Welcome back to this two part series on comics, color printing technology, and dark skin! We’re still here, trying to figure out brown. Luckily, things get a little less ashy from here on out. In the last section, we thought about technological biases against brown skin, which have cropped up and persisted in film technology and—I’ve found—in comics. The 1970s gave us army green Luke Cage (and Natongo, can’t forget our Brothers of the Spear) and Misty Knight’s stripey, over-determined skin. But as the 1980s moved on, the industry began to change. DC and Marvel both started experimenting with materials, color separation technology, and brown skin improved as a collateral benefit.
Offset Printing and Baxter Paper
Until the 1980s, both DC and Marvel printed their comics at a factory called World Color Press in Sparta, Illinois. The comics division of World Color used letterpress printing—the same principle developed by Gutenberg—on highly absorbent uncoated newsprint, which was especially inexpensive at high volumes. The Big Two aren’t exactly transparent about the printing methods they were using 35 years ago (with the extremely helpful exception being the introduction to The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics). In my research, I had to rely a lot on Professor Google. I searched around for hours finding websites from 2008 by old guys who worked in the industry. Those kinds of sources—taken with a grain of salt and patched together with other sources, like academic and news articles, to try and find the most reliable picture—make up the bulk of my technical understanding of the printing process.
However, during the ’80s, DC and Marvel were both in the process of transitioning from the letterpress to the costlier offset printing method. Douglas Wolk, author of Eisner-Winning Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, reminds us that the vibrancy of comics has as much to do with the paper stock as the printing method.
In the ’80s DC comics started to experiment with heavier, whiter, Baxter paper, which was less absorbent than newsprint and proved to be a much more stable vessel for ink. DC started printing deluxe “Baxter books” in 1982, with the limited series Camelot 3000. Jim Shooter, then editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, said in a 1981 interview that it was “crazy” to speculate that the “regular comics” and letterpress printing were on their way out. Despite his certainty, by the end of the ’80s Shooter was proved wrong: offset printing was rapidly becoming the industry norm with DC in the lead.
This is not to say that DC deserves any credit for progressive depictions of race due to their early adoption of superior printing methods. In the 1980s, Marvel was as far ahead of DC in terms of black representation as it was in sales. DC experimented with new formats because they just weren’t selling very many comic books. The deluxe prints were part of their attempt to snatch up some of the growing specialty market. Although he likely didn’t expressly enter into DC’s considerations, Cyborg definitely benefited from the new print format in The New Teen Titans #1 deluxe print run (1984): his skin was enriched and stabilized, but it wasn’t perfected.
You can see that there’s a little more range of brown in the difference between Cyborg’s skin and the trees behind him. But he’s two different colors on these pages, and I don’t think it’s meant to reflect a lighting change. I can’t really tell if his two skin colors are even distinct enough to have been distinct color instructions. It seems likely to me that it’s another printing error.
By 1993, Marvel was catching up to the trend and printing The Uncanny X-Men #305 on better paper (though not as heavy or white as The New Teen Titans deluxe run) and marked as “Printed in Canada” in its copyright information, which indicates that it was likely offset-print. There are least two shades of brown to contrast against army green, finally applied properly to fatigues, not brown skin. Note that a misprint still added a little extra blue in the area of Storm’s bicep.
When paper became whiter, it also became less proximate to white skin. Compare the whiteness of Storm’s hair, which is blank paper, to the pinkness of the man’s skin. The improved paper stock not only stabilized the inks combining to create brown, but distanced the whiteness of blank paper from the whiteness of white skin. Digitized comics are probably the most distant from any implication of “blank” white skin, since there is no such thing as a blank pixel, and every color must be produced with light.
In paper comics, a similar move took place as dots per inch increased to the point that they were no longer meaningfully distinguishable to the naked eye. If you squint and strain to look for dots in the image they are visible in the white man’s skin, but there are no obvious glimpses of blank paper, just as there are no stripes of primary color on Storm’s skin. As comics adopted newer print technology and started to migrate more onto digital platforms, whiteness became just a little bit less “unmarked” at the level of the materials themselves. In the same year as The Uncanny X-Men #305, DC made—or rather, they recognized and facilitated—a true advancement in the depiction of brown skin. One might even say, a Milestone.
Milestone Media was conceived, run, written, and drawn by primarily black artists and writers. DC received a cut of the profits and provided infrastructure, but had no editorial or creative control. Early issues of Static, colored beautifully by Noelle C. Giddings and Hanne Kieldgaard, are filled with browns layered upon browns. Static’s dark skin is stable from panel to panel, both in close-up and full-body views. The other young man is a lighter but equally stable shade of brown. Static’s jacket is a third brown, the dumpster behind him in the center bottom panel a fourth. Before the ’90s, extensive shading was seldom used in the interiors of mainstream comics, but Giddings and Kieldgaard use it to excellent effect.
I tweeted at Giddings asking about her process, and she explained that she painted all the colors by hand on paper. Brown is finally light responsive: the jacket is slightly different shades in different panels, but you can see that it’s actually the same two shades varying in response to the light of the scene. Giddings leaves Static’s skin consistent. See also how his profile is outlined in white in the center bottom panel to keep its integrity against the dark background. I have not confirmed but strongly suspect that Milestone Media elected to adopt digital color separation, meaning that they would have used digital technology to prepare the color plates for printing. This would allow them to greatly expand their palette, enable shading, and increase the dots per inch printed so that the dots making up the color become close to invisible to the naked eye—properly rendering the beautiful hand-painted colorwork, but also making each plane of brown look like one color, rather than dotted lines overlapping to approximate brown.
So … What Now?
Today, comics are digitally prepared for digital offset printing on high-quality coated white paper. The pinky-peach color of white skin is now produced with the stroke of a stylus—as is the brown of black skin. But colorism, that hydra, still lingers in the digital age. Ronald Wimberly’s comic, in which he describes his own experience as a colorist and being instructed by an editor at Marvel to lighten a woman of color’s skin tone, indicates a complicated interplay of requirements that layers over all superheroes, but seems especially perilous for characters of color.
Wimberly and his editor are balancing canon drift (the racial backstory of the character Wimberly discusses seems to be in question), color drift (with so many colors available, skin color is now light-responsive which introduces its own challenges), and the messiness of the superhero comics assembly line (ultimately, his editor didn’t follow up on the request to lighten a character’s skin).
None of this will help me to unfurl the infinite enigma of Brothers of the Spear, but it’s nice to at least get why they’re so damn green. There’s comfort, too, in being able to put some concrete brackets around a generative but also disappointing period in the history of black superheroes. The people making comics just didn’t seem to care about the look of these characters on the page. Maybe it didn’t even occur to them to worry about the ink.
That’s not to say at all that it hasn’t occurred to anybody. I’ve seen complaints from fans and nonprofessionals, and I’m sure that I could find more if I trawled letter columns, fan magazines, and web forums.
I don’t think that anyone today would seriously argue that the influx of blaxploitation-inspired heroes in the 1970s represented an indisputable good faith victory in black representation. Cleverer people than I have tried to figure out the complicated legacy of these troubling, frustrating, and sometimes exciting early attempts at black representation. But even my very wary readings of these comics changed when I saw the original ink on paper for the first time and realized the fundamental problems comics had with just depicting their bodies. It needs to be part of our conversation about these heroes.