Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Cerebus Anniversary-- Forty Years of a Cantankerous Aardvark Part the Fourth

Sean Michael Robinson:


I wanted to use this week's post to bring some attention to a so-far-unheralded milestone in the world of comics. This month is the fortieth anniversary of Cerebus #1, first published (according to the cover date, anyway!) in December of 1977.

So as of yet, no one's thrown Cerebus a party. No one's baked him a cake. But to celebrate in a smaller, less icing-involved way, over the next few weeks we'll take a look at a few excepts from the essay I wrote for the newly-restored 17th printing of Cerebus Volume One, released January 2017. If you enjoy the excerpt, or really, even if you don't, I'd recommend picking up a copy of the printing, which is remarkably better than any of the preceding printings. (Easily identified by the increased cover price, and the giant REMASTERED EDITION banner on the top!)

This is the last excerpt! 


These shifts both coincided with and were related to the closing of long-time Cerebus printer Preney Print and Litho in 2006. Cerebus printings after that date were completed by Lebonfon, a QuĂ©becois printer capable of doing both CTP and NTP work—they oversaw the digitization of the Cerebus Volume One negatives that same year, after which the negatives were discarded.

Except they weren’t really the original negatives. Careful examination and comparison of all available sources of artwork reveal that only seven of the initial twenty-five issues had retained their original negatives past the first monthly printing of the book. All others had presumably been discarded at an earlier date, for unknown reasons, and replaced with dupe negatives shot from print copies of the book.

Even the pages scanned directly from the original negative were highly problematic. Whomever had overseen the scanning had scanned the negatives directly as 1-bit bitmap images (so-called “copydot” scans), making any additional manipulation—changes in exposure,  or rotation or resizing—difficult without creating moirĂ© in the dot-tone pattern. Additionally, the exposure was spiked while scanning, which burned off most fine-line information and lighter brush-strokes, and made the pages overall much lighter in value than they were initially drawn. In short, taken on their own, the 2006 scans were less than ideal.

Although Computer-to-Plate technology has the potential to produce better-looking books than previous eras, things are different in practice. Because while CTP is more economical overall, in general margins in printing (and publishing!) continue to shrink, and so expertise continues to leave the field. Printing highly detailed line art from negatives shot on a stat camera is a complicated process that took a century to refine, and camera operators were skilled technicians. That kind of expertise is rare in an era where everyone has a scanner on their desk. Which is to say, if we’re at a high water mark for the quality of printing in the world, you would  never know it from looking at the average quality line art reproduction in books being produced today.

But for all the downsides and opportunities for missteps, digital prepress creates opportunities for manipulation and preservation that would never have existed in a prior era. All of those myriad possibilities, and a virtual army of source materials, have been mustered to prepare this book.

In the fall of 2013 I had the opportunity to prepare 120 pages of this volume for print using the best materials available to me at the time. Approximately a year and a half later, having restored more than 1,000 pages of the subsequent volumes of Cerebus, I brought those new skills to bear on the current volume, restoring the book in its entirety from the very best materials available, on a page-by-page basis, using different techniques depending on the type of material.

Top: a Woman-Thing panel from the fifth printing of Cerebus Volume One. Bottom-- restored from the original art board.

The materials used to restore the book can be broken down into three basic categories. The majority of the pages of the book were restored directly from print copies of the original monthly issues, mostly from the “Dave Sim file copies,” twenty copies of each comic that were saved by Sim after the publication of each issue. These were scanned in color at extremely high resolution, digitally sharpened to retain detail in both densely hatched areas and in areas of tiny detail, and then painstakingly cleaned to prevent noise and breakup in the black areas of the page. After all of the blacks were reinforced, they were carefully processed to uniformly shrink the inked areas of the page, in an attempt to reverse the dot gain from the previous printings and prevent further generational loss/ink expansion upon printing. 

Dot gain is the general tendency for ink to spread on paper. This is present to some degree whether you’re making potato prints, or running the latest Heidelberg sheetfed offset press. Every aspect of printing has some bearing on the amount of dot gain—from the substrate (i.e. paper) to the ink formulation. On a web press it’s not even particularly uniform—different parts of the form, and even sometimes across each impression, have varying amounts of dot gain. But it’s mostly consistent per page, and when it’s not, it’s usually visible in the corresponding richness (or lack of richness) of the black.

The visual effect of this spread isn’t linear—i.e, areas of very dense and dark cross-hatching or tone fill in quicker, because the ink is welling in from all sides, and so to all appearances, the darker the area of line art, and the finer it is, the more visible spread there is. But if you were to measure the actual physical spread of the ink, rather than the visual appearance of it, the effect is largely linear. So, if you had a method of uniformy shrinking content, and you had a definitive metric on each page to use to gauge your exposure, one could theoretically reverse dot-gain of a previous printing when working with multi-generational materials, and bring the appearance of a page closer to its pre-print state...

 On the left-- issue two, from the fifth printing. On the right-- issue two, restored from the a print copy of the original issue. Click to embiggen.

And so that’s what I did, calibrating the exposure of each page to the dot-tone present on most pages. This was only possible due to the very fine resolution space the files were produced in. I finished each page, restored and made the most pristine copy/capture of every detail in the original printing, cleaned up all noise in the newsprint, and then applied a threshold command to eliminate any gray. I then applied a very low radius gaussian blur to the entire image, and brought up the levels command, lowered the mids/exposure until the tone I was using to calibrate reached the desired density, then after the levels adjustment, sharpened the entire thing at the same radius that the blur was at initially. The result? All areas of black uniformly shrunk, all detail preserved. In a case where there was variation in visible gain across the page, and that gain happened to line up with the tiers/panels of the page, I adjusted the tiers separately to the same end.

The end result is the reversal of any dot gain in the original printing that didn’t completely fill in an area of darkness. The result is as good, or in many cases better than, the original printings, despite now being one more generation removed. 

(There are other ways to open up line work, but I’ve been reluctant to use any of these “spot-applied” methods, as it changes the overall tonal balance of the page. As a pen and ink illustrator, I’m sensitized to tone in black and white work, how those tones and textures interact with each other. If you “open up” one area of dense crosshatching from, say, 70 percent to 40 percent, but leaving surrounding tones alone, what have you done to the balance of that area of the page? If you “open up” the clogged tone of a figure but leave the remainder of the page filled-in, how have you affected the balance? Therefore, I’ve restricted myself in this work to linear processes that act evenly across an entire selection. It’s not enough that every line drawn remains, but that they remain the same size in relation to the surrounding lines and tones as well.)

The second source was the aforementioned digital scans of the “original” negative made in 2006. Despite the flaws mentioned before, these were a valuable source for the seven issues that had retained their original negatives, as the dot tone was pristine, with none of the variation in tone you see from dot tone printed on pulpy newsprint. It also had information in the dark areas that had filled in in the initial printings.

With the “de-dot-gaining” technique I discussed above, it was possible to reexpose the scans using the tone as reference, bringing the page closer to what it looked like prior to scanning. Then, after completely restoring the cooresponding newsprint version of the page, I could “de-dot-gain” it to the same exposure, and place the two together via Auto-Align Layers function in Photoshop. Lastly, I figured out which one had the most information I want to keep, and erased or otherwise eliminated the rest.

Labor-intensive? Oh yes. Worth the effort? I think so.

The last source of artwork?

Snow. Restored from scans of the original art board.

Of the 538 pages of art in the book, 97 pages are now sourced from direct scans of the original art boards. Most of the artwork was sold in the back of the monthly book itself, or at various conventions, but a few pages were retained by Sim over the years. Dozens more were graciously scanned by their owners, both current and former, and submitted to us via email. (Thank you, owners!) And many were scanned by auction houses, sometimes to advertise current auctions, and occasionally upon request. (Thank you, Comic Link and Comic Connect!)

When it comes to detail and pen and ink textures, the original artwork is in a class by itself. Unfortunately, the mechanical tones used to create Cerebus’ fur and a variety of background and textural effects, have shrunken over time, to a fraction of their former size. Thus every page sourced from original art has had to be restored by digitally copying portions of the missing tone and flying it in to the missing areas. But the labor involved is more than offset by the improvement in image quality. All of these things taken together mean one thing — this is the single best version of this material under one cover, and as more original artwork continues to come to light, future printings will only improve.

And that’s where the book is as of this writing. But a lot can happen between printings. Do you have some originals? A pile of Cerebus artwork gathering dust in a closet in Kitchener? Send us a message! We’d love to have some scans. 

If you’re a new reader, coming to this book fresh, then  congratulations! You have quite the road ahead of you. 

If you’re a long-time fan, replacing an ailing copy for this newly-restored one, I hope you’ve kept your older printing around long enough to do some side-by-side comparisons.

In this essay I’ve touched on many of the things that make Cerebus so unique, as an artistic achievement, as a publishing achievement.  Also unique—Sim’s long-time commitment to the value of the public domain, and the great lengths he’s gone to ensure that when he’s dead, his creations will belong to all readers and creators, to do with as they will; a commitment to give back in same spirit that Young Dave Sim received and reworked the ideas of others. And with your continued patronage and support, we can ensure that Cerebus doesn’t just survive, but thrives, with reproduction not possible at the time these pages were drawn.

Your patronage of this endeavor continues to make these efforts possible.

Sean Michael Robinson
        San Diego, CA
December 2016


Tony Dunlop said...

Speaking of "patronage," my CAN7 arrived yesterday! Yippee!! The commentary reminded me, as if I needed it, how much insight can be gotten when Dave writes about the comics medium. Of course, one must also wade through some very murky ontology (or Ontology or "ontology") which is mixed in.

David Birdsong said...

Sean Michael Robinson: the Steven Wilson of comic book restoration

Travis Pelkie said...

I too got my CAN7 Tuesday, although it might have been there earlier, I can't remember when I'd gotten my PO Box stuff before then. Looks great as usual. Kudos to the crew for getting them out so quickly!