Friday, 11 April 2014

Deep Sequencing: Unknown Colourist

Or a look at how changing colouring styles alters storytelling in Unknown Soldier
by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, Oscar Celestini; Vertigo Comics 

Unknown Soldier is a great comic that functions as an important glimpse into a pretty important and dark topic while also telling an exciting and accessible story. It's journalism and activism through fiction which is pretty cool.

It's also a comic that uses two radically different colouring/inking styles in different chapters. What's especially interesting about this artistic shift is that both chapters are done by the exact same creative team. What this means is the two chapters share many common elements: an identical authorial tone from the same writer, a consistent approach to storytelling and overall style in the same penciller, and even the same colourist. But at the same time, the style changes, even with the same creators, makes the comic feel radically different. It's like one of those accidental, ideal economic experiments but for colouring. Which I think, make it a pretty cool thing to take a look at.

There will be the mildest of *SPOILERS*.

The majority of Unknown Soldier has what I would call a more conventional comics style. Characters and backgrounds are rendered with clean, but heavy inks that draw eye to the depth of the underlying pencils. The colouring enhances this: colours are mostly flat, with a single primary colour for most subjects, which is then judiciously rendered to provide lighting effects (particularly in night scenes, like above). Coupled to a pretty muted and harsh colour palette, Unknown Soldier is a pretty harsh looking comic that works very well for an action comic set in a horrific warzone.

Dry Season, one of the four main chapters of Unknown Soldier, is set in a refugee camp during a period of extreme heat and dryness. In many ways it is the most journalistic of chapters, given that Unknown Soldier takes a break from war stories to focus on the human cost and tell a more low key, mystery based story. This chapter also features a shift in artwork to a much more painted style. Instead of the very-comics clean, heavy inks and flattish colouring, Dry Season has heavily rendered colours done right over the pencils. The result is something much drier and stiller, which is really appropriate to a story about static refugees dying of thirst. This style is also much more realistic: real life doesn't have inks, and we understand the world around us using light and shadow like a painting, and this style captures this better.

Overall though, I think I like the Dry Season colouring approach more for Unknown Soldier. While I usually prefer simpler, flatter colouring since it doesn't distract from the lineart and  because I think it is often more elegant, I feel like a comic with such journalistic goals benefits from a more photorealistic style. The default style of Unknown Soldier is great, but it looks like a comic, a fictional universe we are visiting. Dry Seasons looks more like the real world, like field sketches of a grim reality. And for the humanitarian goals of this comic, that sense that this horrible shit is really happening makes it so much more affecting. 

Which I guess conveys two things: that a dramatic change in colouring approach can radically change the emotional feeling of a comic and that different types of stories beg for different styles of colouring.

Unknown Soldier

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