Comic Book Coloring: Then and Now

A while back, Josh was over at my place and I was showing him the Secret Wars Omnibus because a.) It’s an awesome bit of bombastic storytelling from our Marvel childhood (i.e. Marvel’s Golden Age), and b.) Because the extras in the Omnibus are fantastic.

One of the things that is featured in the extras were pages and pages of artist Mike Zeck’s uninked and uncolored pages.  We marveled (heh) over the fact that Zeck’s pencils were so detailed and full of texture, and yet when you looked at the corresponding finished pages in the book the art was, by comparison, flat and lifeless.

After comparing five or six of the penciled pages to the finished versions, it became clear how much comic book production has come in the past 20 years. 

Below you’ll find two examples of old school coloring, taken from the Secret Wars Omnibus, followed by two pages from The Flash: Rebirth #2, which is an example of modern day coloring and production.

The cover to Secret Wars #1 is so dynamic and so iconic that it doesn’t even matter that the coloring style is essentially akin to someone filling in a coloring book.

The coloring book style from the 1980s doesn’t do anything to enhance the artwork.  What does end up happening is that the uniform nature of the coloring (i.e. the lack of meaningful shading) helps to create a flat look.

When I think dynamic modern day coloring I immediately think of the work that Alex Sinclair has been doing on The Flash: Rebirth.  The yellow lightning constantly crackling around Barry Allen adds a lot to the constant feeling of movement in this book.  You can also see that the colorist is the one for most of the background texture, especially in the sky and the water in the above page.

Backgrounds, light sources and shading are where modern day colorists really do their strong work these days and the above page shows that off pretty well.  The cave wall and the cave paintings have a unique look and that’s all from the colorist.  The green glow of the computer monitor on Robin is also a nice touch.

The purpose of this article isn’t to call out the coloring in Secret Wars as being bad, or to slag off the people who did good work back then. (In fact, let’s thank the Secret Wars colorist for their work — Christie Scheele and Nel Yomtov, thanks!), it’s more to point out the differing philosophies behind comic book production between the early 1980s and today.  Comic books were much more disposable back twenty years ago, and the idea of keeping every issue you ever purchased safely sealed away in mylar wasn’t as pervasive as it is now.  These days, from the pencils to the inks to the colors to the letters to the cover design and art work, comic books are a first class artistic endeavor because that’s what the modern audience expects and demands.

(You also get what you pay for — each issue of Secret Wars cost $0.75 back then)

We always talk about the penciller and sometimes we even talk about the inker, but rarely does the colorist get talked about these days, and it’s a shame because the colorist is as much responsible for the look of a comic book as anyone else.  Sometimes more so.  A good colorist can enhance less than stellar pencils and, as we’ve seen lately with Marvel, a bad colorist (or coloring philosophy) can muck up even the best pencils.  I’d even argue that the coloring in Secret Wars (and other comics of the 1980s) is better than some of the coloring we see now because while the coloring back then didn’t enhance the pencils, they certainly didn’t hurt them either.

So the next time you’re making your way through your stack of books, take some time to appreciate what the colorist brings to the table.


  1. Jeff Reid (@JeffRReid) says:

    I like the side-by-side comparisons.  That first Secret Wars one is very interesting.  Iron Man actually looks metallic more in the penciled version than the final colored one.  I buy the light glinting off his armor there more. 

    Also, poor Mr. Fantastic and Thor.  The logo is more important than you two.

  2. It’s hard to think about coloring without using photoshop.  I don’t know how they did it back then.  

  3. I’d argue that you guys have discussed colouring (yes, with a u) quite a bit recently, most recently in Cap 50, but also in things like Umbrella Academy or Phonogram. It’s something most people wouldn’t immediately notice, but I’ve certainly found myself appreciating good colourists (yes, with a u) recently.

    It may also be worth noting that a large portion of improvement in colouring (yes, with a u) is down to advancements in digital technology. I know things like lighting and textures can be done much more easily now in Photoshop than they could 20 years ago. Hell, I’m not a great artist but I can occasionally make some colouring (yes, with a u) effects in Photoshop look not half bad.

  4. I’ll admit I usually take coloring for granted. I need to soak up more comic goodness and get my 3.99 dollars worth. Recent comics where I noticed and admired the coloring were/are Ex Machina, The Spirit (I only read Darwyn Cooke’s run), and All Star Superman.

  5. I appreciate the reminder to stop and smell the shading. I find that I normally only think about coloring when it’s bad. Outside of Cap, I rarely pay attention to it unless I’m reading my Silver Age DVDs going, "Whoof. That… that is rough."

    I am stunned speechless to learn after all these years that people were deleted from the cover of Secret Wars. I’m going to need some time.

  6. Nice article,I’m a big believer in giving colourists their props.

    I guess technology has a lot to do with the differences in colouring from then and now.I remember there was a big shift in the early 90’s,around the time Image first started up and people were going crazy with new effects like light emanating from things or being reflected off metal.

    My favourite colourist is Lee Loughridge, I can usually spot his style a mile away.Nice and subtle,generally sticking with a particular palette for the course of a scene to establish mood.His work on Fables with Buckinghams pencils is always amazing,his work on Fear Agent is great too.


  7. I still remember the first time i noticed coloring in a book was in the Spider-Man/Batman one shot drawn by mark bagley. The coloring was done by Electric Crayon i think and it was just superb.

  8. As a similar kind of comparison did you guys see the recoloured re-issue Jim Lee door poster Marvel are putting out in relation to Chris Claremont’s X-men Forever series. The modern colouring looks great.

  9. Although I appreciate the coloring in the modern examples, I still find that coloring manages to take the oomph out of great inks and pencils and make it mediocre and there are examples of that in the modern and older examples you brought. (I love the surface of the cave, the lightning around Flash, the water, the lively look of the city etc. but it also takes something out of the comics).

    Also digital coloring isn’t using its abilities too often it seems. I love the way Karolina was colored in her alien mode in the first vol. of Runaways, and that in Green Arrow Year One when he’s in a hole and we see the sun shining through and it is bright and blinding a bit. 

    There’s nothing wrong with regular coloring, but people aren’t using the tools  available to them or so it seems. You really need to see old/er hand coloed comics – it’s fantastic and maybe I’ll scan some pages. The coloring-book style isn’t the only old coloring style, and it’s a shame to lose hand colored comics.

  10. Even more fascinating! 😉


  11. Thank you FCO for your work on invincible.


  12. Very nice article.

    Something that you didn’t touch on here, Conor, is the use of color that’s not simply "coloring" in between the lines. The Flash example above, while amazingly detailed, still has blue water, green GL uniform, a red Flash uniform, etc. And that works really well for a super-hero comic. But I’m also fascinated by colorists who use colors to "light the set," in a specific manner, adding mood and atmosphere to the scenes. You see this a lot in Vertigo books (The Losers springs to mind). Panels that are all shades of red or blue or green. Where backgrounds are stylistically muted rather than muted by necessity. There’s some great stuff out there where colorists are allowed to really take some creative license. 

    Another very unique coloring example would be the recent Hawaiian Dick mini-series with its painted watercolor look. There’s NOTHING else out there that looks like that book. Very cool use of color.

  13. Not gonna lie, I’m getting a little sick of the near-constant haranguing of Marvel’s coloring style. It’s not like it’s even the same style on every book.

  14. ARGH! Now that I know there were two missing characters on that cover I can’t help notice all the weight in the picture centers on Cap’s obscured shield!

    Good article. The first time I remember thinking that coloring was important was on Ruse from CrossGen back in the day. Brilliant title that got culled before it’s time. As a matter of fact it won a 2002 Eisner for Coloring. It was done by… Laura DePuy Martin who also did Ministry of Space for Image.  I believe she also does the coloring on JMS’s Thor run and often colors the covers of John Cassaday. I remember there was a "back-up" in one issue of Ruse that showed the reader how she colored each issue. It was quite insightful. That was really the first book where I was like "Wow this coloring rocks!"

    As well, I liked the coloring on kitschy-sex farce Codename: Knockout’s covers. Brilliant stuff there. As modern books go I love the coloring on Flash: Rebrith and the colorist they use with Ivan Reis on GL. Thor stands out to me. As does the coloring on Iron Man under Larocca. That and the work of Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba always seems to be paired with brilliant coloring.

    Gushing over! 

  15. @daacampo I agree with you. However, it seems to be something that doesn’t mesh with current readers of comics! In the most recent issue of Uncanny X-Men every other panel set in the X-Mansion was seen through a light filter. At the end of the Issue Wolverine asks for the Emergency Klaxon to be taken off. Apparently many readers didn’t get it, or put two and two together. (Now Granted this is a Greg Land book and I don’t want to start that talk here…) So… I think yeah, stylistic coloring is best left in Vertigo books! (As well, I’m relatively certain the same trick was used in Astonishing X-Men under Cassaday)

    And Hawaiian Dick is one of my favorite books out there precisely because everything about that book puts me in the mindset to read it, right down to the muted watercolors.  

  16. I’d like to take this time to thank all the colorist for the fantastic job they do.

    I love color, yes I do.  I love color, how about you?

  17. There’s obviously good and bad examples of each type (old school vs new school coloring), but in general I have to say that I appreciate the old coloring more, in general. I like my cartoons to look like cartoons. I don’t like cartoons pretending to look real or three-dimensional, because ultimately they can’t help but fail at that and, anyway, I’m reading a comic so I want fantasy. I’m staring at the cover to Captain Britan #8 now, which happens to be sitting on the floor next to my desk. It’s beautiful. It’s cool. But overall, I’d rather have less computer influence in my comics. Next to Cap Brit #8 is my X-Men: From the Ashes tpb. Beautiful Paul Smith art colored very simply. It looks like something made by human hands. It looks like a cartoon that’s trying to express pure human emotions. In contrast, I find that modern coloring makes many comics these days look almost like stills from an overbudgeted, cliche Hollywood action movie drenched in cgi. I’m more of a "writing over art"guy, though, so maybe that’s why I tend to undervalue visual production. Modern production techniques in comics usually seem like a bunch of expensive pomposity. They sure do like purdy and sparkly, though. It’s kind of ironic that so many people today scoff at the chromium covers of the ’90s, when you basically have even more visual gimmicks going on in the actual comic pages now.

  18. Nice article!  Seeing the contrast laid out so starkly is really fascinating.

    On another note, I’ve never read Secret Wars, but I think I have to, because that panel with Scott, Logan, and Clint is everything I love about comics.

  19. Even nowadays coloring can be detrimental to the art of the book. For instance, Bryan Hitch’s current art on Fantastic Four always looks muddy and dirty, while his art on The Authority always looked clean and crisp, and it was much easier on the eyes. I’m sure his penciled pages for both books looked a bit similar, but thanks to the different inkers and colorers, one book turned out much better than the other.

  20. I’d be curious to see somebody today color those original pencils from Secret Wars.

  21. This is a bit eerie. I was just thinking about emailing you guys about colorists and what you look for in good coloring and lo and behold here are my answers. Coloring always seems like the aspect of art that I look past the quickest, maybe because it’s the surface layer, we take it for granted.

  22. Zeck’s pencils are pretty awesome.  What a nice extra for the Omni.  I love modern coloring so much.  Dave Stewart is flippin’ awesome.

  23. The first thing I thought when I saw the first Zeck pencil, was "wow, that’s an awesome thor!"

  24. I just noticed that, for no reason mortals can fathom, between the pencils and the final version they saw fit to change Janet’s hairstyle to something completely ridonkulous. At some point during post-production, she joined the Dreadnoks.

  25. @Jimksi. Wow. I would have never caught that. That is a proposterous change. What in the hell could have been the reason for that?

  26. Hmmm….is it weird to say I love the coloring more on past comics then present? Cause I think the coloring for Flash is pretty ugly comparing it to Secret Wars.

    Dave McCaig and Val Staples are my favorite colorists. McCaig does more of Francis Yu’s work and Punisher MAX introduced me to Staples. I really want to pick up Criminal just for the coloring.

  27. Sinclair is alright.

    can’t beat the colorists in the eighties though, -windsor-smith, varley, higgins. 

    Nowadays its too easy for a crappy colorist to slap on some artificial shine

  28. A great colorist can really elevate the work of a penciler and/or inker. They also often have the unenviable task of helping a book get to press on time as one of the last steps in the chain.

    Guys like Dave McCaig, Sunny Gho, Arif Prianto, and lots of others make my job a real pleasure!

    Take care,

    Filip Sablik

    Publisher, Top Cow Productions

    Read Berserker #0 for free on

  29. I generally agree with what you’re saying, but I actually agree with TNC here, I prefer the SW coloring over the Flash.

    When it’s well-done, today’s coloring is simply amazing.  But with so many coloring tools available, there’s also a tendency to overdo things today as well.

  30. Grr! Curse you Kilpatrick! Now I must bye the Omnibus, for this awesomness it poses, there goes another chunk o change.

    As for the coloring, I’ll say that this is why I love buying the Essentials and Showcases, I know they aren’t for everyone, but the lack of color really makes certain things pop in a way, you can really see the detail (until the 90’s once you get to Essential Wolverine Vol. 4/5 everything gets a little hard to make out minus colors, but that’s for another time). It is interesting to see the ways the industry has grown. I think it’s possible to like both styles of coloring, looking at both going "Wow, how far we have come."

  31. The colouring in Fear Agent is fucking insanely good. Lee Loughridge and Michelle… Madsen? They alternate with Moore and Opena respectively. I love it.

    Bill Crabtree rocks on Invincible, too.

  32. I REALLY appreciate today’s coloring. When I first got back into comics, I thought "How hard can coloring really be today?". Well I downloaded some inked art and actually tried to color it. My ‘work’ turned out HIDEOUS and I am being generous. Kudos to todays coloring wizards! They are truly artists.

    *OFF TOPIC*…

    Here is my problem with The Secret Wars Omnibus. For an Omnibus that has a cover price of $100 Bucks, it sure feels kind of light. I mean it has the original 12 part series, an issue of She Hulk, an issue of Thor and a couple of What If’s.. and it still only weighs in at 450 Pages!

    I did some research and was able to to find the entire series for just about 50 bucks. Sure you dont get the extra couple of pages of penciled art, but still.

    If you have never read the series, I would probably recommend this purchase. It really is a must have story for any real Marvel fan out there. If you already have the issues. There really is not a lot here that would justify dropping the scratch for this collection. 

  33. No love for old style coloring? An article about that would be interesting. People had to consider the constraints back then, and they still created iconic looking characters. Would Hulk be as big as he is (stupid puns) today if he was orange? Also seeing more than two pages of just superheroes where you know what color they are colored in, and actually seeing them with some backgrounds would be interesting. How do you with the existing constraints make things pop out at the reader?

    Notice in the second page that Magento is standing on a brown thing and that catches the reader’s attention, and that the pale green pickle in the background doesn’t. It seems people have a mental image of GIR when they think of old-style colorists. I know it might not be the case, but come on… It’s not that simple. 

  34. @chlop I cant help thinking of the Hulk being a "Muscle beach, spray tan, orange" guy now. HYSTERICAL!