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Archive for September, 2010
Color in comic books had a specific look for fifty years prior to the 1980’s. Flat color was the norm and part of the charm of the comic books that I grew up reading. There was just something about that limited palette and those pronounced dots that seemed to define the medium as much as the words and pictures that they illuminated. Others agreed and focused on this idiom when referencing comic art in pop culture.
The production process that produced the color in comics was intended to print color on highly absorbent newsprint with rubber plates on web offset presses at the World Color Press plant in Sparta, IL. Color separations were done by Chemical Color Plate in Bridgeport, CT. The colors were made by combinations of three percentages, 25%, 50% and 100% of each of the primary colors; blue (cyan), red (magenta) and yellow to be printed with the black line art. CMYK refers to these four colors used in printing.
A layer would be produced for each percentage of each color making nine layers of film that would be compressed to form three negatives, each containing the three percentages for its corresponding color. There was one more film for the black plate which would print the line art. The printing plates would be burned from these final four films.
Colorists used a guide provided by Chemical Color Plate to assist them in making their own color guides for each page that the separators would interpret into films.
By the 1980’s the alternative independent publishers that began peppering the comic market were using better, whiter paper and were able to produce better color. Many comics were printing with processed or full-color using the coloring techniques that I’ve described in my earlier blogs on this subject. Some publishers were still attracted to the notion of flat color but realized that they were being limited by the old color guide.
The 64 colors with the course dot grid intended for newsprint produced harsh, garish colors on the brighter paper stock. A new color percentage of 70% was added for each color producing 124 different colors as shown by this color guide produced by Eclipse Comics in 1983 and again engraved by Chemical Color Plate. The line screen also changed from 60 to 120 lines per inch making the dots less noticeable on the printed page.
By the time Comico was ready to make our transition to color there was a new color separator in town. Renowned comic illustrator Murphy Anderson had entered the field with his own company, Murphy Anderson Visual Concepts Inc. that he operated with his son, Murphy Jr.
Murphy had a different scheme for producing colors. By making a minor shift in the color percentages and adding two shades of black Murphy could stretch the color palette to 372 colors! The new formula was 20%, 50%, 70% and 100% of each of the primary colors plus an addition of 10% and 20% of black to every color on the palette.
Our first color books had been produced using processed color techniques and we were very happy with the results but our next project, Bill Willingham’s Elementals was a clear superhero comic and we wanted it to look like one. We all felt flat color was the way to go and we only had one choice when it came to choosing a separator. Murphy Anderson’s company was already doing most of DC’s prestige work and had proven his incredible quality. Murphy is also one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and proved it with his patience bringing us up to speed on his technique.
In 1987 I designed a color chart that had long been missing from the process. It soon became a staple in every production department in the industry. I would imagine that it would have been the last of the color charts for comics since not long after the computer took over most of the color chores as we know them today.
I might like to mention that this complex looking piece was not done on a computer. It was done the old fashion way by creating a mechanical with typesetting, tech pens, x-acto knives, photostats and a good old waxer. Of course the color separations were done by hand as well.
To be continued…
Making comics because I want to!
The Gray-Line System that I described in last week’s blog helped us to achieve a look that we had always hoped for our comics when we first considered evolving to color.
The fact that most of the alternative independent publishers were taking advantage of the ability to print processed full-color images on the better, whiter paper was not our inspiration or motivation at Comico.
Long before we had even printed our first book we had already fallen in love with how the color appeared in Captain Canuck comics published by Comely Comix and illustrated by George Freeman. The soft processed color printed on newsprint had a quality that was unique compared to the limited 65-color palette of traditional flat-color comic books.
We were not interested in the slick color of the glossy new comics and we definitely did not care for the glare that shown off the pages of the glossy paper stock.
Our preference for the more muted color production was evidenced in the fist two issues of Matt Wagner’s Mage.
Matt, who had attended college with Bill and me at the Philadelphia College of Art, had been involved in many discussions concerning how we all thought color in comics should look. We were all on the same page when we made the decision to print Mage on a high-grade newsprint. Mage was a more urban setting and was supported by the grittier look of the newsprint. Besides, we wanted it to look like Captain Canuck.
Chuck Dixon and Judith Hunt’s Evangeline was a different story. We could see how the finer line quality and more delicate colors would be better served on a whiter stock and though we were reluctant to go to a fully bleached stock we upgraded to a Mando stock which had a creamy quality to it and did not suffer from the glare issue that the more machined paper stocks offered.
Our early color books were printed in Florida at the same press that was printing Bill Black’s Americomics line but we quickly switched over to Sleepeck in Dixon, IL so that we would have more centralized shipping and warehousing of our runs. Once at Sleepeck we decided that our standard comic line, including Mage, would all be printed on the Mando stock.
Around this time we were also introduced to a new coloring system. Mark Wheatly from Insight Studios was producing Mars with Marc Hemple for First Comics. He had told me about a guideline system he was using that employed the use of chemicals from a Fluorographics Services kit. A brief description of how the system works can be seen here.
This system was very similar to the gray-line system in that you had to produce a positive transparency of the line art. The grey line required a negative to produce the grey guide-line on the layer to be painted. The Fluorographics system let you use the film positive to create the non-repo blue guide which eliminated an extra step and expense. You could coat any paper stock you wanted with the chemicals allowing you to paint much more naturally than on the polymer based photo paper of the gray-line.
Note that though the color was considered non-repo blue this was only effective when shooting in black-and-white. The blue line did appear in the color separations for full-color.
Initially we would coat a paper stock with the sensitizer, place the film positive on top then cover it with a plate of glass to keep it flat then take it outside to expose it to the sun then run in and develop the image. It didn’t take too many rainy days to convince us to purchase a UV sun lamp so that we could do all of this inside and avoid blowing deadlines.
The only problem with this system was that the paper stock was less stable than the photo paper and would shrink when the paint dried, often distorting the registration.
Matt solved the problem by using pre-stretched watercolor blocks of paper that were sealed on all four sides keeping the top layer “stretched” until it was dried and removed. Matt would buy large enough paper so that four pages could be exposed at once. He usually had two blocks set up so that while one block dried, he could be working on the other.
This new blue-line system was a home run but it was not going to help us with our next two projects.
We knew that when we signed on to publish Bill Willingham’s Elementals that we were going to want it to be more like traditional flat-color superhero comics. Down the line would also be a little project called Macross that would press all of our expectations for color in comics. We still had a lot to learn.
To be continued…
Making comics because I want to!