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In a documentary on the American TV series The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982, dir. K. Johnson, with Messrs. Bixby, Ferrigno etc.), the producer/director explains that he tried to petition Stan Lee to allow him to do a red Hulk because of the association with anger. More to the point, he reveals that Mr Lee explained the reason Hulk was green was because they couldn't do a good grey primer whereas they could do a consistent green. Obviously he's not talking about makeup but the comic book and this is consistent with the wikipedia entry on the Hulk.

Any reason why making a consistent grey would be difficult to do in comics - does that apply to print generally? And is that still a challenge today?

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    Modern printing techniques have come a long way, so provided that a printer is using up to date calibration and proofing workflows there's no reason that a consistent grey can't be achieved within in normal tolerances with all other factors being equal. However, I've found that getting a dead neutral grey especially challenging; since colour is perceptual as well as physical it's greatly affected by environmental factors like the colour of the available light source. Thus what looks neutral in one light might take on a tint in another light. – Dre Dec 14 '14 at 18:52
  • @Dre Thank you. Are you hinting that grey is more in flux a color perceptually than others? Is that similar in any way to the challenges of printing something like the indigo color? I think your comment could make an interesting answer. – user29318 Dec 14 '14 at 20:14
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    Anecdotally, I've found trying to match greys more challenging than other colours. There have been times where I've matched a shade of grey to a sample, only to walk to the other side of the room where the lights are different and seen the colour shift. My guess is that as grey would a be reflection of a larger spectrum of colours than, say, red, it's more readily affected by ambient light conditions. Unfortunately, physics isn't my realm of expertise, so I can't offer you more than that! As for my comment vs answer; I don't think it answers your question directly, hence it being a comment. – Dre Dec 14 '14 at 20:39
  • @Dre Very insightful, thank you! Note the standard for upvoting answers is that they be "useful" but I do respect the fact you have high standards for making an answer. Cheers. – user29318 Dec 14 '14 at 21:47
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This site explains the process of coloring comics during the 60's (when the Hulk started) http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/sgrais/comics_color.htm

snip

The possible combinations of these tints gave colorists a palette of 64 possible colors to use in the books, though most used no more than half of them. Many of the darker colors were indistinguishable in print.

This is the 64 color palette they had to work with during the 60's.

enter image description here

This is how they color them with color codes for printing.

enter image description here

This is the part is where I speculate. If I am limited by those colors and I have to color the Hulk and make him stand out among rocks, concrete buildings, roads, night scenes - I would ask for more grey color choices or just make him green :)

Additional Edit

It would also be worth noting the silo color in the Superman strip (lower right hand panel) the dark grey is created by laying down 3 colors Yellow2 Red2 Blue3 (Y2R2B3).

Generally laying down one color is best, anything more than one color and registration problems, dot gain problems, paper quality problems, paper stretching problems, become more pronounced.

sample of registration problem on modern press

Also worth noting from http://www.comicartistsdirect.com/articles/coloring.html Comic companies on a tight budget were probably not willing to shell out the extra bucks for color proofs. The separators' work went right from rubylith overlays to the camera to shoot plates. That is why a plate is occassionally missing from a color in older comics.

Another article quotes http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2006/03/02/comic-book-urban-legends-revealed-40/

A symptom of this cost-cutting is evident in the coloring process. The four-color separations and newsprint-esque pages in Marvel comics did not always bode well for certain color schemes.

One such color was grey.

It was not that comics could not use the color grey – they could. It simply wouldn’t come out the same way each time.

Therefore, when 1962’s Incredible Hulk #1 rolled around, Marvel had a problem. Dr. Bruce Banner is transformed into a monster called the Hulk by Gamma Radiation. The giant behemoth known as the Hulk is grey…but as you can see, the grey-coloring is far from consistent within the issue. Just compare this interior pages with the cover (thanks to H, from the Comic Treadmill, for the scans of the interior pages).

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

There are also current print problems with grey (kindly take note this is with current printing techniques)

from http://the-print-guide.blogspot.com/2009/05/grey-balance-unbalanced-inconvenient.html

1) Unlike instruments, we perceive color in the context of surrounding colors. If you look at the grey bar in this graphic:you'll see that it appears to change its tonality depending on whether it's against the red or green background even though the grey is in fact exactly the same across its width. You may also see a slight shift in color. This optical illusion is called "simultaneous contrast."

enter image description here

Bottom line: Even if the grey patch in a color bar appears perfectly neural compared with the 50%K patch - the grey within the live image area may not appear neutral due to the effect of surrounding colors.

2) Our perception of color, especially neutral grey, not only varies from individual to individual, but is also affected by age and gender. Older men (e.g. typical press operator) will not see a 3/C grey vs a 50% K grey the same as younger women (e.g. typical print buyer). You can test this yourself with a chart like this one:On the left is the reference 50%K. On the right are a variety of 3/C greys. Try and pick out which one is identical to the reference grey. In fact, if you were to print out the patches, cut them into squares, and asked co-workers to match the 3/C patch to the 50%K patch you'll most likely see the pattern of men/women, younger/older, choosing different 3/C patches that they see as perfectly matching the 50%K one.

enter image description here

Lack of instrument agreement

According to a report by Greg Radencic, PIA/GATF, on Spectrophotometer Device Agreement presented at a recent Splash technical color conference, out of seven spectrophotometers tested, four had a DeltaE error over 1.5 when measuring grey balance on 80lpb gloss coated paper. One instrument had a Delta E error of 1.75, another 3, another 4 and the last had a whopping Delta E error of 7 when measuring grey balance. The seven instruments were factory new and calibrated.

Bottom line: The measured match assessment of 3/C grey and 50% K is inconsistent/unreliable between different types of spectrophotometers. Even different instruments of the same model may disagree.

The metameric issues

One final issue is that a chromatic 3/C grey (50C, 39M, 39Y) and an achromatic 50% black form a metameric pair. What this means is that they may match color under one lighting condition, however, under a different lighting the 3/C grey will shift hue because it is spectrally different than the 50% black. To illustrate:

enter image description here

Bottom line: Metameric issues can arbitrarily and continuously cause 3/C grey patches to mismatch against the 50%K reference patch as viewing conditions change.

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    Thank you! Also from your link, which provides info into what was happening: Sometimes the Hulk came out looking pale and dull, like dishwater, at other times he was almost black. So this implies the variation was huge, not just not consistent! – user29318 Dec 15 '14 at 8:18
  • Welcome and great question! It was actually fun finding out more about color limitations (1960's) of my favorite comics. Makes me appreciate the talent of the colorists at the time given the limited palette. – tls Dec 15 '14 at 9:30
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    This is an interesting answer, but the problem is with the gray. There is no gray ink in printing. Only black. As such, the issue is more likely to do with having to use a line screen to mimic gray and that's hard to do on low quality paper and printing presses. – DA01 Dec 17 '14 at 4:55
  • That said, I think this does answer the 'why is he green' part very well. Just could use some more details on why printing gray is difficult. – DA01 Dec 17 '14 at 5:01
  • Thanks for the colorful clinic! Process on that paper and that dot/halftone pattern, the samples provided, perception, instruments&metrics, many things had an impact! Grey seems to clash with the process itself somehow. very informative(and fun)! Cheers! – user29318 Dec 17 '14 at 13:17
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Disclaimer: this is based on my assumptions of what the problem may have originally been--which in turn is based on common printing issues.

Comic books were never printed on what we'd call high quality presses or high quality paper (they are today, but not back then).

It was essentially newsprint.

This means you had to deal with a lot of printing inconsistencies:

  • large dot gain (the ink would spread after hitting the paper)
  • misregistration (each color may be offset slightly from the previous causing weird overlaps and gaps)
  • large line screens (I'll explain below)

To make gray, you can use black, but with a line screen. This isn't ideal on newsprint though as due to the large dot gain, the line screen has to be pretty coarse. So it becomes more of a noticeable pattern rather than a shade of gray. By shifting to a green, this allowed a bit more room for error. A black line screen can still be used for shadows and darker shades, but in addition there is also a blue and yellow line screen printed with it. Having these 3 colors allows for a bit more blending and consistency across the printing.

Bottom line, gray is a hard 'color' to work with when printing on low quality substrate. It's easier to use a color that requires multiple line screens to create.

Addendum:

Thanks to tls's answer, which provides this great link talking about the comic book printing process back in the day, we have a few more details on the limitations of gray.

Comic book color used to be done via hand separations. As opposed to modern technology, where we send a digital file to the printer which can have an infinite range of line screen sizes, hand separations requires a limited set, as otherwise it would be impossible to manage.

As the link mentions, to make hand separations viable, they had to limit the number of line screens that could be used. Based on the limited color pallette they could create with these limited line screens, it was decided that green was going to be the most versatile.

  • It would also be worth noting the article on comicartistsdirect.com/articles/coloring.html ...The technique was to use three pieces of acetate lined up on top of each other over the artwork page, each representing C, M or Y. Usually this acetate was rubylith, a product still used in screen printing today (to print on material and other substrates). Where the reddish film was cut away from the acetate ink would not print. Where the film was left ON the acetate, the camera negative would leave a blank spot, and ink would print...:) – tls Dec 17 '14 at 5:52
  • Thank you! Ok, so you mean halftone lines when you say screen? So I understand from this that gray is harder because it's more about a getting a pattern of dots right than about mixing colors per se. The process was not so much about precision maybe, more overall consistency within variations. I've also seen comics which have a very noisy/dark tone to start with, but this wouldn't detract much with the colors but with a gray that would. Also, "newsprint". All very interesting! Thank you! – user29318 Dec 17 '14 at 13:09
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Oh dear! Much of what you have been told above is far from correct! In particular: The pics claiming to be from inside Hulk no. 1 are from a modern reprint, completely recolored from the original. The people talking about printing grey with small black dots or lines are way off the mark when it comes to Hulk no.1, way back in the early 1960s. The colour grey in 60s comics was always (well, nearly always) printed with a combination of the colored dots, not black. The Hulk was colored Y2R2B2 as per the color chart which one of your more sensible repliers posted, above. I know because I was lucky enough to take some microscopic photos of the actual comic a while back. My first pic was taken at 20x magnification. Hulk's hair (upper part of picture) is R2B2 (25% red, 25% blue) and his skin has the 25% yellow added. Hulk skin and hair magnified

Next pics was taken at 400X magnification, from different pages. The yellow dots, in particular, varied in size quite a lot. (very variable dot gain in newsprint, as others have rightly pointed out) This made the grey a bit different fropm page to page. Hulk skin large 01

However, one of your repliers above is, I think, quite right: Hulk's grey skin color was not VERY inconsistent in the comic, but he didn't show up well against rocks, metal, at night etc. There was one panel where the colorist made him green. This was not an mistake but a bit of artistic licence. Hulk looked so much better in green! The colorist had apparently already asked Stan Lee if he could be green. Stan was persuaded I think more by the fact that the Hulk would show up better, be brighter... and look a bit less like a walking corpse, perhaps! He was after all a bit of a Frankenstein's monster, but not supposed to be all that scary!

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    Welcome to the GDSE asset! Thank you, that is fascinating material! I do not have any expertise, so I can't validate the answers. Imho, if you don't mind me saying, there is no need to qualify the other answers, you can easily link to them (click share underneath any one of them) and make a different point; you may also comment (at 50pts rep+) and down vote if necessary. Thank you for your contribution! – user29318 Sep 1 '15 at 21:14
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Interesting - I hadn't heard of this before. I do know that comic books have tended to be printed on cheap "newsprint"-like paper and that may have an impact on ink coverages and how colors display. Red perhaps might look a bit muddy - perhaps almost brown-like - on such cheap paper. But then there's Superman which shows that reds are possible in comic books...

  • Thank you, but you haven't discussed grey :) I found reds in comics to be earthy/brownish indeed sometimes. – user29318 Dec 14 '14 at 20:16
  • As the newsprint is an uncoated it would have a larger dot grain, where the dots of ink bleed into the surface more readily, making the dots larger and the print darker overall. Modern print profiles adjust for this, but I'd wager that printing technology at the time wasn't as sophisticated. Additionally most modern comics don't print on newsprint any more, so the dot gain would be different again. – Dre Dec 14 '14 at 20:45

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