Thursday, 28 August 2014

Cerebus Restoration Replacement Signature Recap

Sean Michael Robinson:

The new Cerebus volumes have now made their way into civilian hands. And so, as Dave requested, it's time for a little tour through our work on the book. Mara and I put together the following pages--

9 - 32
97 - 160
289 - 320
This is the only portion of the book that we worked on. The remainder of the book is the work of George Gatsis. You can read my appraisal of that portion of the work here.

It's easiest to do these comparisons from print rather than on a screen. So prop yourself up with your old Cerebus phone book, and let's do a side-by-side.


Let me dispense with the self-congratulation first. The signatures we prepped for this book look as good or better than these pages have ever looked in print.

I'm tempted to say “better” across the board, but that's only really true if you have only read these in collected form. For the pages sourced from the original pamphlets, such as most of issue one, these versions are carbon copies of those earlier printings, except with more consistent black coverage, on better paper, along with some other changes I'll talk about below.

As soon as the file copies of Cerebus 1-25 arrived at the studio, as soon as we'd cracked a cover or two, it was clear that we would be sourcing our scans from these. For whatever reason-- multi-generational negatives, deteriorating printing plates, who knows- it was a night and day difference for several of the issues. The 1987 Cerebus collected volume features significant fill-in of fine detailed hatching, clumpy, dark screen-tone, and areas of blown-out detail that are present and accounted for in the initial printings.

So for the majority of these pages, having no negatives and very little original art, we had to do our best to replicate what was on the page of those initial printings, and improve on them in any areas we could.

Page 10, as it appears in the 1994 Cerebus phone book. Notice the dot gain, the dirty tone, all of the noise in the blacks, and the "corrected" text. Whose touch-up lettering is this? Certainly not Dave's.

 Our page ten, after processing but before any cleanup or correction. This page was sourced directly from one of Dave's file copies, which still has Deni's handwriting in corners of some of the pages. Looking at the lettering, you can see why someone decided to intervene when it came time for reprints.

And here's the panel after clean-up and corrections. I've corrected the earlier corrections by cloning Dave's actual letter forms from other portions of the page and flown them in to assist here. It can take some finessing to make this look natural. In this case, the "TA" in "TAVERN" are the original letters, but I had to shift them over to the right for them to look natural aside their replacement neighbors. Having now had almost two month's worth of experience, I see more I would do here now, but I think it's clear this is a vast improvement on the prior printing.

I'd spent several weeks working on, and talking about, a Photoshop action script that would automate the page production, sharpening and adjusting the scans so that the files were prepped with a minimum of by-hand adjustment.

And it worked! It worked beautifully with the High Society negatives I had access to, it worked with the original art we had, it worked with the book scans I tested it with.

And then, I tried it with newsprint. Disaster.

Oh, it worked alright. Every tiny little line was retained, every nuance that had made it through to the page.

Unfortunately, the sharpening also brought up every little blemish, every piece of noise in the original

And newsprint can be really noisy. 

For one, the detail we were picking up from the pamphlet printings is at least partially due to very light coverage of ink from the printing plate, which also meant sometimes uneven coverage of large areas of black. In the scan, this manifests itself as little freckles of white inside of the black, little freckles that expand and grow in prominence as they are sharpened and contrast-adjusted.

The second type of noise is pulpy bits of unbleached paper which, once contrast-adjusted, look an
awful lot like intentionally-made lines or dots.

Fortunately these noise issues are solvable problems, even if the solutions available take time.

Above: An unprocessed newsprint scan from issue 13, with blacks typical of that issue.
Below: A panel from the same issue after processing and clean-up. 

Basically, I tried two different solutions to this. One was to add a step to the script that functioned as a noise reduction stage. I used the Photoshop function "surface blur," with carefully selected radius and threshold settings, which did an excellent job of wiping out most of the noise. Unfortunately, on pages with very fine white on black lines, this also had a tendency to wipe out some detail. Once again, this meant sharpening these detail areas by hand.

This solution was less viable on pages that had any amount of airbrushing/spatter, as the small spatter areas are interpreted as noise by the algorithm.

On these pages, I used a second solution, sweeping the solid black areas with the "burn" tool set on mid-tones. I also experimented with masking those areas and then running noise reduction on the remainder of the page.

There are several other possible solution involving more involved masking and the like, but, as I've said many times, these are the kinds of solutions that are practical when you're dealing with 5 pages, or 50 pages, or even 500 pages. Not the kinds of things you want to be doing with 6,000 pages.

That being said, the automated approach, with the aid of some surface blur, is present on the finished pages. Early in the morning on deadline day, plowing through the remainder of the pages, I let the computer handle 5 pages all by itself. Take a look at 114-118 if you'd like to see.

Those five pages are a good example of the most economic "restoration" possible, an example of scanning the best material available, and using the automation routines I've developed, pointing the computer at them and saying "go."

How then do these pages differ from the rest?

Hows about we start with panel borders?

Let's hear from Dave Sim, circa 1981, describing friend and fellow cartoonist Gene Day.

...he has always crushed me with his sense of black. Where to put it. How much. He leaves the cap off so it will get thicker. There is nothing even remotely resembling a washed-out black on a Gene Day original. And he is so clean! Look at the corners of a Gene Day panel. They're corners! Square -- the corners come to a point. Look at the corners of a Dave Sim panel (on second thought don't look at the corners of a Dave Sim panel).

Throughout most of the four signatures we prepared for this book, I took the (perhaps unusual) step of touching up the panel borders. Specifically, stray lines that wandered out of bounds, over-extensions, any kind of marks that violate the gutter space of the pages.

Like most aesthetic effects that rely on an accumulation of visual detail, it's a little difficult to
demonstrate this on screen. I think page 111 is a good example of this, so take out your original printing and the new one to compare.

A closeup of a single panel of the original, with no correction. Taken in isolation this doesn't look particularly bad, but a page full of ragged unintentional overlapping areas adds visual "noise" to what started as a very dynamic and purposeful design.

 Below is my fairly conservative "cleaning" of this panel. I've addressed most of the overlapping panel border elements and the brush overlap/edge tremor, but left in-panel examples of the same alone. This is how it now appears in print.

Below is an example of how far you could take this work if you wanted. I've eliminated in-panel examples of the same kinds of tangents from all of the spaces obviously intended to be clean-edged. This is the level of cleanup that I would do on my own artwork, although it's possible this veers into "face lift" territory when working on historical material.

To me, anyway, the effect is one of cleaning up the page, of unifying it a bit more than it was originally. The eye is free to focus on movements within the panel, and the tangents created by the stray lines aren't there anymore to distract focus. (Once again, consult the printed pages, as it's much more dramatic there than on-screen, even in blow-up).

I consulted with Dave about this before I did it, but I didn't go crazy with it this time around, mainly because I wanted to get his (and your) reactions to this level of adjustment before I took it any further.

Notice these are not perfectly squared-off, mechanically 90 degree corners. That I'm afraid is not how human beings produce corners, not how ink reacts in real-life, and thus not how I'm squaring them off. There's still hand-made, still human, still how Dave drew them, just not out of boundaries of the panels.

For me there is an aesthetic gain from this that's well worth the 5-10 minute outlay of time per page that it costs. This is also a problem that virtually disappears, say, 100 pages into Church and State I, as Dave has become a more disciplined craftsman, and increasingly relies on Letratape for borders.

So, we've had some significant success here. As promised, no moire patterns, no detail left behind, incredibly crisp fine-line information with no breakup whatsoever, except when that breakup is in the source material. It's a huge jump from where things were at just a few short months ago.

So what can we do better for next time?

First off, we didn't get as much cleanup as we'd like. There is still "schmutz" in a few places, surviving
artifacts of newsprint that we either didn't notice or thought were actual information rather than noise. Some of it is in between panels, some is in white space, some is little white flecks in areas of pure black.

There are three basic solutions to this. One, do clean-up after the files had been grayscale converted. (For whatever reason, doing the grayscale conversion seems to bring up a little more previously invisible noise, even though there was already a threshold adjustment layer in place). Second, use a nice "gutter sweep" technique Lou Copeland wrote me about, to get any garbage outside of the panels in one pass. Lastly, not prep pages all night with no chance for revision! (I'm afraid the last one was the real culprit here).

The second real thing to talk about is the issue of tone shrinkage.

Take a look at page 18. This, like a handful of pages here, was sourced from original art, in this case, a scan appropriated from the Heritage Auction website.



You'll see that in the bottom middle panel, Cerebus is missing some of his tone above his sword. (fortunately, it happens to look light a lighting effect as it is now...)

This is because the Letratone used to make Cerebus' halftone, and various other background effects, was made up of a very thin acetate with emulsion on top, and a sticky backing. Over time this acetate shrinks while the rest of the page remains the same size, causing the tone to either pull away from its original position, or if it was particularly well-burnished in the first place, to rip in half.

I don't know the whys and wheres of tone shrinkage, why certain pages I've seen have none while others have so much. It seems somewhat a function of age, possibly relating to tone size, somewhat a function of some other factor (humidity? light exposure?) that I don't know about. But on a practical level, what it means is, essentially, a lot of work for someone.

Issue 6 (pages 119-140) in the new printing is a good demonstration of both the benefits and drawbacks of working straight from aged original art without time for adjustment.

In these pages I've adjusted only what I considered the most distracting examples of the tone
shrinkage, which I've done by cloning adjacent areas of tone in Photoshop and flying it over to fill in the gaps. This is trickier than you might think, as any slight deviation in dot angle is very, very visible in print, even if it's invisible on screen.

A close-up of a panel on page 134, prior to tone cloning. 

After tone cloning. 

Both Lou Copeland and George Gatsis suggested all-out replacing tone in several instances as well, in places where the tone is damaged by newsprint or even not cut well in the first place. Once again, these are problems that will largely disappear as we get past the first two books.

But they are significant problems, in the financial sense, if nothing else. And Dave is looking to you all, the Cerebus patrons/life support system, for guidance. How much is it worth? If it cost $40 extra per page sourced from original artwork to have all of the tone as clean as clean can be, is that a good use of your money? How about $100, in the most extreme cases?

I think that somewhere between $20 and $60 a page (1/2 to 1 + 1/2 hour of work) is probably the most likely range for pages like these, with so much tone shrinkage, but, as with anything, it's likely I'll get faster, and it's equally likely we'll butt up against some previously undiscovered problem that'll slow things down again. As an example, take a look at the top right corner of page 137. The mezzotint tone on the statue has split and fractured. How do you patch that, short of drawing out all of the tone and dropping a whole new virtual sheet of mezzotint on top of it? The pattern's too irregular to just drag an adjacent area. Any other ideas? The finer dot mezzotint is a little more forgiving, but the coarser stuff needs a careful eye for adjustment. (In the weeks since I've written this, I have solved this one, but it's still a slow solution, unfortunately.)

The second thing to do differently, and the thing that most definitely will be improved in future printings, is adjusting the exposure of the pages evenly so that Cerebus' tone is consistent, no matter the exposure of the source. I won't go into any detail about this now, because I'll be writing about it in the coming weeks. That being said, it's an area I've done a ton of thinking about, and have made a lot of progress since preparing these replacement signatures.

The last problem is an issue that's for the most part out of my control. That's the issue of black density/ink coverage.

On my copies of the book, the ink coverage is on the low end of normal, the blacks a little closer to the "gray" portion of the spectrum, especially compared to the extremely bright white of the paper. The good news on this is it won't be the case for next time. Lebonfon has instituted a series of changes in their press and their ink formula, which they're calling "the Aardvark Initiative," that have done wonders for the ink density. So when we get to High Society, this should no longer be an issue. (If indeed it is here, these things being largely a matter of taste and personal frame of reference.)


For me, the past two months of work have been a blizzard of learning, and a transformation in attitude. Many of the recommendations I made initially, for instance, working almost exclusively from negatives and printed material and ignoring the original art unless there was compelling reason to retreat to it, were primarily based on economics and efficiency. What's the most expedient way to do this? What's the most reasonable way to do this?

But what I've gradually come around to is the realization that there's more to be had. More detail, more refinement. That the closer you get to the source, the clearer things become.

It's a strange thing to look at these pages now. It's only been two months, but I've gained a tremendous amount of experience since then. It's hard to see these pages now for how they are, but rather for how they can be in the future.

And that's really the excitement of this entire enterprise to me. To take an amazing piece of art, and help preserve it, and present it in the best way possible. I'd like to thank all of you for that opportunity.

Comments! Suggestions! Questions! Please! Below!


Paul Slade said...

That's great work, Sean, and a fascinating process to read about.

I wonder if any comic book pages have ever received this degree of sustained attention to ensure they're presented in the best possible form when reprint time comes around?

A single page here and there, perhaps, but not something with as many pages to consider as even volumes 1 and 2 of Cerebus alone. Another first for the little grey fella, I'm betting.

I also love the idea of this leading to the discovery and adoption of new techniques across the board.

Maybe, years from now, working on a completely different job, printers will be telling their employees that the solution to a particularly difficult project is to "aardvark it". By that time, no-one will remember why they call it that: the phrase will simply have entered the language.

The 'face lift" issue is interesting too. My view, for what it's worth, is that tidying up panel corners is fine, but that the tidying up within the panel you (hypothetically) cite here goes too far.

For me, the first removes a tiny distraction, but the second strays into erasing evidence of the artist's hand on the page. If you make that kind of within-panel detail too perfect, you risk losing the human touch and moving into something colder and more antiseptic. It must be a tricky call to make on a case-by-case basis, though, for you and Dave alike.

Sean R said...

Hey Paul,

It seems like there needs to be the right combination of interest, funding, and technical aptitude for something like this to go forward. And when it comes to reproduction issues, there's way more indifference out there on the part of publishers than you might think. Obvious exceptions--the recent A Distant Soil restoration, and much of the Fantagraphics first-time historical stuff. Here's a good (if brief) article on the Humbug project--

As for the "facelift"-- my thinking on this is definitely a work in progress. My mental guideline, even for the more extreme level of adjustment, would always be this--would later Dave (or Ger) have done this to the page themselves? I chose the above panel because it's pretty clear from the artwork that Dave had intended a clear-line, strongly graphic design. These types of adjustments would be totally inappropriate on more expressive drawings, or more organic shapes/subjects.

Thanks so much for the feedback Paul!

M Kitchen said...

In the Cerebus 111 panels, I would recommend the NO CORRECTION method as the preferred method.

Personally I don't WANT to see those lines cleaned up. I want to see the art that Dave originally put on the page.

When lines fall outside of the border panels, that adds an organic element to the page. If the artist wants those lines cleaned up, they can go in and white it out.

I think taking the restoration to that level is taking it a step too far.

Fixing tone and scratches GOOD!

Fixing line art BAD!

My two cents.

Sean R said...

Hey Mike,

Here's the thing--we have the artist's opinion on this. I quoted 1980 Dave writing about this specifically, from a Swords introduction piece, and we can ask 2014 Dave his opinion about it now. If he had had the patience, the resources, or the magical powers to snap his fingers and make perfectly square panel borders, clean up stray lines, he would have. When his skills developed further, he did himself, and later, when he worked with Gerhard, Ger did it. So we know his intent. The real question is, does Now Dave want to help Young Dave execute his intent, and to what degree?

You can take this to extremes, like Scott McCloud did on his collected Zot!, actually redrawing panels. But surely this isn't that, at least not at this level.

Thanks for the input. Would appreciate it if you could clarify it just a bit more, if you have the time. Is it a matter of the historic record? If so, then isn't preserving, say, the errors in the original photography also mucking with the historic record of how these pages looked upon publication? Or is it preserving what was originally on his art board that's the issue at hand for you?

Jeff Seiler said...

Did anyone else notice that in the first comparison above, in all 3 versions (including at least 2 chances to fix it), there are an apostrophe and an s missing after the word "man" or after"aardvark",or both? That's what we should be working on,man--fixing the grammar!


Sean R said...

Hey Jeff,

This is only a portion of the panel. The full caption is grammatical :)

Paul Slade said...

Now you mention it, Sean, I think there is an aspect of messing with the historical record to all this which kind of bothers me too. And it applies irrespective of Dave's original intent or even his wishes now.

One interesting aspect of Cerebus is watching Dave's skill develop as the book progresses. Seeing his patience and discipline improve over time - as demonstrated even by trivial factors like the sharpness of his panel corners - is all part of that.

Jason Winter said...

I agree with Paul Slade. The story of Cerebus the Aardvark is also the story of Dave Sim the Artist. How he developed, how he learned. It's a delicate balancing act you're attempting here. I think your doing the original work proud.

Jeff Seiler said...

Sorry, Sean! I was too lazy to dig out the phone book. Don't I feel stupid.

Anonymous said...

What you've done here is excellent.

I think the third example of page 111 is clearly the best. On the first two, my eye goes right to the tremors. On the third version, I instead focus on the action depicted. The tremors are an interruption of the storytelling.

In fact, in my opinion, it would probably have been better if you had got rid of the stray line on Cerebus' left ear.

At the same time, I think you are right that the panel still feels human and natural. You haven't replaced any of the actual work.

I don't think "originalism" should be a primary consideration in the reproduction of these books because in many cases Dave's intent was not realized in the original art, and definitely not in the reproductions, over which he probably had very limited control.

I think that balancing between the contemporary and the reverential is something that Dave has consistently done in his work, so it makes sense to be both contemporary and reverential in reproducing his old work.

I think you've struck that balance.

Great job!

- Reginald P.

M Kitchen said...

Hi Sean - In response to your last question for clarification:

Paul Slade hit the nail on the head with his last comment.

It's one thing to do digital clean up as part of the original process... I do it myself with my self-published comic SPY GUY. Fixing all those inking glitches that I messed up on paper during the digital pass. But at some point you've gotta say "DONE!". There is a great quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci:

"Art is never finished, only abandoned."

My thinking is that once you commit a page to print, then that ideally becomes the FINAL page.

The FINAL page from 1977 (or whichever year any given page was finalled) is the page I want to see in a LEGACY EDITION.

THE TAVERN! panel is a perfect example case for where digital restoration can be used to maximum effect to bring out the artist's original intent with the lettering. BUT those lines going outside the boarders are things I would like to see kept IN a LEGACY EDITION.

The tone shrinkage is another perfect example for where digital restoration can restore Dave's original intent. He cut the tone to reach the boarder, so ideally in a LEGACY EDITION the tone would extend to the boarder.

It's one of those "slippery slope" things.

If we're not careful we could have Han Solo stepping on Jabba The Hutt's tail, and police officers chasing E.T. with walkie talkies.

Or we could end up having THIS as Cerebus page 1!

M Kitchen said...

ps. I should add that I think the work you are doing on these DOES look great.

Sean R said...

I think the argument from the historical would be more significant to me if this were the first-published work of a long-undiscovered cartoonist, or a modern reprinting of a long-lost original printing, i.e. Fletcher Hanks or the like. But the context is worth considering here. There are more than 60,000 (estimate? Dave will correct me, I'm sure :) ) Cerebus trades in existence. The historical record is firmly in place. What it seems like these Legacy books are a chance to do is to realize Dave's intents as best as possible, without adding anything to the original that wasn't there initially.

The Star Wars updates/atrocities are of course an easy point of comparison, but those differ wildly from this, both in substance (adding completely new elements, rearranging things in a way destructive to the original) and method (using techniques not visually congruent with their surroundings). Dave could have done any of these changes himself with a bottle of opaque white, and in fact, he did so later, on his own pages.

Very interesting discussion! Please keep it coming. I'm enjoying participating, not trying to swat anyone's suggestions down :)

Reginald--thanks! Much appreciated.

iestyn said...

For what it's worth, I think the answer is that clean up in the panel is better.

This is meant to be the ultimate READING experience of Cerebus as far as I am concerned. The more you can deliver the original intent and remove the inconsistencies that push one out of the story, the better.

That goes for going back and replacing the photocopied panels with cloned panels.

There is the Cerebus archive for those who want to see the original state of the art.

M Kitchen said...

What comes to mind is donating hard earned 2014 funds to keep a dead aardvark on life support, only to find he's being given breast implants!


George Peter Gatsis said...

Regarding the cleaning up...

The "Flakes" outside the borders are a maybe... BUT inside the actual panels, is a BIG NO from me.

Preserving the work... YES!

But George Lucas'ing it... no.

I have inserted Cerebus tone where it was originally forgotten, intro banners, patched up the line screens were possible, fixed up the lettering, and brought out the detail where it was originally lost... BUT I stopped when it came to actually altering the artwork.

My two cents... Now I am off to the Cerebus Action Figure... Go figure! :)


Sean R said...

Mike and George,

But all of those things you all are approving of changing, including even cleaning up newsprint schmutz and page exposure, ARE part of the artwork in a very real way, the real artwork being, after all, the published comic.

It seems to me that there are three potential intellectual approaches to a "faithful" restoration--

1. faithful to the original printings
2. faithful to the artwork as it left the drawing board
3. faithful to the intent of the artist

#1 corresponds roughly to the 60,000 Cerebus trades already in existence.

#2 is being fulfilled now by the Cerebus archive project.

#3 is what we're talking about and debating here. Never adding to the page, but in some select cases, removing things that the artist himself would have done had he not been chained to the deadline treadmill.

David Birdsong said...

I think the tone cloning is a must. The cleaned up look and the repairs definitely reflect Dave's original intentions.

The lines that wander outside the panel are fine for the original printings or even individual reprints of the issues, but when it comes to the collected edition why not give the entire thing a once over and fix things? As the series progressed Dave gave up on giving each issue a title and instead just continued from where he left off so that the later trades read more like one continuous story instead of a collection of comics. I agree that what is inside the panel should be presented as close to the original art as possible, but on a case by case basis I would have no problem with Dave authorizing corrections and clarifications.

M Kitchen said...

#2 Please!

George Peter Gatsis said...

whoa... whoa... whoa!

Holding onto the detail by:
-fixing the screens
-placing the missing screens
-placing the missing banners
-closing borderlines
-fixing/cleaning up type
-over and under exposing to hold onto the detail... is one thing.

Altering the artwork by any other than the points above... is something else.

We are restoring Cerebus... Not altering it.

I dig a woman without breast implants.

Again my 2 cents... Now onto the Action Figure! Go Figure!!!!


George Peter Gatsis said...


SEAN you and MARA are doing a GREAT JOB!!!

Now... quit slouching and get back to work! :)