Superhero Color Theory: The Outliers
What does your favourite superheroes' colors tell the audience about their personalities? Using the same color theory people use to group-think a corporate logo, or paint their room, we've been exploring what it means to superhero comics. Catch up here, here, and here.
Last time we mentioned that The Invisible Woman's blue and white is wise, and elemental, but what does invisible mean as a color? The Wasp's one constant through her many costume changes has been her transparent, flighty wings. And while Kitty Pryde, who also can't seem to settle on a costumes (or a name), isn't transparent as a color, she does actually pass through things.
On first reading, this may seem to echo how marginalized these female characters could be in their teams. They were basically invisible. How often did Reed leave Sue at home? And it seems to accident that Wasp stopped changing costumes around when she became the leader of the Avengers.
But what's interesting about a character you can physically see through is that they become a character the audience can see through. These heroines' abilities often mean that they were presented as unaffected but ineffective in fights. They were more likely to bear witness to events than to act as participants, perhaps making them useful audience surrogates, who are better suited to not having a distinct appearance.
While we're talking about women, toy aisles tell us we should talk about pink. But thankfully, pink is not a color used very often to indicate “girl” in comics. Certainly not at their outset, when Cinderella in 1950 was wearing viriginal blue, though by 1959 Sleeping Beauty was royally revealed in pink. Notice early Golden age heroes like Black Canary, Wonder Woman, Red Tornado, Hawkgirl, Phantom Lady, and American Belle do not wear pink clothing. It's more recently that we see Saturn Girl, Jubilee, and Molly Hayes, where pink signifies the bubblegum Barbie dream house of childhood.
But pink shows up in another way. With superhero comics made primarily by and for a Caucasian audiience for many decades, the pink we see is that of bare skin. Often it signifies that a hero is less civilized, and belongs to the pulpy world of Conan, Tarzan, or John Carter. We see it in Juggernaut (whose grounded brown ties him to the earth), DC and Marvel's Hercules, and Thor's bare arms, which remind us that Asgardians are part sword and sorcery, not just spandex.
It is also the pink arms and shoulders/chest of Hawkman/Hawkwoman that is their most important color. Their costumes are a mess of red boots with yellow stripes, grey wings, orange helmets, green pants, red underpants, yellow chest coverings, and probably blue diamonds and purple horseshoes. Instead, the biggest clue to what they mean in comics is the bare pink skin and their barbaric melee weapons. And think of how Namor's pink chest signifies he is more brutal and savage than the orange-shirted Aquaman. Pink can also remind us of other aspects of the flesh, like the Blob's unbounded obesity, or the sensuality of the bare-armed-and-shouldered sorceress Enchantress.
We could keep going with examples of less common combinations, but by now we hope you get the point. Gambit is partly purple because he's a hands-off fighter, preferring to throw weapons and keep people at bay with a long staff. Magneto combines purple pomposity and red anger. Doctor Doom is like the super genius villains who wear purple and green, but the mechanical grey stands in for the scientific purple, giving him a bit more moral ambiguity to boot. He is a beloved hero in Latveria, after all.
We hope this series of articles opens the door for more discussion of costume choices for comics criticism. When Wolverine changed costumes, did the brown reflect a more grounded character (taking Kitty under his wing, and rediscovering his Japanese connections), and did the orange reflect a greater sense of humor (albeit dark and snide)? Does Storm's bare skin relate a racism that ties her powers to barbarism, or reveal a sexualization of female characters, or were sleeveless costumes just the trend with new X-Men like Colossus, Wolverine and Thunderbird? Does the presence or absence of orange in the Joker's costume help tell us whether he's the Clown Prince of Crime or the twisted sicko of The Killing Joke?
We also wonder where you can take superhero color theory outside of comics. Primary colors aren't just for our best superheroes, but also Autobots like Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ratchet, and Mirage. The Decepticons feature darker colors, more greys, and purples. Think of the Constructicons whose green and purple make them a growing technological terror, or how the Insecticons were purple and black with yellow accents. Starscream was red white and blue, which subverts the color scheme order, but subverting order was what he was all about.
If you look to the other Japanese worlds like Voltron and Power Rangers the theory doesn't hold true. Characters are usually single colors with a neutral white and black. They don't display the more complex personality of the two- or three-colored heroes, because they physically join with their team members to become one entity. They transform into a multi-colored unit of a robot, which is an extension of their bodies and souls, like a sword was to a samurai. It suggests that no one person is complete if they are not part of a community. Japanese pop culture has its own tropes, with red often signalling leader, blue the cool rebel, green and yellow comic relief, pink (and sometimes yellow) femininity, with black and white as mysterious outsider. Orange and purple rangers aren't usually a thing.
The comic-born, but cartoon-colored Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles wear masks to relate their personalities perfectly to superhero color theory. There's Leonardo's blue wisdom, Michaelangelo's orange humour, Raphael's red anger, and Donatello's purple science, all combined with green nature (they're animals) and mysticism, grounded by the brown Splinter.
Once you take into consideration that the good guys will be army green, GI Joe has some examples of superhero color theory. Snake-Eyes is the dark mysterious power of black, pairing with white Stormshadow to be the most morally fluid of the Joe and Cobras. Scarlet is a fiery redhead, with yellow energy. Baroness' black with red insignia look is a correlation to pre-defection Black Widow. Serpentor is the orange and green of new potential and nature. Roadblocks' bare arms suggest he will drop his heavy machine guns and crack skulls with his hands instead. Destro's bare chested pinkness reminds us of the human under the mechanically-minded metal-masked man. Cobra's main colors are red and blue, which should be heroic, but perhaps in this world, they are order gone wrong? They are the superman vigilantes out of check.
There are other problems with applying superhero color theory to GI Joe, like how Duke's dull yellow shirt and hair don't really shout out energy, joy or safety. And Shipwreck's blue is more about his naval affiliation than a deep wisdom. Looking to other toys, we also chose not to use Masters of the Universe, though there are a few true examples, because there are also many color choices that refute our theory. The thing about being born out of a toy line and animated cartoon is that the design didn't need to be as simple as the art was for superheroes on 1940s pulp paper. GI Joe could get away with more muted, neutral tones because the characters were not being printed on terrible paper. He-Man's world of monster men could rely on characters' expressions on a 20” TV instead of a 2” panel.
Because superheroes are rooted in a necessarily simpler history, they have mostly retained their iconic costumes on paper. Although a “gritty, darker, more adult” world has been the norm since the '90s, that basically means there's more black on costumes. Some comics, like Gotham Academy take advantage of the new technology to color scenes with such beautiful saturated atmospheric color that character's iconic colors are mutable and they aren't as hard-linked to the character. Otherwise they still have striking colors that imply something about their wearer's personality.
Superhero color theory is born of a medium's limitations, but has come to resonate strongly even when such limitations are no longer there, sometimes beyond the page of the comic.
Brian McLachlan is a cartoonist whose works appeared in the New Yorker,Nickelodeon Magazine, Dragon, Owl, and more. Read more of his thoughts on his pop culture essay site Deep Thought Balloon. Aaron Hanson is his Merlin.