|The Old Color Era
For 40 years color in the American comic industry used a simple, hand
separated 4-color system. Using a code that specified 25, 50 and 100%
increments of the 4 printing inks (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, commonly
known as CMYK) comics used a 64 color system. Limiting the palette
to 64 colors kept the costs down, and were about all that would easily
reproduce on the cheap newsprint paper used for comics. Airbrushing and
special effects were reserved for covers, which are heavier coated paper
The hand separations were often done by Chemical Color of Derby, Connecticut.
A hand separation was a tedious job. Each percentage of a color had to
be painted on a separate acetate overlay using Rubylith paint, photographed
at the proper screen and then registered (lined up) and combined to create
a film negative that was used to burn the printing plates.
To create a light green, for instance, a code of Y2B2 was used. This meant
that 25% of Yellow (Y2) and 25% of Cyan (B2) are needed to get that color.
In order for the color guide artists to be able to communicate with the
color separators, charts of the 64 colors with their codes were printed
and distributed to the colorists. Photostats or Xerox copies of the original
art were made at 8 ½ x 11, and the colorists used special 64 color
sets of Dr. Martin’s radiant transparent watercolor (or aniline
dyes) to color them. Then they would write codes from the chart on the
guides, which the separators used to know which color the guide artists
actually wanted. (As opposed to guessing)
This system worked in the comic industry from the late 30’s, with
mixed results. There was plenty of room for error, and even the best results
were very limiting. The traditional flat color look of comics is based
on this 64 color system.
Although most comics used this system until the 1980’s, these limitations
began to be broken in the late 1970’s.