Conan the Colourful

We’re on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic, first written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Smith. “How it came to pass” has been written about often, and while I’m definitely a fan, and have my fond memories (though not stretching back half a century), I also think that its legacy could have been handled with a lot more care.

I found my first Conan the Barbarian comics when I was 15, not long after I’d discovered him in prose, and I was sold. These were the Dutch editions of the Barry Smith stories, packaged as two US issues for each Dutch issue. These pages held an age undreamt of, with shining kingdoms and jewelled thrones, and as life was disappointing at the time, I was happy to escape into them. Eventually, I replaced my Dutch copies with the ’90s US reprints and then, years later, I started buying the Dark Horse collections. However, I didn’t quite enjoy them the way I once had. Something felt off, and it didn’t take long to notice that the colouring had been redone.

When Dark Horse republished the complete Marvel Conan the Barbarian series, they didn’t give original comics (or the ’90s reprints) as reference to the colourists who, according to colourist Jim Zub “had to fly blind on choosing color palettes.” Tom Scioli in his article for Comics Alliance: “Color creates a reading rhythm. If applied incorrectly, the story you tell will be bad. For that Marvel Comics second generation (Barry Windsor Smith and Steranko) color was very important. There’s a reason those auteurs took an active hand in it as early as they could. If color creates a reading rhythm, color becomes a writing tool. Different color tells a different story.”

Page 7 issue 7 of Conan the Barbarian from 1971 and Dark Horse.

It’s worth quoting Tom Scioli fuller:
The coloring on the right is going for the verisimilitude of a night scene. The colors are muted and secondary. This is the color you get when you lay a night time color layer over everything. It’s the comics equivalent of “day-for’night” filming. It flattens the whole scene. It creates a convincing illusion of night, of rods and cones kicking in, but it is not inviting. It makes you view this as a photo rather than a tableaux you can wander around in. The reader is less likely to linger, more likely to quickly scan over.

The placement of reds and yellows throughout the page add a rhythm in the original. Grays and dull browns dominate the page on the right. The dominant color, blue is huddled in the center, keeping the eye from spending time on the panels around the edges. When Conan enters the treasure room in panel 9, there is a sudden warmth from the variety of colors, the greens, reds and yellow. In the reprint, the cold night dominates that panel as well, keeping it from feeling like a new moment. No color is allowed to shine through without it’s complement mixed in, too. Blues become teals. The old color is far from perfect, often full of technical mistakes, but it reads beautifully.

Issue 9, again from 1971 and Dark Horse’s new version.

We see the same in the first page of another story. Nothing is allowed to stand out, everything is of the same colour value. Originally, FEAR was made highly charged by colouring it red; I don’t see any reason to colour it grey in the new version except for a fear of standing out. Careful now! In the first panel, Conan and his horse, and the rock on which they ride, are perfectly visible against the black night. Repainted, horse and rider become mud against the sky, and the rocks have been given more texture, and prominence, than Conan himself.

The second panel isn’t too bad, though it shows perfectly the airbrush colours and shading that are too prevalent in bad colouring. Good colouring is about making choices, about knowing where to put your accents, where to direct the eye. It’s not about rendering everything photorealistically; especially not when you’re working on top of an artefact of the ’70s. Fully understandable that the colourist wasn’t provided with the original copies to work from, but he could have done an approximation of what colours of the ’70s would look like, or better: feel like. It lacks authenticity.

This is also the case with the last panel, which lacks excitement. All elements have the same heavy and murky colour values, and ironically, by shading elements and adding colour effects, the resulting image is strangely flat. In the original version those marauders towering over Conan stand clear against the sky, instead of being flattened by it. They’re verticals on the horizontals of the rocks.

Conan and his girlfriend and horse are diagonals; they’re moving in the world of these men, but are not of it. Their diagonal lines, upper right to lower left, are dynamic, giving speed and action. The hurled spears are fast too, coming from upper left, their lines antagonistic to those of Conan’s party. The colourist understands this lay-out; of course he would – it was Barry Smith himself – and uses colours (or the lack thereof) to separate the elements. He’s using a very limited palette, even more limited than was available at the time, but he uses it meaningfully; his sparse use of red makes the spears and the young woman pop right off the page.

Conan the King 32, 1986. Written by Don Kraar, art by Mike Docherty/Vince Colletta

From the later Conan the Barbarian and Conan the King comics either example copies or the actual colour separations were available, so that the colours of the trade paperbacks could be faithfully reconstructed. I had a couple of stray issues of Conan the King I’d once bought on holiday. I liked the storyline, or what I could follow of it, which was less “monster of the month” than I was used to. I loved the artwork too, showing an older Conan in a moodier, somewhat more realistic world.

The original colourist for Conan the King (George Roussos) was a comic book veteran who knew how to expertly use the limited palette. He understood colour and depth, and most importantly, what the colours would look like on the page. In the above example, you see Conan and his associates surrounded by soldiers. The anonymous soldiers are uniformly grey, roughly the same colour of the background, while the men closer to him have brighter colours. Conan himself, of course, stands out, in blue metal cuirass, red cape and yellow lion emblem and helmet.

Dark Horse’s reprint, Chronicles of King Conan Vol 7, 2014

And yet, despite Dark Horse having used the same colour separations, the result is not at all pleasing to me. This is because the original comics were printed cheaply on woodpulp paper, while the reprints are of better physical quality, with a higher ink density and glossy paper. The results however are clashing colours, garishness and colour mixes which worked for the Marvel press but not for Dark Horse’s. You can see it best in the horses: a glossy black horse, rendered as grey-blue, becomes green, a tan horse becomes orange. The brown horse brcomes a fiery brown-red.

I’ve got reprints of other archival comics, where the comicbook pages were scanned and printed, flaws and all. You see it often with archival comics where the publisher really wants to give you a feeling of what the original experience would’ve been like. That, or not invest in cleaning the pages up; Allan Harvey is doing wonderful things with colour restoration. Yet, even with a couple of simple tweaks the colours of the Conan comics could have been recalibrated.

Here I’ve taken the above image, but dialled the colours back. Cyan (“blue”) to 80%, magenta (“red”) to 90% and yellow to 60%. This gives me a result pretty close to the original comic. Of course, you can argue over the values; should cyan be 90% and magenta 80%? Should there be a smidge more yellow? Nonetheless, while the end result would undoubtedly give a much softer impression, it would also look, on glossy paper and with clearer linework in better printing quality, more like the grown-up comic that it is: the limitations that the previous generations of artists worked with do not always, and often didn’t, lead to a lesser artistry.