Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Restoring Black & White Comics: Cerebus & High Society

Cerebus Vol 2: High Society
30th Anniversary Signed & Numbered Edition
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
I probably should have been clearer about the situation with the restoration of CEREBUS and HIGH SOCIETY (see High Society Update, 18 June 2013). I think George Gatsis has done a phenomenal job with the materials at hand and the circumstances dictated by computer printing in 2013. I say that, having looked at most of both books under my 8X magnification jeweller's loupe. When you greyscale dot tone, you get dots on top of dots -- that's unavoidable now that computer scanning is the only way to reproduce artwork available to us...

[back in the old days, if the HIGH SOCIETY negatives had been destroyed, the best way to restore the book would have been to shoot the earliest printed pages from a printed copy of the book with the standard upright camera. It would have required an expert cameraperson such as they used to have at Preney Print & Litho who would know what to do with the fixed flood lights, how long to expose the image and at what setting, etc. and a willingness to change all of those variables on a page by page basis depending on how dark or light the page was. That would have produced an alternative set of negatives which could then be "burned" into metal plates just as the original negatives had been. It wouldn't have been perfect: but it would have been the best possible second-generation reproduction available.]

...I really had to marvel at what George accomplished, presumably in Photoshop, basically adjusting the darkness and contrast settings to "bring up" the artwork and "take down" the greyscale dots,  cleaning up each area of the artwork as close to the artwork as it was possible to get so there would only be a faint "ghosting" of microscopically small dots next to the pen and brush lines.

So, for all those people who contacted me about helping with that end of the process, I apologize for not explaining that we are definitely past that stage and -- given the severe limitations of computer reproduction -- George has done far better than I could reasonably expect.

No, the problem is that when the PRINTED copy of HIGH SOCIETY came in, all those faint "ghosting" of microscopically small dots weren't a) as faint or b) as microscopically small as they had been on the proofs.  In many places they were actually quite dark and quite large (relatively speaking) which meant the page looked "blurry".

The problem is, whatever the printer is using for proofs are computer-era proofs -- more accurately "proofs". Back in the day (gum gum gum) we used to get what were called bluelines which were 100% accurate copies of what the printed artwork was going to look like. Just printed in blue on a slick cream stock (for some reason). The only variable at THAT point was the pressman and the ink flow onto the printed page.

[At one time, Preney lost track of the plot and we had an issue come in that was way too dark.  Yes, we wanted nice dark solid blacks, but the line work was filling in in places. I finally I had to tell Kim after, I think, three issues:  come back THIS way. Don't do solid black, do really, really dark grey such that you would think I would reject it because it wasn't solid black enough. I'll take responsibility.  Which he agreed to do (not happily, but he agreed to do).  The book came in and it was perfect.  Ger and I were both relieved.  THERE!  Like that -- print it like that.  And we never had the problem again.]

I'm writing this June 28 and this is now the end of the second week that the printer has had all of our corrections and citations of where the "proofs" differ from the printed copy. I have no idea when I will hear from them, but I don't imagine they will be very happy, either, when I do. I don't imagine they're very happy right now with their printing plant overflowing with 3,000 copies of both books -- basically a half million sheets of unbound CEREBUS and HIGH SOCIETY. I don't imagine they're very happy looking at the difference between their proofs and their printed pages.

But, then, I'm not very happy that this is now close to a year of having my two best-selling books unavailable.

You just have to be patient and hope that somewhere up ahead there is good news about this situation. Or less bad news.

Stay tuned! And thanks to everyone who ordered a copy at their local comic shop. Very much appreciated.

Before the restoration began, I had observed that the detail of the artwork between:
  1. original art and the printed page, and
  2. the film negatives and the printed page
had a great deal of detail in the artwork go missing due to:
  1. the faint lines disappearing, or
  2. details filling in on themselves in the dark areas
  3. scratches and holes from adhesives such as printers' tape that held the negatives to the signature sheet
  4. degrade of the original artwork that required a major clean up
  5. missing elements on various pages, such as Cerebus 30% screen, titles and white lettering against black backgrounds.
I have made 2 free PDFs that showcase examples of all the work that has gone into the restoration, which can be downloaded at Cerebus

The only possible solution to get all the detail possible was to scan in greyscale and:
  1. adjust (dodge) the dark areas to bring more definition in the dark areas, and
  2. adjust (burn) the light areas to bring more definition in the light areas.
This required that each page and each panel and each image of Cerebus be inspected for:
  1. cleaning up the faint aged "film" out of the 30% screen
  2. making sure that Cerebus 30% screen is as close to BLACK and WHITE as possible, thereby removing any possibility of an additional screen caused by the printer (no grey valued dots no printers screen) which also removes the possibility of having a moire pattern occur.
The DIGITAL proofs the printer supplied us, were just that... Digital. They did not show the printers dots, until it actually went to press. Once the unbound printed books arrived, I was able to quickly pick out of 1000 plus pages, 110 pages that need to be fixed.

The fixes were mostly regarding the 30% screen on Cerebus. But there were also other concerns as well. Some pages seem "blurry." This was caused by a hint of shadow that was cast during the scanning of the film negatives. The shadow was too faint/un-noticeable in the digital proofs... But in the printed samples, it became VERY noticeable.

Another concern was a technical problem with the printing... There were "ink blots" or smudges on the pages in white blots against black artwork AND black blots against mostly white pages.

All in all... Flagged, adjusted and corrected and sent new files to the printer.


Sean Michael Robinson said...

Wait, is Dave saying that the book will be halftoned, or that the "proofs" are halftoned? The latter is an unfortunate byproduct of modern printing/turnaround, but the former would be a disaster to the line work. A total, unmitigated disaster.

Digital technology can certainly accommodate nice line work--you just have to send the printer 1200 dpi bitmaps and make sure that they stay that way all the way through the final stage!

M Southall said...

Kudos to George for the selfless volunteerism to this project, without which it could not have happened.

Sean Michael Robinson said...

What doesn't make sense to me even after reading over Mr. Gatsis' technical addendum is why ANY of the book would have any half-toning at all! The artwork was created for viewing as line work, which means that regardless of what kind of lightening and darkening was applied to portions after scanning to change the "exposure" if you will, the final step before sending it to the printer would be to render/flatten/bounce the individual pages to 1200 dpi BITMAP files, i.e. no gray pixels at all. What could possibly be the purpose of having grays represented in the artwork when it was created to be viewed as line work? i.e. continuous lines.

If this seems too technical for anyone out there, halftone (or printer's screen) is essentially a trick to represent gray with a single printing plate, wherein rather than a portion of an image being, for instance, a continuous line, it's represented by varying densities of small dots. The moire effect they're complaining about here is a result a printers screen being applied to a preexisting screen (i.e. the tone on Cerebus). The majority of moire can be avoided by scanning at an appropriate resolution, and outputting a bitmap file at the exact size and ppi that the printer requires to make the plate, and not doing any kind of scaling after that conversion.

Short version--all the little lines in High Society will now be little rows of dots instead.

Please please tell me I'm wrong.

(Please tell me this same method won't ever be applied to any of the other books.)

A Moment Of Cerebus said...

I asked George for his thoughts on your comments. This is what he sent through:

If the scanning was that simple... Everything would be ok? Heck no.

Higher resolution, and bitmap as well... will not ever capture the detail a grey scale scan can.

If you do bitmap... Which is essentially black and white... You will end up loosing detail... It's that simple.

And Cerebus artwork is not simple at all... Not even close to being simple.

On one page, you'll get:

1) perfect black and white pen/brush lines
2) faint lines that will literally disappear if they are not "burned" / adjusted to have some line weight to survive the printing
3) and the reverse of this, where white lines on a black background have to be "dodged," so the lines survive the effect of ink CAVING in around white lines and areas that are too faint.
4) the Cerebus screen itself has a "film" effect on it... Which needs to be adjusted separately, if it's original artwork... And if it's a film negative, it needs to be adjusted differently from the surrounding area of just black and white lines... Why? Because the scans, no matter how well it gets scanned, they end up having a shadow cast... Which requires adjustment to remove it... If you do it universally, you end up loosing faint lines against a white back ground and...

OH WAIT!!! Why not just go and look at the PDF examples of the work? They clearly illustrate the complexity and scope of the challenge.

Bottom line... Dave's work is not simple... This work has, for the first time, kept the detail of his work from disappearing in the printing...

"Before"... everyone has been content on what was...

Well, what was, what we have been looking at all this time has been less than what Dave had put on the page... Just go and look at the PDFs woulda ya?


Sean Michael Robinson said...


I'm not suggesting you should have scanned at bitmap. All of the admirable (and painstaking, it looks like) adjustments you've alluded to here, and represented in the PDF, could be preserved and still avoid having the printer halftone screen the linework. You scan in gray scale, as you did, do all the adjustment just as you did, and then convert to bitmap at the final stage.

You don't GAIN detail when there's a screen involved. Never, not if you're representing something intended to be continuous (i.e. ink lines). It's just how you treat line work! Otherwise you're instructing the printer to treat all these little lines as a bunch of soft little collection of dots instead, in which case, why did Dave ink the artwork in the first place? Why didn't he just leave it in pencil back in 1980 and have the printer make a screen of it back then?

I realize that there have been several boutique books over the past half decade that have represented line art as "full color" artwork so that the viewer is getting a more "warts and all" perspective on the page. (Binky Brown, IDW "Artist Series" etc.) So someone's staring into the actual process a little bit. And in that case the screened approach is justified by the "detail" added by seeing things like stains on the paper, whiteout, variation in large solid black areas etc.

But it doesn't seem like this is the intention of this project at all. Based on your statements, and the who knows how many hours of work you've done on this, that you want the best looking, sharpest product possible. And I (not so humbly) suggest that not screening the artwork that you've painstakingly adjusted is the best way to achieve a result that has the detail you want, and doesn't change Dave's field of lines into a field of anemic dots.

A piece of paper is not a computer screen. Printing from high-resolution bitmaps doesn't result in the mess you see on a screen when you're looking at a bitmap--it results in the sharp satisfying line that's actually on the page of the original artwork.

I see two possibilities here. One is that you guys are aiming for something very different from how the book has previously looked-- for instance, treating large black areas as if they were ink washes, representing those kinds of variations and drawing attention to the object-ness of the page.

Or, there's some basic misunderstanding of printing technique going on.

Sean Michael Robinson said...

I'm sorry if this comes off as obnoxious to you. But his is a book that means a lot to me, and this is a problem increasing across the publishing industry as people lose track of very basic facts of printing. I was shocked, for instance, to open up a very well-designed copy of a Penguin Alice in Wonderland the other day to find all of the illustrations were half-toned, so that the edges of every line were softened and neutered by little dots. And why would this happen, with woodblock print artwork that was intended for continuous reproduction? (i.e. not screened)? Because presumably some intern in the design department doesn't know any better and sent the printer grayscale scans.

This isn't a theoretical discussion for me. I had a book come out in September which I designed, co-wrote, and illustrated in a style intended to emulate copper plate engraving--teeny tiny little lines, almost beyond the "resolution" of the paper. And I scanned them high-resolution grey scale, and painstakingly adjusted the exposure, not unlike what Preney would have done to Cerebus pages in the past, albeit with much more control--and then converted to bitmap as the final stage.

Boom. Beautiful digitally reproduced teeny tiny lines. No screen.

Anyway, I've said what I needed to say, and I'm sorry if any of this is distressing. But I really really urge you guys to talk to someone who's an expert in printing and talk this over with them, or get the printer to provide a sample plate reproduced with the technique I've described. Though it sounds like it's very much too late for this book, or at least this edition.