This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on February 9, 2017.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Recoloring comics: the misguided destruction of a work of art or updating it for a new generation?
Thanks for the softball, bro. In a week where we decided to approve someone with no experience to oversee the dismantling of American education and a white supremacist to oversee our Justice Department, I really needed something easy to tackle.
What? You thought I wasn’t going to talk about the fact that the world has gone insane? Sorry, but there’s no escaping it. If it makes you feel better, the rest of this column will be about how recoloring comics is a really bad idea, but still not nearly as bad as electing a nepotistic, authoritarian, man-child with no ethical boundaries to the office of President.
Answering this question is easy because all you need to do is point to prominent examples and how literally none of them were a good idea. We’ve got Flex Mentallo up top, The Killing Joke in the middle, and The Incal at the bottom. The first and last of these are easily defined as classics, and the mid-point is still a well-crafted comic, albeit an incredibly overrated one. Just look at all three of these side-by-side comparisons. Now. Do it now. Did you notice how the original coloring on the left is vastly superior to the new coloring on the right?
Great. Case closed. Now we can all get back to calling our Senators.
I’m kidding. You know I can’t actually deliver a short answer. There’s more at play here, and I do want to get into that. However, you really should still call your Senators and Representative once we’re really done here.
So I think the thing that can be dismissed out of hand is the choice to recolor a comic without any input from the original team. If DC Comics picks up Watchmen and decides it could use a new coat of paint, that’s just one more sin in their ever-growing stack of sins regarding that book. There’s no valid reason for a publisher or non-creative owner to add to or alter a work based on their own whims or desires. I’ll happily include shit like the new black-and-white edition of that book and the prequels as well. It’s all a creatively bankrupt cash grab, and we have no time for that nonsense.
There’s a bit of an exception to be made and that comes with the word “restoration”. It’s important to make a distinction between restoring colors and recoloring though. The former is meant to create the effect of the original when it has been diminished by time or wear. This is like when the Criterion Collection offers restored films. The goal with each addition was to take what was in hand and make it as much like the original experience as possible. It reveals a devotion to the artist or artist’s intent, and it’s designed to be invisible in nature. Recoloring is a reinterpretation or addition. It removes and replaces an original component of the text, creating an entirely new experience. Recoloring is the same as rewriting dialogue or redrawing panels, it alters the work in a way that denies the original’s existence.
And so here we arrive at what is probably the other exception you might expect me to make: What if the original artist wants to recolor the comic?
So? What if? I don’t fucking care. Everything I just said still stands. It alters the work in such a way as to make it something else entirely. It’s still bullshit.
Let’s tackle this subject with the example that everyone likes the least here: The Killing Joke. This comic is not a profound statement on sanity, it’s not even in the top 90% of Alan Moore’s collected works. The Killing Joke is a pretty good Batman story (top 5%, if you want more off-the-cuff categorizations) with some really spectacular artwork from Brian Bolland. Famously, Bolland wanted to color the original comic, but was unable to due to time constraints. Instead, it was colored by John Higgins.
Many years later Bolland was allowed to go back and recolor The Killing Joke because DC Comics cares about artistic vision and wanted to do right by their creators. Or because they saw a chance to cash-in on old IP while failing to make anything new or interesting. Take your pick. It’s a choose your own adventure story with a right answer, but fairy tales are fun too.
Anyway, Brian Bolland recolored The Killing Joke and it fucking sucked.
Higgins’ colors were a garish delight. They highlighted the carnival setting and the unreality of the entire story. Bolland’s colors are dour and realistic and really don’t fit the story in any meaningful way. And you might think: Weren’t you just talking about the integrity of artist’s and their intentions?
Yeah, but let me emphasize what I’m really interested in: the integrity of the work. Comics are often a time-driven and collaborative enterprise. That means compromises are made and not everyone gets what they want, if anyone does. But all of that is present in the final work, for better or worse. The suggestion of recoloring a comic, completely removing and replacing one key element isn’t an adjustment, it’s a recreation. It doesn’t matter that a single collaborator is the source of that adjustment. The act for any reason or by anyone makes the thing itself something new.
I’m not going to dive into analogies with movies because some are close and others not so much depending on the alterations. But we can all agree Lucas’ new versions of the original films suck just as much as the alterations made by Bolland to The Killing Joke. Both of these people took something that was made better by their creative compromises with talented creators and limited constraints, then went hogwild turning standards into horseshit.
My bottom line here is that the work is the work. The Incal, Flex Mentallo, The Killing Joke, and so many other comics came to be considered classics because of what they are. Recoloring them is to discard the classic and try to offer an imitation as the same thing. It’s iron pyrite. Even worse, it dismisses the value of the colorist in the actual classics as if their work is shoddy when it ought to be revered.
So fuck recoloring comics.
But what about adding color? If you’re expecting more tirade, you’re out of luck. Adding color is fine if the creators are into it. Just check out new editions of Scott Pilgrim with colors by Nathan Fairbairn or Blue Monday with colors by Jordie Bellaire. Those comics fucking rock. They also present themselves as alternative takes, new ways to look at familiar material with the additions of talented artists working with the original creators.
Essentially, those comics are honest and almost no recolored comic ever is.