The Color ProcessThe 16-page format and design of Boys of the Empire is consistent with its antecedent, Boys of England. Brett, who was an illustrator and wood engraver prior to becoming a publisher, was very well aware of the impact of strong visual imagery on his consumer-readers (Boyd 33). In addition to the sweepstakes and prizes the businessman employed to increase readership, the publisher included this note at the fore of the first bound volume of Boys of the Empire: “We shall, at intervals, present with this journal, splendid coloured pictures, from the pencils of eminent artists—pictures worthy of a handsome frame, and a good position on the drawing room wall.” The importance of illustration as a marketing tool warranted their inclusion even without an accompanying story. But who these “eminent artists” that produced the “splendid pictures” were is another point of speculation; just as Brett’s writers remained anonymous, so too did his illustrators. Because of his training, it is possible that Brett produced the images for his papers himself, though the demands of his many coincident projects make this somewhat unlikely.
Drawing on his penny dreadful days, the illustrations Brett included in Boys of the Empire typically depict heated brawling and fighting. Whereas violence appeared in Boys of England at the level of the schoolyard, its representation in Boys of the Empire relied upon greater skill and weaponry, including swords and guns. This more sophisticated fighting contributed to the Victorian masculine and imperial ideal.
The most significant distinction of Brett’s Boys of the Empire, however, was its ambitious use of color. Unequalled in its time, Boys of the Empire was published weekly in what Brett claimed to be six colors (with illustrations on almost every page), but sold for the low price of a penny and a half. Compared to modern newspapers that publish in four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), such a feat was remarkable considering the printing technology of the period. A closer look at Brett’s images in Boys of the Empire reveals only three solid layers of ink, red, yellow and blue, though a number of varying shades (including brown, green and purple) were produced in the optical mixing of these layers. Whether Brett’s six-color claim was in regards to the ink used or the result obtained is uncertain, though it was hardly exceptional for the publisher to make grandiose claims. Most likely, the illustrations were produced by the method of chromoxylography, a relief process of color woodblock printing. Unlike the single layer of ink required for his black and white papers, the color pages of Boys of the Empire required repeated printing, necessarily slowing the process of production. The sometimes-sloppy registration is evidence of the cheap treatment of mass-distribution publications. Because of the periodical’s greater complexity, Brett raised its price by half a penny, fixing a cost within the means of the working class boy but one that might still enable high returns. The publisher’s anxiety about the economic vulnerability of his color project is revealed in the introductory letter to his first bound volume: “the superior appearance of the Journal, and the high tone of the stories it contains, are a complete equivalent for the small extra charge which the great cost of production compels us to make.” Notably, Brett cites the appearance of his paper before mentioning its literary content. Still, there is something strained in the open admission of monetary constraint. Perhaps the reference is a thinly-veiled foreshadowing of the publication’s end? Brett seems to be hinting that full color is too good to be true.
The quality of the paper’s illustration is perhaps less impressive than the method of its multi-layered printing, yet its cultural impact must have been equal to the invention of color television in the 1950s. How appropriate, also, that the emphasis on imperialism and the adventure story’s representation of the “other” be depicted in the proper shades of the imperial subject’s skin tone, in addition to the anthropological structure of his features. The pervasive use of color, along with the orderly alignment of framed illustrations (tightly bound by neat columns of text) serves as a visual metaphor for the paper’s imperialist message. Fantastically bright experiences are available to the reader (literarily and militarily) within the self-defined civilized organization of British rule. - next