A guide to creating the best looking line art in print in the new digital print world

by Sean Michael Robinson

Part 1

Some Caveats, Some Analogies


Welcome to the first installment of Ink to Pixel to Ink Again, a (mostly) weekly series that will be running here at Living the Line until it's complete!

Are you a fan of a long-extinct comic or illustrator, looking to produce new editions of that work? A graphic arts professional looking to wring every bit of detail out of a pile of originals? A publisher tearing your hair out over dealing with photographic negatives, or problems with your printer? A pen and ink enthusiast sitting on your first masterpiece, but unsure how to best bring it to print? A
Cerebus fan wondering how I put together the newly restored books? My mother, wondering why I don't call anymore? Then this series might be for you!

As I'm putting these together weekly, with time constraints, each post might not always end up breaking neatly into separate topics, but my hope is that, read sequentially, they'll be able to function as a how-to to creating the best looking line art in print in the new digital print world.

This series is intended to be a comprehensive guide to both line art and color reproduction. I'll be embedding YouTube videos within the posts. Sometimes these posts will be discussions or elaborations on a certain topic, with my YouTube channel partner Carson Grubaugh. Sometimes the videos will be technical demonstrations of the topics being discussed. But the videos will primarily be supplemental to the written articles, which are intended to be comprehensive on their own.

Lastly, before we begin,
we have only been able to put this together because of the support of our patrons, both subscribers on Patreon, and by one-time donators to our Living the Line Paypal account. Thank you so much for your support! We couldn't do it without your generosity.

From Church and State I, by Dave Sim and Gerhard. Mechanical tone that has shifted and shrunk over time, cleaned and adjusted and whole again

A Little Bit About Me

My name is Sean Michael Robinson, and I'm a writer, illustrator, musician, and father (and not necessarily in that order.) I've done a lot of different kinds of things with my 42 years, but none have been quite the same type of challenge as the Cerebus restoration project.

In September of 2013 Dave Sim began posting messages on A Moment of Cerebus detailing his problems working towards getting new versions of the first two volumes of Cerebus back in print. The two books were plagued by image quality problems, the most dire of which was moiré, an undesired pattern resulting from sampling a screen with another screen, visible across most of the screen tone.

As the news from Sim became more dire, I chimed in more and more frequently in the comments. Being a lifelong print obsessive, and having recently completed my own first commercially-available book (Down in the Hole: the unWired World of H.B. Ogden, co-written with Joy Delyria and illustrated and designed by me), I had plenty of opinions about the subject of reproduction. (Most of which I would upend over the next few weeks!)

After a few months of this stalemate with his printer and production person, Sim sent me unbound copies of the two books along with the production files. A few weeks and one successful print test later, I had a new mission — to restore the 6,000 page Cerebus page by page, book by book, using the best available materials on a page by page basis: aged original art, photo negatives, scans of print materials of all kinds. Combinations of multiple sources. Nothing was off limits.

This is really an unusual position for a technical person to be in, in any field: to be told, "Do this task, to the best of your ability. Take your time. Learn everything there is to know about this field." As I've found in the intervening decade, it's a real rarity. Publishing is a tight-margined industry, and most publishers are driven by the economic considerations alone. Frankly, conventional wisdom among publishers seems to be that the audience won't really see a difference anyway, that the audience is indifferent to issues of reproduction, and so many publishers see very little incentive to get the details right.

As I hope you'll see from the maniacal levels of detail in this series, it really does matter to some people. Namely, myself, and the artists I've worked with to reproduce their work as brilliantly as possible.

Now, with more than eight years of production work under my belt, and having worked with half a dozen printers, I've restored almost 5,000 pages of comics and helped bring more than a hundred others to print. What was once an intellectual challenge has now become somewhat routine (if still laborious). Having finally hit the plateau, it seems like it's time to share a bit of the knowledge I've picked up along the way.

a negative "cleaned" of developer schmutz solely with curves/levels adjustments in Photoshop. From High Society by Dave Sim.

On the right: a scan from the 8th printing of Cerebus Volume One, by Dave Sim.On the left: the same panel restored from a print scan of the original monthly issue. Click to enlarge.

Some Caveats, Some Analogies

If you're a cartoonist at the beginning of your journey with your skills, if you're mainly interested in making a zine, getting 200 copies of your latest work into the hands of some readers, don't waste your time here. Make your originals proportional to a folded sheet of 8.5” x 11 (or 8.5” x 14”) paper and use the copier at your office or school to run off some copies. Access to a copier and a long-armed stapler, an afternoon of labor, and you're done. Need to add some printed text? Some clip art or something? Print it out and paste it on with a glue stick. A nice copier in good shape, with a clean drum and good toner, running in “line art” mode, is going to give you results that are as good or better (and most likely faster!) than most other “prosumer” options out there, i.e. printing on your laser printer. And you'll save yourself a lot of aggravation and money.

(For more advice on cartooning and developing your abilities without burning yourself out, please see “How Not To Make a Graphic Novel,”)

(I'm adding this analogy as a parenthetical because I doubt it's relevant to everyone reading this. I've also worked as a recording engineer, one of the few things I've done in my life with any regularity that I was actually trained to do. And I met a lot of beginning bands who were hot to trot to record their first glorious masterpieces, just to, you know, hear what they sounded like. And so they bought themselves a four track or eight track, or later, a dedicated recording computer and software, and set about trying to teach themselves everything they needed to know about modern multi-track recording, driving themselves nuts in the process. In my estimation, they would have been best served to stick a single mic up in their practice space and record themselves while they practice. Listen to that in their spare time. Then practice some more. And if they really, really want to document themselves in a more thorough fashion, hire a professional to do it.

In other words, if you're just now making your first comics, you don't need to be worrying yourself over the merits of one scanner versus another, or comparing sheet-fed offset versus web offset processes. You need to be making more comics, and anything that helps you make more comics is a net positive.)

More Caveats

Many of the things that I'm going to be discussing here are, in the grand scheme of things, small differences. Some might say, nit-picky differences. Especially considering we are talking about a narrative art form. If people are already invested in the story of your comic, yes, they're most likely happy to forgive a huge range of reproduction issues.

And in working for print, it's worth remembering that, even if you prepare your files perfectly, all of these fine distinctions can be wiped out by the printer, in an instant, by checking the wrong box, or starting your job on a poorly-maintained press.

That being said, the finer the lines/tone/whatever being used to make your line art originals, the more these fine distinctions make. The larger you work/the more reduction you're applying to the image, the more these fine distinctions matter. The better the paper you're printing on, etc etc etc.

If everything you draw is rendered with super chunky lines made with the tip of a sharpie, all drawn on blotter paper, it's not going to matter a whole lot how much sharpening you apply to an image. Conversely, if you're reproducing a Victorian-era mezzotint or aquatint original and printing on coated stock, all of the sudden all of those “tiny differences” mean a hell of a lot.

It's just these unique set of circumstances that has led to the knowledge I have now. Cerebus is a unique series for a lot of reasons, but it also presents some pretty unique challenges to a printer. Namely, use of sometimes extremely fine mechanical tone, extremely fine-line rendering, and large, bold application of blacks, combined with a large reduction in size from the original artwork. (60 percent reduction from the originals).

Actually Getting to It

Oh, hey, what do you say we start this thing?

The Work Space

Here's a shot of my production work space, circa 2017. When Cerebus Restoration alum Mara Sedlins was also on board, this room actually had two standing desks, instead of just the one you see now. This space has changed a lot over the past seven years — I now have a much smaller wall-mounted standing desk, for instance — but all of the technology has remained roughly the same.

a. the computers

Even working at the high resolution we are for this project, it doesn't take much money to purchase some serious power these days. These are two Dell XPS models, designed as gaming computers and purchased at the start of the project. Other than running the system on a solid state disk and having a ridiculous amount of RAM, these are pretty standard desktop models. (If you're purchasing a computer purely for production work, I'd recommend going with a desktop, as you'll get a lot more bang per dollar spent.)

b. the monitors

The computer on the left is mostly used for audio these days, but I also use it for “Action” tasks in Photoshop. I'm going to mention making “actions” (poor man's scripting) an awful lot in this series, because, really, doing a bunch of boring repetitive stuff in the background is really what computers are best at. More (much much more!) on this in a later installment. Having a second computer enables me to run a script on one while continuing to do processor-intensive work on another, with no slowdown.

Anyway, the two monitors on the left are standard-definition monitors I've picked up used over the years for a few bucks apiece. On the right though, you'll see my DellP2715Q, a 27” 4k monitor that has changed my workflow completely. More on this in a future installment.

c. a scanner!

How does your artwork get in this here little box?

Used to be it took a giant stat camera and a copy stand and a whole lot of patience and skill to produce production negatives from artwork. Now all you need is a scanner.

For the Cerebus restoration project, almost all of the artwork is scanned by Dave's assistant or by Gerhard, and delivered to me via jump drives (which you can see scattered in front of my keyboard in the photograph of my work space) But regardless of who's scanning the art, all of the original artwork is scanned on this same type of scanner, the best flatbed scanner known to man — the Epson 10000XL.

(If you want to buy one new, you'll need to purchase an Epson 11000XL instead. But the 10000XL is optically identical, with only the type of ports being different on the new models.)

More on this in the very next installment...


And that's where we'll have to leave it for now!

I'll be adding new installments to this series weekly, and I'll be updating the master list of posts each time a new one is live. Please leave any feedback you have for us on the comments in the embedded YouTube video!

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