When it was first announced that Scholastic would be reprinting Jeff Smith’s "Bone" series and doing so in color, there was a great deal of trepidation. The black and white series was immensely popular and an earlier color version, short strips that appeared in "Disney Adventures" magazine, were flat. The worry was that the Scholastic books would be an unnecessary and pointless as the colorized versions of classic films like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "42nd Street."
When the first volume was released in 2004, though, it blew everyone away, and the question then became not should it be colored, but which version was better? The man responsible for coloring “Bone” is Steve Hamaker. A cartoonist who’s appeared in “Flight,” “Flight Explorer,” “Awesome: The Indie Spinner Rack Anthology,” and other outlets including his website, steve-hamaker.com. Hamaker also colored Smith’s work in “Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil” and “Little Mouse Gets Ready” and has been nominated for an Eisner Award for coloring four times. CBR News recently spoke with him about wrapping up Smith's epic at Scholastic.
CBR News: Steve, you started out working for Jeff Smith and then you began coloring the covers to “Bone” when it was still being serialized, is that right?
Steve Hamaker: That was my first actual coloring work. I think issue #43 on. Liz Lewis was the colorist before. He met her when he went to Image for that year. They had been working together since the mid-nineties. When I met Jeff, they didn’t have a plan to take that work and give it to me. I was just messing around with coloring on my own and Jeff liked what I did. It was a slow transition to take over doing the covers in house. It was mainly because it was a little faster and easier for us to do that instead of sending it out to somebody else.
How do you approach coloring “Bone?” They were intended to be done in black and white and so coloring them you’re starting with something that was designed to be finished.
It’s a little easier than the other way around, which I’ve done since then. When Jeff did “Shazam,” he intended that to be colored, so he drew it a little differently. He composed the pages and the panels slightly differently. But you’re right, with “Bone” it was complete on its own. It works as a black and white book, so you would that that would be harder. It’s actually easier. For me it was a slow transition into the world of coloring because a lot of the hard decisions were already made as far as where your eye goes. It was harder for me to screw it up with color, I thought.
I came into the coloring thing kind of backwards. I had to learn how to not color first, if that makes sense. Jeff’s stuff does not really need color, so to figure out the right balance of how much or how little to put in was a little challenging. You could obviously overdo something, but I just decided to not overdo anything. Just to work from the ground up, his stuff up, and see how much you can get away with and then stop when it looks right.
Does Jeff have ideas, guidance, thoughts as far as the color scheme or the look?
Usually after we would be done with a scene or a book, he’ll sit with me and go over it. He has me open up all the pages in a particular scene, maybe eight to ten pages at a time and he’ll just read it like a comic. With “Bone,” he hadn’t read his own stuff in a while, so he was kind of looking at it with fresh eyes. I’m sitting there laboring over these pages looking at the same panel over and over again for hours and days and for him to come in and have fresh eyes to look at it, and also be the author and know what it’s supposed to look like, was a great help. He was able to really bring in fresh ideas and say, this is jumping out at me, this could be pumped up a bit.
For the most part he really didn’t change anything or have major opinions necessarily about how things should be colored. It was mainly, for me, just making sure that the comic read the same, with the same rhythm as it did when it was in black and white. That was what was awesome with Jeff. He composed it originally in black and white, so he has that hardwired in his brain. He has that those images and those panel transitions memorized so he can just look at it and instantly say, this color is sticking out. It would be really little things like a little shadow under each character just to pop a character out at a specific time. Things like that. It was pretty laid back. I didn’t really feel a lot of pressure. He certainly wasn’t lording over me and making me color things a certain way.
When you started working on the Scholastic editions, did he have thoughts on what he was going for, how to portray the landscape, or other things like that?
We would have a meeting before each book. I would go through and ask him little things like, what time of day is this? What color is this cape? Things that could have gone different ways. A good example is the stick eaters that are in Atheia at the end of the story. He drew them like stick eaters. I don’t know why, but I thought, it might be kind of cool if they had different colored robes. A lot of different colored robes so they didn’t look like the stick eaters that hung out at Old Man’s Cave. I pitched that idea to him. It seemed like it would be really cool because maybe it’s a story thing where they’re an offshoot of this religion and part of that offshoot was to have different colored robes. It’s kind of garish and it will make them stand out. He loved that idea.
For me that was a great moment where I was like, this is cool. I’m able to help tell the story with color in a small way. That type of thing I would definitely run by him before I did it, but he was open to that. Again, that’s not like some sort of deal breaker for a book. It’s not like you’re going to see that, having already read the black and white and go, what are they doing? For me it made sense that we did it. I always ran stuff past him before we even started, but for the most part, I would just go. I have reference. A lot of the backgrounds are based on a place that actually exists in Ohio about an hour south of here called Old Man’s Cave. We would take trips down there and take pictures and just walk around and absorb that landscape. That obviously helps. It would be like coloring a Lord of the Rings book and living in New Zealand.
One of things that “Rasl” has really brought into focus is just how dominant landscape is in Jeff’s work, but with “Bone: Tall Tales,” the framing sequence and most other scenes take place outside the valley. Was there an effort to make it look different?
No. It’s not a very specific place. It’s just the woods somewhere. It’s not like they were in a forest of mushrooms or the Smurf village or something like that. I actually approached it the exact same way. That scene was just a generic forest at night, so I went with that. That’s the thing, we don’t normally over think things like that if we don’t think it really matters. To me, at least, that scene is more just about the relationship between the little kids and Smiley and Bartleby. I guess technically it’s slightly different than I colored anything else. Even if it’s a night scene I don’t ever go back to an old scene that I did and color pick.
Did Jeff draw anything differently in the new stories for “Bone: Tall Tales” and did it affect how you colored them?
No, the two new ones were pretty straight forward. There’s a food eating contest story where Big Johnson is a teenager and he goes to a fair to compete in this food eating contest. Jeff didn’t write that particular story, Tom Sniegoski wrote the story, but him and Tom work together. Tom will write a script but he doesn’t write it like, this is exactly what should be in panel one, this is exactly what should be in panel two. Jeff takes his scripts and modifies them, if for nothing else than to make it a little easier for himself because Tom’s a pretty dense, detailed writer. There’s so much food and characters in the background screaming different things. There’s so much going on in each panel. That story took me probably three times as long to color than any other scene I’ve done in “Bone.” I told both Jeff and Tom that was the hardest thing I ever had to color. Ever. It was just brutal.
There was that much detail in Tom’s script?
Yeah, Jeff had to pare it down. It was actually a longer story. There was supposed to be a really long three page montage where Big Johnson is imagining him and Gertie living together and growing old together in that split second. It was really funny, but it was like, I don’t think we can get this. There was a lot of time constraints while Jeff was working on it, so we had to sacrifice that one thing. For the most part it’s exactly what Tom wrote. Jeff doesn’t really write a script. He’ll just draw. It’s more like he storyboards and he’ll go right to storyboard when he’s writing. It’s a weird different thing for him to work off somebody else’s script, but he and Tom have worked together before.
It’s interesting that Jeff didn’t do anything differently because unlike every other “Bone” story, he knew these would be colored.
That’s true. I don’t know. They don’t feel like they were drawn different, especially those little Smiley Bone bumpers, they just look like Bone pages to me. I guess the food eating contest may be a little bit more, just because there’s so much stuff. It took him a lot longer to draw it too than any of the other stuff. The Smiley bumpers we could bang those out really quick because it’s just little Bone scouts and Bartleby and those guys he can draw a lot faster. With the Big Johnson story, it’s a lot of characters that he had to create.
You’re a cartoonist and much of your work is in color. How do you approach coloring your own work as compared with Jeff’s?
It’s actually a little harder. I get distracted while drawing with thinking ahead. I think that’s why a lot of the other better cartoonists that I’ve been able to color their work looks better, just because they’re not distracted by that. They’re just drawing. I mean it’s nice because I can control in the drawing stage how something later on is going to be affected with color, but it seems like it’s more distracting than anything. I wish I could shut that part of my brain off while I’m drawing and then just go back later and color it.
Maybe if I do another graphic novel on my own I might try to do that, where I just pretend it’s going to be published in black and white and then go back and color it later, but I don’t know. It’s a little bit of a curse. I’ve definitely gotten better at coloring my own stuff because I’ve been able to do stuff with Jeff. He and I have have learned a lot just experimenting together with color and depth and atmospheric effects and things like that. It’s pretty fun.
So knowing that it will be color alters how you work?
With “Bone” it’s not like I have a snapshot in my brain and I’m just making it match that. I’m doing a lot of experimentation as I’m coloring everything. If you saw my Photoshop files you’d laugh. There’s probably twenty layers and everything’s broken down onto it’s own layer and I’m twisting the background color to be different and twisting the foreground characters to all be different and adding little shadow layers above everything. It’s crazy because I just don’t know. I just have to experiment. It’s all about layers. If I didn’t have layers, I’d be screwed. [Laughs]
We’d all be lost without computers.
It’s true. The old saying, that technology is only a tool and that the artist shouldn’t use it as a crutch. I admit it is a crutch, kind of. I need it. I wouldn’t be able to do this in watercolor, not without a lot of time. I might be able to do it in like thirty years, but we’re on a deadline with this stuff, so we have to go faster. It’s a necessary evil, I guess. It’s too bad that there’s not original art. I do miss that. I’d like to have big paintings of these pages.
When I spoke with Jeff recently, my comment was you colored "Bone" better than I thought was possible, and Jeff said he that while he likes the one-volume edition, he said the color might be better.
I understand what he means. The one-volume is his proof that he did it and it does totally stand on its own. When we go to conventions, little kids still come up to us and even after the color books started coming out these little eight year old boys and girls will come up with their one-volumes that look like they’ve been through the war. The books have clearly been read dozens of times and that’s pretty cool. It still appeals to people in black and white.
I certainly didn’t approach it like, oh it’s not finished yet, or something like that. Since Jeff was working with me it seemed a lot different. It didn’t seem like we were just colorizing an old movie. People would tell me that all the time when I first started, is this going to be like coloring an old great black and white movie? That’s an awful thing. For me it’s more we were doing something different with it. It’s almost like when people make a movie out of a comic. A lot of fans of the comic will be mad if something’s different and it’s like, well, you still have the book. You still have the thing that you love. It’s not like we’re replacing that. If you’re a “Watchmen” fan and you love the “Watchmen” book, you have that. You don’t have to cry that the movie was not as good as you thought it would be. Or vice versa. It doesn’t really matter. You’re talking about two apples and oranges in my opinion.
I definitely got a lot of industry pressure when I was starting out. I had people watching. When you have guys like Frank Miller telling you to watch your step before you even start it’s like, okay, I don’t even know you and you’re putting all this pressure on me. The main reason why I was comfortable was because Jeff had confidence in me from the start. Even when I think, secretly, he didn’t have confidence in me, he said he did. He definitely made me very comfortable to be able to do what I thought was best. Like I say, it wasn’t like I was a loose cannon that he was going to need to control. But at the same time we were doing things experimenting with storytelling in color that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. He allowed me to do that, and he also helped me to do that.
I know that Jeff is doing “Rasl,” but he’s mentioned that he’s been thinking about the next project. Have you two talked about doing something together that would be in color from the beginning?
We’ve talked about coloring “Rasl” eventually. We’re in the early stages of talking about that, so I don’t know what’s going to come of it yet. No, not really. We haven’t really talked about the next thing. With “Shazam” it was a little bit like that. We knew that it was going to be colored so he and I were talking even while he was inking. He’d be drawing a panel where there was nothing and he’d go, yeah, that’s going to be where the big bang exists. [laughs] I’m like, what are you talking about? I don’t understand.
No pressure there.
Exactly. Which I kind of liked. It was a little scary at the time to do that, but “Shazam” was a really fun project to work on. Unfortunately I was working on “Bone” and that at the same time, so I was stretched a little thin, but it was pretty fun. Obviously I’m working for him full time, so now that I’m done with “Bone,” we’re in discussions on other stuff that I’ll be working on. I still do a lot of other design stuff here. I work on the book designs and layouts and things like that, so they keep me busy.
I know that you regularly post comics on your website, but otherwise what are you in midst of right now?
I just reprinted my graphic novel “Fish N Chips.” I’m going to be offering that pretty soon to Diamond. I’ll have information on my website about all that.
These are the characters that we’ve seen in “Flight” and “Flight Explorer” and other places.
Yeah. This one was I did the origin story like a 150 page story 9-10 years ago and it’s never really been officially published in graphic novel form so this is the first graphic novel version of all that stuff. I included the story I did for “Flight Explorer.” There’s another story that I did for “Flight 6” last year that’s not in there, but I’ll probably publish that one on my own as well. So it’s got one color story in it, but it’s still black and white. Which I know is ironic from the colorist of “Bone” and “Shazam.”
I was just writing the Diamond solicitation copy and I have to say it, because I’m trying to sell myself. "From the Eisner nominated colorist comes a black and white story." [Laughs]