Time for another installment in our guest blog series in which Dark Horse Comics Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie interviews some of the best and most prolific contributors to the horror genre. On tap today we have the multiple Eisner Award winning colorist Dave Stewart.
Scott Allie: You color all the Mike Mignola books, as many as three a month, and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale for Image. That’s a significant portion of the horror comics on the market. Do you feel an affinity for the horror genre?
Dave Stewart: There is something really fun about giving people the willies. I really enjoy good horror. There’s nothing like coloring the perfect creepy mood or a nice gory monster.
SA: Why do you think you and Mignola clicked so well? You, his wife, and I are his longest lasting relationships.
DS: Well, I think I’ve always been willing to work hard to extend his vision into the color. I trust Mike entirely, and that’s allowed me to learn quite a bit. I think it’s also a mindset of having fun while working hard. We all take what we do seriously but still feel like kids in a candy shop.
SA: What’s the biggest factor in choosing a project? Story, artist, or something else?
DS: The art is usually the first thing I think about—how can I fit color into what the artist is creating? That’s the closest relationship I’ll have on a project. I think great artists are usually hooked up with amazing writers.
SA: The most scared I’ve ever seen you was when you fell out of that boat on the Deschutes River. Has any comic ever really scared you?
DS: That was scary. Thanks for pulling me out, by the way. Yeah, Richard Corben (The Conqueror Worm), Guy Davis (B.P.R.D.), and Mignola all still have that ability to freak me out. Al Columbia, wow! Biologic Show was really scary. When I was a kid, I’d read those Jack Chick Christian comic book tracts. Holy crap, those were spooky. Now I’m scared of them for a whole different reason.
SA: Would Jack Chick’s books be more effective in full color?
DS: I’m sure they would. The covers would sometimes have a swatch of color, mostly a strong red. They had painted color in the comic size versions of those. I remember really liking the art in those.
SA: Al Columbia’s Doghead made a big impression on me. Doesn’t he tend to avoid color? Even when in full color, doesn’t it tend to be gray? Do you ever borrow from that approach?
DS: It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at that stuff, and using gray would mostly be for a specific effect.
SA: You approach each artist differently, or at least you apply very different techniques to different artists. How do you decide?
DS: I try to decide what is going to enhance the art. I need to find a balance so that the rendering and color don’t overshadow the lines. I think good coloring isn’t the first thing you notice. The lines work in unison with the color. Sometimes that is matching a rendering style to an artist’s inks. Watercolor washes for ink washes, etc. Bolder art can take a cut rendered approach. Sometimes the project demands a different approach. I colored Gabriel Bá’s art in Umbrella Academy very differently from his B.P.R.D. project. Umbrella Academy sort of asked for a more playful style than B.P.R.D., which was dark and serious.
SA: You once told me—perhaps under the influence—that you never wanted to color another sky blue again. Sometimes the Hollywood folks we have to deal with get confused when things aren’t colored the way they’d look under normal lighting. What’s wrong with coloring things the color they are?
DS: I will tell you again—stone-cold sober—no more blue sky! There is so much you can make people feel if you skew reality a bit and play with the unexpected. At the very least, it creates interest. In the context of horror, that can create a tension building the mood. Not to mention it’s a way the colorist can be an individual—an opportunity to create an identity and style.
SA: I got you to color Tim Seeley’s covers for Ex Sanguine, and Tim asked you to color the first one like a Dario Argento movie (The Phantom of the Opera, 1998) or Mario Bava (Twitch of the Death Nerve). Can you talk about how you approached it?
DS: It’s that idea of unnatural color in a tense context that those guys used so well. Why is there a hot magenta light hitting everything in this scene? It’s almost a harbinger of a supernatural presence in those films. I think that idea translates to comics.
SA: On the next cover you abandoned Argento. How come?
DS: I thought popping the vampire’s gums and eyes seemed pretty creepy. The areas of contrast were decreased, so the concept changed a bit, but the desired effect was hopefully the same.
SA: You and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) had the opportunity to talk about color, right? He’s a big fan of your work. What did you talk about?
DS: Well, Guillermo asked me to send him color codes for all the Hellboy characters, and like a bum, I didn’t do it. I love Guillermo. When are we making a Pan’s Labyrinth comic?
SA: We actually had some very excellent conversations in San Diego this year. I’ll update you shortly. Guillermo said with the first Hellboy movie that he wanted to match Mike’s light and color. Do you even think that’s really possible?
DS: Yeah, I think you could get close. Especially with all the post work they do now. It would be cool to see someone really try to do that, like they attempted in 300 or Sin City.
SA: Everyone wants to compare comics to film, calling what we do movies on paper, shit like that. Do you see a lot of crossover from movie color design to comics? Do you get more inspiration from paintings, film, or other comics?
DS: I get more inspiration from paintings and comics. You can pull stuff from movies, but you, of course, lack the movement to support a really complex or monochromatic color design. Color can be used to such great effect to move a story along in comics. It just plays a really different part in comics than most filmmakers assign it in movies.
SA: You and I used to watch “Dexter” together, and for the first two or three seasons, the color approach to the show was extremely stylized. Just when the show was at its best, Season 4, they completely abandoned the stylized color. Why is it easier for comics to get away with stylized color?
DS: I wish they had kept it up, actually; they kind of had it right. Comics is a step away from reality so stylization is easier to pull off. Sometimes I think overuse of that in TV becomes overbearing. Detracts from the story. So in that sense, a strong sense of style can steal from a story in comics, too. I worried that maybe I was doing that with Umbrella Academy at first, but I think it worked out.
SA: Besides “Dexter” and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, what TV or film influences you colorwise?
DS: Can’t really think of much. Really, nature shows give me those amazing atmospheric landscapes that stick.
SA: What painters have the most influence on your comics?
DS: The influences range from rendering style to color palette. Van Gogh, Kent Williams, Jason Alexander, all of the Wyeths, Frazetta, Greg Manchess, and Leyendecker.
SA: The first time you colored Max Fiumara was on the B.P.R.D.: The Transformation of J. H. O’Donnell one-shot I wrote, and now you’re back on 1948 with him. How would you compare his work with Mignola’s?
DS: Max has these wonderfully expressive characters wandering through a world of horrible creatures. I think adding a watercolor illustrated look to his art gives it an organic hand-done look that feels right. Mike’s art has a deliberate structure that needs attention. Mike knows where he wants your eye to fall, and color helps do that. I’m such a lucky guy to be working with these artists.
SA: You did a long stint coloring The Goon. Previous to that, Eric Powell colored himself, generally pretty somber and quiet. You brought a lot more pop and color to it. Why not just copy what Powell had done?
DS: Eric really liked the palette of O Brother, Where Art Thou? He wanted the world to look rundown and the people to look unhealthy, jaundiced. I think he wanted me to do something he wasn’t able to at the time.
SA: After you left the book, Eric colored The Goon #40, and it looked much different than what came before you. Do you see your influence on his recent color?
DS: I think he’s sort of taken off in a new direction that is his own. He’s using washes and whites, I think, in a way that I wouldn’t have thought of. It looks great, and it’s something that inspires me.
SA: You’ve colored the first couple of issues of Hellboy in Hell. What Mike’s doing there is different than anything that came before. Are you coloring it differently?
DS: Those full-page bleeds were a shock. Really cool. It doesn’t feel like I’m coloring things differently right now. Once we get further into Mike’s version of the afterlife—dusty rooms full of antique furniture, books, old wood—I think things might start feeling different. A very diffused, quiet place. Right now there are a lot of scene changes and action sequences so we are pulling out a lot of different palettes to separate scenes. I think Mike is also drawing more to fit in all those little spots of color variation. Adds a vibration and interest to the page.
SA: How does it do that? We can’t show any of it here, but how does it do that…?
DS: It pulls the eye in a subtle way. An Impressionistic sort of effect. It adds interest to an area of negative space.
SA: How do you use color to bring out a scary mood in a comic?
DS: Colors can be used to set you on edge through contrast. The same complementary colors you might see on a psychedelic rock poster can be used to create an unnatural effect forcing tension—not too far from what that poster might be doing but in a different context. Or the coloring can put things in the cold darkness with just those two yellow eyes floating in the dark. If a room is muted down with dusty gray affecting all of the tones, then that puts you in a place of abandon and stillness. A red color palette denotes violence and pure horror, almost an overload of fear. So much can depend on context. I could see a pink room being terrifying if it’s your prison.
SA: What mistakes do you most often see other people make in coloring moody or scary comics?
DS: I think it’s just a dullness, everything in a monochrome. That’s the thing people are borrowing from film. I think you need to pop moments out and create that emotional soundtrack, since we lack motion and sound. Throw a panel into reds, or cast an unnatural light into a scene. Use that stillness you’ve created to jar the reader emotionally with a contrast.
SA: How’s the next Fatale story end?
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