by Michael Kelleher
I've been "restoring" comic art for almost 15 years now. My company, Kellustration, Inc. ( kellustration.com ) supplies thousands of pages of art restoration every year to Marvel, Dark Horse, Dynamic Forces, and other publishers who present classic material in collected editions. We've been entrusted to restore some of the most important stories in the history of comic books.
I am truly passionate about comic art and the artists that create that art, but I wasn't always that way.
I've been reading and collecting comics since 1975. I never paid much attention to the quality of comic printing. I don't think that the average reader does.
People like me assumed that comic books were SUPPOSED to look like that. I assumed that the thick, blotchy lines were drawn that way. I thought the colors were printed outside of the lines on purpose. Hell, even cartoons in the 50's and 60's started knocking colors outside of the lines in the backgrounds, adding to the idea that it was intentional in comic books. We looked at it as a style instead of the crappy quality that it really was.
It wasn't until I began my job as a 'digital art restoration artist' that I began to see just how damaging the process of comic book printing could be to the art.
My 'awakening, as it were, happened a few years into my restoration career. I was restoring Jack Kirby's cover for The Incredible Hulk #3. I own a copy of that comic. It portrays The Hulk leaping into the air while holding Rick Jones. A missile is flying at him while the military shoots at them from the ground. I always interpreted that as the Hulk carrying Jones to safety while, unbeknownst to The Hulk, a missile was coming after him.
When I was given a scan of the original art to restore for reprint, my interpretation changed. Kirby drew the Hulks eyes looking back at the missile. You didn't see that in the original printing because the lines had thickened to create an almost solid mass. I now saw the sense of urgency in Hulks leaping away. I was now reading the expression in his face differently.
That's when it occurred to me just how detrimental the low quality printing process was.
Add to that, thousands of pages of art where beautiful detail never made it to the printed page. In some cases the lines would disappear, and in others they would print so bulky that they merged into the lines near them creating an undecipherable blob of ink, void of all the work rendered by the artist, like the lines of the Hulks eyes. Lines that the artist intended for you to see. In some cases, lines that the artist NEEDED you to see to correctly tell the story.
It had finally occurred to me that I was in love with a medium that ruined artwork, and up until this point, I hadn't cared. But now I do, and I care passionately.
I loved the aesthetic of old comics. I ignorantly thought that the artist wanted me to see their work in that condition. I ignored the fact that I had owned multiple copies of a single issue Amazing Spider-Man, and each copy had varying levels of quality. Each one had different problems. Some looked much better than others. I didn't comprehend that printing problems were not intentional, so I simply accepted them. No. To be complete honest, I embraced them. As I grew older they reminded me of the comics I loved, and the stories that literally shaped my life. I had decided to forsake the art in exchange for nostalgia.
Now when I see reprinted material, I often cringe. In the past decade we have seen a huge, and I mean HUGE, number of collected editions that are simply scanning these terribly printed books, and regurgitating them to the public with either little restoration, no restoration, or worse, unskilled restoration. And the fans seem to be eating it up, and I like to believe it's because they don't know better, just as I didn't know better.
I'll stop short of calling it an insult to the legacy of these artists, but at the very least it is a disservice to their legacy. When you become privy to the amount of work and detail that the average reader has missed, it's hard for an art lover, like me, to go back. The work of Jack Kirby deserves better. The work of Burne Hogarth deserves better. The work of Winsor McCay deserves better.
In 2015 I took it upon myself to start restoring what I believe is arguably the most important, groundbreaking comic in history, LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND by the great Winsor McCay. We have a Kickstarter campaign running now, and I hope you'll take a look.
The campaign includes a video that goes into a bit more detail about my thoughts on this subject.
( BTW- As a thanks to BC readers, if you contribute to our campaign, and if we successfully fund this project, AND you tell me that you heard about us here on Bleeding Cool, I'll throw in a small, Little Nemo sketch, hand drawn by me. I'm no Winsor McCay, but if you look at my illustration work on my website ( michaelkelleher.com ) I hope you'll agree that I'm at least passable as an illustrator. )
Most, if not all, of McCays Nemo strips have been reprinted in the past. I think those reprints are wonderful and important collections. I own copies of just about all of them, but they all suffer from the same problem… they are all just scans of original printings. Little to no effort or consideration is given to the actual artwork. Publishers simply scan old, horribly printed comics, run a few photoshop tricks, and print the results, which is often a more degraded version of what was already a poor reproduction.
The vast majority of Little Nemo and Winsor McCay fans have never seen the true beauty of his work. When you see the difference, I hope you'll agree that proper restoration is important to the legacy and history of this work.
Now, all that being said, I get it. I understand that some people will always prefer the aesthetic of an old comic book, and that 'scan and print' reprints are much more affordable, which might always make them more attractive to consumers. What I'm hoping is that some readers will gain an appreciation for the art instead of just the medium.
I believe it is what the art, and the artists, deserve.
I believe it is important.