Nathan Fairbairn is an award-winning colorist who has worked on a diverse selection of comics. Most recently, you might recognize his work with Chris Burnham on Batman Incorporated or with Yanick Paquette on Swamp Thing. Or perhaps you’re a fan of the Scott Pilgrim color editions; those were done by him as well.
Nathan took some time to chat with me about his past, present, and future work as well as the role of the colorist in comics.
David Fairbanks for Comics Bulletin: Let’s start off with a pretty basic question; how did you come to be a colorist?
Nathan Fairbairn: Very deliberately, actually. I’ve always wanted to write comics, but after sending out some sample scripts and receiving a few form rejection letters from Marvel and DC letting me know that they don’t read unsolicited material, I reasoned (incorrectly, it turns out) that I’d have an easier time getting my scripts looked at if I were already in the industry.
I’d always drawn and cartooned throughout high school and university, but an honest self-evaluation of my skills there told me I was probably 4 or 5 years of serious study and practice away from getting pro work as a penciler. Inking was out of the question: I’ve never had the requisite patience to ink worth a damn. But colouring? Yeah, I figured: how hard could it be?
Pretty hard, it turned out, but not *too* hard. I bought some books and software, read some online tutorials, and started posting my efforts on a forum called Gutterzombie, which believe it or not is a forum dedicated exclusively to colouring comics. It’s run by Dave McCaig and at the time was frequented by such amazing colourists as Laura Martin, Matt Hollingsworth, Trish Mulvihill, Alex Sinclair and too many other great pros to name.
This was around 2004, before social media was really a thing, so it was quite a tight little online community. Twitter and Facebook have kinda killed it since then, but at the time I’d typically colour something at night, post it in the morning, go to work (I was an English teacher at the time,) and by the time I got home one or two Eisner winners would have commented on my work, telling me what I was doing wrong and how to get better. It was an incredible education. Thanks, internets!
CB: Wow, that really does sound like an incredible way to learn.
One of the first times I remember noticing the effect color can have on a story was in Batman Incorporated(Vol 1) #4. Strangely, since then, many of the comics you have worked on have been ones that catch my eye.
For lack of better words, you generally seem to bring something different to the table than what I see in most comics, despite Batman Incorporated being clearly different from Scott Pilgrim or Swamp Thing, as well as older work like your Starlord and Guardians of the Galaxy pages. Is this a conscious decision, producing a comic that stands out from the crowd a bit?
Fairbairn: Yeah, I’d say that’s fair. I think it’s important to have a different approach in mind for every project that I work on instead of just doing the same thing regardless of the line art or story. I did a miniseries for Marvel last year called Mystic, for example, that I colored almost as if it were an animated film. It wasn’t anything anyone told me to do, but that’s what the line art and script suggested to me so I just went with it. Turned out pretty good, I think. The book got an Eisner nomination, anyway. I just try to keep things interesting for the reader and for myself. I get bored easily, so it’s nice to be able to change gears from book to book.
CB: How collaborative is the process when you’re coloring something? I’m sure it can vary from book to book, but are color choices ever anything you go over with the writer or penciler or is it more of a hands-off experience?
Fairbairn: Honestly, the time constraints of putting out monthly books make intense, detailed collaboration impracticable. At the beginning of a project there’s usually a fair amount of communication about general approach and style, and there are usually one or two color notes from the writer or artist in a given issue, but then when it comes down to actually doing the work, no one has time to hold hands. It’s an assembly line and we’ve all got our own roles.
The trick is to work with people who have similar sensibilities to yours, so even if what you’ve done isn’t exactly what they had in mind, they’ll still be happy with what you’ve come up with. I’m lucky to work with three guys (Yanick, Burnham, and Mal) whose work I admire and who appreciate the finish I can bring to their art.
CB: I’m sure you’ve gotten this before, but could you go a bit into what your process is like and what a colorist brings to a book?
Fairbairn: My process is pretty simple. I read the script to get an idea of the story and see if there are any specific color notes. Then I fire up Photoshop and usually just stare at the inks for a few minutes until I get an idea of a general color scheme I want to use, obviously keying off of whatever lighting the artist has established and the story being told. Then I just start dropping in flat colors.
I save a lot of time at this stage by paying friends to break up the art into flat blocks of color before I even get started, so I can just bucket in my own color choices. The guys who do my flats just use random colors when breaking up the page — pink sky, green face, whatever — since I go in and change everything after they’re done anyway.
Once I’ve got the flat colors laid in the way I like them, I start rendering. Depending on the project, this either takes little time or FOREVER. For a book like Scott Pilgrim, there’s really very little rendering. Most things are rendered with two tones, very much like cel shading in classic animation. For a book like Swamp Thing, I can spend 2-3 hours on a page just at the rendering stage, using a variety of custom paintbrushes to get the look I want. Batman Inc is somewhere in the middle, since Burnham isn’t as cartoony as Bryan or as realistic as Yanick.
But the rendering, no matter how long it takes, is really secondary. No amount of brush strokes will save a colorist if he doesn’t get it right in the flat color stage. Whether the rendering takes 10 minutes or 4 hours, it’s really just polish. And you can polish a turd till it shines but it’ll still be a turd when you’re done. … Gross.
In the end, the colorist’s job is to help the writer and cartoonist tell the story by adding mood, depth and focus to the art.
CB: As far as wanting to write comics, if you were submitting scripts, I assume you’re looking at Marvel/DC. Do you have ideas for your own characters and stories or are you more interested in doing work-for-hire?
Fairbairn: I’ve got lots of plans for creator-owned, self-published work. The idea is to finish up with my current colouring commitments at DC and Oni and then to start telling my own stories, hopefully with Yanick and Burnham.
Yanick’s tentatively on board for illustrating my first story once he’s finished with his exclusive contract with DC. I haven’t spoken t
o Chris yet about any specifics, but he and I actually already produced a short story together maybe 5 or 6 years ago that never got published (we’ve been friends for 6 or 7 years now — it was sheer synchronicity that we ended up working together on Batman Incorporated). I wrote and colored it, and Chris drew it. Chris is a writer himself, and we talk sometimes about how fun it’d be to co-write a book together.
At any rate, the goal is for Scott Pilgrim, Swamp Thing, Batman Incorporated, and an as-yet unannounced DC book with Grant Morrison and Yanick to be the last non-creator owned work I do.
CB: Working with Chris Burnham and Yanick Paquette on independent books? That sounds amazing.
Fairbairn: Yeah. I’m pretty excited about the next 3 or 4 years of my career. It should be interesting. I love working on corporate books as well — there’s something deeply satisfying about working as an adult on the characters you loved as a child. But I don’t know that it’s the same kind of satisfaction you get from building something entirely your own.
I’ve been to many cons and hung out with a lot of amazing creators, and without exception the work that they are most passionate about is their creator-owned books. It just lights them up. They could be selling 100,000 copies of some big 2 book, but what they really want to talk about is their Image miniseries or webcomic. I look at what Mal has done with Scott Pilgrim, with its legions of fans and the minor industry that has grown around it, and think that if I could have a tenth of that, I’d be a happy man.
CB: Hopefully that short story sees the light of day in something, too.
Fairbairn: I just re-read it for the first time in 2 or 3 years and was pleased to see it still makes me laugh. It’s some of my earliest color work, and Chris and I have obviously gotten better at our craft since then, but I think it works as a proof of concept. We did it before crowdfunding was a thing, but it occurs to me now that the story would be perfect as part of a Kickstarter drive. Hmm. We’ll see!
CB: I feel like your work on Scott Pilgrim is possibly the most attention that readers have paid to a colorist in a long time. While there are some changes made to the line art, some nice bonus materials tacked onto the end, most people are re-buying this book solely because of your contribution to it. Is it nice to get a bit more recognition?
Fairbairn: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, yes, doing these color editions is a very clear way to show readers and publishers the value that color adds to the comics medium (both financially and aesthetically). But on the other hand, Scott Pilgrim is a much-loved work of art that many fans relate rather profoundly to, and they don’t see the need to change it. In the end, I just want to do a good job, so that even people who think it’s unnecessary have to admit that it’s well-done. Oh, and an Eisner nomination would be nice.
That’s not a joke. I seriously want an Eisner nomination.
CB: I think you seriously deserve the nomination, and I would say the win, if only because of the sheer volume of remarkable work you’re putting out this year.
I know I was generally reluctant about the recoloring before I saw preview pages with your name attached. I was very quickly won over, but have you run into any kind of backlash from readers who prefer the black and white?
Fairbairn: There were some people who said they were unimpressed by the preview pages to volume 1, which is fine. It just worked out that the preview pages happened to be unimpressive. Mostly it was Scott and co. doing things like riding the bus, eating toast and sitting on furniture, and I wanted to match the palette as closely as possible to the color design of the film, which is actually pretty desaturated and drab when no one is running around with a flaming sword.
At first, I was a little miffed that they chose the pages that they did at first, but then I quickly decided they were the best possible pages to show. I think it effectively communicated that I’m not trying to be the show in these color editions. There are definitely times in these books where I get to cut loose and be creative, but for the most part, if the couch is brown, I’m going to color it brown.
CB: To wrap things up, I think it can be really interesting to see not just what someone’s influences are, but what they’re currently enjoying as well. Whose work is really impressing you right now? Writing, art, coloring, lettering, comics or not comics, what’s caught your eye lately? What hasn’t been getting the kind of attention you think it deserves?
Fairbairn: Ah, man. I’ve been so swamped with these three books for the past year that I’ve barely had time to keep up with the work of the guys I already love, never mind search out new stuff.
David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth on Hawkeye is great. Chris Samnee is somehow doing both Daredevil and Rocketeer and it’s just beautiful work. Nice color work by Jordie Bellaire on that Rocketeer title. I generally buy anything Laura Martin is coloring — why they stopped giving her the Eisner, I do not know. Whatever Goran Parlov is drawing, I’m buying, so I’m enjoying Fury Max. BPRD is always a gold standard for comics storytelling and Tyler Crook is so impressive. I didn’t think anyone could replace Guy Davis without paling by comparison but he managed it.
Duncan Fegredo can draw anything. Anything. I don’t know what Paolo Rivera is doing next, but I’ll definitely pick it up. The same goes for Tommy Lee Edwards and JP Leon. Looking forward to Where is Jake Ellis by Tonci Zonjic. Paul Azaceta, Eric Canete, and, you know, all of the other guys I’m surely forgetting. A lot of Marvel’s new NOW! books look very promising. Really, it’s just a good time to be a fan of comics.