Friday 13 May 2011

Buz Sawyer review

Buz Sawyer - "The war in the Pacific" was released by Fantagraphics earlier this year.
Now, Roy Crane is one of my all time favorite comic strip artist and Fantagraphics is one of my favourite publishers. Crane is the master artist and storyteller and Fantagraphics have a great history of publishing fine books.
What could go wrong? Well, something obviously did here.

The first thing that made me worried about the project, even before the book was published, was that Rick Norwood was announced as the editor. He's probably a nice guy (I don't know him) but he's got a track record of reprinting classic strips in bad resolution taken from bad sources in his magazine "Comics Revue".
When the book was published I started to ask around if anyone who had actually seen the book could tell me what the reproduction quality was like.  The answers got me worried and I put off buying the book. But Roy Crane is Roy Crane and I knew someone at FB must have given the book thumbs up before it went to press so ... I picked it up.

The preface by Jeet Heer is really well written. (As is everything I've read by Jeet!)
But boy, am I glad I didn't sell my old Dragon Lady Press and Pioneer reprints!
The quality of the repinted strips varies a lot in this book. Most of them are muddy. Both as a result of bad source material (Guess it's because they didn't find a good set of strips where the bottom hadn't been cut. Many of the strips from this era comes in two formats where the cut version seems to be more common.) and too low resolution when scanned I guess.
On the other hand there are a few pages that looks as if they are scanned straight from proofs. Other seems to be scanned in high resolution but from bad sources.
I wonder if a combination of high quality cut strips and not so good full strips could have been possible? With someone in charge who knows his/her way with photoshop I guess that would have been the ideal way.

Here's a sample of what I mean. Just so you can see for yourself.
Left image taken from the old DLP edition and the right from the FB book.

You can see what the low res scanning has made with the lines in the background.

This panel also contains an odd piece of restoration. 
Top panel from the DLP edition and the bottom from the FB book.
Compare Sultry's torso in the two images. Ouch, she's been cut.

Another example of editing. Notice Buz' clothes where details dissappear in the new book. I wonder if the editor checked the old DLP editions at all when restoration was made?

 If you take another look at the images above you might notice something else too.
And this is an even more disturbing problem than using bad source material and low res scans, I think.
More on that below next sample.

Again we can see how much better reproduction can be.
About the problem I mentioned earlier. Can you see it in the images above?
Yes, the image has been "squashed". Probably to make the strip fit in neatly on the page instead of keeping the ratio. (Hard for me to explain this in english so it makes sense. But I hope most of you follow what I mean?)

Below we see the same images on thop of each other. The height is the same. (If you disregard that the left version is a short version.) As you can see the red/FB version is not as wide as the old version. Squash!

To sum things up: This could have been good, but it's not.
My suggestion is that FB stops this project before it goes too far, and that the editor and production team responsible for this mess is taken off the project. Then production can then resume when a team with knowledge on how to restore old comic strips has been found.


PS. If proofs are needed, just ask and I'll try to help. Don't have access to the first years but large runs of late 40's and onwards.


IpComics said...

Thanks for this honest review. We need these, my hope is that more fans will do so as well.
There are to much buddies that only give polite reviews, and that is not a thing we want!

Allan Holtz said...

Hi Joakim --
A big part of the problem here seems to be moire patterns in the toned sections. Because of Crane's use of duotone this is a pitfall that is pretty easy to fall into if you don't know to avoid it. Very sad, and someone at FG surely should have exercised some oversight. An amateur restorer (like myself) doesn't necessarily know all the ins and outs of prepping for book reproduction -- luckily I've had the benefit of expert guidance with the publishers I've worked with.

On the other hand, a restorer who simply throws up their hands and blacks in trouble spots? Wow. That's unforgivable. There are relatively simple (if time-consuming) ways to deal with bad areas of tone.

As for the squashing, the producers of the book may not be to blame. Their source tearsheets could have been formatted that way. In the 40s papers were desperately trying to save space, and monkeying with strips, even beyond simply clipping off the bottoms, was not unheard of.

Thanks for going to all the trouble to do such an informative show-and-tell!

Best, Allan Holtz

Johan A said...

It even almost looks as if the "restored" bits are newly-drawn extensions rather than restorations, considering the lack of detail in the added parts. (No, I don't think that's what happened, but it's the visual impression I get.)

Rick Norwood said...

Thank you for the review of Buz Sawyer, which I edited. The choices I faced were these. Should Buz Sawyer be reprinted at all, given that excellent proofs of many early strips were not available? Second, if Buz Sawyer should be reprinted, was it better to use incomplete art of higher quality or complete art of lesser quality? I decided that complete art was a must. As I think Johan realizes, Crane drew the strip with that art included. The syndicate cut the bottom quarter inch off of one set of proofs so that newspapers who wanted to could crowd more strips on a page. Most of the proofs from King Features are missing that art.

For each daily, I used the best quality complete art I could find, comparing two almost complete runs of clipped strips, a set of copies provided by Bill Blackbeard, some proofs from King Features (mostly unusable), some material from Ohio State, and some material from Syracuse University. I never, never blacked in trouble spots -- unless the trouble spot was a white blob in the middle of black, and there were a lot of these. For white blobs in the zipatone, I cut a piece of good zipatone and pasted it over the white spot, using photoshop. Sometimes, I combined two or more strips to get the best quality I could. Other times, I did not do this, because when I tried it left a visible line between the two pieces.

I've reprinted a lot of comic strips. I always use the best strip I can find. But I reprint complete runs even when I can't find a good quality strip.

What would you do?


Joakim Gunnarsson said...

Allan: I didn't know they squashed strips back in the day. Thanks for that info!

Rick: Nice to hear from you even though my post wasn't positive about the book.
The answer to your question about what I would do:

As I work at a publishing house here in Sweden (Egmont Kärnan) I've been involved in a few restoration projects myself. (Like the big Modesty Blaise project: )
First of all what we do is to check all previous reprints. Are they any good and possible to scan from? If they are we try to track down the publisher of those to get first hand ources to scan from.
If we can't find proofs we try to find as much original art as possible to scan from. (When it comes to Jim Holdaways Modesty I believe ca 1000 dailies were located. And when Romeros run begins we are scanning from uncensored material provided by the artist himself.)

This means we use blogs, forums and mailing lists to get in touch with as many collectors as possible. There's always someone somewhere who comes up with unexpected rare material or who can give us a lead on where to find better material.
When all of this is done, when we feel that theres no more stones to turn and we are sure to at least make a better reprint than the previous ones we begin to scan.

Now we use high resulution: 400 - 1200 dpi. Depending if we scan in color or line art. Scanning dailies in color helps when we are removing dust etc. to make a long story short. Different source material has to be treated different ways. But we always scan in resolution high enough to avoid pixels to be seen and making sure the lines are sharp.

Some pieces has to be assembled from different sources but we always use the best available piece in high resolution. On one project I had to scan some sundays from originals with a different language pasted on, some from proofs and some from printed pages in color. What a puzzle to get the book done...
That book ("Bamse - den kompletta veckoserien") even carried a list in the back of the book with the sources listed for every sunday so that the reader would understand why the quality was inferior in some cases.

Hmm, that was a long answer, but that's how I do it.

Germund said...

Regarding Holdaway's Modesty, it should noted that the work locating and scanning as many dailies as possible from the original artwork was a lot easier than imagined, as three collectors sitting on a very large portion of the artwork all contributed.

Rick Norwood said...

Thanks for a serious reply to my question, and for the offer of proofs of later years. We have complete proofs of most of the strips after the first three years, but if any of them are defective, I'll take you up on your offer. In reprinting comic strips, as I'm sure you know, the problem years are the early years and also the last few years (if the strip lasts so long that only a few newspapers carry it all the way to the end).

Most of your suggestions are things I did in the case of Buz Sawyer Book One. Certainly, I looked at all previous reprints. The problem with them, as your samples show, is that for most strips they were missing the bottom quarter inch of the art. The Fantagraphics book is the first reprint to include all of the art. By the way, the change in the proportions of the art which you mention often occurs when a strip is printed on newsprint, and for many of the very early Buz Sawyer strips, newsprint is the only complete art I could find. Even the Syracuse proofs of the early strips are missing the bottom quarter inch.

If I could go back and change anything in Buz Sawyer Book One, it would be to rely more heavily on material from Syracuse University. I spent two days there. I wish I'd spent two weeks. Book Two will probably be almost entirely from material in the Syracuse collection. They assure me that their later proofs all have the bottom quarter inch, which many of the proofs at Ohio State are missing.

I'm glad to hear that you have located original art for your Modesty Blaise books. As I'm sure you know, almost all Modesty Blaise reprints except for the original Titan series have problems, and even the original Titan series skiped a few strips, as does the new Titan series. Both the proofs from Atlantic Syndication Partners and the proofs in Peter O'Donnell's personal collection have serious defects. I lent all the material I have in my collection to Titan for their current reprints, but clearly original art is a much better source.


Unknown said...

Thanks a thousand, dear Joakim, for having made possible for future re-publishing of Buzz Sawyer (and maybe others) much better reproduced.
(What a sentence! sorry!)
Thanks dear Rick Norwood for taking so much time and so much care in answering these somehow harsh comments concerning your work. You are very tolerant and very open. It's wonderful.
This being said — and I'm very grateful to you, dear Rick, for the Buzz Sawyer book and for your other projects — the book is definitely a terrible disappointment.
a lot of resolution-, moiré-, clutter-problems could have been easily solved, or at least enormously amneded, if the book had been printed 20% bigger.
Too bad, too bad!

Joakim Gunnarsson said...

Yves: I just checked the preview pdf of the second volume. It looks much better than the first volume, so I guess the problems are solved now. :)
The pdf can be downloded here: