April 27th, 2010
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.
Compare n contrast
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.
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.