Color; or, Lack Thereof

When it comes to graphic novels, something that always seemed incredibly striking to me was the amount of color being thrown into your face. I mean, look at this cover of a classic Superman comic:

It's a sensory overload of color!
(c) DC Comics

So much color that the fact that Superman is literally breaking chains kind of gets away from the viewer. You’re drawn to the giant, white number one, or the intense transition from yellow to orange going on all around him. Also, the strange use of purple in the text. Seems like an excess amount of color.

The question, then, is what happens when you take away that color? What happens when you’re left with cut and dry black and white? Does that add to the novel? Take away from it? Make it boring? One such graphic novel that uses the lack of color to it’s advantage is Persepolis – probably one of the most common examples of this, but relevant nonetheless.

The novel uses light and dark to show many important things, but the two most important, in my opinion, are the distinction between right and wrong, and the development and progression of the main character.

Look at this first image:

from Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
from Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

This is one of the most blatant contrasts. The main character believes the people who support the veil are constricting and want to take away her freedom – by making the supporters of the veil black and the women chanting for freedom white, the sympathies of the reader automatically want to side with the women cheering for freedom. She uses the innate human characteristic to choose the light, the good, to make this novel more powerful.

Now, compare these two panels from the novel:

from Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
from Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
from Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
from Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

The girl in the first panel is the same as the young woman in the second panel – just older. However, her clothes have changed from white to black. The simple change in color reveals so much about this character – her loss of childhood innocence, her choice to become part of a rebellion, her spiral into the trap that is adulthood. All brought about simply by an intentional lack of color.

Think about how different this book would be if it was done in color rather than black and white. Sure, the author could have used, say, red vs green to show the right and wrong in the book. She could have had the young girl wear purple as a child, and yellow as an adult. But she didn’t. She purposefully chose to take away the color and in doing so, created a powerful, impacting graphic novel.

I’m not saying that color doesn’t have its place. Superman wouldn’t be so super if he didn’t have his giant red cape and blue suit. Ironman HAS to be red or he’s just not Ironman. But while color has definitely earned its place in the realm of graphic novels, there is definitely something to be said on the impact of simply using black and white.

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