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.)
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?