Cartoonist Tom Scioli (Gødland) is obviously a devotee of classic comics styles; it should come as no surprise, then, when he wonders Whatever Happened to Barry Windsor-Smith?. Smith is credited with introducing the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite art school to comics, along with his studio mates Jeff Jones and Wm. Michael Kaluta. Swearing by William Morris may not have been the greatest thing for comics longevity, but Smith’s limpid line and intricate crosshatching on Conan took the world by storm after he grew out of his necessary blocky Kirby phase, and remains a pleasure to look at:
Sometimes the wrong stuff looks so much better than the right stuff. It’s awkwardness adds an energy to it. It was a nice style while it lasted. He’s said in interviews that it never occurred to him to draw a comic the way he normally naturally draws; his classical training. He assumed if you were going to draw a comic book, it should look comic-booky. Once he realized you can draw a comic however you want, that’s what he did.
He began drawing in an intensely detailed style that still had the awkwardness of an amateur, but issue by issue grew more assured and cohesive. By the time he drew The Song of Red Sonja, they were almost completely gone. When he returned in the ’80s there was no trace of those quirks. They’d been replaced by full on art nouveau, which had previously been confined to the edges of his work, a rug design here, a painting on a vase in the background there
Anyway, Scioli notes that Windsor-Smith has largely been absent from comics for a while and his name only gets brought up by old timers—he’s supposedly working on that Monster project that’s been hovering around for years. But what really caught our eye was Scioli’s suggestion that Windsor-Smith is disregarded today because the work of his that’s available is so badly colored. Scioli offers side-by-side comparison of the old, primitive Smith pages as they originally appeared in Marvel Comics of the 70s, and the recent recolored versions being collected by Dark Horse:
Now I hope I’m not just being an old fart yelling at kids to get off my lawn with their digital coloring, but the new style coloring is horrible. On the page above it blends into a mushy grey/brown with none of the pop of the old flat color—check out panels 8 and 9 where Conan’s skin tone helps him stand out as an element instead of blending in. The flat color in the original gave the art shape and composition…the new stuff doesn’t. It ruins it.
I’ve noted this in commenting on computer coloring many times before here, and in all honesty there is nothing that turns me off a comic faster than bad computer coloring. Doing video game level rendering takes time and that takes money, and colorists, as talented as they are, are usually the people who has to chug a whole pot of coffee to make sure the book gets to the printer, and they con’t have time for quality control. It’s why coloring mistakes made in haste are fixed in collected editions.
But more than that, I truly believe that the sloppy, arbitrary coloring in assembly line comics helps turn off civilians from getting into them. Or maybe more accurately, that the careful duotone, tri-color or simply well-done color used in a lot of mainstream and literary comics is just more welcoming to readers who aren’t trained to read the semaphoric modeled coloring demanded at many companies.
The comments of Scioli’s post breaks into a pretty lively discussion of coloring and the constraints. Without naming names, it’s pointed out that the Dark Horse reprints probably didn’t pay very much for the coloring. Colorist Nathan Fairbairn and some other colorists get involved in the discussion, and Fairbairn ties it in the recent larger dialog on discussing art in comics:
The reason the recoloring on the classics looks bad is because it was poorly done, which is all on the colorist and hardly a damning indictment of the state of color today. Marvel’s rate for the recoloring of their reissued classics is absolute rock bottom low, and you get what you pay for. The modern Conan stories do not, as you say, work because they were “drawn for this type of color” (whatever that means). They look amazing because they were colored by Dave Stewart, perhaps the greatest colorist who ever worked in the medium. When you say that Dave’s work is colored “similarly to these reprint volumes”, I can only assume you mean that a computer was used and the color goes from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. Because those are literally the only similarities I can spot. If my 8-year-old son inks a Jim Lee drawing that I printed out for him in blue line, would it be fair of me to say that he does a similar job to what Scott Williams does? I know that Andy just got a big reaction to his piece calling for comics critics to focus less on story and to talk more about the art of comics, but it would be nice if you could do so in a way that doesn’t completely dismiss the abilities and contributions of individual artists (who, again, all have names) while doing so.
Scioli lives in the same time as Frank Santoro, and I suspect that this piece may have been fueled by a few late night discussions between the two. (Come to think of it, Jim Rugg, who sparked the discussion I linked to above ALSO lives in Pitssburgh. Hm…..) At any rate, the terrible, terrible danger of horrible coloring continues to rage unchecked in comics….there’s a reason why folks like Dave Stewart and Jordie Bellaire have all the work they can handle.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.