Colour is a subject that was rarely explored or even acknowledged in comics in their earliest days – colour was simply a given, with a palette of four colours used in various lackluster combinations as a standard. Black and white was reserved for newspaper offerings, and the general expectation from the advent of the regular comic book (beginning essentially with Classics Illustrated) was that comic images required a colourist in order to be published and purchased. This presented some problems early on when consistency was also expected, however, with a notable example being one of Superman’s first appearances in The New York World’s Fair Comics #1 in April of 1939 in which he actually had blonde hair – it’s an interesting exercise to think on how something as simple as an alternate hair colour changes our understanding of iconic characters.
The visual discrepancy highlights a key point that we don’t often recognize about comics: more than facial characteristics, more than consistency in storytelling and character development, more than nearly any other element of comics, expectations of colour are demanded by their readers once they’ve been established. Colour often carries with it subtle (and not so subtle) meanings: the red and blue costume of Superman representing American idealism (as in Captain America, as in Spider-Man), the blue-blacks and grays of Batman representing a lack of allegiance to laws in his vigilantism, the browns and yellows of Wolverine representing his animal nature and ferocity, the green of Green Lantern stressing something both alien yet natural – bound in these colours are the metaphors of identity and what they’re meant to represent to the reader in term of ideals.
We don’t discuss them, likely, because they’re difficult to pin down and even more difficult to agree on, as even with the short list above I’m sure I’d encounter a few alternate and heated perspectives in Wednesday comic shop debates, let alone with my readers here. Regardless of what you think of as being the meaning behind the colouring, whether in hair, costume, skin tone or landscape, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that it carries embedded meaning. Draw his chiseled jaw more softly, give him stubble, have him curse or even kill, and Superman is still Superman. Try to imagine him in a green costume (or give him blond hair) however, and this is no longer the case. Even in radical alterations of continuity by authors who want to put their own stamp on a character or genre, dramatic colouring differences are never even attempted, as both artists and readers know they would fail.
Scott McCloud’s theory of reduction can be applied here, though it’s not quite what he intended it for: when we encounter a drawing that is photorealistic, we see only the specific image and are drawn along a single narrative pathway. As images become more, say, “comicky,” with starker lines and less shading, they become universal, allowing us to imbue them with everyman qualities and inject ourselves into the storytelling:
Applied to colouring in comics, this logic has a twofold effect here – it both heightens our sensitivity to the metaphors that are intended by the colourist to elicit, while at the same time allowing all of our subjective applications of what we suppose that metaphor should elicit because they’re never overtly stated. And unlike in dialogue or even image, we are rarely trained to be aware of these responses, and so they operate predominantly on a subconscious level.
This is not to say that mainstream comics do not experiment with colourless stories for well-known characters; they certainly do, but when this happens they typically draw great attention to this fact for a particular purpose. The currently running DC title “Batman: Black and White” is a key example – now in its second (or third?) volume, the miniseries offers short tales, ranging from three to ten pages at most, that showcase particular artists while offering brief biographies of what they offer to the industry. Operating outside of continuity, these stories are there to be able to highlight the “art” of Batman, allowing the reader not to get lost in the metaphors that colour provides and instead concentrate on the pencils of the artist and the story itself. This tactic also ostensibly plays to the standard approach to understanding black and white as being the domain of the indie comic that assumes a loftier goal in terms of depth and storytelling, and the vignettes in the series typically shoot for this kind of high art. Despite this dramatic purpose, however, it’s ultimately ineffective, as we’re too familiar with what the colours should be already – the characters and scenes draw upon so deep a history that they may as well already be coloured. Reading a black and white Batman brooding over Gotham, it is hard to imagine a single reader envisioning him in anything other than a black and grey costume with a wet, rusty gray pall cast over the cityscape.
The “sketch cover,” now a staple of the mainstream comics’ industry, is perhaps a little more effective here, as it offers as a variant a single image that has been reduced (or enhanced) to colourlessness for collectors. Placing these side by side, we can see how great an impact that colour can have on a reader, and Michael Turner’s beautifully detailed Civil War covers, each released with a 1:75 sketch variant, work well to highlight the point:
The contrast is striking, but difficult to define in terms of reader response. Is the colourless cover more of an art object now that it is in pencil, with only a single contributor? Does it represent the story within in the same way as the original, coloured cover, and is it even supposed to? Is it really any different at all, as we implicitly know what colours should be present because we’re familiar with the characters already? Despite these arguably intentional ambiguities, we can’t help but acknowledge that the coloured panel or page “reads” differently for all of the meanings that colour evokes, as does its absence when we find it missing from a space in which we assume it belongs.
Colour is a metonym of the most personal nature, and it ushers forth meanings that are significant to us precisely because we don’t realize that they’re there. Black and white may allow us to fill the empty spaces with what we think should be present, but colour comics do this work for us and thereby allow the chosen colours to carry meaning and weight, adding another layer to the intertextuality that we’re more trained for when accessing dialogue or even juxtaposed images.