The Comic Company:
True Colors – Part 1

Comico’s switch from black-and white to color in 1984 added heavily to the learning curve we required to make comic books. We were young guys learning by the seat of our pants, making lots of mistakes but growing with each ounce of education we received “the hard way.”

Jumping to color would be an adventure for several reasons. World Color Press who was printing most of the newsstand comics at the time had no more room in their schedule for the Indy publishers. They were the experts in printing comic books on newsprint which had been the standard since comic books were first published in America.

Indy publishers turned to other options to print color comics which included better paper stock by necessity since most printers were not set up to print what was considered low numbers on newsprint.

Bright, white, glossy stock came into vogue and presented a surface that could better handle full-color images that would not hold up well if printed on newsprint. But comics were still dependent on the traditional black line art that held the color.

Full-color separations that were made from line art that had been simply painted-in produced nasty ghosting of solid magenta, cyan and yellow when images came out of register which could easily happen when printing low runs. Several thousand prints could be made before registration could be fully adjusted forcing the opportunity for a lot of waste and driving up the unit cost of each book.

The black line art had to be held on its own plate and the colors needed to be added on another layer which would later be separated into the four print colors, CMYK. This is done easily today in Photoshop but in the early eighties there was no digital solution.

Doug Wildey

An early maverick attempt by Doug Wildey on his Rio comic, which was published by Eclipse Comics then later compiled by Comico, provided an interesting solution.

Doug Wildey's Rio

Doug painted his colors on tracing paper that he laid over his black line art. The tracing paper was shot and separated then registered to the films of the black line art. This created a beautiful, ethereal watercolor look but provided very fragile originals that warped easily and were difficult to preserve.

Other people were experimenting with different solutions.

Early Pacific Comics-Captain Victory and Starslayer

In the summer of 1983, while in California to attend the San Diego Comic Con, we paid a visit to Pacific Comics. Pacific was not just one of our biggest distributors, it was also one of the trailblazing alternative publishers of the early Indy movement. Founders Bill and Steve Schanes and editor David Scroggy were great hosts. While giving us a tour of their production department, they took the time to show us how a new approach to coloring comics that they were using worked.

The Gray-Line System required that a negative film was made from the original black-and-white comic art. This negative was sized at 60% of the original size which was equal to the actual print size of 6×9″ for the final comic.

Blackline on acetate transparency

From the negative a positive transparency of the line art was made. The lettering on the negative would then be masked with rubylith and, using a dot screen, a 10% gray, positive print was made on photostat paper.


The transparency and “gray-line” had registration marks and were aligned and hinged using a single piece of tape. The colorist would paint the grey-line layer, frequently reviewing the art by flipping down the transparency to see what the final image would look like.

Blackline & Grayline combined

The gray-line gave the colorist an accurate guide for which to apply color on a separate layer. If ghosting were to occur due to registration errors the faint image of the gray-line was barely noticeable.

The photostat paper that was used had a polymer base that made the gray-line very durable and stable. They would not shrink or warp when the color, which was usually water based, was applied.

Unfortunately, the surface of the paper was not absorbent at all. Painting with translucent watercolors and dyes was difficult, often creating a streaky or smudgy look especially in areas requiring larger coverage.

The Gray-Line System was an answer to the coloring dilemma but it was not the only one.

To be continued…


Making comics because I want to

Gerry Giovinco

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10 Responses to “The Comic Company:
True Colors – Part 1”

  1. Thanks for this. I like how you walk the reader through the process. Looking forward to more…

  2. Joe Williams says:

    Fascinating as always! I remember when Matt was painting some of these pages. Those books had a terrific look!

  3. paul zdepski says:

    i seem to remember matt “exposing” the line work in sunlight to create a gray-, blue-line on board, then coloring that. was that a failed process? it had to be 83/84… i also remember airbrush pantone pens were being used. I had never seen that stuff before – now blips on the art supply evolutionary scale.

  4. Exposing the line work to natural sunlight didn’t last long, the procedure was upgraded with a small Tanning lamp that had a timer on it.
    The pantone “Letrajet” airbrush/marker system was also set aside for a more traditional and efficent airbrush with Dr. Martins dyes and acrylics. The process lasted until the 15th issue of MAGE The Hero Discovered and may have carried on into some Grendel after that.

  5. Hey gang, you are all getting ahead of me, but I’m happy that this seems to be a popular discussion. I will get into the Blue-line System in more detail in Part 2. As far as how Matt Wagner applied his color, however, Bill knows more specifics than I since at that time he was working much more closely with Matt than I was.

  6. Joe Williams says:

    Wow! Letraset marker airbrushes! I had forgotten about them! They were more of a “comping” tool than anything and darned expensive! It must have cost a fortune coloring books in that method. On top of that having the printer shoot and color separate the artwork could not have been cheap.

    Looking forward to the next chapter in this adventure!

  7. […] Comico history: the transition to color printing, including some early and neat-looking coloring guides for a page from the original Mage […]

  8. Royd says:

    Hi Gerry,

    Just stumbled across your excellent and informative blog! I was pleased to see a description of Doug Wildey’s colour process on Rio because I bought a Rio page a few months back and it came complete with a slightly worse for wear tracing paper overlay with colour.

    I assumed it was somehow used in giving colour to the page but wasn’t sure how it was achieved. Thanks for the info mate 🙂 Warm regards from Oz,

    Royd Burgoyne
    Perth, Australia

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