By Steve Morris
After reading Bon Alimagno’s excellent interview/evaluation with colorist Erick Arciniega on iFanboy, I decided that it was time for more of us to start jumping on the coloring bandwagon. Getting the right colorist on a comic can be crucial to the success of the book, and yet there’s really very little coverage of this side of the industry available. With that in mind I contacted colorist-whizz (and nicest man alive) Val Staples, whose recent credits include books like Swamp Thing, New Mutants, Deadpool and Hulk, to get a basic insight into his life as a colorist.
Val’s answers bring up some interesting points about coloring as a day-to-day job, and you can see a lot of correlation between his responses and the points made previously in Alimagno’s article.
Steve: How did you make your start in comics? Were you first looking to come in as a colourist, or did you start as an inker, writer, penciller?
Val Staples: My friend Matt Tyree and I had been comic book fans since we were kids, and we both wanted to make a comic together. Both of us are artists but he is a MUCH better artist than me. As I had done creative writing all my life, eventually I focused on writing and he on pencilling. Then, for whatever reason, we split the remaining chores of making a comic and decided to learn them. Matt took inking and I took coloring and lettering.
I then became a self-taught colorist. After honing my craft for a couple years I started attending conventions. Jonboy Meyers and I use to tag team together hunting out work. Plus, Jonboy had already gotten to know a few people in toys and comics, so it wasn’t long before I had some opportunities come my way. Then it was onwards and upwards!
Steve: Is it a difficult business to stay in? You see some pencillers unable to continue in the industry because there can be such quick turnaround in demand. How do you keep yourself working?
Staples: I’d say most businesses, especially any freelance work, is one part talent, one part punctuality and one part professionalism. A lot of people who work in this industry say you can often get two of those things, but rarely all three, so hold onto the people who do all three.
I’ve been coloring now for over 10 years, and I still fear what next month is going to be like. I’d love to be Exclusive to a publisher JUST for the dependability so I can relax at night knowing I have work for a while.
I think of myself as a B-List colorist. I’m not the first person people think of when they think of a colorist, but they often eventually recall my name. I’ve been able to stay employed because I do believe I’m fairly talented. I also think a lot of people find me enjoyable to work with. I know the only thing my editors sweat on a bit is I’m very much a “by the deadline” kind of guy. I map out a schedule and work very linearly. I have a hard time jumping from project to project. I find that it disrupts my creative flow and focus on mood, story telling and harmony. So I tend to work week-to-week on my projects.
Some editors get a bit edgy from this because the know I’ve sometimes had pages for several weeks. But in my opinion, a deadline is a deadline. As long as it’s met, the day is saved. Plus I think at this point most editors know my style and what I’m going to deliver, so they don’t freak out TOO much about my work habits!
But you have to understand where the editors are coming from. They have a really hard job. The comics industry is one of the few businesses where monthly content has to come out like clockwork. If someone is late with their duty, it throws the whole schedule off, and the rest of us often have to pick up the slack. And colorists are one of the last links in that chain.
I often find it a bit unnerving at times because you bear the brunt of everyone’s stress. But that’s a given and as long as you accept that as part of the job, you can manage it. After all, they aren’t stressed at you, they are stressed by the deadline.
I’m VERY grateful to the publishers and editors who continue to hire me. It means a lot that they have such faith in me – even though I’ve probably been the cause of some gray hairs… And I’m honoured to be requested by the amazing creative talent out there to work on their projects. You combine that with being able to enjoy one of the best jobs in the world and I count myself as extremely fortunate.
Steve: You work for both Marvel and DC at the moment, alongside other works. How does work come to you? Do people request you specifically , or do you have a contract with the companies?
Staples: It can be a little of everything. Sometimes creators request me. Sometimes the editors do. And sometimes they all wanted me on the book. I’m thankful to all of them.
Steve: How long does it typically take to complete an issue? How many projects can you have simultaneously?
Staples: I generally spend a week on a book. But I sometimes find myself with two books a week just because of how things pan out with my schedule. Those are LONG weeks. 16 to 20 hour days, often 7 days running into the next week’s scheduled book.
Steve: That’s quite the workload..
Staples: I have not had a REAL vacation since 1994. Even when I “take a week off”, I am still working. I have to either corrections, or field correspondence, or do paperwork on which I’m behind.
And a “week off” is all I can afford – yet it’s not enough. But the more time you take, the more time you aren’t working. If you’re not working, you don’t get paid. You don’t get paid, bills don’t get paid. It’s pretty stressful.
People simply do not understand how when I have a couple days off I don’t want to do ANYTHING. I think almost every colorist can attest to what I’m saying. All we want to do is just lay around and do nothing. Watch TV. Be on a beach listening to the waves. In a hammock next to a mountain cabin.
I had a dream about sleeping not too long ago! That’s how bad it is at times. I’d love to have four weeks paid vacation where I do nothing but rest and relax and recharge my creative batteries.
Steve: Do you typically keep in communication with either the writer or artist whenever you start colouring a new issue, or do you usually work to your own standard?
Staples: Most definitely. These days, I really do mostly what I want to. I don’t feel I have to be something I’m not, and I think that’s what is expected from me at this point as well. But getting notes and feedback from the writer, artist and editors is important. They all want each issue to be the best it can be.
Plus, veteran creators tend to be more laid back, which I like. They’ve done this enough to know to let other creators have fun. The newer artists tend to be more picky. But, I understand that type of enthusiasm.
Steve: Do colourists tend to build working relationships with artists, whom they stick with?
Staples: Some definitely do. There’re a few artists who regularly request me these days, like Marco Rudy. That means so much to a colorist: to feel important to the artist, and that your colors bring out the best in their art. Plus it’s nice to see creator loyalty as well.
Steve: Fundamentally, what is the role of a colourist in building the story?
Staples: In my opinion, it’s all about story telling and mood. A colorist should help lead a reader’s eye through a page and set the tone of the story. I’m also not much for what some call ‘over-rendering’. I feel I tend to have a softer and lighter touch. Brighter colors, less “mud” or black. That’s what I like.
Steve: How do you go about deciding a colour scheme, or trying out inventive ideas in a comic? Do you have to run them past an editor?
Staples: I’m still a bit squeamish with Marvel and DC books. I’m always scared to just cut loose and do what I want – I always have fun coloring, but I have to hold back. The only titles I went all-out on were Criminal and Incognito. They are and probably always will be some of my favourite works and I’m grateful to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips for letting me have that opportunity. I really miss those books and that complete creative freedom.
One time where I cut loose at Marvel was on a Punisher arc. I just decided to go crazy and Axel Alonso let me do my thing. I’d love to do more of that at Marvel. But, I also understand why that’s not always acceptable on a mainstream title and I respect the direction Marvel and DC want for their books.
Steve: Are some stories easier to color than others? Is Green Lantern considered to be the ‘big gig’ because of all the light effects, for example?
Staples: I’d say more characters = more work. Especially if the artist draws ALL of the characters. That takes a LOT of time to color!
It’s also a lot of work for my flatter (or color assistant as I like to credit them). I couldn’t do my job without my flatters past and present. They help break down a page and save me a lot of time. Flatting may not be the most glamorous job, but it’s vital and flatters never get the gratitude they deserve.
Steve: Which colourists currently inspire you – who would you say are some of the best in the industry right now?
Staples: I can safely say Laura Martin and Dave Stewart continue to be inspirations….
This is tough! I think I will pass on the rest of this one. I know I’ll forget someone and I don’t want to offend anyone by accidentally leaving them out by trying to make a comprehensive list. There’s just too many good colorists out there. I will always see something here or there and think “wow… that’s awesome! I wish I could do that!”
Steve: How do you feel most people perceive the work you do?
Staples: I think most people don’t perceive it. Coloring is still slowly becoming more recognized. But, frankly, I’m shocked that after almost 20 years of digital coloring reshaping what comics look and feel like, colorists are still mostly unknown. You don’t see colorists much in solicitations or interviews about creative teams. They don’t always get cover credit. And you don’t see as many colorists in convention signings and panels In comparison to writers, pencillers and also inkers. So I certainly cannot fault fans, press and collectors for not knowing who colorists when you consider the above.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying anyone is doing it on purpose. I also recognize that writers and pencillers do most of the heavy lifting, so I’d never want to detract from that. Instead, I think it’s just a by-product of years to the contrary and change takes time.
Steve: What is the mark of a good colourist? What marks out good colouring from poor colouring?
Staples: That’s subjective with art. For me, garish, over-powering coloring is bad. I feel good coloring complements the art — which may also be part of the reason colorists are somewhat transparent to folks in terms of recognition.
Steve: Do you think reviewers spend enough time discussing the use of colour in comics?
They are more and more. For a while there I was actively contacting reviewers and thanking them for their feedback on colors, when they gave it [note: which is actually how I first came in contact with Val, after I mentioned his work on Darkstar & The Winter Guard for Marvel]. I’ve been absent in doing it recently because I’ve been so busy this past year. But I think it did help make a difference. Many replied who did not review colors, happy to discuss the topic moving forward; and some were surprised at themselves for not doing it previously. They are good people and their feedback matters, so it’s nice to hear them comment on colors too, no matter if it’s positive or negative.
Steve: What advice would you give to people interested in becoming a colourist?
Staples: Definitely focus on being well-rounded. And like I said above, realize that talent isn’t enough. Be prepared to work long hours. If you don’t succeed at first, keep trying as there will always be opportunities in comics. :-)
Many thanks to Val for his time! If you want to see more of his work, you can find him coloring Red She-Hulk for Marvel later this year, and he will also be working on the Marvel NOW! relaunch of Deadpool. He mentioned his past time as a writer, and currently co-writes Divination with Gina Iorio for MTV Geek, which you can find for free on their site. He is also a major fan (and previous writer for) He-Man, and works as the event manager for Powercon/Thundercon, which runs from the 22nd-23rd September in Torrence, California.