Dave Sim/Neal Adams on Color


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hey everybody, Frank Santoro here again this week with an excerpt from Dave Sim’s Following Cerebus No. 9 where he interviews Neal Adams. A great interview all around, but one part of it really caught my eye. It’s a long story that Adams tells about how he managed to re-organize DC Comics production department’s approach to color and how Adams “updated” their color chart. It’s a great, funny story. And I reference it a lot in my rants to friends and I want to reference it in future articles. So, I thought I’d post the original story from the source. But like I said, it’s really long. So, I wrote a letter to Dave Sim and a few weeks later I got the “okay” to reprint the excerpt in full. I think it’s an interesting story that Adams tells, and an important one. It’s these moments in “comics history” that often get swept under the rug, yet they are often moments that ripple through the years and can be seen later as “game changing” events. Please enjoy.

Thanks to Mr. Sim.

DAVE SIM: Rather ungraciously I couldn’t resist interrupting at this point and dragging Neal tangentially off-topic to find out if what he was referring to was a rumor I had heard about, centering on the chocolate-brown color that Neal had pioneered on the cover of Batman No. 245, a color which was formed by using 100% cyan, 100% magenta, and 100% yellow; one on top of the other.

NEAL ADAMS: The science of art and the art of science are wonderful things because they don’t mix together all the time, but they mix together a lot and one of the areas where they mix together is the science of mixing colors. You can make millions of colors just by mixing the different percentages. And the question is, “How many colors do you start with?” You start with three: red, yellow, and blue. You make a guide with percentages of colors, and that guide is made up of dots of color. Dots of red, as an example—if they are spaced far enough apart and are small enough—will make an area of those dots look pink. Smaller red dots spread further apart will look light pink. If you add an area of blue dots, you’ll get a light purple, and so on. And, doing comic books in the 1960s, what you had was 25% of yellow, 50% of yellow, 75% of yellow, and 100% of yellow; 25% blue, 50% blue, 75% blue, 100% blue; 25% red, 50% red, 75% red, and 100% red. With these percentages, mixing them together and using them individually you would get 64 different colors to work with.

DC Comics, at the time I joined the firm [laughs], they had 32 colors. And I didn’t quite understand it until I got their chart, and I noticed that they didn’t have what we call “tone yellow.” They did not have 25% yellow and 50% yellow, and I did not understand why that would be, because I had done a syndicated strip and all kinds of other process-color work using the same basic chart, and I thought, “If you have 25% and 50% of red and blue, why don’t you have 25% and 50% of yellow?” It didn’t make sense. So I asked around a little bit … kind of quietly … and, apparently [laughs] at some point to save money in some weird way at some weird time they decided to do without “tone yellow.” So that if you see a DC comic book from back in “them thar days” you notice that all the Anglo-Saxon flesh is pink. You don’t continue to notice it because after you turn the page you’re reading the story and it isn’t a glaring difference but the flesh is pink. Whereas if you looked at Marvel Comics from the same time period, it’s more of a flesh color—25% red, 25% yellow. Because they only had 100% yellow at DC, if you tried using that for a flesh tone you’d have orange flesh. You couldn’t have all the subtler colors with “tone yellow” values. You lost HALF of the colors. Instead of 64 you had 32.

So, when the full impact of this hit me, I went to see Sol Harrison [DC’s production director at the time] because I was coloring stories with a color palette of 32 colors instead of 64. And I asked him about it … which is one of those stupid things you shouldn’t do, as I would find out … and he said, “No, we don’t have ’em because it costs more money. By not doing these colors, the company is saving money.” Well, if you were talking about a whole range of colors, that might be possible, but if you’re just talking about 25% yellow and 50% yellow, it seemed to me that that couldn’t be the case. How could two tones of yellow cost that much extra money?

So, I thought about that for awhile. And then I went and talked to some people around DC Comics and asked them if they had noticed this. Most of them hadn’t. So I went to Carmine Infantino, [DC’s publisher at the time] and asked Carmine and Carmine went in and asked Sol and Sol explained that it was “too expensive” and as far as he was concerned, that was it, the subject was closed. And I thought, well, that didn’t work very well. I just ended up back at Sol Harrison. So the question was, “How to get around Sol Harrison?” So, I went to Joe Kubert, who was an editor at DC, as well as the great artist he’s always been, and I said, “You know Joe, ‘we here at DC’ [laughs’ we don’t have tone yellow.” He said, [flawless Joe Kubert impression] “Really.” I said, “Yeah, you think we would.” And he said, “Well, Sol’s probably saving money.” And I said, “Well, okay that’s probably true, except that Marvel has got tone yellow.” He says, “Let me see.” So, I pull out a Marvel Comic and show it to him.” “Yeah,” he says. “Darn. I wonder how they can afford it?” I said, [laughs] Yeah, I mean it’s Marvel, Joe. It’s Timely Comics.” [Marvel—which was really just what was left of Timely Comics—was pretty much of an under-financed shoestring operation compared to DC in those days]. [Sim laughs] “Yes, that’s true. Hmm. I’ll go see Carmine about it.” I said, “No, I saw Carmine already.” So, he said, “Okay, I’ll go see Jack.” Jack Liebowitz, the head of the company. So he walks away and disappears into Jack Liebowitz’s office, about time for a 4 or 5 minute conversation. Liebowitz comes storming out of his office in his pinstripe grey suit, his little mustache twitching and he goes down the hall into Sol Harrison’s office in a rage, muttering things like, “That son-of-a-bitch Goodman [then-Marvel publisher, Martin Goodman] wouldn’t pay one G-damned dime more for his G-damned colors than I would. G-damn it.” Things like that. [Sim laughs] And he goes into Sol Harrison’s office, and he says, “Sol, how the hell much more is it going to cost to get tone yellow? Marvel’s got tone yellow, what the hell is going on?” And Sol says, “Well, we’re saving money.” “Martin Goodman is spending more money on his comics than I am? That’s bulls–t!” Sol said, “Well … I’ll call the separators.” So he picks up the phone, and calls the separator up in Connecticut. The separator hired housewives in Connecticut to come in and do the separations. The brushes that they used looked like the back end of brooms. And they weren’t very subtle about what they did, and it occurred to me, having been up there, if it was the same guy [laughs], he didn’t give a damn about tone yellow. So Sol calls the guy, and it turns out that this guy did the color separations for Marvel and DC. So, Sol got on the phone and—trying to “prime the pump” a little bit said, “How much more would it cost us to get tone yellow?” You know: setting the guy up to give him the right answer.

SIM: “Thousands of dollars.”

ADAMS: [voice of doom] “Yes, thousands of dollars, way too expensive for YOU.” But, of course the guy had a close working relationship with Marvel AND DC so there was no way that he could give that answer. So what he said was, “You want tone yellow? You got it.” [Sim and Adams laugh] So Sol said, “Uh, yeah … we’ll … we’ll take it.” And hung up the phone. And Sol turns back to Jack Liebowitz and says, “We’ll, uh, we’ll be getting tone yellow now.” [laughs] The actual conversation took about fourteen seconds. That day DC got twice as many colors as they had they day before.

SIM: I don’t think you’d even want to look back over the years of DC Comics to see how long they had been without tone yellow.

ADAMS: [picturing it] [laughing] Exactly. So, you can see right there that i should have learned my lesson not to ask Sol questions like that. If I asked him a question he would invariably tell me, “No, you can’t do it.” And not only that, he would explain to me in great detail WHY I couldn’t do it. It actually got to the point that if I asked Sol if you could do something and he said, “No, you can’t,” the odds were that you probably could and easily.

The next one … the story that you are referring to … was when I asked Sol, “Why aren’t we using the dark colors? I mean, it’s bad enough that we only have 64 colors to begin with, but we’re losing about a third of the colors because we’re not using colors like 100% yellow, 100% blue and 50% red [all in combination]. And the answer was, “Well, you can’t use any color that adds up to more than 200% because then there’s too much ink on the page, and the paper will slide off the press.” So, I said, “Well, Sol, we’re kind of printing on [laughs] toilet paper.” [Sim laughs]. I think the paper that we’re using absorbs any amount of ink pretty quickly. I could understand if we were doing Newsweek magazine with some slick paper stock like they use that maybe the paper would slide a bit, but this is pretty much the crappiest paper you can buy and I don’t think the ink is apt to slide on it.”

SIM: [laughing] “Sliding? Sliding is not the problem with this paper.”

ADAMS: He said, “Well, that’s what we had to do during the war.” During the war? [Sim laughs] You’re talking about WWII, right? “Yeah, we had to save money.” Well, yeah Sol, you saved money by using lots of different kinds of paper when there were paper shortages during the war, but, Sol, now that paper is readily available again [laughs] we tend to use all the same grade of paper, the worst grade of ultra-absorbent toilet paper that’s available.

Stupid conversation, I don’t know why I was going on with this conversation, I think I just wanted to hear the litany of bulls–t that was attached to his one was. So he says, “Just don’t use any of those heavy colors.” And I said, “Sure, Sol.” [laughing]

SIM: Don’t go over 200% total color.

ADAMS: So I immediately went to my desk and immediately and in as many places as possible used as many colors that totaled more than 200% as I could. Just to find out. I wanted to see a book come in that slid all over the place on the press. [Sim laughs] In fact, I brought a book to Sol, and he said, “See, it’s off-register [color sticking out over the holding line in the drawing] here.” I said, “Sol, virtually every page DC has ever printed has been off-register because our production standards are crap!” I did a sky color on a couple Batman’s where I think I did 25% yellow, 25% red and 100% blue—which still didn’t add up to 200% but which was still considered “out of bounds” at DC at the time. After awhile, people were coming up to me in the production department and saying [awe-stricken voice], “Did you create new colors?”

Oh, God [laughs], “Come and burn me as a witch!” No, it’s not that I’m creating new colors; it’s that you guys aren’t using the colors that you have.

SIM: [They’d] basically amputated a whole section of the color chart saying, “We can’t use anything from here over.”

ADAMS: [laughs] That’s right.

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10 Responses to “Dave Sim/Neal Adams on Color”
  1. Jog says:

    That was a really good issue… fun stuff tucked away all through that series…

  2. rick says:

    Great article! Thanks for going to the work of getting permission to post it!

  3. looka says:

    Just too good a story. That Mr. Adams knows how to do things. G-DAMN!

  4. chan says:

    Get it?
    Seriously, I've never understood the 64 color palette before. The 25/50/75/100 breakdown made me slap my forehead. Now I can make my own work look outdated and primitive!

  5. Robert Goodin says:

    That's a fascinating story. Does anyone find it strange that Neal Adams was coloring his stories? It seems like an odd way for a company to have their #1 hot shit artist spending his time. Especially for a place that didn't seem too interested in color quality.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    "Coloring" a book was as easy writing the color code numbers down on a reduced stat. No actually "coloring" if you knew what you were doing and where you wanted the colors to be… Plus, Adams wife at the time, Corey, was really the color genius of the family.

  7. looka says:

    I find it interesting that artists where, as it seems, "freely moving" (I know that's not how it was, but it sure looks like it) to positions such as parttime colorist or editor in the course of their career at that time.

    I know that, in spots, that happened later too and of course with Kirby at DC or in the 90's with some of the businessmen/artists of IMAGE. But I don't see that going on too much at Marvel/DC today. Like with the hyperrealistic pencilers that take a lot time to finish their shit, they are possibly happy to not be bothered with other stuff.

    AND: Ok, apart from my last comment being a bit off-topic, concerning the matter of this post, was I saying something so dorkish that it was dumb to you, or why was it deleted? I probably missed something, sorry.

    It was all Beto positive by the way, but I guess it sounded too much like a DH commercial, or something.

  8. Frank Santoro says:

    I deleted your comment cuz it was totally off topic, wrong post.

  9. Steven says:

    Thanks so much for this great post. The effect that Adams' coloring had on me as a kid was dramatic. That rich brown, esp, starting showing up in other DC comics as well at the time.

    The thing is, it needs to be printed on that pulp paper to really be right. Deluxe reprints on slick paper never quite capture what he & the colorists who followed him were able to achieve.

    Plus, just hilarious gossip as well.

  10. Frank Santoro says:

    "The thing is, it needs to be printed on that pulp paper to really be right. Deluxe reprints on slick paper never quite capture what he & the colorists who followed him were able to achieve. "

    You're preachin' to the choir on that one, brother.

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