It hit me one day when I was reading Hellboy. Holy crap, said inner-monologue me, these colors are crazy! And, truly, they were. What struck me the most was how Cameron Stewart (the colorist for most of Hellboy)’s use of “flatting”—a coloring technique that emphasizes the use of uniform colors over textures in order to highlight the lines and inkwork on a panel—let the heavy reds and deep blacks add depth and an ominous tone to the story.
Comics are all about the tonal feel of the setting and story and a large part of that, at least for me, comes from the colors. It was the deft use of heavy, flat-coloring strokes and negative space I saw in Hellboy that illuminated how much of a conscious choice colors are in a comic book.
See, the thing about colors in comic books is that we really don’t think about them. They’re there, and they make things look great, but colors can have a strong impact on how we perceive things, even with something as simple as a subconscious association to a particular emotion. If layouts are responsible for creating the narrative flow of a graphic story, then colors are about creating the tone, ambiance, and the visual language of the narrative.
Take for example Hellboy, the story of a giant red creature from hell who may or may not be the son of Satan, and who helps a US government agency combat supernatural threats. Hellboy would be a completely different story if the colors were lighter, brighter, and less oppressive. The simple change in colors would turn the dark, threatening world of Hellboy into a fun, zany story about the protagonist’s adventures through the world of the supernatural. It’s the colors which make it an incredible multifaceted story about a being from hell fighting against his true nature and the insanely horrific things he has to face as part of that world.
But the question remains: how do colors play such an integral part? I mean, we can all fill out a coloring book just the same, or fill out a paint-by-numbers, right? Isn’t it just about making sure things aren’t bland? Here’s the thing, though—it’s really not. Even black and white is a conscious choice and can be used to great effect (if you don’t believe me, look at amazing graphic novels such as Jeff Smith’s seminal Bone, or Charles Burns’ bizarre coming-of-age story Black Hole), so the argument that color is just a filler (no pun intended) falls a little flat.
Colors are the first things we see when we open the book. It gives us a boatload of information about what we’re about to read. Is it a typical superhero comic (generally shiny, bright colors); is it horror (dark, ominous reds, blacks and heavy tones); is it a period piece (faded colors and lighter color palettes)? When I started writing my own comics, I tended to focus exclusively on the writing itself since, after all, that’s the important part. However, once I started working with my artist, it became painfully clear that I can’t think of the story as just the words – it has to include the colors, too.
Stories have a tone, and a mood, and a setting, and that needs a way to shine through in graphic form. When I work on a script, I can’t simply spell it out in writing, or else I’m just writing a novel with some nice pictures. That’s the key: it has to feel organic. Colors are that feeling, they’re what make up the medium’s visual nature. And hey, we already use colors for that in everything else. Color theory plays a major role in art across all media, from movies to paintings to sculpture. Colors drastically change how we view and understand art.
But I digress. The importance of colors became clear to me as I expanded my (now fairly sizeable) comic book collection. I didn’t really understand colors until I moved away from the vast world of superhero comics and into the cornucopia of colors and styles that showed me their importance. It started with Hellboy, really. One of the things that makes the series so great—outside of author and artist Mike Mignola’s mastery of universe-building and character development—is that the art provides such a strong balance to the narrative. Mignola’s stripped down yet-detailed illustrations use color deftly, with the flat-color technique employed by Stewart forcing the eye to focus on Mignola’s heavy and defined black inks.
However, what really stands out when you open any of the series’ volumes is its tone. You don’t have to know anything about Hellboy or the “Mignola-verse”—to use the parlance of our times—to understand that what you are about to read is firmly placed in the horror tradition of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe (two authors whose influence shine through in many of Mignola’s stories). Colorist Dave Stewart chose to go with flat colors for the story, avoiding many of the textured designs of many of the book’s contemporaries, allowing for Mignola’s (and later other artists’) pencils and inks to fill in those gaps. The result? Ominous and oppressive tones and a feeling of dread and suspense on every page.
The examples of how color has been used in comic book are endless. From Marvel’s recent surprise hit relaunch of Hawkeye to Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s bizarre alternate history The Manhattan Projects colored by the amazing Jordie Bellaire, to basically anything else she is working on these days (for my money though, I’d go with Pretty Deadly, The Autumnlands, and the recent run on Moon Knight from writer Warren Ellis and Illustrator Declan Shalvey). However, I would sit here for days listing off amazing colorists and their incredible works of art.
The point, if I may, is this: all the parts which make up a comic book would be nothing without the colors that make them so easily readable and visually stunning. Layouts might be the narrative fuel that feeds the flow of the story, but colors are the story’s heart and emotion.