It was 1996. Indy comics were getting a spotlight they hadn't received before. Self publishing was all the rage. BONE, STRANGERS IN PARADISE, A DISTANT SOIL, HEPCATS, as well as CEREBUS still going strong, were buzzwords of excitement. These books were being crafted by a single creator who was bucking the trends of the day to tell their story. Largely black and white books, these books attracted me and gave me my want to go it all on my own. As such, I had to investigate how I needed to proceed.
These were the days before Print on Demand. You couldn't walk into a print shop and get a comic printed the way you wanted. No. You had to go through a professional printer. Which meant, at a minimum you had to order 1,000 copies of anything you wanted printed. Now one such as I at the time could not afford a color run. So b&w was my only choice in the matter.
I was just in the early threads of what would be MAN IN THE MASK at the time. Whenever I'm faced with some limitations, I typically choose to go with it. So MAN IN THE MASK was developed to be a b&w book.
I've seen books that were intended for color but had to go b&w. They looked horrible at the time (little better today). I didn't want a photocopy look. But I also didn't want just lineart. My artwork just wasn't strong enough for that. I knew I could go halftones with the printing technology at the time. Grayscale could give me some texture of tone to my artwork.
In designing the world and the characters, I went with the basics. I wanted them all to look like they lived in a black and white world. I didn't want it to look like I was settling. Hence, my lead characters wearing black and white clothes with a touch of gray to give them more feeling of being real.
I really did come to love the look of the book that way. It was very noirish and had a feeling about it. In the years (decades) that followed that was always my main priority to keep the book, if I were ever able to do it, b&w.
When I resumed being active on the book in 2014 that hadn't changed. The entire time I was drawing and inking, b&w was on my mind. After publishing the PRELUDE, I felt even more justified in the way it looked.
However, as I was working on the next segment of the book, something interesting started to happen. My son gave an opinion. In getting the PRELUDE out, he was helping me tone the gray into the pages. He had never used Photoshop or done anything like that before. I gave him a very quick lesson and off he went. As I was working on the other sections, he continued to explore Photoshop on his own. So much so, he started asking why we didn't just color the book. I, of course, scoffed at the idea. This book was long in the planning and I was sticking to my plans.
He kept at me though.
He'd color some stuff here and there to give me an example of what it could look like. I smiled and just went on. I was happy he was learning something like coloring, but this was my book and it was going to look like I had long envisioned it.
When I decided to break up the graphic novel into comics, I had enough material for a second issue. It was literally two and a half weeks before a con I was going to sell the book at. I figured it might have taken a day or so to tone the whole issue. No problem.
Then, I got thrown something I couldn't ignore. I was grayscaling the second page really liking how it was turning out. Then my son asked me if he could show me something he was working on. Of course, I said. It was the same page I was working on, but in color. I told him it looked good (which it did) but told him I was still sticking with the b&w. I went back to work but something happened while I was doing so. The grayscale stopped working for me. No it didn't turn off. I just lost the liking I had with what I was doing.
Freaked me out.
So I stepped back and decided to give it overnight just to see if it was just wear on my part.
Next day, I still couldn't get my enthusiasm back for what I was doing. Aiden was at school so I turned his computer on and opened that page. The color worked so much better for that page. That whole second part of the story is a homage to 80s comics I grew up on. And color just worked so much better for what I was going for.
Two weeks before a con and less than that before it needed to go to the printed, I made the decision to color 26 pages. For an experienced colorist, I'm sure that's nothing. But I'm not a colorist. I like pencil and ink drawings. I was horrible with color theory. But when I get my mind on something, I can't get it out of my head. After school, I informed Aiden on my plans. I could tell he thought both "HA! Told you so." and "You're crazy" at the same time. But I was serious.
So for the next week and a half that's all we did. When he came home from school, he flatted out the pages and we both toned it. That's why we went with the two tone look for the book. It was something we both could do and not look too bad. Now I can't imagine the rest of the book looking any different.
Now we didn't have time to do much else. But he did ask me if I wanted him to color the first section of the book for later printings. I decided against it for a couple of reasons. I liked the way it looked first and foremost. Secondly, it's a story telling thing. As the book is now, the b&w section is a nice way of showing life before Tommy (II) is born. The entire sequence is how he saw the story of his grandfather's masked origin in his imagination. When I was a child in the 80s I still watched a number of b&w shows and even had a b&w tv. To a point, that's how I thought things looked like before I was around (even though I did know better). That made sense to incorporate that logic into a book about a grandson imagining what he was told. Then, the book switches to color as he recounts things he actually saw for himself.
Makes sense to me. I hope you like the color. Aiden has really worked grown in his coloring since that first page. I am proud beyond belief what he can do. If there's anything good about all the years I wasted not producing this book, it's that now I'm able to share and work on it with my son. Who through no fault of my own, has become just as big of a comics guy.
Only problem is we fight over who gets to read something first. But since I'm old and can ground him from video games, I always win.
A lifelong comics fan, Mike W. Belcher is the writer/artist of MAN IN THE MASK. A story he's had with him for over 20 years.