We have seen countless heroes and villains grace the comic pages in an array of eye-popping costumes but have you ever questioned why artists have picked those colours in particular?
Comics Alliance introduces us to the idea of colour theory which – in its most basic form – states heroes wear bright colours such as yellow, red and blue whereas villains dress in duller colours like black and grey.
And there are certainly many examples of where this theory checks out. Just take a look at Spiderman compared to Tombstone or Hunk Norvock compared to the Flash.
But hold on. I can also equally list examples where this theory doesn’t support the notion that heroes’ costumes are bright like a beacon of justice. Both Black Canary and Storm excellently model darker customs yet their hero status is not questioned.
Whereas Joker and Krang’s villainy is unshakeable.
Visually makes the point that although black is the traditional choice for villains it can be used to illustrate a hero has a dark backstory. (I haven’t read or watched much of Black Canary and Storm’s story so I am unsure if it is applicable to these examples but it certainly applies to heroes such as Batman).
Furthermore, a lot of variations of Joker’s customs incorporate purples and greens which Visually claims are colours used for both “Classic Villains” and “Toxic Villains”. These two categories can easily be applied to Joker.
To explain Krang’s colour choices I’m going to backtrack to Comic Alliance whose infographic reveals yellow can imply safety and red can signify boldness. If we think about it, Krang lives in a humanoid machine to navigate our world, without it he’d be pretty helpless. He often makes rash decisions which on occasion can be arguably bold so perhaps that was the rationale behind choosing those colours for him.
So if colour theory isn’t a strict rule when it comes to dressing heroes and villains what is?
Jesse Schedeen advises artists that their characters should be both simple and striking.
“As long as you pay careful attention to color balance and shapes, you can design a terrific costume”
Plus, with the rise of digital comics writers and artist can now reach a worldwide audience which might have not been as prevalent in the Golden Age of Comics. Colour symbolism varies from country to country, for example: two popular superhero colours (red and yellow) have rather negative connotations in different cultures.
In British culture yellow is usually associated with happiness whereas in France its associated with jealousy. Likewise red, which is can imply courage, determination and boldness in my culture, is actually linked to mourning in South Africa. I believe this demonstrates that you cannot just slap on a colour on your character and hope it will convey their virtues or evil natures. Which leads me onto the next point of consideration when designing a hero or villain.
The world in which your characters live.
If we think about it, would Batman dedicate his entire existence to protecting a Snapdragon styled Gotham?
Could our heroines from W.I.T.C.H really do battle in a Charlie Adlard’s Walking Dead universe?
The answer to both is NO!
The mismatch between the heroes’ environments, their story’s tone and their outfits would be a visual catastrophe. To contrast colour palettes in such a dramatic way is very difficult and I think there is a reason why there aren’t many comics out there that even attempt this.
Now you know why heroes and villains were originally assigned their dazzling colours. Colour theory is a good tool for comic book creators to use as a starting point but as they say: rules were made to be broken. And as comics have become more accessible and there being more diversity amongst the creators our heroes and villains’ attire is only going to get even more fabulous!