On Scanning comics and magazines

While I applauded the sheer amount of unnecessarily large file sizes with stupidly large amount information in scans in my last post about the subject, here I’ll be arguing against this to some extent. It’s all about where you want to go with the result and what you want to preserve.

Perhaps the main example is what you’re aiming at; the original artwork at the core, or the magazine itself. Old magazines tend to yellow their pages, so the question becomes extremely relevant. The lower quality the paper printed on, the worse the picture will end up being. Furthermore, I’ll be using comic scans for this post alone, and at a later date talk about magazine scans that are in colour at some later date as that’s another whole thing. To illustrate the diaspora, I’ll need to use proper examples, right after the jump. We’re bound to have large images sizes in this post, as I don’t want to showcase itty bitty pictures if I can help it.

Be sure to click the images for larger versions, and you can access the files themselves via gallery that opens.

This is the same page from Issue #1 of Comic Lemon People from February 1982. Mad City 16 Beat was illustrated by Hariken Ryu of Gekisatsu! Uchuuken fame. The left scan showcases few things that makes scanning some magazines a chore. The page is not straight despite being put on the platter in proper manner and neither is the print itself. This is an issue with low-budget publications, and there’s very little one can do for it outside trying to correct it with some image editing magic like filling in the top and bottom. This clearly creates an opposition against the act of preservation, as now the magazine’s nature that’s been scanned is being lost in order to ‘correct’ something that exists. It’s effectively modifying history. We can’t help the yellowing, cheap paper discolours faster than more expensive solutions. In this case, its understandable, as Japan recycles most of its paper for new comics to come out. The intention is for the consumer to read these large releases, throw them into recycle bin and buy tanbokon releases of the stories they like. In case of Mad City 16 Beat, there is none; it’s a one-shot comic that’s never been collected. It only exists in Comic Lemon People #1.

The approach showcased in the comparison removes the yellowing by going to the core of the things, disregarding the nature of the magazine in itself. Japanese comics are mostly in grayscale, traditionally made with ink and raster. Some would argue that they’re black and white in the truest sense, but this is not exactly true. The blacks and whites can be and are used to make gray shades, and forcing the data to be only black or white causes a page to lose information from it. Not exactly true, but let’s stick with that argument for now and get back to it later. However, grayscaling and proper handling of blacks and whites should yield a closest possible result to the original picture. This also removes the yellowing. That’s been where the right image has aimed. We can safely assume that the original image has been produced on a proper white paper with ink, as computer generated comics wasn’t really a thing in 1982. The angled print has been left in, though one could argue that straightening it should be done in order to correct the error. It would also do good to remember that black and white are not colours while grey is all the shades between the two.

We can debate which one looks better. What we can’t debate which one preserves the original scanned source, and which one has been edited. No matter the intention, editing always changes the nature of the product, and some scan translation groups have gone to the extent of redrawing panels and material in order fit English text and such. Decensoring is another issue we can debate over, as censoring is often applied afterwards and the original images often remain untouched. Depending on the censorship, we might now have any clue how the original image looked and redrawing censoring bits can only be inferred. Some censoring uses semi-transparent bits, which in principle are easy to remove and/or redraw, but it is still modifying the image that’s been printed. While some conservationists due restore paintings’ real colours and shapes, comic and magazine scans have less leg to stand when we don’t have access to the real image.

It’s also somewhat up to personal preference which one you like more. Some would like, even demand, to see everything that’s originally there, all the scratches, paper grain and yellowing. Some would rather have as clean scan as possible, which would also help with the filesize issues I talked last time.

There is also an issue of sources.

The scan on the left is from Comic Lemon people #21 from 1983, where Fight! Iczer-1 debuted. The right one is not grayscaled version, but a wholly different scan from Robots and Pretty Girls Best Works Selection – Lemon People 1982-1986. It too contains the original two-chapter Iczer-1 story, but it’s fully grayscaled. There are no coloured pages either. You can notice some differences outside one being printed blue and one in grayscale, things like page numbering being completely different in style and position of the page being different. The scan on the left has slightly more material on the left side, as best noticed in Nyan/Icczer-1’s hair. The scan on the right has more information there, as Nagisa’s left breast was almost completely cut out either because of the scannging procedure or because the page itself didn’t have that information in the original release. The later version, grayscale or not, even shows her navel.

The question now is which one of these two pages are truer to the original source? Both of them preserve their respected sources relatively well. Of we assume that original was done with ink and was painted with ink to gain those greys on the page, the image on the right is probably closer. The blue print version of course is something that should not be discounted due to this, as it is still a major part of the original run of the comic, part of its history and how the magazine was printed.

For people who read scanslations, there is probably a thing they have always found to be somewhat irritating, and that’s the transparency of a page.

These four scans are of the same page from doujinshi Men’s Iczer-One Vol.4 by Kazunari Hasebe. The two first are the same scan, with the second being modified to have starter contrast between black and white. This has resulted in two things; the paper colour has become white and the image on the other side of the page to vanish from the naked eye. It’s still there as you can see bits and bobs of it here and there, but you need to use an image editing software to bring it back fully. The main reason why you get this sort of page ghosting is due to two reasons. The first one is because the paper used here is rather thin and standard. A thick paper does not allow light to bleed through to the same extent. This is of course a budget issue, not all papers and magazines will use high-end paper when they know it mostly likely will be discarded, or don’t want to waste any more money than necessary. Books more often than not at least bank on the paper that’s sturdy, though nowadays a lot of releases tend to favour paper with silk finish, which makes them glossy instead of matte.

The second reason is that scanners by standard have a white back on the lid, and white reflects the scanner’s light very well. The result is that everything on the paper will be seen, no matter the side if paper allows it. Using a black backpaper, as is the case in the third picture (hence why I’ve left some visible on the edges there), ghosting will not be as major issue, if any. This is of course because black absorbs the light and thus doesn’t reveal the other side of the paper. You can still use image editors to showcase some of it, but not to the same extent. The fourth image is for comparisons sake the same as the third one, but has been scanned in grayscale instead of colour. It is the smallest of the four images in bits and bytes. Notice also that all the images have different size. Some have more pixels, some have less. This is due to every image being scanned separately and then straightened up a bit, cutting where necessary. The question is; do you care, or should I have made everything based on one single scan without moving the page? Does the few pixels of lost information matter? Well, I’ll let that to be an open question for now, but do consider this every time you see a scan online; How much was cut out of the image, and why?

From the angle of trying to be as close to the real thing as possible, the first scan is true to the paper itself; you see things through depending in which light you see the page. The rest, however, are somewhere in-between of showcasing the paper and the original production as close to the reality as possible. The first one is often coined as shitscan just because it shows things through, but I would personally agree that it does not represent the intended purpose of the page or the image as well as it should.  You could painstakingly digitally paint all the through bled image from the background with the paper’s colour, but that’d need to be done carefully with a copy tool in order to save the paper’s grain. Alternatively, you could make a scan with the black paper in the back, and then apply a coloured layer to get close to the paper’s yellowing. Both of these, however, are editing the image and would no longer represent reality as it is.

Lastly, I’d like to touch on the whole issue of black and white, grayscale and colour scanning in regards of comics or images like these. I put up a quick poll to see what an extremely limited number of people to see which of the three people regard, but let’s have the examples on show as well.

The images are in order of black and white (BW for the rest of the post), grayscale and colour. These have not been edited or tweaked to any extent, which is why you can notice that black strip of background running on the side and at the top. Which one of these is the best scan? Well considering this is the other side of the page previously shown, none of them showcase any bleeding through, so that’s either a minus or a plus depending on the intention. Then, how accurately does it represent the image? The BW scan, while having the best contrasts and sharper detail, lacks large amount of information regarding the grays. You can see how stark the jewel on the left bosom is compared to the rest, for example. The same applies to the gem on the sword, and elsewhere where sliding grays are being used. The grayscale scan has more information regarding the edges and grays, as BW scan quite literally has no grays to show. If you zoom in areas that seem gray, you’ll notice that this is due to the raster pattern. While this is as intended at its core, it completely ignores the physical medium. Paper can never showcase absolute blacks and whites, and even ink used when producing the original work does not have such stark blacks everywhere.

To illustrate this a bit more, let’s zoom into the face.

The difference is more pronounced the closer you get. The stark blacks on BW are too harsh in this case, while the grays in the grayscale offer more information. For example, the single eye has lost that slight grays the other images have and is stark BW. The right ear also has more white lining to it in grayscale, as BW scans always have to decide where the middle grounds go, and this tends to kill areas that are supposed to be lighter in tone. Notice also that all the dust and such appear clearly as dust and can be then removed easily. In BW scan, you’d have to guess if some dot is dust or not. The best benefit of colour scan of course is that it showcases the most of the paper’s grain and colour used to print, though in this case you mostly see some of the fading black. It is the best representation of the page (and the dust between the paper and the screen) whereas grayscale loses all that colour detail. As we see above, the page has discoloured a bit toward the top. However, I would personally discourage using colour scans on page can result in production of a coloured moiré pattern, something that I’m unable to reproduce from for this scan. This is due to the density of the raster dots being too close to each other for the scanner to make clear distinction between them, and sees them as a rainbow of colours.

As a side note, due to BW scan having jack shit in terms of data compared to the other three, it’s also the smallest in filesize. They are, in same order as the images themselves, 19.9Mb, 24.5Mb and 25.3mb. These are in 1200dpi too, but the sheer lack of colour helps in this quite a lot.

With some editing, the grayscale image would have BW scan’s strong contrast, but it would retain most of the information gained from the paper it was originally printed on. While it is up to personal taste which one pleases the viewer’s eye the best, the BW should never be an option if one were to scan as it destroys all the information between black and white. It does not represent the scanned paper or the original work. It might look something like this.

BW scans used to very popular in the 1990’s to the point of some comics only have crude BW scans. The argument of these being BW comics, BW scans should suffice. For crude scans they might, but not for anything that wants to represent both the image and the page as close to reality as possible. Of course, the issue becomes whether or not the scanner wants to preserve the page, wants to have as pristine image as possible for whatever use like piracy, or whatever reasons there may be. You could just get the original release if you want to preserve or save something for the future. The sad fact is that if we want these comics and magazines to live in any form into the future, digitalisation via scanning and archiving them is the only way. Paper will get destroyed in due time, but if we manage to digitally archive these things as close to the real things as possible, then scanners are doing a service to future historians, even if they’re just fans of this particular sub-culture.

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