image1I am looking for more effective ways to talk about color and the strategies that colorists use to convey meaning in comics. I’d be grateful, too, for examples of comics that you feel are particularly striking or innovate in their use of color.

In my comics course this semester, I have found myself alluding more frequently to McCloud’s brief chapter on color in Understanding Comics, but I’d like to build upon these terms and concepts to analyze coloring more convincingly as a signifying tool. The class’s most recent discussion of Jeremy Love’s Bayou referred often to how the southern landscapes of the comic were made all the more lush, haunting, and gruesome by Patrick Morgan’s distinctive use of color, a vivid palette that recalls children’s picture books and Disney cartoon animation.  Color frames readerly expectations about the content in this example, but the interplay between text and image ultimately enlists these very color choices to critique the aesthetic expression of the southern past as idyllic nostalgia.

Color is particularly useful in exploring how socially constructed ideas about race negotiate the realities of skin color (something I also discuss here in this post’s thought experiment). Another example that I find interesting comes from the 1953 story “In Gratitude” by Al Feldstein and Wally Wood from Shock SuspenStories. In this scene, the parents of a Korean War veteran named Joey visually recount the incidents narrated in their son’s letters from the frontline. Described in the letters are the heroic deeds of a fellow soldier named Hank who ends up giving his life to save Joey.

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What Joey’s mother and father don’t know initially, however, is that Hank is African American. The comic invites us to see through their field of vision as they read the black soldier’s virtues in Joey’s “raceless” prose as white. Yet the way the panels are colored, the men on the battlefield are washed in hues of blue and later a field of deep red as Hank leaps on the grenade. The colorist’s choices convey the clash between Joey’s recollections and his parent’s assumptions, and the monochromatic panels might even been said to have a democratizing effect on the bodies being battered and broken under fire. (Perhaps it is no mistake the expressionistic color choices are also the primary color of the American flag.)

“In Gratitude” ends with Joey ashamed and outraged at his parents and his hometown for refusing to bury Hank alongside their cemetery’s white bodies. The work of EC’s colorist — most likely Marie Severin — help to reinforce the comic’s critique of these segregation practices as well.

How does color factor into your evaluation of comics? What resources and examples do you use to talk about this element of the form’s style?

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About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

5 responses »

  1. I love the reading of “In Gratitude” here, Qiana. I need to go back and read that story. Chicago Comics has been having a sale on the 1990s-era EC reprints, so I’ll need to track down a complete copy.

    I tend to appreciate color comics when I can see their imperfections, either in the original art or in the printing process itself. I need to see the brush strokes, the bleed of one shade of Dr. Ph. Martin’s watercolor dye into another. I think the first time I really took notice of the colors in a comic book was in Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel–the figures and shapes looked almost three dimensional, not flat and perfect like the colors of a newsstand comic.

    In thinking about color I’m also thinking about what Barthes called the “grain of the voice.” Just as he talks about the unique texture of individual human voices, I prefer to see the hand of the artist who painted the black and white figures of the original image. This fascination with texture might also explain my affection for minicomics and zines printed or photocopied by hand.

    I recently picked up a copy of Corinne Mucha’s Buzz #3, which features a cover filled with an image of a blood red, stamped (or screen printed?) image of a fly. There is something sad and imperfect and very human about a hand-painted comic book, but there is also something moving about a newsstand comic with ragged or uncut pages, faulty color schemes, and brown, curling pages. Maybe these were the features that appealed so much to the pop artists of the 1960s when they were imitating or copying panels from old action and romance comics?

    I also like comics in which there are only slight variations in the colors of the ink, like John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, which shifts from a sepia-toned opening sequence to a grey, almost green shade for the middle of the book, then back to the brown again at the end. Maybe there’s a trace memory of childhood working here–that desire to color all those blank spaces in between the lines!

  2. And regarding issues of race, color, and visual arts, I’ve been thinking a lot about the palette Steve McQueen uses in 12 Years a Slave. Even though he succeeds in capturing the feel and the texture of a 19th-century narrative, the movie looks strikingly similar in its color scheme to his last film, Shame–a modern, urban narrative, in contrast to the largely rural settings of 12 Years. The movie seems to contain two parallel narratives–the visual field (McQueen’s imagery) and then the verbal field (Northup’s original text), which finally meet in that haunting image of Northup’s letter burning into ash and then into darkness…almost as if the film itself cannot contain the light and color of the original text or of Northup’s lived experiences.

    Anyway, we’ll need to talk more about all of this in Columbus!

  3. roytcook says:

    Qiana,

    Great post! I also have been thinking a bit about color in comics. It is nice to see someone take it a bit further than the standard, and rather trite, “superheroes are in primary colors, supervillians in secondary colors” observation.

    There is an example that you might be interested in, if only because it is so weird. It doesn’t quite have to do with color, but does address some related but broader issues brought up in Brian’s response, with regard to the ‘hand’ of the artist (or whole body, in this case) being evident in the art:

    After his untimely death, and per his wishes, Mark Gruenwald’s ashes were mixed in with the black ink for the printing of the first edition of the Squadron Surpreme trade paperback.

    Pretty weird, huh?

  4. Seriously, Roy?!? I guess it isn’t so strange given that comics was his life’s work… I hope that Squadron Supreme was worthy of the act.

    Brian, I am incredibly fascinated by your reference to the “grain of the voice” and have already gotten a copy of Barthes’ essay. Thank you for this! (And I’m with you in preferring to see the imperfections, unlike so many of the digitally-colored mainstream comics today.)

    See you both at OSU next week!

    • I’d forgotten about that edition of Squadron Supreme…!

      Actually, didn’t the members of Kiss also donate some vials of blood to the printing of the Marvel Comics special published in the 70s? I dimly recall seeing promotional footage of the four of them, in full make-up and costumes, pouring the vials into a vat of printer’s ink. But maybe I dreamed that!

      Hope you enjoy the Barthes essay, Qiana. I first stumbled across it after reading references to it in Charles Shaar Murray’s excellent John Lee Hooker bio.

      Looks like I’ll be listening to Kiss and some John Lee as I grade papers this morning…

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