Pacific Comics specifically
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Pacific Comics. Early 1980s. From what I understand, Pacific “ganged up” four or eight pages at a time on a color offset press. This was called the “grey-line” process. The black line art was photographed at 10 percent and looked grey when printed on a flexible printing plate. That plate is the surface that the colorist works on. It was a weird, slick surface to work on apparently. The usual paints and markers wouldn’t stick to it—they would just streak—so a lot of people making color comics for Pacific relied heavily on airbrush.
The other thing to remember with the Pacific books is that the color art plate to be shot for the camera was the same size as the printed comic. Meaning the color art was made at a one-to-one ratio where the drawings were made at usually one-and-one-half times the final printed size. This was standard practice in most four-color books but because the drum scanner for the grey-line picked up every little nuance of tone, I think about the color being made by hand instead of a screen. The colorist’s “hand” is very noticeable also because of the full color “color xerox” quality of the printing then. They reinforce each other. The printing isn’t bad; it isn’t bright, just subdued. Cheap. The colorist’s streaky markers and weird concoctions are all THERE, almost like a instrument played through an old fuzzy microphone. So the high notes and low bass parts “ring” louder. Buzz more. I dunno. I like it.
The Elric series, by P. Craig Russell and Michael T. Gilbert for Pacific is an spectacular feat of inventiveness. I like to think about the limitations that the printing process imposed upon the creation of the art, specifically the color art. Pacific began the series using a coloring system that I’m not familiar with—it may have been a similar process to grey-line, I don’t know. But the results were pretty bad. The inked lines of the art are muddy and the colors are streaky. By issue 3 though they began using a different process, trying to get crisper blacks, but the color was still wonky. Check out this note from the editor on the inside cover of issue 4:
“This note is mainly a response to the “Grey Line” technique used in Issue #3. The over-all results are quite good. The color clarity is markedly improved and the inked lines appear much more solid. I never realized how muddy the inked lines in the previous issues are until I compared them just now. I am quite pleased and do appreciate the extra time and expense involved.”
Below is an excerpt from an interview with the artist P. Craig Russell, who was one half of the team that created this particular Elric series for Pacific Comics in 1983. Check out how he describes the process of trial-and-error that led Michael T. Gilbert to literally invent a new way of coloring.
The Comics Journal #147 (Dec. 1991). Interviewed by Craig Paeth
Interviewer: This is where you developed the coloring style you have used for all your projects up until now.
P. Craig Russell: Right; I am eternally grateful to Michael T. Gilbert for that. We were coloring on photostats with the acetate overlays. To try to use watercolor on an acetate just looks terrible. Michael came in one day with a panel he’d done using frisket paper, which is what you’d usually use if you were airbrushing. You’d put this stuff over it and cut out the area you’d want to airbrush and then lift it up when you were done. It’s like a stencil type thing. Michael was airbrushing the entire sheet of frisket and would use it like you’d use zip-a-tone or a pantone sheet by placing it down on the paper and cutting around it. So we started playing around with that, and by gluing your color down you’re not streaking it onto the paper.
It was developed as a way of getting around this horrible coloring process we had, with necessity being the mother of invention. We found that you could color underneath a frisket and that a pencil eraser would erase your watercolor off the paper and you could get sort of pseudo-airbrush effects that way. It could get very complicated and by the sixth issue I really think we had it working. I think Michael did the best color work he’s ever done on those Elric issues because I’m much more meticulous and clean in my approach and I wouldn’t let him get away with sloppy utility knife work, I really kept him on his toes as far as a finished look would go.
BACK TO COMICS COMICS: And now, let’s hear from the other half of the team, specifically guy who handled the lion’s share of the art on this book. I wrote to Michael T. Gilbert and asked him a few questions about the Elric series and some of the old coloring methods like grey-line and the following is his response:
The Early Days of Comic Book Coloring, As I Remember It!
©2009 Michael T. Gilbert
I consider myself primarily a comic book artist and writer (Mr Monster, Elric, Donald Duck and crew, etc.), but over the years I have done my share of coloring. I cut my eyeteeth coloring my cover for New Paltz Comix an ” underground” comic book I self-published 1973.
I was a 21-year old college student when I brought the art to New Paltz Comix to a printer near my home on Long Island, and asked him how to color it for reproduction. He showed me how to cut frisket for a simple two-color cover (black-and-white, with various shades of blue). After placing a slab of Rubylith paper (a clear plastic sheet with a red see-through sticky plastic on top) on top of my cover art, he instructed me to cut away any areas that I wanted to remain black-and-white when they photographed it. The rest would be whatever color I’d indicated when they’d print it in. If it was to be printed blue, let’s say, I’d paint a section black (red, actually, since the red Rubylith photographed as black!). Confusing, eh? If I wanted it to be dark blue it would be 100% black, or if I used a 50% grey shading sheet on top, the final result to be a lighter 50% blue.
I didn’t fully understand what the printer was telling me, but gave it a try anyway; cutting cut away selected areas as instructed. Months later, when my comic was finally in print, I was delighted to see that it worked!
For the second issue we tried doing a fully-painted cover, which would have saved us a ton of time and looked far more professional. But having the printer photograph it turned out to be too expensive for our meager budget, so I took a stat of the uncolored cover and redid the colors with hand-seps, using multiple layers ––one for yellow, another for blue and one for red. By mixing the colors in various shades you could get all the other colors when they were printed on top of one another. The cover looked great when printed, though not as impressive as full-color.
Over the years, I did a few more covers using hand-cut colors, over the black-and-white art. It was hard, tedious work, but a fun challenge.
My most ambitious cover coloring was the one to Star*Reach Publication’s Imagine #6. I did hand-separated color (in black-and-white) on three different layers (plus the black-and-white plate) –– using airbrush! Since I was drawing the red, yellow and blue plates in black, white and grey, I had to guess how it would look when all the colors were combined. And I couldn’t afford to get printed proofs beforehand. In order to get them you’d need to have film negatives made first from each layer, and proofs made from them. Star*Reach’s shoe-string budget couldn’t afford that until the negs were shot for final printing. Luckily, I’d mostly guessed right that time, and the cover looked good overall. I breathed a sigh of relief!
Though I’d never done interior color, around 1981 I decided to give it a try. I was intrigued by the blueline method I’d seen Bil Stout use on some Slow Death covers, and decided to give it a try on one of my stories. With bluelines, the printer makes a negative of the art, somewhat larger than the printed size. Using that, a light blue image of the drawing would be printed on a stiff-but-porous sheet of cardboard. Then an identical black-and-white drawing would be printed on a transparent sheet. Once placed over the blue art, the black would cover the blue and hide it (since it was the same image, and the same size). But when the black-and-white transparency was removed temporarily for coloring, the artist could use the blue as guidelines when coloring.
I did the color for my 8-page story “The Circle Game” using Dr. Martin’s Dyes and airbrush. It was a real trial-and-error situation, and I went through a lot of paper before I was satisfied, but I learned a lot in the process –– and just in time, as it turned out! The following year I was invited to work with Craig Russell drawing and coloring the first Elric comic book series for Pacific Comics.
As Craig mentioned, we had trouble doing the color. This was in the VERY early days of full color comics and nobody at Pacific seemed to know what they were doing (though I had assumed otherwise coming in!). We only had a week or two to color the entire comic on printed size stats, which turned out to be too slick to hold the Dr. Martin’s Dyes, which would pool and turn blotchy. Desperate, I came up with a stopgap measure of making Xeroxes of the stats on porous cardboard. The colors didn’t reproduce as intensely as they would have on stat paper, but at least we were able to finish the job on time.
By the third issue I came up with the idea of spraying colors on clear frisket paper with a sticky back that would hold to the surface of the slick stats. We’d do an undercoat color on the stat, but add the colored frisket on large areas that required more subtle color. When the comics were collected into a graphic novel later, we recolored those first two issues, and the black came out sharper and the colors more intense. I later used the same frisket-on-slick-stats method when I colored some of my Mr. Monster stories a couple of years later for Eclipse. Speaking of which, did you know that the first comic book story ever done with computer color was printed in Mr. Monster? First Publishing had done a comic called Shatter, which was allegedly the first comic drawn on a computer. It may have been drawn on a computer, but it was colored by hand, the same way as all the other comics were at the time.
My friend Steve Oliff tried to convince Eclipse to let him try coloring a story using computer color, which had never been done. I suggested that Steve could color “My Fears!,” a four-page story drawn by Jeff Bonivert, as a backup in Mr. Monster #5 (February 1986). In my typical cheesy manner, I christened our experiment “Terror-Chroma!” Brrr! The results were dark and murky, but it worked. Good thing too, because we were pretty nervous about this newfangled “computer-color” stuff.
In more recent years I’ve learned to do computer color myself, most recently on my new G5 iMac. Getting the hang of Photoshop was a huge learning curve, but now I’m doing things I could only have dreamed in the old days. The frisket colors I employed on the old Elric comics were clumsy and very time consuming, though the results were often impressive. Today I can do the same thing better in minutes using layers of color –– and change the color instantly with the click of a mouse. Moreover, I can instantly see how the final colors will look on my computer screen, and even make printouts on my laser printer.
Coloring is a whole new world today –– and I like it. I don’t always care for the overuse and over-saturation of modern computer coloring, but that’s the fault of the colorists, not the medium.
When I think back, it’s been a long strange trip, from Rubylith to Photoshop CS3.
But it’s certainly been a very colorful journey!