Engineer by Day, Colorist by Night

Megan Wilson’s accidental journey from studying jellyfish to working for Marvel Comics

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Just a few years after Megan Wilson, a Clemson graduate and engineer at GE, first started reading comics, she became a part-time colorist for Marvel Comics. Photo by Will Crooks.

When Megan Wilson began reading comic books in early 2012, she never imagined that one day she would be working behind the scenes to help bring stories to life.

But in the years since she first visited a comic book shop with a co-worker out of curiosity, Wilson has become a part-time colorist for Marvel Comics, adding the colors to a book’s black-and-white illustrations. To date, her major credits include work on “Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat” (December 2015–present) and “The Unstoppable Wasp” (January 2017–present). And Wilson, a Clemson native, describes her involvement in the industry as “sort of accidental.”

“It was never something I meant to pursue. It just sort of happened, but it happened very fast, so it’s been kind of a whirlwind,” she says.

It all started at a convention in Charlotte in May 2012 when Wilson met Nick Pitarra, a comic book artist and co-creator of Image Comics’ “The Manhattan Projects,” one of her favorite books. The series, as Wilson describes it, presents “an alt-history of the Manhattan Project” at the end of World War II, with notable figures like Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman working on the atomic bomb while also “doing these crazy science adventures.”

When Wilson raved to Pitarra about how much she enjoyed his book, the two kept in touch, and he later suggested that she give coloring a try. Most of Wilson’s early work, including through Marvel, was coloring Pitarra’s drawings.

“It wasn’t easy. It was a lot of time figuring out how to do all of the stuff, but it’s been fun,” she says. “I will say that I don’t always get things right the first time. I make a guess, and then I’ll look at it and try to figure out what’s wrong with it and then work from there. A lot of what I do is guess and check.”

Creating comic books is a multistep process that resembles an assembly line. A book’s illustrations are first penciled based on the script and then inked to add greater depth. When Wilson receives pages from the artist, they resemble a coloring book with just black-and-white line art. But before the coloring process can actually begin, Wilson sends the files to a flatter, who separates the line art into different solid blocks of color so that the distinct features on the pages can be “grabbed,” or selected, together at once.

“They aren’t setting up the underlying color,” Wilson explains. “The basic gist of that role is they’re making different things so that you can grab a shirt or whatever it may be. The rule of thumb is that if you’ve got six panels and someone appears in every panel, the shirt needs to be the same color. So you can grab a shirt, and it grabs all of the shirts on that one person.”

When the flatter sends back the prepared files, Wilson can start coloring. She works almost exclusively in Adobe Photoshop and uses a tablet with a stylus. Her first step is to evaluate what the book as a whole should look like, and she also needs to ensure that colors change between different scenes to indicate transitions. The scene’s time of day is a main factor in determining colors. “An easy way to handle that is to use cooler colors for nights and warmer colors for days,” Wilson says.

“The Unstoppable Wasp.” Artist, Elsa Charretier. Colorist, Megan Wilson. Images provided by Marvel Comics.

As far as the more creative side is concerned, Wilson says, “You take into account what’s happening and mood and is it an action scene, does it need bright colors.” She continues, “I don’t really preplan things. I very much just go by feel and start dropping stuff in and then move and shift colors around until it looks what I was intending it to look like.”

Lately, Wilson has been favoring a palette of “orange-y peach and greens and teals.” She uses primary colors sparingly for a specific reason: They are often the colors of superhero costumes, and a colorist will want those characters to clearly stand out on a page.

In listening to Wilson discuss coloring — and considering she’s working for one of the most well-known comic book publishers in the world — it may come as a surprise that she lacks any sort of art background. Instead, her expertise is in engineering. Wilson graduated from Clemson University with a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 2006 and earned her master’s from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2009. In graduate school, her concentration was fluid mechanics, and within that specialty she studied jellyfish swimming, which she says made for “some awkward job interviews.”

“It’s not really what you’d think of when you think mechanical engineer, but it was awesome,” Wilson says. “But when you go into an interview, they’re like, ‘Wait, why is this relevant?’ … It’s the same physics. It’s the same principles. You’re just looking at a different subject.”

Some companies she interviewed with weren’t receptive to her research background, but General Electric (GE) in Greenville was an exception. “They were actually asking questions about it and seemed engaged and interested,” she says.

Wilson has worked at GE since June 2010 as a lead engineer in aerodynamics and acoustics within the company’s renewable energy sector. Her specific focus is on wind turbines. “My group does stuff from designing blades for new products to working on new technology development to field testing or wind-tunnel testing existing things,” she explains.

It’s not lost on Wilson that her professional life exists within two traditionally male-dominated fields, although opportunities for women in both areas have been expanding in recent years. When asked about her experience, she says, “In engineering, I haven’t personally felt like it’s really been a hard thing. I also wonder what happened, because I think everybody starts off — when you think about kids — everybody’s curious in the world around them. That’s how we develop. That’s how everybody kind of grows. And then something is happening, I think, to discourage girls from continuing that path, because that curiosity is exactly what makes a good engineer or a good scientist.”

“Everyone’s path is different,” she continues, “but I guess I’ve been lucky in that everybody along the way has been really encouraging, both professors in undergrad and my advisors in grad school and my managers and co-workers at GE.”

As for the recent trend in the comic book industry to produce more books featuring female and diverse characters, Wilson says, “I’d like to think what happened is a publisher started realizing, ‘Hey, we’re really only gearing our books toward a portion of the population, and there’s this whole other readership that’s starting to be interested in this stuff.’”

Wilson’s major credits include coloring “Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat” and “The Unstoppable Wasp.” “Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat” cover art by Brittney Williams. “Unstoppable Wasp” cover art by Elsa Charretier. Photo by Will Crooks.

And it seems that the decision to appeal to a broader demographic has been paying off. A September 2015 article from The Guardian, titled “Kapow! The unstoppable rise of female comic readers,” notes that the influx of female characters from Marvel and DC Comics, including “the all-female Avengers A-Force, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Harley Quinn, Batgirl, Catwoman, [and] Spider-Woman,” has led to a boost in female interest and readership, as has a greater presence of women within the industry. And a survey conducted by Publishers Weekly for the first quarter of 2015 reported that out of 13 retailers located in major markets, most said women ages 17 to 30 were the fastest-growing segment of comic readership, in addition to boys and girls ages 6 to 17.

“It’s not like the lighthearted, fun books are going to be beating out ‘The Avengers’ in terms of sales, but these aren’t sales that are being traded,” Wilson says. “These are readers that wouldn’t have bought the other book anyway. So I really hope that’s something that continues to pick up.”

Wilson explains that, on a personal level, being asked to color “The Unstoppable Wasp” was “too perfect of a fit,” because the book’s teenaged hero, Nadia Pym, is “off recruiting girls to make a lab, because she’s very into STEM.” Additionally, the book’s letter column, where letters to the publisher are displayed, highlights everyday women who are working in various science fields. “The book is basically set up to be like, ‘Hey, women in science — this is awesome, look at all the cool stuff they do,’ both in terms of the fiction within the story and the way we’ve converted the letter pages,” she says.

For Wilson, the biggest challenge of being a colorist is not necessarily the work itself but rather a common foe for many professionals: deadlines, especially when she has to manage them alongside her full-time work schedule. There is also the potential for “head-butting” within a team when there are disagreements regarding the creative direction of a book, but Wilson adds that she has not personally encountered that type of situation. In fact, she’s been pleasantly surprised by the general work environment within the industry.

“In my mind, I thought everyone in comics would be highly competitive and fighting over jobs, and it’s actually funny that, for the most part at least, it seems more community-driven and that there really isn’t that level of everyone’s competing against everyone else.

“I had assumed it would be a shark tank, and it hasn’t been that. It’s been very friendly,” she says.

And as for the rewarding experiences, Wilson says it is exciting to be able to walk into a comic book shop and see a book she has worked on sitting on the shelves. “And then to see at a convention or somewhere — seeing someone that is excited about something you worked on, that’s also really cool,” she adds. “You can read reviews online. … But it’s not the same as seeing someone that’s excited about your book. A sense of having accomplished something comes from seeing the book, but [what’s] rewarding is seeing how people respond.”

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