In comics, just as in television or film, there are countless unsung production staff tirelessly toiling to keep us entertained. To use a sporting analogy, working in the reprographics department of a comic publisher is the goalkeeper's job: You rarely get the praise for keeping a clean sheet, but you're the first one to get the blame if it all goes wrong. Meanwhile, the writers and the artists are at the other end, scoring all the goals, and getting all the glory.
Doing this often-thankless task in the skeleton crew that produces 2000AD is Kathryn "Kat" Symes. One thing the small backroom staff at their Oxford, England, base are known to do very well these days is manage the amazing back-catalog of material the title has accrued during its 35 years of continuous publication. If you're a seasoned 2000AD spotter, you'll have noticed how they've been reprinting a lot of strips from the early 1990s recently, a time sometimes known as "2000AD's brown period." It was an era when a post-Bisley trend for painted artwork coincided with too-absorbent paper stock, and a steep learning curve for the staff as it settled in to being a full-color magazine after years of primarily black and white, which led to an awful lot of muddy-looking comics.
Symes seems to be on a single-handed quest to redeem an era of neglected comics through her work. In this interview with ROBOT 6, she gives a tremendous insight into what now goes on behind the scenes in bringing a comic to print, and provides some great examples of how her nuts-and-bolts work with scanners and image manipulation software can breath new life into the old, the faded and the damaged material in 2000AD's archives.
ROBOT 6: So what do you actually do at 2000 AD? Besides avoiding the wrath of Tharg and Mek-Quake. And dressing up as Venus Bluegenes.
Kat Symes: I’m in charge of the reprographics, so I take series from the archive and get them ready to be turned into graphic novel collections for our U.K. and North American collections, and also for the "floppy" graphic novels that come with the Judge Dredd Megazine.
Unfortunately, before Rebellion took over 2000 AD 13 years ago, the archive of print film wasn’t properly looked after – there’s a lot of damage, whether from water or cold, as well as big gaps where the film is missing. A lot of the work I do is mainly cleaning and restoring artwork to its former glory. Most of the time this is pretty easy to get around, but there are times when problems occur that need a bit more effort to rectify. For example, if there are no film, negatives or original artwork available I have to use the best page scan I can find. This isn’t always foolproof – with "Judge Dredd: Ironfist" I had to work off an original page scan, but when it was last published you can see that the text in the speech bubbles was way off register and some speech bubbles were duplicated. Usually, careful use of cloning and re-jigging the text sorts this problem out easily.
Working on "Flesh," the cowboys-herding-dinosaurs series, it wasn’t just an issue of the quality of a page scan and film but mistakes in the text from the first time it was printed. The main advantages of scanning art from film rather than page is that not only do they look better overall, but they give a much more accurate idea of what the colors were like on the original art work. With "Sláine," the magenta plate was well and truly out of line! So if I have no film for these types of pages where the registration is off there is very little I can do to make it look decent, which lets the whole book down. "Mazeworld" is a similar example but with that the black, cyan and magenta were slightly out, and although it is less noticeable than the magenta in the "Sláine" page it’s still a problem. Fortunately, we were able to obtain the original artwork for this page, which is a very rare thing these days.
The covers for older issues, such as Prog 44 and Prog 66, are examples of page scans before and after I have cleaned them up. Usually even the worse pages can still have new life breathed into them.
Which project was the greatest challenge?
I would say "Judge Dredd: Judgment Day" was the greatest challenge because not only was the book massive, but there were so many artists involved. It’s easier to work with consistent artwork but nearly every part had been done by different artists. It was also only the second graphic novel I had worked on and so it really threw me in at the deep end somewhat, which is not a bad thing as I was really pleased with how it turned out. Also the "Mercy Heights" collection for the "floppy" graphic novels that come with the Judge Dredd Megazine was difficult as we have no digital files for it. Even though it was digitally colored, the printing process hadn’t caught up with the technology, and the pages where outputted as four-color film, which had to be scanned in again. Removing any blemish or dirt from the art where the coloring is so smooth and making it look natural was difficult.
Which project has been the most personally rewarding?
For me, the most rewarding projects have to be "Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood." Not only was it was my first graphic novel but I love the character and the story and artwork. To see it come back from print looking better than the day it was published was and is most rewarding and even more satisfying when we get compliments from the fans. Also, I would have to say "Flesh: The Legend of Shamana" was a highlight. I am a huge dinosaur fan and so Flesh is an instant hit with me, this story in particular. I am proud of it, not just because Carl Critchlow’s dinosaurs look amazing, but I also noticed that there were a few spelling mistakes in the original story, as one of the characters is referred to as a he when in fact it’s a she. Little details like this make my job so rewarding as I know the fans notice them too and appreciate the work that goes into correcting them.
So how long have you been with 2000 AD now, and how did you come to work there?
I’ve been here ten years this April and I’m still loving it! I think it was a case of right time, right place really, I had just finished a three-year course in graphic design and illustration, and was looking for my first job. I found a position in the back of an Oxford Mail newspaper, which simply said ‘Mac-trained office assistant wanted’. I had no idea it was for 2000 AD so sent off my CV, was offered an interview that week and was offered the job the following day.
And finally, what are your favorite comics? I know you're duty-bound to include 2000AD ...
Obviously 2000 AD (especially Sláine, Flesh, Devlin Waugh, Dredd, Caballistics Inc). I do like Hellboy and Hellblazer – I love John Constantine, especially Andy Diggle’s stories and Leonardo Manco’s artwork. I have also enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth, it’s really dark but the story is really original, too.