“It’s been an incredible pain in the ass,” Larsen says.
Four years ago (“Hoping for the fourth of July!” said the optimistic January press release ), Image and special editions publisher Dynamic Forces announced a spectacular-sounding volume collecting the first 12 issues of American Flagg!, an influential sci-fi adventure series written and cleverly drawn by Howard Chaykin. Now, that book (priced at $49.95) is finally coming out this month, and as Larsen and Nick Barrucci, his counterpart at Dynamic, emerge from the Photoshop dungeons, they have a lot to say about how they got where they are now.
Ironically, one of the things that made the book such a tempting property to reprint—Chaykin’s detailed visual style—was the biggest stumbling block to the process. “To start with, the original art has been scattered to the winds,” says Larsen. “Howard Chaykin used markers; markers change colors and bleed over time, especially on the paper he used. So we got to the point where the original art would have been useless to us, even if we had had it.”
Not only didn’t they have the original art, they didn’t have the photostats used to print the original paperbacks of the old material (First Comics collected the first few issues in three oversized trades back in the 80’s). A former lawyer for First claimed to have the stats, but couldn't come to terms with the publishers. Larsen decided to go to work restoring American Flagg! straight from the comics themselves.
“It was a profoundly production-intensive product,” recalls Chaykin of the original work. “I’ve been back doing comics for about 6 years, and I’ve been using Photoshop as a part of the process. And I’ve learned that what I was doing in Flagg was anticipating the advent of Photoshop.”
Flagg inventively pioneered dozens of effects that computer programs can approximate now; workarounds for limited—or, in layman’s terms, “ugly”—80’s color palettes and printing problems. But Chaykin had to go a long way to get his fixes: besides the marker effects, he used paper stocks like Zip-a-tone and Duoshade (a kind of paper with two layers of texture hidden underneath, each of which is revealed depending on what chemical you brush across the surface. The problem with it, of course, is that you might as well throw your erasers and white-out away). Arguably even more importantly, he and letterer Ken Bruzenak incorporated the book’s words into the action in a way that had never been done before.
The book’s visual style was groundbreaking, no question: when Photoshop and similar programs became common currency, everyone could do computery versions of Chaykin’s trickier effects. The books didn’t quite look like American Flagg!, of course, but nobody had to buy coquille board unless they really wanted to.
Of course, when you feed a handcrafted ink-and-marker-on-Duoshade page to Photoshop via a computer scanner—from the printed comic book, remember, because you don’t have the original art—it’s a little like showing a blurry picture of a Louis XIV chair to a talented wood shop student, handing him a hammer and some 2x4s, and telling him to go nuts.
“Everybody wanted it to be perfect,” says Larsen, who went a little nuts himself. “So they were combing through the book going, ‘When this guy says this word, there’s a little “TM” next to it, so we want to make sure that’s there every time the guy says this word in the entire 480 pages of the book.’”
The colors had to be completely removed and reapplied, which is the computer equivalent of cleaning your bathroom with a toothbrush. The lettering was partially reworked, too, and some of the art touched up in places where it was blurry. Since the original plan was to go with the original colors, at one point Larsen, Barrucci & co. “had Flagg running around with salmon-colored boots for the entire book.” When some cringed at the dated colors, they had to start over.
To make matters worse, whenever Larsen or one of his assistants made a mistake, sometimes corrections were made in a different way at Dynamic, and then run back through Larsen, who would have to fix the fixes.
“It was everything from rescanning the black line to make sure it was perfect to capturing the colors,” recalls Barrucci. “There were different colors from issue on to issue.”
Chaykin “absented himself from the process,” in his words, though Larsen remembers him stepping in to veto a choice or two (Chaykin doesn’t recall). The process has obviously strained the relationship between every party involved.
“There were too many cooks were in the kitchen and some of them weren’t even cooks,” says Larsen frankly. “You need one guy doing it, and one guy who knows what he’s doing.”
Added to that, Dynamic’s own publishing enterprise, Dynamite, has become large enough to compete with Image. “Dynamite has grown in that time [the last four years]. We could have just published it under Dynamite,” opines Barrucci.
For all the grousing, both publishers—and Chaykin—agree on one thing: American Flagg! was a terrific comic book. Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon introduces the book, Jim Lee writes the afterword, and Chip Kidd designed the volume’s look (Chaykin is over the moon about that trifecta). Added to that, the collection genuinely sounds like a winner—it’s been expanded to include two more isses (up through #14), and a completely new story by Chaykin.
“I tend to forget in the midst of all this that it was such a good book,” says Larsen. “Between this and Frank Miller doing Daredevil and Walt Simonson doing Thor , all in the same studio...” he trails off wistfully.
“They were producing really the best work that they ever produced all sitting next to each other trying to one-up each other. Ultimately, when all is said and done, we’ll be able to look at it and say, ‘This is a good book.’ I think the time and effort will pay off.”
Of the three major players in the new edition of American Flagg!, Chaykin sounds the calmest and least distraught about the process. “I’m a great believer in living in the day,” he says. “We are pushing forward.”
He pauses for a second, and then laughs. “Like Sisyphus, we’re pushing forward.”
And despite the headaches, everyone is doing it again: Barrucci reports a second Flagg collection is in the works, with production lessons learned.