Make Mine Martin: Digital colouring, remastered with extra rambling

At Robot6, Brigid Alverson has a short response to my last post, where she offers an elegant explanation of what’s wrong with that kind of colouring: the visual clash between gradients + heavy black lines. (In a comment here, Matt echoes Brigid’s sentiment)

I know essentially zilch about visual theory, but that explanation sounds persuasive to me. In fact, it’s made me think through some of the mainstream artists who have made digital colouring work for them, and many of them use a thin line: Gene Ha, Frank Quitely, John Cassaday — note that these guys often do their own inks, too. And then there’s Frazer Irving and Kyle Baker, who do their own colouring as well, and they often forgo lines altogether when marking colour boundaries.

But Dave Stewart, of course, like his rough contemporary Mark Schulz, worked in that Wally Wood tradition of thick brush inks. So maybe it is as simple as that, that clash between gradients and heavy lines, that explains why Laura Martin’s recolouring looks so goddamn, bloody, I-can-hardly-stand-to-look-at-it, good-god-why, no-seriously-why, not very good.

Funnily enough, until I started reading that IDW reprint volume, I would have called Martin one of the better colourists in the mainstream biz; her frequent collaborations with Cassaday are good stuff. And IDW has delivered a lot of tasteful reprints with no attempts at “improving” the art, so again: what went wrong here? How could people with good taste do this?

It’s such a shame because, come on, the main appeal of The Rocketeer is that art. Does anyone really think to themselves “gee, I really wish I could read about the adventures of some guy with a jetpack, and his gal pal Bettie Page”? …well, okay, some people probably do. But for me, and a lot of others, the drawcard is the art and — while design is a part of that, and that does still shine through the hideous recolouring — it’s even more about Stevens’ linework. And if IDW thought the original colouring was too garish, then hey, they could have released it in black and white…but, you know, in an affordable version.

I just wanted to stare at some nice art — why you gotta play me like that, IDW?

Bring on Fantagraphics’ B/W EC reprints, I say…

One last thought: if Brigid’s right about this style of colouring, is the mismatch something that’s going to persist, or is it just a shift in taste? There was a recent back-and-forth in film blogs about the shift to digital film and how that’s changed the basic “look” of modern cinema. David Bordwell, who’s just released a book about it, represented the old guard by criticising the new look; he quoted Roger Ebert:

Film carries more color and tone gradations than the eye can perceive. It has characteristics such as a nearly imperceptible jiggle that I suspect makes deep areas of my brain more active in interpreting it. Those characteristics somehow make the movie seem to be going on instead of simply existing.

On the other hand you had Jim Emerson, who’s also part of the old guard, being more sceptical about the inherent inferiority of digital:

I love the poetic language Roger and David use to describe the living, breathing, singing qualities of film, but I wonder how much of it is subjective and how much is objective. […] I wonder how much our perceptions are conditioned by our expectations and what we’re used to seeing, rather than the inherent trade-offs between digital and analog formats.

At least about film, I think Emerson’s probably right — relativism about aesthetic properties is way more plausible to me than anti-relativism. But what about comics? In ten, fifteen years time  will the kids who’ve grown up on modern superhero comics prefer this newer, shittier look?

…ha ha, just kidding, everyone knows that no kids whatsoever have grown up on superhero comics since the 90s, except Matt Seneca, and he’s a total freak. So until next time, true believers, make mine Martin!

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One Response to “Make Mine Martin: Digital colouring, remastered with extra rambling”

  1. vollsticks Says:

    “But Dave Stewart, of course, like his rough contemporary Mark Schulz, worked in that Wally Wood tradition of thick brush inks.” I think you meant Dave Stevens! Also I wouldn’t say Wally wood uses a thick line at all–surely he’s a part of the school of fine brush inking like Frazetta and Williamson and those guys?

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