Written by Bryan Stroud
Anthony Tollin (born February 20, 1952) is a comic book colorist best known for his work on Green Lantern, The Shadow, and Infinity Inc. Tollin started working for DC Comics in the early 70s as an assistant to Tatjana Wood in the coloring department. In the early 80s, he became the main colorist for DC, coloring almost all of the covers for the company at the time. Tollin worked for DC until the early 90s, when he started branching out to work for other publishers. He currently publishes the pulp adventures of The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, and The Whisperer, under his Sanctum Books imprint.
The creation of comics fascinates me, from the script to the art to the production process, and when I got to speak to Stan Goldberg about how things were done at Marvel, it stood to reason that I needed to find out how it was at my favorite publisher, DC. So I managed to track down the wonderful Anthony "Tony" Tollin to get his take on coloring and production and some of the wonderful folks he interacted with. It was time well spent and he was among those I got to finally meet face to face and shake hands with at the 2015 San Diego Con.
This interview originally took place over the phone on December 28, 2008.
Bryan Stroud: I’m still learning about how the production department worked, so would you please share your experiences?
Anthony Tollin: The production department, under Jack Adler…and this was encouraged by Jenette Kahn, by the way, there was an emphasis on creativity and finding new and better ways to do things. Jack had developed the 3-D system that was later used by View-Master. He was into photography and he invented the step-down meter, and Jack developed the whole color separation method that comic books and newspaper strips were separated by from the 1930’s on. Before that it took a good separator a week to do a Sunday page. Jack’s method cut it down considerably with much better results. If you look at a Prince Valiant page that he did, it was just superb.
I went to work for Jack at DC and learned to really appreciate color. At that time there was no comparison between the quality and level of production at DC when compared to Marvel, where it was all but non-existent.
Stroud: Yeah, Mike Esposito was explaining to me how they had to make the ink lines so thick just to keep the colors from running at Marvel.
Tollin: There was a sense of pride in the DC production department. The fact that we were doing the best production work of any comic book company, and there was an attitude that DC’s books had always had the best production. And when you look at the talent we had in the production department; before me there was Carl Gafford, you had Joe Letterese who had lettered the “BAMS!” and “POWS!” for the Batman T.V. series, you had Todd Klein and John Workman, who became art director of Heavy Metal, and Steve Mitchell who was an inker, and Bob LeRose, who had done work for Johnston and Cushing. He did work on the magazines like Boy’s Life and advertising strips for Sunday newspapers and such. Bob was one of the early boosters of Neal Adams’ career. You know Bob Rozakis, of course.
Tollin: Not to mention the earlier years with people like Ira Schnapp and Ray Perry. But you look at the kind of covers when Jack had done the separations, and the cover department ended up being largely shut down because there had been one member (who shall remain nameless) in the 1960’s DC color staff who was an alcoholic at the time.
You had Jerry Serpe and Jack Adler who were covering things. They made the color separation department less cost effective, but if you look at the kind of separations… if you look at some of the things Jack did, like that famous Green Lantern #8 cover with the Gila Monster, and you look at his coloring on the first Mike Kaluta Shadow cover, this was someone from a plotting standpoint who really understood what tones would work with washes, to come with a painted look.
You look at some of the work Jack did coloring the Neal Adams stories or some Alex Toth stories. Jack was always one of the biggest boosters of young talent in the company, including Paul Levitz and Howard Chaykin and especially Walt Simonson, who he kind of saw as a modern day Toth in that he was pushing the boundaries the way Alex had.
So, you had this push to be as good as you could and to be as creative as you could. One of the great things about Jack is that he didn’t want us to color just like him. He wanted us to tell the story, and Jack had very strict ideas on story-telling and he’d trust me to notice anything colored wrong in a costume or little continuity things, but Jack would frequently look at color guides upside down, just to see where his eye went when you weren’t distracted by the art. With Jack Adler style coloring, which unfortunately when a new color editor came into DC in the 90’s, who I really don’t think understood story-telling with color, got rid of a lot of Jack’s people, including Adrienne Roy (my former wife) and myself.
Stroud: Oh, no.
Tollin: He told Adrienne she didn’t know how to color Batman, and she’d been coloring all the Batman comics for the previous 16 years. Now I’d seen a lot of Marvel comics where color was just thrown around indiscriminately, and I see that happening in modern comics a lot. In a DC comic book supervised by Jack Adler…in real life you’ll see a lot of bright red chairs in living rooms and such. Comfy chairs and such with bright colors. The problem is, in a comic book, if it’s the brightest thing in the page or the panel, your eye is directed to it. In a Jack Adler story, if there was a bright red chair, and it was the brightest thing on the page, there had better be ten million dollars hidden in it. It had better be somehow important to the story, because a lot of our job as colorists was to direct the attention of the reader to what was important and kill what was unimportant.
I see a lot of bad comics where color was used as whatever was on the brush, or they simply don’t understand that concept. It’s very much like how a master like Orson Welles would light a film. There was a scene that was done, I believe it was an optical job, where there were three separate filmings put together just to get the lighting the way Welles wanted it where when Susan Alexander King attempts suicide, and Orson Welles (as Charles Foster King) breaks into her bedroom, and it’s lit so that you see her action on the bed and you see the bottle of pills. Your eye goes to the important elements, because it’s lit that way. And that was our job as colorists; to try and unify the art, to try to make the story flow, but more than anything to tell the story. To focus the attention on what was important, because if color is thrown around indiscriminately, your eye is being distracted all over the place.
Stroud: Thereby missing what’s vital.
Tollin: One of the problems I see with modern comics is you now have all this tonality and all this quality of reproduction that you didn’t have before. You have better papers and better reproduction, but just because you can do tons of detailing and shading doesn’t mean you should on everything. I sometimes point out on Alex Toth or Russ Manning’s art on Magnus, Robot-Fighter, and Manning was a master of having a character with a detailed costume against a bare background, or a very bare, open costume against a detailed background. If you render everything with the same amount of detail, and you don’t simplify some of it, you just get a muddy mess to look at.
Tollin: You see a lot of comics from the last 10 years where I’ve actually heard people complain that it’s tiring to read a comic book, because there’s just so much unimportant detail that just kind of clutters up your brain when you absorb it.
Stroud: Right. Too busy.
Tollin: Now some of the coloring I’m proud of, like on “The Shadow Strikes” with Eduardo Baretto. That was a Baxter book and I later incorporated some of the same techniques into other Baxter books, but one of the problems with Baxter paper, especially with the offset printing, is that because it wasn’t as porous and as absorbent as the newsprint, the ink tended to lay on top of the paper instead of being absorbed into it.
There was a huge problem with Baxter books having a Day-Glo effect. The color would just be so bright. On “The Shadow Strikes,” I traded in the solid values. On the Baxter books…for years we only had 25, 50 and 100 percent, but on the Baxter’s we also had 70 percent. But I traded in the solid yellow, the 100 percent yellow, the 100 percent red and the 100 percent blue for a 10 percent and a 20 percent Key-tone, a gray tone. “Key” means actually not black, it is a black plate, but it means key, the key plate. The plate the art is on.
Tollin: So, I traded it in for gray tones. The black plate. And then I had nothing heavier than a 70 or 75 percent tone. It actually came out at something like an 80 percent tone or so, but it didn’t have that Day-Glo effect. I was trying to go for a muted Rotogravure effect, like a 1930’s Rotogravure printing section. A Rotogravure magazine. And I think it really worked on The Shadow, because I think you had to have more of a muted color scheme on The Shadow, and that’s the kind of coloring I would never have been able to do without my training by Jack Adler. Jack had trained me and I understood how the dot patterns worked and such. I’ll give you another example of Jack’s expertise and he fought this and he lost the battle. Let me ask you a question. What causes the level of darkness on a color on a printed page? Let’s say you have a purple or a navy or a turquoise green or an olive green or something. What causes the level of darkness?
Stroud: I can’t answer you, Anthony. I don’t know.
Tollin: Most people would say the dot patterns and how large the dots are. That’s kind of the inverse answer. What actually does it is how much of the white of the paper shows through. That lightens it. Now here is the example, and this was explained to me by Jack: In the late 60’s Chemical Coloring in Bridgeport, who did all the DC separations at that time, although Murphy Anderson and some other people took it over later, got new cameras and Jack fought very strongly against it, but they started doing all their separation work on these new cameras, and that’s at the same time the original art size went down from 14x22 to 10x15.
Up until that point, the red plate and the blue plate had been printed with the dot patterns diagonal to each other. Let me explain. Spread your fingers and put your two hands with the fingers overlying each other, perpendicular to each other; one horizontal and one vertical, and no matter how you move your fingers around, you have about the same amount of background showing through, but once the cameras were on the same angle…put your fingers vertically, and the fingers could line up right together with all the background and imagine all that white showing, or they could line up so that almost all the background is obscured when the fingers going between each other.
Stroud: Right. Got it.
Tollin: That was what were fighting in the 70’s and 80’s comics as colorists, because it was luck of the draw on every page and every panel. If you had a 50 percent blue and a 50 percent red, whether the dots would print on top of each other, or slightly off each other, or you might get a 50 percent blue and a 50 percent red overlaid completely off each other. Where they alternated it would almost obscure the background and you’d end up with a very dark value. That was one of the things we were fighting. Not only terrible paper.
And Jack and those of us he explained it to were just about the only people in the business who understood it. But it was Jack’s background in photography and engraving…I mean that was the great thing about working for DC, because you had Sol Harrison who did color separations on Action Comics #1 and put the staples in Famous Funnies #1, or Funnies on Parade, the first comic book ever and did the interior coloring, and Jack Adler who had done Prince Valiant. By the way, just as a little bit of a sideline on Sol Harrison, who I consider myself very lucky to have worked for. Jack always called him “The Buddha,” because Sol never got excited.
Tollin: Here was a man who had been a comic book inker and a comic book letterer, and an engraver, and a color separator and who also had a Master’s in Business Administration, was President of DC comics most of the time I was on staff. I started when Carmine [Infantino] was President. In the case of Sol, if we had a crisis…if we had a major emergency in production, I remember Sol coming in and he would say, “What’s the problem and how do we fix it?” Then Sol would take off his suit jacket, roll up the sleeves on his dress shirt and say, “What can I do to pitch in and fix it?” This was the President of the company, who was still an artist at heart; still a craftsman and instead of yelling for someone else to fix it, would pitch in to help.
Stroud: True leadership.
Tollin: Yeah. And he knew how to letter and he knew how to ink, and he knew how to color. The last things he colored for years…he was doing the ads and the tabloid covers for the big tabloid size books until…he was as impressed with Adrienne’s coloring as Jack and Adrienne started coloring the tabloid covers under his supervision. Jack wanted all the colorists to bring their own artistic sense into it. He wanted us to work within the structure of telling a story. But he didn’t want Anthony Tollin’s coloring and Tatjana Wood’s coloring and Adrienne Roy’s coloring to look like Jack Adler’s. He wanted to be able to have creative, talented colorists who each had their own style and you could tell by looking at it whose coloring it was by the coloring effects and that we weren’t all carbon copies.
Adrienne, who was my wife at that time and was assisting me when we had a colorist skip town to escape creditors. We were in a deadline bind and Jack asked me if we could try out Adrienne. He tried her out first and it was on a 34-page Batman and Sergeant Rock book that Ric Estrada had drawn. Then she did a Brave and the Bold Annual and then she did something else and then a Doorway to Nightmares story. Generally, mystery was the last thing Jack would give to a colorist. He wanted his most experienced people on a mystery book. Tatjana Wood, for example. By the time Adrienne brought that in, Jack called me into his office and closed the door and said, “Adrienne’s going to be the best colorist at DC. Maybe in the business. She’s going to be better than anyone else, including you.” I was the cover colorist, though, because I understood the separation technology better, and I learned a lot from Adrienne, too. Adrienne hopefully learned a lot of craftsmanship from me and I learned a lot about art from her. Adrienne was just suddenly in within a month or two of her starting coloring. Julie Schwartz and all the writers and artists…as color coordinator, my biggest problem was telling everyone, “You can’t have Adrienne on every book.”
Tollin: Which, by the way, Paul Levitz did as an editor. “No, you can’t have Adrienne coloring George Perez on both Teen Titans and Justice League.” As a colorist, you got paid the same for each page whether it was George Perez or Ric Estrada, and you really didn’t want to do two team books illustrated by Perez.
Stroud: Oh, no. That would be brutal.
Tollin: I got killed on Crisis on Infinite Earths. I colored 8 issues of it, and that paid the same per page as any other book. George Perez was getting royalties. Luckily, I remembered costumes pretty well and I had a huge comic collection including a complete Julie Schwartz super hero collection in my attic, but I didn’t get color notes on the characters. Most of the work Adrienne and I did as a team, especially after I left staff as colorist, generally almost any book she had the byline on, I would do at least a third of the coloring. And anything I did, with my byline, she would do at least a third. Not covers generally, but I would take the last half of the book and she would take the first and then we’d trade off. So that way, we wouldn’t get tired.
You’d get kind of worn out with the ashtrays and the wastebaskets and other little things that needed to be colored. You could switch pages and it would be fresh for the other person and then that person wouldn’t be burned out on that half of the story. I did about five covers a week and together we did probably 100 pages. Once again that’s a real example where Carl Gafford’s coloring didn’t look like Tatjana Wood’s, didn’t look like mine, didn’t look like Bob LeRosa’s, didn’t look like Adrienne Roy’s.
Stroud: It sounds like Jack was a natural teacher.
Tollin: And he had the attitude, and I really liked this, and Dick Giordano was great this way, too; where, say, I’d bring a Batman cover that I’d colored into him, or a cover that Dick had drawn, and Dick would look at it and say, “Hey, this is totally different than how I expected this to look colored. I was thinking of something totally different, but what you did is just as good as what I was thinking of and maybe better. It’s just not what I was expecting.” And Dick Giordano had that talent to be able to evaluate something for how well done it was, not whether it was what he would have done himself, and that’s a great talent.
Stroud: That’s outstanding.
Tollin: That’s one of the reasons Dick was so popular with creative people is that he didn’t try to make you into something else. He respected you as an artist, or as a craftsman or as a writer.
Stroud: He didn’t try to make clones.
Tollin: I am so glad I was at DC at that time and also back then production was valued and we had actual windows in the production department. We could see the sky. It was open and we had desks behind each other. There was my desk and Joe Letterese was behind me, Morris Waldinger behind him until Morris departed, and Todd Klein. On the other side of the room you had Adrienne and John Workman and Steve Mitchell and Bob LeRose and now it’s cubicles with dividers between everyone. Back at the time we were working, but we were talking to each other while we worked. It was open air and you had the sky and the New York skyline outside your windows. Production was valued enough to give you windows in the production department.
The wonderful thing about working for Jack is that in the five and a half years that I was his assistant, he probably told me to do something five times. He trusted me to know what needed to be done. Every day was different, too. The afternoons would be largely spent going over printer’s proofs and quality control issues, but in the mornings, I’d look around and see what needed to go out that day and if there was a backup in art directions I’d grab a book and do some art directions. If there was a backup in the darkroom, I’d go into the extra darkroom and shoot some stats so that those would get done. If an ad, say a Twinkie ad needed to be colored or an ad for a new book, I’d color it. So, it was just a matter of looking around and seeing what needed to go out that day and doing it.
Stroud: It’s quite obvious he trained you very well and apparently, he knew how to do empowerment before it became a buzz word.
Tollin: Jack assembled a really top-notch team and then trusted us to do good work. He didn’t babysit us.
Stroud: A good leader recognizes talent and gets out of the way.
Tollin: At DC we were proud of the production, we were proud…in Alter Ego I told the story after the Jack Adler thing in a letter I wrote, where as great as Jack thought the Ross Andru and Dick Giordano art was on the Superman/Spider-Man tabloid, that there were these panoramic views, and he felt it would be plused by having a 1/16” halo around some of the major figures. It would just give a perspective and set it off from the background. And Jack and I went in with brushes and painted white opaque, just very finely around some of the figures just to break them and if you look, you will see it works. This was Jack, who had this lifetime in the business.
That’s why I started at Warren and I worked briefly at Marvel, but I wasn’t happy at Marvel. At that time there were all these young people at Marvel and there was nobody I felt who could really teach me. You also had a lot more turf wars at Marvel, I think, because you had a whole lot of ambitious young people at the same time. Whereas at DC, there were people like Jack and Sol and Julie Schwartz, who could really teach.
Stroud: The grown-ups were still in charge.
Tollin: Yeah. When you’re 21 or 22 and had just gotten into the business, I wanted to learn from the best. I count myself so lucky to have worked at DC when I did as opposed to now. I didn’t say goodbye to comics. Comics said goodbye to me. Everything was fine when I was 25 and the editor was 60, but when I was 40 and the editor was 25, there was a lot of cronyism with their friends and such.
Stroud: A different ballgame altogether.
Tollin: With the older editors, if you did good work and were a solid professional and you turned in the work and did quality work, there was sort of an unwritten contract at DC that you had a job for life. You may not be paid that well, but you were there pretty much as long as you wanted to be. It was an interesting time, too, because after years of no new talent in the business, other than the occasional Nelson Bridwell coming in the mid-60’s and such as that, but suddenly you had the period in the early 70’s where suddenly you had Bernie Wrightson and Mike Kaluta and Denny O’Neil who’d come in from newspapering and Charlton and the people inspired by Neal Adams.
Neal had just come to DC in the late 60’s after years in newspaper strips and advertising. Some people compared it to the prime in literary circles. There was, in the days before FedEx, this talent pool in New York of young, creative people who were socializing together and inspiring each other. You’d had that in the early 40’s when Jerry Robinson was starting in the business. You had the Robinson’s and the Meskin’s and the Joe Shuster’s and the Jack Kirby’s. It was a young group and suddenly you’d gone a couple of decades without new talent. You got a little bit of new talent during the EC era, but suddenly it was 30 or 35 years after Action #1 and there really hadn’t been a lot of new people in the business since the 40’s. So suddenly all these new people had gravitated to New York and generally we were young and living in Manhattan or close by and we would socialize at parties and the Wrightson/Kaluta/Jeff Jones/Barry Smith studio or Neal Adams’ Continuity Studio. It was a great time to be in the business.
Stroud: Yeah, just a groundswell of change there with all the new blood.
Tollin: We had the Woodchuck’s at DC and we were all being groomed to take over, and Jack was one of those who was really recruiting the best people he could and strongly promoting people like Wrightston and Chaykin and Walt Simonson. These are the people he saw as the future of the business. Regrettably, a number of people who had been so generous with the young people, like Jack, ended up being not treated terribly well by the next generation of comics people.
Stroud: That’s a tragedy.