Kelvin Mao on Zeck’s Artist Edition, Dave Stevens and IDW

After publishing our review of Mike Zeck’s Classic Marvel Stories Artist’s Edition I was contacted by Kelvin Mao, the driving force behind this book. He was kind enough to answer questions about the book, his process, working with IDW and how it all began.

Kelvin Mao (KM): Hi Scott, I just wanted to thank you for your very comprehensive review of the Mike Zeck Artist’s Edition on Comic Book Daily. I performed the same technical duties on The Rocketeer Artist’s Edition and other IDW Dave Stevens art hardcovers. However we didn’t come up with the idea of the “compiled by” credit until later on. The oddities and lows section of your review very much spotlights the difficulty of publishing these Artist’s Edition-type books using scans contributed by the collecting community as every scan in that book was definitely pulled from original art.

Scott VanderPloeg (SV): Thanks for the feedback Kelvin. Was all the art from scans or were some from photographs? Perhaps some of the art was framed and photos were used. Was wondering about Secret Wars 1 cover in particular.

Also, what scanner do you use, and is it done in one pass or do you have to stitch the full image together, and if so what software do you use? Just curious about the technical side of the books.

KM:  I apologize in advance for the length of my reply, but your questions got me thinking and were an irresistible excuse to procrastinate from doing my real job.

Two of the Zeck pieces were professionally photographed at a local service bureau due to being framed. Those were (you guessed it) the Secret Wars #1 cover and Punisher #1 cover inks – both are extremely clean pieces in person. Photographing doesn’t not usually result in a worse image, but does sometimes result in a slightly different image than flatbed scanning. With the Secret Wars cover, there would have been no option to scan even if the piece wasn’t framed as the board size was something like 24 x 18. The main difference between digitally photographed art and flatbed scanning is the lighting. You generally don’t pick up things like paper texture on the photographs because they are lit from multiple sources/angles. A good example is the IDW Marvel Covers book. A large portion of those covers were shot at the same facility. In fact if you check out the scan for the cover to X-Men #104 you’ll notice someone dropped the ball while shooting and didn’t notice the logo peeling up – resulting in a pretty bad shadow. But the rest of the image is a decent representation of the physical art. I prefer flatbed scanning the art myself wherever possible, but mostly because it gives me complete control.

I use a Microtek 9800XL large format scanner calibrated with a Kodak Q-60 target. All modern pages 12 x 17 or smaller can be scanned in one pass. Twice-up pages require stitching of multiple (usually 2) passes. I use Adobe Photoshop to stitch the final image together. Anything with a height and width greater than 17 inches needs to be shot, especially if it’s on illustration/thicker board. I’m fortunate that the scanning surface on my Microtek is flush rather than slightly inset as many others are. I once pieced together a giant Wally Wood pin-up using 6-8 passes, but that took so long as to be completely impractical – certainly for an entire book.

I’ve been collecting comic art since around 1993 and playing with large format scanners since around 1998. I’ve probably burned through more than half a dozen units. The Microtek was used to scan Punisher 1 & 2, Punisher covers, Secret Wars 1, all SW covers except #8, the 2 Cap stories, and a few of the Cap covers. The Kraven story, Kraven covers, and SW #8 cover were scanned on a brand new Epson at the Cartoon Art Museum in SF. Can’t remember the model # off the top of my head, but I’m sure the optical specs exceed my Microtek – which is over 7 years old at this point.

So why do the stories look so good, but the Cap covers seem to vary so much in quality/appearance? While the stories were all scanned on color-calibrated scanners of a minimum quality, the majority of the Cap covers come from different owners. This means different scanner qualities, variation of calibration or lack thereof, and levels of technical expertise. I email out a 12 point scanning guide that I’ve developed through much trial and error over the years, but getting people to follow directions is a problem unto itself.

Lower qualities scans can be massaged to a degree, but you can’t make up for a lack of data. This of course is on top of the actual condition of the art which varies just as widely. What you end up with is a compromise on multiple fronts – balancing fidelity to the original art against creating an overall aesthetically pleasing book. A perfect example is the Cap #272 cover (a distinctly aged cover with an inexplicable masking tape matte) in the same spread opposite the Cap #273 cover (a washed-out scan from a contributor who probably didn’t allow his scanner to warm up). Obviously there’s always Photoshop, but even with perfect scans a pristine cover opposite a thrashed one that are consecutive issues is always going to look somewhat bad or at least odd. We always use the example of flipping through an Itoya book of the actual art as our goal, but as you can imagine even doing that in real life might not be that pleasing if the condition of the pages varies too much. I tend to push extreme looking scans toward the middle and correct color tones that seem unnatural (too much yellow/green is a common problem with cheap scanners). Ultimately you don’t know what you’re going to get until it’s printed.

I have no explanation for the Secret Wars #1 foldout vs the cover. Thus far I’ve only seen copies of the SDCC convention edition cover with Cap Annual #8 so I haven’t been able to personally compare the Secret Wars cover with the foldout, but I’ve received the same feedback from multiple people.

As for Serban’s “subdued” design, one reason is somewhat mundane. We simply didn’t have the page count to devote 4 pages or 4 spreads to chapter breaks without cutting art. As it was, we had to press not to have the book be a signature shorter. It’s too bad for Serb. If you’re interested in seeing a more balanced example of his design chops, have a look at Dave Stevens: Covers & Stories. He also did the two Darwyn Cooke Parker novel reprints and a couple of the Berkeley Breathed books.

Oh, I’d also like to thank you for the Artist’s Edition/Gallery Edition/Original Art Archives Index page on Comic Book Daily. It was fascinating to go through the publication history of these books. I know the sales numbers are ballpark, but I find it very interesting to see which book sold better/worse in relation to one another.

SV: Wonderful response: thank you for touching on all my issues. A few follow up questions if you have time.

Would you be willing to share your 12 point scanning guide?

KM: Here’s a revised version of my scanning guide, organized by topic and hopefully easier to follow.

STARTING SCANNER

ALWAYS let the scanner warm up for at least 5-10 min before your first scan. It’s a good idea to do a few 600DPI test scans and tossing them before actual scanning begins. If you compare the test scans, you may notice that the paper color shifts with each scan as the scanner warms up. This is especially important when scanning in section since the pieces need to match as closely as possible.

COLOR

Scans should be in full range color with NO adjustments. The only exception is if the scanner has been properly color calibrated with an input target such as a Kodak Q-60 (Calibration must be done once per month). Scan beyond of edges the paper if possible in case there are notations or other markings of note in the margins.

When scanning thin paper, back the art with BLACK paper, NOT WHITE. This way anything on the back will not show through. The paper color can be white-balanced later.

When scanning tissue, back the art with WHITE paper, NOT BLACK. Make sure the white paper is free of marks or smudges, as these might through on the finished scan.

OVERSIZED ARTWORK

When scanning in sections you MUST feed the art through in the same direction. You CANNOT flip the art around even though it may seem convenient. The scanner is an analog device and is not 100% uniform from left to right. When flipping the art, you flip the direction the scanner’s light source hits the page which may reverse paper texture as well as drop-shadows from stats and other raised areas. You also cannot scan parts on different scanners. They must be scanned on the same device as it’s impossible to calibrate two scanners to be exactly the same.

KEEPING IT FLAT

When scanning artwork in sections it’s extremely important to keep the artwork as flat on the glass as possible- specifically the ends that are going to be stitched together. Overlap the scans as much as possible- a few inches at least. This combined with keeping the artwork flush to the glass will produce the most seamlessly combined and uniform final image.

DIGITAL ROTATING

When possible, it’s better to rescan when something is crooked than to rotate. Rotation in Photoshop is a mathematical process and cannot perfectly adjust an image, degrading it slightly each time it’s used. If you have to rotate, only do it once. Which is to say- go back and forth using trial and error, rotating and undoing back the original image until you find the right correction.

SAVING FILES

ALWAYS save files directly from Photoshop or your scanning software as TIF/TIFF files. NEVER save a file that’s going to be worked with down the line or used for publication as a JPG/JPEG. Converting from a JPG/JPEG to a TIF/TIFF after the fact is too late. JPG/JPEG is a lossy compression format designed for low file size on-screen presentation. You lose detail and introduce digital artifacts each time you save the file. If you must compress a TIF/TIFF to save disk space, you can use ZIP, LZW (Lempel-Ziv-Welch), or LZH (Lempel-Ziv-Huffman) which are LOSSLESS data compression formats.

SV: How did you get involved with this project?

KM:  How I got involved with the project goes back to the first IDW Artist’s Edition- Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer. Dave’s birthday was actually yesterday. He would have been 60. Unfortunately he passed away far too young in 2008 from complications that were ultimately a result of being treated for hairy cell leukemia. My friend David Mandel (also an LA-area collector on CAF) were close friends with Dave and our close proximity allowed us to help him with various mundane concerns during his illness. One of the things we had been trying to do for years was help him get The Rocketeer back in print. Dave had very high standards, so it wasn’t going to be a simple reprint. The cost involved made finding a publisher difficult but at one point there was actually vaguely promising dialog with DC. Shortly before his passing Dave tasked Mandel and I with seeing the project through. Afterwards, Mandel and I became the representatives for the Stevens Estate. Dave’s family was far removed from his life/career, and we’d become close with his mother Carolyn in the year or so prior to his death.

After exhausting the DC avenue and meeting with other interested publishers (including Random House believe it or not) we settled on IDW because our old friend Scott Dunbier (who had just left his position as Wildstorm Group Editor) was moving over there. We knew Scott from his art dealer/collector days in the early 90’s before he became an editor. As the new IDW special projects editor Scott was eager to make his mark. He’s also a huge Stevens fan and championed the project. I won’t bore you with the details, but with an investment of much time and effort the project was completed to much relief/success. I had previously done a lot of scanning support for Dave on his self-published sketchbooks and Brush With Passion, and so scanned all the Rocketeer art. Mandel contacted Dave’s former colleagues and interviewed them for use in the Rocketeer deluxe edition. At this point we knew absolutely nothing about publishing a book.

After the collection was completed Scott proposed doing a small print run of a large format edition presenting the original art unedited and at full size- an idea he’d had years ago for complete Jack Kirby stories. At the time it was considered a financially risky project, but we already had all the pages scanned (minus 3 we never located, then just 2 for the 2nd printing) so we went for it. The rest is history – as amply documented on Comic Book Daily.

As for how I got involved with the Mike Zeck AE – as you know these books rely heavily on the location of the original art being known and accessible. Comics like John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men run which are very popular among collectors will probably never get AE’s because the art is too scattered and no complete stories exist. You can pretty much follow the book titles and work out how they came to be – Mazzucchelli (Daredevil) and Simonson (Thor) rarely sell their art. There are a bunch of complete (or nearly so) Kirby Fourth World stories out there. Barry Smith’s Conan Red Nails story is complete except for one page, etc. etc.

Kelvin Mao and Mike Zeck.
Kelvin Mao and Mike Zeck.

I’ve been a Mike Zeck fan since Secret Wars and happen to have a close friend – Chuck Costas, who’s basically the biggest Zeck collector in the world. He started buying art from Mike as a teenager and purchased his first complete story at age 14, having borrowed the money from his parents and subsequently mowed many lawns to repay it- so the opportunity was there. But early on Scott/IDW seemed to want to keep the AE subject matter more on the academic/esoteric side away from mainstream characters (except for Daredevil and Thor – the Marvel movie boom had yet to begin). However at the pace IDW was pushing Scott to produce books I felt confident that they would eventually come around.

Commercially an artist responsible for Secret Wars, the Punisher’s 80’s boom, a memorable Captain America run, and perhaps one of the greatest Spider-man stories ever, seemed to me a slamdunk. It would also be a nice way for Mike – who was mostly retired – to make some money. So I just started scanning Chuck’s pages and tracking down art. I just looked at my files and the earliest scan is dated 6/2013. The book wasn’t approved until late last year and actually moved up later (much to Serban’s chagrin) for SDCC release. So you can see what a slow burn process these things can be. Anyone who works on these books does it because they really love the art. And in Chuck’s case he also wanted to help his friend. There’s definitely no money in it (except for Serban who takes a significant paycut from his regular work at Bongo/FOX). How the books turn out is more about time and experience with scanning/printing. Believe me, I’ve gone through a cringe-worthy amount of trial and error over the six or so books I’ve been involved with.

Definitely the best thing to come out of this experience for me was getting to meet Mike in person. He hadn’t done regular convention appearances in like 20 years. It’s funny, I had to attend 23 SDCC’s in a row before I actually saw him there. Well hopefully that about covers it!

Scott VanderPloeg Written by:

Editor-In-Chief. Scott works in I.T. but lives to eat and read. His other ramblings can be found at eBabble. Art collection at Comic Art Fans. Joe Shuster Awards Harry Kremer coordinator.

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One Comment

  1. David S.
    September 3, 2015
    Reply

    Congratulations, Scott and Kelvin, for such nice talk.
    I really enjoy it.

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