Part II (of three): Coloring

(See Part I here)

A month ago I raised the question of when two distinct comic tokens (e.g. two distinct issues) are or are not instances of the same comic type. One natural way to approach this question is to ask whether or not the comic tokens in question are identical (or, at least, relevantly similar) with respect to those properties that are relevant to our experience of the comic as a comic.

Here we will look at another ‘hard’ example – re-colorings of comics. In particular, consider the original 1988 version of Batman: The Killing Joke versus the 2008 anniversary re-release. The original 1988 version of this comic was written by Alan Moore with pencil and ink duties carried out by Brian Bolland and coloring by John Higgins. Bolland had intended to color the comic as well, but other commitments prevented him from doing so. The 2008 version, however, is for the most part identical to the 1988 version except that it has been re-colored by Bolland.

We will ignore Bolland’s anachronistically laughable claim that the new version is colored in exactly the manner in which he wanted The Killing Joke to be colored all along, and concentrate on a different question: If you hold the 1988 version in one hand, and the 2008 version in the other, are you holding two different comics, or merely two instances of the same comic?

As already noted, one way to think about this is to ask whether the two comics are identical (or, again, at least relevantly similar) with respect to those properties relevant to our experience of the comic qua comic. In the present example, this amounts to asking whether the coloring of the two comics is relevant to our aesthetic experience of the Killing Joke.

This example is complicated by the following fact. In the original 1988 version, the coloring does not seem to be important in the relevant way. The fact that the comic is colored is relevant, but the style of coloring itself is not distinctive in any way – on the contrary, the comic is colored in the uniform style used for all superhero comics of the era, and thus adds nothing substantial to our experience of the comic. In the 2008 version, however, the coloring – especially the symbolic use of red in the flashback sequences – is clearly an important aspect of the comic, one that is central to our experience of this version of The Killing Joke.

Thus, the two versions of The Killing Joke are different in a relevant respect. It is not, however, that they differ with respect to some aspect of the comics relevant to our experience of them as comics, however. Rather, they are different in that there is an aspect of the comics that is relevant to our experience of one of them, but not the other.

So, are these instances of the same comic, or not?


About roytcook

Roy T Cook is CLA Scholar of the College and John M Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He is the co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Aaron Meskin & Frank Bramlett), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach).

3 responses »

  1. Qiana says:

    Hi Roy, this is another really good example! I am genuinely surprised by how much the coloring makes a difference here. The impact of the bright red hood is a almost negligible in the 1998 version. But in the 2008 re-coloring, it not only focusing our attention on the Joker’s unveiling, it sets off the dripping red color around his lips and eyes in the last panel. Both are pretty horrible images, but the second is more maniacal. Maybe because it also looks more realistic without the artificially bright colors?

    Nevertheless, unlike with the previous Calvin and Hobbes example, I do not think that these are different comics. There’s a difference in emphasis and perhaps even the depth of emotion, but not enough to make for a substantially different reading experience.

  2. Roy,
    I have a copy of the 1998 Killing Joke but not the 2008 recolored version. I really appreciate that you brought this to my attention.

    Qiana makes a great point about the dripping red color around the Joker’s lips and eyes in the 2008 version. The Joker looks more maniacal; the impact on the reader can be very strong.

    I hesitate to call these the same comic, though. The 1998 Joker has clear liquid drops in his eyes: these could be tear drops or they could be rain. However, the 2008 Joker has red liquid drops in his eyes. I don’t think that they are rain–I don’t think they *can* be rain in the same way that the puddles on the ground are rain. If we compare the liquid dripping from his gloves, both versions have clear liquid. But if we compare the liquid in the Joker’s eyes, one version is clear and the other is red.

    Does the red liquid indicate blood? Does it indicate that the Joker’s emotional state is such that he can produce red (blood-colored) tears? Is it some bizarre chemical reaction with the red helmet that produces the red liquid (is it rain mixed with red residue from the helmet?).

    I’m really looking forward to Part III of your series!

  3. roytcook says:

    It is very interesting to me how peoples opinions in these cases differ (especially given that it is the opinions of three people who are particularly knowledgeable about the topic at hand!). My own intuition was that the two instances of The Killing Joke were clearly different comics, since the coloring in the 2008 version makes such a substantial contribution to one’s experience of and interpretation of the comic. My intuition in the Calvin and Hobbes cases in Part I was more tentative, since the rearrangement of panels, although making a difference, seems to me to make far less difference than the re-coloring does in the present example.

    Qiana, however, seems to intuit differently, being relatively sure that the Calvin and Hobbes rearrangement is a different comic, but much more on the fence (at best) regarding whether the differently colored Batman stories are the same or different comics.

    I wonder whether this difference is due to some basic difference in how our intuitions are wired up, or to different background assumptions or different implicit or explicit theoretical commitments (e.g. different weightings given to the relative salience of panel arrangement versus coloring to the content of a comic), or to something else. I have no idea. Maybe Part III will shed some light (I have what I think is a REALLY hard example to discuss there!)

    I had not noticed the teardrop versus blood thing before. It is very disturbing, but I also agree that is changes the content of the panel dramatically (from madman in the rain to something else far more surreal and perhaps uncanny).

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