Nathan Fairbairn Brings Color to "Scott Pilgrim's" World

The chance to color Scott Pilgrim's precious little life -- and his much-beloved black and white universe -- was an opportunity colorist Nathan Fairbairn wanted in on as soon as he was introduced to the series.

"I read all four volumes in one night. And the next day, instead of working on the pages I was supposed to be working on, I actually scanned a bunch of pages in and I colored them," said Fairbairn, who then sent the pages off to publisher Oni Press, expressing interest in coloring the book, if the opportunity ever arrived.

As the "Scott Pilgrim" movie adaptation moved closer to reality, so did rumblings of Oni releasing colored versions of the six-volume series. Fairbairn was one of the colorists contacted by the publisher for a try-out, and after two auditions over the course of a couple years, he officially landed the coveted gig, coloring Bryan Lee O'Malley's critically-acclaimed series. "Scott Pilgrim" will be re-released at next week's re-mastered, full-color hard cover edition filled with bonus material, on sale in stores August 8.

Fairbairn invited CBR News over for a... uh... colorful interview not just about all things Scott Pilgrim, but also his frequent artistic collaborators Yanick Paquette and Chris Burnham, and how the role of a colorist is recognized differently from publisher to publisher.

CBR News: How do you think colorists are perceived within the industry?

Nathan Fairbairn: I think they're perceived quite well.

Editors love good, reliable colorists because colorists are often the ones who end up saving deadline because writers, pencillers and inkers can often go late. Well, almost always, actually. And so it can sometimes come down to a colorist, the last guy in the assembly line, who has a week to color a whole book because someone screwed up along the way.

Artists, especially newer guys just coming into the industry, or guys who have been in it for four or five years, are very aware that a colorist can make or break their art, I think. So they're very particular about the colorists they'll work with. And most of the guys I work with nowadays are either inking their own stuff, like Chris Burnham, or all-digital, like Yanick Paquette, so it's really just me and them. So there's a really strong partnership between us.

How do those collaborations work with Paquette and Burnham?

I feel quite lucky that the guys I work with think of my work as an integral part of the final art and not -- I don't know, an afterthought or necessary evil or something. But with Yanick and Burnham -- and now with Bryan -- if I ever have a question, or sometimes before I even start the pages, we have an email correspondence, or sometimes Skype to go over the pages, and talk about the general approach. It's very much a team effort. It's good.

Do you think colorists get enough recognition?

I don't know. I think it can be easy to get stuck in this mindset where you're lobbying for colorist recognition or whatever and getting caught up in it till you get to a point where you lose perspective, or at least start to come across to others like you have. I know that my role is maybe 10 per cent -- or on a good day 20 per cent -- of the whole creative package. And that's all I want to be recognized for. Colorists are never going to be 'the show.' That's ridiculous. No one ever went to a Stones show just to listen to the drums, but it would still be an injustice if Charlie Watts didn't get his fair share of panties thrown at him, you know?

That said, there is a surprising difference between the recognition a colorist gets at Marvel and the recognition he gets at DC.

At Marvel, colorists are recognized as part of the creative team and they get a cut of the incentive payments, which are all based on sales. So, the writer gets a third, say, and the penciller gets another third, and the inker gets whatever, and then the colorist gets whatever is left. Oh, and they get their names on the cover all the time.

Whereas at DC, the colorist is specifically not part of the creative team. He's part of the production team. Same as, I don't know, the guy who lays ads out in the book or whatever. And so their names don't go on the covers, and they don't get a cut of the incentives or anything like that.

But you went from Marvel to DC...

Yeah, it was a bit of a burn to go from working with Marvel for three years to working for DC and losing that recognition.

But at the same time, the Marvel books I was working on weren't exactly high profile. I mean, they were fun. I colored a shitload of "Guardians of the Galaxy." I probably colored more appearances of Rocket Raccoon than anyone else ever has. I was like the official colorist of Rocket Raccoon. I just never stopped coloring that little fucker. I've got a Rocket Raccoon figure up on my desk there to keep me humble, remind me where I came from.

So, you know, fun books, a lot of great projects with great people, but it was nothing anybody was reading. So when the opportunity came to work with Grant Morrison on something? "Yes." The answer is "yes," obviously.

I'd be lying, though, if I said that the lack of recognition doesn't sting a bit. Just a little.

And the weird thing is I don't think you'll find anyone who works in DC editorial or publishing who would actually say "colorists don't deserve to be recognized as part of the creative team." It's an institutional holdover is really what I think it is. That's how it's always been done, so maybe they figure why should they change? But Marvel changed their policy like a decade ago now, you know?

"Scott Pilgrim" -- this book will be a pretty high profile project for a colorist. Anyone can look and compare the black and white to the colored version.

It's a dream job. And there's so many reasons I wanted this job. The creative reasons are fairly obvious -- it's just such a fantastic series.

But another reason, since we're talking about it, is the fact that this is something I have ownership in. That's how the contract works. I get royalties from sales of the color editions. That's what really sold me on the job. They didn't want to just pay me a work-for-hire upfront fee. They wanted someone who would be invested in the work. And I was like, "hell yeah."

I'm really interested in creator-owned properties. I'm writing a story right now that I've talked to Yanick about illustrating and co-owning with me. Burnham and I, we talk a fair bit about how we want to do a creator-owned book together. I think there's a shift happening in the industry, similar to what happened in the '90s with Image, where more and more creators are looking to have some ownership of the things they create.

And that's what Scott Pilgrim is for me. But also, like I said, primarily, it's a dream gig, creatively. People can see exactly the difference between, like you said, the black and white version and the colored version. Pow. This is what a colorist does. So hopefully I did a good job.

This is a bit of a digression, but being Canadian, where it's spelled 'colour, 'does it bother you seeing color spelled without a 'u' in it?

I actually struggled with that for the first year of my career. I would constantly spell it with a 'u', and I'd get these mocking American comments. Finally, I was like, 'fuck it.' Now, I'm to the point where when I'm writing to Yanick, another Canadian, I'll spell it without a 'u' and he'll bust my balls over that.

You mentioned there were a couple tryouts to get the gig over the years. How did your palette change for "Scott Pilgrim" in those tryout sessions, pre- and post-movie?

We decided that we wanted the colors that I chose for the first volume to be quite true to the movie, because we thought a lot of people that will pick this up will have seen the movie, and vice versa -- people who pick up the book might be prompted to check out the film. They should inform each other.

I've got to say, that was one of the biggest challenges, because in the movie everyone's basically wearing shades of grey. Like, everything is really de-saturated. Because, you know, it's not a comic book. So, like Kim's wearing like a dark grey and blue hoodie, and Neil's wearing a grey shirt with dark brown-grey ringers, and Stills is wearing a plaid shirt that's basically grey as well...

I tried to walk that fine line between reminding people of the movie and using a similar, life-like palette, but also respecting the fact that it's a comic book. And comic books are colorful and saturated.

How does the collaboration work between you and creator Bryan Lee O'Malley? The books are such a singular vision -- do you feel pressure at all?

I do, yeah. I was nervous when I handed in that first draft of the colors. I was like, 'What if he hates me?" Because I remembered reading some interview years ago, when someone asked him about what color this or that was, and he said "it's black and white." I was sure he'd been on record saying that it didn't need to be colored.

And I was like, "Oh shit, is this something where Oni has told him, like, 'You have to do this in color because it'll sell better' and he doesn't want it, and he thinks it's a corruption of his artistic vision?"

But he likes it! He's very happy. He's extremely happy with it. I think he's proud of it, and I think he should be. I think that color adds a lot to it. I think there's a reason comic books are in color and not in black and white. I mean there's a reason people watch color movies and not black and white movies. Color can add so much. It can add depth, mood and it can add focus, and lead the eye to where it's supposed to go. I do think comics should be colored. I think "Walking Dead" should be a beautiful, color comic. I do.

Have you caught yourself coloring someone as someone else so far in Scott Pilgrim?

No, I have not made that mistake, but I might have that problem later on. The cast is small enough in the first book that it doesn't happen. But I remember reading the books, and I think it was volume four where Lisa Miller shows up and they're all sitting around having nachos. There's like four girls sitting at the table, and I couldn't tell which one was which. So I'm looking at the clothes, and thinking, "Okay, that's Ramona because she's wearing high boots, and she's got freckles so that must be Kim, but which one of these girls is Lisa?"

Have there been any unexpected coloring decisions?

Oh sure. For example, Knives Chau is fighting Ramona in the library, and she's wearing this long black and white scarf. And in the movie, it's a long black and white scarf, so, all right, I figure, black and white scarf it is. But in Bryan Lee O'Malley's head, that is a navy blue and yellow scarf. The only reason it's a black and white scarf in the movie is because they want to remind people of the comic, which was in black and white.

So a lot of the notes I get back from Bryan are about things that to him are obviously super colorful that I had initially colored white or grey or brown because that's how it is in the movie. It's interesting that a guy that makes these awesome black and white comics has such strong color ideas. Like he can draw something in black and white and think, "oh, that's a beautiful shade of red."

And the hair colors! The hair color is such a -- we had about a 15 e-mail long chain trying to figure out the exact color of Ramona's hair in Volume 2. Mal actually went and made up a chronology of Ramona's hairstyles and colors for me after that, thankfully.

So what you should take from all this is that he's very hands-on, and what you see in the final project is definitely Bryan Lee O'Malley-approved!

Aside from bringing O'Malley's vision to page, there's also a pretty hardcore fanbase for the series.

That was a rabbit hole I consciously decided not to go down. People are so obsessed with this series that they have started coloring it on their own and posting it online, they have started making motion comics -- it's bananas. This book is probably going to piss off more than one cosplayer out there who has one very specific Ramona costume, and she's going to be so sad that it's actually a teal handbag, not pink.

What do you hope people get out of these new colored editions?

Hopefully, people will start reading it because they're interested in checking out the color work, and maybe at first they're saying, "Oh, these colors look good," but then by page 20 or page 30 they forget that they're reading it in color, and they're just enjoying reading "Scott Pilgrim" again. That's my dream, that people start out reading "Scott Pilgrim Color Hardcover Volume 1" but by the time they get to the end of the book they're just reading "Scott Pilgrim." That would be awesome.

I always want my work to be invisible. Or maybe indivisible is the better word. I don't want to draw attention to what I'm doing. Color should be a natural extension of the art. I don't want to do something crazy with color just so people go, 'Whoa, this color is pretty amazing.' I don't want to do that. I just want to help the writer and artist tell the story. That's it.

Incoming: Marvel Reveals New Covers for 2019's Final, Massive One-Shot

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