Taking Things Too Seriously

Hi there,

On the site today:

* Frank Santoro's latest Color Workbook focuses on the use of gray and color layering:

The reason for studying gray and how it relates to color is rooted in grisaille painting. Most traditional oil paintings before the 20th century were painted in gray first – then the colors were glazed over in very thin, transparent layers.

* Hayley Campbell reviews Even The Giants and finds it a mixed, but mostly good bag.

* Michael DeForge begins our cartoonist diary challenge! Well, he took it on early, and so we present a week in this whipper-snapper's life back in March.

* And finally, did you hear that TCJ 301 is coming out? I bet you did. It's been having what we like to call a "rolling release." You can pre-order it here. Should be in all stores in early July. And it's a doozy. So anyway, throughout June we'll be posting excerpts from the issue, starting today with a selection from Gary Groth's Joe Sacco interview.

On another subject... Harry Mendryk posted a response to James Van Hise's comment on our Fighting American post, and it kind of triggered some thoughts of my own. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Harry's dedication and am thrilled that the Titan Simon & Kirby Library even exists in the first place. These books are really the best reprints ever done of this seminal material. But something struck me about Harry's post. He writes:

Readers of my previous posts on the subject of restoration should know that I do not recreate line art (a process that Marvel still continues to use for their reprints of golden age material). However the end result of my restorations is by no means just a scan. I have no problems with describing what I do as “touch ups” only not in the manner that the TCJ commenter uses the term. Frankly the original printing used in these comics was pretty poor. Now as far as I am concerned reprints of just scans is far superior to art recreation however I prefer to try to correct some of the printing flaws.

What's interesting here is the notion of "printing flaws." He's undoubtedly right that the printing was hardly technically precise, and could obscure the line work. But nevertheless, there is real beauty in those "flaws," and character, too. The old hand-cut separations and absorbent newsprint was the form for which these comics were made. The final art was not the line art on board, but rather the comic book itself. I know, this is basic stuff, but somehow we get lost trying to find the "perfect" form for things when, really, the form itself exists.

I should be clear that I'm not arguing against Harry's process: It's one of the best options for this work, and and in terms of showing us crisp linework with an approximation of the intended color, it's by far the best, and it is historically invaluable because it allows us to really see the mix of line and color by a master, as rendered now, in a world of technical precision.

But we also lose a lot with this process: We lose the essence of the object itself, and all the unintentional, accidental information that object contains. And the fact is, that information was a big part of how these comics were read and absorbed. It is a kind of ghostly soul...  Over the last year or so John Hilgart has made a pretty convincing for this information, this soul, particularly in his "In Defense of Dots: The Lost Art of Comics Books":

In the mid-20th century comic book, millions of details undermined sequential art time by making readerly time infinitely variable. Details – along with the color process – provided textures, way stations, and destinations for the eye. Choose your own adventure. Find your personal fetishes in the nooks and crannies. Comic book art’s backwater of purely instrumental and often arbitrary visual information was the horizon of meaning, the place where the reading experience became most individual. The tightly controlled wish fulfillment strategies of plot were unhinged by free-floating objects of desire – the details just out of reach, gazing back at us through the electrical field of process printing.

More recently, in an FAQ, he writes:

I believe that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Jack Kirby developed an opposing meta-aesthetic of comic books. He embraced the underlying chaotic, radioactive dots and force fields of the printed page, and he enlarged them into entire galaxies and negative zones. When the Fantastic Four dove into another dimension, they were diving into comic books themselves, shooting past four-color planetoids and through the wavy energy of bleedy black ink. Kirby’s cosmic crackles are benday dots that have gone supernova and collapsed into black holes.

I can leave the theory there, as John nails it better than I can. I'm not posing this as the "right" way, just another way, and a way to remember. I respect what Harry is doing -- it beats anything else out there for restoration work, but there is this other thing, which is being done well in the Fletcher Hanks and Ditko books published by Fantagraphics, or the John Stanley Library by D&Q. Those pages, noise and all, are more alive and more representative of the comic book itself. It may not be representative of the art as it left the drawing board, though, and that's where Harry comes in.

I should note that this is a thing apart from the IDW "Artist's Editions" and recent Toth book, which present the original art as drawings first, rather than comic-book pages. Or even the old Russ Cochran E.C. and Stanley editions, which were shot from stats and presented the cleanest view possible of the line art -- not the comic books, but the line art itself. And there's much to be said for both of these approaches. The former allows us to view the work as the artist did, and to understand more about the process, marks, smudged and erasures and all. It's invaluable to deepening our understanding of what drawing consists of in comics. And the latter can be crucial to getting at the formal properties of comic book storytelling: Stanley's rigorously structured stories and meticulous layouts are best understood this way. Likewise, Wally Wood and Graham Ingel's horror vacui approach to drawing made color an intrusion, rather than a companion, and their work really is best seen with the color removed.

That's the beauty of all these options: There's no Platonic ideal for this work -- just choices (some, of course, are flat out misguided, like the Marvel "restoration" process, which involves re-drawing) along a continuum populated, at last, by people intent on achieving one goal or another. Harry has his very noble, highly informed goal, Hilgart has his, I have mine, etc., but where they all intersect is a deep respect for the art and the artists rather than the properties or the merchandise. It's this "art first" (however you define it) approach that's made the last 6 or 7 years so exciting for comics scholarship.


23 Responses to Taking Things Too Seriously

  1. Frank Santoro says:

    I gotta disagree with Mr. Mendryk. The examples he shows on his process post, to me, make the original “poor” printing look better than his cleaned up example. Just my opinion.

  2. dave hartley says:

    Interesting piece – clearly there isn’t a ‘right’ way although obviously there are different choices available where the original art exists, as in the case of much EC or The Spirit, as opposed to where it doesn’t.

    Don’t agree about Graham Ingels – unlike most of the EC artists I’ve always thought he composed for colour and that the black and white Cochran reprints did him fewer favours.

  3. Harry Mendryk says:

    My criticism has continually been aimed at recreated art once a common practice and still being used by Marvel. And yes there is a beauty in the original printing in comic books. But I find that that beauty does not survive when untreated scans are printed in modern presses. Even so I find that a fully acceptable means of reproduction, far superior to recreated art. And do not misconstrue what I have said as a criticism of Fantagraphic’s restoration. I am a big fan of their work and consider it not that dissimilar from my approach. Perhaps it was not your intention, but you seem to suggest that Fantagraphics does not retouch their scans but I can assure you that is not the case.

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    “Or even the old Russ Cochran E.C. and Stanley editions, which were shot from stats and presented the cleanest view possible of the line art” — a slight amendation. I think Frank Young has mentioned that for at least some of the Rus Cochran Stanley editions they didn’t have stats and used other methods, including (alas) tracing art. At least that’s what I remember. I’m sure Frank can clarify this.

  5. patrick ford says:

    Jeet that was only true of the Stanley and Barks volumes. Gaines kept all the original E.C. art, and if I recall ten copies of each of the printed comics.
    The First two Dell Four Color Lulu’s have still never been properly presented, and it’s a real shame because they are Written, Penciled, and Inked by Stanley.

  6. patrick ford says:

    One more thing. The Russ Cochran books didn’t present the art to it’s best advantage in my minority opinion. Russ stated the art in the same way a publisher would stat art for a printer.
    The majority of fans probably prefer the clean look of the high contrast stats Russ made from the art.
    Personally I prefer seeing all the nuance in the inks, some of this is lost, along with the partially erased pencils, and white-out when stats are created for standard comic book publication.
    Some of both approaches to original art reproduction can be seen in the new IDW Alex Toth book.
    Many stories are presented looking like printers stats, and some are “warts and all.”

  7. I’m with Frank on this one. Save money by leaving comics the way they are. They look great the way they are. They are the books we all fell in love with.

  8. John Hilgart says:

    I was unpleasantly taken aback by Harry Mendryk’s sample on his blog of how he treats the blacks before reintegrating the process color. It seemed neither fish nor fowl in terms of re-presenting an old comic book. Then I looked at the full story that TCJ had linked to, and that looked pretty nice. And then I realized that my “Best of Simon & Kirby” book was in fact Mendryk’s work – and I think that looks fabulous. If you’re working from an ancient printed comic book, there are certainly some bad ways to go about it, but there are also seemingly a number of good ways, with distinctions among them being a matter of taste. If the result is essentially what the original comic would have looked like had it been printed on good (matte) paper yesterday, then I’m not going to split hairs. I also love Greg Sadowski’s approach, which seems to be more conservative, but which ultimately yields a comparable result (e.g. his “Supermen” volume). I’d also second Mendryk’s observation that while a straight scan of an old pulpy page looks like a luminous stained glass window on a computer screen, it doesn’t necessarily translate well back onto the printed page.

  9. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    There are definitely a range of approaches that look good, but I’ve seen books that, for my taste, error too far on the side of a “grungy” look, for what seem to be varying reasons of either a. aesthetic preference or b. laziness/cost cutting.

    The two examples that pop into my head immediately are coincidentally both D + Q books, both of which I happen to love very much, but which are afflicted in strange ways. The Gasoline Alley reprint series looks as good as can be expected from strips reprinted from very old, falling apart newsprint, and in general the lineart looks pretty together. However, the solid black areas, which are pretty consistently placed from page to page, are extremely broken up–all dotty and disheveled. Likewise, they’ve eliminated the copyright or trademark notices that used to appear in the past panel, but have made no effort to cover them up/touch up those areas. I’m not sure why these things would have been neglected unless someone sees that as a kind of interference with the original art, or whether its a matter of expense. You can take a look at the covers to see, minus the color, what such an approach might have looked like- Chris Ware seems to have made those changes to the images he’s colored there.

    The far stranger one to me is Going on Thirteen, a book that looks outstanding-for the most part crisp scans from the printed books reproduced in an attractive fashion–until you look at the gutters of the page, which all appear to be the same generic four (?) pages of “old paper” applied in Photoshop, which don’t totally match the color of the paper showing through in the panels. In other words, at some point in their restoration someone must have, for the sake of convenience, eliminated the page gutters- or the book is a different aspect than the original comics-and now they’ve been reinstated through PShop. Just… strange. Recreating the gutter area/paper color instead of, say, restoring it to white and printing it on unbleached paper seems a little bit odd.

    It would be interesting to see some discussion of the ethics or preservation aspects of these decisions. After all, these resulting books will in all likelihood outlive the source material from which they were scanned. These kind of discussions have been happening for quite a while in the Old Timey Radio community, and it would be interesting to have them in comics as well…

  10. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    I should clarify–when I’m talking about ethics, I’m not talking about either of these two approaches, but rather the recoloring or “recreating” approaches…

  11. Dan Nadel says:

    Thanks all, for chiming in. Harry, I agree, FB certainly retouches the books, but, as far as I know, that does not extend to isolating line art and then recoloring. Simply raw scans are never gonna look great — raw scans of anything, really. Sean, I agree, it’s an interesting discussion and is linked to a larger discussion of the ethics involved in reprints in general — everything from creator/estate payment to scholarship to marketing. There are all sorts of issues at foot, here, as the reprint boom continues.

  12. norman hathaway says:

    I love this topic

    No matter what the outcome, it is nice to see that after decades of neglect, many publishers are now carefully considering the area of ‘authenticity’. However there are so many ways to skin a hat, there isn’t one cure-all that will satisfy all audiences.

    Personally I am not a fan of the Maresca approach taken with the award winning Nemo reprints. The linework looks beautiful but I feel McCay would absolutely have taken into account the way his color choices would be affected by the color of the paper stock used. So to my mind, his books look ‘too good’.

    There are 4 stages of production that influence the final aesthetic of a printed comic:

    I tend to prefer the Fantagraphic approach as it views the finished product as a ‘whole’. In other words considering the overall production system as opposed to getting stuck in dissecting parts. If a publisher becomes obsessed with perfecting only a single component, the finished product will be clean of course, but something will be off. For me it’s like looking at someone that’s had plastic surgery – nice and smooth, but something’s not quite right.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that the remastering (different from restoration) should never outshine the drawing. THat’s why so much modern coloring is so godawful. The linework is quick and casual, yet the coloring is carefully rendered and gradated in a way more considered fashion, thus causing a split in the relationship.

    I like purity – clean linework, smooth colors without signs of dot or hickeys (look it up), but usually it’s impossible to do correctly without erasing a bit of the soul. Like when Holly wood films are ‘restored, erasing signs of film grain and changing previously delicate contrast.

    I’m fine with dot gain. It’s funny!

  13. Kim Thompson says:

    Dan is correct, we have never pulled out line art from a color comic and then recolored it. (Although we will be doing exactly that with the Peelleart material, so it’s not a matter of deep principle, it’s a matter of what we think works best — and is affordable.) We are recoloring the Carl Barks DONALD DUCK work, but we are working from sharp Photostats on those, of course.

    There are some PEANUTS strips that feature thick, sludgy line work in all their available incarnations, leading me to wonder if the original stats generated by the Syndicate were underexposed. We’ve found that going in and shaving a pixel or two off all the artwork, while not a perfect solution, brings it far more in line with what the art should look like, and presumably what it originally did look like.

    It’s almost always a judgment call at some point and I’m pleased with our judgments so far. And there is sometimes more than one valid approach: Craig Yoe’s color comics reprints in the ARF series left a lot more of the “browning” of the paper in than we do, and I had no objections to that, really.

  14. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    Well, with the exception of the Krigstein books, which use a whole melange of approaches, including a few extremely unfortunate examples of the garish photoshop recolor atop color-stripped lineart approach…

  15. Kim Thompson says:

    You’re right, I’d forgotten that Greg Sadowski tried out this approach on the KRIGSTEIN COMICS book for a few stories, but if it’s any consolation he’s regretted it since and has promised that if/when this material gets reprinted these stories will be re-done using the more traditional scan-and-retouch method. I thought the Marie Severin watercolor recoloring on some of the Krigstein stories was lovely, she succumbed to the temptation of adding some watercolor effects here and there that I thought were perhaps iffy, but who’s gonna say no to Marie Severin?

  16. patrick ford says:

    My personal preference is where original art is available the art should be reproduced in B&W from the art in a way which shows as much detail as possible, even if it includes the blood of a squashed mosquito.

    If scans are available the art should be reproduced with the original colour matched using a “Golden Age Palette.”

    And if only the printed comic book is available the best approach is very slightly adjusted scans. Special care should be taken when adjusting the levels of the scans to make sure the printed colours are toward the lighter side of a value scale.

  17. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    Kim, glad to hear there’s a possibility of those stories appearing in a different form at some point. By the way, I too thought the Marie Severin recolors were beautiful–an interesting middle ground approach for cases where stats of the original line art are available. I have to say, though, that the most beautiful thing in that book, IMHO, was a blowup that appeared of the line art for the climactic panel of “World’s Strangest Shuffle,” the panel of the man suspended in air as the train rushes towards him. Just mind-blowing stuff. Greg S. mentioned in the text of the book that some more stats are available of pages from that story–might I be so bold to suggest that those pages, appearing in black and white, would be a very strong addition to any further Krigstein book?

    Pat, I understand why it might be interesting for a cartoonist or a white-out fetishist or something, but why in the world would you be interested in an entire book of reproductions like that? Sure, it can be interesting to peek at what a page looked like when it left someone’s desk, but it’s IMHO significantly LESS faithful to a cartoonist’s intent than just printing the line art AS line art. After all, the cartoonist was creating the image with that crisp black and white in mind. Furthermore, it encourages someone to LOOK at the page rather than READ the page, because the accumulated dirt, weathering, pencil, white out etc reinforces the pages object-ness. Fine for an art show catalogue, but hardly appropriate for reading, which is, after all, the intended function of a comic.

  18. Michael Grabowski says:

    I agree with Sean’s judgment off the “warts and all” approach to reproduction. That McSweeney’s edition of Binky Brown is just short of excruciating to read in that form. Fascinating to study from a manuscript point of view, but not something I hope becomes a trend.

  19. Michael Grabowski says:

    This is an amusing discussion to read given that in many cases the examples discussed are probably seeing their last physical print editions. Next time around they’ll all be digital. And then how do publishers decide on reproduction fidelity to the originals?

    As far as that goes, is anyone bothered by the thought that comics reproduced on the computer screen will be seen in any number of resolutions, at any kind of screen size, often forcing part of the original page offscreen in order to be legible?

    Can’t wait to see this all revisited again when FBI’s Barks books appear.

  20. patrick ford says:

    Sean, It’s because the nuance in the inking only fully comes through if the art is photographed/scanned in such a way that all the imperfections show up as well. I think the trade off is well worth it. It isn’t that I want to see finger prints, and glue stains, but that’s the trade off if you want to see brush-strokes in large black areas, or wash like effects in the inking that come across as solid black when art is stated for magazine reproduction.

  21. there’s a classic fallacy of color correction lurking in the depths here: the idea that color spaces are equal. On-screen RGB is not equivalent to printed CMYK. This way leads to the dark side …

    this entire discussion/issue is deeply ironic and rather depressing … considerable thought & technology is going into reproducing (or is it re-reproducing) a very flawed and crude method of color repro. The metaphor of a house of mirrors comes to mind.

  22. Kim Thompson says:

    I agree that the “original art warts and all” reproduction is great for those who want to study the art, less so for those who want to read it. I have three huge Franquin books reproduced from the original art, and while I treasure them beyond any other object in my collection (in the proverbial “what do you save from your house in case of fire” thought experiment, those come right after my dog), any time I want to sit down and READ those stories I’ll go to the traditional smaller full-color books. Exactly as Michael points out with the BINKY BROWN book.

    But these are trends, I think. Remember when everyone thought it was a good idea to publish all comics reprints on coated, or worse, glossy paper because that paper was perceived as inherently better?

  23. patrick ford says:

    Another part of this is in many instances (Krigstein is a good example) the art in comic books is off the charts more interesting than the story. In fact there are some reprints I have which are a serviceable platform from which to study the art (the Marsh Tarzan), and many others which are not really worth reading (most 60’s Marvel and DC). There is a very wide swath of comic books which I’m interested in only for the artwork.

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