HOUSE OF SECRETS #92: How the Cover was Made

Images © DC Entertainment except as noted.

Much has been written about this wonderful cover by Bernie Wrightson from 1971 depicting the first appearance of Swamp Thing. Inside the issue is a short story written by Len Wein with art by Wrightson simply titled “Swamp Thing” that was so popular it begat a series about the character from the same creative team. The art is remarkable for its mood, dramatic lighting and emotional tension that stood out at the time, using soft textures and artful coloring that seemed to transcend the usual comics techniques of the era, when printing, paper and reproduction were at a low point.

A closer look at the face of the woman on the cover shows that the black ink has almost no line work. Instead it’s softened by a stippled effect. For many years I thought it was produced that way by Wrightson using a type of paper or illustration board called Coquille.

Image © Stephen Fabian.

I’d seen art done on Coquille board, and even owned this small example by fantasy artist Stephen Fabian. The surface has a pebbled texture, and when a black china marker or litho pencil is used on it, a stippled effect is produced that can be made lighter or darker depending on how much black is laid down. I even bought some Coquille board and used it myself on a few art pieces, and it’s still available today.

Recently I first saw this scan of the original art for the cover, which appears on the front cover of the BERNIE WRIGHTSON ARTIFACT EDITION – NYCC Variant from IDW, which will be available at that show next week. It’s VERY different from the printed cover art! All the grays are done in watercolor wash or other painting techniques, and there’s MUCH more detail than the printed version.

Here’s the same area of the woman’s face I showed above from the printed comic. It has a vast amount of detail and subtlety missing from that one, especially in the black ink on the printed cover. Wrightson was a master with a brush, and here his technique includes gray wash, gray and black drybrush inking, and white paint highlights in the hair. It’s almost a completely different piece, except that the color manages to capture some of the nuance missing from the black texture in the printed version.

I own the original color guide for the cover by Jack Adler, a gift from him. (Received for helping him sort out a large pile of his color guides and comps so he could pack them and take them home, when I was on staff at DC with him around 1978 or so.) Jack was a masterful colorist who knew a great deal about the separation and printing processes used at the time. I’m sure he also had Wrightson’s original art in front of him while doing the color guide, to help him capture details lost in the black stippling.

Here’s a detail of the same face area, compare it to the Wrightson art and you’ll see that the black stippling is pretty sparse, with some added lines to bring out the eyes and teeth, quite possibly by Adler, but it could also have been by Wrightson after the stippled version was made. And how did that happen? I happen to know exactly how.

Since the late 1800s, the standard way of converting a continuous tone image like the Wrightson original art for this cover to something that can be printed on a four-color press is to create a halftone screened version, breaking up all the different values into different-sized black dots. Four-color presses cannot print with gray ink, all the grays have to be treated in some way to make them into areas of black ink on white paper. A standard halftone dot screen used on comics at the time might have looked something like this. As you can see, lots of detail would have been lost this way too. The reproduction on covers was much better than inside pages, but even so, the number of dots per inch used then (called LPI or Lines Per Inch because the halftone screen itself was actually made up of lines not dots) was pretty coarse. Much finer screens (more dots per inch) are used today giving much more detail.

But there are types of halftone screens other than ones that make dots, and Jack Adler had some in the DC Production Department. I experimented with one of them myself on this Batman art. Here’s my original done in black ink and gray paint.

Here’s that art with a halftone screen that looks something like scratchboard art. One of the non-standard screens that Adler had created a stippling effect just like Coquille board, and that’s what he used on the Wrightson art for the cover of HOUSE OF SECRETS #92.

This dropped out many of Wrightson’s subtle details, but it captured more of them than a standard halftone, and as Adler knew, it also kept the blacks from becoming muddy. Jack would have probably experimented with different exposures in the DC darkroom until he came up with one he thought worked best.

Then the color guide he made would have gone to the color separators who had to interpret Jack’s colors by using gray wash and airbrush themselves on each color (Blue, Red and Yellow or Cyan, Magenta and Yellow to use the correct printer terms). They also were artists, and their skills added to the final result. Only the most skilled separators worked on covers for just that reason.

Their work in gray for each color would then have been halftone screened to produce the dot patterns in the correct sizes to make the printed version as close as possible to Adler’s color guide. You can see some of those dots here. Interior colors were generally flat and did not have the subtle gradients and variations that appeared on the covers. That kind of work would have been largely wasted there anyway, even if DC wanted to pay for it, because of the very poor quality of the paper and ink.

Wrightson’s original art is a masterpiece, and I’m glad it’s finally seeing print in the IDW book. The printed cover is another kind of masterpiece, a collaboration between Wrightson, Jack Adler, and the unknown separator. Both versions are well worth celebrating. I hope this explanation of the process sheds new light on them.

Other articles you might enjoy are on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.

12 thoughts on “HOUSE OF SECRETS #92: How the Cover was Made

  1. john

    Thanks so much for this article. Wonderful to get the behind-the-scenes production information. I think people forget how labour intensive and kluge-y printing was back in those days. My tiniest quibble is I don’t find this period, but rather the late-70s early-80s printing to be the nadir of comics-I find I can’t read most Marvels from that era (can’t speak for DC, didn’t read). But in any event, thanks again!

  2. Guy Lawley

    Very enjoyable post.
    Thanks ++
    Especially great to see that grey-tone Wrightson art…
    Also to read about production techniques.
    I suspect that one reason for using mezzotint- and Coquille-like halftones on the black image was to avoid Moire patterns (created when the colours were printed with their own halftone dot patterns).
    Is that a credible suggestion, do you think?
    Many magazines in the 1880s and 1890s, in the UK & Europe at least, used the ‘opposite’ approach, as it were…
    Regular halftone screeen for the black, colours done in random dot patterns created by the ‘resin grain’ method.
    Also avoided Moire… but also, back then, creating three halftone plates for the colours may have been prohibitively expensive.

  3. Todd Post author

    Jack had plenty of experience with color separations and knew how to avoid Moire patterns. Many of his covers used halftone grays of the usual sort. Moore’s are avoided by using the screen at the right angle and size.

  4. David C Zimmermann

    Fascinating, Todd. As beautiful and delicate as Wrightson’s cover was, did production aces like Jack Adler wince when something that delicate and subtle came in for coloring? Deep down, would he have preferred a standard black ink drawing done with brush and pen? Or was he happy to be presented with a challenge?

  5. Todd Post author

    I think he enjoyed the challenge. Jack was an innovator, he came up with the photographic process for 3-D comics and the photographic process for removing color from old comics to reprint them, among other things.

  6. Todd Post author

    There’s an article about it in the July 1974 Industrial Arts Methods magazine, I don’t have time to transcribe it, but email me and I will send it to you.

  7. Mike Catron

    Very well, done, Todd. Smart and insightful. Excellent analysis. Thank you for walking us all through this. I think I may love your analytical pieces best of all.

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