This is one of those “the killer is calling from inside the house!” posts. As the digital tide slowly eats away at the limestone foundations of print, sometimes it’s the hidden damage that is most destructive. In this case, artist Jim Rugg points out something that isn’t discussed nearly enough: how coloring comics on computer monitors is not really an adequate preparation for the print versions. In this case, he notes that the print version of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy in Hell just doesn’t look as good as the digital version:

We decided to compare his digital copy and my print copy page by page, panel by panel.

I found the digital copy stunning in comparison. The subtle palette’s warm and cool colors complimented Mignola’s immaculate compositions and storytelling in ways I had missed on my readings of the print edition. *(It should be noted that the digital copy also lends itself to zooming in and out of the artwork and focusing on individual panels, as a fan of Mignola’s compositional choices and drawing, this definitely adds to my enjoyment.)

Rugg doesn’t fault award-winning colorist Dave Stewart, and neither do I, but the truth is, digitally prepped comics look great on monitors and tablets…and routinely not as good on paper. Ever since I had my first experience with a backlit display and saw how vibrant and immediate comics art appeared on them, I knew that tablets were going to become the more attractive and impressive version. Rugg analyses many aspects of this process:

Compared to print, today’s digital displays are extremely subtle, capable of displaying millions of colors. I assume Dave Stewart colored Hellboy in Hell #1 digitally. Then digital proofs were shared with and ultimately approved by Scott Allie and Mike Mignola. These are probably the versions we see in the digital copies of Hellboy in Hell #1, and they are striking.

I think this might be where one problem occurs. It’s like riding a bike. When you learn to ride a bike, it is almost impossible to unlearn it. And after you’ve spent hours staring at an image (on screen, paper, or canvas – it doesn’t matter), like the cartoonist, colorist, and editor presumably have, it’s hard to approach it with fresh eyes. Heck, after I looked at the digital edition of Hellboy in Hell #1, I was able to appreciate some of the details I had missed in the print edition because I knew where to find them.

While the very talented colorists working in comics all have their tricks for adjusting for the printing process, the production time for modern commercial comics is always short, colorists are the last person on the chain and usually ad hoc prepress production managers themselves. And taking the time to tinker for the physical object is probably something that’s become more a vague stab than an exacting process.

In my own comics-making time I quickly learned that supervising color was not something I was equipped to do on a higher level, so I just settled for making sure things were colored consistently and clearly. Still, when I open up most mainstream comics, the first thing I notice is how awful the color is and how it flattens out the artwork, and drains excitement from the black and white images. (There are some exceptions.) When I look at the same books on a computer or gadget, they invariably look better, more native.

This may be why I, personally, find black and white or duotone comics much more esthetically pleasing and readable. Limited palette or “European style” comics with a color style more watercolor-based style also seem to work. That’s more the style Stewart uses on Hellboy, though, so even that has limitations. Notably, small presses and indie publishers are still much more enamored of comics as physical objects and take the time to figure out how they are going to look in print…and it shows. Spend some time ooing and aahing over the Nobrow table at a show and you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve touched on this a few times here and there on this blog—I enjoyed former Marvel Talent Coordinator Bon Alimagno’s comments on the process here for instance—but don’t have the art directing chops to give this topic the discussion it needs. But simply put, digital files are the “original art” of mainstream comics these days, and a lot of times, print just isn’t up to reflecting that process.

But that’s my take. Colorists, comcis makers and readers — what say you?


  1. A colourist who is preparing material for print should be working with the printer to maximize the results. I understand that time is short, and maybe the printer is in a foreign country(?). But what is the best practise for seeing your work reproduce well? You need to at least review a printed copy of your work to see what works and what doesn’t.
    There should be different output profiles, where the print version (CMYK) file is prepared differently than the RGB version, and software can compensate for the value and saturation limitations of ink on paper.

  2. I always color in CMYK, even if the final product is digital.

    I’ve heard that some digital colorists color in RGB, then convert to CMYK later. That could be part of the problem, but I can’t really comment on that because I’ve never colored that way.

    When I worked on the Gemstone Disney books, we had a Photoshop color profile from the printer, colored in CMYK and kept blacks out of the color palette — the K channel was for line art only. (For example, Mickey’s pants were 100% Yellow and 100% Magenta with 0% Black as it would muddy the brightness of the color)

    At the end of the day, printed paper can’t replicate a crisp backlit LCD/LED display. It’s just limitation of the medium. Most lay people won’t notice or care, but it is what it is.

  3. Better prepress techniques won’t save print comics.

    I say this as someone who just turned a 100 page coloring job into a publisher to be printed, and who spent the weekend figuring out how to tetris 17 long boxes into a closet to free up living space for his family.

    Most comics look better on a screen. Even a crappy screen. Most kids read comics on cheapo walmart laptops.

    “The killer is calling from inside the house!” is the perfect way to put it.

  4. When I worked in a catalog department, we spent 3 months on each catalog, making sure the colors printed in the best possible way, and still never got exactly what we wanted. On the website, the colors were perfect, same day. Try and catch the wind or fly your kites. Print is still pretty awesome, these days, compared to how it was, even in the early 90’s.

  5. Good rule of thumb: printing will desaturate coloring by roughly 10%. Always assume your files will print darker.

    Marvel sends out a packet so colorists can calibrate their monitors with the output of the printer. The packet consisted of printed samples and directions to find the digital versions on Marvel servers. The colorist would then compare the printed sample and the digital sample and calibrate their monitors accordingly by eye. It’s not perfect or precise method but better nails the saturation match so the darkening is compensated for.

    Any Marvel colorist who doesn’t have this packet should ping their editors to see if they can still get one.

  6. I’m thrilled to see colorists/digital painters getting some love today. Thank you for that.

    There is so much more to getting good color on the page than choosing the best color mix, lighting and mood. We have to collaborate with the artist, writer and editor(s) to try to bring their vision as well as our own to the project. It takes a small army usually with time limitations. It is truly a labor of love.

    Correct monitor calibration, printing profiles and hard work can so easily go out the window if just one plate is off at the printer handling the job. No matter what a colorist/digital painter does, at the end of the day there is still someone putting actual ink to paper.

    That said, a good print run is always a joy.

  7. Since colourists are posting, may I ask: since they run on different stock, do you prepare your files differently for cover art than for interior pages? Are you ever asked to do press proofs, or have you had a chance to visit the site where your work is being printed? Wondering how much input and observation you are permitted.

  8. I think this is only recently becoming true — I was really disappointed with the look of digital comics until the iPad retina display came along. Now I definitely prefer digital. The pages really are beautiful. But there is one limitation, and that’s each end-user’s screen brightness. I’ve sometimes gotten lost trying to make out a detail in a comics panel, and then realized I accidentally had my screen brightness set to auto-dim. You really have to have it at 100% to get the full effect, and it’s super easy to forget that you have it set at, say, 85%.

    A well-produced file from an expert production person reproduced by a professional printer on bright white paper will always look better to me!

  9. It should be pointed out that Jim is using a cheap monthly floppy as his example for print standards. Floppy comics have been printed on cheaper paper stock with cheaper inks in order to keep the price down for a long time, and while I personally thing Dark Horse uses better printing methods on their floppies than most, they don’t hold a candle to their library editions. I have the Hellboy collected hardcover editions and the color and print quality in them are absolutely stunning in comparison to the floppies. Better paper, better inks, higher quality control. Though the lpi could be higher … gets a little halftoney in the pale green-blues. On the other hand it keeps the colors light and clear and gets rid of some of the muddiness to which the floppies are prone.

    Print is … complicated. To say the least. Tightly controlled and knowledgeable printing techniques can make what’s on your monitor look like it was painted directly on the paper by a master. Poor or unknowledgeable printing techniques can turn it to mud. I’ve worked in print for thirteen years (preparation as well as production end), and there are things print can still do that monitors cannot: higher resolution (monitors are currently still measured at pixels per inch, print at LINES per inch, meaning a 150 ppi display has 150 times less resolution than a 150 lpi printed page (to put it very very basically)), a broader spectrum of colors if you aren’t working with just CMYK (pantone colors anybody? neon inks (reflects more light back at the eye), beautiful advancements in digital printing inks … honestly, limiting yourself to CMYK just SUCKS. MANY printers work in RGB now because of the extra colors they can offer), and papers that reflect light back in ways that bring out subtle hues that even a screen cannot. Also, given the changeover (or addition) with so many printers from offset lithography to digital printing, there’s been some real shakeups and technological advances that even keep the people who are lifers in the industry gasping to keep up.

    If you know what you’re doing, print can be BETTER than the screen because you have more control over what the reader sees whereas you don’t know on what kind of monitor your viewer will be reading a digital print. And most monitors have a very limited gamut. Yes, even Apple monitors (though even those fall short of the billions an Eizo gets, but most people can’t shell out that kind of cash or carry it around in their pocket either).

    My own piece of advice for people printing comics? Find a printer BEFORE you start coloring. Request samples and then sit down and talk to the printer directly. Most of them are incredibly helpful, and it’s even better if you can find somebody local you can visit on-site … or who at least speaks your language fluently so you can easily communicate your needs. Find books you think were printed beautifully and send them in as a sample, asking if they can be matched. Ask for paper samples. Heck, order a short print run from them first, if they’re capable, printing flyers or posters on the paper you intend to print on so you can see EXACTLY how the digital compares to the print. Then adjust from there. The first print run is always the toughest, so get it out of the way on something you can afford to botch first.

    It takes years to understand print, and the technology is always changing, especially now, at an incredible rate. Printing color is NOT intuitive. It takes high technical knowledge and understanding of the physical methods as well as the digital to truly master. And even then, you’re sometimes not exactly sure what you’re going to get. But if you have a great printer (and it takes years to find one of those too!), the surprise will always be happier than the surprise on the screen. :)

  10. IMHO, most colorists in comics color far too dark, forgetting about the dot gain that ends up muddying their pages. Anticipate, like mentioned above, that your colors will darken by about 10%. Some printers often adjust for this without asking. A good printer, however, usually will not (again, why it’s good to talk to your printer). If you stay away from colors darker than 75% or lighter than 15%, you’ll usually fare pretty well (have used the same in application of b/w halftones, btw). Also, lighter colors just add nicer contrast for all the heavy black inks often used on comics pages. Were those blacks not there, a darker palette would be preferred, but blacks have a tendency to darken and desaturate the colors around them (nice little optical illusion) so plan accordingly!

    Another piece of advice to see what prints are capable of: if you’re in NYC, stop by the Peter Lik gallery sometime (it’s over on West Broadway. The subject matter is pastoral, but the colors are out of this world, and THAT is because of his printing methods. Then go home and look at one of his pictures on your pretty ipad screen w/ retina display. It does not even begin to compare. There are things we can do with metals and pigments and inks and dyes on paper that the pure light of a monitor possibly never will. Your monitor is just red and green and blue dots of light anyway and there are FAR more colors outside of that spectrum of light that are eyes are capable of discerning anyway.

  11. Having gone to press for many many projects going back to the chromalin reference days, I can say without hesitation that no matter what you do with print, it will not be as crisp and uniformly precise to the original files, no matter what. Most comics are gang printed, which means the printer has to adjust the flow & mix of inks to get the best overall result for everything printed on that pre-cut sheet. What you take away from one page on the sheet most likely will add to another and vice versa. You can’t expect your final result to be anywhere near as pure as digital.

  12. The RGB color gamut is simply wider than CMYK, and there are colors you can create on the screen you simply can’t reproduce on the page. No way to avoid it. See: additive vs. subtractive color.

  13. Working in RGB is actually better than working in CMYK because there are effects and filters you can do in RGB that can’t be replicated in CMYK. I agree with Jroug, you’re just not going to get the same crispness of color on paper, no matter what you do.

  14. Glenn, it’s not as simple as additive vs. subtractive. There’s also the fact that like flourescent lights, the temperature range of monitors is limited by its output. In print, certain types of inks (like the flourescents used in pantone’s ol’ hexachrome printing) actually return specific colors back brighter to the eye than the temperature of the light supplied in the room, which even though the colors are still technically less bright than you would get from a monitor, in contrast to the light in the room and what’s surrounding it, they appear brighter. There are a lot of neat little optical illusions that go on in print that cannot be replicated on a monitor! Muddy, ugly printing is due largely to the error of not understanding the technology and less to do with the limits of print.

    People’s minds have been narrowed by thinking there is only CMYK printing for color out there. There are hundreds of different options. Add a spot color to the CMYK, use flourescents, giclee/iris printing, dyesublimation, specifying the types of inks used, HP 12-color digital printing. The list goes on and every printer has its specialty. And oddly, costs don’t necessarily always go up that much with more colors. It’s the same amount of inks. What’s expensive are the plates, but if it’s digital printing (costs of which are going down drastically every day!) it’s still the same amount of ink being used and no plates: just less of each color but the same overall. And then there’s the advancement in color laser printing and the colors made for it are getting brighter and prettier: print has been advancing step-in-step with digital, and it’ll just keep getting better.

    If anybody is really curious about the technical side of printing and the printint industry in general, North American Publishing Company really has some great free online publications: – And no, I don’t work there. :P

  15. For Rebecca, the colorist does not usually have access to the printer being used for a given print run. Comics are generally run between higher paying magazines etc. I am sure you have heard of (pleasing color) that is what we get as opposed to tightly controlled print runs with multiple proofing. In short they eyeball it and we artists hope the person running the press that day has a good sense of color and our intention.

    There just isn’t the money in this struggling industry to send people to watch the printers and still get books to the distributors on time.

    A little background on us my husband and I have each been professionals in the comics industry for 20+ years and dealt with all sorts of printer issues. I personally was one of probably under 20 people who started coloring comics digitally in the early 90’s. Photoshop was not capable of handling color like it can today but was more affordable than the Codd Barrett software that ran in the thousands at the time. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve been able to go oversee a print run of our work on one hand and those times were all during the comics boom in the 90’s.

    To answer your statement about many comics being too dark, we don’t disagree. It’s a style trend and this will eventually pass when the next popular “style” takes hold.

    We do use profiles, we do calibrate and then it’s out of our control.

    I don’t mean for this to sound angry but comics are pop art and on very tight deadlines.

    Rant over.

  16. its rare we talk about how the paper stock used in floppy comics effects its final quality. Comics use some of the cheapest, lowest grade stock available in commercial printing and we see those results in the final product. Its often that your junk mail from your local cable tv or department store is the same paper used for your comics. Its meant to be cheap, fast and disposable, not fine archival printing. What we get out of our print comics is pretty exceptional considering the materials and process, but its not fine printing.

    Like cooking, when you use cheap ingredients and quick cooking methods, you don’t get the best results. A brisket is never going to become a fillet no matter how much work and care you put into preparing it.

  17. I don’t think you sound angry, Tanya. :) Our difference is that I think of the comics I read as art I would be happy to put on my walls, not pop art to be disposed after use. I don’t read a lot of floppies exactly because of that; because the GNs (generally) tend to have higher production quality and I can’t imagine reading something where the artist’s vision isn’t coming through perfectly on the page.

    But that is entirely a personal preference. Merely trying to get people to think about print in a different light. A lot of publishers have been using the same printers for decades without asking about modernizing their process and reject out of hand newer techniques that could bring down costs as well as optimize the quality of the work simply because it’s different and new.

  18. Also, it’s up to the art and production department of any publisher to be able to inform artists of the ideal specs for printing. Every art department should be intimately familiar with their printer since, as was pointed out, the artist cannot.

    On one trip to certain large comics publisher here in the US, I remember being absolutely appalled at how little the art department (or the editors for that matter) knew about black and white printing as they were getting ready to print several b/w books. 300 dpi files for b/w printing was the standard! Crazy. And grayscaled lineart at that! Crazier. But it was, to me, a prime example of how undertrained a lot of art departments are when it comes to print.

  19. Also, it’s up to the art and production department of any publisher to be able to inform artists of the ideal specs for printing. Every art department should be intimately familiar with their printer since, as was pointed out, the artist cannot.

    On one trip to certain large comics publisher here in the US, I remember being absolutely appalled at how little the art department (or the editors for that matter) knew about black and white printing as they were getting ready to print several b/w books. 300 dpi files for b/w printing was the standard! Crazy. And grayscaled lineart at that! Crazier. But it was, to me, a prime example of how undertrained a lot of art departments are when it comes to print.

    Thank goodness most artists know more about print than their publishers sometimes!

  20. I work in print, digital print more specifically , and I’m a cartoonist. Being on the inside and knowing how variable these machines are in terms of color has made me appreciate black and white work that much more. It’s made me strive to be better with brush and ink, but it’s also helped me understand that the world of color print is ever changing and there needs to be a level of acceptance when you start splashing it around that it, especially in digital print, will not look exactly the same in the final reproduction off the machine.

    That said, I would reccomend to small press publishers and the indie crowd/ those just starting out like myself, keep it simple! It will save you time, money and a lot of frustration come printing time!

    Oh, and for the record…watercolor and digital print often do not mix. Both digital OR copying from original art. It’s just too subtle for even a brand new Xerox 700i to reproduce 100% accurately! :)

  21. Back in the days of Eastern Color Printing and Chemical Color Plate, color palettes were extremely limited (as the color-specific artwork was generated by women cutting out shapes of color). Colors could be 25%, 50%, or 100%, with black. 64 colors! Also, World Color Press in Sparta, Illinois, handled almost all comics printing in the U.S., and production was standardized. Companies knew what type of paper was being used, what the presses were capable of, and how limited the number of colors were.

    It wasn’t until the Direct Market matured that things became more complicated. With white paper, a 70% color was added. Lines doubled from 60 to 120 per inch.

    And then that rabble-rouser, Murphy Anderson, created Murphy Anderson Visual Concepts Inc. , changing the percentages and offering 372 colors!

    And most Marvel Zombies remember flexographic printing… plastic plates dropping lines, overly bright colors on the page, characters suffering from some strange dermatological disease…

    And then the computer arrived…

    I’m just a process junkie. I’ve sewn my own bindings, set movable type by hand. But I would suggest that someone create a digital file of a color chart, calibrated to both CMYK and RGB, and have every printer and paper supplier offer printed samples of that chart on various papers.

    The paper companies could actually use this as an advertisement, printing a small poster on the actual paper sample, so that potential clients can see how well the paper produces a variety of colors.

    Spot colors (including varnishes) muddy the waters, so to speak, and that requires more money, and more time spent with your printer.

  22. Hey Tanya

    There were more than 20 of us using Codd-Barrett in 1990. I started in Dec. of 90, began moving to photoshop sometime in 1993, left wildstorm and the comic industry in 1997 (more money in advertising).

    Remember Photoshop didn’t even do CMYK color until v2.0 around mid to late 1991, and Macs were too slow to work on until later even if you colored at 150 DPI, ressed up to 300, and replaced the lineart. PC’s with Codd Barrett were much cheaper than a loaded Mac until about 1994. Oliff was the CB master.

    You are correct that printers were never consistent, not even day to day, and I never saw a press until after I left comics. We use to quiz each other on CMYK values of real life objects. Spot colors were never an option in books, we did use different foil effects on cards.

    Rebecca, any true pro knows that a lot of the RGB color gamut cannot be reproduced in CMYK, and linescreen vs PPI is getting irrelevant as PPI for the newest tablets are 300+ PPI and growing. You might want to research what the human eye can see, the 42″ 1080p HDTVs made me laugh because people don’t know the physical limits of the human eye.

    I was a colorist and did photo editing for print (top fashion pubs and advertising agencies) for almost 15 years, the RGB color spectrum is superior.

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