Strange Animals 21oct2020: Is It Supposed to Look Like That?

As promised, here’s the main essay from this week’s newsletter, that apparently was too long to fit in one email with all the rest of the stuff.

José Villarrubia on Colour Reconstruction

It should be self-evident that José Villarrubia knows a thing or two about colour. He’s an accomplished artist and fine art photographer who has done some amazing colour work with artists like Jae Lee, Aaron Campbell, Denys Cowan and J.H. Williams III.

For a few months now, he’s been doing a series of Facebook posts under the title “From a Colorist’s Perspective” that are all collected in this album. Most of these are concerned specifically with modern reprints of older comics, which use “reconstructed colour”.

In short, older comics used to have very simple colour guides, where the colourist would take a photocopy of the art and mark out colours based on a chart like this which every company had:

As you can see here, the colourist was taking a cue from how the colour would look when printed, rather than from the pure pigments themselves.

From these guides, the printer would construct the actual colour plates. A lot could go wrong in this process, and you’d have a lot of miscolouring or misalignment in old comics. But in any case, comics were printed on newsprint, and would yellow with age, so you’d end up with what we now think of as “old-style” comics colours.

So when these comics were reprinted, I, like a lot of others, assumed those old colour guides were reused faithfully, and because both paper and printing processes are much better now, you got the much brighter version – eye-hurtingly bright – of the old comic that is the only way you can buy most of these comics now.

Right? Wrong.

Reading this series of posts, I realised that in fact, the current colouring of the books is a digital reconstruction by a modern colourist, with a guide that looks like this:

As you’ll see in the linked post, the digital colourist is handed this guide and is not allowed to actually reproduce what the printed comic looked like (in most cases – there have been exceptions, as we’ll see). One can see the logic – these were the actual colours the original colourist specified – but it’s a case of honouring the letter of the law over the spirit, because nobody would use those colours if they printed that bright.

So basically, the fact that these modern reprints look bad is on purpose, and Villarrubia ain’t having it.

In (so far) around 250 posts, Villarrubia critiques the recolouring, creates restorations of what pages could look like, commends the cases where it was done right, and occasionally just showcases old pages where artists came up with ingenious solutions that worked around or actually used the limitations they were working under. Furthermore, almost every post has discussions under it with other professionals adding their own nuggets of wisdom. It’s a masterclass on practical uses of colour in comics, and it’s all up there for free.

It’s essential reading if you’re interested not only in comics history, but also in the present and future of comics.

For example, let’s take the first image of this section – from the Conan Annual #2. The left is a scan of the original, and the right is how it was recoloured for a recent omnibus. Colourist Wesley Wong chimes in with a comment explaining how the recolouring is done, and further posts the following image, which shows the scanned colour, the original colour as it should be recreated, and the colour as it is actually recreated:

And artist George Caltsoudas does a quick restoration of how it could have looked based on that:

A lot of the posts are like that, with a critique of new recolouring side-by-side with the scanned original. Sometimes he’ll touch hot topics, like Brian Bolland’s infamous recolouring of The Killing Joke, which he offsets with one that he likes.

You can see a couple ofVillarrubia’s own restorations here, with his notes on them. Particularly interesting to me was this one, where he breaks down his decision-making in detail.

Here’s one where Villarrubia compares a scan of a Corben page, along with his own recolouring of it, and then, fascinatingly, the original art that only resurfaced quite recently.

Here’s an example of an homage cover with a great discussion in the comments on what it loses in translation , while another is a restoration compared with the actual published reproduction:

Here’s one about Frank Godwin art in black-and-white and colour side-by-side, an example of superfluous colouring.

Ed Piskor recoloured an old X-Men issue as part of his Grand Designs project, which is an instance of overly faithful recolouring that doesn’t actually help keep the original version alive.

And finally, here’s an example of just how misguided things can get at times, with a Moebius original compared with its sensitively reinterpreted version by Mark Chiarello and the original co-colourist John Wellington and a more recent version coloured by Claire Champeval (who, it has to be said, fared much better with the recent World of Edena).

With all these samples, I’m still doing Villarrubia a disservice, because his posts have a lot of range, going fromhis own work, to the European comics he grew up on (European comics have a much longer tradition of hand-painted colour and better printing), to book recommendations.

So I suggest you spend an afternoon poring through these posts, like I just did while writing this (which is why it took me way longer than it otherwise would’ve – I kept getting lost in looking at all the images).