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Colour in Graphic Novels

A disciplined use of colour can change the way an audience reads and receives a graphic novel. How a specific sequence is interpreted by an audience may vary depending on which colours are used and where. Different colours contrast different perspectives between two worlds, or create vibrant worlds in which readers may escape.

In One Hundred Demons, by Lynda Barry, colour is used to mark each small story as separate from each of the others. Each segment is given its own background colour on which its theme is presented. Here, colour functions to frame each of the small portions of “biofictionography” in its own distinct moment in history. There is no temporal link between the stories Lynda Barry relates through the book. She pulls from one period of her life, and then moves either ahead or behind for her next short story. By setting each story on its own colour, Barry is able to show her audience contextually that each piece is its own substantial idea, complete in itself.

However, Barry also uses colour to tie each of her stories together. Her hair is always the same orangey-red colour, and her neighbourhood is always themed in the same way, with deliberate colours. There is heavy reliance on primary colours to depict the figures and environments, which matches and enhances Barry’s overtly childlike line drawings.

In The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, colour is used to separate the world depicted in the television frames—the world of news and talk shows—from the untelevised world of Gotham city. Here, Gotham is nearing a nuclear holocaust, and the social fabric wavers under the stress of constant fear. The colours depicting Gotham are washed out. Long shadows paint thick black lines everywhere. Batman’s costume stands out against these colours. His dark blue figure is highly noticeable against the wash of colour that is Gotham.

Gotham holds a sense of perpetual. Many sequences depict Batman, Robin, or assorted mutant characters rendered in silhouettes, acting out upon a darkened background. These shadowy figures are marked in stark contrast to the other, televised view of the world the reader is given.

In the rounded frames that represent television screens, the colours are vibrant. All shadows are banished from the characters appearing on screen, and the filth of Gotham is swept away, or just not shown. Yet the television is where all the commentary on the unfolding story is issued from, and all of it is presented as true and honest reflections on current events. There is an incongruity between the television’s association of colour to truth, and the true city’s darkness and filth. Batman’s Gotham is exactly the world which the television is unable to understand or represent. For this reason, the reader gets a skewered version of the truth, and must navigate the misinformation passed through the television frames. In this way, The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps the single graphic novel that most closely resembles our own world.

Alternatively, In Waltz With Bashir, by Ari Folman, frames are left deliberately wide in order to give the audience a highly detailed view of different landscapes and environments. These environments range from cold, rural winter scenes, to moist jungles, dry deserts, and middle eastern ghettos. The colouring here creates distance between the present and the past. In the past, all colouring is brown and beige, dry deserts, smog, and the dusty war. The skies burn with fiery colours in the wartime past, while in the present there is suburban calm, ripe fruit bearing orchards, and vast expanses of cold, clean winter. The difference between the present and the past illustrates the complex process Ari Folman must undergo in order to remember what is troubling him.

The colour red is also an important one in this story because there is a lot of killing and wounding of soldiers, but there is not a lot of blood. It is only at the very end, when the painstaking rendering of reality in graphic form abruptly dissolves into the photographs and video stills, captured during the historic aftermath of the massacre, that we see the dark red of human blood. This red is very alien and bizarre, hardly red at all, but it is real blood from real atrocities.

Having spent the length of the story constructing a world with the graphic depictions of characters and environments, the audience has also been preparing for scenes of the massacre eluded to in the dreams of Ari Folman. The sudden shift from graphic art to photography is jarring and horrifying. Suddenly the reader is thrust right into the aftermath of the massacre, to experience the horror in living colour. The colours in the photographs are the real colours, but ultimately they become surreal for us, in that they have no context other than that they share a space with the story, and also with our own reality. They are our own colours.