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Comic Book Character Designs – How Important is Colour?

by philhampton on 15 May 2012

Is it a plane? Yes - probably Virgin in that costume.

A couple of days ago I kicked off a debate on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/comicacademy) on the suitability of the costume from the new Superman movie, starring Henry Cavill (see pic).

Personally I thought it was atrocious.  Although I can live with the webbing that seems to be de rigeur in superhero movie costumes these days (see Amazing Spiderman), the colours are way too dull for me.

In addition, although having one’s underwear outside of their trousers has become a point of fun in ‘ironic’ superhero movies, we’re talking about the original character who introduced the concept to the world.  Removing the red briefs, along with the bright yellow belt makes the costume lifeless.  It’s almost as serious a crime as putting nipples on the bat-suit.

Now, although the costume was also revamped in the 2006 movie ‘Superman Returns’, the colours were of a richer tone, making Superman look more like superhero royalty.  The new grey-blue costume looks more like a badly made gym suit being hawked on a late-night shopping channel.

Primary Colours

The original (and best?) movie Superman

I came across this poster advertising the original 1977 Superman movie, starring Christopher Reeve.  It’s an amazingly powerful image, celebrating the primary colours of the costume.  I can’t see how the makers of the new movie can compete with this image, unless they have Superman holding up the sun.

Now – here’s the interesting thing.  Although most of those who posted on Facebook agreed with my views, there were a few people who welcomed the changes, and couldn’t wait to see the suit on the big screen.

It got me thinking – just how important is colour in comics anyway?  If you’re simply writing a strip about regular folk, such as the Archie comics, you haven’t got a defined costume to stick to.  And then there are characters like The Wasp who seemed to change her costume design and colours almost every issue.

But it’s the icons of the comics world that tend to generate the most flak when any costume changes are made, and this includes long-established supporting characters.  After all, it’s messing with history.  Just check out the reworking of the Spiderman costume in the forthcoming movie (see pic), also in darker colours, and trying maybe a bit too hard to look ‘cool’.

Andy Murray shows off his new outfit for Wimbledon

But did anyone really care that the movie Wolverine didn’t stay in his original blue and yellow costume?  And so what if Christian Bale’s Batman changes his threads with each instalment?  After all, black is black (even when you’re Perry White but that’s a whole different argument).

DC Relaunch – New Costumes, Not Colours

Last year DC revamped the costumes of almost all of its heroes after Flashpoint.  But interestingly, the colours stayed more or less the same.  Now, with characters like Green Lantern and Green Arrow, their choices were obviously limited, but there was nothing to stop them changing the costume colours of characters such as Aquaman, Wonder Woman and The Flash.  Does this prove that colours are more defining than design?

So what do you think?  How important is colour when designing a character from scratch?  If you’ve already given a character a regular colour-scheme, are there limits to the changes you would make to it?

Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.  I’ll endeavour to respond to every one.

All the best,

Phil Hampton

The Comic Academy

Phil Hampton founded The Comic Academy to help and inpire comic creators and publishers to market their work effectively. Download your FREE exclusive report ‘The 7 Steps to Comic Creator Success’ at http://www.TheComicAcademy.com

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Leahg May 15, 2012 at 9:17 pm

All I can say is phwarrrrr…new costume much sexier…I approve…:)
Leahg´s last blog post ..Faith Cartoon – Psalm 23:5

houseofmuses May 15, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Hm. I actually like the new Superman costume. Thoughts, anyone?

houseofmuses May 15, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Looks like the females approve Supes no longer wearing his undies over the costume. That’s not a sexy look, anyway….
to most gals, it kind of looks like this: http://www.drunkduck.com/vnd/5385812/
houseofmuses´s last blog post ..Page 17 (No Comments)

Ken Leinaar May 15, 2012 at 9:51 pm

In any visual medium, color is immensely important. My problem with the colors in this version, is that the suit looks dingy, dirty even. If that’s supposed to be battle-worn, I dig it. That’s how important color is, especially when we EXPECT a certain asthetic from Superman’s bold, inspiring color scheme. In the Superman movies, when he turned “dark”, started drinking, and battled Clark Kent, his costume was darker, muted – dingy looking. It was perfect for THAT character. But it brings about a different “feeling”, which, to me, does not embody Kal-El.
As an artist, and a fan, I think color is VERY important, it’s one of the first things that can get your attention, for better or for worse. I’m a fan of the Brown Wolverine costume because it fits a dark, brooding character. If your character is supposed to be good, or impressive, Bright, clean colors will convey that better. If your colors are faded, non-descript, even grey-ish, it kind of sends the subliminal message that you’re not quite sure what to think of this guy. That’s the impression I get when I’m looking at a comic, or any visual medium, and that’s where my attention is when I’m creating something.
Word.

mark May 15, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I think there are several answers.
The bold colours used ‘back in the day’ for superman, etc were probably chosen to appeal to children, AND represent the colours of the american flag and all that cold war BS overcoming the dark/evil/ruskies (Captain America being the most literal iteration) AND printing on newsprint would have had trouble with more subtle shades.
Now the trend is for flawed characters battling their inner demons now the Ruskies are our mates. Print and iPads can cope with any colour you want and in a recession hit world there is no place for the hope of the 50s when these classic heroes were born with their bright inspiring costumes and naive world view. AND kids are not kid anymore, they need the dark characters they see in video games, no place for innocence any more. How innocent was Superman, it was almost ‘his thing’.
Plus of course we now have change for the sake of change.

As for my choice of colour for a character… I work in greyscale!!!!

Phil, I may have strayed in this reply… mark
mark´s last blog post ..Dark Side

Lionel May 15, 2012 at 10:44 pm

You are right it’s atrocious – looks more like a ‘dark’ Superman costume. Not impressed with his pants either. A tad gay maybe – (ballet dancer crotch etc.) .
However, the actor for the part is ideal.
‘The clothes maketh the superman’ – or not!

Jason Walter May 16, 2012 at 1:20 am

I was actually upset that Wolverine never wore the yellow and blue suit in any of the movies. Superman DEFINITELY needs the red “undies.” I think you’re right, Phil, color is EXTREMELLY important to suits, and red, white, and blue seem to inherently generate an intrinsic warmth to English speaking audiences. I think that a comic book suit is just as important to a comic book’s identity as a flag is to a nation. The two go hand-in-hand.

Mike Morrison May 16, 2012 at 2:12 am

Here’s what I think – http://mikemorrisons.blogspot.com/
Mike Morrison´s last blog post ..The Colour Out of Space

Terrence May 16, 2012 at 3:43 am

I don’t like the superman costume either. I guess if it was brighter it would look better. I guess the main thing for me is if the guy is likeable. Changes are good sometimes though. Since were on the topic of Superman, Ive recently come across a superman series where he’s actually a different color. I haven’t finished reading but its pretty good from what Ive read. I’ve written a bit about it on my web comic blog if you guys want to check it out. http://sdddojo.blogspot.com/
Terrence´s last blog post ..Something’s up…

ReynardCity May 16, 2012 at 6:09 am

I remember when there was a brief period in the comics when Superman had a different costume on, causing a massive outcry!

I think there are certain elements that are essential and come to define the characters. For example Batman needs to wear a mask with pointy ears.

While you can play around with the detail to an extent you need to be careful.

I must admit with RC we’re not always consistent with costume (eg AK Girl sometimes wears gloves, sometimes doesn’t) but the colours need to be the same.

With movies there is a bit of leeway because you need to see what works on film. However I would argue in the case of Superman that Richard Donner proved it could work, treading that perfect line between seriousness and camp.
ReynardCity´s last blog post ..Site Update!

Niki May 16, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Color is extremely important when pertaining to character design or the world actually. Vivid imagery and bright colors is what extract positive emotions in our viewers. If we’re looking at a superhero as a person whose making positive contributions to our society then superman should be a glow for all the villians out there to know when he’s present and gonna kick there ass. Making him have a dim costume displays a faded personality and less originality. It’s boring and unattractive and doesn’t hold fit to the character. KNOW YOUR COLORS!!!
Artists need to understand that the color schemes you use in any of your works is key to catching your viewers attention. As the artist, one must think what type of emotions they want their display to evoke. When you’ve figured this out, play around with it a little. Make copies of what you drew, get some color pencils or whatever medium you use and start going at it! Soon you’ll be able to see what colors you really want to use and this is a nice way to understand color theory (what colors work well with others and so on).

Hollywood does not have the creativity it once was. It has lost it’s originality and value as an industry that provides good entertainment while keeping the audience in mind. Now, it’s all about the money. If they put Superman in a shittier looking costume and know they’ll still make millions, then that shall be done.

andeh May 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I think it’s darker cuz who’s making it. Snyder films in allot of darker hues cuz he pushes lots of cg. which he films in blues. I’ll wait to see how the sit looks in post. Cuz you know he’s gonna make it shiny at some point.

Personally I love vibrant colors but I understand why movies don’t use bright colors. Cuz no one on their right mind would use then irl.

It makes sense top me
andeh´s last blog post ..Complex (No Comments)

Joe Deagnon May 16, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Although I used to draw in strictly black & white due to print costs, I think that when you have color available to you, as many online artists do now, it’s not a concern to be taken lightly.

Regarding this version of the Superman costume, I doubt one person was behind the result we see here. More than likely it was a case of committee decision making in the pre-production process that led to it’s being watered down; in addition to compromising the original vision they started with. I think it looks pretty bad – Phil nailed it when he compared it to the Bat-nipples of the 90s. Do we really need Superman’s package to be so prominent? It sticks out like a sore…

As independent artists know, when you don’t have to go through a rigorous approval process, you’re able to think these things through and create something more appropriate to the source material. When adapting these to the screen in the case of the recent barrage of superhero films, I think The Dark Knight has done this best in terms of design. I did, however, really appreciate Hellboy and the X-Men films (except part 3). They were updated for a “modern” world, didn’t stray too far from the original design and in some cases, improved on a good thing.

In terms of what I do, I had some grandiose plans in terms of color schemes, and some of them may even survive. (I love Peter Greenaway’s approach to color, for a highly ambitious example). Regardless, I am still going through the process of what the characters will wear and what color schemes will be attributed to them. In my case, I think of characters from Warner Bros. cartoons, or even Gilligan’s island – with the characters’ iconic primary colours. When you don’t pick the proper colours for your characters they could look atrocious as we see here, or even, god forbid, forgettable.

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Hi Pam and Leah,

Maybe they’ve made the change to appeal to the females in the audience then! Nice point mande on the Drunk Duck link Pam!

Kind regards,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Hi Ken,

Thanks for your comments, and for rekindling hidden memories of Superman III !

You’re right about the brown Wolverine costume being more apt for that character. By bringing Superman’s costume closer to the shade of Batman’s, it may be because the character is becoming morally ambiguous (I very much hope not).

All the best,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your insight. I don’t think you strayed, as these are all reasons why comic colouring in general is becoming darker.

I used to love the four-colour comics on cheaper newsprint because of the bringht colours. Now that compputer colouring on glossy paper can bring us millions of shades, it seems a pity that many popular titles concentrate on the darker shades of the spectrum.

At least there are hundreds of Webcomics out there which brighten up our days. And yours is one of them even though it’s in greyscale!

Kind regards,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Hi Lionel,

Nice point – well said.

All the best,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Hi Jason,

Thanks for your comments. It’s worrying then that the darker colours don’t generate that intrinsic warmth. Superman has always been a character you could trust. If that is still the case with the character in this movie, then hopefully the costume itself won’t reduce audience numbers.

All the best,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Hi Terrence,

Thanks for your comments, and the link. Change is definitely a good thing when handled correctly. I’ve got faith in Grant Morrison handling a black Superman – not so sure about Zack Snyder handling a darker Superman though.

Kind regards,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Hi Will,

Yes – there was a time when Superman split into ‘blue electric’ and ‘red electric’ versions. It was just a sales tactic over a few months which was soon forgotten.

Plus when he died and came back to life, he decided to style his hair into a mullet for about a year.

Unfortunately, moviegoers have long memories, and movies have longer shelf-life-spans than comics.

We all remember the excellent Richard Donner version of Superman, and my son has seen him via DVD many times. Not sure what he would think about a darker Superman, but I’m not going to show him Superman III, and possibly not this movie!

All the best,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Hi Niki,

Thanks for your comments – some great advice for comic creators there.

And regarding the movie industry, money certainly talks. If we’re happy to spend high cinema prices watching sub-standard spectacles, we’ll be treated to the same thing next time round.

All the best,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Hi Andeh,

Thanks for your comments. You’ve raised a good point about whether people would wear bringht colours in real life. I’d say that, because superhero movies are definitely not real life (even those supposed to be set in the real world like Kick-Ass and Super), bright colours should be acceptable in that fantasy world. Trying to bring Superman down to a real-world level would arguably not work over the span of a 2-hour movie.

Good point about the film-making process. Hopefully things will look much better on the big screen.

Kind regards,

Phil

philhampton May 16, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Hi Joe,

Thanks very much for your comments. I don’t think that this costume would ever be ‘forgettable’ but characters in the wrong colours could run that risk by putting readers off them before they’ve had a chance to convey their personalities.

If a committee decided upon the costume, I wonder how many of them were comic fans?

Kind regards,

Phil

Ken Leinaar May 16, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Some superheroes are dark, ambiguous, and mysterious. Some are bright, bold, and bigger than life. Your look, from design to color choice must relfect what you’re trying to get across, or you’ve failed.
OH, LAWD, I knew somebody was gonna bring up Red/Blue Supermen!!! AW MAN! I tried so hard to forget!

philhampton May 21, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Nice tips Ken!

And you will never forget Red/Blue Supermen! I obviously couldn’t.

Kind regards,

Phil

phil m May 21, 2012 at 9:48 pm

The design of Supes costume doesn’t bother me, other than the actor always looks like he has 2 go 2 the bathroom. l also don’t mind that the color’s darker, but l don’t get why the color has 2 be so muted looking.

All that said; l think it looks tons better than that “plastery” looking Spiderman costume!

philhampton May 25, 2012 at 4:28 am

Hi Phil,

Yes, they’ve gone a bit overboard with the ‘scales’ on the Spicerman costume but after seeing the recent trailer it’s growing on me. Hopefully the Superman costume will look better on film.

Best wishes,

Phil

Mel Man June 1, 2012 at 7:10 am

Hey Phil, I think the colours are much too dull.
I read a comment up there about the old Superman appealing to kids but as you saw in Avengers the movie, Captain America’s costume was even bluer (If there’s such a word) than it was in his own movie The First Avenger. The variety of colour in scenes where Cap, Thor, Iron Man & Hulk stood together made for fantastic splash-page images. I think they should stop trying so hard to make him look cool. And I guess if Marvel Studios was doing Spider-Man’s reboot the costume would have been truer to the comic that what Andrew Garfield is wearing. Too many unnecessary design gimmicks.
Mel Man´s last blog post ..DEATH AND RESSURRECTION

Mel Man June 1, 2012 at 7:13 am

Also, if they were gonna maintain the same cheesy hairdo (or don’t, lol) then they are sending mixed signals with revamping the character’s image.
Mel Man´s last blog post ..DEATH AND RESSURRECTION

philhampton June 6, 2012 at 3:30 am

Hi Mel,

Thanks for your comments. Good ‘what if’ point about Marvel Studios if they were responsible for the new Spiderman movie.

So far Marvel Studios have done well with their costumes, though I’m not sure why they added an unnecessary zig-zag pattern to Thor’s costume for the Avengers movie. The original movie costume was fine as it was.

All the best,

Phil

Mo July 18, 2012 at 2:25 am

The new costume actually angers me !!

How could the change the MAIN thing about Superman’s costume
They’ve made it All DARK & EVIL Looking was the point in that !!
Superman was all about being the bright thing in the sky that helped evil one

The new costume alone just seems to have distroyed the original story & concept of Superman… I hate it

Who ever designed the costume is a complete idiot who really needs a punch in the face bloody Joker

Carl October 17, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I think the colors are part of the characters brand. They make them who they are. Its like a logo for a company. You keep it with you long enough it becomes part of who you are as a company.

So I would say that I dont like the costume very much. I think its alright but the colors are much too dark and dull for it to be superman.

He should be a glowing symbol of justice for metropolis and the current look is just dulled down and appears more like you said “gym clothes” than a super hero outfit.

He doesnt necessarily need his “undies” on the outside of his suit but at least make his blues and reds more vibrant than what they are. That way you can see him as he flys past.

There is too much effort being put into making these fantasy characters seem “real”. I mean lets face it Superman is pretty far from reality and thats okay. Its a movie based on a comic. Its not suppose to be real. I dont need real when I watch a super hero movie. I need it to be filled with great action, cinematography, and faithful to its viewers.

Unfortunately Snyder doesnt quite have my vote for this movie… I will see it, I mean I am a superman fan. But still Christopher Reeves all the way!
Carl´s last blog post ..Making Halo 4 – Infinity Multiplayer

Rob Barba February 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I think that too much importance is placed on color…but I have a caveat: I work on a manga-style comic, which means nothing is in color, but instead tones of black and white. Is tone important then, yup; color not so much.
Rob Barba´s last blog post ..01.06.05

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