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!