on Swamp Thing

I’m kind of stunned at Steve Bissette’s account of SWAMP THING abuses, inspired by some production errors in the latest edition of that title.

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:

swamp-thing-244(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.

11 Responses to “on Swamp Thing”

  1. 1 Robert Karol April 1, 2009 at 5:35 am

    DC mistreats creators that made it a success…
    In other news, the world is still round.

  2. 2 Rick Rottman April 1, 2009 at 6:23 am

    I was looking forward to this as soon as I read about it. I then saw it sitting on the shelf at Borders and passed. The ink on the slip jacket was still wet. Not only was it tacky, it was giving off a pretty obnoxious odor.

  3. 3 Chris April 1, 2009 at 7:46 am

    I think your assessment of a sort of tiered “level of respect” within publishing in general is spot on.Gaiman holds the level of respect and attention at DC (or even Time Warner, lest we forget his other publisher News Corp.) than many of the other wonderful creators, artists, and writers at DC/Vertigo—-Moore, Bissette, Totleben as you mentioned.In publishing in general, you always fawn over the author that sells the most books, put a little more attention toward their well-being, and make them into something of a celebrity within the company.And attention to the production quality of their books reflect that, or at least should.

    On one hand you have the Absolute editions of Sandman which, I believe, are some of the finest production and archival copies in publishing, with Kelmscott Chaucer a close second. It’s amazing to me the level of mechanical reproduction printers and publishers can get, and those absolute, prestige format books reflect that.

    The problem with the above picture, and recoloring the panels, is that:

    1) the pencils and seps may be too old to be reproduced

    2) the film is such that it is either impossible or extremely expensive to get the line work (or the process black plate) digitized so that a colorist and letterer can knock out the text and start over using modern comic production techniques. (http://www.amazon.com/DC-Comics-Guide-Coloring-Lettering/dp/0823010309 is an excellent guide to that)

    3) the registration in your example such that it looks like the compositor didn’t properly seat the process black. This is really, really common in comics before DTP, and Dave Gibbons, Chip Kidd, et al have a really good example of the differences in recoloring Watchman for the Absolute edition in “Watching the Watchman.”

    4) They might not have access to the original seps, or plates and are reproducing the comic from an secondary source—a copy of the original book. I know Dark Horse is doing this with the Conan books, but don’t have the time, staff, or resources to strip and recolor it, so it will go to the printer with moires corrected.

    Production issues can also make or break these prestige relationships. I’m reminded, as you mention Alan Moore, of the errors on the omission of Moore’s name from the Captain Britain reprint with Marvel (as sources say, Quesada attributes it to a printing error), in addition to a printing error on the back cover of a reprint/movie tie in of V for Vendett. The latter story isn’t definitively corroborated, so it may just be Mr. Moore’s rightful hatred of movie adaptations of his works and an urban legend of the same. You or your readers may know of a definitive source.

    So, what it boils down to is the creators role in the publishing process so they “buy in” to the book when it comes back to the printer. Prestige authors have this written into their contract that they have rights to review sample pages, and other pages in the production/design process, ozlids, etc., and the right to reject for quality control purposes, or whatever reason. Because this adds significant time to the production process, smaller or “secondary, tertiary” creators (which make up the bulk of a publisher’s list) are cut out, which lead to standard or substandard reprints or reissues. It may also be an issue where the publisher decides to reprint a substandard (in a production sense) book because that is the only way they can afford to publish it at all.I get your disappointment with DC not recoloring Swamp Thing, but at least they republished it to begain with. Also, the paper they used is toothy and sucks—there are cheaper, better papers and they sucked on that end.

    Sorry for the rambling, but I thought I’d chime in.Also, sorry for any typos, I’m having a hard time seeing the type in the comment window.

  4. 4 Leigh Walton April 1, 2009 at 9:44 am

    The frustrating thing about trying to reprint any of this material is that it simply wasn’t intended to be read in this context. I used to hesitate before recommending SANDMAN to new readers, not only because of the outdated coloring of its early issues but also because the first storyline includes confusing appearances by the Justice League of America and Scott Free, not to mention the weird extended riff on the Simon/Kirby Sandman from the 70s. Similarly, as much as he tried to tie up “Loose Ends” and start fresh, Moore’s early SWAMP THING has quite a few connections to the now-irrelevant context of its preceding issues and the 80s DCU as a whole. After all, part of the appeal for him was getting to play in DC’s sandbox.

    But I digress… I guess all I’m saying is that story AND art AND contract were all created in a different era, while trying to crank out a monthly comics magazine. If the players had known they were working on something potentially permanent, everything would have been done differently.

  5. 5 Leigh Walton April 1, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Also, Chris, I’m confused at your reference to a part of WATCHING THE WATCHMEN that discusses the recolor process. That was actually one of my few disappointments with that book — Higgins’ essay describes the original coloring process and his frustrations with it, then jumps to the Absolute recoloring job and how satisfying it was, but never actually discusses that process. It’s as though there’s a page missing between pp 171 and 172.

  6. 6 Katherine F. April 1, 2009 at 9:54 am

    I probably would never have read Swamp Thing if my first exposure had been anything other than what it was: the black-and-white Titan softcovers from the 80s. I’ve seen the colour TPBs put out by DC since then, and I still prefer the Titan version. (Well, except for “My Blue Heaven” — and did you ever get the feeling that with that one, Moore was deliberately creating a story where the colouring couldn’t be messed up? “Everything is blue!” is about as straightforward an instruction as can be…)

  7. 7 Robert Karol April 1, 2009 at 11:53 am

    In all seriousness, I was lucky enough to read a couple of issues of Swamp Thing in black and white (starting with a b&w “Anatomy Lesson”!) during that Essential Vertigo line. I don’t know how well Sandman looked in that line, but Swamp Thing was amazing.

    As for Swamp Thing and Sandman’s accessibility, sometimes I wonder if we worry too much about that with comics. I mean, War and Peace always starts with several lines of untranslated French. A lot of Gulliver’s Travels depends on an understanding of French and British politics, as well as British society, (at least if you’re reading it beyond the level of “look at the wacky stuff Gulliver gets into”.)

    Obviously, I wouldn’t start anyone on comics with Secret Wars II or Crisis on Infinite Earths. But imagine if people said, “you know I love Dante’s Inferno, but I just can’t recommend it to people because it requires you to know so much about medieval Italian politics!”

  8. 8 Chris April 2, 2009 at 10:11 am

    The comic coloring process, if it’s the same as what DC lays out in that guide I advertised (Buy now folks!) is tedious and constricted. The guide does outline the old vs. new ways and how Photoshop saves our lives everyday. And now that you mention it, the process stuff might be a bit “insider ball” and could have been omitted, but that is rather unfortunate that he didn’t elaborate. And I’m speaking off the cuff, but I want to say that that guide explicitly mentions Watchmen’s recoloring job. It’s worth doing down to Powell’s to flip through, especially if your a design/production wonk.

  9. 10 H Brindley July 5, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    No one ever mentioned in all this retoric, what the Swamp thing was called. Crossword Puzzle called for it. The only letters I was able to get were:S–G->

  1. 1 Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » Wednesday Linkblogging Trackback on April 1, 2009 at 6:24 am

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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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