Nelvana of the North : Then and Now

September 17, 2013|In General

Recently, I was asked to quote on restoring Nelvana of the North, an important Canadian-made comic from the Second World War era. While the people in charge chose to go down a different path, here’s how I would have done it.

Nelvana of the North

High-res, unretouched scan from Triumph Adventure Comics No. 5.

Canadian comics of the era suffered from abominable printing, as you can see above. Plenty of dropouts, dirt and uneven ink coverage. However, early Canadian comics were only printed in black & white (a Canadian white), which makes them easier to restore than colour comics.

Nelvana of the North

The page skew has been corrected, and the art reconstructed.

The next step would have been to address the blotchy halftone screens, to either replace them with clean versions or remove them entirely. In panel two, it would have been straightforward. In panels five or six, the feathered line work on the desk or on the planes, respectively, would have been an intensive job most likely requiring redrawing the affected areas. In this case, I chose to leave them as they were.

Nelvana of the North

The retouching layer with blue behind it to show the white erasures of dirt, and the black reconstruction of the ink work.

Nelvana of the North

A colour version, with only a few modern highlights to not detract from the style of the art.

There are a couple of ways to approach archival work when it comes to comics.

The first is to treat the reprint book as a facsimile of the original form. You clean up dirt perhaps, but do very little retouching or reconstruction and print it with a browned tone to mimic the acidification of newsprint over decades. This plays into people’s feelings of nostalgia and how many view vintage objects.

To use an academic term, it’s about the fetish of the object. The item takes on a more significant meaning because of where it came from and the context in which it was developed. There’s nothing wrong with that, but all too often in the collecting world, the subjective value of the object trumps the content. To own the object, rather than engage with the book and appreciate the stories and how they’re being told, relegates them to anachronistic curiosities, rather than living parts of our culture. Why else would encasing a comic in a plastic slab (offered by the firm CGC) – rendering it unreadable – be valued as an investment?

In my opinion, it hampers marketability in our current world. The authentic vintage market is accessible to only a few with the financial means, and it lies in auctions and private sales of single-item rarified objects, not in mass-market books sold in retail stores to the average consumer/reader.

Perhaps this explains why facsimile editions of comics have short runs and limited market penetration. The wrong packaging and messaging are being used, attempting to sell to an audience that does not value those messages and so ignores what’s inside the package as not being relevant to them and the world in which they live in.

Another way to look at marketing these stories is to begin with what the creators intended. Limited by budgets and the technology of the time, I do not think it’s a stretch to say golden age authors/artists would have wanted the same power of reproduction we enjoy in our world. Developments in printing technology over time brought better-looking publications that the general audience appreciated, and led to greater sales. The advancements were eagerly adopted by the publishing industry because it gave them a competitive advantage. The result is, for today’s audience, unless current technology is used in print – and on the web – your sales will be hampered.

We do a disservice to these stories by saying they can only be enjoyed through the lens of their original crude reproduction, and we limit the audience who may be willing to appreciate them by doing so. Creators wish to reach as wide an audience as possible with their messages, and will use every tool at their disposal in their quest to do so. It is how they survive.

I believe I’ve shown with my approach to archival work that it is possible to bridge material which was created in the early 1940s to our world of the early 21st century without losing anything in the translation. I believe we need to disassociate respect for the material from reproduction methods so that a larger audience can appreciate the richness of our past and feel a connection to where we’ve come from. Perhaps we’d feel a little less lost as we make our way into a future where we will be the past.


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