If you’re a freelancer or a work-at-home type like Allen Passalaqua, you’re all too familiar with the Starbucks workspace setup. For those who toil away in cubicles or—God forbid—outside in the fresh air, let me enlighten you.
A small, circular “desk,” is mostly covered by your laptop. Your mouse (or in Passalaqua’s case, a high tech stylus and drawing tablet) gobbles up the rest of the real estate. If you’re lucky, a caffeinated beverage can find a home somewhere between your car keys and your smartphone.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- THAT'S GRAPHIC: For DC Comics Colorist Allen Passalaqua, superhuman powers are an everyday matter. On any given day, he could be working on his own illustrations; coloring the graphic novel, 'Battlepug,' which he created with a friend; or shading in Batman’s iconic rubber suit.
If you ask Passalaqua, this quintessentially 21st century workspace isn’t at all cramped. It’s actually efficient.
As I entered the DC Comics colorist’s home in Avila Beach, I was shocked to find—in the middle of his stark white living room—a real-life Starbucks table, in all of its compact, iconic glory.
Passalaqua’s work for the day, several comic panels in various stages of completion—beamed from a small MacBook screen; an icy beverage sat beside. A baseball game hummed on TV.
This is how Passalaqua works, sweeping his stylus across a futuristic Wacom tablet with artful concentration. When he’s not doing that, he’s probably tapping away at thousands of keyboard shortcuts in Adobe Illustrator.
Over the years, Passalaqua has become a comics coloring machine.
“I worked out of a Starbucks for about 10 years. During remodeling, they said no one would notice if one of those tables disappeared,” Passalaqua said of his distinctive home office. “I travel a lot. My backpack is my office. I can only be alone here for so many hours of the day.”
Living so near the beach, Passalaqua likes to stroll down to the water and chat with the locals. On occasion, he’ll grab a well-earned fish taco.
Any given day, the artist may be working on superhero hijinks for DC Comics; an edgy graphic novel; or Battlepug, the Eisner-award winning comic he co-creates with buddy Mike Norton. The web-series-turned-book follows the adventures of a warrior who rides a giant, slobbering pug into darkly funny misadventures.
Passalaqua showed me his current assignment: 22 black and white pages for a new Batman book. The turnaround for this workload? Just two weeks. To put that into perspective: A penciler will create up to two pages a day and an inker will ink up to four pages per day. Colorists are known take on up to 18 pages in a mere 24 hours.
“And that’s holding a bag of frozen peas at the end of the day and taking a bunch of Advil because I have to wake up and do the last five pages,” Passalaqua said.
Without a drop of color or lick of shading, the black and white pages appeared almost unreadable—a web of lines and shapes calling out for equal attention.
- IMAGE BY ALLEN PASSALAQUA
- PAINT, CLICK, WOW: Passalaqua likes to take a break from superheros to create his own vivid artwork.
“You can see Bruce Wayne is strung up over here, and everything’s on fire outside,” Passalaqua said, showing me a finished, colored version against the black and white copies.
Now there are lapping orange flames and expert shading. In the next panel, Commissioner Gordon screams into a police walkie-talkie with tangible angst. Everything comes alive. It sings.
“A lot of what I do is establish depth and separation; emphasizing light sources,” Passalaqua said. “Then, of course, there are the super powers.”
Passalaqua’s teen self would be high-fiving his 30-something self right about now. What comics-loving teenager hasn’t fantasized about breathing life into their favorite superheroes? Passalaqua performs this alchemy daily.
“I get to re-color a lot of stuff from the ’60s, ’70s, ’40s, and ’50s,” Passalaqua said, showing me an old school Will Eisner page. Note: Eisner is the “grandfather of the graphic novel.”
The iconic 1978 cover where Superman fights Muhammad Ali to defeat an alien invasion on Earth? The ’80s George Perez Wonder Woman Anniversary cover? Yes and yes. New weird stuff for Valiant Comics? Hell yeah! Guns, boobs, abs, blood, spaceships, radioactive spiders, and caped crusaders are all in a day’s work for Passalaqua.
As we scroll through his work, he calls out the names like old friends. Batwoman. Talon. Red Robin. Batgirl. Katana. And this is just within one miniscule corner of the Batman Universe.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. Back in the day, the artist knew more about painting whiskers, scales, and paws than raging fists and laser beams. As a commercial artist for the San Diego National Parks and San Diego Zoo, Passalaqua “painted a lot of pandas” in his 20s. It was a perfect job for a kid who grew up watercoloring and drawing.
“Being a commercial artist for so long, I’ve had to adapt to a lot of different styles,” Passalaqua said. Although he makes a little extra dough selling his artist proofs at conventions, he really goes to socialize.
“I like to find editors who owe me drinks,” he said with a laugh. This is Passalaqua in a nutshell. He knows he’s talented, and he knows he’s got a pretty radical job. Still, he’s self-effacing, easy going.
Passalaqua grew up on a farm in Modesto surrounded by pigs, goats, walnuts, and corn. Although he did all the requisite FFA activities, he also found time to bury his nose in stacks of comics (this was back when you could still find comics at your local 7-Eleven). Image Comics provided an alluring entry point for the young artist.
“It really helped inspire my artistic interests, and I decided I wanted to do graphic design,” Passalaqua said. “I wanted to draw comics for a while, but ... doing sequential art and nailing it on every panel is extremely hard to do; it takes 12 to 18 hours a day of practice. I liked doing art, but I also liked having fun and being outside.”
An inspiring college watercolor professor urged Passalaqua further down the art road—a path that collided with computers in the early-to-mid-’90s.
“Watercolor is so frenetic; it’s always moving,” Passalaqua said. “You get what you get, and you have to work fast. Working at the San Diego Zoo, I could take these watercolor images I had done of giraffes or zebras, scan them onto the computer, and digitally manipulate them.”
Truth be told, being a colorist hasn’t always been easy or respected work. Up until the 1980s, colorists (ranked below the mighty pencilers and inkers) worked in “coloring houses,” where they would manually cut out guides that would then become color plates.
“Then in the early ’90s, digital coloring became a thing,” Passalaqua said. “One pioneer of that was Wild Storm, which I worked for. They would aim to do the most with as little processing power possible.”
Passalaqua still adheres to this mantra, ensuring that his images are impactful, yet don’t cause a Mac to succumb to the spinning wheel of death. In the digital coloring world, balance is key and efficiency is everything. At least, that’s what he’s teaching his young students as a Digital Comic Production Professor at the California College of the Arts. For the artist, teaching is rewarding—and so is seeing his name alongside the greats.
“I know how awesome it is,” Passalaqua said. “I mean, there are Batman books with my name on the cover. That’s really cool.”
Interim Arts Editor Hayley Thomas wishes she could ride a giant dachshund into battle. She can be reached at [email protected].