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?
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.