Among the many juicy tidbits in the Trevor Von Eeden interview in The Comics Journal #298, is the story, which was news to me, that the cartoonist was dating Lynn Varley, who served as the colorist on his groundbreaking Batman Annual #8. Varley would go on, of course, to date and marry Frank Miller, and color many of his works as well.
This got me thinking about the relationship between gender and coloring in commercial comics. Although comics have been very much a boy’s club, it is noticeable that there a number of women have carved out a niche for themselves as colorists. Many of these women had personal relationships (as sisters, girlfriends, wives) with writers and artists.
Examples would include: Marie Severin (sister of John Severin), who was also course an accomplished artist; Glynis Wein (first wife of writer Len Wein), Tatjana Wood (first wife of Wally Wood), and Richmond Lewis (who is the wife of David Mazzucchelli, and did an amazing job coloring Batman: Year One). In some of the classic newspaper comics as well, cartoonists used their wives to help do the coloring. Outside of mainstream comics, Lewis Trondheim’s work has occasionally been colored by his wife.
The reasons for these women becoming colorists vary, of course. Lewis, as I understand it, is a special case because coloring was a sideline from her main career as a painter, and occurred mainly because Mazzucchelli wanted to bring Lewis into his world of comics (she also collaborated on editing Rubber Blanket).
I’d like to see someone do a good gender analysis of why women went into coloring. I’m inclined to see this as something more than mere sexism or the creation of a pink-collar ghetto. One factor at work is that for much of the 20th century, women were more likely to be associated with the decorative arts than men; in commercial comics coloring is often seen as a decorative. I’m not a gender essentialist so I don’t think women have an innately better color sense than men. But for historical and cultural reasons, women in our culture are more likely than men to be raised with color sensitivity.
There is also the fact that a cartoonist’s studio often resembles an old fashion artisans shop, with the main master being assisted by apprentices and family members. Again the classic newspaper strip provides examples, with many cartoonists taking on sons (and sometimes daughters) as assistants.
For at least some of the women we’re talking about (I’m thinking here particularly of Severin, Varley, and Richmond), coloring was clearly an expression of their creativity. They all had a major impact on the history of comics. As Mazzucchelli once suggested, the last person who works on a page of comics art, whether it’s the editor or colorist, often has the biggest impact.