Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Cerebus: Restore What? And why?

Sean Michael Robinson:

Greetings past and future Cerebus patrons—

There are currently ten days left on the Cerebus Archive Number Six Kickstarter, ten days left to support the ongoing efforts to restore and remaster every book of Cerebus from the best available materials, keeping them in print volume by volume, and creating digital masters that, upon Cerebus' entry into the public domain, will be available to anyone who wants them.

But what exactly is it we're restoring? And why?

This seems to come up every few months, right around each campaign. And I think it's a failure on my part to explain to people who aren't doing direct comparisons, holding two "before and after" books with them as they're considering pledging. I write these updates every week, focusing on some small aspect of what I'm doing in the hopes of making it interesting of relevant or at least engaging to some portion of the Cerebus fans that might happen to see it. But I haven't really spent every post reiterating the basic situation. 

So here we are! 

Why the Restoration? 

When Cerebus was being produced as a monthly comic book, the print industry was a very different world than it is now. Full-service printers like Preney Print + Litho received the artwork from their clients, and then had their cameramen shoot at-sized photo negatives of the pages, which were then stripped in to carrier film (with any other elements— page numbers, headers, PMTs, etc) and ganged up on a flat. These flats were used to create both blue-line proofs (using special photo-sensitive paper) and, after those proofs were approved by the client, they were used to create the printing plates that were used to print the monthly book. When the large book collections came about, they were re-stripped onto different sized flats, and the same process began again.

This type of printing — Negative to Plate technology — doesn't exist anymore, at least not in a visible way. For commercial purposes, it's been almost completely replaced with CTP — Computer to Plate printing. CTP has a lot of advantages over NTP, many of them aesthetic, but most of them economic, which explains the rush to change, that overtook the industry in the early 2000s. 

What this means from a practical standpoint, is that visual books from a previous era are stranded in pre-digital form, and must be digitized in some way in order to be printed again.

And you can guess how many publishers would deal with a situation like that. The most economical solution — grab a previous printed copy of the book, sever the spine, and get your unpaid interns to work scanning it, pronto.

Yes, this really happens. All of the time. It happened at huge publishers who are no longer in business (looking at you, Tokyopop) and it even happens at currently existing publishers known for their image quality, when the anticipated sales or regard for the material don't justify the time investment in tracking down the original materials and scanning them properly.

Conventional wisdom is, image quality doesn't matter. Readers are readers — as long as they can read the text, they're just happy to have a book to fondle, even better if it's a hardcover.

Of course, this is a self-defeating pronouncement. The more degraded the typical  publication is, the more likely audiences continue to vanish, or slip over to the digital side.


Here's a scan of page 879 of Church & State, a very visually arresting sequence (and partial tribute to Ditko-era Spiderman?). I've scanned it directly from my May 2004 printing of the book as a 1200 ppi bitmap, using pre-bitmap levels commands to shore up the blacks and knock out the paper color, This is the so-called "copydot" method, used to digitize print materials and negatives alike with a minimum of intervention (i.e. work) required.

And here's the same portion of the page, scanned adjusted and cleaned by me and Mara Sedlins for the Church & State II restoration last year.

Because you're viewing this on a screen, an extremely low-resolution surface compared to the miracle of single-color offset printing on good paper, here's a few closeups so you can appreciate what's happening here.

Keep in mind, the bottom image is scanned from the same negative that was used to produce the plates that printed the top image. So the source is the same. Why then the dramatic difference?

The majority of the difference comes from dot gain, the tendency of ink to spread on a surface. The more porous the paper, the faster the printing process, the more gain is present in an image. The original Cerebus volumes were printed on very porous newsprint, and with very rich black, both which contributed to fill-in, which is most obvious in dark areas and fine areas of an image. The darker the hatching or tone, and the finer the pitch of the line or dot, the more gain was present.

But a lot of it also has to do with the techniques I use to treat the negatives after the scan. By writing careful sharpening routines, I've been able to avoid the softening (and thus filling in of detail) that's present every time you're asking an optical system to resolve fine information. In essence, the sharpening routine is capturing information that didn't get transferred to the plate before.

 Lastly, by scanning the printed copy directly to bitmap (the so-called "copydot" process), I burned off additional fine information through the same softening process.

Here's another closeup of the same page to give you a better look.

 As dramatic as these differences are (from a randomly selected page I had a negative for, no less), the differences when we have access to original art can be even more dramatic.(the original art for this page, for instance, would likely have the fine lines that aren't quite present in the above image, burned away in the original photography)

CAN be, that is, because sometimes the negatives are just fine. But they're inevitably one generation down from the original art, and depending on the page, that one generation can make a very subtle difference or a very dramatic one.

Here's an example of the second category, from Jaka's Story, which I'm currently working my way through.

Here's a lovely three panels of Jaka about to vomit, visually reminiscent of Dragon's Lair-era Don Bluth collaborating with the rendering chops of  Franklin Booth.

 But what's happening in that first panel?

Here's the same slice, directly from the original artwork —

There are smaller or larger instances of generational loss on virtually every page, but what it boils down to is this — from a purely aesthetic perspective, the original artwork is always the best choice. But from an economic standpoint, it's the worst choice. In addition to just needing more adjustment than the negatives — for instance, individually adjusting aged photocopies or PMTs or replacing lost elements on the page, or even the digital equivalent of "stripping" and cleaning the blacks of the page — the mechanical tone on these pages has shrunk and migrated over time. And so, the older the page,  and the bigger the chunk of tone, the more adjustment must be done to keep the tone where it was placed originally on the art board.

Here's an example, also from Jaka's Story. A classic silent double-page spread that says everything that needs to be said at this point in the book.

And the original for this page? Take a look at your print copy of Jaka's Story for a real comparison.

In addition to the incredible amounts of detail you can see that never made it to the page originally, you can also see that the very large piece of scribble tone has shrunk over time, and that the tear in the original sheet (which looks like just a fine line in the original printing) is now a fissure, as the two pieces of tone continue to shrink away from each other. All of these shrinkages have to be repaired for this page to look as finished and polished as it originally did. Sure, we could use the negative (which we are fortunate to have for this book) to work from instead, but we would lose all of that fantastic detail that was never captured in the first place.

I hope you can tell from this post that this is long, involved work. Sorting through the materials. Scanning. Restoring. Laying out the book, composing any back matter. All of this work is up-front before any printing can happen. 

The only reason any of this is happening, the reason I've restored more than 2,000 pages at this point, is because of you all. Because of your contributions, your support. 

Please consider pledging. If you can't pledge now, please consider asking your local comic shop to order you a copy of Going Home, a book I'm immensely proud of. Sit down with your older and newer copy of Going Home and take a look at the differences between the two.

Our goal is to give you a bookshelf full of those differences. With your help, we'll make it happen.


Dave Sim said...

Thanks, Sean!

We found out last week that all of the negatives for MINDS and GUYS are missing.

(Sandeep -- after seeing that I wasn't particularly perturbed -- going for the obvious gag, went "GUYS' MINDS ARE MISSING!" "Yeah, I've been telling them that since 1994." You have to laugh. Nyuck nyuck nyuck)

Fortunately a) we're getting far enough along that there are more original pages in the Archive and b) Sean has developed more and better techniques for restoring pages from printed copies and the copydot versions (that he discusses here). Just more time-consuming and hence more expensive.

And -- at least for the time being -- all the other negatives for the remaining trades are there. Which doesn't mean anything at the Off-White House where things appear and disappear and reappear with alarming regularity.

The only MINDS page I know of is the two-page spread Dawn French bought for Lenny Henry for his 40th birthday. Not sure if Lenny still has it and no idea how to contact him.

We'll keep you all posted as we stumble along.

Mouse Skull Entertainment said...


What ever happened to the Guys page with Mick & Keith and Harrison & Richard that you gave Harry Kremer?

That's a missing Guys page I know of.

Matt Dow

Paul Slade said...

I've just tweeted Lenny Henry giving him a link to this post and asking him to contact you, Dave. If all else fails, I know he's doing a play at London's Donmar Warehouse next April/May, so I'm sure you could reach him there.

Travis Pelkie said...

Neat stuff, Sean. A more bosomy Jaka is always needed ;)

FYI, Tokyopop is back in business, btw.

And I'll be pledging over the weekend. No, really!

Dave Sim said...

Matt - That one has a sad story attached to it, but good CALL! I will look into that one!

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