Posts Tagged ‘World Color Press’

Stop the Presses: Part 4

Monday, April 9th, 2012

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.

David Anthony Kraft's COMICS INTERVIEW: The Complete Collection Volume 2

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!

Celebrating Thirty Years of Comics History!

Gerry Giovinco

Stop the Presses: Part 3

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

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!

Gerry Giovinco

Stop the Presses: Part 1

Monday, March 19th, 2012

The new trend in the production  of the traditional comic book pamphlet is the self-cover format and it has people talking. Some are disturbed by the idea that the form of the product  is being dictated too heavily by production costs, especially now when comic book prices are generally three to four dollars. Others are waxing nostalgic, calling for a return to newsprint interiors and flat color in an effort to maintain  tradition.

The irony is that the format of the comic book as we know it has always been dictated by cost and convenience. The earliest comic books were conceived as a way to keep presses running in print shops. Their size was determined by the maximum number of pages that could fit on a print signature without excessive, wasteful trim.

Much of the technology developed for the printing of comic books can be attributed to World Color Press,  a company who for decades was the largest and most innovative printer of comic books.  Even their central location in Sparta, Illinois facilitated the least expensive shipping nationwide.

In the 1980’s when independent publishers began producing comics on paper grades that were more expensive than traditional newsprint it was not because they necessarily wanted to. By that point in history World Color Press was the only game in town and publishers had to line up for a coveted place on their print schedule that was dominated by product produced by Marvel and DC who could squeeze competition off the presses simply by increasing their line of comics. This practice of manipulating the instigated a lawsuit by First Comics in 1984 siting anti-competitive practices.

Forced off the presses in Sparta the new wave of indy publishers went to printers that though they could not compete with World Color’s prices on newsprint, they could offer specialized production of comics on improved paper stock that would allow these new publishers to compete with Marvel and DC on a quality level that could justify higher pricing of comics. Popular stocks of paper called Mando and Baxter were much denser and brighter than newsprint and gave publishers an opportunity to explore full-color in ways that they could not before.

The superior production quality allowed the independent publishers an opportunity to gain a foothold in the growing Direct Market. Watching the competition grow forced Marvel and DC to eventually adopt the new production standards constituting their own price increases which evaporated the expendable income of the comic book consumer, crippling the market and ringing the death knell for most of those early independent publishers.

Advances in digital printing production have made printing on newsprint no longer an affordable option for comic books. The current self-cover format is most similar to the production of circulars that we get in the mail or in our newspapers for free every day, keeping with the time honored tradition of producing comics as cheaply and as conveniently as possible thus ensuring the medium’s perception as disposable entertainment, at least to the casual reader.

Comics in print will never go away. There will always be a place for comics preserved as graphic novels or presented in a deluxe format to be held and admired but if the tradition of producing comics in the most cost effective and convenient manner is to be maintained, the days of the pamphlet are surely numbered. The cost of producing comics for digital distribution are so negligible compared to print that as soon as a reliable distribution method is in place and fully accepted by consumers you can be sure that industry leaders will be quick to pull the plug and yell, “Stop the presses!”

Celebrating Thirty Years of Comics History!

Gerry Giovinco

The Comic Company:
True Colors – Part 3

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Lou Brooks Drug Store

Color in comic books had a specific look for fifty years prior to the 1980’s. Flat color was the norm and part of the charm of the comic books that I grew up reading. There was just something about that limited palette and those pronounced dots that seemed to define the medium as much as the words and pictures that they illuminated. Others agreed and focused on this idiom when referencing comic art in pop culture.

Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein and Lou Brooks are two artists that took full advantage of exploring the idiosyncrasies of comic book color establishing themselves as masters of Pop Art.

Lou Brooks Disgrace Me

The production process that produced the color in comics was intended to print color on highly absorbent newsprint with rubber plates on web offset presses at the World Color Press plant in Sparta, IL. Color separations were done by Chemical Color Plate in Bridgeport, CT. The colors were made by combinations of three percentages, 25%, 50% and 100% of each of the primary colors; blue (cyan), red (magenta) and yellow to be printed with the black line art. CMYK refers to these four colors used in printing.

A layer would be produced for each percentage of each color making nine layers of film that would be compressed to form three negatives, each containing the three percentages for its corresponding color. There was one more film for the black plate which would print the line art. The printing plates would be burned from these final four films.

Colorists used a guide provided by Chemical Color Plate to assist them in making their own color guides for each page that the separators would interpret into films.

Chemical Color Chart

By the 1980’s the alternative independent publishers that began peppering the comic market were using better, whiter paper and were able to produce better color. Many comics were printing with processed or full-color using the coloring techniques that I’ve described in my earlier blogs on this subject. Some publishers were still attracted to the notion of flat color but realized that they were being limited by the old color guide.

The 64 colors with the course dot grid intended for newsprint produced harsh, garish colors on the brighter paper stock. A new color percentage of 70% was added for each color producing 124 different colors as shown by this color guide produced by Eclipse Comics in 1983 and again engraved by Chemical Color Plate. The line screen also changed from 60 to 120 lines per inch making the dots less noticeable on the printed page.

Eclipse Color Chart side 1

Eclipse Color Chart side 2

Murphy Anderson

By the time Comico was ready to make our transition to color there was a new color separator in town. Renowned comic illustrator Murphy Anderson had entered the field with his own company, Murphy Anderson Visual Concepts Inc. that he operated with his son, Murphy Jr.

Murphy had a different scheme for producing colors. By making a minor shift in the color percentages and adding two shades of black Murphy could stretch the color palette to 372 colors! The new formula was 20%, 50%, 70% and 100% of each of the primary colors plus an addition of 10% and 20% of black to every color on the palette.

Elementals 2

Our first color books had been produced using processed color techniques and we were very happy with the results but our next project, Bill Willingham’s Elementals was a clear superhero comic and we wanted it to look like one. We all felt flat color was the way to go and we only had one choice when it came to choosing a separator. Murphy Anderson’s company was already doing most of DC’s prestige work and had proven his incredible quality. Murphy is also one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and proved it with his patience bringing us up to speed on his technique.

In 1987 I designed a color chart that had long been missing from the process. It soon became a staple in every production department in the industry. I would imagine that it would have been the last of the color charts for comics since not long after the computer took over most of the color chores as we know them today.

Comico Color Chart - Click for larger view

I might like to mention that this complex looking piece was not done on a computer. It was done the old fashion way by creating a mechanical with typesetting, tech pens, x-acto knives, photostats and a good old waxer. Of course the color separations were done by hand as well.

To be continued…

Gerry Giovinco

Making comics because I want to!

The Comic Company:
True Colors – Part 1

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Comico’s switch from black-and white to color in 1984 added heavily to the learning curve we required to make comic books. We were young guys learning by the seat of our pants, making lots of mistakes but growing with each ounce of education we received “the hard way.”

Jumping to color would be an adventure for several reasons. World Color Press who was printing most of the newsstand comics at the time had no more room in their schedule for the Indy publishers. They were the experts in printing comic books on newsprint which had been the standard since comic books were first published in America.

Indy publishers turned to other options to print color comics which included better paper stock by necessity since most printers were not set up to print what was considered low numbers on newsprint.

Bright, white, glossy stock came into vogue and presented a surface that could better handle full-color images that would not hold up well if printed on newsprint. But comics were still dependent on the traditional black line art that held the color.

Full-color separations that were made from line art that had been simply painted-in produced nasty ghosting of solid magenta, cyan and yellow when images came out of register which could easily happen when printing low runs. Several thousand prints could be made before registration could be fully adjusted forcing the opportunity for a lot of waste and driving up the unit cost of each book.

The black line art had to be held on its own plate and the colors needed to be added on another layer which would later be separated into the four print colors, CMYK. This is done easily today in Photoshop but in the early eighties there was no digital solution.

Doug Wildey

An early maverick attempt by Doug Wildey on his Rio comic, which was published by Eclipse Comics then later compiled by Comico, provided an interesting solution.

Doug Wildey's Rio

Doug painted his colors on tracing paper that he laid over his black line art. The tracing paper was shot and separated then registered to the films of the black line art. This created a beautiful, ethereal watercolor look but provided very fragile originals that warped easily and were difficult to preserve.

Other people were experimenting with different solutions.

Early Pacific Comics-Captain Victory and Starslayer

In the summer of 1983, while in California to attend the San Diego Comic Con, we paid a visit to Pacific Comics. Pacific was not just one of our biggest distributors, it was also one of the trailblazing alternative publishers of the early Indy movement. Founders Bill and Steve Schanes and editor David Scroggy were great hosts. While giving us a tour of their production department, they took the time to show us how a new approach to coloring comics that they were using worked.

The Gray-Line System required that a negative film was made from the original black-and-white comic art. This negative was sized at 60% of the original size which was equal to the actual print size of 6×9″ for the final comic.

Blackline on acetate transparency

From the negative a positive transparency of the line art was made. The lettering on the negative would then be masked with rubylith and, using a dot screen, a 10% gray, positive print was made on photostat paper.


The transparency and “gray-line” had registration marks and were aligned and hinged using a single piece of tape. The colorist would paint the grey-line layer, frequently reviewing the art by flipping down the transparency to see what the final image would look like.

Blackline & Grayline combined

The gray-line gave the colorist an accurate guide for which to apply color on a separate layer. If ghosting were to occur due to registration errors the faint image of the gray-line was barely noticeable.

The photostat paper that was used had a polymer base that made the gray-line very durable and stable. They would not shrink or warp when the color, which was usually water based, was applied.

Unfortunately, the surface of the paper was not absorbent at all. Painting with translucent watercolors and dyes was difficult, often creating a streaky or smudgy look especially in areas requiring larger coverage.

The Gray-Line System was an answer to the coloring dilemma but it was not the only one.

To be continued…


Making comics because I want to

Gerry Giovinco

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