At C2E2 ’19, we had the absolute pleasure to sit and talk with colourist extraordinaire Matt Wilson, who has done work on Thor, The Wicked and the Divine, Paper Girls and more. Matt delves into his process, his collaboration with Russell Dauterman, and his independent and Marvel work.
Hussein Wasiti: How did you decide to get into colouring, and why colouring specifically?
Matt Wilson: I grew up drawing and painting and sculpting and just about anything creative you can think of. I went to art school after high school and the school I went to had a comics department where you could get a degree in it to learn how to make comics, and one of the classes was colouring for comics. I did pretty well and enjoyed it but I didn’t necessarily want to be a colourist.
When I graduated college, the only place local to me that I wanted to work at was where a local professional comic book colourist had a colouring studio, Lee Loughridge. They did all kinds of stuff; he coloured a billion Vertigo books. His studio would recolour old archive work that they couldn’t reproduce the colours for anymore since the original colour gels had long since been lost. They would go through production, strip out the colour from the old pages and then mess with them in Photoshop, sending us black and whites if they couldn’t rescan the original work. Then they would have us recolour it so it could be reproduced with modern printing. I did a bunch of random Scooby-Doo covers and for Lee and I started to look for other work. I just happened to start getting my own colouring gigs for small Image books and for guys trying to break in.
This wasn’t an Image book but one of my earliest works was for this little writer named Rick Remender who would go on to become some super famous comics superstar. I did a couple of creator-owned books for him, through a mutual friend I met Jamie McKelvie and coloured a book he wrote which led me to colour Phonogram, which led me to colour their Marvel work which culminated with us working on Young Avengers. Then we all did The Wicked and the Divine. It all snowballed where I was taking these little gigs on the side, doing work in the studio during the day and then colouring these side gigs at night. And then I didn’t need to be working at the studio anymore and I was getting plenty of gigs out on my own. I didn’t set out to become a colourist, it just kind of happened.
Wasiti: So it was an accident, right? A lot of people’s stories are like that.
Wilson: At the time — this was in the early 2000s — there were certainly a lot of good colourists working then with some interesting colouring being done. Vertigo had some interesting stuff but even then some of the superhero stuff was starting to push outside of what you would consider to be mainstream superhero comic colouring at the time. The New Frontier was Darwyn Cooke’s big epic at DC and Dave Stewart coloured that. That was gorgeous and not necessarily what you would think as a mainstream superhero look. That’s the stuff that appealed to me as a personal taste. I enjoyed a lot of different kinds of colouring but if I had to pick what I was most drawn to it would be more of that kind of style. By starting to see it in more superhero books I saw there was room for something other than that shiny, highly-rendered stuff, which I like and kind of enjoyed trying to do sometimes, though I wasn’t as good as it.
I started getting these gigs and Marvel and DC to some extent were more open to different kinds of colouring around that time, different kinds of line artists that worked better with these different kinds of colouring. And here I am colouring the next Marvel event book. If you asked me in 2005 about this, I would say that I wasn’t cut out to colour a superhero book. I remember going into Laura Martin’s studio — she lives in Atlanta where I live as well — and I would visit her studio sometimes just to chat and hang out. This was around when she was colouring Olivier Coipel on Thor, and I thought that was such amazing work. I didn’t think I could ever do anything like that or ever work on Thor, but I spent the last three years working on him. So you never quite know where you’re heading.
Wasiti: How would you compare your approach to an indie book with your approach to a Marvel one?
Wilson: I don’t really approach books differently because one’s for Marvel and the other a creator-owned book. Usually, the tone is mostly dictated by the story. I’ve done some oddball, dark stories for Marvel that I would have approached the same way as an oddball, dark story for a creator-owned book. There are some things that depend on the art style. If it’s a mainstream superhero, it may just lend itself naturally to certain colouring techniques, that I would of course do because I’m trying to complement the art. I’m not trying to work against it.
There are times when doing a brightly-coloured, highly-saturated, punchy superhero look is what I’m going to pick, but it’s not because Marvel will only let me do this. It’s more that it suits the art and the tone of the story. Marvel has never pushed back on me in any way by saying that that’s not how a Marvel comic should be coloured. I think they value the creativity and the storytelling that I bring through the colours, because I’m thinking about what the tone of the story is, and the emotional impact these colours need to have. As long as we’re all working towards that same goal of producing the best storytelling possible. I’ve done some weird stuff and they’re usually pretty cool with it because I do the weird stuff when it seems appropriate.
Wasiti: Like in Black Widow, where you make very liberal use of the colour red.
Wilson: Yeah! Everyone was all-in on that. That was something lots of people had done before me. There are colourists that were inspirations to me like Matt Hollingsworth and Dave Stewart and I just really appreciated the way they would use and think about colour with a purpose.
Wasiti: There’s been a drive online to recognise artists like colourists or letterers. What do you think about that and what is it about colouring that you think people should know about?
Wilson: Most colourists are putting a lot of thought into the colours they’re picking and it’s usually based on helping to tell the story. A reader is going to turn the page and have an instant emotional reaction and usually the first reaction is going to be down to the colours. In a split second, you can’t read all the word balloons or see all the details that the line artist has put, but you can see if the palette has changed. You can see a punctuation in the action. Often it acts on a subconscious level and colourists often add a lot of layers to the storytelling in a comic, and that’s the great thing about comics. It’s so collaborative. We’re sitting there reading the script and I see the emotional impact a scene is supposed to have. The writer is telling us this in the script, to draw these characters doing something because that’s what they’re thinking. The artist takes this and distills it into, “Well, that would mean they would have this facial expression,” so that’s another layer of storytelling added on.
I take that script and those lines and go, “Alright, that’s what the writer wants the emotional impact to be; this is how the artist conveyed it with the facial expression. How can I best assist all of that with my colour choices?” It’s a crucial, crucial step in the storytelling and that’s getting more and more recognised, which is great. It used to be thought more of as a production job and we need to get this out because comics are coloured and red’s always red, blue’s always blue, who cares. It’s not that anymore; we’re very much more considered on the art side rather than the production side. We are genuinely adding a lot to the storytelling.
Wasiti: I’m curious as to how colourists get chosen for projects. Is it editorial or does a creator choose?
Wilson: It’s a mix of both. You can look at my body of work and go, “Well, he’s been working with that line artist for seven years.” A lot of my projects come about because I worked with them on the last book and they liked working with me, or we liked working together. Sometimes, like with Conan the Barbarian, where I haven’t worked with Mahmud Asrar on interiors before, we correspond and we say that we think it would be great to work together but we never had the right project and the timing was never great. In that case, I’ve been working with Jason Aaron on Mighty Thor. So Jason goes to write Conan, Mahmud and I have always wanted to work together, so they reached out to me and asked if I had any interest and I said, yeah, I have a ton of interest! I don’t know if Mahmud or Jason suggested me or if editorial suggested me to them. I have relationships with them to some extent, from saying hi at conventions or on Twitter, to colouring their own covers or working on some of their books.
All of us are paying attention to what everybody else is doing for the most part. Nobody’s reading everything. We all have our eye on stuff we like. There are always people we want to work with, so if there’s an opportunity I’ll jump on it, and I think the same thing goes the other way where editorial says to Mahmud, “Who would you like to colour you?” And Mahmud might have a list of people he likes and it becomes a matter of how much time I have and if I can fit another book in. I often recommend to artists and writers other colourists, so we network that way. We have a little Twitter group and ask if anyone is looking for work. It’s not a very big industry, so we all get to know each other pretty quickly. I’ve had people come to my table showing me colour portfolios and I’ll see them two or three years in a row at Emerald City Comic Con. I might bump into an editor and recommend that colourist who I’ve seen over the past few years and they’ve gotten really good.
Wasiti: What will you miss most about working on Thor?
Wilson: We finished Thor and turned around to do War of the Realms, so we just kept doing it. It didn’t feel like we stopped because they deal with the same stuff. Now all the stuff that we’ve been doing in Thor for the last few years is breaking out into the wider Marvel Universe as a part of this event. To see all these other artists on all these other books starting to add our characters like Dark Elves or Malekith, trolls, and Roxxon and Dario Agger, all these characters we’ve been doing in Thor for the last few years branching out and showing up in these other books — it’s really cool to see.
I’ll be sad to not be colouring those characters as much anymore because we really got into a good rhythm and we figured it all out. That’s also kind of exciting, because we get to go figure something else out. I don’t know what Russell Dauterman will do next and if I’m going to be colouring it, but chances are it’ll be something completely different. We had to figure out how to do Thor’s lightning or how we liked to do some of the crazy visual stuff. Say we move onto another book, it’ll be a whole other set of challenges. I’ll enjoy that but I’ll also miss things like colouring Thor’s lightning.
Wasiti: How about any upcoming projects? Anything you can talk about?
Wilson: War of the Realms isn’t out yet but it’s still technically upcoming. I’ve been colouring a lot of it and still have some left to colour. It’s kind of insane, it’s taking me forever because there are a billion characters and it’s jumping all over the world. I’m stoked for it because a lot of events are led up to with a few months of setting the table in other books and letting you know the event’s coming, but this event springs out of what Jason’s been doing for the past seven years in his whole Thor run. I feel like that’s unique to this event. Not many events had been preceded with seven years’ worth of storytelling that’s so specific.
Conan’s out, which is one of my other Marvel books. I’m doing one of the War of the Realms tie-ins, an anthology book called War Scrolls with Andrea Sorrentino. On the creator-owned side, I’m finishing The Wicked and the Divine and Paper Girls this year. I’ve been working on those books for five years now and they’re a big chunk of my work every month. They’ll get replaced with something; I don’t know what that will be yet. I’m excited for people to see how they wrap up. We’ve had an ending ready for them from the start. I have another creator-owned thing on the backburner that will eventually see the light of day. When it comes out people will go, “Ah, that makes sense.”