How Frank Miller’s Sin City Got the Deluxe Treatment

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Frank Miller is most known as the bold, masterfully skilled and innovative artist on DC and Marvel titles such as Batman and Daredevil, honing his considerable skills within the tight restrictions of these corporate cash-cow characters. In the 1986 release of The Dark Knight Returns—the first and most revolutionary and accomplished of his famed trilogy—is a major milestone in the history of the medium. (My personal fave within Miller’s oeuvre is the 1987 Electra Assassin, exquisitely and imaginatively drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz, but that’s another story.) And as he moved into 1991, Dark Horse granted him the independence to realize his graphically groundbreaking and perversely nasty neo-noir, Sin City.

Many Sin City enthusiasts already own the series in original pamphlet, trade paperback, and/or deluxe slipcased volumes formats. And now, they can indulge in the next best thing to owning the original art for the first—and most important—of these graphic novels with Frank Miller’s Sin City: The Hard Goodbye Curator’s Collection.

Curator’s collection. Collectors’ edition, artist’s edition, studio edition. Whatever. You know what they are, those coffee table-sized hardcovers of original comics illustrations, scanned at super-high rez, scaled as close as possible to full size, and meticulously printed on premium paper to pick up pencil underlays, blue lines, white-outs, crop marks, marginal editorial notes, and every other nuanced detail. So forget about checking them out on your iPhone. Indeed, with their ample dimensions and heft, they’re not even very lap-friendly. Personally, I’m most comfortably when I’m leisurely sprawled out on my living room floor, where I feel transported back to the glory days when cities had multiple daily newspapers with multi-page broadsheet four-color Sunday funnies.

Despite being expensive and physically expansive, collectors’ editions have also been thriving and expanding over the past decade. Once considered the domain of Sunday Press Books and IDW, Now Dark Horse—the country’s largest independent comics publisher—and a variety of others have entered the race for comics aficionados and their disposable income. Between this past September and early next year, we’ll have seen 12” by 17” devoted to the cartoon art of Frank King, Walt Simonson, Bernie Wrightson, Ross Andru, P. Craig Russell, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert, Sam Keith, Simon Bisley, and um, maybe Jim Steranko. Maybe not. Still, Fantagraphics alone is putting out a 14.5 x 19.5 Charles Burns Black Hole edition, a 17 x 24 Hal Foster Prince Valiant, and a 12 x 15 Jaime “Love and Rockets” Hernandez retrospective. And then there’s Hermes Press’s 15 x 22 Ghita by Frank Thorne and a 12 x 16 Jim Davis Garfield. Wait, what, who?

So: okay, Frank Miller’s artistic skills—to say nothing of the increasingly repugnant values represented in his stories—have been on the downslide for a while. But “The Hard Goodbye” is among the pinnacle points of his distinguished comics career. Indeed, the art and text of that story also contributed to the success of his 2005 Sin City film—co-directed with Robert Rodriguez—a landmark lesson in how comics visual narrative can translate to film. (And yes, the less said about Miller’s dispiriting direction of the 2008 Spirit flick, the better.) But moving forward, we can now be extremely grateful for FM’sSC:THGCC.

Of course, we should also be appreciative of Kitchen Sink Books, helmed by pioneering underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen and book designer/editor John Lind, under Dark Horse’s president/publisher Mike Richardson. As their first release in this format, it’s got an intro by Rodriguez, an afterward by Richardson, and quotes from fellow comics artists such as Neal Adams, Geof Darrow, and Paul Pope. And “Scripting, Sweating, and Bleeding”—an eight-page illustrated interview in which Miller provides analysis and insight into his artistic processes—will be of particular interest.

As the book’s designer/editor, Lind deserves special credit for sharing with us the meticulous care with which Miller executes his dynamic compositions and deep chiaroscuros. And in the following interview, he shares his intimate knowledge of collectors’ editions, his collaboration with Frank Miller, and insights into the processes that his own Curator’s Collections achieve their success. He also gives us a special preview of his newest, upcoming collection, for Will Eisner‘s A Contract With God.

Limited Edition cover

Without Further Ado, John Lind on Collectors’ Editions Formatting and Editing

The basic format is essentially the original artwork scanned at high resolution and reproduced in four-color at 1:1 size. This result is books that don’t fit on standard shelves but are amazing to behold. I’ve been a fan and collector of all the various “artist edition” books since editor Scott Dunbier pioneered the format at IDW with Dave Stevens’s The Rocketeer back in 2010. Scott really did a tremendous service to comics—and to the history of this art form in general—by championing this type of book. Since t
hen, some really terrific projects have come out from a number of different publishers. And this format really needs to be experienced to appreciate the value of the work that goes into its assembly. Bob Chapman, in particular, is doing these incredible vellum inserts in some of his Graphitti Designs editions.It’s deceptively simple-looking, but getting vellum to work is an art in itself.

With the editorial direction of the Curator’s Collection series, I made a conscious effort to include additional essays and commentary. for context. They round out the experience and help solidify these books as mini “time capsules” of how these landmark graphic novels were created. This is something that wasn’t really being included in other publishers’ versions of this format. Being on the creative side myself, probably the best part of my job—which gives me the opportunity to work with great illustrators—is getting to hold their work and learn about their process. So, the core addition of interviews with living creators—specifically about creative process, and shown alongside images—moves this format a little more into “art book” territory for me. In the case of a deceased creator, the aim is to augment the work with essays by select creators or historians who were uniquely influenced by this material.

Lind on Sin City‘s Design and Production Processes

There are a number of challenges in doing Kitchen Sink Books’ Curator’s Collections. For books of this size and scope, the first step is evaluating the quality and importance of the material being presented. For Frank Miller’s original Sin City tale, “The Hard Goodbye,” I had access to what I consider one of the most important comic books of the modern era, and our publication date coincided with the 25th anniversary of its original publication. Of all the Sin City “yarns,” that book is well-deserving of this type of treatment. And Frank retained a good amount of the originals or gifted them to associates who were willing to lend.

Frank’s experimentation with his art style and storytelling resulted in something that really inspired and shaped the path for future creators. Add to that the timing of a creator of Frank’s standing. He was coming off a string of successful mainstream projects, and taking this book to Dark Horse at that time changed the landscape for independent comics of the 1990s. And it also helped fuel creator-owned projects in general. Although Dark Horse has reissued it in various forms, seeing it in this format is an entirely different type of experience.

On all the books with which I’m involved, I do as much of the overall production myself as possible. My office scanning setup has become pretty intense over the past few years. The scan quality I’m able to achieve and maintain is quite high, so I try very hard to consistently scan any originals that become available. As much as my interest in these books is all about the printed form, if you look at the digital version you’ll clearly be able to see how much work goes into the reproduction.

Sometimes you get collectors who’ll simply not lend the original art to be scanned, or they insist on scanning it themselves and can’t get the quality level acceptable on their consumer-grade scanners. So an alternate approach is necessary. I’ve substituted high-quality line art, scanned from stats, for the few pages for which originals were not available.

The Sin City book had only about eight stat replacement pages out of 200 pages of original art, which remained under what I’ve set as a firm ratio of original art to reproductions on the Curator’s Collection books. It becomes difficult to find projects for which all the art has remained intact decades after initial publication, so some art detective work—combined with luck and art collectors willing to share their treasures—is required.

Post-scanning, I’d describe the production part of the process as roughly 30 to 45 minutes or so of adjustments and corrections per piece to get some of the subtleties to come to the surface so they’ll actually be noticeable in reproduction. I want as much of the white ink corrections, erased pencils, and blue lines to be as visible as possible without being overpowering.

When Frank and I first reviewed some of the scanned pages from Sin City, he pulled one aside and said, “You can see details in some of the scans where you can tell what the humidity was like when I was lettering because you can see the smudging from my hand.” That type of reaction represents the level of detail I’m working hard to achieve with the production.

On the design side, I study the project’s own aesthetic and try to augment—and not overwhelm—the content, while still creating something that feels new. The overall production value that Dark Horse has allowed for this series has been very high: a three-piece case with a printed cloth spine; additional UV on the front and back covers; and, in the case of Sin City, a 15″ x 21″ trim size. Our publisher, Mike Richardson, has been very understanding about the value of this series, and that’s enabled the final projects to be presented with a certain aesthetic and feel worth the higher cost. And for that I’m grateful.

Lind on the Lasting Importance of Comics Collectors Editions

I hope people understand the value of these types of high-end projects, and I want to stress that this format should not be viewed as a fad or a type of gimmick—it’s an incredibly valuable format for fans, art collectors, historians, and creators. For fans, this is as close to holding the original art as many will get. For historians and creators, all the secrets are there.

Granted, there probably is a saturation point in terms of merit and selections that should be deemed worthy of this format, but the format itself is very important for buyers—and the comics industry—to support. The high price point for these books is reflecting the costs going into production and printing. They’re just expensive to produce, there’s no way around it. That said, I think if you collect graphic novels or art books of this type, they are well worth it.

The Curator’s Collection editions that I and my partners in the Kitchen Sink Books imprint—Denis Kitchen and Mike Richardson—collectively deem worthy of this treatment have been few and far between. I like to think of these editions as the Criterion Collection version of some of the most important graphic novels of our era.

Since I traditionally handle both the editorial and design on my projects, I’m good for about one or two of this type of books per year. They’re intensive to assemble. And as I mentioned, there’s a list of criteria that I want a potential project to meet before I’ll seriously consider it for inclusion.

Lind on the Future of Kitchen Sink Curator’s Collections

There are two Curator’s Collection editions currently planned for 2018.

The next project in this format that I’ll be editing and designing is Will Eisner’s A Contract with God Curator’s Collection. A lot of hard work has been going into this over the past year, tracking down and scanning original art and commissioning text pieces. The format for this will be a deluxe two-volume slipcased set. Volume One will be the entire book reproduced from Will’s pencils, which are mostly very tight and have some notable variations from the final work. These pencils have remained largely unpublished. Volume Two will be reproduced from the original inks, and we’ve tracked down and scanned almost all of them.

In addition, there will be essays from Dave Gibbons, Frank Miller, Paul Pope, Denis Kitchen, and me. And several Eisner Award winners, such as Jeff Smith, Jill Thompson, and Sergio Aragonés, contributed short appreciations of this work. This project should serve to give lasting insight into the creation of one of the industry’s most influential works.

I consider this to be one of the most important projects I’ve been involved in to this point, and I’m treating the overall production as such. The result will hopefully provide a direct insight into how one of the most well known early graphic novels was crafted from start to finish, with the goal of being viewed as an important resource for future historians and creators in the field. Again, there’s no experience like being able to reference original art from masters of the form, and having Eisner’s key work presented should prove significant.

Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales will also be assembled as a Curator’s Collection. Randy Dahlk, who’s designed most of the IDW Artist Editions, will be working on this one with me, taking over the design and assisting with editorial. This is essentially the companion volume to Xenozoic Tales Artist’s Edition that IDW published in 2013, which comprises issues nine through 14. Our Curator’s Collection will be titled Prehistoric Xenozoic, and will contain issues one through eight of the original Kitchen Sink Press run. It’ll be accompanied by an interview about process with Mark and some other bits. Since this was a cornerstone Kitchen Sink Books title originally, Mark and Denis both wanted to see it fall under the KSP imprint.

I’m also evaluating a few more projects for inclusion past 2018. So we’ll need to talk again!

Frank Miller

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