Superhero Color Theory, Part I: The Primary Heroes
Take a look at the biggest names in superheroes and you probably realize that you’re looking at a sea of red, blue, yellow. There are some greens, whites, blacks, etc, but the most iconic superheroes are the red and blue, with yellow accents. It’s no accident that the easiest colors to render in the four-color printing process became the choice for bold heroes. But what does it mean for characterization of these heroes? What does it tell us about those characters?
Color theory has long-standing beliefs as to what each color means. We’ve seen charts applying this to corporate logos — why Coke wants to project the bold red energy of sugar-buzzed youth, and Hooters wants to dodge/soften the creepy leering it peddles with the cheerful humour of orange. It’s all in good fun! Color theory may also explain why expansion teams to sports leagues look to separate themselves with less common color combos, but end up gravitating to the basics over time. Look how the Phoenix Coyotes moved from orange, green, purple, and dark burgundy to simply dark red, and the Toronto Raptors’ purple, red, silver and black became mostly black and red. They move from outsiders to mainstream.
But what happens when you apply this Western symbolism to our favourite Avengers, Justice Leaguers, X-Men, and their enemies? Can this help explain why certain heroes have resonated more strongly with certain audiences?
Here’s the list of colors and what they traditionally mean:
Single-color characters are usually not as famous as ones with two or three colors, because they are not as visually intriguing. They’re only conveying one idea. Silver Surfer is the embodiment of spacious, eternal, pure, sterile, cold, unfriendly light, but that’s exactly why he’s alone, and doesn’t have much of a fan club (although his fans will be quite loyal).
On the opposite end is a complex hero like Martian Manhunter, with a seemingly endless list of powers, and more than three colors, who can seem too complicated for a world of bold, oppositional morality.
Instead we usually see heroes with two main colors and one accent color (ignoring that black is used to outline everything from heroes to handbaskets). Double colors is where it gets interesting. In this installment of Superhero Color Theory, we’re going to look at how the primary colors affect how we perceive our favorite heroes.
Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor, Spider-Man, and Captain America are some of the biggest names in comics. They are primarily red and blue. The red means they are bold, passionate, and determined, but grounded with blue’s depth, wisdom and confidence. You might say Spider-Man is too angsty to be confident, but he does seem confident enough to crack jokes while cracking skulls.
If you add the yellow accent of the first three heroes, you see they are attentive, provide safety, joy, and are a little bit ostentatious. Yet, ostentatiousness is something that probably doesn’t apply to the other two. The white of Spider-Man’s eyes and Captain America’s midriff shows that they are more pure and innocent, rather than flashy.
Other examples of red and blue include the Atom, Giant Man, Ant Man, Power Girl, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Doctor Strange.
The next most popular heroic primary combination is red and yellow. Iron Man, The Flash, Human Torch, Plastic Man, Shazam, and Robin are all dynamic light-hearted heroes. They combine the exciting bold passion of red with the energy and ostentatious nature of yellow. They’re often the cockier, showoff types of hero. The yellow signals that safety has arrived, but the red and yellow becomes a dancing fire.
Accent-wise, Shazam’s white cape conveys his purity, and Robin’s green gloves and boots show he’s the green rookie, a playful spirit with room to grow. Spider-Woman isn’t exactly light-hearted, but the yellow hourglass-like shape on her waist lends the same sort of positive yellow energy of Shazam and Flash’s lightning bolts, and Johnny Storm’s fire, to her venom energy. She’s dangerous, but on our side.
Colossus is red and yellow too, just like the flag from the USSR, with a white steel frame for cold stoicism. This brings up the concept of character dressed in flag. A nationalistic character, reflects the persona of the nation, which has already been established via the flag. Notice how few flags mix secondary colors. Can you name a purple and orange flag? Green and purple? On the other hand, how many countries are identified with red, white and blue? Nations see themselves as heroes, and therefore stick to “heroic” colors. Check out this website, which breaks down all the nations’ flags by color.
Blue and yellow is the last pair of primary colors, for characters a bit on the outside. They lack the red boldness of those seeking or destined to be front and centre.
The founding X-Men were mostly in blue and yellow. Like the police, their blue uniforms convey they are heroes (trust, confidence), which has the other blue traits of depth and wisdom, thanks to Professor X’s leadership. The yellow shows they have energy to fight for mutant-kind, and that they offer a safe place for fellow outsiders, like the light from a lighthouse.
Nova’s blue and yellow is like an ostentatious police uniform from space. And notice how both Power Man and Booster Gold chose yellow and blue to project “superhero” to attract new clients, or new fans. They missed picking the ideal red and blue of most major heroes, but got the right batch of colors to chose from.
Dr. Fate has a depth of wisdom too, and his yellow reflects not the ostentatious nature of gold, but its eternal quality, like King Tut’s sarcophagus.
The villain Thanos is also blue and yellow. He dresses like a superhero, and perhaps demonstrates that a real threat to superheroes might need to look like them. You can’t write him off as a doomed-to-lose villain. But he also has a purple skin accent that reveals his pompous royal elite side.
Purple will take us into the secondary colors, which will come up in our second installment on superhero color theory next week.
Brian McLachlan is a cartoonist whose works appeared in the New Yorker, Nickelodeon Magazine, Dragon, Owl, and more. Read more of his thoughts on his pop culture essay site Deep Thought Balloon. Aaron Hanson is his Merlin.