Theory: Frank Miller's recent work is good, but it isn't getting the right colour treatment
Above: I recoloured that recent Wonder Woman cover Frank Miller did for DC last week. Mine on the left, the published version on the right. I did this to demonstrate a theory I have that despite the general critical consensus, there’s actually nothing wrong with Frank Miller’s recent art- it’s just that it isn’t getting the appropriate colour treatment.
So- I’m a cartoonist who mostly writes and draws his own material, but in January of this year I tried out to be a colourist for Frank Miller at DC. Not because being a colourist for the comics has always been my dream, but because I kept seeing some pretty awesome drawings of his being critically savaged. People were talking as if his recent drawings were the scrawlings of a lunatic. I felt like I knew why this was, and how to fix it.
I should add a disclaimer- this post isn’t a criticism of DC or the colourist who currently works on Frank’s art, who I’ve talked to, and who I learned was selected by Frank himself. The colourist who did the original work on the pieces I’m about to show you is an extremely technically accomplished person who does things I could never do. I’ve tried colouring like this guy does. It’s pretty hard!
Nor is this intended as a lionisation of my own abilities. Instead, this is a personal argument championing one type of colouring over another, and a defence of Frank’s recent work.
Below is one of the Miller covers I recoloured for DC. My colours on the top, and the published original on the bottom. Here you can see the discrepancy between the potential I saw in these drawings, and what was actually being published.
I spoke to a couple of editors at DC and the consensus seemed to be that they loved what he was turning in. So why did every blog I read think it was the worst work he’d ever done? I believed I had the answer: that the colour treatment DC’s artists were giving to his art was, while technically accomplished, not flattering to the type of work he was doing.
My friend Julian Dassai said it best: “His work is dynamic and, in some cases, verging on abstract. Trying to color his stuff with representational lighting and rendering is pointless, whereas a flat, graphic approach (or just leaving it in b&w) allows the energy to jump off the page.”
My colour job, followed by what DC actually published:
Frank is an artist who is constantly evolving, and his new work seems to be somewhere between Jim Mahfood, Sergio Aragonez and Ralph Steadman. It doesn’t make sense to colour him as if he’s an Image comics artist from the 90’s, all gradients, shadows and shiny metallic finish.
Here’s another one. Again: my work on the top, The published version on the bottom.
All these images I’ve posted so far have two things in common- they were all widely dunked on and derided when they first went online, and they all prompted responses of “WHOA, COOL!” and “I LOVE THIS!” after I recoloured them and circulated them amongst my friends. So what happened here is ol’ Frank became the butt of everyone’s joke when actually, there was nothing wrong with his drawings.
So how did this happen?
Well, check out Frank’s work in the Sin City comics. When Frank works in black and white, he’s a one-man band. But when he works in colour, he hangs back and gives the colourist a lot of space. He knows that colours and inks are two halves of a whole.
Above is a page from 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns. You can see just how much trust Frank placed in his colourist, Lynn Varley, to finish his work. As you can see, some of those panels aren’t even THERE in the original inks. Panel 6 is just an empty box.
This approach has been proven to work very well, but the problem is it places the burden of the image’s success or failure squarely on the colourist’s shoulders. And if the colourist and Frank aren’t on the same page, we end up with covers that are the laughing stock of the whole internet.
It’s funny- even Lynn Varley could screw up colouring for Frank. Two years after their critically acclaimed work 300, they made their most widely panned book of all.
Lynn’s computer colouring on Dark Knight Strikes Again has all the invention and nuance of her colouring on Frank’s earlier work. However, to my eyes, her experimental digital art just isn’t a good fit for Frank’s traditional, brusque inkwork. The artwork in the book suffered a generally poor reception from fans and critics alike.
I took a pass at colouring DK2, too. I include this not to throw shade on Lynn’s work, which has definite and strong merits of its own. Nor do I want to suggest that I’m a better colourist than Lynn (I’m definitely not). Rather, I just want to use a flat colouring approach to demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with Frank’s pencils and inks in even the book that was generally regarded to be his worst. His lines have character and energy and do everything they need to do to tell the story, and with the right treatment would have looked pretty great.
We can apply the same lessons to Frank’s most recent work. I’d read a whole comic that looked like either of the recoloured images below.
DC liked my stuff, but they’re happy with the guy they already have colouring Frank’s work, and so my experiment has to run its course. Still, I want to believe that there’s something in here that we can all learn from.
It’s important to pick the right team, and to utilise a stylistic approach that’s harmonious with what the rest of the group are doing. If you don’t, you might just end up with something no-one likes even though you worked your butt off. As we’ve seen, it can even happen to an exceptional talent like Frank. That’s a scary thought.
Update: see more of my recolours here.