Invincible at 50: Bill Crabtree

We began our weeklong celebration of the release of Image Comics' "Invincible" #50 (on sale now) with two extended chats with writer Robert Kirkman (Part I here, Part II here) and a conversation with artist Ryan Ottley, and will bring you later today an exclusive preview of Invincible #51. For this penultimate installment of INVINCIBLE AT 50, CBR News went to colorist Bill Crabtree.

Aside from Robert Kirkman, colorist Bill Crabtree is the only person to have worked on every single issue of Invincible, making him truly an unsung hero of the book's success. However, this week Crabtree's tones grace the pages of the popular superhero comic for the final time, as the artist is moving on with hopes of creating his own original comics soup to nuts.

CBR News spoke with Crabtree to get his earliest memories of Invincible, learn his theory on why simplicity can be very complex, discuss the nature of comic book blood, and find out where he's headed next.

CBR: Issue #50 is to be your final issue of Invincible. How long ago did you wrap up your last pages?

Bill Crabtree: It's been a little while. That issue was a strange one. It took a little while because we had the main issue and then all these other contributors. I should mention that Ryan Ottley was not the last one done on that issue. It's probably been a month and a half or two months.

To take it back to the beginning, you got roped into this gig originally because you had colored Firebreather for Phil Hester and Andy Kuhn, and Kirkman saw those pages and brought you over.

That's right. He saw the pages at [Wizard World Chicago]. Phil Hester was at the time carrying around a little portfolio of printed out pages, and I think at that point, Image had every intention of putting Firebreather out, but we were still taking it around to shows and showing it to people. I got an e-mail from somebody I'd never heard of named Robert Kirkman, and I think he said something like, This stuff is gold! Gold, I say! It was very hyperbolic. At first, I was a little bit skeptical to take on that amount of work because at the time I was still a waiter. [Laughs] I was still trying to get my bills paid by waiting tables and getting this thing off the ground.

So I called him up, and he said, Are you fast, or does it take you like a week to color a book? I was completely daunted at the time at the idea that Robert thought taking a week to color an issue was slow. So I told him I couldn't do it. But ["Invincible" co-creator] Cory Walker was living with Robert at the time, and back then we used to have these conference calls where I would be talking to one of them with the other chiming in the background telling him to tell me something. That's what happened. Cory was the one saying, What is he telling you?!? Don't worry about it. When I found out I'd have more like a month to do an issue, then I agreed to do it.

Early on in your tenure, did you ever think the book would become this long-running serial, or did you figure it would be another four-issue gig and then out?

I think I had different times when I thought both of those things. Initially, I was pretty enthusiastic and pretty hopeful about our prospects. I was just looking at it like, We're going to be on the cover of 'Previews,' and Image is launching all these books at the same time! We're really going to make a splash. And it did okay, but it was definitely a little bit of a sobering moment to realize what the logistics of the comic book world are more realistically. I did tell Robert that I thought he was going to be successful someday because I thought his writing had this quirky quality that I thought people would really enjoy â€" and the subplots too, but this was a little early for me to get a sense of the scope the subplots would have. But Robert did tell me about Omni-Man's secret agenda from day one. That was not something that he just made up to try and get people interested in the book.

So I was intrigued by that, but at the same time, as the book went on a bit, especially at the point when we had to switch artists â€" Cory was a great artist and such a perfectionist. At the time, the monthly schedule was just taking it out of him. It was slowing the book down, and when you're trying to hang in there and get people interested in you, the last thing you want is to have an erratically shipped book. So sometimes I thought, Yeah, we're going to be the next big thing. Other times I thought, We're not going to make it past issue #12.

Invincible is one of the only Image books to make it past anything. You start breaking milestones pretty early. [Laughs] You know, you pass issue #10 and then #20. Ultimately, I was surprised the book was able to have legs the way it did. At the same time, I recognized the quality of Robert's writing early on, and Cory's art was quite a draw.

Between switching early from Cory Walker to Ryan Ottley and then following Ryan with how he's changed his style over the years, how much do you work with the artists to adjust the way you're coloring to match their sensibilities?

When the book started out, I talked to Robert and Cory a lot because none of us were anybody yet. To my surprise â€" knowing the guy and everything â€" Robert is very humble considering the amount of success he's had. Somebody's always trying to get a piece of him and talk to him, so I don't have the same amount of time to talk to them on the phone anymore, but that was a lot of fun. And because Cory lived with Robert, it was that much easier. I don't talk to them that much now because we're all too busy.

The price of fame!

Exactly! The other thing is that Cory used to make shadow guides for me, so the earliest issues of Invincible he would take a printout of a given page and go over it with pencils so I would know where he wanted the shadows to be. And obviously Cory's drawing style is a little more spare, so the look of the book and everything about it was reductive originally. There was a lot less stuff on any given page in the way the book was written and drawn and colored. I'd say that the actual way of working didn't change that much [with Ryan] because it's always been this thing of e-mails and telephone calls and the odd convention when you get to hang out with one another.

Ryan and I never quite got too far into the whole phone thing, but we do brainstorm when we hang out at conventions. Towards the end of my run on the book, as Ryan's art got more intricate, he wanted the color to reflect that complexity. And so it did change, especially if you compare the early issues to the later ones, and my work has just changed too. It was four years ago.

Robert draws a lot on old Marvel and DC comics he loved as a kid in his writing, and it shows in the book. For the color, what are the defining elements of comics you want in there? Have you always been trying to keep a brighter, simpler color tone for the old school feel of the book rather than add on a large amount of computer effects?

Well, there were a few things. I never consciously wanted to make it look old. Initially, when I decided I wanted to become a comic book colorist professionally, part of it was a reaction against what I saw a lot of. I've gotten more used to it now and attempt that kind of work myself, but when I first saw it I did not like the flashy, more Photoshoppy coloring. And technically, I'm still not really sure â€" it makes me sad to think that that's the only way to go over the next five years. DC and Marvel have made their books a little more rendered. I'm hoping it's a trend, but if it's not...oh well. [Laughs]

I have to admit, Chris Ware was a big influence on me early on. His coloring was a big influence, the way the page would have a very strong color scheme over the entire page where you'd have about five main colors that all work together. But I think that what happened with the brightness thing was that when I started out I had a more muted pallet. When I started working on Invincible I was also starting on Firebreater, and I lived in the same town as Andy Kuhn. Meeting him in Albuquerque was the beginning in my career in a way. And when I was coloring Firebreater Andy would come by and look at the pages, and he would push me to make it look more like a comic book. That's where I started to realize that sometimes if you use the right purple, you can use purple instead of grey.

You mean, it doesn't have to look realistic?

Well, it doesn't have to look realistic â€" not only that â€" but in order to separate a drawing that's covered in black lines...traditional artists perspective in a drawing means that things farther away from you are more obscured. So you make the lines lighter as they get farther away to create an illusion of depth. In comic books, you've got black lines all over you so there isn't that isolation of elements. And so in using brighter colors, it easier to make the colors different from each other and separate to make things read more clearly. It's like once you've driven a Maserati, it'd be hard to go back to driving a Honda. When you use really bright colors, after a while you just get used to the high. A muted version of that color just feels like it's being coy about what it wants to be. Go ahead, make it that color. That's not always true. Someday I want to do some historical comics set in the 1800s, and I'll color the whole thing really muted. Everybody will stop identifying me so much with tropical colored Skittles. [Laughs]

You've colored 50-plus issues with these characters. What are the standout moments for you and your work where you think you really hit the mark?

It's an ongoing thing. I don't know if I can really hearken back to one moment and say, That's where it all fell into place for me. It's a constant thing. Whether I achieve it or not, you try to improve all the time. It doesn't always happen unfortunately. But I would say, to answer in a broader sense, the thing I've always enjoyed was the variety of scenery â€" that they gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of worlds.

The Mantis planet story stood out for the colors because as the battle raged over a day, you got to play with the skyline's change in color and use a lot of red and pink in place of the common blue of earth.

And there's that one crazy two-page spread where it goes from nighttime to dawn from the top to the bottom of the page where Nolan is starting to beat on the Viltrumites with a ton of little panels. That was cool. And I love the ruins in that issue with the fluorescent green Japanese/Chinese-looking characters on the wall of the cave. I always thought that was a cool color moment â€" the turquoise of the aliens with the fluorescent green and the pink sky in the background.

Was there ever a time that you regretted using the sharp, single-toned red color for the blood? Kirkman uses the blood so much in the big moments of the book, are you worried about it becoming less effective?

I would say that I enjoy it. I don't really have any way of feeling about it, but I can give you some insight into the decision. There's no sound in comic books, and they don't move. You're fighting against all these things, and so to limit yourself to realism is kind of stupid because you're toning down your arsenal, and you have a pretty limited arsenal. Sometimes you color something in a comic book because of the job it does, not because that's how it would be. Blood is rarely that bright of a red, but from a psychological point of view and impact, I made the decision early on that in Invincible when somebody's bleeding, I'm going to make it bright red. If I only use that color red, then it does have an impact. Blood is one of those things that has a larger than life significance.

I always made Cecil have a red tie. That was my decision. That wasn't something I was told to do. I never found it boring, and I know in real life they guy's probably got more than one set of clothing, but I think in terms of character recognition, we should make it like he's got a costume like everyone else. In my mind's eye, I picture that character wearing a red tie. That's something I wanted to do. So when I'd do something the same always, it was to make it iconic on some level.

To wrap up, why is now the time to move on? Is "Invincible" #50 just a good number to go out on, or are you getting loaded up with a lot more kinds of work these days?

It's a combination of things. I think #50 is a good number, actually. It might seem silly, but I'm one of those semi-OCD people or whatever where little things like that are important. But I think it's been several things. I think more than anything, I have my own ambitions to get some of my own projects going. In order to do that, I have to clear some extra time in my day. Ryan is such an insanely talented person. One of the things I love about doing Invincible is watching Ryan get better and better, and Okay, it's not funny anymore. Just stop! But he just keeps getting better. Go back and look at his first few issues on the book. You won't even believe it's the same guy.

But in the process of that, Ryan has definitely embraced complexity. His work is getting more and more Darrow-esque, if that's a word. [Laughs] And that's great, but at the same time, he wanted the color to reflect that complexity. And it just became for me that I had to somehow find a way to create some time in my schedule, and the workload on Invincible was promising to get worse and not better. I don't want to make it sound bad that Ryan did what he did, because it's not. It's just logistically, I've seen these guys pursue their projects and seen them come to fruition, and I've seen some of that come true for myself as the colorist of those projects. But I have a little further ambition for myself to do my own comic book, and at the end of the day, it's just being realistic in that I can do two pages of another book in the time it takes me to do one of Invincible.

I will be doing other work that I can mention â€" Youngblood which I have been doing for a while. I'm going to be back on Gødand starting with issue #25, which I had been doing but then left to do Ant-Man at Marvel, but now I'll be doing the last 12 issues of that book. I'm really looking forward to that because I'm a huge fan of Jack Kirby and a big fan of Tom Scioli. Also, "Firebreather" is back. It is an ongoing series, and so that's been fun to get back into that character. That was the beginning of it all for me anyway.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics forum.

Tags: image comics, robert kirkman, bill crabtree, invincible, ryan ottley

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