I recently acquired a DC Comics Production Handbook that was produced in 1989. It was quite clear from the contents that the industry then was clearly moving away from newsprint and focusing on the finer production qualities of better paper stock that we are now used to. Some explanations in the handbook contradicted information that I posted in Stop the Presses Part 3 and, being that I am always happy to stand corrected, I am sharing these new insights.
As mentioned in Part 3, World Color Press’s Sparta plant played a dominant role in comic book production from the 1940’s to the 1990’s but, though I credited this to their use of the web offset press, the DC Handbook claims that all the Sparta newsprint comics were printed on letterpress which used plastic coated plates to press ink onto the absorbent stock. The letterpresses at Sparta could print two 32-page comic books at a time and would produce up to 15,000 copies of each interior an hour.
By the late 1980’s, DC Comics, along with every other comic publisher at the time, were exploring other printers who were producing comics on better paper stock allowing for greater color capabilities. DC used the offset presses at Ronald’s Printing out of Canada. The manual sites that Ronald’s M1000-B offset press could produce 60,000 16-page sections (signatures) an hour which according to my math is the same speed as the letterpress. (1 32-page book = 2 16-page signatures X 2 books = 4 16 page signatures. 4 signatures times 15,000 = 60,000 signatures an hour. No?)
According to the manual color adjustments on the offset press had to be done while the press was running and could waste as many as 10,000 copies before a proof was okayed. Sheet fed letterpresses stop while color adjustments are made and waste far less paper.
The 1989 manual also makes a startling claim that, with all factors involved, they could not make any money on a comic book selling less than 20,000 copies! There seems to be a lot of titles below this number on current sales charts, so either production costs have dropped or the higher prices of today’s comics can support this decline in figures. I’m sure it’s not because DC likes losing money.
The DC Comics Production Handbook went into a lot of other now obsolete but fondly remembered production techniques such as color separations, blue boards, coding for flat color, photostats and even pasting up word balloons. The Digital Age of art production has changed all of those things and the comics industry got its initial taste of that with First Comics‘ 1985 publication of the all digitally produced comic book SHATTER by Peter B. Gillis and Mike Saenz.
Nearly thirty years later coloring, lettering, and even artwork is being done digitally. This is true of printing as well. Though digital printing may not be the cheapest way to print it is giving many publishers an opportunity to be able to publish in very small print runs because of the lack of set up costs. Previously much of the initial cost in printing was tied up in the production costs of films and plates requiring minimum runs in the tens of thousands before a comic could recover those costs. Now it is possible to print just one copy of a comic book and, though the unit cost is much higher than a comic printed on an offset press, there is no need to have a warehouse of unsold comics to meet the limited demand of a niche product.
Print on Demand (POD) providers have created an opportunity for independent publishers to create beautiful editions of their publications in nearly every format imaginable. Creators and publishers just need to upload digitally formatted content to the POD providers site, usually at no cost, and order a printed proof that generally takes no more than two weeks to arrive. Once the proof is reviewed and and any changes made the books can be made available for sale or ordered in quantity for distribution.
CO2 Comics has taken advantage of this POD production process and has been able to produce the beautiful 640-page David Anthony Kraft’s COMICS INTERVIEW the Complete Collection Volume One of this eleven volume project has already been made available and Volume Two is currently in production. Other new print projects will be announce very shortly so please stay tuned for the exciting news HOT OFF THE PRESS!