I was (pleasantly) surprised when visiting Neil Gaiman’s home last November that they were sending page proofs of The Absolute Sandman to Neil — to proof color, too, if I recall correctly. Nothing like that has ever, ever been asked of any of us connected to Swamp Thing. This shows where we sit in the DC/Vertigo universe pretty clearly — I’m just glad the generation after us (Neil, Grant, etc.) are afforded more caring and better treatment.
On the one hand, DC doesn’t consult Bissette or Totleben regarding reproductions of their work (despite the presence of multiple known problems with DC’s files, which the artists have offered to help correct). On the other hand, they not only run the new Sandman pages past Gaiman but also pay Todd Klein to completely re-letter Absolute Death, including 8 hours to design a totally new font for a single character. I have nothing but admiration for Todd (who’s done a bang-up job on our new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and bravo to him for convincing DC to let him make the project everything he always intended it to be. And I realize that Absolute Death is going to sell huge quantities and generate revenue that easily dwarfs the expense of Todd’s time. With the amount of money DC has made from Neil Gaiman books, they could well employ a full-time Gaiman Liason who stays in touch with Neil and makes sure he approves their every move (by my understanding, Scott Dunbier played something close to this role for Alan Moore for a while, though there was considerably less “approving” going on). Very few creators sell in those kind of numbers, and publishers unfortunately can’t afford to give everybody the full VIP treatment. But is not making your creators hate you really such an impossible task?
Oddly enough, Scott Nybakken seems to be the editor for both Absolute Sandman and the Swamp Thing hardcovers. Here’s him and Gaiman in 2006 calling for original art buyers who could help them reconstruct early Sandman pages. And the results were well worth it: Absolute Sandman is a revelation on par with the best film restorations, making Sandman (especially the Sam Kieth pages) a completely new, more beautiful book, thanks to Daniel Vozzo’s recoloring. The Kirby Fourth World restoration by Dave Tanguay and Drew R. Moore, edited by Anton Kawasaki, is flat-out incredible. When the budget and passion are there — even if the original creator is not — it’s clear that DC can produce outstanding editions. On Swamp Thing they seem to have had neither budget nor creator cooperation (though original series creator Len Wein contributes a helpful new introduction).
As a fan, I’m sorry to see that no recoloring has been done — Tatjana Wood made some great, bold choices, but many of them have become extremely dated, not to mention the color separations which were inaccurately placed to begin with:
(Note the sloppiness of the green along the bottom third of the page, the extra orange under Woodrue’s crotch, the arbitrary swaths of pastel painted across the detailed dead guys in the middleground, and the total washout of the background in screaming red. I guess Totleben’s inking style (with delicately inked shading and textures instead of bold Kirby outlines) simply didn’t lend itself to 1984′s color-separation techniques… By 1987 colorist Sam Parsons was making Totleben look gorgeous in Miracleman at Eclipse, I’m not sure by what process. And I confess I don’t remember the later Totleben/Wood Swamp Things from 1986; maybe they’re great?)
The linework beneath is stunning, from page one onward, but I’ve personally watched new readers pick up Swamp Thing and immediately put it down because “it looks bad.” If you’ve come straight from Fables and Y: The Last Man, exactly as Vertigo hopes you will, or if you saw the Watchmen film and have picked up another title from the same author and publisher, exactly as DC has paid money to suggest you do, you’ll have a really hard time getting over the hump of these colors. Again, I have seen it happen. Would the book sell better with a modern coloring job? Definitely. Enough to cover the expense of reconstruction? With the additional publicity, more enthusiastic endorsements, stronger word-of-mouth, and the possibility of paperback sales, quite possibly. While I’m at it, I also wish they hadn’t used this weird sticky semi-reflective ink/paper. Also, I want a pony.
More importantly, as a member of the industry, I’m even more frustrated that Moore, Bissette, and Totleben have become so estranged from their own work. It’s as though they were “grandfathered in” to the company with a certain level of respect written into their contracts, and while the industry has grown around them, DC is determined to keep them at that (low) level.