Christie Scheele and the Marvel School of Minimalist Color

During the 1980s, the mainstream comicbook publishers were on the cusp of large scale technological, organizational and creative changes with respect to the production and reproduction of color.  With a few exceptions and experiments in so-called full color comics and emerging graphic novels, most monthly pamphlets were assembled using the same basic methods and techniques used to render color in the very earliest comics.  Specifically, colorists used a limited color palettes (systems supported somewhere between 49 to 128 hues) to paint color guides directly onto art photostats, which in turn were used to create hand-made color separations.  The results of this outsourced creative labor weren’t always accurate and could further run victim to strange artifacts given the offset printing process itself; for example, pick up any comic from before 1985 and observe how the the color of a figure’s hair almost infallibly exceeds and runs past the line art.  However, as early as 1987, color pioneers like Steve Oliff were already using computers to digital color and separate comics, first in Marvel Epic’s import and translation of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.  During the 1990s, perhaps prompted by the quick success of new independent rivals, Marvel and DC would quickly adopt digital work practices and higher quality paper standards, abandoning the practice of hand coloring and separations.

None of this is meant to suggest that the practice hand coloring was inferior or that didn’t evolve its own creative standards and resources.  Quite the opposite, I would argue that during the 1980s, colorists at Marvel reached a fine level of artistic sophistication with regards to what appears to be a limited format.  Several accomplished colorists at the publisher achieved this by avoiding the garish blasts of rainbow contrast that had defined the superhero genre (think Superman’s costume) and, instead, experimented with limited palettes, white space, the structural uses of contrast and and overall tonal minimalism not typical of mainstream comic art before or since.  In other words, at the same time that artists like Steve Oliff and Bill Sienkiewicz were exploring the technologies and techniques of coloring comics (becoming the antecedents of digital coloring), traditional colorists such as Christie Scheele, David Mazzucchelli and Glynis Wein were plumbing the artistic resources of limited color options, a tradition that was only subsequently picked up in underground and independent comic art.

Take for example Scheele and Mazzucchelli’s work on the well-remembered “Born Again” storyline in Daredevil.  Page 7 of issue 227 depicts Matt Murdock / Daredevil in a series of compositions that place the protagonist in his dwelling, in a world of things, all of which will be gone by the end of the issue.


– Line Art by D. Mazzucchelli, Colors by C. Scheele

Notice the strategic use of a muted palette; the room of is suffused with blue and white hues, covering the entire room with a staid calmness and rendering the space in even, crisp “lighting.” (Of course, Matt is also blind, giving a further subjective rationale behind the purposely bland, almost contrast-less composition.)  However, one point of the panel complicates the scheme: Matt himself is rendered both in deep, saturated red hues and in over-rendered half-tone shadows.  Thematically, this establishes that Matt already doesn’t belong in is old life, which, in the narrative, is being systematically destroyed by his antagonist, the Kingpin.  But, more importantly, it signals the color contrast scheme that will animate the limited color palette for the remainder of the issue: red on a sea of blue.


– Line Art by D. Mazzucchelli, Colors by C. Scheele

We see this stark color contrast again and again.  Daredevil in costume against the night sky.  Foggy and Glori glowing red next to a fire in a dark-blue, shadowed room.  Daredevil gone mad attacking a bar of hoods in a rage as seen above.  Again Matt-Daredevil is isolated, detached from his environment by the use of contrast and limited palette choices.  Even the issue’s cover plays on this strategy depicting Daredevil’s red costume on a field of blue


But the structural pay-off for this strategy occurs in the penultimate page as Matt returns to his home just before it bursts into a fireball of explosion.  Here the contrast inverts; Matt is a sea of un-modelled blue against the red of the explosion.  This structural inversion certainly underscores the violence of the act, the removal of Matt from his “proper” place (again the issue concerns the sabotaging of every aspect of his personal life), but just as importantly demonstrates how color change and variation tells its very own story alongside that of Matt’s narrative, presumably a tall feat for what could appear to be technologically backward system.


– Line Art by D. Mazzucchelli, Colors by C. Scheele

In the next issue of Dardevil, colored by the line artist Mazzucchelli, the colorist continues elaborating on simplified palettes and clearly delineating contrast.  (It is odd that Scheele, who returns in the immediate subsequent issues, missed working on #228.  I suspect that she was just too busy coloring up to six books a month.)  For example, see page 19 depicting Matt’s confrontation with the Kingpin.


– Art by D. Mazzucchelli

Note how the two figures are rendered with very little modeling (there are small hints of gray on Kingpin’s bare skin and on Matt’s unshaven face), which only makes the two stand out more sharply from the stark, white background.  Blank backgrounds are another strange innovation of this minimalist school of coloring.  Nearly every color comicbook before this, from Spider-Man to Donald Duck, hysterically fills empty space with often pointless, often illogical, often pastel backdrops — an odd comic art convention.  But here we see a background of “pure” white (depending on the condition of your copy!) bleed into a foreground of “pure” red.  These are bold, unconventional color choices that echo the white space backgrounds of Matt’s indiscriminate attack on train commuters and contrasts with his fantasy of the Kingpin dead on a field of black, both seen earlier in the issue (pages 12 and 7 respectively).

Scheele, who is a trained fine artist that today creates fantastic minimalist landscape paintings [], continued to experiment with subdued, limited and muted color schemes in her work on Marvel superhero books.  In one memorable later issue of Daredevil (#252), Scheele used the narrative pretense of a city-wide black out to create a book rendered almost entirely of varied shades of grey, red and black.


– Line Art by John Romita, Jr., Colors by C. Scheele

In an issue of The Avengers (#280), Scheele depicts the reminiscences of the superhero team’s butler, Jarvis, by whiting and muting the backgrounds.  Subjectively-motivated, this color scheme is sustained through the entire flashback issue allowing the mundane details of the mind and environment to “fade,” while the bright, superhero-esque colors of the period-specific Avengers, untouched by modeling and vivid in their pure tones of blue, yellow, red and green, stand out, both from the page and from Jarvis’s “memory.”


– Line Art by Bob Hall and Kyle Baker, Colors by C. Scheele

A similar effect is achieved in her work on The Avengers Annual 14 where an elaborate casino background is thrown “out of focus” by overlaying vivid, mostly untouched colors on our larger-than-life protagonists.  Although Scheele is certainly still thinking in terms of minimalism, these Avengers issues depict an entirely different strategy than suggested by her work on Daredevil.  The latter tended to highlight contrast through the muting and limiting of tones, while the former (a tonally more “light” series) did so by rendering figures in vivid and, for lack of a better term, comic-booky colors.


– Line Art by John Byrne and K. Baker, Colors by C. Scheele

Significantly, Scheele never made the transition to digital color.  Her art was one of subtlety and restraint ill-suited to the limitless and often garish practice of early digitization.


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