Tuesday 22 June 2010

Color Your Dreams - And Your Nightmares...

As regular visitors to this blog will be aware, I have on more then one occasion fulminated against the perfidies of computer colorists let loose on treasured classics of comic art. Having gulped in horror at some of the less than sensitive handling of line art by wannabe painters I am firmly of the school that less is more.

However there are some instances where a colorist is really on top of his game, these guys are usually artists in their own right as with Nikos Koutsis, the colorist of the very extraordinary and compelling graphic meisterwork aka "Mirabilis Year of Wonders". Working with Leo Hartas's distinctly linear rendering Nikos adds layers of color and modeling which actually add to rather than conflict with Leo's linework. The finished result is indeed a wonder to add to the year of wonders.

Here is another example of an artist who knows what he is doing adding to the artist's original intent. In this case it's French artist Richard Isenove, who has studied painting, drawing, photography and animation with some of the top talents in the business. He left his native France in 1994 after qualifying at the Ecole Nationnale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs and then headed off  to the California Institute of the Arts, where he further refined his skills.

So let's look at an example of his work as he tackles one of the (imo) greatest stories ever to appear in comics, the sequence in question of which I'm only going to show two pages to avoid spoilers, was when I first read it some thirty something years ago one of the most genuinely chilling moments in comics that I'd yet encountered. Roy Thomas and Barry Smith's adaptation of Robert E. Howard's "Red Nails", is in every way conceivable a tour de force, Smith went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that this his swansong on Conan would be as good a job as he could deliver and the result is so haunting that images from the story have burnt their way indelibly into my subconscious.

The story first appeared in Savage Tales in 1973 and then a couple of years later was colored up for inclusion in the large format Marvel Treasury edition. Isenove's version which appears in the recently published Barry Smith Conan Archives volume 2, is the first version which truly evokes the colors and atmosphere of the jade city trapped within an outer temple where light seldom ventures and nameless horrors await incautious visitors.

Isenove has admittedly from a purist standpoint, taken liberties with Smith's line work by transposing elements of it into separate channels and adding flaring and textures, but I've got to reluctantly admit that for me, it does work and while I still prefer the black and white version as far as Red Nails in color goes, this is the best I've come across. An instance where the colorist has attempted to put himself inside the head of the artist and in the process added to rather than subtracted from the work itself.

An interview with Isenove can be accessed here:


  1. Y'seen he recent Marvel hardcover for their TALES OF ASGARD reprints? The colouring is hilarious.

    Tell you did good work in this field recently, though. The guy who recoloured Dave Gibbons' B&W DOCTOR WHO strips for IDW.

  2. I used to have a knee-jerk revulsion of digital coloring, but after seeing what it can do in the hands of somebody who really understands it (Nikos in particular) I've come round to thinking that the real problem is that it is such a powerful artistic tool that it absolutely demands a master at the helm in order to get good results.

    Unfortunately, Sturgeon's Law applies to digital coloring as much as to anything else. But when the results are good, as with Richard Isenove's work on "Red Nails", you really get artwork that is turned up to 11, so to speak. The example here is fabulous, though I do rather miss Windsor-Smith's trademark effects like the starburst of lines to indicate flaring on metal, and the architectural infill of detail in the city backgrounds. So BWS b&w still wins, but Isenove digicolor runs it a close second!

    And thanks for the kind words about Mirabilis, Peter - always appreciated, and I am indeed lucky to be working with Leo and Nikos, the art team par excellence for a project like ours.

  3. I had some art appear in a US comic a few years ago that I was quite pleased with - until I saw it coloured and printed. The colouring was just so awful and computery and garish - yuk! The colourist had also taken it upon himself to blur out the background in a couple of panels for that 'anime-distance' effect, which looked horrible. The great thing about a comic is that you can have Orson Welles deep focus all the time!

  4. Unless it's specifically requested by the original artist I really hate that blurred motion/distance effect. It's almost as though the colourist has decided that he's like a film director in the cutting room, with ultimate control over the finished product so that it becomes *his* vision that finally rolls off the presses.

    BTW, I could be wrong but I think that BWS insisted on providing his own colour guides when he later returned to Marvel for a spell, drawing characters like Machine Man, the Thing and the X-Men.

  5. For what it's worth, I agree that Smith's and Thomas' "Red Nails" is one of the greatest comics stories.

  6. Actually I really think that this issue touches a lot of nerves and I'm in full accordance with all the comments posted here, which is not to say that computer coloring is in essence a bad thing. The real problem is that the options are so limitless that in the hands of colorists that are still learning their craft the results can wreck the intent of the artist's original vision.

    But I'll be a little perverse here and also mention that the move to watercolor and ink based coloring by companies such as Pacific Comics in the 1980's did for me produce some pretty unpleasant results as did the three color Spirit albums that Kitchen Sink Press released at around the same time where again colorists attempted modeling and lighting effects with truly hideous results.

    Bottom line is that if an artist has already created the modeling with his line work then bunging in extra shades and tones will just obscure what he has done and make the whole page far too busy, thereby drastically altering his original orchestration of events.

    Less is more.