The Eighth Sin(clair): Alex Sinclair talks 'Batman,' 'Superman' & Wildstorm

Mon, October 6th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Batman" #619, Cover B
What's the top selling comic right now?

"Batman" of course.

And what are many predicting will be the next number one comic?

"Superman."

And who's the man working on both books who some call the unsung hero of both projects?

Those who answered Jim Lee… re-read the title to this interview. The correct answer is Alex Sinclair, Wildstorm Comics colorist and Editor, who's coloring on "Batman," "Arrowsmith" and more has drawn rave reviews from both fans and critics. He's also the winner of Wizard Magazine's fan award for best colorist and CBR News was able to catch up with the acclaimed pro to talk about, well, everything and began with the beginning of Sinclair's career.

"Let's see. Got hired by Wildstorm (then Homage Studios) through the talent search featured in 'WildC.A.T.s #2' way back in 1993 as the first computer colorist/separator," explains Sinclair of his early career. "Helped start Wildstorm FX and worked there until May of '95. Left WS for a few months only to come back in August of '96. When DC and WS merged in 98, I moved to the design department. Became the Art Director there in '99 and started as an editor this last February--Coloring on a freelance basis the entire time. I've colored most of the WildStorm characters and worked with many of their creators along the way. I've also colored a few DC titles and characters as well. I've been nominated for a couple of awards here and there, but the Wizard Fan Award I got this year is my first one! I live in San Diego with my wonderful wife, Rebecca and my four beautiful daughters, Grace, Blythe, Meredith, and Harley."

When you ask most fans which area of the comic industry they want to work in, you'll usually hear the occupations of writer or artist tossed around most, but for Sinclair, he always knew his talents would take him in a different direction. "I think people either want to break into comics as writers or pencillers. I wanted to pencil. Every convention I would show my portfolio and editors and professionals would always tell me what to work on with my pencils and inks, but they would always end by saying, 'Nice colors!' Following year I would be back with more samples and get more feedback and "nice colors!" Then I showed my stuff to Greg Wright who flipped through all my pencils and inks like they weren't even there. When he got to the color samples, he slowed down and when he was done he told me that there was no reason why I shouldn't be coloring a book professionally. A couple of months later, 'WildC.A.T.s #2' came out and I decided to send only color work. I got a call from Jim Lee a few weeks later asking me if I would like to try out as a colorist/separator. Once I realized it wasn't a crank call and it was really Jim on the phone, I accepted. I figured I could start as a colorist and work my way into a pencilling spot. I still have so much fun coloring that I am not ready to give it up!"

While Sinclair had the education to learn the basics of coloring, the task of learning to color on a computer was a different task and he fondly reminisces about the past. "I have an art degree, which helps out with all the basic skills like lighting, shading, anatomy, composition, etc. I assisted Joe Chiodo for a few months and learned volumes from his work. Joe is by far the biggest influence on my work. Learning to color on the computer was another story--at home I had a Mac Classic II with Superpaint (still a running joke with some of the old-time WS FX gang). I had to teach myself to use Photoshop. John Nee (now VP-Business Development at DC) taught me a lot about printed color and we both kinda figured out how to color comics using the computer. I would tell aspiring colorists to take art classes. Color Theory is something I would recommend everyone who wants to be an artist's study, especially if you want to be a colorist. Look at what other colorists are doing. If you want to send samples, send story pages, not pin-ups."

But going from Mac-head to being Jim Lee's lackey is a pretty big jump and the man who's now associated with coloring Jim Lee's art says that he came upon that position sooner than he expected. "It was by default, I guess," smiles Sinclair. "I was the only colorist, so I got to color Jim's work, actually I got to color everyone's work. The first Jim Lee book I colored was 'Deathblow #2.' Back then Joe Chiodo would do color guides (marker comps on paper) and we would interpret his work on the computer, adding glows and color holds here and there. As WS FX grew, Jim and I worked together here and there, but not exclusively since we had teams of colorists working on each book. It wasn't until Stan Lee's 'Wonder Woman' book that Jim and I started working together again. 'Batman' and now 'Superman' followed that."

As a budding colorist, it's interesting to note that Sinclair decided to align with the virgin Image Comics instead of the established companies like Marvel Comics and DC Comics. "I wanted to work for the best--figured I would aim high. Jim and the Image guys were doing all the best, cutting-edge work then. Everyone wanted to work for the Image guys. That and the fact that most of them were starting to build their companies."

Sinclair mentioned color theory and as "Superman: Birthright" colorist Dave McCaig explained in July, it's an integral part of being a colorist and Sinclair shares his thoughts on the mental process behind it. "Color theory is one of those things that has so many facets to it that it can sometimes confuse you. You have to juggle lighting, value, hue, and color temperature amongst other things in almost every panel you color. Not being able to understand all these elements can flatten the art or the perceived atmosphere of the panel. So, you not only separate people and objects within a panel by using a different color for each--you also have to worry about which object needs to be more prominent or 'pop' from the rest. That's when you start varying the darkness of a color, whether or not it is a cool or warm color, etc. So, Batman's cape is blue...what happens when Batman is standing next to a blue night sky? That's the beauty of color theory and using it correctly."

You've probably noticed that Alex Sinclair is a pretty affable guy, who's willing to answer questions and chat with the fans, but there's one way to really set him off. "I hate hearing people say that anyone can color," says Sinclair. "Sure, and everyone can drive too. Some just do it better than others and some are good enough to do it professionally. There are also people who think that they can color just because they know how to use Photoshop. I see Photoshop as a medium, like using acrylic or watercolor. But this medium requires a huge monitor and an expensive CPU. Then again, some of those camel hair brushes can get pretty pricey."

Despite that misconception, it is Sinclair's belief that colorists are beginning to get the status they deserve and respect from creators that they've sought for such a long time. "Fortunately, colorists are getting more respect nowadays. Artists start asking for specific colorists because they like their work. It's a great feeling to hear that someone whose work you admire wants you to color their art. Some guys have skipped the inks and trust us enough to do finishes over their pencils. Some fans notice us and some don't--the obvious reasons are that the writer and penciller (and inker, in my opinion) create and visualize the story. Colorists and letterers help make the product that much better."

Just as a writer must write (to a degree) to fit the artist they're working with, a colorist must decide what style of color to use with any given artist. "You have to figure out what style will work best with that particular artist. A simple flat look won't work on someone who renders everything realistically just like over rendering someone who draws in a cartoon style will defeat the pencils. Working with someone like Jim Lee through the years has helped me with my drawing tremendously. I also love working with Sam Keith because his art allows me to be very loose--I feel like I'm in front of a drafting table painting when I color his work."

To better illustrate to fans the coloring technique he uses, Sinclair has provided CBR News with colored and un-colored pages from some of his biggest projects right now, and an explanation as to how he chose the particular colors.

The first sample, on your left, is from "Batman #618" and Sinclair explains why, for example, the sky is red. "I had already established the red sky in the previous issue, but for the sequence just before this one, Batman and Jason were in the cemetery and a motorcycle had exploded by them. So the secondary light source was that bike's flames. When they moved to the top of the church, I decided to bring some of the red from the sky into the lighting. One of the things I have been doing more and more lately is exaggerate the ambient light. If a character is in a room with green lights, there's going to be a lot of green on him/her. You will see here that there's hints of red in the background elements and the highlights of everything within the panel--you can see Batman's cowl and cape are still blue, but the conditions he is in make him fit into the surroundings. I use the color temperatures as a way of separating one object from the other. In panel 2, you can see that Batman's arm pops from Jason's body because of the cool/blue reflected light. I also used some creative license to diferentiate panels 4 and 5. I kept the red lighting on panel 4 to match the rest of the page, but for the last panel, I decided to switch it so the reader would take more notice of that panel. Jim drew in a lightning bolt so I went darker and cooler with the rendering (to match the inks too)."

The next pages on your right are from the Wildstorm series "Arrowsmith," illustrated by Carlos Pacheco, and differentiates it from his normal assignments. "Before I started 'Arrowsmith,' Carlos and Kurt both mentioned that they wanted a European comic book feel to the colors. I love the palettes used in those books a lot so this was my chance to try them out. I use softer tones and subtle transitions on this book to give it a dated look since all the events are taking place during WWI--it also works well with Carlos's art. I loved what He drew on this spread and I wanted to further show Fletcher's (kid flying) joy with the colors around him. That's why everything in the sky is warm and golden, no black lines on clouds. In contrast, I rendered everything on the ground cooler, not only to make it recede, but also to "ground" him (note a hint of blue on his shirt in last panel) once he's landed (note a hint of blue on his shirt in last panel)."

Finally, Sinclair sheds some light on his newest and potentially biggest project, "Superman" and says that while he's working with Jim Lee, the art (on the left) requires a different coloring approach.

"This is the first Superman piece we've done, aside from his appearances in the Hush story. It was the cover for Wizard World Chicago. Superman is pretty easy to pop since he has so much red on his costume and red is one of the most dominant colors out there. The blue is a pretty bright and saturated blue too This is your basic 'cool vs. warm' composition. Cool space color-in background recedes all the way back; a warm colored planet/moon is the midground--I used a desaturated warm color so it wouldn't compete with the saturated reds and blues on Supes; a little ambient lighting on the meteors and you get a Superman piece ready for Wizard. One trick that I use a lot is color-holding the line art or adding a glow to it for special effects. I also use these color holds as a way of creating spacial relationships. The nebula is a lot lighter than the color and line art on the meteors so therefore they look like they are closer to us than the cloud."

Though one could color a comic a couple of different ways, Sinclair has found computers suit him best and reveals how it even allowed him to save some time working on "Batman." "I use computers pretty much the entire time. I did some watercolor renderings during the early issues of 'Batman,' but then I figured out how to replicate it with the computer and stopped. Coloring on the computer has helped my art in a major way. I used to be very tentative about every line I drew. Coming back to drawing after using the computer has given me a kind of fearlessness. I am more confident in my strokes and rendering. I think being able to 'undo' steps in Computer programs helps you loosen up."

While it's possible that Sinclair might teach an apprentice with Crayola crayons- that's in the place we call Bizarro Land- you're more likely to find him recommending learning coloring with a computer. "I have always said that it's easier to teach someone how to use the computer than it is to teach them art and color theory. It's kinda like learning to add in your head vs. using a calculator. As easy as it is to do it with the machine, it pays off in the long run learning how to achieve the desired results by hand first. MAC, MAC , Mac--PC Bad...maybe Apple could sponsor me now!"

"Arrowsmith" #2
While waiting for that sponsorship and mega ad campaign from Apple Computers with his mug shot, Sinclair does find time to experiment with his coloring and keep things fresh. "I like to try new stuff all the time, whether it's a different rendering technique or using a different program. I mentioned the watercolor textures for 'Batman,' I use a different rendering style on John Byrne's art. When I color Sam Kieth, I use a different program altogether. Helps me jump from one project to the other without getting bored, plus I think each artist has his or her own look so a different color job is needed. I found myself getting bolder while coloring Batman. Jim kept telling me to 'push it,' so I just kept going waiting for him to say stop, but he never did. It was kind of cool how he helped me discover how far I could take some of the palettes."

The creative types reading this piece will surely have their own form of inspiration for their work, from music to movies, but Sinclair chooses to be inspired by perhaps the most obvious source- the work itself. "Most of the inspiration comes from the art that I am working on. Reading the script before has done it in the past. If for some reason I am having a hard time getting going, I pull out books about my favorite artists like Michaelangelo and DaVinci for inspiration. I also look through some of the comics that made me decide to work in comics. I usually have the TV on while I work. It's hard for me to work in dead silence so if nothing good is on, I turn on the iPod."

The sheer diversity of projects that Sinclair is attached to- from "Batman" to "Arrowsmith" to the acclaimed "Stormwatch"- indicates that he's a popular guy and there's one word he can't say. "Usually I get called and asked if I want to work on specific projects and I have a hard time saying no (wouldn't you?)," laughs Sinclair. "Sometimes the artist asks for me to be on the project and other times it's the editor. I'm very grateful that these guys like my work enough to want me on their book. For 'Arrowsmith,' I threw my name in the hat after I saw some of the pages. I've always wanted to work with Carlos Pacheco, now I get my chance."

As mentioned earlier, Sinclair has been an integral part of the hit "Hush" storyline in the "Batman" series and it'd be easy to imagine this project making Sinclair feels a lot of different emotions. "Scary, fun, exhausting, and energizing...I think I have gone through all the emotions with this one. I would be very tired after finishing each issue, but all I had to do was walk down the hall and see what Jim and Scott had drawn for the next issue and I was ready to go again. I got a ton of attention from all sides. It was a little overwhelming at first, but I kept telling myself, 'it's just a comic book.' I was more surprised by the build-up of the attention and success of the project. Usually orders drop as the months go by, but 'Batman' was actually gaining them."

Something else that was unique about the "Hush" story- though this change seems to be making it's way through the Batman comics- is the return of the "classic" blue & grey Batman uniform, albeit with some changes (like the lack of a yellow oval around the chest Bat-Symbol) and one has to wonder who decided to go that direction. "I was so excited to start on the book that I didn't think to ask what color scheme to use on the characters," gushes Sinclair. "Blue and Gray is my favorite Batman costume so I went with that. Jim and I had talked about using color to project mood so I deepened the tones across the board. Catwoman's eyes were brought up by an editor. I didn't know she had blue eyes. I just thought that green eyes on a cat-like character would be best, plus everyone else has blue eyes in the book. Oops. Since then, I've seen Catwoman with green eyes elsewhere."

There's got to be a distinct thrill from working on arguably the two biggest comic book icons of all time- Batman and Superman- and Sinclair has even found his work has educated some other people in society. "It's the coolest feeling to work on characters that I grew up reading & drawing," explains Sinclair. "I recently saw my English Literature teacher from 9th grade. She apologized for punishing me for doodling during class and for saying comics were not literature. So, kids, doodle away! My Lit teacher said it's cool. There are definitely a ton of other characters I would love to color--hmmm--Flash, Green Lantern, Sgt. Rock (I'm a big WWII follower). Blue Beetle and Booster Gold have become a couple of favorites since the DeMatteis/Mcguire JLA run. I also have a thing for Power Girl; Colossus is my favorite X-Men character and Hellboy would be cool to work on."

Most people probably have an idea of the differences between Batman and Superman on the writing level and maybe even on the pencilling level, but as a colorist there's a unique view that Sinclair takes to illustrating them. Provided by Sinclair is the "New York is Book Country" poster than Jim Lee and he collaborated on, featuring both of the world's finest, and he explains how he applied color theory to this image. "I usually decide on a palette before I start rendering. Jim is great at establishing the lighting and keeping consistent. For this poster, I wanted to show a contrast between Batman and Superman and make them both jump out to the viewer, much like we did in the Batman books. You'll notice that most of Batman is in shadows and cool colors even though it's broad daylight. Superman is bathed in warm light. The buildings are predominantly lit with warm tones so the two figures (who both wear cool colors) 'pop' forward. I had originally colored the sky in all warm tones, but Jim and Richard Bruning recommended I try a bluer sky (the warmer one looked sickly). Add some wispy clouds and it's done."

As if bringing those characters to life wasn't enough, Sinclair works in a higher level position at Wildstorm and he explains his duties. "I am an editor at WildStorm (all the coloring I do freelance at home). Editing has been a lot of fun for me. I think I finally got used to the mind set of being months ahead of the deadline since I was always on the back end of it. I used to be the manager of Wildstorm FX, then moved to Design and became an Art Director. Last February, Senior Editor Jeff Mariotte left to go to IDW and I let Scott Dunbier know I was interested.

"I started out as a shy editor who quickly learned to call a couple of freelancers who were taking advantage of my inexperience. I've only been editing for 8 months so there's a ton of stuff that I still need to learn. Both Scott Dunbier and Ben Abernathy have been great at helping me learn this side of the business. I don't know if I have a specific style yet. I'm still trying to figure out what works and what doesn't."

Much can be said about all the Image studios, but Wildstorm Comics (which has since joined the DC Comics family) presents unique opportunities for him as a businessman and creator. "I love working in a studio environment. Not only do you get to see what everyone is working on, you also learn from the other artists and colorist around you. The friendly competition keeps you pushing yourself to do better work too. The most significant changes were administrative--the books we were producing continued shipping. The coloring department had some drastic changes as a result, but nothing we couldn't adapt to. The friendly competition is also there between DC and WildStorm which, in my opinion, is a good thing."

Speaking of Wildstorm, it's founder Jim Lee has been called "the nicest guy in comics" and Alex Sinclair says that Lee is, "Even nicer. Jim is the most gracious guy in comics and a fun guy to hang out with and everyone who works here feels that way. Sarah Farber, the Administrative Clerk here at WS calls him the coolest guy in the world. He is a well-rounded artists because he is a great penciller, inker, colorist, and painter; although I haven't seen him letter yet... [laughs] It is both challenging and fun to work on his art because as he is drawing, he is anticipating the inks and colors."

Since Sinclair is "down in the trenches" with creators some of the time and also a senior, in his role as an editor, at other times, there's definitely the question of whether or not occupying both positions enhances his editor's skills. "I hope it makes me a better editor since I've been on the other side of (cue the music) 'the phone call.' I think being a freelancer taught me that each person needs a different amount of editing. Some people need you to stay on top of them constantly and other only need minimal input."

With experience as a color and editor, Sinclair can confidently state the similarities in each job… or in this case, the lack of similarities. "They are completely different. One combines creative with managerial to make sure that a product is the best it can be and come out on time. The other is completely creative and part of a collaborative process. Editing allows me to be involved on a book from the very start and interact with the entire creative team. With coloring I interact more with the artist than anyone else. I like reading the script before I color a book, so I still get to interact with the writer and his work too, I guess."

Now that Sinclair's sold you on both MAC computers and himself, he's got a lot of great projects coming up that he wants fans to know about and to definitely check out. "On the coloring side I am halfway through the first volume of 'Arrowsmith.' I only have two issues left of Generations III. Jim's Batman run is over, but I will be coloring Sam Kieth's Batman mini next year. I like all the books I am editing as well-'Stormwatch' is about to end the Citizen Soldier saga which is kick%$#! 'Kamikaze' and 'Two-Step' just came out and a few Thundercats projects are in the works. 'Thundercats: Hammerhand's Revenge' is the new mini by Fiona Avery and CArlos D'anda that ships in October; 'Superman/Thundercats' by Judd Winick, Al Garza, and Trevor Scott comes out in November; and 'Thundercats Origins' are two issues of short stories about the Origins of some of the heroes and villains of the 'Thundercats'' universe, due out in December. Early next year I we are relaunching '21 Down' and 'Wetworks' into the Eye of the Storm universe. And...we're also doing the HUGE EOTS crossover in February. It's going to be awesome!!!"

So while CBR News has Sinclair talking, what's the next big thing from Wildstorm? "If I spilled the beans, then it wouldn't be a surprise!" smiles Sinclair.

He's always been a ambitious young man and Sinclair says nothing's changed since he joined Wildstorm, as he explains his goals for the future. "About a year ago, Jim had asked us to write down some goal we had for ourselves. I wrote down two major ones. The first was to become an editor, which I've thankfully been able to get to. The second one was to improve my art and eventually pencil or paint a short story and/or a cover or two. The major obstacle for my second goal is time. I technically work two jobs and have a family, too. My left over time is used for sports and exercise 'cause the however-many-minute-ab workouts don't work!! But I am having fun doing both the coloring and editing so it's not like I am dying to do it tomorrow or anything like that."

Something that he does want to do is offer thanks to some very good friends of his in the industry and express the sentiments he could in the Wizard World Chicago convention, which he wasn't able to attend. "You're about to get my Wizard Fan Award acceptance speech since I didn't get to go to Chicago...First I need to thank God. My wife Rebecca and daughters Grace, Blythe, Meredith and Harley are my whole life and inspiration. Without them, there's no energetic palettes or red skies over Gotham. They, along with friends and the rest of my family, put up with my crazy deadlines. Jim Lee and Scott Williams for not only trusting me to color their art, but for also helping me push myself and my work. They are the best team in comics and I am privileged to be working with them. The other creators and editors I work with for allowing me to be part of their team: Kurt Busiek, John Byrne, Jeph Loeb, Carlos Pacheco, Brent Anderson, Sam Kieth, Scott Dunbier, Mike Carlin, Bob Schreck, Ben Abernathy, my favorite slacker Idelson, the gang at Wildstorm, and Richard Starkings and the gang at Comicraft. And mostly, I want to thank the fans. Without them, none of us would have a job or a chance to show how much we love comics."

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