An Open Letter Concerning Marvel Comics New Computer Coloring Policy

See Marvels Response

At the risk of sounding entirely negative, or jumping into yet another Marvel bashing frenzy, I have placed this open letter expressing my concerns over recent actions taken by Marvel Comics. I do this in the hopes of starting a meaningful and intellectual discourse on a complex, and potentially volatile issue.

On December 20th, I was informed that my services as a Freelance colorist would no longer be needed by Marvel Entertainment Group. This news was neither unanticipated nor unexpected. To my knowledge, this will not affect my position as a Prepress and Production Consultant for Marvel's production department.

In the latter position I have long supported and encouraged the overall transition from color guides to computer colorists. Much of my work as a consultant has been to further this eventual goal. It was part of the reason for writing and publishing Digital Prepress for Comic Books.

Unfortunately, I find that Marvel's implementation of this plan to be shortsighted, and in the long term, quite costly.

There are several major concerns in the implementation of the plan, as well as Marvel's interaction with its freelancers.

My major concern is the unwarranted precedent of asking creative freelancers to bid on work, and setting a maximum bid considerably lower than the previously established rates. In some cases more than fifty percent lower. This precedent SHOULD have a chilling effect on the entire freelance community.

The rational for this rate cut is both groundless and filled with corporate double-speak and misinformation. The claim that the exact same thing happened when digital lettering took hold is patently untrue. Although most hand letterers ultimately ended up unemployed, the companies that ended up dominating the market did not suffer rate cuts. As a matter of fact, their revenue increased as they were supplying additional production jobs. Furthermore, Marvel did not remove the editorial selection of freelancers, and divvy up the entire line of books as a matter of corporate policy.

The suggestion that colorists pool their talents and form separation companies in order to increase the amount of work they produce is nonsensical. An AVERAGE colorist can only separate one page a day (there are those who can produce more). Pooling your efforts with others will not increase an individuals productivity. And hiring and training assistants is both costly and time consuming. Most freelancers have no desire to run a company, preferring instead to produce art.

Some colorists have been told that the penciling and inking rates are consuming the books budget, and any more money spent would eliminate the books profitability. First of all, the computer colorists are not asking for any MORE money than is ALREADY being spent to color and separate books. Secondly, any books whose net profits are in risk by paying their freelancer's established rates shouldn’t be published in the first place. Thirdly, pencilers and inkers should take this as a warning that the company feels that they are being pay too much as well.

Ultimately, Marvel's rational is that in the current market conditions, costs must be cut in order to maintain publishing profitably. I concur.

However, Marvel has already begun utilizing several technological and printing advances to cut costs. Not only is computer coloring in and of itself cost effective, it enhances the cost cutting measures now in place throughout the production and manufacturing of a comic book.

At this point, I need to turn my attentions to the potential production problems that will invariable ensue from the current policy of lowest bidding vendors.

One cost cutting measure that Marvel has just recently begun to utilize is direct to plate printing technology. This process streamlines the production process, and eliminates many costs, including film output, blues, color proofs, and the cost of shipping the material back and forth. Not to mention the time savings involved. Computer coloring is a crucial element in this process.

What some people have not been made to understand, is that this process can be unsympathetic to corrections. Books printed in this fashion are saved as a SINGLE PDF file. That means even a minor correction on a single page becomes costly and time consuming, because it affects an ENTIRE book. Something as minor as in incorrect preference setting can cost over ten thousand dollars to correct (for a four color book).

Established, long term separators have all ready made such mistakes. Human error is inevitable. Add into the mix a handful of new separation houses, unfamiliar with the technique. Separation houses with a notoriously high employee turn over and training rate, faced with the inevitable rush deadlines. Those mistakes are going to start to add up.

Given a relatively conservative estimate of only two such mistakes a month, and Marvel is looking at well over TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS a year. Certainly individual computer colorists can make the same mistakes. But it has been my professional experience that one pair of hands on a job produces fewer mistakes than two dozen.

To sum up: The long term cost due to outputting and production errors will far outweigh the short term savings that will result from this rate cut. And if Marvel is not careful, it could be painting itself into a corner. If it completely alienates the coloring freelancers, where will it turn if the current crop of separation houses are not up to the task before them?

Finally, where will this rate cutting bid precedent ultimately lead Marvel? As unlikely as it may sound now, it would not be unreasonable to extrapolate a trend for art studios to bid on producing all artwork for entire books. Nor, the extreme possibility of Marvel ultimately licensing out books to other companies entirely. We have seen similar forays into that arena by Marvel in recent history. Are we looking at a new era of Reborn Heroes? Now there’s an image for you.

Kevin Tinsley
Stickman Graphics

See Marvels Response

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