Today we have a very special treat for you – regular readers will know we’ve been pretty excited about the upcoming Blank Slate Books release of something many readers have been clamouring after for some time – a definitive collected edition of Nick Abadzis‘ brilliant Hugo Tate, one of the standout strips from the glory years of the fondly remembered Brit comic Deadline, which either introduced many of us to the wealth of new talent working in the UK scene (outside of the traditional kids comics business) or else let us see established artists (such as Brett Ewins, also busy editing) free to create very different sorts of work. Nick’s Hugo Tate was one of those strips. With the launch of Hugo Tate next weekend at London’s very fine Gosh comics emporium I am delighted to introduce Nick here to talk us through some of his thoughts on creating Hugo, just the thing to get you in the mood for the book and next week’s launch:
The Digital Restoration of Hugo Tate
I have to admit, I’ve always had a slightly cavalier attitude to my own original artwork. Comic art is made to be copied, to be made into a pamphlet or a book. The “original”, so to speak, is a blueprint that’s always intended to be cloned, minimized, coloured (sometimes) and viewed amongst many other pages. Comics aren’t single pages of art strung together, they’re the cumulative effect of many single moments of time, of patterns of drawing and many unseen moments too, in the gutters between panels and at the turn of pages. As a cartoonist, as the architect of these temporal narratives you plan for this, hooking your reader with all that sub-textual stuff as well as the nice drawings.
That isn’t to say that original comic art isn’t fascinating – it is, especially when looking at original pages sometimes reveal something of an artist’s creative process. Often there are traces of all sorts of directions not taken, drawing decisions made and then whited out or pasted over. I just don’t find my own originals to be enthralling after I’ve created them, although I do like that they exist – that a page is a tactile object, inky and intact and not totally digital. You can accrue a lot of it in a career though, and paper is heavy. These days, after I’ve finished drawing a page and scanned it into my computer to be tweaked or coloured, the original goes into a drawer and gets forgotten about.
(pages from Hugo Tate’s American adventures, art here by and (c) Nick Abadzis)
Back in the early nineties, a publisher called Atomeka, the UK version of Kevin Eastman’s publishing company Tundra had proposed two collections of Hugo Tate, one each for the two series that ran in Deadline magazine between 1988 and 1993. Only the second of these ever saw print – O, America in 1993. The first, a collection of the earlier strips dubbed A London Sequence, was abandoned as “uncommercial”. Some of the drawing style in those early Hugo Tate pages was a bit scrawly and you could tell that I was learning my art and my trade in public, but I liked the expressive qualities of some of that early work. In an effort to appease my publisher, I went back and re-inked some of the later pages of A London Sequence to try to give the whole book a slightly more polished feel – there were some I’d been unhappy with. Working on Deadline had always been a bit of a rush – you could be supplying anything between two and ten pages every month, depending on what space you’d asked for and what was available. So early Hugo Tate veered in length and the work was always slotted between other jobs like the lettering, inking and colouring I did for Marvel UK and 2000AD. Towards the end of A London Sequence I developed RSI (repetitive strain injury) in my right hand, a malady I still live with and watch carefully. While I mismanaged my way through the initial manifestation of that condition, episodes of the strip had numerous guest inkers, sometimes on single panels and indeed on one whole installment. When the illness had calmed, it seemed reasonable to go back and ink everything the way I wanted it to look. So, some of the later pages of A London Sequence that appear in the new Blank Slate Books’ collection date from this period, probably 1993 or thereabouts.
The second book, O, America was an entirely different proposition. In the Atomeka collection, these pages had already been reproduced in a smaller format than they had originally appeared in Deadline – a little of the detail was lost, but they didn’t look too bad. The mag had changed dimensions at one point and so the shape of the strips inside changed too. I had to consider the discrepancy in format between the first and second series and a way to present the pages in any new book collection that didn’t make that discrepancy too noticeable. In the end, the designer Jim Green and I opted for a page size that suited both although it meant that certain pages in the first series would need reformatting. Essentially, this meant extending the bleed on some pages where necessary – we were very careful to preserve the original look of this art.
But the second series, O, America presented another problem aside from just what format to present it in. When I pulled the original art out of storage a few years ago, all the pages from this section of the story were an archival disaster. I’d used a lot of zip-a-tone (or as we called it in the UK, ‘Letratone’) and this stuff hadn’t stood the test of time well. Letratone came in big sticky-backed sheets and you stuck it down over the area you wanted to cover and then cut out the bits that you intended to remain white with a scalpel. Every single page of O, America that had dotscreen tone on it (most of them) needed some kind of restoration work done.
Many of the dotscreens had shrunk over time, which meant that they no longer covered the areas they were supposed to – right up to the panel edge, say – or they now covered areas not intended (like the overlap into the speech balloons seen above). After these pages were scanned as bitmaps, I went into every single panel that displayed this symptom and painstakingly extended or reduced the dotscreens as necessary to restore them to how they were supposed to look.
Other areas of tone had somehow absorbed and discoloured the ink beneath them. In some instances, the ink had turned pink or red. After they’d been scanned as bitmaps, this “pinkeye” registered as black so that the tone looked as if it had bled. I had to retrace and redraw quite a lot of areas where this had occurred and lay in new dotscreens to restore them to their original, intended look.
In other areas, lines meant to be thin had spread and thickened beneath the layer of tone, changing the intended look of a drawing. The worst instance of this effect was on a character called Jack who wore a suit. I’d used a spattered screen pattern to suggest the material for this suit – why I didn’t just do it by hand in ink I can’t remember, but I really wish I had.
The original art now looked like this:
Which meant that when scanned as a bitmap, it looked like this:
Nasty. There was no choice but do some restoration work. At one point, I was mildly tempted to strip out every dotscreen in the book, but that would’ve changed the look of everything. I decided the art was “of its time” and to make it as close as possible as it originally appeared when printed in Deadline. (Incidentally, I distinctly remember that the pen I used to ink Jack was waterproof and “indelible”… not under Letratone, apparently.)
I sampled a small part of Jack’s suit pattern and rebuilt it in Photoshop, then reinked the suit in every single panel in which it appeared on separate sheets of paper. These matched the original, intended keylines of the suit before they’d spread underneath the Letratone.
I then scanned these new outlines and dropped them in over the original artwork to give Jack a new “clean” suit. Then I dropped in the new suit pattern and selected it to fit the areas I needed. Result: it all looked how it had done originally, give or take a few pixels. You’d never know – unless you read this article of course.
Photoshop and the advent of digital image manipulation technology makes undertaking this kind of meticulous work easier, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t laborious. Realistically, it took me years, on and off. Comics are labour-intensive at the best of times, but this was some of the most involved work I’ve ever done – all in the desire to make these old strips from Deadline look the best they ever have. It seemed important, because any kind of visual glitch can bump a reader out of his or her immersion in the story, which is the last thing any author wants. A lot of work went into Hugo Tate, way back when and more recently with the art’s restoration. If you read the book, I hope you like the results.
FPI would like to thank Nick for taking the time to take us through some of Hugo Tate. The collected Hugo Tate is published this month by Blank Slate Books and there is a launch in Gosh comics in London on Saturday 12th of May from 7 to 9pm; you can follow Nick via his own site and he also has a Hugo Tate themed tumblr to help whet your appetite, while the excellent Tom Spurgeon on Comics Reporter has a very good, long interview with Nick online here.