Christophe Blain’s Colorists: An Appreciation

I’m about to start coloring the introductory pages of Oyster War.  I generally don’t work in color, but when I do, I usually start by seeking inspiration from other comics that have color that I find especially nicely-done.  These days the very top of my list of beautifully-colored comics are those of the French cartoonist Christophe Blain (who is himself one of my all-time favorite cartoonists).  Curiously, as spectacular as the coloring is in Blain’s work, in most English editions of his work the colorist is uncredited–and this leads to a lot of confusion as to who actually colored what books.   For an example of such coloring confusion run amok, see the comments section of this “Best of” post from last year by Dustin Harbin.

So who does color Blain’s work?

I actually emailed Gina at First Second (who publish the American edition of Gus and his Gang) and she assured me all the work in that book was by a colorist named Clémence–although one of the commenters in Dustin’s post says otherwise.  The internets, however indicate that  Clémence colored only the third volume of Gus, with “Walter” doing colors on the first two volumes.   The only way to reconcile these two statements would be if the First Second edition was actually reprinting the material from the third French volume, but using the cover of the first French volume–which seems unlikely, especially since the sample image from the French vol. 1 on that website is, in fact, included in the First Second edition.   (And what’s with the “first name only” policy for colorists in France?)  And speaking of Walter (a.k.a.: Walter Pezzali), there seems at least to be relative agreement that he, along with Yuka (again with just the one name!)  did the coloring on all the Isaac the Pirate books.

My hunch, having just looked through both U.S. editions of Isaac and the Gus book from First Second, is that these were all colored by the same people–or at the very least,  if they were from different colorists, perhaps Blain’s creative input is so significant that they appear to be by the same persons.  While the two series have radically different color palettes, they seem to employ color in very similar ways and I’d be surprised if two sets of people, left largely to their own devices, would produce results that bear such strong formal similarity to one another.  At any rate, they’re both beautifully-colored works and why the colorists aren’t credited in these U.S. editions is beyond me.

As mentioned, Isaac and Gus have very different color palettes and while Gus is the more striking and unusual-looking of the two, I thought that the more muted, less saturated colors of the Isaac series would be a good starting point for the coloring in Oyster War.  So–as I often do with particular books when I set out coloring–I started by generating a basic palette of colors based on the colors in Isaac.  I’ll add to and expand on this set as I color, but for what it’s worth, here’s the basic swatch set:

Photoshop color swatches based in Isaac the Pirate

Once I’ve got that splash page of Blood’s Haven that I’ve been posting progress of colored, I’ll post it for folks to check out.

In preparation, though, for coloring I made some notes about some of the things that make the coloring in Gus so great–and so unusual when compared to most full-color comics in the U.S.–and I thought they’d make for an interesting post.  Here goes:

1) The color palette itself

Even with just a cursory glance through Gus, you’ll be struck by the unusual colors employed.  The book is full of rich super-saturated reds and magentas, pale but vibrant pea greens, and rich bright blues and purples.  It’s a far cry from not just your standard American super-hero book, but it’s also strikingly different from most of the muted Chris Ware-ish color schemes that inform a lot of modern “alternative” comics.  My hunch is that this color scheme is in part a homage to the Belgian old west comic series Lucky Luke, by yet another one-named European cartoonist, Morris.   Here’s a sample page exhibiting some color choices that look to me to be similar to those in Gus–which is of course also a western, so a deliberate homage would make some sense.


2) Using a restricted color palette to indicate flashbacks

This actually goes on a lot more in Isaac, wherein flashbacks are usually indicated color-wise by dropping down to just two or three colors.  Generally this is just an example of the one thing that I think 99% of all the comics coloring I see lacks: color that serves some narrative purpose; it’s not just window dressing.  Anyway, this goes on in Gus also, as in this example of a flashback panel where the background is left entirely white with only the figures colored in.


And in a similar vein…

3) Solid-colored backgrounds – only figures in full color

Here from the same page is a great example where the color, again, communicates rather than decorates.  In the last three panels here we focus on the couple having a conversation in part because the background is so effectively downplayed color-wise.  There’s really no need to do literal color for all the stuff in that room.


Here’re a few more examples of similar things:




4) Colored “voice” balloon shows the contents of a letter that’s the same color

This is just really nicely done from a formal perspective and something I’ve not seen anywhere else.   I often see balloons that have been colored in for no apparent reason, but here it’s (again) serving a narrative purpose.


5) Weird non-literal colors

Not a huge point here, but it’s just nice to see color employed for its own aesthetic sake, rather than simply to “describe” objects in an “it’s an apple therefore I’ll color it red” way.  A few examples (and note the similarity between this first example and panel five of that Lucky Luke page above):



6) Color indicating emotions

You can see a good example of this in the last sequence under #3 above where Gus’s anger over losing track of the woman he’s pursuing is indicated with him becoming literally red in the face.  Here’s another great one where a bar suddenly erupts into a full-on brawl.


7) Beautiful use of white

Just because it’s being printed in color is no reason to color every damn inch of artwork with some color or other.



And, finally…

8) Indicating  change by breaking from a scene’s established color palette

A bit similar to #6 above, but I really like how in this scene, when Gus’s “beer goggles” wear off and he realizes the woman he’s picked up is a bit haggard, the colorist breaks the monochromatic blue scheme with that bright, vibrant green.



3 pings

  1. Isaac says:

    Dang. Now I want to be coloring comics. There’s so much of the art of the final effect in those colors!

  2. Ben says:

    Another real Tour de Force in coloring is the new David Mazzucchelli book. It’s definitely worth giving it a second reading just looking at how color works in it.

  3. John says:

    Great post… I’m getting some Blain ASAP. Your statement “There’s really no need to do literal color for all the stuff in that room” is totally on the money, and is something I’ve been applying to my own art lately (painting). Color as a focusing element is a big issue to grasp, right up there with gesture, color as gesture, and simple shapes.

  4. J.M. says:

    Christophe Blain approaches the Western genre in much the same way as the chapbooks of old. His stories are short, exciting, melodramas full of bank robbers and beautiful women (and occasionally, bank robbers who are beautiful women).* But where the chapbooks downplayed the chit-chat in favor of the action scenes, Blain does the opposite. The bank heists, train robberies, and poker games in Gus are often brief, four or five panel affairs, while the title character’s inept attempts at wooing can easily eat up four or five pages. Normally, this might imply an artist’s unease with action, but with Blain, this is clearly not the case. He’s one of those rare, Kirby-esque cartoonists whose every brush stroke packs a punch. So why would Blain even bother to write a Western if he was only going to use the genre as a Christmas tree with which to hang his brightly colored characters and vivid, engaging, and above all, hilarious dialogue? For the same reason that novelists like Elmore Leonard and film directors like Howard Hawks did: because it’s fun.
    Let’s back up a second, back to my comment about Blain’s ‘Kirby-esque’ art. What I’m referring to here is not an aping of the King’s aesthetic, but a kinship in the kinetic energy that each of these artists is able to summon through their work. Like Kirby, Blain’s art is quick. It moves quick, it reads quick, and it often feels like it was drawn quick. If you took out the color and the word bubbles, it could easily be mistaken for thumbnail sketches. But by keeping this loose approach, Blain is able to give his work a ‘pop’ often missing in the ‘cleaner’ lined comics.** You find yourself visually surfing the squiggly, swirling curves of Blain’s lines instead of staring stiffly at the page. Blain’s modern day, American equivalent might be Paul Pope (no surprise, considering how strongly Pope was influenced by French comics), although where Pope approaches his work as Capital-A Art, Blain’s cartooning feels more like the madcap lunacy of the original MAD magazine crew.
    In a world where academia and the Academy Awards have turned most Westerns into stoic examinations of ‘Man’s relationship to Nature’ or ‘Man’s inhumanity to Man,’ it’s sorta refreshing to read one where the overriding theme is ‘Boy + Girl.’ Or, to put it in a pull-quote: In Christophe Blain’s Old West, the cowboys spend the majority of their time getting struck by arrows. Not Indian arrows, but Cupid’s.

    *I wanted to throw the word “intelligent” in here, too, but I didn’t want to seem like I was trying too hard to sell the work as an Old West story featuring new millennium sensibilities. The fact is, the women in this story are mostly girlfriends, daughters, and wives. The three main characters are Gus and his gang, and so everyone else we meet is — to some extent — defined by their relationships to them. That said, as the story progresses, Gus & His Gang actually becomes more about Clem (one of Gus’ two-man ‘gang’) and his complicated relationships with his wife (Ava), his daughter (Jamie), and his mistress (Isabella). Abbreviated solo stories and quiet, stolen moments do an amazingly economic job of fleshing out Ava and Isabella, to the point where the reader knows their motivations and inner workings as well as, if not better than, the male leads’. I can only speak for myself here, but a week after reading it, it’s ‘Clem & his girls’ who still linger loudest in my head.

    **To keep my Kirby comparison going a li’l longer, compare a page of Jack’s pencils to its final, inked incarnation. Kirby enthusiasts aren’t exaggerating when they complain that most of the King’s inkers unintentionally sapped some of the life out of his work.

  5. Andrei says:

    A lot of these color choices seem to me to be influenced by the color in Harvey Kurtzman’s EC war comics. But I’m probably being too Americentric.

  6. Ben says:

    @Andrei –

    Do you have a specific story in mind? I’m not seeing the connection, but I’m wondering if it’s because I’ve got mostly (bad) reprints of all the Kurtzman war stuff. I’d love to track down some scans of the original stuff to check out what you’re talking about, though.

  7. Ben says:

    @J.M. –

    Thanks for the analysis. The Kirby/Blain connection is not one that’d have occurred to me, but now that you point it out, I can definitely see how one could make that connection.

  8. matt uk says:

    In the French editions colouring, Gus 1 (Nathalie) is by Walter, Gus 2 (Beau Bandit) is by Chenet, Blain and Walter (though it doesn’t specify which colourists do which stories) and Gus 3 (Ernest) is Clemence

  9. Ben says:

    @Matt – Thanks for the input. What you list as the colorists above seems to be the consensus view at this point. It’s weird that there’s so much confusion about it, though.

  10. TomD. says:

    Ben. Thank you for this post. I JUST discovered Blain, thanks to my SketchCharlotte friend Eraklis Petmezas, and the Isaac books have blown me away. To the point that I always carry one of them with me. I KNOW I am reading some cartooning greatness. I think about each and every line, be it dialogue or scritchy nib-work. And rereading it is even more fun. But this essay makes me truly appreciate the amazing work that the color has brought to the party. Thanks again. ~TomD.

  11. Ben says:

    @TomD. – Glad you found the post interesting. …And I know Eraklis also. Small world.

  12. Eraklis says:

    Great post, Ben! I’ve been digging his stuff since I first bought Speed Abater years ago and tell any one who loves great cartooning to give his work a shot. I hope they continue to translate more of his work.

  13. Ben says:

    @Eraklis – Yeah, I’d sure love to seem more of his stuff in English as well… but I’m not holding my breath. NBM seems to have abandoned ISAAC THE PIRATE at two volumes. The First Second GUS AND HIS GANG appears to be a stand-alone thing, rather than the start of a series (and there’s tons more of both series in French). We can hope, though….

  14. Joseph says:

    This a great and informative post, Ben. Just what I was looking for to gain a better understanding of why you color the way you do. I’ll check out Blain’s work.

    The kid in me will have a tough time not literal coloring every damn thing in the panel. Something I need to work on!

  15. Jang says:

    I first read Gus and his Gang in 2016 and was blown away with Blain’s style and storytelling. I wish more of his work was published in English, but especially the rest of Gus and his Gang’s stories.

  16. Ben says:

    @Jang Yeah, Gus is absolutely one of my all time favorite comics. I’ve been reading them in French as they come out and they’re amazing. Believe it or not, Blain’s art gets even better as the volumes go on! I too wish more of his stuff were in English. Years ago NBM started doing English translations of Isaac the Pirate, but stopped with two books (which I think collected volumes 1 through 4 of the French series).

  17. Ben says:

    @Jang – I too wish more of his stuff were in English. I’ve been following the Gus stories in French and they’re all great–and believe it or not, Blain’s art gets even more amazing as the series goes on! Years ago NBM started translating Isaac the Pirate, but stopped after two books (which, I think, collected volumes 1 through 4 of the French editions). Like the one English Gus collection from First Second, the Isaac books were printed at a very small trim size–about half the size of the correct, original European trim size.

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