Does modern computer colouring ruin linework?

This blog post originally appeared over at my On the Verge site. But since I’m back working on Andrew Jackson in Space and experimenting with some colouring, it’s been top-of-mind for me and well worth posting again here. Enjoy…

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to express my thoughts about modern colouring in comics and yes, that headline is a little inflammatory, isn’t it? It’s not that it “ruins” linework, more that it overpowers the linework and is 100% the dominant element in the artwork. We are living in the age of the comic book colourist.

My overall thought that I want to discuss is expressed in the question contained in the headline: is modern computer colouring ruining (overpowering) the penciler/inker linework? What I’m really trying to ask if there is even a point to the penciller/inker’s linework in the first place if the colouring is so heavily rendered? And in some cases, usually the bad examples, colourists are going to extremes… When elements that aren’t necessarily important to the overall story (a lamp or car in the background for instance) are perfectly rendered, does that detract from the overall storytelling?

For example, take an artist who’s been around for quite a while like Jim Lee.* Now if you compare his art from say X-Men #1 to Superman Unchained #1, I’d say that the linework was more prominent and probably more necessary in X-Men whereas in Superman, it’s often lost to the colouring. Now this isn’t a bad thing necessarily but it does raise the question of just why he’s investing so much time rendering lighting and stuff when it’s just going to get lost in the end product.

Colouring-JimLeeI picked these two for a couple of reasons: (1) They’re both by Jim Lee but more importantly they have somewhat similar layouts with multiple characters, and (2) they have some “effects” on each page that demonstrate the extent of the colour for each time period.

Now I’m sure you’re thinking that I’m just a grumpy old timer who longs for the good ol’ days of comics when I was growing up. But that’s not the case. I’m just wondering if this is a problem or if people don’t care at all.

From my own perspective, I think the evolution of colour over the past couple of decades has been pretty amazing and has done a lot to improve the overall quality of the artwork in the comic industry. In some cases, the colouring has become the dominant “look” on a book – to the point where it’s more important than the penciller. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a massive shift that the industry hasn’t caught up to (I mean, how many times does a colourist actually get any kind of billing on a cover?). But again, from my own perspective, I often find myself wishing that I could see more of an artist’s work instead of such bold, highly rendered colours. If we take Jim Lee again, his work is so good, that it’s a shame to lose the details that he fills his work with.

I’m not saying that the colouring is bad! In most cases the colouring is awesome abut it dominates the artwork. Take a look at the two images below which are pages from Batman #29. FCO (the colourist on the book) is absolutely killing it with his colours and this may be the best looking monthly comic I’ve seen. But, take a look at the inked page by Greg Capullo (pencils) and Danny Miki (inks). The page is stunning in its own right. The thing is, a whole ton of that detail is getting overpowered by the colouring in the final coloured page…Colouring-Batman(I realized that some of the detail in the inked piece has been turned to colour using colourholds in the final art – specifically all the rain and rain drops. I picked this page because it was a good example of the detail really changing dramatically between the inks and colours. You could choose almost any page and my point would apply.)

Now there is a trend away from the highly rendered look but it’s probably not as prevalent in most mainstream comics. Colourists like Jordie Bellaire or Dave Stewart (two examples among many!) tend to bring more atmosphere and “feel” to their work than some other colourists. But this “style” is definitely in the minority still.

But like everything, the pendulum swings from from one extreme to another. So while “mainstream” comics tend to currently favour highly rendered colouring, I’m sure that will change over time.

Personally, I guess I’m more in favour of art that has emotion and atmosphere instead of striving to look “real” all the time. I kind of feel that way about most art and illustration. Don’t get me wrong, I can totally appreciate the skill it takes creating realistic looking imagery, I just don’t find it necessary for effectively telling a story in comics.

For one final thought, I want leave you with a thought from Dave McKean about the comics artwork and his artwork on CAGES:

“I’d really begun to think that this whole thing about four-color comics with very, very overpainted, lavish illustrations in every panel just didn’t work. It hampers the storytelling. It does everything wrong…With CAGES, I really wanted to do something that was all drawing and as little flash as possible, so it’s all pared down to the absolute essential skeleton of the drawing.”

Ok, he was referring to his own work and the full illustration style he was using at the time, but it definitely applies to this topic of comics and colouring. I love the idea though: what exactly do you need to render in order to tell the story?

*And to be fair, I’m using Jim Lee as an example because practically everyone has seen his art over the years so it’s an easy comparison. I could have used a lot of different artists because it’s not something just limited to one or two.


One other thing to add to this discussion that’s come up since this was originally posted at my On the Verge site. Here’s an interesting Tumblr post about Frank Miller’s recent work and how it has been handled when it comes to the colouring. It’s an interesting read and definitely relates to what I’m saying above.

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