“I Have a Gut Reaction to the Story and Translate It with Color”: An Interview with Walter

Walter Pezzali (or simply “Walter,” as he’s known professionally) is one of the most accomplished colorists working in French-language comics. He was among the very first colorists to introduce digital coloring to the bandes dessinées industry and he’s been a fixture in French comics for nearly two decades. While you may not immediately know him by name, you most certainly have seen his work. The list of cartoonists Walter has worked with is a who’s-who of the very best contemporary French cartoonists: Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, Killoffer, Manu Larcenet, Christophe Blain, and many more. This interview was conducted via email in the fall of 2017.

From Christophe Blain's Gus, colored by Walter.

Ben Towle: At what age did you start reading comics and what were they?

Walter: I started to read BD [bande dessinées] before I was ten years old but the first experience that I can clearly remember and hooked me to reading comics that weren't BD was the French edition of a Marvel monsters story with Fin Fang Foom. Those were published in black and white in pocket format, labeled as "for adult" to escape some laws. That made me think for a long time I was reading something made for adults and those were not for children vs BD which was labeled for children. Then after that I read Strange from Editions Lug. That was a title collecting Marvel titles like Daredevil, Spider-Man, etc... but the titles that I really, really (I mean really) liked were Kamandi and The Fantastic Four (FF was published in France in oversized format). Jack Kirby became the king of my childhood. My pantheon got bigger over the years with [Richard] Corben, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Moebius, Yves Chaland to name a few. The list is too long.

It’s interesting that your earliest comics influences were printed in black and white. When did you become aware of the role color played in comics? What works specifically would you say have directly influenced your own coloring choices and aesthetic?

The first time I really noticed colors in comics that was in Richard Corben's work. In my teens I was still reading comics (now in color because the censorship times were over; French Marvel comics translations were banned in the late '60s because the colors were judged too violent for children). Metal Hurlant was the magazine and the Humanoïdes Associés the publisher that I loved most. In the '80s it had a bit of everything in it, Europeans like Moebius, Challand etc., but also U.S. underground comics like Corben, some Warren stuff, English comics like Judge Dredd, etc.

I went back to comics big time when I was an art student in Paris and could buy original U.S. comics. I started to collect seriously new and old comics.

In my work I got influenced by (it’s random--this is a not a list from top to bottom): Lynn Varley's work on Dark Knight, Elektra, Lone Wolf and Cub covers. Marie Severin for EC comics. I loved the Harvey Kurtzman war covers; Alex Toth's "F-86 Sabre Jet!" story was a big influence. Early superhero and monster comics (always loved colors on the covers--you still can see them in the palette I use), the FF Kirby run for the covers again, and Steve Oliff on Akira then Dave Stuart on Hellboy more recently--and that's just the comics part. I was equally influenced by some Euro BD.

How did you become interested in specifically the coloring part of comics-making?

Well I had a comics shop back in the mid '90s when a big comics distributor company (Capital, I think) went bankrupt. We were collateral damage and the shop closed. I nearly lost everything. So after my shop closed I had to find a new job. I wanted to go back to drawing (I was an art student for years before the shop), but realized I stopped too long to get at a level where I could make a living from my art. I was a big fan of Steve Oliff’s work on Akira and read an article showing his process that got me really curious. The whole comics industry has turned to computer coloring but it was nearly nonexistent in France at the time. Coloring was still mostly done by hand on a separate paper sheet with the art printed in blue, so I decided to become a computer colorist, took a loan to buy a computer, and learned Photoshop with a friend who already knew the software.

So, were your very first coloring jobs done on Photoshop? When was this? The earliest book I could find with you listed as colorist was Donjon Zénith from 1998... Did you get any resistance to computer coloring from French publishers when you first started?

I guess if I recall correctly, my first jobs were in '96 and '97 for a French magazine called L'Echo des Savannes. I worked there because in the press world in general they already used computers. In the BD world not so much.

The first time I went to a BD publisher to show my work they didn't have a computer powerful enough to open the file. I didn't get the job of course. I clearly remember the boss of a famous publisher telling me that computer coloring has no future and hand coloring will be there for a long time. A few short years later, 99% of his books were computer colored. The first two years were hard but the publishers saw the benefits of computer coloring in terms of reducing the cost and it became the norm pretty quick. Being one of the first to do it gave me a lot of opportunities.

From Les Olives Noires, by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, with color by Walter.

How did you enter the field professionally?

I was lucky enough to share a big flat at the time with some artist friends. They were and still are comics/BD artists, worked on U.S. comics and BD, big fans of comics, and longtime clients of my shop too. It was their studio and my home and it was close to another studio, the one Joann Sfar and Lewis Trodheim had. We met and they gave me jobs.

It seems like there are certain artists that you’ve worked with consistently throughout your career — Sfar, Trondheim, Emmanuel Guibert, and Christophe Blain come immediately to mind. How much guidance do you get from the artists as far as your coloring goes? Are some more involved than others?

There are different types of relationships with artists. You have the ones who know exactly what they want. They don't do the colors themselves mostly because it takes time. Those give you a lot of indications then corrections. They look closely at what you do and have their mind already set from the start.

Then you have the ones who have no clue of what they want to see and your job is trying to figure out what will help their story most. Sometimes it's easier because the artist is open to see something new, to get surprised, but sometimes they just don't know what they want ... well... until they see it ... [which is] more painful to handle.

The more I work with an artist the more I know the things they like, the artists that influenced them, etc. ... It helps to understand where an artist comes from, then (usually) it becomes easier to give them what they want.

I rarely worked with anyone who gave indications that needed to be strictly followed panel by panel. I always have a little bit of freedom. Usually after a try on a page or more we set up the general style for the book. After that I just need to follow the story and try to find what will help create the best reading experience. You can still find a space to do your own thing to keep the work interesting.

I never did a job where I didn't show the pages to the artist for approval before sending them to the publisher. Corrections and changes are part of the process. At the end it's their book, their name on the cover, mine rarely, so they have the final say on what they want to show to the public. It doesn't bother me unless they ask for completely crazy requests.

You work with a collaborator, Yuka. How did this partnership begin? How long have you been working together? What is your work process like?

Well, Yuka and I are partners in life first. We met a bit after I started to be a colorist and working together was the natural next step in our relationship.

We have a weird working process. We share the work but she doesn't do any special effects or shadows. Sometimes she does a page almost all by herself but still I have to do the final 10%. Other times she won't touch it and I have to do it all. There is no logic or process. The good part is I get surprised by her color choices. She is Japanese, so she has a different taste for colors.

You two are currently living in Tokyo, correct? Are you interested in or involved in the comics scene there? You mentioned being into Akira in the '90s, so I was wondering if you’re generally interested in manga—especially since manga is, for the most part, printed in black and white.

Yes, 17 years in Tokyo now ... I don't really have any connection with the comics scene here of course. I met some people over the years who work in anime and manga, mostly because I did some color jobs for Nicolas de Crécy and many artists here are fans and really love his books. I worked once for Taniguchi Jiro for a book published in France, but I've never been asked to work in Japan for a Japanese artist. Most of people in the field didn't even understood for a long time what my job is about, but things are changing. I’ve recently been contacted to help to give interviews for a school that teaches manga. They are interested in making a course about how to use color to help storytelling. They told me that now a lot of young artists make manga for web and phones only, so they can use colors with no printing cost. I guess the traditional paper manga will stay in B&W but the new format allows for using colors. Not sure they will do the course, but they are thinking about it.

The Taniguchi Jiro book—is that Guardians of the Louvre?

It was a different book, La Montagne Magique [Mahou no Yama]. I don't really understand why they wanted to have this one in color. It was, as usual for a manga, in B&W with screen tones, which I used and transformed to make the colors--technically fun to do but I'm still wondering the why of the whole thing. Anyway, that was a nice experience. I met Taniguchi few times. He was a really sweet person.

From Ravage, by Jean-David Morvan and Rey Macutay, with color by Walter.

Looking at the books you’ve worked on over your career, Jessica Abel's Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars stands out. Is this the first book you’ve worked on that was directly for the English-language market?

Well, Trish Trash was first published in France. Only the last book will be out first in the U.S. Then, I think, the French publisher will reprint all three books in one.

I never worked for a book primary aimed for the U.S. market. Even the Wolverine I colored [by JD Morvan and Phillipe Buchet] was first published in France.

How did you wind up working on Trish Trash?

There two ways to get jobs: you can be directly contacted by the artists who want you to work on their project, or by publishers who need a colorist. For Trish Trash the French publisher was looking for a colorist and I was free. I did a test page, and I guess that was what they were looking for. Plus, I never say no to a book if they pay me what I ask.

The coloring in Trish Trash seems to me quite different than your work I’ve seen in French-language comics. There’s more rendered color, gradients, etc. than I’m used to seeing in your work. Is this a correct evaluation? If so, was this a deliberate choice by you? Why?

Trish Trash may look different from the other books published in the U.S. but it’s not really if you check all I've done for French publishers. That's something I have done before. I always had different styles, renders, and palettes from the start. I like to go out of my comfort zone to try things that are different from my personal taste. It keeps me entertained. Coloring to me can be quite a boring job if I always do the same thing and I try as much as I can to break the routine.

My assumption about Trish Trash was clearly a result of there not being enough of your work published in English. Someone needs to fix that!

You mention experimenting with different palettes and styles so I wanted to ask you about your work on the Gus series by Christophe Blain. The English-language Gus collection (from First Second) was my first exposure to your work and it has some of the most stunning color choices I’ve seen in a comic. Can you tell me a little about the thinking behind some of the unconventional color choices in those volumes? There seems to me to be a similarity between the colors in those Gus volumes and Morris’s Lucky Luke. Is there a deliberate connection here—or am I seeing a connection that’s not there?

On Gus from the start Blain wanted a Lucky Luke style of coloring so we went there.

Can you elaborate a bit about your color choices in this book or just your general thoughts on process?

To be fair I don't recall that much the process on Gus. It was so many books ago. The main thing was to do something close to Lucky Luke colors without copying it.

I recall I did the first two Gus books but I didn't leave the book. The main reason (I think) I don't work with Blain anymore is I moved to Japan. He wasn't a computer guy at the time and I guess he didn't want to write long mails to speak about what he wanted to see. The distance didn't help our work together, or maybe he wanted to work with someone new. I don't really know. In fact, better to ask him.

By nature I move on quickly. It's comfortable and interesting to work with the same people all the time but it can be dangerous if it becomes a routine. Plus you are quickly labeled as this artist’s colorist. I try to do as many different jobs as possible, just to show I am not a one trick guy that can't do something else.

About my process, I always do colors the same way for all artists I work with. I link feelings to colors and I react to the story accordingly. That's not a rational system where I apply a rule like rage equals red, scary stuff equals blue, etc... It's more random and depends on how I react to the art and story, but to me it works best with flat colors. The more I add effects, lights, shadows the more I kill the "power" of the colors. I do like to do complex rendering —it's fun — but sometimes with too much effects you add a layer that detracts from the reading and that doesn't help the story at all. In my mind the line art should come first, then the colors. The colors should be there to help the story. No need to put the literal color of what the art shows in every detail. Your brain knows them and you don't need to tell it again. You don't need to have a realistic approach all the time. The hard thing is to find the right amount, the right balance. The more you do books with the same artist, the more you can refine your process and try to find something that works for him alone and become his "style" of colors. Repeating that with each artist is what makes this job interesting to me. Ideally.

The amount of detail I put in also impacts the reading flow. You can slow down reading to the point where the reader is in front of something close to an illustration and will spend time checking everything (if the artists put in a lot of references, jokes, etc...) or you can speed up things with a limited color palette. Those decisions I never discuss with the artist. It's stuff I do on my own while reading the story. I don't even really plan all that stuff in advance. I have a gut reaction to the story and translate it with colors.

When I finish a book all of that can be corrected by the artist. We do a session where we check if everything is OK and always do the changes.

It's a bit hard to analyze the way I work because to me it's like, "Well that's the way I do it, you don't do that?" Looks like nothing special--basic stuff, really.

Another page from Ravage, by Jean-David Morvan and Rey Macutay, with color by Walter.

Currently in the U.S. there is a growing awareness and appreciation of the important role that colorists play in comics-making and their importance in the comics-reading experience. Colorists are now often credited on the covers of comics along with the other artists and writers. To what extent do you think the role of colorists is understood and appreciated by the French BD readership?

For a long time the colorist job was an “artist's wife job” kind of assistant (it's a cliché but mostly true). With the increase in publishing, and of computer coloring a lot of people decided to become colorists. It's an easy way to enter the world of BD and publishers. I am pretty sure there are a lot of colorists that have BD projects of their own in mind when they first start this job.

I think readers are a bit different now probably. More people are interested in the process of making a BD and the role of the colorist is part of that. Also the artists during their interviews talk more about the colors and their colorists, and give them credit. We get our names on covers sometimes only because of the artists and writers [who ask to put them there.] Otherwise we are credited inside the book as usual. I think the [Mike] Mignola and Dave Stuart relationship on Hellboy played a big role in [creating] that awareness among artists. Even in France, [it was the] first time you had a colorist sharing the "fame."

Apart for what I just said about colorists’ status improving, the number of books published has tripled or more, as has the number of colorists. The page price/rate has decreased over the years and the number of pages in the books increase. I see a lot of people really struggling to make a living out it as a full-time job even with the massive production we see now.

What coloring work that you've done are you most proud of?

It's a tricky question because I always try to do my best and always feel I could do better after the book is published, to the point that I can't open them for years.

But in my opinion these BD are good samples of what I can do best, all in a random order: Les Ogres by Christophe Blain and David B, Les Olives Noires [Black Olives] by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert, Messire Guillaume by Matthieu Bonhomme, Le Bibindum Celeste by Nicolas de Crécy.

What are you currently working on?

I just finished a book aimed at child readers. It's a biography about Irena, a woman who saved 2500 Jewish children in Poland during WWII, with a story by Jean David Morvan and art by David Eivrar. I’m now starting one about yakuza in Tokyo, again with a story by JD Morvan and art by Nicolas Numeri. Then a bio about Mozart and after that the last book of a post-apocalyptic trilogy adapted from a classic novel of the French SF story, probably a space opera, so plenty of different things.

Is there a particular direction you'd like your career to go in in the future?

To tell the truth I have no idea. I am always open to new opportunities. I rarely say no to a job unless I have no time to do it or the pay is too bad. The diversity of stories and art is what keeps me interested in being a colorist.

From Trish Trash Volume 2, by Jessica Abel, with color by Walter.