How to resurrect a comic book

Should revived comics be made to look new or faded? Two releases explore both approaches

Topics: Imprint,

How to resurrect a comic book
This article originally appeared on Imprint.

ImprintMemory is evanescent. I can’t recall where I made the purchase; perhaps it was during an elementary-school or Cub Scout trip. Nor do I remember my exact age; it was anywhere between 8 and 10. What I do remember vividly is the visceral experience: the feel and smell of the paper as I unfurled it. The sense that I was both witnessing and experiencing history, which I then held tangibly in my hands. In the morning of that day, my mother had given me some small change for the day’s trip, and I spent it on a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. It was printed on a rough-hewn, yellow paper stock with stains on both sides, and it had a rigidity that made it hard to open (it was folded in quarters). The reproduction possessed a distinct smell, and the texture was coarse, as if it was once damp and left to dry. “Onion paper,” my mother explained when I got home. It sounded exotic. Sadly, I’ve forgotten the whereabouts of that formative piece of paper, but the power of the experience has remained.

As I remember it. Every defect was a hidden treasure.

Around that same time my father came home with a present for me. It was a ream of blank newsprint paper. He was a transit worker, and he explained that someone had left it behind on the subway. For me it became a treasured gift, as the paper looked exactly like the paper of the comic books I so fervently read. With the paper as my narrative canvases, I began producing my own comics by the score: Dr. Sol, The Crusaders, The Saturator, Gas-Man! et al.

Page from The Saturator, created when I was 11. At long last, I could produce comic books that looked like comic books.



Cut forward to 2001 when I first began to go through the Woody Guthrie Archives, located in Manhattan, to explore whether it was possible to make a book of his artwork. (It was.) Peering through his drawings and journals, I had the same experience I had as a child, although this time the documents had authentically aged: The years had added a yellow patina to many of these pieces, despite the fact that they were stored in a climate-controlled environment. This was the first time I was confronted with the question of how best to reproduce this work. Does one attempt to imagine it as it was when originally created, with pristine white backgrounds and colors that have not yet faded? Or reveal it as it exists today, less vivid but with the stains of time present? Since the former was impossible to know, I came to the conclusion that only the latter made sense.

I experienced this again a few years later with Louis Armstrong’s collages, which he “laminated” with Scotch tape. With these collages there was no question about heading back in time—the dried tape was as much a part of the collages as every photo was.

Woody Guthrie’s journals gain gravitas with the patina of passing years.

 

In Armstrong’s collages, yellowing tape adds to the experience.

Which brings me back to comics. One of the first collections I ever purchased, in the 1980s, was Bill Blackbeard’s oversize “Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics,” first published in 1977. Within the anthology, “Hogan’s Alley,” “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Buster Brown,” and myriad others were lovingly and photographically reproduced with great detail on a paper stock closely akin to newsprint.

Imagine my surprise when I began to explore hardcover anthologies of comic books from DC and Marvel, released in the same era. “DC Archives” and “Marvel Masterworks” could not have been more different from Blackbeard’s groundbreaking accomplishment. They were garishly colored on high-gloss white stock; I had the sensation that I would need sunglasses to read them. I soon learned that since the original comics were unavailable—as were photostats—and the original artwork had been lost, destroyed, or scattered, the reproduction involved hiring present-day artists to trace and recolor the comics. The final effect was not so much of a black-and-white MGM classic colorized by Turner but rather like Gus Van Sant’s frame-by-frame remake of “Psycho,” starring Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates.

A page from Bill Blackbeard’s seminal work on newspaper comic strips, beautifully photographed in the pre-scanning days.

 

A side-by-side comparison of the original Fantastic Four #4 comic and a Marvel Masterworks “recreation.” Not only are the tracings inaccurate, the coloring does not adhere to the original.

The first time I became aware that change was in the air was when DC released “Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, Vol. 1. “Here, an off-white paper replicated the look and feel (although happily not the fragility) of newsprint, and the line art was reproduced from the original stats. Fortunately, DC has employed this technique for other releases, although Marvel has opted for the strategy of tracing and reproducing on bright paper.

Smaller publishers like Fantagraphics followed Blackbeard’s lead, and since the advent of digital scanning, many others have chosen similar tacks: Abrams, IDW, Dark Horse, Titan, and Yoe Books all beautifully reproduce from the source. Still, two schools of thought have emerged about how best to achieve an optimum reading experience, both utilizing matte paper. One approach keeps the yellowing borders intact, while the other involves removing the borders and enhancing the colors, as if the comics had originally been printed on white, higher quality stock.

The DC release Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus, Vol. 1, successfully replicates the look and feel of the original comics.

In the next month, two books of comics reprints I’ve edited will be released, showcasing both techniques. “Golden Age Western Comics,” published by powerHouse Books, reproduces the original pages whole cloth, although the blacks and colors have been enhanced to replicate how they would have appeared before fading. In addition, we made minor touch-ups. Up until this point, this generally would have been my preference, as I prefer the viewing experience to be as close to reading a 60-year-old comic as possible; these comics were never printed on white paper to begin with. However, Fantagraphics has removed the borders and all signs of aging on our Mort Meskin book of reprint stories, “Out of the Shadows.” Comparing the two releases, I’ve come to appreciate the advantages of both approaches. As a genre, Westerns are mired in nostalgia, having long since been replaced by other action tropes in modern-day entertainment. With that in mind, a book as object set in a distant time and place seems appropriate. For the Mort Meskin collection, we hoped that a contemporary audience would rediscover him; Fantagraphic’s fresh, newly minted approach goes a long way toward achieving that.

A page from Golden Age Western Comics, published by powerHouse.

A page from Out of the Shadows, released by Fantagraphics.

Steven Brower is a graphic designer, writer and educator and the former Creative Director/ Art Director of Print. He is the author/designer of books on Louis Armstrong, Mort Meskin, Woody Guthrie and the history of mass-market paperbacks. He is Director of the “Get Your Masters with the Masters” low residency MFA program for educators and working professionals at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. @stevenianbrower

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>