Comics Color


Virtually all color printing is done with four colors of ink: yellow, cyan (blue), magenta (red) and black. Every magazine, every newspaper, every brochure – no matter how many different colors appear to be used – are made up of dots of those four colors, the white of the paper, and a process in your brain that makes you see a merged color. This method is called process color printing.

The size of the dots – and the resulting amount of white paper that shows between them – determines how light or dark the color is.

For 40 years color in the American comic industry used a simple, hand separated 4-color (CMYK) system.

The colors were made of three percentages of each of the three printing inks (CMY): A 25% dot, a 50% dot, and a 100% (or solid) color.

The possible combinations of these tints gave colorists a palette of 64 possible colors to use in the books, though most used no more than half of them. Many of the darker colors were indistinguishable in print.

Limiting the palette to 64 colors kept printing costs down, and were about all that would easily reproduce on the cheap newsprint paper used for comics. Airbrushing and special colors/effects were reserved for covers, which were heavier coated paper stocks.

49 colors used by Chemical Color of Derby, Connecticut.


Separating color by hand is a very time-consuming task, but a good artist can squeeze the utmost out of the medium by working WITH these limitations, and not AGAINST them.

Early mainstream comics were known and loved for their striking colors, which often suited the exaggerated actions and emotions of the characters, especially in superhero comics. Due to the limitations of 4-colour separation technology, such comics gained an internationally recognizable style.


To create a light green, for instance, a code of Y2B2 was used. This meant that 25% of Yellow (Y2) and 25% of Cyan (B2) are needed to get that color. In order for the color guide artists to be able to communicate with the color separators, charts of the 64 colors with their codes were printed and distributed to the colorists.

Photostats or Xerox copies of the original art were made at 8 ½ x 11, and the colorists often used special 64 color sets of Dr. Martin’s radiant transparent watercolor (or aniline dyes) to color them.

Then they would write codes from the chart on the guides, which the separators used to know which color the guide artists actually wanted. (As opposed to guessing) and were sent to the color separator.

The separator, which for much of comics history was Chemical Color Plate in Connecticut, would make nine acetate prints of the original art, one for each percentage of each color.

The black and white artwork – originally drawn at twice the printed size, then 1½ times, and currently slightly less than that -- was photographed, reduced and printed on sheets of clear acetate. Nine copies were made of each page – one for each of the three percentages of the three colors – and these were turned over to a separator.

Using the colored artwork as a guide, areas on the acetates would be filled in with an opaque paint (Rubylith) to correspond to the color(s) necessary.

Once the color guides were fully “translated” and the acetates were finished, they would be photographed with appropriate screens to create a single version which included the percentage dots and the solid of one color. These three new pieces of film, along with a fourth clean version of the art which was used to make the black, were used to make the printing plates.


In order to cut costs, DC Comics once dropped one of the color plates it used in printing Batman.

Separators were paid for the number of acetates they painted. If one of the percentages could be eliminated, DC would save 1/9th of the cost, right?

The easiest one to drop was the 25% yellow – its primary uses were skin color and to make the light gray that was Batman’s costume. Skin would be a bit pinker with only a 25% red dot and the Caped Crusader’s costume, made up of only 25% red and 25% blue, would be a bit more violet, but who would notice? And after the newsprint they were printing on yellowed a bit, the colors would seem “normal” anyway.

The experiment did not last long. The expected savings turned out to be minimal or Chemical Color just refused to cut their prices. Before long, the 25% yellow was back as part of the mix.

What’s the real reason for the Incredible Hulk being green?

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought the Incredible Hulk to life in the early 60's, their vision for this character was that of a muscle-bound giant with deathly grey skin.
As the comics came off the press however, it soon became apparent that getting just the right shade of grey was difficult. Sometimes the Hulk came out looking pale and dull, like dishwater, at other times he was almost black. With the 2nd issue, it was decided that the Hulk would become an easy to reproduce shade of green.


128 Colors!

In the 1970s, artist Murphy Anderson started Visual Concepts, and offered color separation services as well, adding a 70% tone to the mix (and thereby increasing the palette to 128 colors).

Adding the extra tint was as simple as creating three more acetates for the separator to paint and having the colorists indicate those tones on their color guides.

At first, the expanded palette was wasted in the standard letter-press / newsprint comic books. Too often, the 70% dot printed heavily and looked like a 100% solid.

It was not until the industry began publishing comics in “upscale” formats – offset printing on better paper – that the 70% tint became part of the norm.

Spot Color

Occasionally, the spot color printing (sometimes referred to as custom color) will be used. Spot color refers to the use of special inks prepared by the ink manufacturing company.

Spot colors are used for colors which must be reproduced precisely, for certain colors which are difficult to reproduce using CMYK, or for corporate logos and other special effects.

The Pantone and the FocolTone color systems both use printed specimen books from which spot colors can be chosen. Spot colors can be specified directly with some types of graphics software.

Digital Desktop Publishing

In the late 80's and early ninety's digital desktop publishing was in its early stages. At this time a company called Pixelcraft created a computer program for color reproduction in comics. Color separation guru, Steve Oliff, created a studio called Olyoptics, exploring the use of this kind of program to create detailed shades that were not possible using existing hand separation techniques.

Whilst the technology was still fragile and crashing regularly, the results were highly successful. The one of the first releases using this method was the English version of a popular Japanese comic called Akira.

It changed everything, along with the advent of Desktop Publishing. Prior to digital desktop publishing, if you wanted to make your own comics you had to go to a professional publishing house, such as DC or Marvel, because the production costs were so high. It is now possible to publish your own comics from one small room. All you need is a computer with a reasonable amount of ram, a graphics tablet, a copy of graphics and layout software, and you're almost there.

But remember, a good artist knows that "just because you can, doesn't mean you should" With the stomach churning amount of affects available in a lot of software packages, its tempting to try them all. Sometimes it's the limitations that bring the greatest rewards.


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