More on Coloring, Old School

This and all images © DC Comics.

Last week’s article on old school comics coloring had a very positive response, with more comments than any other I’ve done to date, so today I’ve pulled out a few more things from my files to extend the discussion.

Above is a page of my coloring for the “Class of 2064” story in NEW TALENT SHOWCASE #7, July 1984 cover date. They’re a little hard to see, but around the edges are color marking callouts, using the code system described last time. The ones written neatly in pencil are mine, others were added either at DC, probably by Anthony Tollin, or at the separation house. Technically every color was supposed to have a code to help the separators make their masks, but some things were a given, like normal caucasian flesh tones being Y2R2. The most important ones to mark were combinations of all three shades: the browns and grayish purples. A lot of those would print nearly indistinguishably from each other, but marking them correctly at least gave them a chance. The idea of the color shades put down by the colorist wasn’t accuracy of the color so much as well defined differences, making it clear for the separator. So, on this page, the orange costumes are coded YR2, or 100% yellow, 25% magenta. The title “Dragonfly” is coded YR, or 100% yellow, 100% magenta. I knew these wouldn’t print nearly that dark, but using very different dye mixes made it clear to the separators.

Here’s the same page as printed. Everything is much more subdued. Even the black line art is really a dark gray once the ink has been absorbed by the newsprint paper. Many of the shades I indicated using all three colors are just barely noticeably different from each other. The strongest color on the page is the 100% Yellow 100% Magenta of the logo and title. You can see how disappointing the results often were for colorists, but to the average reader, who was used to newsprint colors, and hadn’t seen the color guides, I’m sure it looked just fine. This book was printed by World Color press at Sparta, Illinois, the long-time printer of nearly all DC comics until the mid 1980s.

Omega Men 38 page colors

Here’s a color guide by Carl Gafford for issue 38 of THE OMEGA MEN, final one of the series I wrote, kindly given to me by Carl (thanks, Carl!). This series was printed on higher quality offset presses on a much better grade of paper that we called Baxter for some reason I can’t recall. It was not newsprint, but a white paper that held the ink on the surface much more than newsprint. The color marks now show one important difference from the previous example, the addition of interior gray tones. In the third panel, the cat’s color is gray, and the callout marking is K2, standing for 25% black. Other 25% blacks are part of the background colors.

Omega Men 38 page printed

Here’s the same page printed. Notice how much brighter all the colors are, and particularly how much blacker the blacks are. Overall the colors are much closer to the guides than in the previous example. Colorists had to make adjustments when they first started working on books printed this way. Previously, bright primaries were used as much as possible, but here that would have been garish and too bright. While Carl did use some primaries, many of his colors are tones and combinations of tones. Oh, and the skin tone of that one human character is meant to be pink, not flesh-color, by the way, so that’s not a mistake. One thing that strikes me as a bit odd is the color of the floor in the fifth panel: YR2. But Carl did that to create contrast between the floor and the characters. If he’d made it R2B2, as in the previous panel, the characters would have been hard to see, as they are somewhat in the first panel. Sometimes logic was superceded by good color sense, as here. This book was printed by Quebecor.

Let’s move on to covers, which involved some different separation processes and more skilled separators. Covers were given higher attention than the rest of the book, as they were a main selling point. When I started at DC, cover separations were printed in translucent color on acetate at the separation house, one layer for each color of ink, and then aligned over white paper and sent back to DC for proofing. Here’s an example.

All-Star 65 cover proof

This cover proof for ALL-STAR COMICS #65 is typical for superhero covers in the mid 1970s. The art is by the great Wally Wood, and while I don’t know for sure, my guess is the color guide would have been by Tatjana Wood, his ex-wife, and a regular cover colorist for DC at the time. This is very straightforward stuff for the most part, lots of primary colors in the costumes and logos, with pastels in the background. Notice that some of the lettering has been been reversed out of the green burst, making it white, and the JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA lettering at the top has been held on the magenta and yellow layers, removed from the black layer. Likewise, the DC symbol has been held on the blue and yellow layers, removed from the black layer. But otherwise, it’s all pretty simple.

All-Star 65 black only

Here’s just the black acetate. The only thing added by the separator is a light gray tone, probably 25%, in the costume of Vandal Savage and Hawkman’s wings.

All-Star 65 colors only

Here are the combined color acetates without the black. All very simple flat colors except for two places: the blue in the sky gets gradually lighter from top to bottom, and the orange of the ground gets gradually darker top to bottom. In addition to doing flat colors, cover separators could also use airbrushes to create gradients like this.

House of Mystery 252 color proof

Here’s another cover from the same time, House of Mystery 252, with a very different color approach and look. The art is by Neal Adams, and he probably did the color guide as well. Lots of subtle variations, or modelling in these colors, using the airbrush as above, but with much more precision and detail work.

House of Mystery 252 black only

You might expect some of that modelling to be on the black plate, but as you can see, the only black tone is a light gray on the book cover and the character’s vest.

House of Mystery 252 colors only

Here are just the colors, and now you can see all the work the separator has added to match what Adams did in his guide. In addition to airbrush effects, there are more details added with gray washes in all the colors, but particularly in the blues. This was a tricky job, as the separator was working in grays, but had to be able to mentally translate those grays into color tones in each layer. Whoever did the separations on this cover was a master of the craft.

House of Mystery 252 blue only

Here’s just the blue acetate. The solid areas may have been added in a separate layer photographically, but all the rest are probably gray washes.

HOM 252 blue to gray

Here’s the same layer in gray, something like what the separator would have seen. Now imagine having to do the same thing for the red and yellow layers. Quite an impressive feat! And another skill which has gone by the wayside, now that colors are prepared and separated digitally for the most part. Ah, they were giants in those days.

9 thoughts on “More on Coloring, Old School

  1. Fnord Serious

    Nice stuff, Todd. It is interesting to see how the colors get altered by the way the newsprint absorbs the ink. I know many fans and creators feel that older material colored for newsprint should be recolored when reprinted on the glossy paper so often used in the high end hardcovers like the DC Archives. I would be interested to hear your opinion on the matter.

    I find the paper used for most of Marvel and DC’s superhero books to be too glossy for my taste. I wouldn’t mind if they went back to paper more like the Baxter stock than the overly reflective stock used currently.

  2. Todd Post author

    Recoloring would usually cost more than they’d make on the reprints, and would then not be a true reprint, though it might look nicer. A good quality non-glossy paper with some absorbency would probably be the best solution, but paper stock has to be available and cost-effective with those qualities for the companies to consider it. There might well be a situation where a large paper order has been bought and is in stock at the printer to cover several years’ worth of archive editions, for instance.

  3. Osvaldo Montero

    Dude, awesome article!! I was wondering how Sheryl Van Valkenburgh did those dry brush strokes without eating up the inks, on the Enigma comic books, now I know!! I have a couple of questions though on the covers:
    The inks were printed on translucent acetate and the colors where painted over on another translucent acetate layer?
    Which technique were used to paint over the acetates, acrylics?

  4. Todd Post author

    I think you’re confusing the proofing technique with the separation one. Airbrush effects and modelling were painted in shades of gray for each color, then photographed with a halftone screen to add printing dots, then printed on colored acetate just for proofing, to mimic the final printed result. No colors were painted by the separators. They had to know in their heads what the result would look like in color.

  5. Dave B

    Fascinating. I especially liked seeing the various layers for the covers.
    Thanks for posting these, Todd!

  6. FletchNZ

    Great stuff!
    I read an interview with Neal Adams about how DC was only using half the colors they could because they thought they were saving money by not using 25% Yellow and 50% Yellow. It made me laugh…

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