A Brief and Broad History of Post Golden Age-Pre-Digital Comic Book Coloring
If I told you to think of a Silver Age comic book, what image does your mind conjure? Chances are, you’re picturing a comic with bold lines and bright, vibrant colors. Maybe there’s an Ape on the cover. The image in your head is nostalgic, evocative, and inspiring to many artists who try to recreate the look and feel of these funny books from a bygone era. The look of these books however, wasn’t as intentional as you may think. The style of Silver Age comic books, especially in regards to color, was dictated largely by the limitations of what could be achieved under the administrations that published them, and how much said administrations were willing to pay for printing costs. Some artists pushed against these limitations, and others were simply happy to live within them. This article is dedicated to the work of the under-credited color artists and separators who helped define the look of the comic book medium.
Comic books were, and still are, printed as cheaply as possible to maximize profits. Comic books printed today benefit from advancements in printing technology that were unimaginable half a century ago, with better paper, machinery, and most of all, computers. For a large part of their history, comic books were printed on newsprint with Web Press Printers, the same as Newspapers. Because of this, and the color separation methods used, there was a fairly limited color palette that colorists could work with that would reproduce accurately on the medium it was printed on. Through trial and error, the best colorists found ways to use this to their advantage.
How were pre-digital comic books produced?
Throughout their long history, comic books were mostly produced using an assembly line-esque process. In most cases, a writer would turn in a script, which was adapted by a penciller into pictures (sometimes this was the same person). The penciled pages would be handed off to a letterer, who would render the writer’s words into a clean, readable, hand drawn font. The pages would then be handed off to an inker, who would adapt the penciller’s pencils into stark black and white linework which could be photographed for reproduction. The stark black and white linework with lettering would be duplicated, and handed to a colorist who would create a color guide. The original art, along with the color guide, was sent to a color separator who would use the color guide to create the color separations, which would then be photographed separately along with the original art. The photographic negatives would then be sent to an engraver to create printing plates, which would be forwarded to a printer, and voila!
You have a comic book.
At Marvel Comics, the methods used were similar to those outlined above, but with some very important and distinct variations. They worked on what was referred to as “The Marvel Method”, wherein the writer would provide a plot or outline to a penciller (sometimes written down, most times verbally) and the penciller would then create the entire comic based on the outline. The penciled pages would then be handed back to the writer, who would add the dialog before passing it down the line to be lettered, inked and colored. Sometimes the penciller would produce the entire story in pictures without being provided a plot by the writer. In some cases, the penciled pages would be complete with dialog penciled in the margins, which the “writer” would ignore, adding their own preferred dialog overtop erased notes. In this case the “writer” would still get a full writing credit, and the penciller would only receive a penciller credit, despite the fact the penciller did the bulk of the writing. Sometimes the penciller would receive “Co-Plotter” credit, but this was inconsistently doled out, with most conversations of credit happening behind closed doors. This credit discrepancy is something that continues to come to light with time, with fans hotly debating proper credit to this day.
Sometimes multiple, if not all, jobs in the comic making process (penciling, inking, lettering, coloring, and color separation) would be performed by the same person, usually referred to as a Cartoonist. These individuals are relatively rare in comic history, but do exist. Cartoonists become increasingly common the longer comic books continue to exist, with a much larger number of Cartoonists operating today than in pre-computer times.
Vintage Color Printing Theory
When comic books started to catch on in the mid 1930s, most publishers opted for the four color printing method. This printing process used four colors of ink: cyan (blue), magenta (red), yellow, and black.
Every piece of printed material was made up of dots of those four colors. These color dots, when combined with the remaining white of the paper, tricks your brain into filling in the gaps, resulting in merged colors. The denser the dots, the darker or more saturated the color. This method is called four color printing.
For roughly 30 years the American comic book industry largely used the methods I’m about to outline. Sometimes the methods varied, but this was a fairly standardized process for coloring comics across the industry, and aside from changes to print production methods, most colorists still operated using these techniques.
The colorist would use a single black and white copy of the inked art, usually a photostat or xerox, and, with vibrant colored dyes, the colorist would design the color guide for the page. As the page was being colored, the artist would write codes from a color chart on the guide, which the color separators would follow to create the proper color separations.
Mixing the color dyes was a very inexact science, and the shades and proportions of color on the color guides would vary from artist to artist. Each colorist would have a collection of small glass jars to keep dye mixtures in, labeled with their color values, along with two larger glass bottles for refilling and mixing dyes at home. DC comics bought watercolor dyes made by Dr. Martin’s in bulk from the manufacturer’s regular stock, as well as a few special colors made up exclusively for them by Dr. Martin’s. Each colorist would draw from the large bottles in the office when they needed to restock, filling their large glass bottles, then mixing into the small bottles for coloring.
The colorist’s work is supposed to look roughly the way the printed page is supposed to look. The most commonly used dyes were water based Dr. Martin Dyes which were primarily used by DC Comics, however Marvel used powder based Aniline Dyes for a time. The exact method the colorist would use didn’t matter, as long as what they used was coded properly for the separators to follow. Some colorists used markers.
To create the grey in Batman’s costume for example, a code of R2B2 was used. This meant that 25% of Red (R2) and 25% of Cyan (B2) would be mixed to achieve a pale purple, which when mixed with the slight yellow of newsprint, achieved the grey. The red of Superman’s cape however, was YR (100% Yellow and 100% Red), and used the dye Ruby Special, pre-mixed exclusively for DC by Dr. Martin.
The combinations of these tints gave colorists a palette of 64 possible colors to work with, though most colorists usually made use of less than half of them.
In fact, DC Comics did not use 25% Yellow (Y2) or 50% Yellow (Y3) until 1969, when Neal Adams made them incorporate the tints into their coloring process, meaning DC Comics only used a possible range of 32 colors in most of their Silver Age work. On the other end of the Silver Age spectrum you have EC Comics, which, (under the brilliant eye of superstar colorist and Jack of All Trades, Marie Severin) strived to use the full range of 64 colors across all of their books.
Now the kicker is, after all this effort to mix and lay down colors, none of the actual mixed colors saw print. Even if you mixed your colors well, the dye mixes were only guides for the color separators, who followed the guides as closely as possible given the volume of work they were expected to do.
Limiting the palette to 64 colors wasn’t entirely a cost cutting measure, although that was part of it. A palette of 64 colors was about the plateau of what would be discernible on newsprint, anything else would be almost indistinguishable shades of muddy brown. The wider range of colors were more likely to be used on Covers, where Airbrushing and other special effects could be used as they were printed on heavier coated paper stocks which could reproduce such effects more effectively.
Most color separations were done by a single factory founded in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1954 called Chemical Color Plate Corp. Color separation was a job anyone could do, with little to no experience required. In Bridgeport, the job of color separator has been described as being in the same class as grocery store bagger. There has been a long standing urban legend that the staff of Chemical Color Plate Corp was made up of “little old ladies”, but this was not the case. The staff of Chemical Color Plate was made up of anyone who needed a job, regardless of age or gender. In fact, sometimes when the workload was especially heavy, they would literally pull people in from the street and give them a job.
To translate the color guides into color separations, nine sheets of blank acetate would be used for each page — one for each of the three percentages of the three CMY colors (A 25% dot, a 50% dot, and a 100% (or solid) color.) The black and white artwork — originally drawn at twice (and later, one and a half times) the printed size, was photographed using a Kodalith camera designed to take ultra high contrast black and white photos, reduced and printed on a sheet of clear acetate roughly the size of the printed page. This sheet would be used as the key sheet the other sheets were registered to.
The color separators were paid per sheet, and would often try to do as many sheets in a day as possible to make the most of their paycheck. As a standard page would use nine sheets of acetate (or seven at DC pre-1969), if you did color separations for a single comic book page, you would be paid for nine (or seven) sheets worth of work. Because of the pay incentive, and varying degrees of skill on the part of the separators, the color separations were seldom labored over, with the separators preferring speed over accuracy. As you can imagine, this meant that the quality of color separations varied wildly.
Holes were punched in the top of each sheet and placed on a flipboard, similar to old school animation, to ensure everything lined up (or registered) correctly, with the color guide on the bottom layer, and the linework printed on acetate on the top layer, with the rest of the sheets sandwiched in between.
On each sheet of plastic, the separator, using an opaque paint similar to rubylith film, would fill in the appropriate areas on each of the acetates. When dried, the opaquing medium would look like a reddish brown dried blood color. To create the brown of someone’s hair for example, they would paint the same area on three different acetates (the 100% yellow sheet, the 50% red sheet, and the 25% blue sheet).
Once the color guides were fully “translated” and the acetates were finished, each sheet of the three values of each color — the full or 100% value, plus the 50% and 25% values were combined and photographed with halftone screen masks with a process camera to turn them into one piece of film which included the percentage dots and the solid.
So we now have 9 separate pieces of painted plastic that have been reduced to 3 film negatives, and a negative that has the black line art.
A similar process was used for covers, except for effects like airbrushing and gradients, the separators would paint a grey wash for every color, and photograph it with halfscreen tones, having to imagine in their heads what the grey values would translate to in color.
The cover was considered one of the most important parts of the comic, because they were used to sell the books. Covers were usually reserved for more senior separators. Covers, unlike interiors, had proofs made which could be reviewed and adjusted. Once the acetates were combined for each color, proofs of the covers were printed on transparencies and sent to the Comic Publisher’s Editorial office for final approval before being sent to the engraver. Interior proofs would have been too costly to produce for every page, so the color jobs were left as simple as possible to avoid complications and to save costs. At some point in the 1970s, DC started asking for proofs of the first interior page only, for enhanced quality control.
Once approved, the four film negatives (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black Line Art) were sent from the separator to the engraver, where they would be turned into large sheets of metal printing plates. The engraver was often housed at the same facility as the separators. The plates were then sent to the printer, and printed to completion.
Murphy Anderson was an artist with a long history at DC Comics, beginning his career in the 1940s. He was one of the people who could do everything, and was mostly used as a fill in whenever and wherever he was needed, whether it was penciling, inking, coloring, touch ups or more.
In 1973, he started Visual Concepts with his son, and started offering color separation and lettering services. Visual Concepts added a 75% tone to the mix, thereby increasing the palette from 64 to 128 colors. The new 75% tones were coded with a 4, so B4 was 75% blue ink, Etc. Adding the extra tint was as simple as creating three more acetates for the separator to paint and having the colorists indicate those tones on their color guides. In the beginning, Murphy Anderson’s Visual Concepts primarily did color separations for DC and a few of the smaller companies like First and Eclipse.
At first, the expanded palette was wasted in the standard letter-press / newsprint comic books. Too often, the 75% dot printed heavily and looked like a 100% solid, and often printed muddy. It was seldom used… For the time being.
In the 1980s things began to improve as DC moved into the direct market. For a long time, you could only buy comic books through what was called Newsstand distribution, which included grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, bakeries, and… Newsstands! Comic books were originally considered to be disposable. However as the years went on, there was an increased demand for what is called back issues — older issues of comics that weren’t currently on the stands. This created a business opportunity for some store owners to start carrying back issues. Initially, back issues could be found in head shops and some gas stations, but before long entrepreneurs began to open stores dedicated to comic book back issues. The growing popularity of these stores caught the attention of the publishers, which started to provide comic book stores with new stock directly. Eventually, the publishers started producing comics that were sold in comic books stores exclusively. This was called the Direct Market (IE, comic book stores). Initially some of these comics were produced on a higher prestige level, as they were targeted to more serious comic book fans. They were printed on new Baxter, Hudson, or Mando paper stocks, often perfect bound, and were sold at a higher price tag.
When higher quality paper was introduced, it was brighter, sometimes glossy in the case of Hudson, and had little to no ink bleed. This meant that color palettes that had been refined for newsprint over the years were suddenly incredibly bright. Colorists had learned to take into consideration the soft yellow tone of newsprint when choosing their color palettes, which had the benefit of subtly unifying and subduing the colors on the page when their work saw print. But because you couldn’t see what the final colors would look like until the comics were printed, there was a difficult transition period as colorists had to relearn new color palettes to fit the bright new paper that their work was now being printed on. One of the first major examples of this transitional period is Mike W Barr and Brian Bolland’s Camelot 3000, which was one of the first series printed on Baxter paper, and features an overly vibrant color palette Tatjana Wood likely intended for newsprint.
It was not until the industry began publishing comics in these prestige formats on better paper that the 75% tint became part of the norm as colorists used less and less 100% color saturations. The advent of this resulted in an industry wide move to larger color palettes, and a need for more subtle coloring work. By adding the 75% tone, Murphy Anderson’s Visual Concepts raised the standard for colorists, publishers, and their competition at Chemical Color Plate Corp.
Now colorists were working with better-quality printed paper, much more vibrant than how it was printed before, and allowing for greater use of gradients and shading which was previously only possible on covers. They still worked with a limited palette, but still a vast improvement compared to what they’d worked with before.
The better paper stock also opened doors industry wide for what is called Full Process Color, in which the colorist paints the finished piece, which is then photographically reproduced. There are examples of this method being used sparingly in comics since the 1940s in Europe, and by the highly influential and experimental comics magazine Heavy Metal, which as far back as 1977 was able to take full advantage the higher production values inherent in magazine production. Full Process Color had been more commonly used in illustration for magazines, but was seldom used in mainstream comics due to the cost, and paper limitations. Full Process Color didn’t hit the mainstream comic industry until Lynn Varley used it to great effect with her coloring work in The Dark Knight Returns, a prestige format mini series where the inks were printed in blueline, and painted over with watercolor. When the line art transparency was added overtop of the photographed watercolor pages, the effect was unlike anything the Superhero Comic industry had seen before.
In the late 80s, color started to change again with the advent of computer coloring. While slow to catch on, as computers became more affordable the industry began to adopt computer coloring as the new standard. Traditional color separation couldn’t compete with computer coloring. Not only was the color palette expanded infinitely, but colorists could now rely on the colors they were using to be more or less exactly what would print, or at the very least to a much higher degree of accuracy than what was possible before. Demand for traditional color separations dwindled, and ultimately went away. After 33 years in business, Chemical Color Plate Corp folded in 1987.
Color separation is a largely dead area of comic production, but with a renewed interest in the feel and look of older comics, artists are continually chasing ways to replicate and revive this look through digital means. As outlined above, pre-digital comic coloring was an alchemy accomplished by many people working in tandem. The hands that touched the process varied from seasoned vets with an eye for detail, to pay by page workers who just needed to get through another day. To recreate the conditions required to accurately produce modern comics in a pre-digital style seems nigh impossible, but that doesn’t stop artists from trying to achieve veracity when creating work that is reverent to the past.
Do they succeed?
Does it matter?
If you found this article interesting, you owe it to yourself to check out the following links, which were indispensable in my research on this topic. Massive thanks to Elliot R. Brown, Todd Klein, and Guy Lawley at Legion of Andy for their informative and well researched articles, to Heritage Auctions for their archival photos and scans, and an extra thanks to Todd Klein, Guy Lawley, and Lia Taylor for their feedback, correction and verification of certain production elements.
An excellent inside look at Chemical Color Plate from the perspective of someone who got to visit it in person, with anecdotes and photos aplenty!
If you want to know more about Pre-Silver Age comic coloring, this awe inspiring article series on the history of Ben Day Dot printing that could easily fill an entire book. Massive amounts of work went into these articles and if you are interested in comic book printing history, you owe yourself to set aside several hours and give them a read.
The greatest letterer alive shares his memories of his brief stints coloring for DC comics. His blog is excellent in general and offers many deep dives into the minutia of comic lettering through the ages.
If you can track it down, this issue of Marvel Age includes an addendum to How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way about the coloring process.
- Marvel Age #13 (Article: How to Color Comics the Marvel Way)