Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On History: Blue-Eyed Heroes

I recently read Dewey Cassell's excellent biography of Marie Severin. She's never got the name recognition of a Jack Kirby or a John Romita, but she's never failed to impress me. Not just as a great artist, but just as a great human being. In every interview I've ever read, seen or heard her in, she's always an absolute delight.

But this post isn't a Severin appreciation; it's about an interesting technical consideration. In reading this biography, I caught that Severin dropped a small aside about her coloring days at EC. Namely, that she colored everyone's eyes blue. Not because she happened to like blue-eyed people or anything like that, but it was a technical decision based on color registration.

In case you're not familiar with the printing process, most printed material is made using four different colors of inks: magenta, yellow, cyan and black. By mixing those four colors in various quantities, you can achieve a pretty good range of colors. If you want green, you mix yellow and cyan. If you want purple, you mix magenta and cyan. And so on. But the colors aren't literally mixed like you would mix two cans of paint. They're mixed visually by putting a series of dots on the page. Here's a close-up of a Captain America image where you can see how his uniform is actually a combination of cyan and magenta dots, and his skin tone is magenta and yellow dots...
Now, each layer of dots is put down individually. All the yellow dots go down first, then all the magenta dots... And if the paper doesn't line up in exactly the same place for each layer of dots, then you run into something called mis-registration. The colors don't overlap properly and you get pages that look like this...
See how the blue sky is showing up on Peter Parker's face?

So what does this have to do with making everyone's eyes blue?

Simply put, if you colored their eyes anything other than blue (actually, cyan) you would need to use two or more colors of ink. And a particularly small area like an eye, it was very difficult to get a printer in the 1950s to line up those colors accurately enough to successfully merge all the inks and produce the eye color you wanted. So what Severin did was to color everyone's eyes with the one color that would still look natural but would never mis-regsiter: cyan.

Decades later, and despite vast improvements in printing technology, that concern over mis-registrations was still felt. Here's a page from 1977 where you stil see some registration problems...
... and a blue-eyed Black woman.

There likely was some cultural ignorance going one when Storm's eyes were first colored blue, but that blue was chosen was more likely due to concerns about registration than anything else. It wouldn't be until years later when they could comfortably have made her eyes a more natural brown, but by then the character had already been defined as having blue eyes. As had pretty much every other character created before the 1980s.

This is one of the reasons why I try to study all aspects of comics. Because you frequently run into items like this, where what looks like an almost deliberate cultural slight is really the result of technical considerations and cultural ignorance. Without finding that tidbit in the Severin biography, I would've continued thinking that Storm's original colorist was a jackass, not just someone who was doing what made sense for every comic book colorist for the past several decades had been doing. It doesn't excuse the ignorance, but it does help to explain how the decision was made.


Britt Reid said...

You'll note that Cockrum's original character design featured OPEN cat-like pupils...
...when she wasn't using her powers (which makes the eyes go white), instead of the usual "black iris with highlights" pupils most characters have.
(They're supposed to look like cat-eyes, not human eyes, but that's been inconsistent since the early days)
He was leaving a larger area for color, so I suspect that he (as the character's designer) meant for her to have blue irises, along with the white hair that some editorial personnel thought would make Ororo look "grandmotherly".

In Uncanny X-Men #102 (Dec 1976), Chris Claremont established Storm’s backstory.
Ororo's mother, N'Dare, was the princess of a tribe in Kenya and the descendant of a long line of Africans with white hair, blue eyes, and a natural gift for sorcery.
It might be considered "retrofitting" a story to exaplain her look.
BTW, there are blue-eyed Black people, like actress Vanessa L Williams" (Ugly Betty, 666 Park Avenue)

Matt K said...

I recall a letter in some issue of Fantastic Four, and an editorial reply, noting that 1) Mr. Fantastic's eyes were supposed to be brown; 2) they had become blue for an extended period; but 3) this was due entirely to reluctance (apparently overcome since) to go to the trouble of color separations.

mahendra singh said...

Running brown eyes was not so much a registration problem as a size and optical problem … the colour brown never pops right unless it's sized larger, it just looks muddy on newsprint at small sizes, esp. when surrounded by heavy K-plate inking … if the eyeballs were, let's say, a half-inch across, registration would be OK.

Size does matter, esp. in registration on newsprint on the old litho presses.