Thursday, April 10, 2008

Black and white and dread all over?

When the latest 12 rounds of Friday Night Fights ended about a week ago, ringmaster Bahlactus laid down the ground rules for the next bout by declaring all entries had to be in black and white. This, of course, made me think of Joe.

Joe is a friend of mine who I used to work with at a comic shop here in town. He's a great guy and has some of the best stories I've ever heard, not to mention a mean Schwarzenegger-as-Conan imitation. He's also a big comics fan, and like a lot of us he's got his quirks. His love of Batman is enormous, and his full-on obsession with sidekicks is even bigger. The guy loved him some Spoiler, and he was pissed when DC killed her off.

But the thing that threw me off was his refusal to read anything in black and white.

I'd seen this attitude before, of course. But it surprises me every single time. I don't get it. What is it about black and white comics that makes people — who will otherwise read just about any crap they come across — suddenly and violently allergic?

My theory is a combination of fanboyism and indieism (it's my theory, I can make up words if I want). See, I think a good portion (if not nearly all) of the comic reading population starts out with superhero comics. I know I did. And I'd guess that a chunk of those folks never stray too far from that genre.

(Quick aside: Can we all agree that comics are a medium and there are different genres within that medium? Thanks, that's been bugging me.)

Historically, these comics are in bright and energetic full color, which makes sense considering the stories tend to be cranked up to 11. It fits. So-called indie comics, on the other hand, are often printed in black and white. A lot of that has to do with smaller publishers and printing costs (as a very rough example, consider how much it costs to make a regular black and white copy versus a full-color copy at Kinko's), and sometimes the type of stories many indie comics are telling are better suited to black and white. It helps set the tone for the story.

Here's the crux of the problem, I think: Indie comics have a reputation. Even people who know better tend to think of words like "navel-gazing," "autobiography" and "whining emo-ass" when they hear the phrase "indie comic." They also think "no color." Right or wrong, a lot of people equate black and white with these preconceived notions and reach a simple conclusion: Black and white equals boring.

Which is a shame, because while there are some painfully self-referential black and white books out there (just like there are corny, immature and exploitative superhero books giving the good stuff a bad name), there's some excellent reading these people are missing out on. Just off the top of my head there's the Scott Pilgrim series, the Queen and Country series, Wasteland, The Damned, Pantheon High, Local, Emo Boy, Rex Libris, Phonogram, Action Philosophers and The Nearly Infamous Zango. And those books run from thriller to action to comedy to science fiction and everywhere in-between. Only one could be considered navel-gazey, but you've got to have a balanced diet, right? (Also, it's excellent.)

Don't get me started on the manga-hate out there.

Ultimately, it's a matter of preconceived notions that keep people from reading a black and white comic (and vice versa — it wouldn't kill the hard-core indie contingent to read Superman once in a while). Some comic book readers might think a black and white comic would be boring, but someone's buying all those Essentials and Showcases, right?

Which brings me back to Joe. At some point he got hooked on the Gunslinger Girl anime and tore through all the DVDs he could get his hands on. So one day we're at the counter and I overheard him talking to someone about the series.

"It's really, really good," he said. "But y'know, I read the first book and there was a lot of detail in there that was cut from the anime. There was a lot more about the characters' backgrounds. Really interesting."

My ears pricked up like a dog hearing a can opener: Was Joe saying he read the manga version of the series? The black and white manga version of the series?!

Joe gave me a look that made me think he was going to pat my head like an indulgent uncle.

"Yeah I read the book," he said. "It's good."

I'm curious to know what you think: Do you read black and white comics, or do you have a strict color-only policy? Do you only read black and white? Or are the racks your comics smorgasbord, where you pick up a little bit of everything? There's a new poll you can answer on the right, and I'd love to hear your opinions in the comments.


Dan said...

Damn, I miss seeing Joe. That dude had crazy enthusiasm. Plus, he was fun as hell to tease.

Kevin Church said...

I don't read comics with black people in them.


At the shop on my extreme (every other Sunday) part-time shifts, I've dealt with a lot of people who refuse to read superhero comics in Essential and Showcase editions. They say they don't "feel" right or some other answer and I can sort of see it, especially on the older material where pulpy, lurid color was so prevalent.

(However, I do like to point out that you can't figure out the colors in Green Lantern, then we may have a problem...)

snell said...

I don't mind reading comics that were intentionally drawn for black and white...but, as Kevin mentioned, I do have trouble getting into the black and white reprints of comics that were originally in color (most especially when I've read color versions of the same story previously). Somehow, it just makes them seem all the more two dimensional to me (ok, so I'm not an artsist, and lack artist lingo. Sorry...)

To use a film analogy: noirs and films meant to B&W, and thus filmed to probably use the monchormatic scale, cool. Watching Star Wars or Gone With the Wind on a B&W telly? Not so much.

Khairul H. said...

I don't mind either way. The story is what important to me. I also don't mind reading reprints in b&w like Essentials and Showcases because those are the cheapest way for me to get my hands on the oldies.

My Word Verification: "tbpbah", a sound a colour-only guy would make when presented with a black&white comic.

Lisa said...

Man, two of my favorite comics are B&W, those being Boneyard and Lenore. Of course I do loves me some indie and I think the lower budget something is the more I'm drawn to it. I do have to admit though, the few super comics I do read probably wouldn't be the same without color.

I haven't seen Joe in forever. I miss that guy.

That One Guy said...

I'm mostly into indie really, so I don't think you are asking me this question. I'm going to answer it anyway. As long as the art is well done I'll read anything. I'll even read books with crap art if the writing is good enough, nevermind the color scheme. However, I love both as separate styles of art. Great color is totally faboo, such as that in Astonishing X-Men. I simply can't even imagine that book without the great colorist Laura Martin's work (don't get me started on Ellis taking over). However, great black-and-white can take my breath away too, especially stuff like some of Cloonan's work in some of the Demo books.

Maxo said...

Dan: You know how "Joey-time" works; he can be tough to keep up with! The last time I saw him was when he was volunteering at Staple. I really need to hang out at his coffee shop more often, and we should all get together for a game session one of these days.

Kevin: Ha! And I know what you mean — for example, I love Kirby's work and think it stands on its own, but the colors really make it pop. It works the other way around, too, because in my mind Phonogram should always be a black and white book. I guess what I don't understand is people who just refuse to read black and white books. Sometimes a title is better suited to color, and sometimes black and white is the better choice. Don't just dismiss one or the other. I'm not going to push away a Kirby book just because it's in black and white.

Snell: I hear ya. And like you say in your analogy, not all black and white is created equal; I've read books that I thought would have looked better in color because without it everything looked too sketchy or lifeless.

I know what you mean about the reprints, too, even though Marvel seems to do a better job with it than DC. Maybe it's just the difference in art styles, but the Showcase art often looks flat compared to the Essential books. But, like Kevin also mentioned above, the color is part of what makes those books complete. Given a choice between the reprints or old full-color back issues, I'd take the back issues.

I'll say this about the Showcases, though — at least their binding doesn't fall apart EVERY DAMN TIME! Man, I just had to get that off my chest.

Maxo said...

Khairul: And in some cases it's the only way to get the stories that have fallen out of print. I'm a big believer in the reprints in terms of the low-cost to high-content ratio. Plus, they're a nice way to immerse yourself in some great (and not-so-great) comics from a very different era in the industry. The Sgt. Rock collection is high on my wish list.

Lisa: I wish we could get Joe to commit to a game! He was actually pretty good about showing up consistently on the last one.

See, that's what I mean. Boneyard with color would look like an Archie comic, and that would throw off the whole tone of the book. And can you imagine Gutsville in black and white? Blech. It would still be good, but it wouldn't be nearly as visually powerful.

Guy: Brother, I've seen some of the stuff you'll read just based on the art, and you're a stronger man than I am. If either the art or the writing are just too crappy I get distracted and can't enjoy either one. I know it sounds as if I'm evangelizing for black and white, but really I love both styles. And it might be blasphemy, but some of the computer coloring that's being done now is amazing — the depth and shading you can find in comics now is gorgeous.

rob! said...

>>I don't read comics with black people in them.<<

funny, i don't read comics with WHITE people in them!

it leaves me very few options, the Jack Kirby run on Black Panther, a few Milestone books, that's it.

actually, i like colors of all kinds, or none whatsoever. i read Cerebus as a teenager and that woulda been awful in color.

at the same time, i find Kirby loses A LOT in b/w. early FFs have to be in color. its THE LAW.

chris said...

I read it all. I prefer color, but so many comics I enjoy are minimalistic in their use of color ala Criminal.

I buy all those Showcases and Essentials. I have a newfound respect for the artwork of Sal Buscema, Gil Kane, George Tuska, and other classic artists who's work was just 'there' for me in years past, but really shone in it's own right without the color. I don't know if their comics would have been successful in B&W to begin with; I doubt it.

Some books suffered because of the color. Showcase Jonah Hex was perfect in B&W, but looking at the covers and some scans online... what the hell were they thinking with some of the color choices? I've never seen so many purple and pink shirts in the old west.

Maxo said...

Rob!: And if it's not, it SHOULD be!

Oh, and don't forget the Falcon mini-series — you can read that a few times. And there's ... um ... huh.

Chris: I've had a similar experience with the reprints; you can really appreciate some of the line-work when it's just black and white. If nothing else it's a good reminder to pay attention to the different aspects of the art.

Have you been reading The Infinite Horizon? The color palette used for that book just knocks me out.