Re-Mastering the Masters: Mendryk on Restoring Simon & Kirby

Preview: The Best of Simon and Kirby

The Best of Simon and Kirby, from Titan Books

Harry Mendryk is the wizard whose work is responsible for the brilliant restorations in the ambitious Titan Books hardcover The Best of Simon and Kirby. A resident of New York City, Harry has been working on S&K restorations for years. He is also a serious scholar of the work of the legendary dream team, and an active blogger at The Jack Kirby Museum, where even more of his work can be seen.

We spoke to him about his work on The Best of Simon and Kirby, which is due in bookstores next week, and is already making its way to comic shops.

Click here for an extended preview of the book.

Newsarama: Henry, you were restoring Simon and Kirby stories even before the Titan Books publishing program was announced. Why?

Harry Mendryk: When I was young I was a big fan of Jack Kirby's work for Marvel Comics. The Fantastic Four and Captain America were particular favorites. I knew about Joe Simon, but other then some Captain America reprints that Marvel published I had no idea what their collaboration was like.

The Stuntman #1, page 3, scanned

I drifted out of comics, and when I drifted back it was a whole different world with comic book shops, conventions, and most importantly eBay. It wasn't long before I saw examples of Simon and Kirby's work and was blown away. The drawing, inking and scripting all resonated with me even more then the comics I grew up with.

My initial interest centered on the cover art. Everything Joe and Jack did was great, but they seemed to take particular care to insure their covers had maximum impact. At some point I decided to digitally restore the line art for all the covers that Simon and Kirby had drawn. It was an ambitious plan—okay, in hindsight it was probably a crazy idea—but a project that seemed just possible to accomplish.

I do not think anybody was using a computer for this type of work at the time, but I knew I could never afford to chemically bleach all those covers. Fortunately I had previous experience in using Photoshop for my own printmaking, and with a little effort developed a procedure to "digitally bleach" scans of the comics. The process was not perfect, and careful cleanup work was required, but good results could be obtained without any damage to the original comics.

The Stuntman page, adjusted

As crazy as the idea may have been, after about five years I did manage to obtain all the comics with Simon and Kirby covers (or scans of them) and I had restored the line art to all of them. I hand bound a number of volumes of the Simon and Kirby covers and began to think about other projects to pursue. Restoring the Simon and Kirby stories was an obvious choice. However as great as the Simon and Kirby line art was I realized something important was lost without the colors.

Fortunately at this point consumer color printers had become both reliable and affordable and most importantly produced quality color prints. I then knew that others had begun using computers to do the type of line art restoration that I previously had done, but I was not aware of anyone trying to digitally restore the colors. So once again I had to develop my own Photoshop procedures to accomplish my aims.

The Stuntman page, restored

NRAMA: How did you establish your relationship with Joe Simon, and how long ago was that?

HM: I had heard that Joe Simon was going to appear at a Big Apple Comic Convention—I believe that was in 1999 or 2000. I had finished restoring the line art for Joe's Fox covers and thought it would be great to get him to sign them. What can I say, I was—and still am—a fanboy. So I printed up 11 by 14 inch copies; a set for Joe to keep and one for him to sign for my collection. It turned out that Joe had recently recreated some of these covers, and thought I had somehow managed to obtained copies. Because of the noise levels typically found in comic conventions it took some time to straighten out Joe's misunderstanding.

Throughout the misunderstanding Joe was calm and friendly, though I doubt that I would have been so had I thought someone else had secretly obtained copies of my work. Once Joe understood what I was doing, he was very interested in my project and invited me to visit him when I had more of the covers restored.

A page from Young Romance, scanned

So as I worked on my Simon and Kirby cover project, whenever I had finished a bunch I would call Joe up and pay him a visit. It was great experience being there when Joe looked over my latest restorations and it was obvious that he found it a treat to look over covers some of which he had not seen for some time. Joe would comment about what worked for certain covers, and what he would do differently if it was done today.

My visits became more frequent and we began to discuss some possible publications. Unfortunately most publishers really did not have the foresight to see the potential in the old Simon and Kirby productions and nothing developed from our proposals. That is until Steve Saffel and Titan Books.

NRAMA: Where do you get the original materials on which you work, and what do you look for in the raw materials?

HM: There is nothing remarkable about how I get my comics; just the usual assortment of comic book dealers, conventions and eBay. Some people have supplied me with scans for some of the more difficult to find comics, but to be honest I get the best results when I make my own scans. I think most people would be surprised about what I look for in a comic book. Things like paper tears or split seams may adversely effect the grading of a comic, but they have little bearing in my work. While white pages are certainly desirable they are not essential for me.

One of my favorite restorations for The Best of Simon and Kirby was the Vision story, but that was made from a comic that was beat up, coverless, and had tanned pages. I do not care whether a comic book has missing pieces, provided that it does not affect the art. I want to restore the work—not recreate the art.

NRAMA: What effect do you seek to accomplish in restoring a story, both in terms of the technical result and the experience the reader will have?

HM: It is all about the reading experience. While there is something to be said about reading the original comic books, I believe it is a mistake to try to recreate that effect. Trying to replicate yellowing pages and faded colors with modern papers and printers seems doomed to failure with the results that are phony looking.

Young Romance, adjusted

The yellowing of the paper should be removed and the colors restored to more like their original values. Some of the defects of the original primitively printed book should be corrected, or the results will be distracting; defects like uneven application of the inks or problems with the registration of the different printing plates.

Most importantly the original line art should be restored, and not recreated. The final result should be something like the comics would have looked like when new, had they been printed by better presses and on good paper.

NRAMA: On a technical level, what goes into the restoration of a page? What hurdles do you have to overcome to achieve the effect you're striving to achieve?

HM: It all starts with a high resolution scan of the original comic. As I mentioned earlier I use Photoshop, an application by Adobe for manipulating images. The first step is to remove the yellow from the paper and restore the original value to the faded colors. At this point it is much more like the original appearance when first published. Adjusting the colors is not difficult, but does take some care to get the best results.

Then begins the more hands-on work using Photoshop tools to remove some of the original printing flaws. I do not try to eliminate every printing defect, but those that detract from Simon and Kirby's original intentions and the reader’s enjoyment.

I realize that some might find my description of my process rather vague. I am really not trying to be secretive, but it all involves a lot of technical details that experience has shown few people are really interested in. I once started a Yahoo list on comic book restoration, but abandoned it when it became obvious that most members really did not get what I was trying to explain. Those interested in a more explicit explanation of some of my techniques—including color restoration and digital bleaching—can find it in Digitizing Comics. The list is dormant, but the archives still include my original posts and there are images in the photo section to make it all clearer. The list requires membership, but as I am the moderator, there would be no problems.

NRAMA: What do you feel are the advantages to your approach, as compared to the approaches taken in other collected editions you've seen?

Young Romance, restored

HM: Most collected editions rely on a technique that tries to restore the line art without any gradations; it is either black or white. Actually, this is similar to how the original comics were prepared for printing. When original art or good stats are available, the results can be quite good—but when this technique is applied using old comics, as typically is the case, it becomes more difficult. The printing of the old primitive presses was uneven, so that not just black and white was created, but unintended shades of gray, as well. Converting this to black and white causes the line art to drop out in certain parts, and can result in unintended additions. Unless great care is taken, so much touch up is required that the result is not so much a restoration as a recreation. You may no longer be seeing the original master's work, but a modern artist's interpretation.

NRAMA: What are some of the examples of the problems inherent to the various publishers of the original comics (for example, the DC titles of the early '40s and the Headline titles of the late '40s and early '50s, or any others that come to mind)?

HM: As an overall rule, the older the comic the more problems the tanning of the paper presents. Certain problems—like color registration errors—were commonplace no matter who the publisher was.

That said, the printing of early Timely and DC were actually quite good compared to most other publishers. Most of Simon and Kirby's post-war comics were published by Prize. Again Prize did a pretty good printing job. Harvey's printing sadly was not nearly as well done. Splotches of color would be printed in inappropriate places, colors or even line art would be very weak, and ink from one page would be transferred to another.

The worst printing of Simon and Kirby material was done by Charlton. Really poor color registration and the printing of colors could be incredibly weak. Charlton never seem to be able to do solid colors and the line art often came out rather poorly.

NRAMA: How did you overcome those challenges?

HM: The restoration process I use was designed to overcome these problems. It is just that some stories require more work then others.

NRAMA: What are some of your personal favorites among the Simon and Kirby legacy?

HM: There is little that Simon and Kirby produced that was not successful and worthy of much praise. I have a particular fondness for the covers Jack and Joe did for the Al Harvey when he started his publishing company; covers for Speed, Champ and Green Hornet Comics. They were done at the same time as Joe and Jack's early work for DC, and that is when I feel the Simon and Kirby style first really took hold. The Harvey comics are hard to find, but the covers are just marvelous. I am sure Titan will be including some when they publish the Simon and Kirby superheroes.

As for stories, I feel the best comic that Simon and Kirby produced was Foxhole. The stories were based on the premise of being either written or drawn by actual war veterans. Despite being printed during the height of the Cold War, the stories are not what you would expect; they are not gung-ho patriotic tales. There is not a lot of Jack Kirby art included, but what he did was just amazing. A couple of stories provide the rare occasions of Kirby supplying a script for another artist to draw.

Simon and Kirby employed some great artist for the comics they produced, and these artists did some top notch work for Foxhole.

NRAMA: What were your favorites to work on thus far, and what are the ones you're especially looking forward to restoring for future volumes?

HM: As I mentioned previously I am particularly pleased with how the Vision story came out. I am also very happy with the Captain America story. Observant readers may see it looks a little different then the other restorations. That is because Joe Simon has kept original proofs of the line art which I used in this restoration; you cannot get better then that.

As for the future I particularly look forward to working on Bulls-Eye. That title has been long—way too long—out of print. Joe Simon takes great pride in it, and with good reason.

I am also looking forward to working on the romance volume. This may seem surprising to some, but Simon and Kirby did some amazing work in that genre. I think those familiar with Kirby's Marvel romance work will be quite surprised. The Simon and Kirby romance comics are nothing like that. Check out the romance chapter in The Best of Simon and Kirby and you will see what I mean.

NRAMA: Are there any stories you're still looking for, but have eluded you thus far?

HM: I am in good shape for post-war Simon and Kirby although I am always on the lookout for better copies—better, that is, for restoration work. I am missing some Boy Commando stories that Kirby drew. Unfortunately they appeared in Detective Comics and because of Batman's popularity they can be quite expensive. I am therefore holding out for beat up and coverless copies that are more affordable.

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