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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Iconic Color

Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm now down to the last dregs of my pre-written material, so I'm going to have to actually [deep, soul-wracking sigh of despair] write some more articles. This may explain why this article is, perhaps, a bit shorter on text and longer on images. Or, it would explain it if I hadn't sat and composed all the images myself. Oops. There goes another two hours of my life.

Anyway, to stagger vaguely towards a point before I pass out from a wine-and-graphic-design-induced stupor, let me start out by confessing my great tragic secret. I am a fan of "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic." I think it's a marvelous show, and one of the best pieces of Western animation to come out of the last decade or so. I am what is known on the great Junk Culture Engine that the kids call "The Internetwork" as a [ahem] "Brony."

So it was that I was looking at My Little Pony fan art and--

No, no, shut up, keep reading you cackling jackanape, the article isn't just about My Little Pony!

--came across this image:

This is not Mondrian as interpreted by someone that knows more than three colors (Zing!). No, this is a color swatch rendition of the main characters of the show:

...And also the character Derpy Hooves. Don't ask.

What's interesting about this is that despite being a bit of a novice when it comes to the pony fandom, I recognized each of the characters (yes, even poor Derpy) immediately. What's going on there?

Well, one of the major features of the characters of MLP:FIM is that they're extremely iconic. They have simplified designs that make it particularly easy to pick out which is which. This stylization extends to the color scheme, to the point where the characters are almost synonymous with their colors. It is this quality--along with certain things like body language, which I'll devote a whole other article to at some point--that allows the characters to easily transition from their depictions in the show to all sorts of fan art depictions:

Now, when I saw this, it reminded me, in particular, of a section in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics where he talks about the power of color in comics and how a lot of the most iconic superheroes have a particular color scheme that they are associated with. Consider the following two color combinations:

Recognize those two by the colors? It's Batman and The Hulk. Those of you more familiar with the recent movie depictions might find those colors a bit odd, since the movie version of Batman, for example, blacks out the entire outfit in order to be as dark and brooding as possible. Although that certainly worked for the film, I have to wonder--was it worth sacrificing the iconic value of the older color scheme?

Regardless of that question, what comic artists over the years have recognized is that big, bold color schemes really help to define a character. They can become cemented in the public's mind just as much as strongly as images like the Bat Symbol or the Superman S.

Here's what you might be thinking as you nurse your drink: "Alright, sure, this stuff is useful for cartoons for little girls and for colorful superhero comics. That doesn't mean it's useful in the fine arts!" Well, first of all, that's really not giving shows for little girls or colorful superhero comics much credit, is it? But alright, alright, if you want a fine art example, check this out:

This is a figure in the Apse Dome of the Hagia Sophia in Istambul (not Constantinople). It is, in fact, a figure of the Theotokos--the Mother of God--The Virgin Mary. How do I know that? Well, ok, Baby!Christ sitting on her lap is a bit of a dead giveaway. But there's one other reason I know, right away, at a glance, that I know who this is.
It's the blue robe. Byzantine depictions of the Theotokos always show her with this blue garment. It's the iconic color scheme that they use to distinguish Mary from the other female figures in works of art. It makes sense to do it this way--after all, a lot of the art of this period is deliberately quite stylized and simplified, and so a simple visual cue to tell people who the figure is almost becomes essential. Want to show that a figure is a certain character? Rely on the color scheme to help you out. This idea is just as applicable to fine art as it is to junk culture.

As a parting note, I'm going to toss up a few color swatch images to see how many people can recognize the characters they depict. Check them out:

Obviously, it'll be hard to get the characters from works that you're totally unfamiliar with, but I suspect that most of the characters in the first and last sets will be pretty easy to guess by just about everyone. Let me know in the comments how you do.

Edit: I have now replaced the broken picture; you may stop whining and/or panicking.


  1. Interesting again. I really like the style of those rectangles. It might be interesting to experiment with them somewhat, maybe even trying to recreate some iconic scenes in that style.

    On a different note:
    " I have to wonder--was it worth sacrificing the iconic value of the older color scheme?"
    In my opinion it is. This re-imagining of Batman needs to have his outfit being more (dare I say it?) realistic. The Nolan!Batman's motive is making his enemies afraid and a blacked-out suit fits that purpose better. It's the same reason the Scarecrow doesn't look like a scarecrow and the Joker has a Chelsea grin instead of some chemical. It still brings the themes across, while asking less suspension of disbelief from the audience.

    (Oh, and one of your pictures isn't working.)

  2. Weird. It seems to be working for me, so I'm not sure how to fix it... :/

    And yeah, I kind of agree with you there, especially since I think black has now, through the sheer weight of those movies, become the new iconic Batman color.

  3. I SUCK at these. Probably because I'm colorblind. Goddamn. Freaking Derpy Hooves.

    Seeing that this is mostly about color, I can't say a whole lot. BYEBYE.

  4. Actually the batman to black has been a steady change for a while. It's been a while since the blue was part of anything, it's mostly been grey/black/yellow or some mix.

    I missed one super hero: The blue red and white one with multiple stripes. Maybe the red blue, with a little black and white, but pretty sure that is plastic man.

  5. Spiderman, actually. I included him as an experiment. I had trouble remembering myself what his colors were--initially I drew it with just red, white, and black in thin lines. Then I actually looked up the pictures and found... Huh? He's got blue pants? Well, alright, let's throw some blue in.

    But it doesn't read, does it? Not one person has yet guessed that block. That might be in part due to how I've composed it--maybe I could arrange the colors better so it would be more obvious--but I think it's partly just due to the fact that Spiderman isn't an icon due to his colors. He's iconic because he's covered in a spiderweb. I find that really interesting, personally.

  6. I don't know what it means exactly, but when you showed the initial two comic characters, my first instinct was: "Black Lightning and Super-Suit Lex Luthor!". Yeah, not sure how that happened.

    On the other hand, I knew each of the MLP:FiM characters from blocks instantly (okay, it took a second to get Celestia). I think one of the problems with using comics as a basis here is that almost every major Icon (Superman being the notable exception) has gone through some kind of major appearance change at some point. Some have stuck (increased black on Batman, as was mentioned) and some have not (Grey Hulk anyone?)

    That was also a very good point made about the Virgin Mary (where did you get that alternate name for her, I had never heard that before?), as that is very true of her character.She is shown in just about every image with a blue robe over her head.

  7. Read left to right: Batman, Hulk, Superman, Flash, Captain America, Spiderman ( I read the comment but was pretty sure that was him beforehand), and... I'm drawing a blank on green-black-white guy.

    Really interesting article though. Never realized just how much detail has to go into color schemes, of all things. Another point for Faust and the team behind MLP:FiM, that they understand this and make it work so well.

    1. Green Lantern, actually.

      And yeah, I've noticed that people who get one aspect of storytelling and media really, really well tend to get other aspects really, really well, even if its intuitive rather than trained. And Faust and the rest of the team know quite a few aspects really, really well.

    2. Oh, that makes sense. Guess that horrible, horrible movie made my brain cut all things Green Lantern out of my head.

  8. Re: classic video games: You're missing Link, Zelda, and Sonic. Also Pac-Man.

    1. Hm, not sure if Pac-Man has iconic colors... I suppose if you did Pac-Man AND the ghosts it would work.

  9. It took me a second to get the first two, and depressingly longer to get the last one for video games, but I got them; Mario, Luigi, Spyro (I should NOT have gotten that as quick as I did, but I did end up squeeing all over the moment I saw it), and Samus. Seriously, I should have gotten her faster. I blame Metroid: Other M (or, M.Other, or M.O.M. SO SUBTLE.)

  10. I've actually seen this before, and was looking around trying to find more examples of it because I find it fascinating, so, thanks for making more! The original context I saw it in was call "The Otaku Test" and featured these color palette blocks for various anime and manga characters. I also recall seeing one for Vocaloid characters as well, though I can't remember where, unfortunately.


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