Must Read: Tom Scioli on good/bad coloring and Barry Windsor Smith

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Cartoonist Tom Scioli (Gødland) is obviously a devotee of classic comics styles; it should come as no surprise, then, when he wonders Whatever Happened to Barry Windsor-Smith?. Smith is credited with introducing the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite art school to comics, along with his studio mates Jeff Jones and Wm. Michael Kaluta. Swearing by William Morris may not have been the greatest thing for comics longevity, but Smith’s limpid line and intricate crosshatching on Conan took the world by storm after he grew out of his necessary blocky Kirby phase, and remains a pleasure to look at:

Sometimes the wrong stuff looks so much better than the right stuff. It’s awkwardness adds an energy to it. It was a nice style while it lasted. He’s said in interviews that it never occurred to him to draw a comic the way he normally naturally draws; his classical training. He assumed if you were going to draw a comic book, it should look comic-booky. Once he realized you can draw a comic however you want, that’s what he did.

He began drawing in an intensely detailed style that still had the awkwardness of an amateur, but issue by issue grew more assured and cohesive. By the time he drew The Song of Red Sonja, they were almost completely gone. When he returned in the ’80s there was no trace of those quirks. They’d been replaced by full on art nouveau, which had previously been confined to the edges of his work, a rug design here, a painting on a vase in the background there

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Anyway, Scioli notes that Windsor-Smith has largely been absent from comics for a while and his name only gets brought up by old timers—he’s supposedly working on that Monster project that’s been hovering around for years. But what really caught our eye was Scioli’s suggestion that Windsor-Smith is disregarded today because the work of his that’s available is so badly colored. Scioli offers side-by-side comparison of the old, primitive Smith pages as they originally appeared in Marvel Comics of the 70s, and the recent recolored versions being collected by Dark Horse:

GodBowl11 Must Read: Tom Scioli on good/bad coloring and Barry Windsor Smith
Now I hope I’m not just being an old fart yelling at kids to get off my lawn with their digital coloring, but the new style coloring is horrible. On the page above it blends into a mushy grey/brown with none of the pop of the old flat color—check out panels 8 and 9 where Conan’s skin tone helps him stand out as an element instead of blending in. The flat color in the original gave the art shape and composition…the new stuff doesn’t. It ruins it.

I’ve noted this in commenting on computer coloring many times before here, and in all honesty there is nothing that turns me off a comic faster than bad computer coloring. Doing video game level rendering takes time and that takes money, and colorists, as talented as they are, are usually the people who has to chug a whole pot of coffee to make sure the book gets to the printer, and they con’t have time for quality control. It’s why coloring mistakes made in haste are fixed in collected editions.

2013080213101 Must Read: Tom Scioli on good/bad coloring and Barry Windsor Smith

But more than that, I truly believe that the sloppy, arbitrary coloring in assembly line comics helps turn off civilians from getting into them. Or maybe more accurately, that the careful duotone, tri-color or simply well-done color used in a lot of mainstream and literary comics is just more welcoming to readers who aren’t trained to read the semaphoric modeled coloring demanded at many companies.

The comments of Scioli’s post breaks into a pretty lively discussion of coloring and the constraints. Without naming names, it’s pointed out that the Dark Horse reprints probably didn’t pay very much for the coloring. Colorist Nathan Fairbairn and some other colorists get involved in the discussion, and Fairbairn ties it in the recent larger dialog on discussing art in comics:

The reason the recoloring on the classics looks bad is because it was poorly done, which is all on the colorist and hardly a damning indictment of the state of color today. Marvel’s rate for the recoloring of their reissued classics is absolute rock bottom low, and you get what you pay for. The modern Conan stories do not, as you say, work because they were “drawn for this type of color” (whatever that means). They look amazing because they were colored by Dave Stewart, perhaps the greatest colorist who ever worked in the medium. When you say that Dave’s work is colored “similarly to these reprint volumes”, I can only assume you mean that a computer was used and the color goes from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. Because those are literally the only similarities I can spot. If my 8-year-old son inks a Jim Lee drawing that I printed out for him in blue line, would it be fair of me to say that he does a similar job to what Scott Williams does? I know that Andy just got a big reaction to his piece calling for comics critics to focus less on story and to talk more about the art of comics, but it would be nice if you could do so in a way that doesn’t completely dismiss the abilities and contributions of individual artists (who, again, all have names) while doing so.


Scioli lives in the same time as Frank Santoro, and I suspect that this piece may have been fueled by a few late night discussions between the two. (Come to think of it, Jim Rugg, who sparked the discussion I linked to above ALSO lives in Pitssburgh. Hm…..) At any rate, the terrible, terrible danger of horrible coloring continues to rage unchecked in comics….there’s a reason why folks like Dave Stewart and Jordie Bellaire have all the work they can handle.

Comments

  1. Sam Thielman says:

    HALLELUJAH. I’ve been saying this for years. Thanks to you and Tom for pointing it out—Dave Stewart is indeed a god among men and he understands when to use flat tones and when to add depth. His work on “Hellboy” gave the book a uniformity across WILDLY different art styes (Richard Corben and Mike Mignola on the same story! MIND BLOWN), even when Mignola handed over penciling duties entirely to the great Duncan Fegredo.

    Why the hell nobody can spring for a good recoloring job on Conan (or Neal Adams’ Batman stuff, for that matter, although I’m given to understand that some of that is on Adams himself) is utterly beyond me. The only time I’ve seen it done reasonably well was with the reissues of “The Sandman.”

  2. jacob lyon goddard says:

    HATED the recoloring on Sandman.
    Nobody colors Windsor-Smith better than himself.

    Be careful not to lump all recoloring job together though. Sometimes you get the Miller Daredevils (atrocious), but sometimes you get the Fanta Prince Valiant.

  3. george says:

    I increasingly prefer to read old comics in black and white (in the Marvel Essential and DC Showcase volumes). Then I don’t have to deal with the cheap, smudged printing and drab colors of the original comics, or the too-bright (and completely artificial) colors added by computers.

  4. “Scioli lives in the same time as Frank Santoro” . . .

    Is “time” supposed to be “town”? That would make that sentence and the next make more sense.

  5. SniktSnakt says:

    I guess I’m in the minority that I love the digital coloring on the Chronicles of Conan DH reprints…

  6. Color can make or break even the best art. The business needs colorists with better color choices and not just rendering skills, though both would be nice. There is a reason certain artists will not let other colorists touch their work.

  7. Johnny Memeonic says:

    I’ve held this opinion for years as well about older art coloring being superior to fancier recolors done for new collections.

    It can also veer toward the incompetent. For instance, why was the entire landscape colored as grass in that recolor job posted when the building clearly has a moat in the original art? Even if they were recoloring from a black and white print (with no color guide for some reason) then what did they think the raised bridge was for?

  8. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Jimmy, I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was working with you on THE HILLS HAVE EYES, you had the best color notes, bar none, that I have ever encountered in comics. I could not even begin to touch the artistic knowledge which you brought to your instructions. It was a revelation to me but also something I couldn’t even start to do without training.

    I don’t think very many editors in the business are able to articulate color at that level.

  9. Bill Tudor says:

    “jacob lyon goddard says:

    Be careful not to lump all recoloring job together though. Sometimes you get the Miller Daredevils (atrocious), but sometimes you get the Fanta Prince Valiant.”

    Uh, aren’t those Valiant reprints simply carefully scanned proof sheets? Not newly colored line art? Big difference.

  10. Simon Fraser says:

    There’s a prevailing mindset that says that the penciler is King, the inker is a lesser being and the colorist is a woefully underpaid hack. In an ideal world the ‘name’ artist should have his/her hand on the art right the way to the end. To hit a monthly deadline that needs a team of people. So either we see proper art studios re-emerge ( like the Eisner shop ) or artists need to do less work and be properly paid for it. Say 11 pages a month.

  11. Synsidar says:

    From Fairbairn’s quoted comment:

    I know that Andy just got a big reaction to his piece calling for comics critics to focus less on story and to talk more about the art of comics, but it would be nice if you could do so in a way that doesn’t completely dismiss the abilities and contributions of individual artists (who, again, all have names) while doing so.

    Can anybody make a case for a non-artist reader benefiting from detailed analysis of a comic book’s artwork in a review? I can’t. How is a non-artist going to enjoy the panel layout, the composition of backgrounds, character poses, the coloring, etc. while he’s reading the story? He’s much likelier to notice those elements if they’re done badly–and if the overall story is bad, their excellence can’t compensate for the story’s awfulness, much less make it worth buying for them.

    Technical analysis of artwork seems best suited for a technique-oriented audience, especially since a commercial publication can’t be studied until it’s been bought.

    SRS

  12. Peter Hohman says:

    Synsidar,

    I’m not an artist at all – but detailed analysis of the artwork matters because the art actually tells the story in a comic. Without the art, there would be no story.

  13. I really love what has been done on the new coloring of the Chronicles of Conan volumes at Dark Horse: amazing job!
    I’m surprised by the exemple taken : “check out panels 8 and 9 where Conan’s skin tone helps him stand out as an element instead of blending in”. Hum, with the big yellowish elements in thebackground, Conan’s skin tone doesn’t make him stand out. (BTW I think it’s panel 9-10). In the next one, ok, but the previous one, no.

    Those recolored reprints keep the “heavy colored” trend of the original, whithout the brightness, which is perfectly ok for me. You only have to check those old paperback reprints at Marvel to see how awful the old classic coloring looks when applied to modern paper/printing: way too popping!

    But I’m probably also an old fart, so I’m not throwing any stones at Tom: I mostly find modern coloring bad, especially when it tries to do what the drawing themselves should have made (a sense of speed, of blur, of light…).

    For exemple, I can’t stand the coloring of Savage Dragon by Nikos Koutsis: way too much light effects for me, it looks as if everybody has a yellow light projector directed to his face! It probably appeals to youg readers, but not to me and my old bones….

  14. Synsidar says:

    I’m not an artist at all – but detailed analysis of the artwork matters because the art actually tells the story in a comic. Without the art, there would be no story.

    Yes, but the traditional elements of the story dictate what the artist(s) draws. The panel layouts, deciding what to put in the backgrounds, how to pose characters, how to choreograph fight sequences–those all require artistic techniques, but as long as the results are satisfactory for the reader, one approach is as good as another. Preferences are matters of artistic aesthetics and individual styles. If the story’s plot is ruined by cliches or obvious holes, or the premise is defective, the artwork can’t conceal those defects. I can’t imagine a reader deciding, “Well, the writer had the heroine save the day by having her use a power she doesn’t have. Maybe he confused Blackstar with Darkstar. But the artwork was terrific, so that doesn’t matter.”

    If the quality of the artwork justified buying an issue, then it would make sense to have minimal story content, and to emphasize the artwork by having multiple splash pages and character portraits–frame-worthy artwork in every issue. Instead, many readers speed through an issue in less than ten minutes and curse that damned decompression that reduces the story content. Artistic aesthetics mean nothing to them.

    SRS

  15. Gianni Mamas says:

    I think Barry Windsor Smith himself has expressed himself over this topic, particulary on the Weapon X reprint: the color gamut to be used depends on printing conditions, including paper and reproduction plates. I agree, this is a hack’s job: there’s zero idea on what “line value” is. Most digital coloring production lines put to shame Steve Oliff’s original innovations; as inkers are to be considered artists themselves also should be the colorists.

  16. george says:

    The recoloring of Steranko’s Nick Fury, in the trades Marvel published a dozen years ago, were also pretty bad. As with the Conan pages we see here, there was too much reliance on dark and murky colors.

  17. Thanks Heidi. You were easy to work for because you understood the “why” of my notes. For me, the color is part of the storytelling. I try to look at it panel to panel, then as a page, then to see where my eye travels to. A lot of editors coming in to the business have little knowledge of the color process…something they should be studying. I am a pain in the ass to practically every single editor, but in the end, I look at a comic as a team effort where every single person works together to a final product, without egos. The end product is all the consumer cares about, as they should.

    BWS had issues with a lot of his work being colored at marvel in the 90’s and he had good reason. These days I imagine Barry working on his own project from writing to colors to finishing the book. Count me as the guy that will be first in line for it.

  18. Jeff Flowers says:

    I own a copy of Sternako’s Chandler: Red Tide graphic novel, so when I heard it was being recolored, I checked out the preview in Dark Horse Presents. Frankly speaking, it looked horrible, and it make matters worse Steranko himself is involved with the remastering.

    I personally think modern colorists need to scale it back.

  19. Johnny Memeonic says:

    I’m surprised by the exemple taken : “check out panels 8 and 9 where Conan’s skin tone helps him stand out as an element instead of blending in”. Hum, with the big yellowish elements in thebackground, Conan’s skin tone doesn’t make him stand out.

    If you believe this then you may be mildly colorblind. That’s not intended as a snarky joke btw.

  20. the recoloring blurs some of the delicate Smith lines and de-Smithify the art, blending into a more generic blah. I don’t like it.

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  1. […] trouble. The coloring is another reason why I like them. And yeah, I’m stacking the deck for my argument the other day about how good coloring—as opposed to bad, kneejerk modeling—enhances art. The EC comics had […]

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