‘Flatting’ is the process of filling in a comic’s line-work with ‘flats,’ or solid blocks of color. In the process of making of a flat-color comic, the colorist fills in the lines with only flats, which makes the comic’s illustrations look two-dimensional in contrast to comics with several layers of shading and highlighting. The following three examples are flat-color comics from different time periods.
The earliest comics in the U.S. were printed in flat colors. For example, these panels from The Invincible Iron Man (see Figure 1), were printed in flat colors. Comics’ color schemes were restricted to a set range of colors so books could be printed cheaper and faster.
First, the illustrator drew just the black and white line-work for Iron Man. Then, a colorist manually cut out a special type of screen for each color, so that the arrangement of screens made a collage of flats that indicated where the printer should print certain colors. In Iron Man‘s case, like other Golden Age comics, flats made for an easy read because they were simple to visually piece together. The flats also helped tell the story. For example, the dialogue speech bubbles in Iron Man remain white, while the narrator’s bubbles are all yellow.
Although printing methods had dramatically advanced by the end of the twentieth century, some comic creators used flats as a stylistic choice. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy: Seed of Destruction (see Figure 2), printed in 1994, is an example of a contemporary flat-color comic with digital coloring. In contemporary comics, flats create a different reading experience and allow the illustrator to emphasize different parts of the panels besides the coloring.
Mike Mignola, both the writer and illustrator of Hellboy, creates strong compositions using dramatic, heavy line-work and shadow. He fills these in with bold, flat colors so that his line-work and shadow stand out on their own without the addition of 3-D coloring. Throughout Hellboy, he restricts certain pages or panels to a specific color palette in order to unify sections of the comic. This illustrative technique groups scenes together and lets the reader know when one scene or tone transitions to another.
Figure 3 reproduces a Garfield strip from 2012. All three panels of the strip incorporate flats into the line-work. The flat blocks of color distinguish shapes and text like the colors in Hellboy: Seed of Destruction. However, Garfield‘s color palette is much more toned down, and eases the audience through a quick read. For newspaper comics, flats were cheap, but also matched the simplistic stories of gag strips often found in the comic section of the daily paper.
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Davis, J. (2012). Garfield. Paws, Inc. Distributed by Universal Uclick.
Friedrich, M., Jones, A., & Mantlo, K. (1975). The Invincible Iron Man(75th ed., p. 11). New York, New York: Marvel Comics Group.
Mignola, M., & Byrne, J. (2003). Hellboy: Seed of Destruction (Third ed.). Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Piro, T. (2008). Tutorial: Flatting Your Comic. Calamities of Nature. December 16.