This was a post that I was getting edited to go up on ComicsAlliance when AOL shut them down, so I’m posting it here.
Since her debut work in Malignant Man for Boom! Studios in 2010, Jordie Bellaire has become one of the most exciting and recognizable colorists in comics. From coloring projects like Immortals: Gods and Monsters at Archaia, all the way working on DC’s Action Comics, Marvel’s Season One Hulk and Doctor Strange graphic novels, and successful independent projects like Brian Wood and Ming Doyle’s Mara, it’s gotten to a point where her name alone attracts me to a new project.
Sam Humphries and Ramón Pérez’s John Carter: the Gods of Mars flashes between the mundane present and the exotic past as Edgar Rice Burroughs reads John Carter’s journals detailing his sensational adventures on another planet. In these sections, Bellaire relies on the tried and true sepia toning to convey that not only does this story take place in the past from the reader’s perspective, but also to underscore just how mundane Burroughs’ Earth is compared to Carter’s Barsoom.
The Mars scenes are vividly colored and a pleasure to soak in. The planet itself feels alien. The Martian dirt clods in dusky reds and blue alien monsters pop atop frenetic yellow skies. The primary colors fight for your attention while the sepia colored Burroughs panels shrink, lost as Burrough’s imagination takes hold. Humphries and Perez introduce a clear framing sequence and then jump straight into the book’s core action, with Bellaire’s coloring contributing instant gratification.
Further, when a character on Mars relates events in their past to John Carter, Bellaire washes the background with orange and teal; it allows for a signature look that becomes instantly recognizable as a flashback, while drawing attention to the fact that the character’s location is (literally) otherworldly. Even better, Bellaire’s early use of the sepia tone as a past event makes the Mars flashbacks more exciting; this should matter more to the reader, it’s more important to the plot, and it’s more fun to look at, so Bellaire’s colors underscore all of that.
Written by Jonathan Hickman, with art by Nick Pitarra, The Manhattan Projects‘ distinctive blue and red color palette in the flashback scenes had already been defined by Chris Peter when Bellaire came aboard for issue three, but her work built upon that color scheme. Colors became heightened, and artist Pitarra’s line work has never looked better.
In issue five, Hickman introduced aliens and similarly-alien worlds to the comic, which, besides showcasing Pitarra’s brilliant alien designs, allowed Bellaire to put in some of the best coloring of her career. Throughout the issue, Bellaire uses sharp color contrasts to show how out of place the aliens and humans look on each other’s worlds. The aliens visiting Earth in the opening pages are bright blue, directly opposed to both the yellow-brown of the desert location and the dusky, brown uniforms of the humans.
Later, when the scientists visit the alien planet, they’re wearing bright yellow suits, mimicking the primary colors of the aliens. But when an alien breaks one of the scientist’s helmets, revealing his pale skin, brown mustache, and glasses, we see a return to the earth (or Earth) tones that Bellaire established for their home planet. The colors underline how out of depth the characters are, and how completely unfamiliar this new world is to them; even if they try and blend in, they can’t change where they’re from.
Mara is one of Bellaire’s most recent collaborations, and the one that made me realize how adeptly she’s able to underline the subtext of a comic. Written by Brian Wood with art by Ming Doyle, it follows the titular Mara, a superstar volleyball player who suddenly gains superpowers in a society where fair play is everything.
In the first couple of issues, Bellaire highlights how the outbreak of these powers affects Mara’s life. When Mara first steps into the volleyball arena, the page is almost overwhelmed with red, largely over a white background, which mimics both Mara’s in-universe logo and the actual comic’s logo.
The red and white almost overwhelm the background of nearly every panel Mara plays volleyball in. That’s her stage, she’s the star, no one else can touch her. The colors reinforce the message that Wood and Doyle are telling us through the writing and art: you step into Mara’s arena, and you will get beat. But we see things change later this issue, when Mara uses her powers for the first time.
It’s a thin panel, so it’s hard to recognize the trick until it happens again later in the issue, but everything in the panel is washed out except for the person with the gun. It focuses in on the “klik” of the revolver, before the story moves on.
Near the end of the issue, there’s a longer example of the same trick. At first, red and white dominates the background: Mara’s in her element. Then, she starts to glow with a blue aura
as the background colors drain. Doyle communicates Mara’s speed by emphasizing specific moments, but Bellaire’s coloring clarifies Mara’s separation from everyone else, while highlighting that it’s not entirely her choice.
The reader’s been set-up to associate Mara’s feeling comfortable in her element when surrounded by red and white, so the blue and washed-out background
It adds a texture to a scene that’s already present, but might go unnoticed without Bellaire highlighting it. Even better, she shifts the color palette for the second issue. Whereas the first had sharp, bright colors, and the aforementioned red/white contrast to emphasize Mara’s confidence, the second issue has darker shading, mirroring Mara’s turmoil after her scandal. Everything’s muted, duller, and a bit darker, without obscuring any of Doyle’s line work.
While the second issue has a variety of colors, Bellaire avoids the red/white contrast in all but one scene. It only appears when Mara practices volleyball serves while discussing her predicament with her brother.
Tellingly, the is room blue, harking back to Mara’s powers. Mara’s trying to return to her comfort zone, volleyball, but she’s
sapped by the public reaction to her powers. Wood and Doyle underline this fact by showing that while her brother advises her, Mara can’t focus; she keeps missing.
Even when Mara finally hits the target straight-on, the red-and-white bullseye is hemmed in by blue, underlying what the scene is already implying: Mara is under pressure, and her newfound superpowers are only exacerbating that fact. That subtext is in the scene; Wood’s dialogue and Doyle’s facial expressions show the pressure that Mara’s feeling. But Bellaire’s color scheme focuses that theme to clearly underscore how overpowering the news has been for Mara.
These comics allow no small amount of leeway with regards to the unorthodox coloring. Both Mara and Manhattan Projects are published by Image, and John Carter: The Gods of Mars, despite being published by Marvel, doesn’t fall under their main umbrella of superhero comics. Still, Bellaire’s work on superhero comics in Marvel and DC is no less dazzling. Her current work in Journey into Mystery, written by Kathryn Immonen and drawn by Valerio Schiti, is immediately distinct without looking out of place in a mainstream Marvel superhero comic. Her coloring is just as striking and vivid, despite being in a comic where Spider-Man can show up for an issue.
Those are just a few examples of Jordie Bellaire’s brilliant work as a colorist. Really, any book she colors could be used as an example. Her palette is immediately recognizable, despite bringing a unique look to each book she works on. Her coloring enhances the art, so that good artists look great, and great artists look fantastic. And all the while, the coloring underlines the themes and ideas in the text and makes it look like the simplest thing in the world.