Oni Press 20 Years Later: 'Blue Monday' and the Pros and Cons of Colorizing Black and White Comic Books
Oni Press is an independent comic book publishing company formed in 1997. It made a name for itself in the early days by having a punk rock attitude, with books like Jen Van Meter’s Hopeless Savages, Brian Wood’s Pounded and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, with room for exceptions like Greg Rucka’s Whiteout. But its distinctive alternative edge came from the fact that they published almost entirely black and white books. This was true of one of their most iconic series, Blue Monday by Chynna Clugston Flores (then Clugston-Major). However, starting last year Image Comics started republishing Blue Monday in colorized editions, and unfortunately something has been lost in the process.
Blue Monday is the story of high school kids in the early ‘90s. That’s a pretty basic setup, and wears its John Hughes influence on its sleeve, but it’s the delivery that sells it. Named after the song and loosely based on Clugston Flores’s own early days, it follows Bleu Finnegan as she navigates the trials and tribulations of love and boredom in a small town world. Her best friend is Clover Connelly, a hot-tempered Irish immigrant, and they pal around with hapless pranksters Alan Walsh and Victor Gomez. Fashion and music plays a very important part in their lives, with Britpop permeating their dress and attitudes, and each issue listing songs at the bottom of the page to signify an accompanying soundtrack.
The book itself has a strong manga look, and started off as a series of shorts in Dark Horse Presents and Action Girl Comics before settling into Oni. The first mini-series, “The Kids Are Alright” (named after the The Who song), was published in 2000. Its sequels include “Absolute Beginners” (collected edition published December 12, 2001), “Inbetween Days” (October 13, 2003) and “Painted Moon” (June 14, 2005). During and after working on Blue Monday, Clugston Flores dallied in other books for Oni, including Hopeless Savages and her own books Scooter Girl and Strangetown, as well as an issue of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up for Marvel and a Legion of Superhero-Heroes comic for DC based on the animated series. Just last year she worked on a Lumberjanes (from Boom! Box) crossover with Gotham Academy, the Batman spinoff from DC, as the writer but not the artist.
Blue Monday has never left her mind, however. A fifth miniseries, “Thieves Like Us”, was planned for 2009, but only the first issue was published. Clugston Flores worked on it for years, with updates in 2012 and 2013 before Image acquired publication rights for Blue Monday in 2015, announcing that the new series would be released in 2016. It was delayed, however, in order to allow for Image to republish the original four trade paperbacks, this time in color.
Admittedly, there is precedent for Blue Monday being colorized. The original covers for the series were in color, so it was established from the start that, for instance, Bleu has blue hair, and the skin colors of all of the characters. And certainly there’s a vibrancy to having the stories in color that complements the bouncy pop art tone of the book. It’s not even out of the ordinary for older black and white comics to be colorized. Jeff Smith’s Bone, for instance, was reprinted by Scholastic in color in 2004 so that it could be carried in K-12 libraries and that worked out just fine.
That was done by Steve Hamaker, a cartoonist whose work has appeared in Flight, Flight Explorer and Awesome: The Indie Spinner Rack Anthology as well as coloring works done by Jeff Smith, Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil and Little Mouse Gets Ready. So he has experience with the original creator. In a 2010 interview he explained his process:
When Jeff did “Shazam,” he intended that to be colored, so he drew it a little differently. He composed the pages and the panels slightly differently. But you’re right, with “Bone” it was complete on its own. It works as a black and white book, so you would that (sic) that would be harder. It’s actually easier. For me it was a slow transition into the world of coloring because a lot of the hard decisions were already made as far as where your eye goes. It was harder for me to screw it up with color, I thought.
I came into the coloring thing kind of backwards. I had to learn how to not color first, if that makes sense. Jeff’s stuff does not really need color, so to figure out the right balance of how much or how little to put in was a little challenging. You could obviously overdo something, but I just decided to not overdo anything. Just to work from the ground up, his stuff up, and see how much you can get away with and then stop when it looks right.
But inherent in that conceit with Bone is that it had to change to be palatable for children. With Blue Monday the decision seems arbitrary, as if Image simply wants to put its own stamp on the book.
Black and white has vital and necessary implications when it comes to Blue Monday. First of all, as aforementioned it’s of a piece with the majority of other Oni projects over the years. It’s disappointing to see the book uprooted from its old home, even if Clugston Flores has her reasons. Image Comics is, after all, one of the more well-known and powerful comic book companies outside of Marvel and DC. They certainly have indie roots, having been started by an artist exodus from Marvel in the early ‘90s. And Image has a high caliber of comics, including the enormously popular The Walking Dead and the recently rebellious and brilliant Bitch Planet from Kelly Sue DeConnick. They have their bonafides.
But compared to Oni they’re The Man, and part of Blue Monday is its punk rock attitude in opposition to The Man. Punk rock, of course, is defined by being anti-authority, low tech and DIY. Band members may only know three cords, if that, and talent isn’t always a prerequisite. And most importantly, the aesthetic is weathered, dirty and disheveled. That’s exemplified by, amongst other things, the ‘zines done by fans and amateur publications.
‘Zines are magazines distributed generally locally and defined by being handmade and then Xeroxed repeatedly with photocopiers. At least, that’s how they were back in the days before home computers, printers or the Internet’s bifurcation and democratization of information. And while Blue Monday is not explicitly punk rock, with really only Clover exemplifying the label while the rest lean more toward Mod and New Wave cultures, those orbit around each other in comparable ways. Most specifically there’s a sense of anarchy, rebellion and a focus on youth.
Secondly, being in black and white connects Blue Monday to its obvious manga influence. Due to lower costs and faster production rates, manga (along with being read from the back to the front instead of vice versa) is mostly in black and white. This is generally true even when it gets imported to the United States. Blue Monday’s stylish exaggeration, with lithe figures, jaggedy hair and chibi externalizations of emotional reactions, is right in line with its manga antecedents. Chibi is, of course, the cute infantilization of characters in manga, also seen in anime, usually accompanied by sweat and/or tears, to demonstrate a character’s heightened feelings of pain, joy, anger or really any part of the spectrum. And Blue Monday is the kind of high melodrama that is to be expected from manga and anime. By coloring it, it loses that tribute.
Far be it for one nostalgic audience member to contradict the creator, it’s important to consider Clugston Flores’s feelings about the change to color. In an interview with cbr.com from last year, she explained how the new colorization maintains the heart of the old books through mimicking the electric color scheme of the original covers: “I think it’ll reflect the energy of the original covers. There will be a lot of bright colors and appropriate mood lighting when needed, since we feel that reflects the spirit of the series the best.”
Much like with Hamaker and Bone, there were complexities to coloring Blue Monday. On laying the groundwork for the books to be colorized, Chugston Flores explains:
I spent so much time removing the greyscale (most of which had gradients on them) by hand with the bucket tool in Photoshop — that in itself was a challenge. I also fixed quite a bit of line art that would have appeared much heavier with colors over them. Books intended for color and those intended for black and white can be two totally different animals, and if you’re used to working without color, it can be a difficult to adjust to approaching your line art with that different angle and keeping consistent. Line art on average tends to be a bit thicker on black and white books — one tends to be more generous with spotting blacks, etc.
2014 Eisner Award winner Jordie Bellaire is the colorist that was brought in for the job. Clugston Flores believes she was the right fit:
It was by pure luck that she was available in the first place. We were looking for someone who would be a good fit for the original trades, and I never dreamed she would even be an option. Besides just wanting her on the books because she’s amazing, she read “Blue Monday” when she was much younger and was very familiar with the series — she genuinely liked it. Her being excited about working on something she cared about as a kid was a wonderful surprise. I was very happy at the idea that it would be a project she might enjoy doing.
And reactions have been positive, as seen with Oliver Sava of the AVClub discussing the new look in a preview from last year:
The most exciting thing about the Blue Monday reprints is that they feature coloring by award-winning colorist Jordie Bellaire, who gives the book a bright, expressive palette that matches the boldness of Flores’ artwork...Bleu’s blue hair makes her the focal point of every panel she appears in, and her burning desire to find a stylish, cultured boyfriend is intensified in the panel showing beams of pink, blue, and teal radiating from her head as she fantasizes about her perfect mate. Bellaire’s palette is dictated by her emotional relationship to colors, and that personal connection makes her a great fit for Flores, whose art is similarly focused on capturing the fullness of the characters’ feelings.
So the colorizing of Blue Monday has its pros and its cons. On the pro side it’s not a betrayal of the original intention of the book as it picks up the energy and aesthetic of the covers. But on the other it’s now slightly distanced from its punk and manga roots. Either way it’s a matter of personal preference, but it also shouldn’t be taken as a precedent for colorizing any and all black and white books, especially if they’re older. What’s key is that the original creators be involved, such as with Smith and Clugston Flores, and that it be done in a respectful and organic fashion.
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