In Your Face Jam: The Best Colorists of 2012

Wed, January 9th, 2013 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brett White, Contributing Writer

An example of Matt Hollingsworth's "Hawkeye" colors

I know we're a week deep into 2013, and you probably thought it was safe to venture out into the wilds of the internet without stumbling across another "Best of 2012" list. Well, I have to regretfully inform you, imagined reader who is somehow sick of "best of" lists (I can't get enough of them!), that there's one area I have not seen covered nearly enough this year.

2012 was the year of the colorist, a fact the Internet seems to have overlooked. Let's fix that.

I am straight up as guilty as the next comic book journalist when it comes to giving colorists the recognition they deserve. Everyone has gotten into the habit of stopping after two names when it comes to comic credits. "Batman" by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, totally ignoring that Capullo's dynamic art only matches Snyder's creepy atmosphere when colored by FCO Plascencia. The coloring is as essential to that book's success as the writing and art. If Batman was wearing grey and navy blue and the Joker's hair was an outlandish shade of neon green, the whole series would feel a lot less noir and a lot more "NWAR!" (which is my poor approximation of a sound effect that would flash onscreen in the campy Batman show from the '60s; just play along with me).

So why is our recognition of colorists rising at a rate disproportionate to the rate that colorists are reinventing the total look of the medium? If you look at the work of the top writers, artists and colorists from 2002 compared to 2012, how staggering is the difference between the overall color palettes? A Grant Morrison book from 2002 is as lauded as one from 2012, and the casual observer wouldn't even notice that big of a difference between Jim Lee's best line work of those two aforementioned years. But colorists? Ten years ago, the early computer coloring boom, when colorists realized that they could use literally use every color ever on everything, was just beginning to fade away. Fast-forward a decade, and colorists have become absolutely essential to a book's tone. The comics of my youth look to my untrained eye as if they were treated like coloring book pages ("Spider-Man is blue and red, I figured it out!"). Nowadays, coloring is a much more visceral and vital aspect of the comics reading experience ("Spider-Man is normally blue and red, but what emotion am I trying to evoke?").

So here's the deal: I'm not trained in color theory and I've never done any coloring more intense than a coloring book ("Spider-Man is red and blue, and stay in the lines!"). I fully admit that I'm no pro and every choice I'm about to make is completely based on what my gut is telling me. There are geniuses I will overlook. That said, these are the five colorists whose work blew me away in 2012, and they deserve, at least, my purely fan-based adoration (but seriously, if someone who actually knows what's up with coloring is reading this, I would be fascinated by any in-depth commentary on the subject; put your degree to work!). And I have to preface this list with the admission that I'm only listing the work that I read by each creator; most all of these colorists are incredibly prolific!

In Your Face Jam's Top 5 Colorists of 2012

Bettie Breitweiser's "Winter Soldier" colors

Bettie Breitweiser ("Secret Avengers," "Winter Soldier," "Defenders")

When the flashback issues of "Winter Soldier" hit this past summer, I knew this book was going to be something special. Breitweiser soaked all the flashback portions of Ed Brubaker's super-spy-drama in these gorgeous, muted colors that really felt like a lived-in memory. Her work with Gabriel Hardman on "Secret Avengers" made that series one of the best looking comics of 2012. Without her expressive colors, the tragic fate of Eric O'Grady wouldn't have struck me as hard as it did. So, thank you for bumming me out (in a totally awesome way)!

Matt Hollingsworth ("Moon Knight," "Defenders," "Hawkeye")

Hollingsworth is one of the longest-lived and hardest-working colorists in the business, and 2012 contained as much genius from him as any other year. However, as it also contained "Hawkeye," there's reason to believe that 2012 contained a smidgen more genius than other years. I didn't notice the subtle brilliance of Hollingsworth's work until the second issue, wherein I noticed that he had somehow made a book about an excellent marksman trying to be an excellent man incredibly…purple. In a totally awesome way. Hawkeye's signature color is purple, and with a comic devoted to keeping him out of his purple tights, it makes perfect sense to turn the overall hue to purple (see, I know exactly how colors work). It's never intrusive, it's just the right touch that makes "Hawkeye" distinct from literally every other comic book out there.

Fiona Staples colors her own art in "Saga"

Fiona Staples ("Saga")

"Saga" gets heaps of praise, as does Fiona Staples' flawless artwork. She makes drawing action, emotion, and expression seem effortless. But I'd argue that it's her color palette that was the real key to "Saga's" success. For a book about a couple of aliens on the run from a bunch of TV-head people, who sometimes come across giant naked trolls with questionable hygiene down there, book is downright inviting. Every page of every issue could be colored in such a way that the contents would be off-putting and horrific. But Staples goes full on pastel at times, creating a look that attracts the eye to the most repulsive images (repulsive in a totally awesome way).

Dean White colors Jerome Opeña

Dean White ("Uncanny X-Force," "Avengers")

Dean White changed what I expect to see in Marvel Comics, period. This is where I feel incredibly shaky with my admittedly teeny knowledge of coloring, because Dean White is doing something different with his books that…I just can't put my finger on. He uses different colors and tones for books about people in spandex, and he brings an epic feel to everything he touches. Like Hollingsworth on "Hawkeye," White was responsible for giving "Uncanny X-Force" a signature look that every colorist who followed him seemed beholden to and unable to match; there is only one Dean White. Dean White colors books like they're an action blockbuster directed by a character-based director, set to a heavy metal score. I barely even know what I mean by that, but I know it's totally awesome.

Jordie Bellaire adds color to the Rocketeer's world

Jordie Bellaire ("Exile on the Planet of the Apes," "The Manhattan Projects," "Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom," "Dr. Strange: Season One," "Hulk: Season One," "Captain Marvel," "The Defenders")

If I had to give "Colorist of the Year" honors to any one of these five, Bellaire would get the majority of my attention. The sheer volume of work she produced in a single year is staggering, and considering how much of it just naturally found it's way into my reading pile, she was a creator on my mind constantly this year. Seriously, there was a week where I read both the Hulk and Dr. Strange "Season Ones" with some "Planet of the Apes" peppered in, without knowing that she had colored all of them. She's a chameleon, completely able to bend her talents to the need of the book. For evidence, compare the bright, bombastic work she did with Chris Samnee on "Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom" to the abstract work she's doing with Nick Pitarra on "The Manhattan Projects." She is so new to professional comic coloring and already has such an innate understanding of what coloring means to stories on an individual basis -- but I can still pick out a Jordie Bellaire book.

The thing is, every colorist knows how to push their talent to get the best work out of the comic they're working on while also having an identity. These colorists have individual styles that all complement every book they work on. These are the five names that blew me away in 2012, but I urge everyone to think of and thank their personal favorite colorists.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

TAGS:  in your face jam, bettie breitweiser, matt hollingsworth, dean white, fiona staples, jordie bellaire

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