Color Blind? Colorists React To 'Lying In The Gutters'

Tue, October 26th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Ultimates" art colored by Paul Mounts.
A few weeks ago, popular columnist and current comic book gossip king Rich Johnston, of "Lying In The Gutters" fame, reported possible changes in the way colorists are paid and perceived by the comic book industry. His comments ignited a fury among professional colorists who contacted CBR News to comment. We heard from a few colorists, namely Dave McCaig (DC Comics' "Superman: Birthright"), Paul Mounts (Marvel Comics' "The Ultimates") and Snakebite (of "The Red Star" fame) and spoke about what ignited this anger in an oft-overlooked segment of the industry.

"Rumors strike a nerve every time," said Snakebite of why the response was so intense and immediate from colorists. "The nature of rumors and gossip are very damaging and immature."

McCaig, whose forum was home to much of the debate, added, "Well, Rich sounded kind of dismissive and cavalier about the whole thing. And writing coloring comics off as 'easy' pissed me off, too."

One of the more comments Johnston made that particularly upset these men was that coloring has become easier with the proliferation of computer usage and image alteration software such as Photoshop. Some have said that what Johnston may have meant is that it is easier to color, but not easier to color well, a sentiment that Mounts can somewhat understand. "When I switched to computer coloring in 1994, 3 workstations and a service-bureau quality scanner and printer (plus software, office furniture, etc,) set me back $60,000.00," he explains. "Today you can buy a used eMac for $700.00, pirate the software off of the internet, learn all the technical specs on how to color digitally with a simple Google search, and the budding colorist is up and running. 'Easier to color' was probably a poor semantic choice; it might have been better to say 'It's easier to become a colorist.' Not a good colorist, but certainly someone that Marvel or DC can send low-end books to and have, well, color laid in. Skin will be colored like skin, Iron Man will be red and yellow, and the job gets done, and gets done cheaply."

But Snakebite says speculation on Johnston's comments adds credence to colorists' outrage. "Well the fact that you are speculating what he might of meant is the answer. Intent is the main focus here, as in his. What is his intent? By reading that article I have no idea what his intent is besides, 'coloring comics is easier'...hmmm, vague.... well, with my almost thirteen years coloring experience and after talking with fellow bruthas and sistas of hue I have found the contrary. Coloring is not easier, in fact as this kind of mythology is passed from ear to ear our (fellow digital artists) job requirements increase, expectations increase while pay checks decrease. 'Don't you have a make this shit look cool button with Photoshop?' Its really an insult to injury based on insufficient research and narrow minded agendas."

"The Batman" Animated Series promo art colored by Dave McCaig.
The point of view espoused by McCaig seems like a happy medium between his two "brothers of hue," though he still has issues with the vernacular. "When he said 'as technology increases, it's luddite to ignore it' it implied that the computer hardware and software we use have some bearing on our basic ability to create art, and might allow some unskilled 'operator' to color a book to an acceptable level of quality. Of course, this is ludicrous. The software is just a tool that we use to express abilities that we already have, just as a marker or paint might be other avenues of that expression. All new technology does is speed things up, and expand our range of artistic tools. It has no effect on basic artistic necessities needed to color."

Mounts noted that the coloring industry has numerous uphill battles to fight, public perception just being one of them. "For years, DC has had a three-tiered system for discerning quality of color - gold, silver and bronze. Any labeling of this sort reduces color artists to a part of production rather than creative, and should be avoided. A good color artist effects the reader's enjoyment of and perception of the relative quality of a comic, and the writer's and penciller's ability. Like a good cinematographer makes a good director even better, we are a support staff that is best when least obviously intrusive. But, although it's hard to quantify, when a reader comes away from a book feeling satisfied, that they've had a quality experience, and most importantly had an experience that's worth the $2.00 to $3.00 that they've spent, he/she will be back for the next issue. And tell their friends to buy it. That makes investing in a good color artist on an important book intelligent financially to a publisher. We need to do a better job of communicating this, not necessarily on an editorial level (who are, for the most part, aware of our value), but at the publisher level.

"However-

"We should be realistic in picking our battles. There are some comics that sell certain numbers no matter who is doing them. After the top-tier creators, Marvel can plug almost anyone onto, say, 'Iron Man' or 'Thor' and they'll sell 30,000 copies. On most Cartoon Network books, or Vertigo titles, or many others, the color artist just isn't going to have an effect on sales, no matter how talented. This isn't isolated to color artists-it's true of writers, pencillers, and inkers also. Christopher Priest is an amazingly talented writer, but if he writes 'Iron Man,' and commands a page rate commensurate with his ability and experience, and sells 30,00 copies, and they can get a new hungry 19-year-old kid who'll write it for half the cost and the sales don't change, why should they pay for Priest (from a purely mercenary business point of view)? And so, if Marvel can outsource (another nebulous term---everything is outsourced; we're not Marvel employees) coloring for half the cost and the sales aren't affected, then that's financially intelligent. If color artists approach any publisher touting our value in a blanket and unrealistic fashion, we won't be taken seriously by the people whose concerns are focused on profit/loss.

"We need to prove our value where we have value-on books that sell more due to the creative team rather than just for the characters, on new projects that publishers want to get good word of mouth on quickly as a quality project, and on old projects that publishers are trying to get readers to see in a new light, even if the popularity has traditionally been character rather than creator based to 'keep the franchise alive.'"

"The Red Star" colored by Snakebite.
Snakebite feels it is important to note that reductions in pay for colorists are a reality and have been happening for some time. "First, pay has been greatly reduced …and that is not a rumor, that is fact. Second, nothing is going to change their 'financial perspective,' ok, it's the nature of their animal.

"See the only way to change this is to establish new work models ourselves. Image tried to do it but they practice the same shit their teachers did. I know this might sound irrelevant but the monopoly in our industry creates such thinking. We as a whole community participated in some way. Bidding wars was one way we participated. It lowered the pay significantly enough for them just to lower it that much more and be justified. By bidding for the lowest bid we showed them we are willing to take the big dick with no reach around. We watched while more product was being developed in a declining market, that wasn't supporting the product that was already out there in the first place. Some colorist did work for no pay (god bless 'em) until the 'return' check was in....???..What? We did what? There are no returns in comics these days... only a few comics have returns. So some colorist didn't get paid…and the mentality lives on."

Because of the intense technical nature and relatively foreign concepts such as "color theory," many misunderstandings persist and Mounts is happy to identify a few. "That we hit the 'color' button and it's done. That leads to the idea that we can color a book with any amount of quality in 36 hours, making up for any lateness on the writer, penciller and inker's part. This belief is also hardened into the arteries of publishers by the existence of coloring studios that give many workers a page or two each and literally can do a book in 24-36 hours. Again, this relegates us to production rather than creative. Plus 60+ years of history where colorists could color a whole book overnight by doing guides, which were then sent to a service bureau. But no one ever remembers how long the service bureau took to turn those guides into film.

"Again, on some books the farming-out-to-studio makes sense, but there needs to be some way to distinguish that from what the vision of one talented color artist can bring to a project. Luckily, many editors working today know this, but are sometimes restrained by the wishes of higher-ups."

McCaig has similar concerns, adding, "For me it's the misconception that colorists are technicians who simply drop set colors arbitrarily inside the lines. Blue for skies, green for grass, etc. People think this way because color is not as tangible as writing or drawing are. It takes 2 minutes with a pencil for someone to see how hard it is to properly draw something convincingly, or even se how hard it is to write a compelling story. It takes a box of markers or pencil crayons and a lot more time to see how difficult it is to properly color something. People generally never do this. They think back to when they were kids, using crayons in coloring books, and they think to themselves 'hey, it was easy then, it must be easy now.' I can understand that thought process...it's completely wrong though. I like to tell people we are a lot like cinematographers, but people generally don't know what they do either [laughs]."

"Adam Strange" art colored by Dave McCaig.
There hasn't been a lot of reaction from non-colorists on the issue, and McCaig postulates, "When people generally don't understand what you do, they tend not to care much about you. Makes sense to me. I think the onus might be on us colorists and the media to spread the word about what it is we do, and the value we add to books."

But the lack of reaction by comic book fans, who some facetiously say will get upset about anything, speaks to the larger problem of colorists being ignored by fans and being treated as second class talent. "These two kind of go together. Like lettering, and to some extent inking, we practice the 'invisible art,'" says Mounts. "But inkers get their names on covers and solicitations, and we don't. Partially because, if it's a studio, there might be a perception that it's not a singular vision and shouldn't be listed legitimately as part of the creative team. More often, it's because for 60 years penciller/inker teams have been considered important, and the colorist far less so, dating back to the days when inkers had far more influence over the final product, and colorists simply laid in flat color.

"Today, however, I think that the color artist has a much greater impact on the mood and feeling or a comic than an inker," continued Mounts. "Not to denigrate inkers, but as pencillers have begun to draw much more tightly in recent years the inker's role has diminished, and as computers have allowed color artists to add not only mood but actually add to the storytelling using rendering and special effects unheard of until recently, our role has grown. Though six decades of belief inertia are slow to overcome, things are changing slowly. Marvel, for example, now has a royalty/incentive program for it's color artists, and slowly more color artists are getting their name on the covers of books with the rest of the team."

While he feels that some do ignore colorists, Snakebite says it isn't fans who don't appreciate colorists. "I think the fans appreciate. I think the media, like Rich, they don't appreciate. You don't appreciate. Why don't you report on coloring more? Why do we need a lame ass controversy with a silly li'l rumor columnist to get any kind of attention? Now we sound like whiney ass bitches [laughs]...its funny cuz its true...why?"

Outsourcing coloring, much in the way outsourcing customer service to call centers, is an idea that has been raised and concerns McCaig. "Anything that lowers the quality of comics in general will start to hurt sales. Foreign studios and junior colorists are probably not going to provide the same quality that the seasoned pros being replaced would. Publishers would be unlikely to pass the savings of lower priced color on to the fans, so really, the fans would be getting a real disservice. I think fans want value for their money. If we in comics have to compete with video games, movies, and online content for customers hard earned money, we should be finding ways to give them more bang for their buck, not less."

"Ultimates" art colored by Paul Mounts.
Mounts says that with any deal of this nature, it's the method and standards that determine the "goodness" of the outcome. "It depends on how the 'outsourcing' is done. In the nineties, there was influx of college students who bought a Mac and Photoshop and announced that they could color for half of what the going rate was. But they underestimated the depth of the bog they had stepped into, and couldn't deliver even lowest-publishable quality or consistently meet monthly always-looming deadlines. Later in the decade, Marvel had most of its coloring done by a studio in Ireland that could color far more cheaply than any American studio (and Marvel owned it's own color studio at this point, acquired from Malibu, which still couldn't compete with the Irish). Marvel's (and frankly, all publishers') sales plummeted during this time, for many reasons, but there was certainly a feeling that the books were just not up to 'Marvel' quality.

"Outsourcing outside of America has its hidden perils, too. Is the money saved worth the time it takes an already overwhelmed editor to correct color mistakes from studios not familiar with using color for storytelling, or even the characters and costumes that they're coloring? Language differences make communicating technical aspects difficult, even with translators. With time differences, communication can also be problematic, and days can be lost with phone/email tag. And the infrastructure of many South American and Asian countries can lead to extremely slow/dropped ftp connections at best, or even loss of internet for days at a time at worst.

"Outsourcing sounds financially wonderful, but as editors time is eaten up, as more and more books ship late, etc., the true cost is seen."

While the future still looks bright for colorists, all three creators agree that education within the industry is important and Snakebite warns, "I would like the people who make these short sighted, executive, financial decisions to know that if they continue on this path they will create what they fear most..."

On a more humorous note, Mounts adds that people should know, "[Colorists] are all geniuses; a very select club. And that we're all talking about you behind your back. And that we need to start using 'color artist' rather than 'colorist.' A small point, but large battles are won with small skirmishes, and semantics effect peoples' perceptions of things (this is how 'lay-offs' became 'downsizing')."

McCaig also feels that some don't understand the time required to be a "color artist" and explains, "Colorists often work insane hours, sleep 4-5 hours a night (if they sleep at all) before a book is due, and wreck their health in order to get issue after issue out to print on time. They do it because they love it, and they want to get the best looking comics they can out to the fans. I think most would appreciate just a little more credit, or a few minutes thought when you flip through an issue of your favorite book. If you write an online review or comments, we check them! So, please take a minute to share your thoughts on the color. I think we'd all appreciate it [laughs]."

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