How Ms. Marvel Creates Atmosphere with Coloring and Lettering
Ms. Marvel (2014) became an overnight sensation, telling a lighthearted but poignant story of Kamala Khan, a young Muslim teenager who develops superpowers and needs to face the combined tribulations of fighting crime and adolescence. It’s an old story infused with a modern dynamic of identity, both in the personal and superhero sense, and it’s well worth checking out based on the rave reviews it’s received.
But rather than analyzing the plot or the themes, I’m more interested in how the art team created the story’s mood and tone. This lighthearted atmosphere allowed the book to talk about controversial topics, like religion, dogma, and identity without weighing the comic down or coming across as preachy.
Let’s start with the work of colorist Ian Herring:
Herring uses a tried-and-true method of drawing attention to the important characters: neutral colors (blues, grays, and browns) in the background, bold colors (white, red, orange) where you want the reader’s eyes. But what Herring does differently here is that he uses a watercolor-like gradient in the background to keep the neutrals feeling light and airy rather than gloomy. This allows Herring to sneak in some light colors, light a powder blue window or a cream-colored book stand, all while keeping your eye in the foreground.
Immediately this panel feels softer and lighter than most comic book art. Herring accomplishes this with a few creative tricks. First, he falls back on the tried-and-true method of using neutral colors in the background (like blue, gray, or brown) and bolder colors in the foreground (white, red, orange, purple). This makes the foreground pop out instantly from the page, keeping the reader’s eye exactly where the creative team want it.
But Herring adds a few twists to the background to keep it from feeling dull or unimportant without stealing the spotlight from the foreground. In both images above, he sneaks some non-neutrals into the background by washing them out or darkening them. In the store, you can find reds, yellows, and oranges hiding out on the walls and on the shelves, and in the cityscape those same yellows and reds find their way in.
In order to keep those backgrounds interesting, he adds a watercolor-like gradient and texture. This keeps the entire scene from feeling washed out, creates the impression of light, and softens up the atmosphere of the panel.
Lettering artist Joe Caramagna also tweaks some comic book standards with his lettering throughout the series. Fun fact: all of Marvel’s mainline comics up until about two years ago would adhere to the house style of all capital letters. Second fun fact: this run of Ms. Marvel was one of the first books that were allowed to bypass this mandate. And the reader benefits greatly from it.
Most dialogue in Ms. Marvel is in standard written form, with capital letters at the beginning, and lowercase throughout. This alone gives the comic a much less serious and dramatic feeling, but Caramagna goes beyond that. When Ms. Marvel acquires her powers, her inner-dialogue boxes use standard Marvel lettering, but the world she lives in uses the lowercase. It’s a great and subtle way to create a juxtaposition between her own perception of the tension and drama of being a superhero with the goofy and lighthearted world she lives in. Caramagna also delivers some great expression in the form of mispelling words, as seen in the drunken expression of teenage love seen in the panel above.
But the key to Ms. Marvel’s strong atmosphere is that the coloring and lettering work in perfect harmony with the line art.
The line art of Adrian Alphona is what makes the daring coloring and lettering of the comic possible. The people and worlds he draws are real and lifelike, but cartooned just slightly, enough to keep you invested in the drama of story without taking things too seriously — a perfect description of what Ms. Marvel is trying to accomplish as a whole. Alphona also occasionally just doodles in the backgrounds of panels, seen in the lockers in the panel above, and the fish head and “free range maple syrup” below. These act as small easter eggs, things for the reader to discover and remind them that the book isn’t deathly serious. It’s a really personalized touch from Alphona, and demonstrates the level of care and thought that goes into every bit of this story’s art.
The line art really shines when Kamala starts using her super powers. Ms. Marvel is able to modify her body completely, and the art style makes these transformations seem almost normal. In the panel above, a huge, goofy hand seems to naturally flow out of Kamala’s body because her body was already pretty goofy to begin with.
To show just how quickly this tone can disappear if one of these aspects of the art were to change, we can look at panels from the issues where artist Takeshi Miyagawa subbed in for Alphona, keeping the same colorist and letterer.
Miyagawa is a fantastic artist, but we can see how a change in a single aspect of the art can ruin its magic. The lighter colors, which felt airy and light in Alphona’s thin lines feel washed out in Miyagawa’s bold outlines. The lettering doesn’t catch the eye of the reader because the visual heaviness of Miyagawa’s art outweighs it. It’s not a bad panel or bad art by any means, but it just doesn’t harmonize in the same way as the original art team’s efforts.
Of course, good art doesn’t need to be dissected fully to be successful. If you read reviews of the Ms. Marvel series, they’ll all use words like “lighthearted”, “joyous”, and “adventurous”, among others, with almost none of them citing the art as a major source of these feelings. In a time where colorists and letterers (and the people who appreciate them) are pushing back for more recognition in the industry, it’s important to think critically about just how big of a role they play and appreciating how they can come to define a comic series.