Colouring the Akira Comics

Steve Oliff and Olyoptics Colour Katsuhiro Otomo's Black and White Artwork for the Western Release of Akira

Olyoptics Timeline - 1987 - Just Before Akira

Mike Saentz has always been an Apple computer user. He had been part of a creative team from Chicago that released a program called ComicWorks. That evolved into VideoWorks, which became Director, now owned by Macromedia. He never was quite comfortable with the IBM PC world. I visited him in his New York Studio while he was still in the early stages of the Iron Man graphic novel “Crash”. He was not having fun with the crossover problems with Pixelcraft's IBM-based program.

He had a buddy who was developing a software package to work on the Mac that would output color separations. Right in the middle of the Crash project, he cut Pixelcraft loose, and took his project to his Mac-based pal.

Left out in the cold, Pixelcraft had a software product, but no way to showcase it. They needed a project.

About this time, I was given 4 pages to color as a test for a big series. Something called Akira from Japan, written and drawn by Katsuhiro Otomo. Comics in Japan are black and white, but for the English translation they wanted it to be in color. I'd never heard of Akira, but I decided to pull out all the stops on my color test. It was great art and good paper, so I used every trick I had. Airbrush, colored pantone film, colored pencil, rich saturated felt pens, paint, everything I could think of. I don't know what the other colorists' samples looked like, but I know they couldn't have looked anything like mine. Needless to say, I got the job. They flew me to New York to meet the artist and his editor. On the flight east I looked at the pictures in the two collected volumes of Akira that my friend Ken Macklin had loaned me. Parts of it had been translated by a friend of Ken's, but not much. I met with Archie Goodwin, Otomo (the artist/writer) and Yuri-san (Otomo's editor), and we talked about color styles, then we went to get sushi and drink beer.

At first Marvel got hand separations done from my guides. The separations weren't very exciting, in fact rather bad, so I suggested that they let me try to color it on the computer. They said they didn't care how I did it as long as it looked good and was within their price range. Kenny Giordano of Pixelcraft and I worked out a deal with Gene Durante from Marvel's manufacturing Department, and the Olyoptic computer division was in business.

Two days after Christmas 1987, Federal Express delivered two boxes to my office in downtown Point Arena. It was an IBM 286 12mhz box, loaded with an AT&T Targa graphics board, DOS, their “Kaliedoscope” software, and a monitor. It also had a handmade heat diffuser to cool off the math co-processor.

The machine Taped to the case was a one page sheet of instructions about how to run the system. It was very simple. I set it up and loaded in some of the disks of Akira art, then spent the next three months coloring Akira #1. The system chugged like an old farm truck. The software was buggy and the machine was erratic. It really needed that heat diffuser, because when it overheated (every day, some days many times a day), it froze, and I'd lose everything up to the last save. It got so bad that I'd save the page after every polygon (each traced off and enclosed area of color). I colored all but 3 or 4 pages, which Abel Mouton helped me with. Eventually.

In the early days, Kenny scanned the pages, then shipped me the disks. I colored them on the system, and sent the disks back to him. From there he made proofs and output the film. I didn't see a single proof until the issue came out in print for the first 10 issues. With issue #11 I got a printer and a scanner, so I could actually check things. All the issues before were kind of seat-of-your-pants, hope for the best.

Olyoptics Timeline - 1988 - Computer Color Arrives

Iron Man Crash by Mike Saenz Mike Saentz actually beat us to get the Iron Man graphic Novel “Crash” out a week before Akira #1 in Spring 1988. “Crash” turned out to be a muddy, strange, stilted-looking book that is a milestone experiment, but does not hold up well over time. Akira, even though simple, still looks good. I consider Akira #1 to be the first time that a color guide artist was his own separator in comics (Richard Corben notwithstanding). I was able to make the color more a part of the art, and I had the ability to use gradations anywhere at all. I also had the ability to create colors that no one else would have.

About this same time, over at DC, Declan Malone, the Irish entrepreneur, and production manager Bob Rozakis were working on modifying TimeArts Lumena software to coloring comics. The only difference was that they weren't trying to push any limits. They just wanted it to eliminate the need for hand separations. They didn't want it to look different.

Mavel/Epic - Akira #1 by Katsuhiro Otomo I wanted to be different. I wanted Akira to look like nothing else. I tried to do something new every issue. I was rewarded for my efforts when I won the Harvey Award for best color in 1989 for Akira.

The computer age was on. There was no turning back.

For the next couple of years, Akira, an Epic comic, was the only regular computer colored book. For DC, the first computer coloring project I did was the comic adaptation of the first Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. At some point we began computer coloring Alien Legion for Epic. Generally speaking, though, Marvel wasn't interested in computer color because it did cost more than the old-style separations. In fact, we had to adjust the price up 3 times over the first two years of Akira to make ends meet. I again have Gene to thank for that. He was always on our side.

The one book that I really wanted to color with computers was a book drawn by a hotshot young turk artist who was an Akira fan. It was Todd McFarlane's Spiderman series. That series sold millions, but Marvel didn't want to spend a few thousand more on the color separations. The color was never very good on that series.

A few years later, I got the chance to work with Todd.

Writen by Steve Oliff at
It remains his copyrighted proporty.