sinclair-sky2

I was brought up on the comic books of the eighties, when colours were flat and negative space was in high demand, when digital meant computer games suffering from colour clash, and when today’s smooth colour gradations were the holy grail of the demo scene. On the whole I don’t want naturalism from my colouring and I definitely don’t demand some early 90s bedroom coder’s version of it. Which leads me, kinda, to my point.

Ever since mindless pal David Uzumeri compared the colouring of Batman & Robin #1 to a badly rendered GIF, I’ve been promising a response. I was troubled by David’s reaction because I thought the blotchy, banded, fuzzy colour gradations added immensely to the atmosphere of the issue, and because I believe David’s objections to only have a tenuous grip on the critical centre. It’s an understandable way of reading the colouring, but I’m of the opinion that with some prodding its dominance can at least be partially undermined and other readings more readily admitted.

The first issue that needs to be dealt with is that fact that the colouring could have been the accidental product of processing at the design or manufacturing stage. From there it’s a short jump to the claim that the colouring as an “issue” or a “problem”. As far as we could tell it might well have been a genuine error and as we all know errors are bad, right? And images that are the product of errors must be bad images, yeah? Well no, that’s not a conflation that I’m at all happy with. Something can be the product of error or be unintended but still be good. Admittedly knowing where to draw the line with this sort of thing is difficult. Would it be fair to try the same thing with a book which was missing pages for example? Or, more awkwardly, where the art suffered from some sort of smudging effect that impacted more readily but didn’t fatally undermine the reading process? There are no hard and fast rules, but I am prepared to take production errors or more precisely things that look like production errors as I find them if they seem to work in context.

So conflation of erroneousness with badness aside, what about the more straightforward aesthetic complaint tied up with the badly rendered GIF description? Unfortunately there’s not a lot I can do about the way others have been trained. If it feels wrong to folks it feels wrong – all I can do is demonstrate that there are other ways into these images.

Okay, so before you go any further you need to go and read this, Sean Collins’ take on Dark Knight Strikes Again, because It’s my contention that Sinclair’s colouring is somewhat glo-fi.

Compare n contrast

pixels-21

b-n-r-pixels-1

I don’t wish to overstate my case, despite some striking similarities between Sinclair’s work and the colouring in DKSA (see the images above), Sinclair’s colours represent a foray into the territory that is rather safer than Miller and Varley’s efforts, and just about everything I’ve ever seen from Fort Thunder and chums (Cold Heat, POWR MASTRS, Body World, Prison Pit, etc…). The experimentation with form, although clearly too much for some in audience, is much leaner, hemmed in by Quitely’s semi-naturalistic if atmospherically scratchy linework, and restricted to a palette that, despite it’s unusual sombre-luminosity, doesn’t step too far outside the bounds of what we would expect from a Batman book. Further, unlike Varley Sinclair only uses one kind of effect and which is on the whole reasonably unobtrusive. Ultimately whether the art in these early issues of Batman and Robin can be said to add up to a glo-fi aesthetic is disputable given the limited reach of Sinclair’s efforts, but nonetheless glo-fi does give us a way into an appreciation of the colouring that goes beyond connotations of poor quality computer imagery.

So what is Sinclair trying to do other than fanny about with form and/or riff on Miller-Varley’s good work? At a base level I get the impression that he’s riffing on Morrison’s Lynch meets the 60s show formula, hoping to generate a weird atmosphere to service Morrison’s smorgasbord of weird concepts, and perhaps trying to contribute in a memorable way to a significant arc, after all it isn’t every day that you get to work with the Quitely GM team. But I think Sinclair’s colours do more than that, I think they mesh with the book in all sorts of satisfying ways that may or may not have been intended.

A kind of atemporality has long been a feature of superhero stories: is Tim Burton’s Batman set in the past or the future? Is Tim Sales’? Is Batman the Animated Series? Each blends sci-fi with lo-fi, hoods with hoodies, art deco with chrome and steel. Similarly in Batman and Robin we get Toad’s 50esque Jalopy and a flying Batmobile, criminals dressed in something approaching the style of 30s gangsters and dollatrons, an old fashioned heist with very newfangled ends, cops in antiquated uniforms lit up by glowing neon. But while Dini and co wanted atemporality to lend the cartoon a mythic, eternal quality, it seems to me that the Morrison, Quitely, Sinclair team were interested in using it to generate something else entirely. Instead of a mythic unity we get strangeness, and perhaps disunity. To me these early issues feel like a world that doesn’t quite fit together and Sinclair’s rejection of smooth gradations in favour of fuzzy blocks of semi-naturalistic colour contribute significantly to my reading. By bringing to mind software gone wrong, corrupt software even, I’m given the sense that Batman and Robin exist in universe that hasn’t loaded up properly, that on some fundamental level isn’t right, which, given that Batman isn’t Bruce Wayne anymore and that Gotham is a commonly understood to be a city permanently on the edge of madness, would fit.

Digging further into this view, it’s interesting to note that Sinclair’s pet effect stands out most prominently in those panels that feature shots of the sky. The tension between the organic swirl of the colours that make up the ether, and the blocky, fragmented gradations makes for particularly striking imagery. There’s something very wrong when the heavens go haywire: the Cthulhu mythos promises that sort of thing, as do any number of stories that feature supernatural and extra-terrestrial threats. A strange sky is one of the first sure fire signs that the entire cosmic order is maybe, just maybe against you. But there’s a beauty to what Sinclair’s doing too. His fuzzy colours seem bent on denying the possibility of pure negative space, or minimalist background detail. Instead backgrounds that could have been inconsequential are turned into distinct environments in their own right and beg to be noticed, wallowed in even. Take a look at this panel, in other hands the light radiating out of the bat-signal might as well be invisible for all the attention that would be lavished on it by the reader, but Sinclair gives us otherworldly waves of colour washing across the frame. Glo-fi, indeed.

utled

I have to own up to personal preference here, I find much of the imagery attractive for a whole mess of reasons, some of which have their roots in my interest in the reappropriation of damned art styles, formalism, mash-ups, on way the art reinforces/generates the themes and feel of the book, etc.. some of which are more idiosyncratic. Morrison has spoken of his “bubblegum acid” take on Batman and Robin*, which is pretty amusing from my point of view since the art fits uncannily with one of my own psychedelic experiences: a bad trip turned good that ended with me slack jawed starring up into an electric sky almost identical to the one in the panel that opened this post.

There’s lots more to be said. Let’s have a fight about it in the comments.

*Here’s more from Morrison

“[I] wanted to show a healthier Gotham City too… so my artists and I have taken a different tack and we want to show the cool, vibrant side of Gotham, the energy and excitement that would draw people to live and visit there… [Gotham] should be the loudest, sexiest, jazziest city on Earth. It has the best restaurants, the best theaters, the best art, the best criminals, the best crimefighters etc etc. People put up with the weird crime for the sheer buzz.”

If Gotham is supposed to be a wild cultural hub, if it’s supposed to have a buzz, then it makes sense that the imagery used to support that vision of the city should be attractive, design conscious (Frank’s got those bases covered every time), and reflect cutting edge art trends. And it’s my contention that Sinclair’s colouring does just that, albeit in a relatively understated way, by toying with glo-fi comic book imagery.

28 Responses to “Alex Sinclair vs Batman & Robin”

  1. Bob Temuka Says:

    God, I love colour when it is done right – and bright, shiny shades make me feel like I’m living in the future. The colour scheme of Kick Ass was my favourite thing in the whole film, Jaime Hernandez is doing something wonderfully bright in MySpace Dark Horse Presents and the new Daleks have big fat arses, but they are also bright and colourful and new! And so is the TARDIS.

    Frank Miller was ahead of everybody and got laughed at, but now it’s everywhere.

  2. bobsy Says:

    ‘Batman and Robin exist in universe that hasn’t loaded up properly’ is a great line. Don’t we all?

    This whole notion fits with Morrison’s essentially gnostic take on things, where the perception of external problems with reality reflect or are symptomatic of moments of personal or spiritual crisis and transformation. (Speaking of crisis, or Crisis rather, in the DCU the red sky is the first sign of things going wrong, right? Recently glossed as the menstruation of the universal womb, or something… Comics, man.)

    The subjective, in-story experience of these Sinclair skies might be the aura-phase of a migraine sufferer (or serial killer), or PTSD effects, or maybe, just maybe, the shift in sense-perception that occurs as one crosses the bridge from Man to Superman.

    Whatever to all that, Gotham’s one strange town.

  3. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Lynn Varley is an absolute fucking legend in the colouring world.

    DK2 is the best colouring of a mainstream comic of the last 1,000 years. I remember all that fuss about her ‘going over the lines’ and seeming as though she’d only just learnt Photoshop. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

    Colouring, like lettering, is a tool that can be used to energise the comic form, rather than act as a bit of turd polishing.

    All that dull, 3-d sheen that so many comics now posess is se bland.

  4. Zom Says:

    Fuckstraight to all that!

  5. James W Says:

    software gone wrong, corrupt software… universe that hasn’t loaded up properly

    That the skies recall those of (early) 3D computer games is perfect for this. Those’re really unsettling: just flat panels with a texture pasted on; hard ceilings standing in for the infinite, but sort of infinite anyway because the programming won’t let you reach them*. All of a sudden you’re looking at the real sky like that, and wondering if it’s just a really high resolution version of the same.

    *Apologies for semi-pretend technical knowledge

  6. Zom Says:

    DK2 contains some of my favourite comic art ever. It’s beautiful and surprising and unusual and daring and funny and lots and lots of other adjectives and the colours are a huge part of what makes it work. Varley’s work on DK blew by 13-year-old socks off and she did it again 13 or so years later.

    *The colouring in Year One is arguably better, but is you ask me Richmond Lewis stood on Varley’s shoulders

  7. Zom Says:

    James, I’m glad you brought that up.

    It’s also worth noting that by replicating/approximating imagery like that Sinclair is tapping into contemporary stuff like pixel art, and our new found love of 8 bit and 16 bit computer game imagery.

  8. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Or newly rekindled love.

  9. Zom Says:

    It’s more than that, it has a cultural relevance that it didn’t have back then. It’s mainstream, it’s considered to have aesthetic value outside of gaming circles.

    I wrote about this stuff in an earlier draft but decided to cut it out.

  10. The Beast Must Die Says:

    I’d wager it’s always had an aesthetic value – an extremely mainstream one. It’s just that it’s showing up as an influence in people’s work.

  11. Zom Says:

    I suppose so, but the fact that it’s showing up as an inspiration and a mode of expression to the degree that it is is a pretty big deal.

  12. Jamaal Says:

    Great post.

    Damn. I’m going to have to read that whole arc again. I must admit that I wasn’t paying enough attention to Sinclair’s work on those first few issues. I’m particularly intrigued by your brief discussion of how his work contributes to the ‘atemporality’ of this series (which I think is an unexplored element of Morrison’s run on the character).

  13. Zom Says:

    Thanks, Jamaal. We’re like some weird mutual appreciation society.

    There probably is a great deal to be said about atemporality (clunky but I can’t think of a better word) in Morrison-Quitely’s Batman & Robin, but I can’t be arsed to think too hard about it at the mo’. Pretty please could someone reading this do the hard work.

  14. Andy G Says:

    Great article.

    I remember seeing an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe (highbrowish games programme on the BBC if you’re reading this outside of the UK) where they talked about the unique psychic and emotional landscape that mid-eighties computer game visuals had, in the window between early basic space invader 2D games and the hi-tech cinemascope games of today.

    I think a lot of the misconceptions in superhero comic colouring come from “house styles” or perhaps a misunderstanding of “realism” in comic art. It’s this sort of thing that leads to the recent terrible Moebius recolouring.

    I would imagine those who had issues with the colouring wouldn’t make the same mistakes with TV shows: Stargate Universe is deliberately a Stargate show influenced by Battlestar Galactica and you’d look pretty silly if you suggested that they’d just forgotten to light it properly.

  15. Zom Says:

    I originally wrote a lot about realism vs Sinclair’s colours.

    I think the rise of realism is part of the problem, but I think it’s worth noting that there are many, many colourists doing unrealistic or quasi-realistic things with colours who don’t get moaned about.

  16. Andy G Says:

    realism in art’s a pretty loaded word anyway. It’s an interesting avenue to pursue, unpicking the off-the-wall-techniques that have perhaps been missed through over familiarity.

    More, please.

  17. plok Says:

    Completely agree again! I was taken aback by all the colour-comments, I didn’t even think to do anything but love the colouring…first hint I got that not everyone agreed was when folks got up in arms about the blue cover to #2…which I thought was pure genius, so circus-y, the gaudy allure of the midway and all that…tell you the truth, right from the first page of #1 all I was thinking about was Amy’s #666.

    But I like it all even better now you’ve daylighted it!

    Which perhaps is where part of the atemporality makes itself felt: people say “the TV show” and I think, yeah, you mean daytime Bat-action…and why shouldn’t we have it?

  18. Sunday Brunch: 5/2/2010 | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources Says:

    [...] installment of “articles I haven’t read yet but know are good,” Zom of the Mindless Ones tackles Alex Sinclair’s coloring on Batman & Robin, which has received a… less than stellar reaction. Zom sees it differently, it seems: A strange [...]

  19. Damon B Says:

    I love this DK2 resurgence. People absolutely tore it apart when it was released, but I think it’s just as interesting and relevant to comics in the 2000s as DKR was to the 1980s.

    And thanks for the write-up on B&R’s coloring. (“Glo-fi,” what a concept!) I’d be interested to see you do a comparison between this and other GM/Frank Quitely comics (We3, Flex Mentallo, JLA:Earth 2) which I think have similar aims but decidedly different aesthetics on the coloring front.

  20. RetoWarbird Says:

    “… recently glossed as the menstruation of the universal womb, or something …”

    I’ll die laughing when “Post-Final Crisis: JLA: Earth 2 Part Deux” hits in two years, and Superman looks up at the sky and says “Oh, Editorial’s on the rag again …”

    I need to take a fresh look at Sinclair’s coloring again. I’d intended to when I flipped through Batman Reborn hardcover edition at the bookstore yesterday, but it slipped my mind when I realized I didn’t have the requisite twenty-five American for it.

    But I’ll say from memory, that to my mind, Sinclair’s “Gotham sky” looked like … well … a bit of oil or gas spill on the pavement. You know … that sickly swirl of hues that have no business being reflected by one substance?

    http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v102/Zandar315/IMG_4320.jpg

    Or a photograph of an overcast and drab city where the saturation has been played with on Photoshop – that’s exactly the effect you get with over-saturated clouds.

    Like this monument to the downfall of the American economy located a few miles from me: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v102/Zandar315/CharlestownMall1.jpg

    Dick Grayson lives in a world of colors … but in Gotham City, even the colors are sickly and indicative of the same sickness that Pyg sees and wants to replicate. Acid Bubble-Gum? Yes … as anybody who has seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can attest … that shit is ten times more psychologically traumatizing than the goriest Hollywood “scary movie”.

  21. Zom Says:

    All perfectly good comparisons, and yeah the colours are very much part of how I understand the world of Pyg.

  22. Marc Says:

    You may have seen this already, but I was elated to find it online. Morrison and Daniel Vallely’s Bible John: grab it while you can.

    http://www.demonoid.com/files/details/2198002/1550444/

  23. Zom Says:

    As soon as I can get at a computer that isn’t owned by my employer!

    Thanks, Marc

  24. RetoWarbird Says:

    Thanks indeed, Marc. Looks … fascinating.

  25. Alex Sinclair Says:

    Zom,
    Great article. I appreciate it, not because it defends my work, but because it doesn’t just say, “I like it!” or “This sucks because it looks like a mistake.” You also take the time to analyze it taking into consideration all the influences of the process including the story. You see, when I read the script and saw the art, I knew I couldn’t do my regular thing–no I was going to have to do them both justice. As a colorist, I always try to do what I feel will compliment the art and story best. So what do you do when you get a story like this?!
    I took a leap knowing that what would see print would ruffle some feathers. To be honest, I didn’t expect SO much talk about it. It is, after all a comic book. I am proud of the work and most importantly, the folks who’s opinion mattered the most, Frank, Grant and Mike Marts liked it. Heck, It got me (along with Blackest Night) my first Eisner nomination as a colorist!

    Sinc’

  26. Zom Says:

    Cheers for stopping by, Alex. It’s not often that a colourist’s work really stands out, but when it does I think that it deserves as many words as the plot or the pencilling. Keep up the weird work!

  27. amypoodle Says:

    yeah, i’d just like to add – thanks for giving a fig about the atory being told. there’s plenty of artists out there who don’t or who are plain incapable of complementing and/or adding anything to what they’re working on, and that’s clearly not you mate. bravo! batman and robin wouldn’t have been the same without you.

    just remember: a great deal of comics fans are labouring under the impression that nothing other than naturalism or photorealism can be called art. don’t listen to them. they have no imagination and, hence, no taste.

  28. Carnival of souls « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins Says:

    [...] Zom from the Mindless Ones talks about Batman & Robin colorist Alex Sinclair and glo-fi. With Brendan McCarthy referring to his current style as such not just in interviews but within the [...]

Leave a Reply