One printing company that had its eye on the success of color comics from the start was World Color Press. Originally called World’s Fair Color Printing it was created to do the color print work for the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. After the World’s Fair the company shortened its name to World Color Printing and focused on producing four-color comics sections for newspapers nationwide.
By the early 1930’s World Color began experimenting with producing comics in magazine format leading to early prototypes of what would become the comic book. World Color expanded their businesses by building a satellite plant in centrally located Sparta, Illinois that opened in 1948 and soon became the leading comic book printer in the United States, a title they held into the 1990’s.
What made World Color so dominant were the advances it made on both distribution and printing technologies. It developed a pool shipping concept that allowed product from different publishers that were going to the same destination to be shipped together reducing shipping costs. They also would “gang print“ covers, a process that would print the covers of eight different comics with similar print runs on a single signature dramatically lowering production costs. These innovations would become significant later when the Direct Market would evolve because their print schedule dictated the day and date delivery of every comic published.
World Color also played a significant role in how comic art was drawn. In 1956 they installed the first web-offset press in their Sparta plant. Web presses fed rolls of paper like ribbons over cylinders that were covered with rubber plates that held the images of the comics that would be charged with ink. Fine lines in the comic art could only stand so much pressure on the presses and would eventually warp and fall off as evidenced by squiggly and missing lines on some copies of comics. Comic artists soon learned that bold lines worked best.
Production people in comics understood that so long as comics were printed on low-grade newsprint paper that absorbed the ink and allowed it to swell on the page there was no point in arguing the inadequacies of the rubber plates. Comics needed to be produced as cheaply as possible to maintain their low price tags.
By the 1980’s Marvel and DC were producing enough product to tie up the press schedule at World Color preventing opportunities for the new independent publishers that were beginning to proliferate in the newly formed Direct Market to benefit from the cost saving procedures of the printing giant.
Independent publishers moved to other presses and opted to use improved paper stock. Lower print runs, higher cover prices along with better paper and printing plates created a production environment that allowed artists to use finer lines in their images and to explore the options of full color painting and an expanded flat color palette that would offer 372 colors rather than the extremely limited 64 colors that had been the industry standard.
Improved printing capabilities would not be the only thing that would have an effect on the production of comics. By the mid 1980’s it was clear that digital media would soon “Shatter” traditional methods of how comics were created and produced.
To be continued.
Celebrating Thirty Years of Comics History!