Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How Neal Adams Improved DC's Colors

This weekend, I was at HeroesCon 2016 where I got to meet Neal Adams who kindly signed my Deadman hardcover.

I took this opportunity to ask him about a remark another guest (the incredible Ramona Fradon )  had made about how Neal had improved DC's colors in their comics.

Neal told a wonderful story about the early days of comic production that I will condense and illustrate for you today.

First, to follow any of this, you need to understand that comic books used to be printed using just 3 colors: Red, Blue and Yellow with very limited tonal difference (100%, 50% and 25%) This gives us Nine (9) colors to work from:
Why the lightest shade of each color was designated with a 2 rather than a 3 is beyond me, but that appears to be how it was done.

While this doesn't seem like a lot of colors, when you combine them in various ways (like using R2 with Y1) you get a range of 64 colors as this chart which I got from Todd Klein's site demonstrates.

With me so far? Good. Because here's where it gets crazy.

DC was not using all 9 of the base colors. This caused them to only have access to 32 of the 64 colors. Here's an version of Todd's chart showing which colors DC was able to print.

Because of this limited selection, you'll notice (among other things) that the skin tones in Marvel comics look better than they do in DC books during the 60's.

The reason is this: DC was using TWO antiquated rules from the 40's to color comics in the 60's when printing press improvements had rendered those rules unnecessary.

First: DC was not using Y2 and Y3.

And while it might not seem like a big deal, removing 50% Yellow and 25% Yellow cut their color palette down quite a bit. (Look at the chart above and see all the places where Y2 and Y3 appear.) Now, the repetitive nature of the Legion of Superheroes costumes starts to make sense, aye?

The explanation for *why* DC was not using Y2 and Y3 seems to be lost to the ages, but there is a suggestion that it was an accounting decision made some time in the 40's or 50's that was never revisited.

Second: DC was not using any combination of colors that totaled more than 200%.

This means that while the could print Superman Red (Y + R = 200%) just fine, they could not print a deep rich brown (Y + R + B = 300%) - until Neal came in and changed the game:

How Neal did this was through some skilled office politics involving the then current Production Designer Sol Harrison, Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert and Jack Leibowitz wherein Neal convinces them Marvel is getting a better deal than DC. He then used that as the fulcrum to get DC to revoke its antiquated coloring rules. That part of the story isn't something I can really illustrate, but if you are interested in the full details, you can read a transcript from an interview with Dave Sim here.

I gotta say, if you ever get the chance to see Neal Adams in person, get him to tell this story. His version is a rousing, pejorative laced tale which will keep you glued as he describes some of the people working at DC at the time, often supplying voices.

It was easily my favorite FAN moment of the con!

btw - we got a lot of cool photos from HeroesCon which you can check out on our NorthStars facebook group. 

Have a great day.

- Jim

1 comment:

cash_gorman said...

Back when I worked with a letterpress, there was an ink density of 240, so that 200 might also be coming from an antiquated standard. I am surprised they could use 300 though as that would be close to using offset standards. But, as they wouldn't use it very often... The ink limit comes from what the presses could handle. If you started getting too much ink on a plate, it would streak or bleed into other areas. Also to keep in mind that black is also one of the inks in that equation, although comics rarely mixed black in their colors.


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