Superhero Color Theory, Part III: Darkness And Light
What do the colors of your favourite superhero tell you about them? We're applying traditional color theory to iconic comic characters, to see what we can learn about them. Catch up on what you've missed here and here, so you know what each color is supposed to mean.
We left off talking about hair. Most male characters don masks or helmets, or have short hair the same color as the ink lines that define their features. But for women (and long haired-guys), hair becomes an important signal to how we're supposed to perceive them. Society traditionally says brunettes are grounded and earthy, black hair is dark and mysterious, and red-heads are fiery and full of passion. Blonde can be seen as the safe choice, with positive energy that doesn't burn as hot as the red, smoulder like the black, or put out the fire of earthy brown.
I bet there are several essays that will point out how this view of hair is problematically Western and Caucasian. But it's a clue to how we perceive things, and so it's worth exploring how it affects our favourite heroines as we go forward with color theory. Think of how it's played out with Betty and Veronica, or Gwen and Mary Jane.
Yet our focus this time is on darker colors, and how they define both heroes and villains.
Black and red are colors for dark passion. This makes sense for Carnage, who's fuelled by rage. Harley Quinn's red and black is tempered by a white accent that reminds us she has a pure side. She commits evil for love of the Joker, rather than hate of Gothamites. Red and black also signify heroes closer to the edge of villainy, like Deadpool and Spawn.
Or think of Batman Beyond, who's a shift from the grey and black animated Batman costume that preceded him. Bruce waited years before donning the cowl and cape, but Terry was in costume very soon after his father was killed by criminals. He still has the fresh blood rage. Nightcrawler's black and red costume shows his fiery dark passion, but the white gloves hint at his Christian purity, and his blue skin suggests his depth of thought. Daredevil is dressed all in red, but most artists, especially Frank Miller who helped make him cool, used a lot of black on the costume to temper his red anger with some black menacing confidence.
Mysterious, elegant, calm, confident menace, the Black Widow is also black and red, bringing in her secondary color through hair. For Black Widow, red hair adds passion, anger, and intensity to the black of her costume. Compare that with Mockingbird (who has added white purity) and Black Canary (who sometimes has the added blue trustworthiness of a policeman). Their blonde hair suggests those black-clad heroines would be even more safe and trustworthy partners.
While grey and blue is not a frequently-seen combination, it is important because it belongs to Batman. His costume has yellow accents, which is like Superman's costume, but replaces the fiery red with a more reserved, morally ambiguous grey tone. Some artists dress him more in black than blue, shifting him from a place of trust to menace. Batman designed his costume to scare criminals, more than to inspire citizens.
It makes sense that grey and blue can also be scary on a villain, showing the calm, wise, mechanical indifference of Apocalypse and Darkseid. Apocalypse is sometimes shown with purple, linking him to the purple and blue pompous, technological wizards we mentioned last time.
Black and white can signify the dark purity of death. When Superman was reborn he came back black and white. Captain America's metaphorical death, and rebirth as The Captain, changed him to black and white with blood red accents. Spider-Man was also sort-of killed, when his heroic personality was somewhat subsumed by his black and white costume (which would eventually become Venom), during which time he was literally buried in a grave.
Solomon Grundy, Black Mask, and the Punisher's connections to death are obvious. Like those characters, Black Cat, the In-Betweener and Equinox are black and white to suggest a wavering between darkness and light, good and bad. Storm is black and white as well, suggesting she has the ambivalence of a god (as she was raised as one), like a Catholic Priest. Her all white costume followed a rebirth from being a child again, into a new, reaffirmingly heroic phase in her life.
According to our chart, black and white can also be the cross-section of cold and sophistication that we see in formal wear of Zatanna and the Penguin (his purple pants remind us of his pompous nature).
Let's look at a few more recent but resonant characters, and see if this theory applies to some of the newer characters (who tend to favour darker color schemes). Red is combined with brown for Hellboy. His red is the fiery red of his heritage, while the brown grounds him to Earth. There's also always Mike Mignola's black, which adds the spooky menace.
How about Star-Lord's movie-inspired costumes? That's a dark red, grey and maybe a little blue? The muted red is a hint at his not-quite heroic status, and the grey his technology and moral ambiguity. There's only a hint of the blue space-cop in this costume. While the Runaways don't have costumes per se, Nico the dark witch is always seen in black, with purple magic that connects with her hands-off magical royalty bloodline. Mr. Terrific's white and black shows you he's the one who's going to give the truth in black and white, whether it's palatable or not, with a bit of red panache.
White also becomes interesting when we combine it with blue, as it often takes elemental form. It's the cold purity of the deep, wise sea and sky. The Fantastic Four are an elemental group, with Mr. Fantastic and Sue Storm (water and air), staying blue and white the most. The Thing (earth) adds orange humour (classically, one of the funniest Marvel characters, next only to Spider-Man and Deadpool), and the Human Torch (fire) ditches the blue and white when he flames on and ignores Reed's deep wisdom to rush hotheadedly into battle. The whole group though, look like UN Peacekeepers. It's also worth noting Sue's yellow hair makes her dependable.
Quicksilver is elementally fast, like lightning. His costume is a counterpart to Flash. The scarlet speedster is quick to help others, but the cold white-and-blue hero is quick to condemn others. Maybe he should have been named Cruel Streak. Haha. Anyway, Captain Cold is also blue and white, mostly to suggest cold, his elemental connection.
We should mention that the Invisible Woman also had the color of... invisible, but we'll get into that in our next instalment.
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.