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A View From the Cheap Seats:
Color vs. Black & White
By Rich Watson

10.09.03


In his seminal examination of the comics medium, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defines the differences between color and black and white (B&W) in comics from the reader's perspective. In black and white, he says, "Meaning transcends form. Art approaches language," while flat colors transform the visual world into "a playground of shapes and space," and expressive (i.e., non-representational) colors provide "an intoxicating environment of sensations." For the modern independent comics creator, advancements in technology have made the use of color an easier and more cost-effective option. As a result, some of the more popular self-published books within the past decade, including Rat Bastard, Amelia Rules, and The Interman, have been able to reach wider audiences. Must the presence of color make such a difference, however? Should an up and coming self-publisher feel required to use color if it means a boost in sales?

Mike Indovina has asked himself these same questions. Indovina is the creator of the black and white comedy Satyr, a series based on the ancient Greek myth of Silenus and his rowdy, playful band of half-man, half-goat creatures who appeared in "satyr plays." In 2001, the book debuted and attracted a fair amount of praise for its whimsical, zany takes on timeless Greek tales such as Oedipus Rex. Indovina did what many self-publishers do to promote their work - he sent out press releases and fliers to websites, magazines, and comic shops, posted on message boards, and went to conventions, all to generate a buzz. Just when he began to take off, however, he received a harsh economic reality check.

"My budget for Satyr was almost nonexistent," Indovina says. "I had enough to print the books - and to do a little advertising. For my first issue (Satyr #0), I used a digital printer that would do print-on-demand type jobs, so I was able to wait and see how many sold first. That didn't turn out to be worth it - because the per-book expense made making a profit impossible. Still, if I only needed a few hundred books, I could do it for less than the cost of getting a thousand or so at a regular printer - and the profits werent't that important to me at that point. I went with a regular printer for the next two issues (after I knew that Diamond was going to carry them), with a press run of 1000, and I still have a bunch left over. When I did Satyr #2, my sales went down, and Diamond told me that they weren't going to carry the book anymore. This led me to try and think of ways to change their minds - and one consideration was switching to color."

Now available this month is the Satyr Color Special, a full-color spin-off of the series. "I had never considered doing color before - I assumed the cost would be too great, and the press runs too big. After searching around a bit, I did manage to find a printer that was affordable, so I decided to give it a try. As I had hoped, Diamond gave me another try, so we'll see how it goes."

Why did Satyr's sales diminish, however? One major reason would have to be the prejudices associated with black and white comics perpetuated by a number of fans and retailers alike for years. To get a better understanding on the virtues of both black and white and color, I spoke to a couple of experts on the subject.


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Rob Schwager, colorist for the CrossGen pseudo-Roman Empire epic Brath, easily identified the crucial factors to making color a vital part of the story: "Good color choices... How the color sets the tone and mood of a particular page... Basically how the colors compliment each other and work in the grand scheme of storytelling." He cited overeagerness and lack of professionalism as the primary obstacles neophyte colorists stumble across. "Just because you can color a page in ten seconds doesn't mean it looks good."

By contrast, Rich Koslowski, creator of the acclaimed black and white graphic novel Three Fingers, cited purity as black and white's greatest strength. "I love a well-done color comic as much as the next guy, don't get me wrong, but if someone can pull off a great B&W book ,that really says something about their skill as an artist. You can hide some artistic deficiencies with color sometimes. Can't do that with B&W. It also can depend on the subject matter of certain books. Some titles simply work better in B&W than color, and vice-versa." He noted that black and white requires a level of skill beginners don't always have. "B&W is tough to pull off because you can't hide mistakes or deficiencies with color. Too often the pages look empty or unfinished, and I myself made many mistakes when I first started out publishing in B&W. But as you go along and improve (hopefully), you learn how to better illustrate in B&W by using certain methods such as proper black-spotting, crosshatching, or graytoning. I learned quite a bit looking at the old Tales From the Crypt collections."

"I color on the computer," says Indovina in describing his approach to making the new Satyr book. "First I do the ink artwork, and scan it. Then I bring it into Photoshop. I'm keeping it pretty simple - giving it a kind of animated cartoon look. I also try to create as much depth as possible. Like I said, there's a lot you can do with color - to create depth, mood, contrast, etc. Anyway, I don't want to bore everyone with a lesson on color theory - but the end result, I hope, will be real pretty."

The processes for creating color and black and white books can vary depending on the project and the work environment. Brath, like most CrossGen books, is made in-house as part of one big studio system. Therefore, Schwager has the advantage of working side-by-side with his artists, in this case Andrea Divito and Roland Paris, and they collaborate with him on getting the finished product to look the way they want. "I take time to analyze the art and have a say-so in how Andrea and Roland handle putting stuff on the page," he said. "It's a true, all around collaborative effort. I've never been a part of something with this type of a dynamic before. It has let me grow more as an artist as opposed to just being a 'production person...' We have learned how to play off of each other's strengths and work cohesively as a team. It's really cool."

Koslowski worked solo on Three Fingers. His artistic process was a complete departure from his previous material, which reflected the more somber tone of the story, a "documentary" on the history of animation in which cartoon characters are real actors. "I decided to go for a grittier look when the characters were being interviewed, so I used a textured paper and dry-brushing. The effect was great. It was slow going but I really enjoyed it. I'd never worked like that before and really got into the challenge. And for the historical portions of the book, I wanted the pictures to look very accurate and photo-realistic, so I photocopied hundreds of pictures from a variety of True Crime books and other reference books and used those photos for reference. And to achieve a photo-realistic look I used a smooth Bristol board paper and ink wash. Ink wash is just a watered down black India ink that allows you to achieve different degrees of gray. I didn't really run into any problems doing the art. The art was fun."

As mentioned, Satyr has gotten positive word-of-mouth from people who have read it, but it has not translated into adequate sales. "Satyr has sold better than anything I've done in the past, but still not well enough for Diamond to keep carrying it (in black and white, that is)," says Indovina. "By reviewers, at least, it has been very well received. I've gotten many excellent reviews. When some reviewer, who has probably read thousands of comic books, gives me a good review, or compares my work to an established professional (whose work I, myself, admire), that makes me feel appreciated - more so than selling a lot of books. Sales definitely help, though." And here we come to the commerical end of the debate between color and black and white - how does the marketplace regard the presence or absence of color in a comic?

Rick Shea owns Famous Faces and Funnies, a comics shop in Florida with a pro-active approach towards attracting and keeping customers and making them lifelong comics readers. When asked approximately how well black and white comics sell in his store, he cited subject matter as one factor. "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is a book we've been pushing since 1995 when it first came out, and have sold literally over one thousand copies of the first issue over the last eighteen printings, or over 1% of the full print run, as crazy as that sounds. But through word of mouth and years of hype, including our money-back guarantee, we've pushed that book to hundreds of people who have never read a comic before. Humor books like Dork, Lenore, Arsenic Lullaby and stuff like that seem to sell regardless of an absence of color. I have noticed that black and white superhero books are a tougher sell than superhero or action books in color."

Why are black and white comics a mostly tougher sell, though? "I think some people don't buy B&W comics because they grew up reading color (generally) superhero stuff and possibly think B&W comics are somehow less impressive, as they're missing such a big component in color," said Shea. "Same goes for B&W movies. Their loss." He believes fans may think they get more for their money with color, though he also thinks the only time they notice it is when it's done badly. Can color make or break a comic financially? "I do think that retailers are more likely to order full color comics over black and white ones. Color comics will generally sell better, but it also depends on the talent, subject matter, genre, and a lot of other factors."

Indovina remains sanguine about the issue. "It's funny. I like black and white. I also like full color. I can't imagine color vs. black and white being an issue in my enjoyment of a comic book. I decided to do a color book because I thought it might boost sales, and allow me to keep doing Satyr and maybe even make some money doing it (I'm sure any indepenent publisher who has done a convention is familiar with the 'oh, it's just black and white' look that you get from so many people) - but also I saw it as an opportunity to try doing something new. As much as I like black and white, there is a lot you can do with color. Some people I've talked to, when they found out I was switching to color, acted like I was some big sellout or something (OK, I'm exaggerating, a bit), and I really don't see why... They basically asked why on earth I was switching to color, and made it clear that they preferred B&W. I think the underlying assumption was that independent companies, who happen to publish in black and white (for whatever reason) are doing more creative stuff, whereas mainstream publishers like Marvel, etc., are doing the same old recycled drivel (i.e., mainstream equals bad, indy equals good). One person went on a long tangent about how he admires manga artists for doing so much with black and white. I think in our culture, things that look more expensive to produce are automatically considered better (cheap equals bad). Whereas I think that's a mistake, that doesn't make the opposite automatically true either."

Schwager and Koslowski both agree that the level of artistic skill will play a crucial role in a book's success no matter if it has color or not. "I think there will always be a place for B&W stuff," said Schwager. "Look at what [Frank] Miller did with Sin City and how it woke people up to what can be done with two colors. How many people aped his style after that stuff came out? Good color can save bad art, but bad color can ruin everything." Said Koslowski: "If the artist is skilled enough it'll look great no matter what the medium they use Same goes for greytones. I love the inkwashed look! And greytones work well as a color substitute in a lot of cases... I see a lot of great B&W books these days. It's to the point that I don't even think about my comics in the terms B&W or color anymore."

For now, Indovina has been able to persevere with the addition of color to Satyr, and indeed, he is able to plan for the future. "I'm hoping to increase my sales to the point that Diamond will want to keep carrying the book, which means making $1000 per issue. If they don't, I will keep doing Satyr for as long as I can I do it because I enjoy it - I'd like to make more money at it, but it's not a necessity. Also, eventually I'll start doing collections, which could conceivably be sold on Amazon.com and the like." In the end, he says, "Color is just another tool to add to your palate (so to speak) It's not better or worse, just different - and it certainly doesn't change the story for better or worse."

 

 
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