Batman & Robin #13 (2010), page 13 panel 4. Drawn by Frazer Irving.
Computer coloring is a pretty tough thing. It's got a laundry list of crimes to answer for -- from robbing comics of the signature texture and modern-art poise that benday dots gave them to overpowering the work of more cartoon-style artists to the current "browning" of the mainstream's pages to the savagery it's inflicted on innumerable reprints in the name of modernization. Pick up a random comic made in the past two decades. The fact that they don't look as good across the board as they used to can be laid pretty squarely at the colorists' feet, the bland impulse for rendering and realism overpowering any kind of aesthetic sense in the vast majority of books that have traded screen tones for computer screens. We live in an era of atrociously colored comics, and in superheroes especially you've got to do some serious digging for a reminder that Photoshop hues are a tool just like any other and that there are some people around who are using them well.
Frazer Irving is one of those people. As a superhero artist who colors his own stuff, Irving's already in pretty rarefied company. Not only does that distinction signpost an obvious extra level of dedication to the material being produced, it's a sure indicator of an aesthetic unity that's necessarily denied to the artists who work in the more typical mainstream production-line method. Put simply, there's stuff you can skip with your linework if you're going to be the guy bringing the colors on when you're done. I probably shouldn't quote Lyonel Feininger again, but separations between the aspects of comics' visual production are completely artificial. It's all part of the picture-making, and when a single vision is allowed to take it all over, the results are bound to be better than something cobbled up by multiple men in multiple sections of the globe using multiple Facebook messages in the effort to put it all together. It shouldn't be an uncommon assertion to say that when comics are constructed like art and not product they have a better chance of reading the same way. Elegance, synthesis: these are what an artist like Irving can bring. These are things all comics should strive for.
Irving has always been a fascinating colorist of his own work. For quite a few years now he's been pointing toward a combination of drawing and explicitly digital elements that hasn't been seen in comics before. It was fun to watch him develop his concepts on low-profile gigs like Robin and Klarion the Witch-Boy, inkwork and hand-spotted blacks slowly bleeding from the panels, replaced with examples of just what the computer's capable of; strikingly organic textures instead of modeling lines, monolithic silhouettes instead of drawn-in backgrounds. As Irving got better so did the technology, and the digital blended further and further into the man-made, leaving lo-fi behind for something painterly and new and striking. And now we've had two revelatory issues of Grant Morrison's Batman from him in the past two months; perfected, aggressively innovative work from a man-machine who's thrown the gauntlet to the rest of the mainstream. We're seeing something new in every book that Irving does now, work that looks a hell of a lot like the beginning of a new era in computer coloring.
The above is my favorite panel from Irving's most recent book. It's a great composition that manages to be "iconic" without looking at all hackneyed or corny -- like, who since Dick Sprang's made the Batmobile a killer visual element in addition to total nerd fodder? -- and as usual the play between the blacks and open areas is perfectly pitched, down to the little rivets on the floor that give just the right illusion of detail. But what I'm really in love with here is just how much visual imagination Irving is specifically gearing toward the digital process. The line art's spot-on, no doubt about it, but man, the Satanic glow of the klieg headlights through heavy tides of post-production exhaust, the immense depth that the gradual obscuring of the curb on the lower right brings to the entire picture, the multiple sources of illumination that whip it all into monolithic, Dante-esque archetypal mode. And my god, the blurring of everything, beyond last-century crap like halos or speed lines! This is the real thing, this is what motion and light and shadow actually look like, and as in the real world the line is just a part of it.
Get it right, though, this is no mere photorealism. Irving brings on Jim Steranko levels of high-contrast uber-lighting, a momentary dismissal of scale, and a Pink Floyd concert intensity on the fog machine, playing the digital process not like a hack or an airbrusher or a fill-in man, but like that most exalted of things: a cartoonist. Which he is for the rest of the book; this pummeling still-from-the-great-unmade-Stallone-Batman-movie is an isolated incident of pure, flesh-thick atmosphere in a comic full of full tilt post-post-Kirby banging. It's worth the noting just because of what it is, an art action of violent intensity dropped into the middle of a good hardcore fight comic. It's the stuff like this that gets remembered when the fights are over, that sears into imaginations, that inspires. That stops you cold and makes you feel it. And that's what good comics art is meant to do.