Talking With Colorist Pete Pantazis

Fri, January 30th, 2009 at 12:28pm PST | Updated: January 30th, 2009 at 12:32pm

Comic Books
Benjamin Birdie, Reviewer
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TrinityJustice League of America
Pete Pantazis colors "Trinity" and "Justice League of America," among other titles

Weekly comics are hard. They require a ton of work for writers, who must map out and maintain a complicated story that can sustain fifty-two issues.  Artists must commit to over a dozen pages a week, and are beholden to one of the most rigid schedules possible in the industry. And DC Comics’ "Trinity" is no exception. 

The hardest working creator on a weekly comic book is possibly the one who gets the least recognition. While he might not be the same kind of convention draw as a Kurt Busiek or Mark Bagley, every week, colorist Pete Pantazis makes immeasurable contributions to the look and tone of "Trinity."

A long time colorist in the industry who has seen all of the stages of the digital evolution of comics pre-press, Pantazis has been involved with creator-owned books like "Powers" to flagship mainstream superhero books like "Justice League of America." As such, Pantazis has a lot to talk about, and managed to squeeze in a few minutes in his ridiculously busy schedule to do so with CBR News.

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CBR: How did you get started in coloring?  Did you build up a portfolio and shop it around?  What does a colorist’s portfolio look like?

Pete Pantazis: I got my first job coloring at Wildstorm in La Jolla, California. I grew up reading my older brothers’ comics in my basement in New York Since then, I have dreamed of working in comics. Years later, I went to the Fashion institute of Technology in NY, where I studied for two years and majored in general illustration, which means every type of style of art that I could get my hands on. From there I moved to CA, and started working at a children’s art gallery that happened to be across the street from Wildstorm studios, and I had no clue that it was there. One day, one of the colorists walks into the studio while I was on break and saw my sketches and let my co-workers know that they were hiring for colorists. I grabbed my portfolio from college, which I had taken with me, purchased a new suit for my interview, and seized the opportunity placed in front of me. I got the job, and was trained and worked alongside some of the best colorists in the industry today. 

Pages from "Justice League of America" #25, colored by Pete Pantazis

What colorists have inspired you?  Which colorists do you enjoy right now?

The list can go on and on, The first time I noticed coloring in a comic book and actually looked for who did the work was when Image Comics started and “Spawn” came out, I was in the comics shops weekly just yearning for new comics, that was an inspiration to me. If I remember correctly it was by Steve Oliff. Since then, I am constantly inspired by Laura Martin, Alex Sinclair, Justin Ponsor, Matt Milla, the list goes on and on. 

What's your process like?  What sort of tools do you use?  How long does it take you to complete work on a page?

My process has changed over the years. I have had to learn to adapt to new styles and new methods. But the fundamentals for me have stayed the same. I use Photoshop as my main tool for color. About a gazillion brushes and textures and anything else I can find to make something look different and interesting. As far as the amount of time it takes, anywhere from 30 minutes to two days. It all depends on the artist and the amount of stuff on a page. A “regular page” can take from 40 minutes to and hour and a half if I am sup-ing it up. However, I have been known to pull an entire issue out from black-and-white to color in as little as two days, and still have it look damn good.

What's the fastest you've ever seen your work go from your screen to the rack at your local comic book store?

I work on “Trinity,” which is a weekly book. I’ve worked on “Countdown” and “52,” which were all weekly books. But I would have to say the fastest has probably been on an issue of “JLA” that was so late for so many different reasons that the book literally shipped the same week I completed the book. I have to check exactly which issue it was, but man, that was a sleepless few nights.

Pages from "Justice League of America" #26, colored by Pete Pantazis

What's it like working on a weekly comic?  Are you "protected" from other commitments so that you have the time you need to focus on the undertaking? What kind of other unique challenges come up with a project like this?

In a way I am [protected] because I can only take on so much work at a time, but I love comics, and especially DC, so when little projects pop up that my need my attention, I tend to grab them with fervor and end up with a lot less sleep then I thought I would get that week.  Some challenges are creating new looks for characters as well as keeping all the different and varied forms of magic both consistent and interesting looking. Also, checking in with the great backup colorist to make sure we don’t goof on something, which I think we ultimately have done a decent job of.

On "Trinity", one of the more interesting conceits to emerge is an actual World Without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, not just one where they're on vacation on Nanda Parbat.  What's your approach to illustrating that difference in terms of what you contribute to the page?  Also, this new world introduced altered versions of a lot of teams and heroes. With new costumes and color designs for people like the Justice League Infinity, how much input do you have?

I definitely have a lot more input than on a normal book, because everything is ‘new’ in this world, and I get to have fun with some traditional heroes in very untraditional ways. With the JLI, I specifically colored them mostly with white clinical costume colors, because they were supposed to be an organization based on controlling the world and not inspiring, nothing can be more uninspiring then black-and-white costumes. The idea being that when the characters that were inspirational showed up, they were in full color and stood out amongst the rest. You will notice with Interceptor and some of the other JLI-ers, there are little shocks of color still there, which was a way to say not all of them are completely just going with the flow of things; that there were still possibilities of these characters breaking away and becoming more.

Pages from "Justice League of America" #26, colored by Pete Pantazis

There's a lot of misconceptions about digital inking.  Could you explain it a bit more from your insider perspective? How do you feel about it, as a colorist?

Digital Inking is a very intricate thing, I have dabbled in it a few times, but if I had my way, I prefer true inking any day. There really is something about having a sweet, solidly inked piece of art to color than one that, even if digitally inked to perfection, still has that little missing attention to detail that only a human hand can bring to it.

 

As far as the way it works, you need to have an artist who is extremely diligent in his work; clean and neat, that's when it works the best. The process itself involves adjusting the values of the scanned in greyscale artwork to the point that it starts to look black and then tediously cleaning it all up and adding to it where it needs it to look complete. Needless to say, I love inked pages. Very much so. Inkers of the world, we need you.

How important do you think style is when it comes to colorists?  There are people like Matt Hollingsworth, who has a pretty specific style he carries across to most of his projects, and then there are people who do work with lots of different approaches.  How do you see your own work in the spectrum?

To me it is very important. As a fan, there are times when color in a comic can really ruin it for me, even if I love the art, I can’t get it out of my head that a book could have been colored in a specific way to enhance the story even that much more. With the tools we have today to color comics, every book should look stunning, and I definitely see a lot more of that than in the past.

Pages from "Trinity" #35, colored by Pete Pantazis

I see myself as a jack-of-all-trades, I have learned from the best and have applied the best of my abilities to try to create different styles within myself, for different art and books. On “Powers,” I took a style I was very not used to, a very flat style and by the end of my run, about six years’ worth, I had made it very much my own. There was a miniseries for Marvel I colored called “House Of M,” where I actually painted over the line art with real paint, to create the look that I ended up with in that book, I was very happy with that outcome. I love to color superhero books, because that is where I get to blow the crap out of things and in any issue there could be an unlimited amount of effects or moods that I have to help to establish.

Often, he work of a colorist might go unnoticed when it's done well, and only draw attention when it's done poorly. That seems a bit unfair, given that coloring is among the more labor-intensive aspects of comics production. How much does that tick you off?

It does and it doesn’t tick me off. It doesn’t because as a colorist, I don’t want to get noticed in the same way a musician doesn’t want his score to a movie to get noticed, you want it to just enhance the main event of the story and art, and if you’ve done that you’ve done your job. 

But at the same time, it ticks me off when -- especially these days -- colorists really do help to create a mood in a book, or lack there of in some instances, that also goes unnoticed. As always, the art and more recently the writer get all the credit in reviews and in awards. Colorists and letterers, to that effect, are the low men on the totem poll. It would be nice to see reviews, good and bad, that include coloring. I have paid attention and feel that I have been treated quite fairly by reviewers overall, and would love to see that grow even more across the industry. Or even when solicitations are revealed, to see the credits also include who the colorist is would be nice.

Pages from "Trinity" #35, colored by Pete Pantazis

As recently as the past few years, a few books actually list the colorist on the cover credits.  How does that work?  Is that an editor's decision?  Does a colorist lobby for that?  Is it, in the case of “Powers,” lobbying by a "creator-in-chief" like Brian Michael Bendis?

There are a lot of factors involved. Pride is one of them. I suppose it is somewhat in the hands of the editor, but sometimes it goes even beyond that. Marvel did just recently start that trend of actually crediting colorists on the actual cover of the book. I think that is wonderful (obviously), especially when you have a team working together on a specific series rather than, say, a fill-in. By doing that, Marvel is confirming that the colorist is an integral part of the creation of the book you have in your hand.

This does not mean that DC, by not doing so, is saying the opposite, but that there are different thought processes at work here. I do not know the exact reasons why DC does not do this, it could be a monetary thing, or maybe just that they really don't see an issue there to begin with. 

Earlier, I mentioned pride and what I mean by that is, as an artist, and one who wants to be appreciated, I would have to say I am too proud to ask for recognition. So in my specific case, I have never asked an editor or company or creator to specifically credit me on the cover of a book. I almost would rather have them do it out of respect FOR my work thean for me to ask for it. I suppose I could have lobbied Bendis and Oeming, two awesome, amazing talents and people, for a credit on the cover of “Powers,” but that book was so much their baby from the beginning, and I learned so much from it and that experience that it goes way beyond me. “Powers” was the book that my coloring grew up in. 

I guess there is also an element to the actual creation of the book, where the colorist is extremely integral to said book and that without that specific colorist you get a different animal. But there is also a distinction between a colorist and the writer and artist. Both the writer and artist are responsible for creating the characters and look of the book, and therefore deserve the full credit. A colorist really doesn't create characters. Rather, they create the mood, or the feel of a book. It isn't as tangible and therefore is overlooked. 

Page from "Final Crisis" #6, colored by Pete Pantazis

An artist wants to have his work recognized, and I remember back in Wildstorm, when all the colorists lobbied for their names to get credited in each book, because even though there were fifteen or so colorists, we were only known as Wildstorm FX . When that happened, wow, it added such a feeling of pride to the work we did. You know your name is on the book, you know you are being recognized for what you contributed. It's a great feeling and I would love for it to grow even more.

You filled in a bit on “Final Crisis” #6.  What was that like?  It was a book that was being colored in a very specific style.  What segment did you work on and what kind of challenges does filling-in on a late book like that present?

That one almost killed me! I had just started an issue of “Trinity” when I got word they needed help, so I jumped in thinking I would be able to pop out a good chunk of pages and then hop back onto “Trinity,” but the sheer amount of detail and work that went in to trying to emulate the style in that book, which is masterfully colored by [Alex] Sinclair just blew my mind. I don't want to reveal too much, but I did get to color a very awesome image of a specific character doing something he has never done before.

Alllllright, I got to color Batman shooting Darksied. Pretty damn sweet. I also got to color Kalibak getting gutted, so that was very nice!  But man, I really, really needed about trhee days of sleep to make up for the amount of effort I put into those pages.  My eyes were literally burning after that one.

That's remarkable. Nobody would have guessed those particular scenes were colored by anyone but Sinclair.  Thanks so much for your time, Pete.  And congratulations on getting to be part of comic book history!

Yeah, that is comics history huh? Until the next Crisis, right?

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TAGS:  pete pantazis, trinity, justice league of america, dc comics, final crisis

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