Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Cerebus Archive, Going Forward, Again

Sean Michael Robinson:

You might have heard-- there are seventeen days left for you personally to pledge to the greatest Cerebus Archive Kickstarter yet-- at-size color reproductions of the ten earliest pages from Church & State II, with Dave's exclusive illuminating 10,000 word essay on the creation of the pages. The notes this time are something else-- wistful, personal, funny, until they suddenly dive into a 1,500 word tangent on panel borders and Letratape. 

More important than the portfolio itself? The funds we raise will go directly towards restoring Cerebus and printing new editions of the next volumes.

I personally think the portfolios are amazing-- crystal-clear warts-and-all color reproductions, illuminating notes, exclusive bonus prints and great overall presentation-- but the product, hopefully,  is not the actual physical product, but the long-term preservation of this great monument of comics literature. 

And it is happening! Right now, a cargo ship is steaming (?) (I'm not a naval man) its way to America full of 3,635 copies of the best edition of Church & State I that's ever existed, a big brick of a book with incredibly crisp state-of-the-art  sheet-fed offset printing of pages that have had every ounce of detail wrung from them, every blemish corrected. NONE of this would have been possible without the contributions of the 240-odd Cerebus fans who contributed to CAN2.

(The only thing that will make this book better? More original art eventually coming forward!)

That being said, this particular campaign could possibly be the turning point. We've finished High Society and Church & State I, 1100 pages in all, but the last two books of the earliest 1/3 of the 6,000 page saga are still in process. We're currently about halfway through both Church & State II and Cerebus V1, working on them simultaneously, as we don't know which one Diamond will require next.

Up until this point, all of the restoration has been in one mode-- "Do everything possible to make this page as good as it can possibly be." Work with original art even though every single piece of mechanical tone on the page has shrunk to about 80 percent of its original size? Sure. Get a negative scan as well and combine the two to improve the results? Sure. Add in that missing banner there from a scan of a print copy? Sure, sure. Spend upwards of 4 hours (!) on a single page cleaning up tone digitally? Well, uh, okay, but how about we don't have too many of those pages, huh??

All these techniques and more have been involved in High Society and Church & State I restorations. And frankly, this would most likely never happen at a conventional publisher. Never.


Margins are just too tight on books to afford to shell out thousands of dollars on restoration, when, so conventional wisdom holds, readers don't really care about image quality. This is conventional wisdom-- "good enough." With some notable exceptions, publishers seem to be right. People are happy to have a book on their shelf, happy to be able to read it, flip through it when they want. "People want an object to fondle," as Frank Zappa memorably put it. And if some people complain about print quality, well, those people would complain about anything, right? But quality of reproduction DOES matter in comics, which are after all, a visual medium, even more so than film or television, which rely so much on sound and music to carry forward the audience. And Dave and Gerhard's work, the best pen and ink work of the second half of the twentieth century, deserves to have the best reproduction possible. More broadly, I think the more people are exposed to quality reproduction, the more the fine distinctions matter to them. 

Let's take a look a page from the very end of C + S I to get a sense of why the restoration is necessary, and what a more minimal version of it might look like.

I'm going to mainly show close-ups here, as these things are less obvious on screen than they are in print.

Issue 80, page 8 + 9 is a great double-page spread. These color scans came courtesy of the collection of Oystein Sorensen. Thanks so much Oystein!

First off, let's zoom in on a section of that massive chunk of tone used to make the two values on the building--

See the white lines there? That's where the tone has shrunk and moved towards the center. Every piece of tone has shrunk over time, but the older it is, and the larger it is, and the more sun exposure that particular page has had, the more shrinkage there is. This means that the worst pages to restore are pages with physically large tone, across the page-- most of issue 80, the throne room/Astoria's trial, the giant stone heads/Mick + Keef, the tunnel/tower/ascension sequence. Anything with large chunks of tone= a huge pain in the ass.

Then why work with original art anyway? Don't we have negatives for this book?

Well, take a look below.

Here's a small area of the sky/clouds and the side of the building. In addition to the tiny migrated tone on the building edge, do you see all those very fine (and very watery) ink lines making up the clouds?

Here's a closeup of that same area of the negative. Notice anything missing?

About half of the lines of that entire section of the sky, which makes up about 1/6th of the page, have been blown out/have disappeared. too watery for the stat camera to capture.

The same thing applies to the window above Cerebus's head. See all that watery but otherwise excellent crosshatching? All gone in the negative. In addition, all of the fine DARK areas-- the dark tone, the very dense areas of cross-hatching--have have significant fill-in from the stat camera just not being nearly as sharp as the combination of modern flatbed scanners and massive amounts of digital sharpening. 

For the final results, please consult your brand-spanking new copy of Church + State I, in comic stores soon... this is a very stark contrast in print, but harder to communicate on screen.

Every page is different, has its own sets of challenges, but almost all of these challenges, at this stage, are a direct result of the age and condition of the materials, and their non-archival nature. 

Here's an interesting example from the new portfolio-- issue 82 page 5. Great page, great layout, great drawing. And interesting example of tone shrink--

In this case, the Thrunk contour line was drawn over the Letratape border, and so the shrinkage has caused a gap to appear in the edge of the figure. You can also see it to the right, where the line of Gerhard's clouds spilled into the carrier film at the edge of the border, and has now moved down a bit on the page.

Here's another one from the portfolio. Cerebus' tone no longer reaches the edge of the panel border. This one is easier to fix because its largely clear of other lines, but multiply this by 3-8 figures per page and it starts to slow you down.

So, what did we gain from our several hours (!) of work on the Thrunk spread? A few hundred extra lines, no gain/plug-up in the details, a significantly sharper and more fine page that could be printed larger than the original artwork and still look crisp and beautiful. In short, what the page would have looked like had it been perfectly photographed the day it was created.
And is that worth the time and expense?

That's the question we'll have to face going forward, and which this campaign will largely determine.  We're locked into this "anything goes, get the best results possible" restoration for the remainder of the current two books, but if there's a significant drop-off of interest in this campaign, we'll have to move to a more streamlined model of restoration.

For instance, for any future book with uniform materials, i.e. all original artwork or negatives scanned in the same method on the same scanner, I can script the pages, i.e. make a Photoshop macro that will spit out a "one size fits all" approach to every page. The result of this would be pretty good-- the negs, specifically, would look exactly as they did before, and with the better printing provided by Tien Wah Press or another detail-oriented sheetfed offset printer, the books would still look better than they ever have before. You could use a similar approach to the original art, but all but the most general cleanup would be out, so any pages with particularly damaged tone would have to be replaced by negative scans instead. 

But even with the more involved restoration possible, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that is that the artwork is newer, the tone less shrunken, as we move forward. Dave and Gerhard also used less tone in general going forward, with the notable exception of the Fall and the River portion of Going Home. So, assuming those pages are scanned in their current state and not, say, ten years from now, we'll see a reduction in the sheer amount of effort needed to clean these pages and restore them to their former glory.

Assuming, that is, that interest stays strong, and we can keep moving ahead, keep afloat underneath the "rip tides of cash", as Dave has called it, paying out for the expenses of fulfilling the campaign (itself, I believe around 1/3 of the total amount raised) tremendous amount of scanning, for restoration, for design work, for ads,  and finally massive amounts to the printer, then waiting patiently for it to come back, months later, when the books have arrived at Diamond.

Assuming, still, that obsessing over all these tiny details doesn't fry my fragile brain.

Wish us luck!


Dave Kopperman said...

Just posted this to my FB wall:

"Okay - plug time. Any fans of comic art and/or beautiful pen and ink work should check this Kickstarter out. It's a portfolio of pages from Cerebus the Aardvark, specifically from the middle of "Church & State," the game-changing run that introduced Gerhard to the art team. I bought the second portfolio (for "High Society"), and it's seriously one of the most beautiful things I own.

All proceeds from this go to support the current digital remastering of the original comics for new and improved (and supposedly final) trade paperbacks."

Dave Kopperman said...

Also: on the issue of dictation software versus typing. I actually have a LOT to say about this (for example, Dave's spoken, off-the-cuff interviews have the exact clarity and voice as his written letters and interviews), I can definitely understand having an act of creativity being tied to a specific tool. Creativity requires a certain amount of ritual.


I'd say, make a deal with your hand. There are things that are important that therefore need to be typed (such as the text pieces for "Raymond"), and things that simply aren't (such as postings on this here message board). I know Dave's position is that everything he writes is 'read into the record,' but my interest in supporting him (via the portfolios, patreon, covers gallery, and eventual updates of my trades) is largely SELF-interest, in the sense that I really, really, really want to see "Raymond" come into existence. And the thought that Dave's posts here and the essays that accompany the portfolios (and signing them) is in any way affecting his ability to work on that, is, in a word, distressing.

Sandeep Atwal said...

Thanks for the plug, Dave!!

Joe Blow said...

Tone shrinks? What kind of world is this!?!?

Holy cow, maybe glass windows actually do get thicker at the bottom too!