Black and Blue

I have had several contentious discussions with an old friend and fellow comic book aficionado about the representation of blacks in superhero comics. I’m not talking about blacks as in African-Americans, but blacks as in the color black, specifically as it relates to the color blue.

Due to the vagaries of the four-color printing process and the traditionally primitive techniques of making color separations, objects and materials that are meant to be black often appear bluish-black, dark blue, or just plain blue in comic book illustrations. The reason for this is that black and gray, like gold and silver, were not colors that could be readily reproduced by the processes used in the comics industry for most of its history. This had led to a good deal of confusion in many minds, particularly in regards to characters’ costumes.

Solid blacks could only be applied to the page by the inker, and these artists often left areas “open for color” to serve as highlights and to define the character’s shapes, rather than having them look like a silhouette. This left the colorist to figure out a way to represent the “light black” areas with their limited palette. Grays could only be approximated using a series of muted purples, with only two or three basic shades available, and so, since there was a consensus that primary colors suited comic book characters best, solid blue was settled on as the best solution.

The best example of this can be seen in Superman’s hair. Obviously, Superman does not have blue hair, although it sometimes looks like it. His hair is black, but the highlights are usually colored solid blue. Likewise, Lois Lane has black hair with blue highlights, but this is not meant to suggest that she has blue highlights added to her hair at the hairdresser. It is simply a convention of comics coloring.

Similarly, in Marvel comics, both the Black Panther and Black Bolt wear costumes that usually appear to be blue but are in fact black. This would seem to be obvious, given their names. If the Black Panther’s all-concealing costume was inked solid black every time, he would not be very interesting visually. Plus, it would often be difficult to tell what he was doing, since he would just be an amorphous black blob. John Byrne once tried to underscore that the Panther’s costume was not blue by covering his highlighted areas with gray tone – small black dots on clear acetate laid down over the inked image. See Fantastic Four # 241 to judge whether this experiment was successful. Black Bolt’s costume often appears to be blue with some light-blue accents, but is actually black and silver, two colors beyond the capabilities of the old-fashioned printing process. If his costume were actually blue, wouldn’t he be called Blue Bolt?

Surprisingly, Spider-Man was originally depicted in a costume of red and black, rather than the now-familiar red and blue version. This is unmistakable in his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy # 15, penciled and inked by Steve Ditko. Spidey’s costume is still pretty clearly meant to be red and black in the first six issues of Amazing Spider-Man, with Ditko leaving those areas un-inked more and more. After this point, Spidey seems to suddenly have a new costume of red and blue, though it may have been only because Ditko was trying to save time and India ink. The only exception is the back-up story in Amazing Spider-Man #8, where Ditko inked Jack Kirby’s pencils. Spidey’s costume is again unmistakably red and black here. In more recent years, some artists have tried to evoke the original version by making the usually blue areas of the costume solid black again.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, how about “Jazzy” John Romita’s? In Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro, the long-running Spider-Man artist and Marvel art director relates a conversation he had with Stan Lee, when television executives were demanding changes in Spidey’s costume for the 1977 live-action TV show. Fearing the blue areas of the costume would interfere with the blue-screen special effects shots, they wanted it changed to red and black, which upset Stan Lee for some reason.

“‘You know, there’s nothing wrong with Spider-Man being black,’ Romita told [Stan Lee]. He was actually supposed to be red and black in the comics. The blue appeared on his costume as highlights because artists didn’t want him to resemble a cardboard cutout. But over the years, artists started leaving him ‘open for color,’ which led to zealous colorists filling these empty spaces with lots of blue. ‘So it evolved into a blue-and-red costume, but he was supposed to be black and red originally,’ Romita explained.” (p.192)

The same thing happened with the X-Men. In their very first issue, penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Paul Reinman, it is obvious their costumes are yellow and black. However, by the second issue, Reinman was leaving more and more of these black areas “open for color,” probably out of sheer laziness. When Chic Stone took over the inking duties a few issues later, he was no better in this regard, and it soon came to be believed that their costumes were just yellow and blue. By the time of the first fully post-Kirby issue, by Werner Roth and Dick Ayers, the uniforms didn’t look black at all, or even particularly dark. The twelfth issue is an exception -- with layouts by Kirby, pencils by Alex Toth, and inks by Vince Colletta – for their costumes look yellow and black most of the time. Later on, Cyclops kept this black-and-yellow color scheme when the team adopted individual costumes, a look he kept for decades. His teammate, the Beast, adopted a red-and-black costume, and the Angel eventually settled on a black-and-white suit. However, many people, including some of Marvel’s writers, erroneously believe these costumes to have been dark blue. They weren’t.

The Fantastic Four’s traditional costumes were blue, though their gloves and boots were black, as were their collars and belts. However, the gloves and boots often appeared blue or dark blue, since they were supposed to be sort of leathery and had a lot of highlights. However, this can be seen depicted more realistically by Alex Ross in his Marvels series with writer Kurt Busiek. When John Byrne revamped the costumes in 1985, they became black with white gloves, boots, belts, and collars. They were not dark blue, although they were often depicted that way, especially in licensed merchandise. Again, the true color scheme is made clear in the first couple of issues after the change was made, and became obfuscated over time.

The Wasp’s original costume was red and black, and was normally inked in a way that made this clear, and there is little contention on this point. Likewise, Nightcrawler was usually shown in red and solid black, plus white gloves and boots. Havok was always done as a solid black silhouette, and no one would argue what his costume looked like. But Hawkeye was introduced in a purple and black costume, which would look much more dynamic than the purple and dark blue combination he was later usually shown wearing, and I would argue that his costume was always supposed to be purple and black.

To clarify my stance on this issue, here is a list of Marvel’s other major characters whose costumes were primarily black and not blue, in my estimation:

Aurora & Northstar (original costumes, black & white)
Black Cat (black & white)
Black Knight (black w/ red & gold accents, silver chain mail, blue cape)
Black Mamba (all black)
Black Queen (black leather)
Black Widow (black leather)
Blacklash (black & gray w/ purple cape)
Blackout (black & yellow)
Bullseye (black & white)
Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell of the Kree, black & red)
Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau, silver & black)
Constrictor (black & orange)
Corsair (black & red)
Darkstar (black & yellow)
Deadly Nightshade (black leather)
Enforcer (black & white)
Foolkiller (mostly black)
Grim Reaper (second version, black w/ purple cape)
Gypsy Moth (black & orange)
Hellcat (gold & black – NOT yellow & blue)
Mister Sinister (black w/ red accents)
Mockingbird (black & white)
Morbius, the Living Vampire (black & red)
Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers, black w/ red & gold accents)
Nighthawk (black & yellow w/ red wings)
Nomad (Steve Rogers, black & gold)
Paladin (purple & black)
Power Man (Luke Cage, black leather pants, yellow shirt & boots)
Psylocke (ninja version)
Puck (black & orange)
Punisher (black & white)
Nova (Richard Ryder, black & gold)
Shadowcat (black w/ light-blue leggings)
S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms (black jumpsuits w/ color-coded accessories)
Shroud (black w/ midnight-blue cape)
Storm (original costume, black leather w/ gold accents)
Sub-Mariner (fancy version, shiny black w/ gold accents)
Tarantula (red & black)
Terrax (black & red w/ gold accents)
Thunderbird (black & red w/ gold accents)
Tigra (black bikini)
Valkyrie (black & silver w/ blue cape)
Yellowjacket (both characters, black & yellow)

The following is a list of those characters who wear costumes that actually are blue or dark blue, in my estimation. A slightly less distinguished company, I might add.

Captain America (obviously)
Blue Streak
Cobalt Man
Dazzler (post-disco version)
Goliath (Henry Pym)
Ikaris (of the Eternals)
Jack of Hearts
Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura)
Nomad (Jack Monroe)
Patriot (Jeffrey Mace)
Shooting Star
Spirit of ’76 (William Nasland)
Super Sabre
Texas Twister
Union Jack
Vanguard (Soviet Super-Soldiers)

Finally, two characters I was just never sure about:

Moon Knight

Although modern computer-coloring techniques and improved printing processes make it easier to depict black costumes more realistically, old habits die hard, and decades of having a particular convention ingrained into the thinking of comics readers and creators perpetuates the confusion over what’s black and what’s blue.


SanctumSanctorumComix said...

FINALLY someone who knows the TRUTH!


No,'s bugged me for decades about Spider-Man's costume and the "blue-hair" stuff.

I KNOW it's supposed to be "comic-book shorthand" for shiny black, but no one else seems to get it.

I remember as a youth I bought the 1st Marvel Try-Out book and Jim Shooter (I think he wrote it) actually makes a comment that his costume is Red and BLACK.

Anyway, one other worthy character of note to add to your list...

DOCTOR STRANGE (yes, him again).

His pants/tights/leggings (whatever you want to call them) are BLACK!

But somewhere along the way they were colored BLUE.

First dark...then progressively lighter.

So he was walking around in this 3-tone blue outfit (tunic, pants and emblem) with orange accents, a red cloak with gold/yellow accents.

It was a mess.

The true color palette was:

DARK blue tinuc
mid to light blue emblem
BLACK pants (tights...whatever)
Red cloak with gold-leafed accents
Orange sash and gloves (with black dots on the gloves).

Personally, I like to think the black dots were to represent "energies" or something, but they appeard on and off thruought his run by various artists.

ANd like in the DEAD GIRL mini-series, the colorist (Mike Alred?) made the gloves and sash yellow as well...which looked good to me.

However, besides that tangent, the point is...BLACK pants.


Tony said...

This is exactly right. Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure why I left Doctor Strange off the list.

There seems to be two schools of thought on how to draw his costume, and, ironically, they are both derived from the work of Steve Ditko, the character’s creator.

In the earliest issues, Dr. Strange’s costume appeared as described above, although without the red and gold Cloak of Levitation, which he obtained later on. His tunic was dark blue with a large light-blue demon symbol on the front. His gloves were long and covered with a tapering area of black spots on one side. His leggings or tights or pants or whatever you want to call them were inked solid black.

(Incidentally, these gloves are often derided as “leopard-spotted” by critics. However, leopard spots are not black circles. They are blotchy black rings with a colored center. And while the gloves were colored orange in the comics, we should remember that that shade of orange is also often used to represent other colors like tan, beige, and sand.)

After a while, as with his other creation Spider-Man, Steve Ditko used less and less ink on Doctor Strange, and started leaving his legs “open for color.” He also stopped putting the spots on his gloves. And over time, his puffy sleeves moved down closer to his wrist.

Thus, after Ditko left, other artists, such as Frank Brunner, drew Strange wearing short (sometimes almost wrist-length) gloves and blue leggings. The demon symbol on his tunic also shrank and was simplified until it eventually looked more like a wire-frame trident. This is how Sal Buscema drew Doctor Strange in The Defenders.

However, during Gene Colan and Tom Palmer’s initial run on Strange’s own book, Palmer often covered his legs with dark Zip-A-Tone to indicate that they were supposed to be black. While Palmer loved using Zip, most inkers wouldn’t take the extra time to apply it, and when Strange received his new “superhero” look, the point became moot.

Years later, when Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin took over, they made a break from the standard late-Ditko / Brunner version to return to the darker original, finally putting the spots back on his gloves and usually inking his legs solid black. Paul Smith continued this trend, although he was less consistent about the black leggings.

Since that time, artists have taken the character one way or the other, depending on which version they personally prefer. (Unless they chucked it all to come up with their own interpretation or even, as seen recently, used the 1969 “superhero” look.)

Personally, I consider the Rogers/Austin version of Doctor Strange v.2 #48-53 as definitive.

Tony said...

Recently, on his official message board, veteran comics creator John Byrne had this to say on the subject:

It's one of the longest-standing traditions in comics, superhero or otherwise -- black stuff has blue highlights.

This has not stopped people asking me, with perfectly straight faces, why no one can tell Superman and Clark are the same guy since they both have blue hair!

Whenever this debate comes 'round, it seems to come down to the same thing. Should we change the names of various characters? Should it be Blue Bolt? Blue Panther? Blue Widow?

Cyclops' outfit is black. So is the non-furry Beast's. So was the pre-red Angel's. The original X-Men uniforms were yellow and black.

If you look thru a random selection of Golden and Silver Age comics, you will soon come to wonder if many colorists considered blue a default setting. Not surprisingly, since it is a single color (like yellow, and unlike red which, in printing, is actually made by combining yellow and magenta), and so requires but a single dot, swipe, or pass of the brush. The separators especially like single colors. No chance of missing a necessary hue on one of the plates and having, say, Spider-Man suddenly without pants!

So, blue is used for highlights on black, even tho’ such highlights rarely occur in the real world.

Black Lightning's costume is blue with black trim (otherwise it would be black on black). The "Black" in his name refers to his race. Same for Black Goliath, as far as the name. But as for the costume, I happen to be the guy who designed it! It's black.

But isn't it odd, as fandom has become so very hyper about "creator's rights" and "original intent" in the last few decades, that so many fans still seem to want to cling to these coloring misconceptions. "So what if Neal Adams obviously intended the Angel's costume to be black! I found this drawing from Don Heck breakdowns inked by Vince Colletta that clearly shows it's blue!"

Byrne also notes that he considers Spider-Man's costume to be red and black.

Matches Malone said...

I'd add Doc Samson to the "Black" list. Some modern action figures even go back to the original coloring.