Should Old Comics Be Recolored? Ever?

The debate over whether comic art should be recolored has been with us for a long time, and is somewhat similar to the debate over colorizing black-and-white films that came before it. When a “remastered” version of Howard Chaykin’s original Star Wars adaptation was released in 2015, the debate flared up on Twitter in a series of posts by comics writer John Gholson that drew numerous replies and spurred an io9 post on the topic.

Gholson also provided an example more in the Heavy Metal wheelhouse, and one that touches on what might be considered a sacred text of graphic storytelling, here’s a before-and-after of the famous splash page in Moebius and Jodorowsky’s The Incal:

Moebius art for ‘The Incal’ as originally published and in a recolored version. Click to open it much larger. (Please pardon the difference in language.)

Gholson cited the recolored these Incal pages in his tweets, commenting with a simple frowny-face emoticon. Here are a couple more of his thoughts:

Gholson provided several before-and-after examples (see below) and you can use Google Image search to find more (like the big Moebius one at the bottom).

The argument in favor of recoloring has to do with advances in the medium. One io9 commenter explains:

The bright colors of the original comics were necessary because the newsprint that comics were originally printed on naturally dulls the colors because it is a little gray and the rough texture absorbs light. … Once you start reprinting those comics on high quality paper stock that is more white, the bright colors become garish because the better quality paper is whiter, smoother, and more reflective.

Comics coloring was once a job that was considered the bottom of the comics-art food chain: pencils were most important, inks secondary, and coloring was a final, technical addition to the art. Colorists had to indicate on the proofs what region got what color using codes and notations — to the layman (and perhaps to editors) the job didn’t really look like “art.” Gholson brought up another point:

Where it gets dangerous is when a comic is recolored with some intent of not only adjusting for the better paper but actually improving the art. It can be done — Gholson likes the tweaks to Simonson’s Thor work — but moderation is key. It’s hard to see how anyone would prefer the recolored version of Moebius’ art from The Incal.

In an absolute sense, is it bad comic book art? Perhaps not.

But does it even look like Moebius? Not on first, second, or third glance.

What about the stature of the work — are some works holy and untouchable, while others are less so? Is it sacrilege to recolor Moebius’ masterwork but not such a big deal to recolor (to pick a random example), a Rich Buckler Avengers comic from 1974?

To recolor or not to recolor is an interesting question for any comics publisher, especially one like Heavy Metal, which was publishing some of the world’s best comics art (including many Moebius stories) in the ’70s and ’80s, using the materials and technology of the era. Imagine those Heavy Metal classics by Bode, Bilal, Caza, Druillet and yes Moebius — if they were to be published in handsome deluxe modern collections, how much monkeying with the colors is justified — or is any?

Here are the examples Gholson provided (plus one he didn’t, a many-page example from The Incal):

Killing Joke Brian Bolland recolored
“The Killing Joke” art by Brian Bolland, recolored by the artist himself. Original on the left, recolored on the right.
Thor Walt Simonson recolored
“Thor” by Walt Simonson; recolored on top, original on bottom
Thor Walt Simonson recolored
“Thor” by Walt Simonson; recolored on the left, original on the right
Killing Joke Brian Bolland recolored
“The Killing Joke” art by Brian Bolland, recolored by the artist himself. Original on top, recolored on the bottom.
Thor Walt Simonson recolored
“Thor” by Walt Simonson; original on the left, recolored on the right
Comparison of full splash pages from ‘The Incal,’ click to see it much larger.
The Incal by Moebius recolored
Many pages of “The Incal” by Moebius, as originally colored vs. recolored — click to enlarge.

26 thoughts on “Should Old Comics Be Recolored? Ever?

  1. if it was done in a traditional style not the photo/illustrator easy way out in my opinion this way of coloring comics kills the art-form aka lets slap a gradient on everything.

  2. Yes., if you are trying to sell old comics to a new younger market, you must update those comics to a standard acceptable by the new market. Without income, you don't have a business.

    1. “Next up – CASABLANCA! In color and with a new happier ending!”
      That’s where taht thinkign goes.
      And look at Shakespeare- His work is still popular despite the rewrites ” for modern audiences” don eby a Mr Bowdler in the 1800s. Inj fcat, i think you’d be hard pressed to find copies of those nowadays while the orignals are still strong sellers.

    2. I’m young people and i say keep the bright colours! they’re good and one of my favourite things about reading older comics. recolours……. not so good. they often end up being far less visually interesting and completely take away from the original comic/ colour artist’s vision- a lot of the recolours above aim for clarity, but end up looking dull and uninteresting instead.

  3. Just like with the RAY HARRYHAUSEN Colorizations, things look and work better if the original artist is involved (as with "The Killing Joke" by Brian Bolland). Doing it without direct input from the artist is "Total TURNER-ization" (for example, Turner's infamous KING KONG Colorization in 1986–yea, I got the VHS to prove it, too!!). MOEBIUS, for instance, had this Neon-type drawing and coloring style which is what made me a fan ever since I first picked-up HEAVY METAL in the early '80s. To alter ANY of his work is WRONG.

  4. Comics are a collaborative effort. Old versions do not disappear, they are still there if people want to get them.
    If John writes the comic, Jack draws it, Jill inks it and Susan colors it, any of them can be replaced. (Well harder with script writer, and if you replace artist you have to get new ink and color).
    I don't see a problem with situation like that, when comics are updated for the new audiences, when comic was work for hire anyhow.
    When artist is also did the inking and color, then its a much bigger problem. Because he didn't just do the art and then pass it on, he had to have been thinking on finished work. Then recoloring makes no sense, unless they hire him to update his work.

  5. All of the original examples are waay better, without exception.

    I don't know what is wrong with today's graphical tastes. I simply detest all the photoshop ramps and "normalized" look of most of today's comics. They all look the same to me.

    It's a particular shame in the case of Moebius comics. The original colors are so bright, so hauntingly super-real they are sheer pleasure to look at on their own. In fact, once you change the coloring for the standard PS look, you even begin to question Moebius' pencil genius…

  6. If the idea of recoloring is by killing the the nice atmospheric lighting and making it a dull unexciting computer flesh gradient than no. Even if the technology is better the colorists in general have gotten worse.

    Old comics sometimes can be brought out more, but making line art into realistic gradients makes most of the work look bad. I think the coloring of comics should be thought with the same sense of design and experimentation as graphic design. Bold colors and interesting tones not FXs and too volumetric renditions. It's a waste.

    The INCAL should not be touched. Although the last 2 stories (Incal #3 from Epic Comics) both artistically and coloring wise are less than par from the former 4 stories (First two Epic Comics books). The coloring of the original is excellent. The new colors doesn't had anything to the story except make it more dull. The magic of those books was the excellent watercolor and airbrush treatment which exceptional taste in color choices. The new ones are bland and uninspiring.

    1. You are right. In some cases the comics from many years ago are better but MOBIUS should NEVER BE RECOLORED. All the recoloring of MOBIUS is a disgrace! THey look like crap recolored!

  7. This is complete rubbish. Would you also demand to repaint the Mona Lisa and give her some piercings and maybe a facial Tattoo, hip sunglasses and so on? Apart from this rather weird logic of yours there is a far bigger acceptance Problem: The Story itself. There are no mobiles, no Laptops, no Internet, just phone booths and stuff. Should we Change all These bits and insert mobiles into the Panels just to make a Comic book "acceptable". Anyone who cannot accept that a Story from the 70's Looks like a Story from the 70's has no appreciation for the medium itself.

  8. Putting my toes in this debate, I would say what is wrong with both. The original publications have been printed and most are out of the reach of the general public. When the recoloring is done, especially by the original artist, (which brought me here) I look at it as another copy to enjoy.

  9. I would also ask the naysayers that if a musician rerecords their original song i.e Clapton and Layla or if a different musician covers a song ala Tori Amos covering Neil Young's Heart of Gold, do you feel the same way? The other version did not go away and you are not forced to listen to it, are you?

  10. Most of these are the result of better printing technology, pure and simple. But in a couple of cases, like the Moebius at the top, the new colourist doesnt seem to get the concept of the illustration, and it looks like a mosh compared to the original.

  11. In almost all of these the original is WAAY better than the new colouring!
    Except maybe for the Killing joke…
    The moebius original is leagues better in the original colouring. I hate this kitch use of photoshop effects and gradients. No consideration to balance and feeling.

    1. Absolutely right on all counts. One reason I dropped my subscription to Heavy Metal was the overwhelming censorship then the recolorizing came out. I thought the censorship was bad until I saw this!

  12. NO ! DONT RECOLOR !! Dont destroy history ! Thats how george Orwells 1984 starts…
    What are you thinking men ??

    Besides, recoloring might be better or worse – depends from image to image and results in overall mood that is always disturbed. Would you recolor Leonardo Da Vinci to be more modern ?
    Remastering and remixing music is also crippling the originals. That only generates confusion and misunderstandings. Would you remix and remaster Bach to be more modern ?
    What about photography – should we edit those as well ? Or old movies ?

    What about lunatics in genetic labs recoloring gens and creating remixes, mixin apples, potatoes, bugs with rats in a hope of creating doctor Fausts science.

    Would we recolor SKY, because we are bored with blue ?
    Where are the limits ? Where are the breaks ?

    Shall we change everything from the past ?
    And then have NOTHING, nothing at all – and nothing real.

    NO ! STOP IT !
    Before its too late…

  13. As long as the original artist (s) are okay with it! I redraw and recolour my stuff all the time but I’d be pissed if somebody else recoloured my art on their own. And if the artist has passed on, leave it the fuck alone!

  14. I am up in the air on this one. I purchase the Marvel Masterworks series and the art is beautifully reproduced and recolored. I think that they try to stick to the original coloring if it were used today and printed on quality paper. When the color scheme, especially when the artist themselves did the coloring then I am against it. PS Books has true reproductions of old comics without recoloring. The copies are’t great, but at least I get stories I’ve never been exposed to. Those books could use some touch up and higher quality scans. I hate it when someone comes along and says ‘I can do a better job than Mobius for example though. that is just plain arrogant. the real question is WHY are you doing it? if your reasons are to be true to the artist, then please do. if you are trying to put your own spin on the comic hen stay away!

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