Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ultra - Cleaning up my act (and the art)

Apparently, cleaning up 30-year old artwork is harder than I expected. It seems like the old pencil lines are just embedded in the art board. And when erased, old ink is prone to crack and flake off in tiny pieces, leaving small gaps in once-pristine black lines.

So, I'm using Photoshop to carefully clean and tidy up the artwork for Fanzine Flashback: Ultra #1. And it's going a lot slower than I expected.

Nevertheless, it is progressing. I'm more than 80% finished and the material that is finished looks great. I think it's really going to be everything I had hoped for when I started working to bring this comic book to life.

Those of you who have scanned old artwork before may be wondering what I'm talking about. Most people I know just use Photoshop and adjust the levels to get rid of yellowing artboard and drop out the pencil marks.

And most people sacrifice a LOT of detail when they do this.

I like the detail and want to keep it. I'd rather plod along at a slow pace and make sure I'm giving you the best version of the art I can. To this end, I am cleaning up lines, removing pencils marks, scooping out the bowls and holes in the lettering, and applying a lot of touch-up to make sure the solid blacks are, in fact, solid. I don't want brush lines or streaks when this is printed.

In other words, I'm printing this comic the way I would have back then, not preserving it for posterity. This is not an "Artist's Edition" that will show all the warts and blemishes.

Step One: Scooping out the Gunk
Fanzine Flashback: Ultra #1, Page 7,
in progress of being cleaned.
The first step in this process is to "scoop out the gunk" on the pages. That is, clear out the large areas of white space in the page layout, including the gaps between panels. I do this because the process of using the Levels adjustment in Photoshop darkens the blacks and makes the light areas turn pure white. In this process, little blemishes in the paper (I wonder if they have increased with age due to acid in the paper?) turn gray or black, leaving lots of little spots all over the page.

I could wait until after the levels tool is applied to do the scooping, but I actually found out that it's a little faster to do it beforehand.

As an aid to track what has and has not been scooped, I change the background color to a light pastel. This increased contrast really speeds up my work. In the example I'm providing here, I've just started cleaning out the bottom. I will complete separating all the panels (and sharpening their edges), as well as cleaning out some of the edges of the inked lines.

Step Two: Digitally Erasing Pencil Lines
After this, I will actually go in and clean out more detailed areas and remove heavy pencil lines. In general, Steve Addlesee did complete pencils with heavy lines for the inker to follow. However, there are also a lot of lighter lines where he started to place a shoulder or collar and then changed his mind. Andrew Pepoy followed them closely, but sometimes he added additional touches and interpretations to put his own stamp on the book.

Close up of panel 1, with problem areas indicated.
NOTE: This is a big scan, so click on the image to see it in detail.

That included using zip-a-tone on characters to indicate they are Black. Shading film like this is tricky to adjust; it's easy to let it clog up and hide details of the inking underneath. There are times I have had to go in and scoop out gunk between individual dots. Tedious? You bet. But sometimes it's worth it, particularly around the eyes and mouth.

Here's a sample of what the page looks like after adjusting the Levels and duplicating the layer with the blending mode set to Multiply (if that sounds like gibberish to you, I apologize, but it's the sort of detail that Photoshop users will appreciate). This gives me two identical copies of the layer, one on top of the other, so that thin lines become darker.

Panel 1 after Levels & duplicating the layer and setting the top copy's
blending mode to Multiply. Again, click on this to see it in detail.
Red zones show places that need more work.
By the way, as you'll notice, this process really messes up the lettering. That's why I remove the lettering and process it differently on a separate layer. This method is slow, but it gives me solid results that I'm pleased with.

I also have to retrace the word balloons because, as you'll notice in the first example, Steve used a felt pen for those lines, and the ink actually turned purple over time. Using the Levels tool just turns these lines into a spotty mess (and the Threshold Adjustment isn't any better -- it just makes spotty lines everything).

The process is slow and steady, but as I said, I'm mostly pleased with the results and think it will be worth all the effort when it finally sees print at the end of this year.

I'll post more updates soon!

Friday, November 14, 2014

CCN: Superhero Cover 3

I was pulling links from my blog today so I could send them to a game developer looking for an artist for an upcoming project, and I just realized that I had not actually posted the final cover to the Collectors' Club Newsletter that I was working on earlier this year.

So, without further ado, here it is!

As you can see, this is a wraparound cover -- the reader will see the scene on the front, then open it up to see the picture of the "Earth-2" Captain Epistle flying out of a magazine on the back cover. I created everything in here digitally, and had a blast doing it! I also had a blast figuring out who to do the "old school" coloring on the cover -- I was aiming for a 1980s feel, and I think I did a pretty good job of it. It's not a 100% match to that era, but it definitely conveys that feeling in general.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Why I Hate this Cover by Frank Frazetta

I was recently discussing the great covers that used to grace books back in the 1960s & 70s. There was a raw energy to the painting style back then that seems lost to me under the slick and polished covers that grace books today.

And this cover by Frank Frazetta came to mind.

Now, I love Frazetta's work in general. I think he's one of the great artists of the 60s & 70s. He drew a lot of great comics and painted a lot of great book covers, including a LOT of Tarzan covers. In short, he's one of the premier fantasy cover artists of the previous century, and his work is rightly revered by many.

But I hate this cover. I really do.

This is a dramatic image, I won't deny that. The pose, the menace, the sense of restrained energy about to burst loose.. it's all there. Even though it's a bit dark and monochromatic, i can't argue with the artistry in this image. But I still think it's the worst cover ever.

Here's Why
This short novel opens with a young thief stealing a girl's jewelry from a wealthy house. He then hooks up with some hobos who try to rob him, but is saved by another hobo and -- on the run -- they take refuge in a house. And then spooky stuff starts to happen: someone was murdered there years ago, they find a body in the house, and a girl is tossed out of a speeding car outside, and there are creepy noises coming from the basement. Growls and chains... oh my! Whatever could it be? I dunno? Maybe it's A BIG BROWN BEAR?
There's a complete plot here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oakdale_Affair

And that's why I think this is the worst cover ever because it reveals the answer to the mystery that occupies about half the book. This is akin to doing a cover for Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" and showing twelve people with knives standing over the body.

And this brings to mind several times in the Silver Age (and later) when the cover art of a comic revealed something important inside the story. I'm trying to remember specifics, but I clearly recall this happening in the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, as well as in an issue of Batman (or Detective Comics). Can any of you guys think of specific examples where the cover revealed the identity of a character that the writer was trying to hide?

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween 2014: Afterlife with Archie

This year, to celebrate one of my favorite holidays, I decided to create a large display in my yard based on my favorite comic book, AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE. To this end, I created a graveyard complete with tombstones for all the members of The Archies, and even created a life-sized figure of Jughead as the King of the Zombies!

Here it is by the light of day...
It is roped off with purple lights. The backdrop is painted plywood.
Since I took this photo, I have added a shelf to the back of the
wall so I can rest two pumpkins on it.

And at night it comes alive with black light.

Not even poor Betty could escape.

The two pumpkins up front rest on a small "brick" wall.

Looks like our boy's been eating ribs... but whose?

There are four black lights used to illuminate the scene.

And Jughead is lit from within

I got the Jughead mask as Halloween Express for about $20.
The rest of the pieces came from a Dollar Store, including the hands,
lights inside the hands (just strings of orange mini lights)
and the night light inside Juggie's head.

My Wife carved these "Funkins" a few years ago. Slowly but surely, we add
a new on each year. I'll actually pull out a lot more tonight when the
Trick-or-Treaters start making their rounds.

The tombstones are made of two flat Coke cartons that are duct taped
together and then painted with black paint for daylight, and
highlighted with glow-in-the-dark paint for night.

Almost everything here is custom made I did buy the Jughead mask (and, of course, all the paints, lights and plastic body parts), but the rest were created by me. All in all, I'm pretty happy with the display, although there are a few additional touches I'd like to add. But, the boils and ghouls will be here this evening, so the Riverdale sign and other touches will have to wait until next year.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Comics: Archie & the Gang as Superheroes

I was browsing through my Archie comics the other day and came across some fun reprints of the 1960s SUPERHERO versions of the Archie Characters. These were created back when superheroes were finally coming back into the mainstream consciousness after the drought of the 1950s.

For those of you who don't know, superheroes all but vanished during that decade: only the BIG THREE maintained constant publication from their halcyon days of the Golden Era that was the 1940s: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Other heroes did pop up here and there, but the magic was gone. Even Captain Marvel (who once outsold Superman and moved a million comics a month) had hung up his cape (mostly due to a lawsuit from DC, but even if not for that, his glory days were also gone).

But 1956 changed that. The new version of THE FLASH revived interest by updating an old hero for a new age. Within 10 years, superhero mania swept the nation, especially when the Batman TV show became a monster hit in 1966.

Even the Archie gang was swept up in this super fever.

In October 1965, both Archie and Betty gained super powers: Archie got them in Life With Archie #44 and the girl next door acquired hers in Betty & Veronica #118. I personally didn't read these until the 1970s when they started reprinting these stories in their digest comics. I loved them, especially the Pureheart stories because they toyed around with the idea that they could actually be happening in the major continuity; every time Archie called on the "PH Factor" to activate his powers, it scrambled the memories of everyone around him, including himself, so he wasn't sure if these were real adventures or just daydreams.

The first Pureheart issue was illustrated by one of the underrated Archie artists, Bob White. Bob didn't acquire the following of Dan DeCarlo or Samm Schwartz, but he definitely captured the zany villains and absurd fun of these stories.

Copyright 1965 Archie Comics

I'm showing Super Teen's first appearance here, drawn by the incomparable Dan DeCarlo, but I'm actually showing the second appearance of PH because it's a better cover, AND it introduces his nemesis, EVILHEART (who is none other than Reggie Mantle). Of course, Jughead would soon follow with CAPTAIN HERO. It would actually take until 1995 before Veronica would get in on the game and get her own super identity as... Miss Vanity.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ultra Update: The project in a nutshell

I realize that I haven't been exactly clear about what's going on here. So here it is:

  • About 30 years ago (among other things), I created a superhero called ULTRA.
  • I sent rough sketches to Steve Addlesee, who refined my initial costume ideas and did some concept art for me (check the last post for two of the images from the character design phase).
  • I then wrote a 20-page story and Steve penciled and lettered it. I may or may not have done some layouts/breakdowns for this story.
  • I then had some trouble finding someone to ink it. Ken Holden, Jr. inked the first 5 pages, then dropped the project due to other commitments.
  • Andrew Peopy (who was a teenager at the time and has since gone on to become an award-winning artist) inked the first 11 pages before dropping it (it's also possible that he never got the second half of the story -- I'm not sure).
  • I then got distracted with other things -- being the president of the Collectors' Club, going to college, dating, etc. All the usual things encountered by guys in their early 20s.
  • So I dropped the project. It's been sitting in my files, unfinished and unseen for about 30 years.
  • I recently went through my files and found a LOT of cool stuff.
  • So, I've decided to reactivate my old fanzine label, MELEE PUBLICATIONS, and print/reprint some of this old material.
  • I've contacted both Steve and Andrew, and they both gave me their blessings on this project. And they will receive royalties from each issue sold.
In future updates, I'll fill you in on the clean-up process for the artwork, and some of the other zines I'll be printing.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ultra Busts Out in COLOR!

This may sound odd, but when I created Ultra 30+ years ago, I never really thought of her in color. I was pretty sure she was a redhead, but since I was working in b&w line art, I designed the costume to look good in b&w. Back then, color was prohibitively expensive for a small press publisher to use, so it really didn't cross my mind.

Of course, nowadays we have cheap Print On Demand color, and the Web is a cornucopia of color. It's everywhere. In fact, the only people using black and white on the Web are doing so to be artsy (and even then, most of them use pops of color for emphasis and drama).

But I digress.

Now that I'm going to reprint ULTRA in this modern era, that means I need to figure out what she looks like in color. And, I must admit, that's proving to be a challenge.  You see, I really like the idea of gold boots and wrist bands. I also know she's a redhead. So, of course, that moves me toward green as her costume color. Um... high yellow boots and a green outfit? Sound like anyone's favorite female mutant with a fiery bird motif? Yup. It would be very easy to have her look like Phoenix.

Which is something I don't want.

So, Right now I'm taking suggestions (my old buddy Eric C. suggested I glam her up with metallic colors and some greens, purples, and so forth. I like it, but I'm not sure it's exactly the look I'm going for.  

Ultra Color Concepts. If you have any suggestions, send 'em in!

 I also took Eric's advice about making the trunks and vest purple. I actually kind of like that (as you can see above, I extended that to the trim on the boots). I'm considering adding it to the wrist bands. I like the orange, but it reminds me a bit too much of when Nova Kane had super powers in the old E-Man comics. It's also a little too Aquaman for me. But -- well -- it does kind of work. 

If you have any suggestions for her costume colors, send 'em in. If I use your idea, I'll send you a free PDF of the comic when it comes out.

Ultra will soon appear in a full-size comic book, FANZINE FLASHBACK: ULTRA #1. It features a 20 page story penciled by Steven R. Addlesee and the first 11 pages were inked by a teenaged Andrew Pepoy. For project and ordering info, visit us at: www.meleepublications.com