Thursday, 8 May 2014

Colleen Doran: Restoring 'A Distant Soil'

The following Q&A with Colleen Doran was conducted by email by Eddie Khanna following Dave Sim's request to see the result of Colleen's restoration efforts on A Distant Soil and his subsequent comments (Weekly Update, 2 May 2014). Many thanks to Colleen and Eddie for allowing their exchange to be posted here.

A Distant Soil was a frontrunner of the '80s indie comics scene. Colleen Doran's sci-fi/adventure series originally broke several barriers: Colleen was one of the first women in the indie comics scene to write and draw creator-owned comics and A Distant Soil broke ground by featuring openly gay characters as series stars. After a recent hiatus, Colleen returned to complete A Distant Soil with publisher Image Comics/Shadowline. A Distant Soil #39 appeared in April 2013 and the series is scheduled to end at #50.

Eddie Khanna:
I think Dave may have assumed that the books are being printed in your home state because he's looking at saving his costs by having them printed as close to Diamond as possible.

Colleen Doran:
No worries, the point is that he made a bunch of assumptions and they simply don't reflect the reasoning behind why we used that printer. I really don't do many shows anymore. Image wouldn't choose a printer based on the shows I attend, they would choose a printer based on quality and the discount structure they get with that printer. One of our concerns was the die cut cover, and not every printer can pull that off. I haven't self published in decades, and I guess Mr Sim is just a bit out of the loop about what I am doing. But I don't want him to make printer decisions based on false info.

I have to admit, I didn't realize either that the books were done with Image Comics either, and thought it was self-published. I mean I think I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, and I figure that the books will say so on them, and I'm sure the info is out there pretty easily available, but I never really thought about it. I mean, Dave's not on the internet, and so isn't really in the loop when it comes to the current state of things. But I'm an internet user; you'd think I would have at least known or seen it or done some digging. At the very least it seems to add a new question to the mix: is it possible for a self-publisher to achieve those levels of quality on their books.

I am responsible for all of my restoration costs, so maybe that is why people are confused and think I self publish. I have to pay my assistant to restore the books out of pocket. I have not done a Kickstarter fundraiser or anything else of that kind to finance. I decided I wanted to be able to do with my money what I wanted - crowdfunding frowns on payments for living expenses. I cover costs entirely with art and book sales without having to go to the extra labor of producing more product, which takes time and energy from moving forward with new work.

I post things for sale and take them down based on when I actually need funds, and when I am able to take the time to pack and ship. Packing and shipping hundreds of orders is labor and time intensive, as I am sure you can well imagine.

It is more important for me to raise money to pay for my living expenses for the last 6.5 issues of the production of the series at this point: I've almost paid off all restoration costs already. So far I've raised over $40,000, which has paid for most of the restoration and my living expenses for the previous six months of production on new issues of the comic. I probably need to come up with a least $40,000 more to finish everything. I hope we'll raise the sales on the GN's while we go, as we really need to up the sales by a few hundred copies per volume at least. Not an insurmountable goal.

Of course, out of those funds come a chunk for packing and shipping, ebay and paypal fees, and taxes. So my own take on the amount is very modest.

Volume III is the last volume that requires restoration and we are only missing a handful of pages, but cleanup on the original art can still be time consuming - sometimes 2 hours per page. Fortunately, the latter art is cleaner and won't take as long to make ready for production.

During all this I am also working on other projects: I wrote and drew recent issues of The Vampire Diaries, am finishing up a graphic novel with Neil Gaiman, have a miniseries to start for Top Cow, and another series to do with J Michael Straczynski later this fall. So I am busy and finding time to work on ADS is a challenge.

And yes, working with Image is working with an 800 pound gorilla. You get better pricing and treatment from printers. It's a major reason I chucked self publishing. One of many.

I think it's that and also the fact that ADS is synonymous with Colleen Doran to such an extent (from what little I know, it sounds like you've had to fight hard to make sure it stayed that way) and important to you (I recall Dave's comment in an interview that it's such a personal work for you and that you could have made more money working in commercial illustration at the time), that people like me who aren't involved in the comics industry just naturally link the two and assume you're doing the publishing on it as well (if I didn't know better, I'd assume you're creating the art supplies for it as well). Is working on the other projects beneficial or helpful to your work on ADS, and not just in a financial or publicity sense, but in a creative sense? I'm sure it gives you the chance to 'flex' your other artistic muscles or use them in a different way, similar to Dave's cover work for IDW.

I don't know about anyone else, but to me, ADS is a 'Colleen Doran book' much, much more than an 'Image book,' and not just because it's creator owned (although that might change if you ever get pulled into one of those crazy company crossovers and normalman shows up). I am curious though, and this is as someone who grew up reading Cerebus and all about self-publishing, if it was ever to become feasible for you (which I don't know if you would ever consider it to be), would you ever consider self-publishing again? (reading between the lines, I think I know the answer).

I just found out that your assistant who's helping with the digital restoration happens to be one of your fans as well. I mean, it makes sense; someone who's a fan of the series and your work is obviously going to bring a level of attention and care to the matter that you're not going to get with just anybody (the only thing I could imagine being a better situation is having a printer also with the same level of interest in the material).

There's been debate on AMOC regarding the best digital techniques to use for reproduction and restoration (half-toning vs bit-mapping), which from what I understand, has to do with the problems of moire, picking up and maintaining 'fine line integrity' (I just made up that term), etc. I wonder if you'd like to mention what you and Allan found to be the best method to use, since it sounds like you're pouring a lot of work going over each and every page to make sure the work stands up not only for current digital printing processes, but hopefully future ones as well.

I'm flexible. If times change, and self publishing becomes something I want to do in future, yes. Or no. It depends.

I enjoy doing other work for other clients because of the challenge, the chance to work with other people, the income, and the prospect of stretching my skills. It is also very important not to get pigeonholed. I've done hundreds of assignments with other people.

My assistant Allan Harvey was a long time fan, and a photo restoration specialist with about 2 decades experience. I was reluctant to hire him at first, even though Allan is someone I liked very much, since I'd had several bad experiences with fans in the past. I've learned not to trust anyone who says they just "want to help out". There's a bill coming, and you may not be prepared to pay it.

The guy I tried to get to archive my work in the first place lied about his digital skills in hopes of learning on the job to try to worm his way into comics. He was also very anxious to get a crack at my client list.

Long story short, he walked off with the art for about two years and caused a huge mess for me on many levels. We're not friends anymore. I'm just so relieved to get the art back.

Anyway, while whining to Allan about it, I touched on if maybe he'd kinda sorta like to give it a go and he did some samples which knocked my socks off. I am so relieved to have taken the chance with Allan. He's the savior of my project. He is also paid a standard industry rate per hour. 

Allan scans all the art in greyscale and does all his touch ups in greyscale. This was such an important difference from the previous guy who scanned (and taught me to scan) as bitmaps. REALLY bad move. Scan at greyscale, do corrections at greyscale. Place the art on your template for printing and THEN convert to bitmap. My friend Val Trullinger made our digital templates, and we just place them on the blue lined guides and upload the finals. All art should always be scanned and archived at greyscale, as well as archived in final bitmap form.

Most of my original art is done very small: slightly larger than manga publishing standards. But my early art was done larger than standard American comic size. This is where you're going to have moire troubles, because fine tones will close up more when shrunk down from the larger sized art. We had some minor moire tones on some backgrounds on early art: maybe about a dozen panels or so. Not worth getting upset over considering it's a 250 page book.

On later pages drawn at the smaller size, I saw no moire tones at all. While Volume I had about a dozen panels with some minor moire in the background, I didn't find any moire in Volume II, and that is largely because of the size of my original art and use of Japanese tone sheets.

We scan at 1200 dpi greyscale, and then convert to bitmap at 50% threshold. There are a few pages I ran as diffusion dither to retain some grey tone digital effects. We got good results on those as well. I scan art I have here and send it to Allan in London via an FTP site. He uploads finished, camera ready pages after completion and then Image compiles the book. The editor and I go over them and make necessary changes, though there were very few on Volume II, especially. We learned a lot of Volume I and since the art gets cleaner as we go, it's easier to handle.

The only thing I can think of that we are doing differently is we decided not to use the original negatives that we do have. We got so much better results either shooting from original art, or making the effort of restoring the art from scanned pages in the book. We do have some negatives after issue 15 of the series, but to keep everything as uniform as possible, we are not using any of them. And the book looks better for it.

Thank you for this information Colleen, especially the detailed info about your processes and what you've gone through. I can't thank you enough, for this. I really can't. I'm pretty sure I can say that on behalf of EVERYONE who wants to see Cerebus books back on the market. You didn't have to relay any of this, and for that I sincerely thank you

Colleen followed-up this Q&A with two related blog posts about the use of comic art print negatives here and here.

The restored A Distant Soil Vol 1: The Gathering and Vol 2: The Ascendant are available directly from Colleen Doran and Image Comics are currently publishing the final run of the A Distant Soil series, which will conclude at #50.


Malcolm X said...

"Allan scans all the art in greyscale and does all his touch ups in greyscale. This was such an important difference from the previous guy who scanned (and taught me to scan) as bitmaps. REALLY bad move. Scan at greyscale, do corrections at greyscale."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

M Kitchen said...

This is great information. Thanks for doing this Eddie and Colleen!

Sean Michael Robinson said...

Thanks for doing this, Eddie and Colleen!

Unknown said...

LOL... What am I? Chop-Liver?