Personally, as a guy who worked at Marvel for years, I'd love seeing my stuff in an "Essential" volume. For the most part, the coloring and printing was pretty substandard and I'd like to see the stuff as it looked on the original art.

But that's one fan's opinion - you may feel otherwise.

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