guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Particular Panels

[In this new feature, guttergeeks will take on making sweeping generalizations about the form, its history and its future, based on close attention to a single panel]

Massimo Mattioli, Superwest

By Ryan Tokola

Pop quiz: name your five favorite writers in comics…Okay, good job. Now your favorite pencilers. No problem, right? How about inkers? A little harder, I think, but go ahead, I’ll wait…I knew you could do it. Now name your top five favorite colorists.

Done yet? No? I don’t blame you. It’s not an easy question. Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against colorists themselves. For the most part they do a pretty good job. I just can’t tell the difference between one colorist and another. So where’s the problem? Why is color in comics so unremarkable? I seriously doubt that colorists as a group are either incompetent or lazy. I don’t believe they’re all aiming for homogeneity. There must be something fundamental to the way we approach comics that prevents color from attaining the visibility of plot, script, or line.

Again, where’s the problem? First of all, it seems to me that people just don’t pay much attention to color. In fact, it’s most conspicuous in absence. For many, a black and white comic screams “I have no color!” but a color comic is just a comic. Color is the absence of a vacuum between black lines. Color exists to allow a comic not to be without color. Or, for some, it is reassurance that the comic is not a pretentious, meandering piece of snobbery. A color comic is a normal comic for normal people.

What else does color do? It enhances things, making them easier to see. It doesn’t do much by itself. Color is MSG. It’s good at reinforcing mood. Blistering reds, tranquil blues, and icky fluorescent yellow-greens all remind you how you’re supposed to feel, not unlike Hollywood’s manipula..., er,
emotional scores. It also helps distinguish things. Giving distinct color pallets to locations and characters makes it possible to discern who is where with a glance. Color emphasizes form, too. Those artsy black and white comics can get confusing with nothing but a bunch of lines all over the place. It’s a lot easier to see the shape of Superdude’s cape when it’s brightly colored. Finally, color makes comics a little more exciting. There is an undeniable physical power that comes with well-used complimentary colors.

Since color doesn’t seem to do much, nobody gets very attached to it. In fact, modifying the color of a previously well-known comic isn’t usually seen as substantially altering its content. The
Essential series of reprints by Marvel reproduces only the line art of classic superhero comics—the color is completely removed. Scholastic isn’t having trouble selling their colorized version of Jeff Smith’s Bone. Many of Carl Bark’s stories are being reprinted with the color completely redone (not digitally remastered like an old film, but really redone, with computer-generated gradients and everything). These are all fundamental changes and there hasn’t exactly been rioting in the streets. Just imagine if Norton had somebody re-ink A Contract With God.

At the same time as it has received little to no respect, color has also been significantly overused. Color is often the overworked, malnourished, emotionally abused stepchild in the Elements of Comics family tree. To be honest, I’ve always kind of disliked color. I blame the people who think that “It’s so colorful!” is high praise. After years of shielding my eyes from garish abuses, I have concluded that, like driving an automobile, the use of color is a privilege, not a right. It’s way too easy to sling color around without any real thought. It is generally accepted that if color
can be used, it should be used.

Okay. If color’s so unimportant, why am I wasting all this time talking about it? I am here, friends, to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. There is hope for color. Not too long ago I was reading
Superwest, a comic by Massimo Mattioli, when I came across this panel, which just about made my head explode:

I mean, holy crap, right?

Before I get into too much detail, it’s important to know that the coloring here isn’t completely different from the rest of the book. The colors everywhere are very arbitrary. Both what gets colored and what color it gets are without obvious logic, like a drunken paint-bucket spree in Photoshop. Things also don’t stay the same color from panel to panel. Although these things are very important, we’re not going to focus on them. There’s something much larger at stake. Until this particular panel, the colors in
Superwest followed the great unwritten and unquestioned rule of coloring: stay within the lines. Every panel of every comic I have every read until now has obeyed the spirit, if not the letter of this law. Yes, some people get all ‘artistic’ by coloring with big sloppy brushstrokes and whatnot, but colors have always served the image as it is drawn, and no more. When the view of something is obstructed, the colorist is only supposed to color the parts that are visible. Lines are placed with great thought and care, and color is used to fill in the empty space. Line is the great imperial power of comics. It marches right into a page, surveys the land and then: “Hey color! We’ve decided that it is our manifest destiny to control these lands. Why don’t you be a dear and set up shop in this little place we’ve reserved for you. Here, take some blankets and something to drink.”

Friends, Mr. Mattioli has had a vision. He has seen a greater future for color. He has seen freedom! Color need not be crammed into the spaces deemed appropriate by the lines. Just look at the panel above. We all know what happened here:

Once upon a time there was a blank panel in a comic book. It was generally known that the scene was supposed to show a diner with a duck on a stool and a mouse in a chef’s hat and a table with a bunch of stuff on it. Some lines put together a committee and figured out where they should go in order to illustrate the scene with proper perspective and so forth. Then the proud, noble color blue came sauntering up. It wanted to be a table top, but saw that there was a bunch of stuff on it. Humble, subservient colors in the past would have sucked in their gut and squeezed around the radio, the salt shaker, the napkin dispenser, the glass, the lamp, and the duck. Says our hero, the revolutionary Blue: “Screw that. I’ve decided to be the table top, and that’s exactly what I’m going to be—no less.”

The salt shaker’s still there. The blue isn’t taking away information. It’s not hurting anybody. It’s just doing what it damn well wants to do, and making things more interesting for everybody in the meantime. Mattioli is doing something very, very cool. In this panel, color is line’s equal.

Here I am, weepy with joy, and then I realize this is just the beginning. Color can go further. Mattioli’s panel is just the Fort Sumter of comics. Color’s destiny is total liberation. Imagine a comic where the color had a narrative that was completely separate from the story the lines were telling. It would probably be confusing, but so are all new modes of storytelling. That color would actually be accomplishing something. That color would have earned its keep and then some. And even if that comic of the future sucked, I can tell you one thing for sure: I’d remember the name of the colorist that made it.