Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Mik Bennett writes;

Modern comics colouring. I'm writing this to try to explain – thoughtfully, I hope – my problem with it.

First, I want to define the term. When I refer to 'modern colouring', I don't mean the 'bling' (as I call it) – the special effects, the depth of shading and highlighting that only became available in the days of Photoshop and computer tech.

Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

and never before

There are issues with the bling in that affect my problem, so I'll briefly cover it, but the bling isn't my problem. I like the bling.

My problem is with the palette; the choice of colours.

Simply, I find it too dark and too dreary.

No vibrancy or life, and almost always washed out – try to find more than one colour per page in a recent comic. Two, if they're pushing it. Try to find something that isn't in the hazy, 'olive' end of the hue.
Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Beautifully rendered colours, but so dreary.

Is that supposed to be a forest? That's the Crimson Commando, btw:

Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

I can't tell the difference in those reds…

Colour ranges:

Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

old and new

In a time when comics take themselves far too seriously, it seems like there's a ban on bright colours; as if bright colours can't be taken seriously, and therefore can't be popular.

Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

It'll never sell.

In fact, good luck finding anything that isn't basically orange. So many comics these days just feel so orange.
Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Orange is dry. Orange is dull.

It gives a post-Apocalyptic feel to the comics. Has an Apocalypse happened to the Marvel and DC universes, and we weren't told about it?

I don't see it nearly as much orange / earth tones in real life as in comics – in these days when realism is the buzzword. By the way, I live in Australia!

Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
If you can't get that much orange here, where can you get it?

I got into comics in the late 80s, when comics generally followed a bright but realistic palette. It's what I grew used to. Now, instead of this inviting, bright, vibrant world, it's all this dull, dreary, depressing post-Apocalypse. Always orange, always dull.
Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Original vs. New & improved

The depth and detail of the colours in the second are far better rendered; but the colours themselves are duller and more washed out. Note the lack of white.

(This is far from the worst example, but one of the few where I've got new and old versions of the same image.)

Cognitive Dissonance and the Uncanny Valley

There's a concept called 'uncanny valley' (which has nothing to do with the X-Men).

Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Tom Hanks: real, cartoon, CG

The idea is that, if you want something to look right, you can either go completely human or completely inhuman. Just a little off, however, is wrong; it creates cognitive dissonance.

Comics, Catfish And Colour – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

That's why you can look at, say, C3P0 and not be completely put off; or you can look at a human being and not be put off… but those almost-human Japanese robots? <shudder>

That's where the bling causes problems. It looks just realistic enough that your mind tells you to expect realism in the colours; but you don't get it, so it tells you you're constantly looking through a filter. Something's wrong with the light!
Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about. This is supposed to be Persuasion; but instead of a purple-skinned girl, my mind has always told me this is a normal girl under very purple light. Since long before I began articulating this kind of thing, I've thought the solution would be, simply, to put another character next to her, with lighter (real) skin tones.

The bling also tends to cover up the drawings; but it's one kind of art vs. another.

Whether that's a problem or not is entirely subjective. Even more than everything else in this essay.

Your face is subjective!

Yeah. Thanks for that.

Worlds of Wonder

One thing I always appreciate in my escapism is a world that I want to visit. A wondrous place that I like to spend time in – a lot of time. Month after month.

This new, dull world, that Marvel and DC give me is not that.

The problem there is, it's alienating. It happens on a subliminal level, but I just don't feel like I want to be part of the world I'm seeing. My emotions rebel, and bury themselves, and I'm not 'in' the comic… Just reading it, detached, like a detached guy.


Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

It's like living in this kind of gloom all the time.

(This is Google Streetview of Wilson, North Carolina, near Vicks Elementary School.)

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

I'd rather live here.

… Wait a second, I do live here! How did they find my house?

These dreary-coloured worlds washed out in orange are not places I want to spend a lot of time in.

But all the video games are washed out in orange.

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

If All Your Friends Were Named Cliff, Would You Jump Off Them?

In the first place, games do that because of a memory problem trying to make a realistic colour scheme with multiple colours. I'm not going to explain it fully here, but the keyword is 'radiosity'.

In the second, I'm not all that into games. Sorry. Citing them as an example won't help.

You love movies, and they do the same thing!

True, I do. But not for that, and I'm not fond of the new black-and-white age of movies.

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

I love some of these movies, but that cold steel blue or orange-only zone is not why.

NB: X-Men seem to be an exception; they often are a cold steel blue. It's no better than the orange.

You want a good way to do thematic colours? Try this movie:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
A mildly successful film

This move was colour-coded; but not by timing the colours until it was effectively monochrome; they just made sure most of the colours they shot at any given 'location' were similar; the forest moon of Endor was greens, Tatooine was oranges and earth tones; Imperial areas were cold greys and blues. All the Star Wars movies pulled this off, but the last did it most obviously – and still well. Real life does that; most areas will be, basically, one colour – but not at the cost of all others.

For me, movies like Batman Forever and Superman Returns were unsuccessful as follow-ups in part because their colour schemes were so different to the originals (but note: that's only part of the reason).

Yes, yes, you're one of those people who hates orange and teal.

I've got nothing against those colours.

Sure you do. Teal is basically blue, and nothing frightens you more than the colour blue.

Uh… true. But that has nothing to do with movies!

It's because of a movie!

Okay, wise guy, it's got nothing to do with why I hate that movies are so overdependent on those colours!

It's artistic!

Did you just accuse Michael Bay of art?
And when everybody is doing exactly the same thing, it ain't art.

It's realistic. Look out your window… Those colours exist in the real world.

Look out my window? Okay. I'll do that. I do see orange. I don't see teal, but the sky is a sort of bruised blue colour.
You know what else I see? That I don't see in comics and movies anymore?
Other colours.
I see trees of green. Red roses, too. The colours of the rainbow, all pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of the people passing by.

You don't see all that.

Okay, Louis Armstrong I ain't… but the dominant colour I see right now is green. It often is. The outside isn't washed out in an orange-and-teal wasteland.

This:Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

could never recapture the spirit of this:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Further, every single jet has only red lighting:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Who designed this thing, Cyclops?And monitor rooms have none at all:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

All that high-tech equipment, and you can't afford a light bulb?

San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Something Dead In Your Hair)

Poor San Francisco seems to be the worst-hit city. So I tried an experiment. I took a picture of San Francisco from the X-Men:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Curse of the Mutants#2: Dreary, but at least it isn't orange. Well, maybe a bit.

Then I took a picture of San Francisco from the Teen Titans:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

#88: The orange wash here is at least subtle; but compare their jeans to your own. Do they really look that colour?

Then I took a picture of San Francisco:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Note the colour scheme; blue sky, vibrant colours…


That's hardly fair. That issue of Teen Titans is set in the evening. Light is orange then.

"There's always a canal, or an inlet, or a fjord."

Okay, so I went through a few earlier issues of Titans:
Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Those are from 72, 71 (late evening! Not orange, just very dark blue), 71 again (orange) and 69.

… I sort of gave up looking after that. I felt my point had been made; they want it to be orange all the time.

I spent a day in San Francisco, and you know what I learned? San Francisco has days. It isn't in constant sunset. That's, like, five minutes a day. It's like comics creators believe the sky in SF is orange.

Here's 70, which wasn't set in SF:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Worse, from Uncanny X-Men vs Agents of Atlas #1:

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit


They go from SF to Marin County, and the sky goes from orange to blue. I had to look it up to see if SF and Marin were in a different time zone or something to explain it (I don't know US geography, and this was before I actually went from SF to Marin County). How to get from San Francisco to Marin County:

1. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge.

That's it. You're there.

It's like they believe that's the actual colour of the sky in SF. (Also, note: this was at sunset, I believe… if they're saying the sky did change colour in that time, it should've gone night black, not day blue.)

It feels more like 'I want washed out colours like a computer game, how do I excuse it?' than 'what is the best / realest colour scheme for this comic at this time?'

It's their choice for it to be constantly evening – the writer's or the colourist's. I don't know which. Probably not the artist's? but I can't tell. They didn't draw the shadows, which might've answered the question.

Is the sky ever entirely orange? I've seen orange in the sky. A lot, sometimes… but no, I've never seen the entire sky entirely lit up in just orange. Not even in San Francisco. Not even in evening.

I've also seen the colours get that orange wash in real life – the 'Golden Hour'. However, it lasts about ten minutes a day – it hasn't been constant for the last ten years – and it's way more subtle in real life. It looks good in part because it's rare.

The sun's been setting on the Marvel and DC universe for twenty years.

There's no need for it. And the times when comics do need orange colouring lose power because everything is orange.

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Where's Wally?
Oh, yeah, I went there.
Seriously, spot Sasquatch in this picture.
Should be easy, hunh? He's the biggest one.

It isn't realistic. And these days, everything that's done is justified with 'realistic'.

We get it. You hate orange.

No. That's not my point. My point is, use it where it works, where it makes sense. Not every. Single. Time. Sometimes it works.

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Like when it's meant to be post-Apocalyptic.

One of the problems, as Sasquatch just demonstrated, is that if it's used all the time, then it doesn't stand out when it's needed.

Oranges are a sometimes food

Come with me on a trip to an ice cream shop. Let's say my favourite flavour of ice cream is Bohemian Raspberry. I love the raspberriness of it, I love the crumblings of cake dough sprinkled throughout. I keep going to the shop that sells it – the only shop that sells it. Then, one day, they discontinue it.

I keep going – they have other flavours I like, caramel, chocolate, strawberry; but none that I like as much. Every once in a while, I ask if they'll bring Bohemian Raspberry back, but they tell me there's no demand. I know several other people who ask the same question, but ever since they changed the recipe, 'there's been no demand'.

Then a Denny's opens up across the road, and they soon figure out that bacon is great. People love it. So they put it on everything.

Soon, the ice-cream shop branches out; it starts selling bacon, too. Bacon and eggs, bacon by itself, bacon waffles… and soon it figures out something obvious: if bacon's great, and ice cream is great, together they must be simply wonderful!

I don't buy the bacon flavoured ice cream. I keep asking for ice cream without bacon, but it gets harder and harder to find. Ultimately, I have to look in one obscure corner. There's bacon-free ice cream there, but it's vanilla. Not the actually flavourful vanilla, either, but the plain ice cream that gets called vanilla. I buy it, and it even tastes great – but only compared to the bacon-flavoured stuff that's all I can get. Bacon and chocolate, bacon and caramel, bacon and strawberry… Ugh. The flavours don't mix. Sure, there are a ton more 'varieties', but they all have bacon, and almost all of them are only a slight variant of bacon and caramel. – did I mention that the bacon flavour completely overpowers the caramel, so that all you're getting is bacon, and you can't even taste the caramel anymore?

I notice how thin the crowds are getting at the shop, and how much more popular it was when it had the baconless ice cream I loved so much. They explain that it's because of the Hooters that opened up a block away; it's driving out their own business and Denny's. It's nothing they're doing.

Then finally, they tell me what I've been wanting to hear – they're bringing back Bohemian Raspberry.

Excited, I come in on the day… and it's covered in bacon. "This isn't what I wanted. Do you have it without bacon?"

"Certainly not." The server sniffs at me disdainfully. "There's no demand for it."

I look around at the half-empty store, and remember how crowded it was when they didn't sell just bacon. I look at the people behind me, saying they still love Bohemian Raspberry because they remember it without bacon.

I turn and walk away sadly.

Which actually involves whingeing loudly to whoever will listen.

"You pitiful fool; don't you like bacon?" is the only answer I can get.

"Sure. I love it… but I'm vegetarian."

I look at that vanilla in the corner, and wonder if it's enough to keep me coming back to the shop.

It's the inverse ninja law: one ninja is unstoppable. A herd of ninjas is a pushover.

And there's nothing left for people who want bright, inviting colours. They hooked me with the good stuff, got my loyalty, and dumped me with this.

Actually, the photo above kind of demonstrates another favourite darkening trick of modern times; showing bright backgrounds, but keeping people's faces in shadow all the time. This one is more subtle, but it means that the part you most want / need to see is shaded. It's like a bad photographer taking all their pictures with the people backlit. (I never said I was a good photographer – but I'm not professional.)

Memories of Green

What's missing? Two colours are conspicuous in their absence: green and white.

Whatever Apocalypse turned everything to a dry, dull orange killed all the plants. Look for green in a comic, I challenge you; the green of grass, of plants, of growing, living things. No, not algae and pond scum. Plants. (Which, technically, pond scum is…) Not green on costumes that were designed thirty years ago, but the green you see in the average forest. Or on a houseplant.

Even the costume green (or plant green) is darkened beyond recognition these days.

Sure, you get some white in the word balloons, but rarely in the actual artwork. It's rare even in the space between panels these days. Another favourite darkening technique is drawing everything on black paper (I believe that began with the backgrounds in Batman TAS; but it made sense there.)

Remember when Nicki at work told you about her art teacher telling her that there's no white in the real world? You know what they meant.

I do. That you have to leave room for shading. That there's subtle gradations all the time.


1. I don't know Nicki's art teacher. Why should I care what they say?

2. I'm not concerned with what some teacher calls realistic; I'm concerned with the feeling of warmth and invitation. Saying it's 'realistic' is the usual excuse to everything I dislike in comics; gloominess, nasty characters, depressing storylines, militarism, overreliance on 'science'… Why would I even want realism in superhero comics?

3. Whether it's skill or material that's lacking, when people try it, they never get it to look properly white. The subtle shading needed is just never there. (And, therefore, neither is that 'realism' they were talking about.)

4. The image will never be whiter than the paper it's printed on. Something as white as what you're looking at exists – by definition. Or by defenestration. So what's the point of even arguing there's no white?

A lot of the time the images are blurred together, and look really, really muddy.

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Born on the bayou!

Is this realistic? Inviting? Do you want to spend your life looking at that kind of colour scheme?

An experiment for those at home: take off anything that comes between your eyes and the outside world, and look around your room. Then look out your front door on a sunny day. If you need glasses to see with, this should work better; if all you see is colours. Note the dynamic range, note the amount of light, note the contrast. The real world does. Not. Wash its colours down to one shade of mud. It does not blur colours together the way comics do, with no real sharpness between them.

The only place it real life does that is under a muddy ol' river.

Who makes these things? Who lives like that?Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Of course!

Only a catfish could find this type of colouring realistic. Where do they get underwater comic shops? That's what I want to know! Do they keep ClanDestine under 'C'? (That under 'C' / undersea pun works better spoken. Which is not to say it works then, either.)

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Worst case of Catfish Colouring I've ever seen!

I'm not gonna make a 'Mud-ern Colour' pun. But I will coin the term 'catfish colouring'.

In terms of mood, it's claustrophobic and depressing. Precisely what I don't want in my superhero comics; which should be bright and optimistic – or what am I reading for?

It's as if they're trying to find a way to artificially induce S.A.D. (Note that the treatment is light! Exactly what comics are losing.)

Sometimes the gloomy colouring suits the story! Didn't you say that it works for you when it's in the right type of story?

What have I ever said that would make you believe I want to read gloomy stories?

A part of the problem is that colouring is done on computer nowadays. The colours look way brighter there than on the final page.

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Too dull

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Too garish – but it printed out great.

So can computers do bright, inviting colours?

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
I think it's possible.

Am I the only person in the world who feels this way?

This thread would indicate not.

Though they do insist on calling the style 'realistic' right to the end, though one has the grace to put the word in quotes.

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

If this colour scheme looks realistic to you, get your eyes checked, or the lighting around where you live.
NB: this scene is outside. At day.

Then could you do any better?

Such a stupid question.


1. This isn't about 'better'; I'm not saying any colourist lacks skill. I'm saying their choices are unappealing.

2. It isn't my job to do better. It is theirs – and as one of the people paying them to do it, I reserve the right to ask them to make it appealing.

3. Speaking of whose job it is: DC and Marvel can do better. They've been proving that for years.

4. It doesn't take a good colourist to recognise a bad one.

5. Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

That's probably about the best I can do. (Also, look at the Masques book cover above.) This has a dynamic range of colour (ie: more than one).
Okay, it looks more orange and teal than it would if I'd done it today. But I didn't.

It isn't at all claustrophobic.

It has white. The colours are all similar because it shows similarly-coloured things, not because of 'bad lighting'. Which is what I'm asking for.

Not true of your book cover.

*Sigh*. True. But that isn't for a superhero comic; and I went through a lot of work to get it vibrant. It was dull and cold for a long time before I got it right (I had to work on it at home and print it out at work. It took a while).
True, it is only one colour; but a brighter one than most comics use these days.

So that's why I don't like the modern colouring style in comics.

It's easy to talk about what you don't like.

Yeah… yeah, it is.

So what do you like?

Click image for larger version.  Name:	AF1_1.jpg  Views:	3  Size:	139.2 KB  ID:	2898Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Comics, Catfish And Colour &#8211; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

So why don't you buy comics that are more like that?

I told you – nobody's making them. The new JLI and Green Arrow… maybe. (NB… since I first wrote this, Green Arrow got dull, and JLI got cancelled. Young Avengers is looking good, and Wolverine and the X-Men.) I don't want to give up on comics, but it's getting really hard to find anything I can relate to – and the colour schemes are a big, if subliminal part of that.

Can we please have a return of the bright style of the 70s and 80s, so I can have a comics world I want to visit?

P.S. 'colour' is a perfectly cromulent spelling in Australia. And the UK.



About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

twitter   facebook square   instagram   globe