In honor of November 5, Guy Fawkes Night, KC shares some thoughts on the creation of the V for Vendetta collection, since he was the book’s editor. Learn how books were made from comic series back in the day! Take it away, KC.
by KC Carlson
Seeing myself on the New York Times bestseller list as the editor of V for Vendetta is sort of amusing. And not really entirely unexpected. More than a decade ago, when I first learned the concept of Googling oneself, I gave it a shot. Not much came up back then, except for my “editorial” credits for both the V for Vendetta collection and for the Sandman: The Doll’s House collection — both of which showed Amazon listing me as editor. Actually, the V for Vendetta book did offer me my first thrill of seeing my name in print while standing in a bookstore (the late, lamented Coliseum Books in NYC).
I don’t think my name is in the book at all anymore, since it has gone through a couple of design changes and lord knows how many printings since I first “packaged” the book for DC in 1990. There wasn’t much actual editing by me, but that was the title I was given for my role on the original collected edition.
It was certainly one of the most memorable Collected Books projects I worked on, as there were numerous production headaches for both myself and designer Dale Crain, including missing, mislabeled, and damaged film. Apparently, the U.S, was one of the last countries to produce a V For Vendetta collection, as the film had traveled around the world several times before DC did their version. By the time I got it, it had been reduced from the original 8-up film (8 pages of story per film flat x 4 for 4-color printing — black, red, yellow, and blue) and cut apart into each individual page. Unfortunately, whoever did the cutting had also cut off all of the identifying marks on the film (like issue and page numbers!), and the pieces were randomly stuffed into several unsorted envelopes. If you’ve never looked at 4-color film, only the black plate has any real identifying marks, since it is the only one to include the black outlines of the artwork as well as the word balloons. All of the film for the other colors basically looks like blobs of negative, which represents various percentages of the the base colors, but to the naked eye, pretty much unidentifiable as much of anything.
Since V for Vendetta includes well over 250 pages of artwork, and there were four individual pieces of film for each page, that meant I was dealing with over 1,000 pieces of cut-apart film — three-quarters of which were pretty much completely unidentifiable without first locating the black plate to use for matching reference. So first, I had to find all the black plates and put them in order, no small task without page numbers OR even issue numbers.
But even that was a problem because every page of black plate film had all the word balloons opaqued out — a common thing to happen when a book is printed in a foreign country where the English words are covered up and replaced with the host language. Most people who do this are polite enough to clean the film before returning it. Not this time.
I don’t recall if I did the cleaning or not. Probably not, as they had to be cleaned individually by hand, probably with some horrible turpentine-like solution of which the fumes would have eventually killed everybody in the already overcrowded environs of DC’s beloved 666 Fifth Ave. offices. When I eventually got the cleaned black plates back, I discovered a new problem. The film had been so well-travelled that the lettering was starting to break up. Most of the letter “E”s were breaking apart (so they looked like “F” or “L”), and the “A”s and “B”s and “P”s were beginning to block up solid.
Having no idea what it would cost (this was one of the first trades I worked on), I wondered if it would be easier to get new film struck, so I showed this to Production Manager Bob Rozakis, and I think we both went to see Publisher Paul Levitz. And the answer was — no new film. It was not in the budget, and moreover, there probably wasn’t enough time to get it done. So I asked how I should deal with the problem, and I believe that Paul said something like “use your best judgment and fix everything that looks bad.” Which meant carefully pouring over the book and circling hundreds (maybe thousands!) of broken letters with instructions to “clean out” or “fix”.
More on this later. Back to the film.
Once I had the black plates separated out, labeled (using the original comics as reference), and in order, I moved into the DC conference room and spread out my piles and piles of unlabeled film on the large conference table. Mostly I needed the room for its wall-mounted track lighting. I carefully taped each piece of black plate film to the lights, so I could see through it, like a doctor looking at an x-ray. Then I painstakingly took each piece of color film and held it up to each black plate to see if it matched. So, for about a week, all I did was walk around the room, holding each piece of film, muttering “Nope… Nope… Nope…” to myself, until I could find the match — and then quickly labeled it, by page and issue number!
(I first tried doing this on a light box but quickly abandoned it for two reasons: First, on a light box, I could only do one or two pages at a time. In the conference room, I could do two issues at a time, one on each side of the room. Second, DC had a limited number of light boxes available, and all were in high demand by production artists and visiting freelancers.)
Since the conference room was literarily across the the hall from Paul’s office, he would occasionally look in, shake his head a couple of times, and then move on. Once, early on in the procedure, he asked me, “Isn’t there somebody else who should be doing that?” Sadly, at that point in time, the answer was no, as the DC film library was in a major period of transition and a very long subway ride away from the office — way out in Brooklyn. It would be two office moves and several years later before the film library would be in the same building as the DC offices. (And after the floors were reinforced. Film is heavy!)
Earlier, just after I was made Collected Books Editor, I was struggling with dealing with the normally huge sheets of film on a desk that wasn’t large enough to accommodate them. Salvation came when cubicle dividers were installed in my three-person office. I quickly un-installed mine and propped it up on a short file cabinet to make a larger desk surface. (The dividers were unasked for and unwanted, because we had the happiest office at DC, cramped as it was). Weeks later, Paul finally noticed that I had “defaced” my new office furniture. He wasn’t happy about it and told me so, but the matter was largely forgotten when he realized that I needed a larger flat space for the film and the then very-crowded office could not accommodate me. Shortly afterwards, and after they got better organized, the film library dealt exclusively with film matters. Today, the collected book editors seldom ever touch film. And I have to wonder, in this digital age, if film even exists at all.
Later, while the book was being printed, artist and colorist David Lloyd traveled to Montreal (on his own dime) to join me at the press check for the printing of the book (in the middle of the night, when most comics are printed — or, at least, they were then). The print run on the first edition was relatively small, and therefore, each signature of the book was “on press” for only a short period of time. It was maybe only 10-20 minutes per signature for the high-speed presses, so adjustments for color had to be done quickly, while the presses were running. Unfortunately, bound contributor copies of the book were later sent to David from the front end of the print run (while the color was still being “fine-tuned” by David), and he was understandably quite upset at the time. All seems forgiven now, as David and I met up at the Baltimore Comic-Con a couple of years back, and we had a great chat about those crazy days.
There were other odd things about the book, most of which vexed designer Dale Crain, such as the slightly different sized interior pages (most of the original chapters were originally printed in the UK black and white magazine Warrior). The indicia and copyright page was done before DC had standardized their masthead for collected books, which meant I was inadvertently listed as Editor of the book over Karen Berger, the rightful Editor of the US version of the original series and over whoever actually edited it in Warrior (who wasn’t mentioned at all). These errors, I hope, have been corrected in subsequent editions of the book. Me, I still have my prized (and rare?) hardcover edition of the original printing given to me by my friend Phyllis Hume, longtime coordinator of DC’s international editions. I’m still not sure where this particular version of the book comes from, as the guts were from the original Printed in Canada First Printing, but the dust jacket was printed in the USA. Oddly, it doesn’t have a cover price either, so perhaps it’s a book club version.
One last thing. Remember those lettering corrections? Several months after V For Vendetta: the Collected Edition was printed and distributed and eagerly snapped up by people who love great comics and I had moved on to other projects, one day Bob Rozakis appeared in my office. “Paul would like to see us.” he said in that wonderful half-sighing way that Bob has. Uh-oh, I thought. Rule of thumb in the DC offices: If Paul had good news for you, he delivered it in person. If you were summoned, it probably wasn’t good news.
When we got to Paul’s office, his face was red, and and he had what looked like an invoice held tightly in his hand. He said something like, “This is our printing bill for the V For Vendetta trade. It says here that there were hundreds of corrections made in the lettering for the trade.”
“Yes,” I said, which seemed to make him more upset.
“Why?” he asked, exasperated.
It was here that I first realized that Paul probably had to deal with thousands of things like this every day. And that what was a big deal to me — the conversation about whether or not to have new film struck for the book — was probably the 537th decision that he had to make that day — and had since forgotten since there were several thousand much more important decisions to be be made since that day. I struggled to figure out what to say.
Luckily, BobRo jumped in, a old hand at talking to Paul, and gently reminded him that the film was in very bad shape and that corrections were necessary.
“But this many? Why did you make so many corrections?” he asked me directly.
“Because there were that many things that looked bad. And you told me to correct anything that looked bad,” I said.
Paul looked like he wanted to yell but couldn’t. BobRo helpfully chimed in, “You did tell him that, Paul.” Which was not really all that helpful at all, now that I think about it.
Paul went on to explain to me that the cost for all the corrections was so high that the book was probably not going to be profitable for DC until sometime into its third printing, whenever that was. I’m fairly sure that by now DC has turned a nice profit on the multiple printings of the perennial bestseller, but back then, it really wasn’t all that clear-cut. Collections took awhile to gain their footing, especially in the early days when many Direct Market retailers were skeptical of items with relatively high cover prices, and the general populace audience (through bookstores) wasn’t as developed or even widely accepted like it is today.
These days when I see Paul at a convention or other social gathering and I see that his hair is a little more gray, I always think, “Part of that’s my fault.” But then again, since my hair turned gray virtually overnight while I was editing the Superman books during a particularly contentious period, I think we’re kinda even.