Monday, July 16, 2007

More Original Art Stories: DC Comics Archives Vol 1

More from the on-line pen of The Former DC Staffer arrived today. I actually own this book so I read this with a great degree of interest. I always thought I was the only one who read this kind of stuff with interest, so it came as a pleasant surprise to learn (and discover) that not only are people reading this, but a few people who've worked in the industry at the time are also enjoying the FDCS posts and following them with an even greater interest - after all if they were there and weren't aware of what was going on, well then how are we to know the behind the scenes activities. I've always known it, some books have more than suggested it, that sometimes the stories behind the stories we know and love are far more interesting and enjoyable. This entry is no exception - what you think you're seeing isn't what it's supposed to be.

Over to The Former DC Staffer!
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Towards the end of my tenure at DC Comics (1989) the inevitable finally happened. The announcement of the DC Comics Archives series was long overdue for many of us. Most in the production department were looking forward to a line of books that could (with the right selections) compete with the successful Marvel Masterworks series. We all had suggestions as to what should lead off the editions, the Justice League of America’s first 10 issues was the favorite, but were all surprised by the initial selection. Superman numbers 1-4 may have been what the company thought everyone wanted but at the time it seemed like an odd choice. There were many problems to be overcome with this concept. The first problem was basic, where were we going to get the art? The books were printed around 1939 and there was no film available for them. Now it’s true that 1/8 or less had been recreated but most of the work just didn’t exist. The second problem would follow the decision on the how the first would be handled.

Greg Theakston, of Tease and The Betty Pages fame, had come up with a method that would provide somewhat usable art for reproduction. His method (later to be called Theakstonization) was simple enough, bleach out the color from actual comic book newsprint pages and retain the black line. Of course this meant destroying actual copies of Superman 1-4. Over in production the assistant art director and I had a different idea. With Bob Rozakis’ blessing we took a few printed pages from Superman #1 and sent them out for printing in non-repro blue on Strathmore paper. At the same time I had a photographic house try and use filters to eliminate the color from a page and create a film negative. The Strathmore work came in first and what we had was a page that an inker could delineate and restore. A letterer would follow and add copy. In essence we would reconstruct the art with the original art in place. After some numbers crunching by Rozakis this would prove to be too expensive of a proposition (though he did think it was a good idea) and it was scraped. The photographic house had dismal results and that left us with Greg Theakston’s method and we waited for the pages to start rolling in.

At times the pages were good with little work needing to be done, however when the pages were bad they were almost unusable and that created the second problem. The reason that some of the pages were bad was that the bleaching process would remove the color but start eating at the black plate itself. You have to remember that these comics were close to 50 years old and falling apart. Much of the Theakston pages had to be re-lettered or re-inked and I assigned this task to various letterers and production artists with the request that they try and mimic the style of the original. Some ignored this outright while others gave it their best shot. Everyone in the production department had their hands on this book. Pages were flying every which way, this person would draw, this person would paste copy, this person would ink and round and round it went for days. We had an impossible deadline to meet and there were still the monthly books to deal with as well. As soon as a set of pages was completed it was sent out for color. A problem did arise with the first Superman issue. The first story had come in and most of the art was in need of repair. But since most of this had been recreated years before a simple substitution was made. But there were still pages that needed to be replaced. Mark Waid, editor, had earlier on shown me very good photocopies of the original newspaper strips that the first story was culled from. I remembered reading that the story had been cut and pasted from those strips so I thought if the company had done it then, why not now! I borrowed the copies and within a day had several new pages to replace the inadequate ones. Still I was unhappy with the overall inconsistent quality of the project. The final version just jumped around from solid blacks to choppy lines. It looked like hell.

Somewhere in all of this Alex Jay (designer) had come up with a sort of sports themed cover motif for the character to be set in. I didn’t think much of it and looking at it now it really hasn’t held up well. Richard Bruning, Art Director, did ask me if I wanted to give drawing Superman a try for the cover. I had misgivings about the assignment. I know most artists would have given their souls to do it but I knew how the first book was going to look and that made me nervous. Bruning put the guidelines to me, re-create the classic figure from the cover of issue #1, modernize it but retain Joe Shuster’s look, and finally, keep it organic and use a brush. I was also told that I would receive no credit for the work (considering the fact that all of the volumes have since had a credit, this was an insult). I did accept the job and with my photocopy of the cover to Superman #1 I started my research and drawing. I turned in a couple of sketches and Bruning offered suggestions. I did the inked version and we had our cover. I was happy with the results and, signing the necessary work-for-hire contract, received a check for $150.00. I would regret doing this cover for years.

The day the book arrived in the office everyone seemed to be in love with it. I looked at it and found that it wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be but it was still very far from being a quality product. The glossy paper didn’t help and the colors just looked so bright that you needed sunglasses to read it. If anything the price tag of $39.99 just seemed excessive. Who would want or pay for this? And for a very long time people didn’t. Many comics dealers had over-ordered and were stuck with copies they couldn’t sell. It would take years but in the end Bob Rosakis was right when he said, “We’ll be going back to print on this!” For myself the real torture was seeing that cover image on T-Shirts and posters all over NYC. One comic shop had enormous prints made of it promoting their location. I now knew what it felt like to not have control over a piece of art I created. It occurred to me shortly after I had quit the company that my tenure was based on learning how to protect myself as an artist in the future.

With new computer driven tools for reconstruction of golden age art perhaps the first volume has been improved, I don’t know. But seeing the Superman Archives V.1 (hard cover edition) now at a price of $19.99 seems very affordable and worthwhile. The cover is one of the only pieces of DC art I created during my 4 years that still remains in circulation.

Last year I found the original art in my files and thought I’d try and sell it on eBay. I got $100.00 for it and the buyer thought it was great! That was really all I could have asked for.

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