How comic strips were produced back in the 1920s — and this probably applies to “Vignettes of Life,” “Connie,” and “Roy Powers, Eagle Scout” . . .

In the March 1926 issue of Popular Mechanics is a long article entitled “How Cartoons Are Syndicated,” detailing the usual process in the production of comic strips.  It is the only detailed account I have seen on the actual mechanics of producing comic strips. It is a particularly valuable article, because it was published during the time Frank Godwin was producing Vignettes of Life, and the concepts discussed probably apply fairly well to the production of the Connie strip and Roy Powers, Eagle Scout, as well.  (I do not know what later processes might have been used.)

The article does not mention Frank Godwin.  It focuses largely on Gasoline Alley and The Gumps.  It deals with many aspects of comic strips and their syndication.  The main thing I want to discuss in the present post, however, is the mechanical processes involved after the art was drawn and handed over to the syndicate.  The process was much more complex than I had believed, and I think most collectors are pretty “in the dark” as to the basic steps that were involved.

Boiled down, here are the processes.  This is based on the Popular Mechanics article:

1.  The artist turns the art over to the syndicate.

2.  The art “goes to the engraving department, is photographed on a copper plate, engraved and prepared for the mechanical department.”

3.  The engraving is transferred “to a paper mold in which type metal is poured to produce the printing plate.”  The article explains how the mold is made.  There are a few steps, outlined in the article.  First the mat or matrix is made, using paste, and alternating layers of blotting paper and “a special tissue paper.”  Then the impression of the “engraved plate” is made in the matrix using a “rolling pressure.”

4.  The article notes that:

     The cartoonist delivers a full week’s supply of strips at one time, and all are reproduced on one matrix, which is then clipped apart for convenience in mailing.

That pretty much concludes the process followed by the syndicate. Then, the article notes:

     At the newspaper plant the process is reversed.

Here are some details, from the article, on what went on at the newspaper:

1.  “The mat is placed in a casting box, surrounded by containing walls just type-high, and molten type metal poured in.  The casting boxes are water-cooled, and the hot metal chills so quickly that the tissue surface of the mat is hardly browned.”

2.  The casting is “sawed to the proper size.”

3.  It is then “placed in the page form and made up along with the newspaper type.”

But after this make-up process, things are not ready for the printing of the comics page.  The actual printing-plate has yet to be made, and that cannot be made until the new matrix is created, thus:

4.  “The page form then goes to the stereotyping machine, and a mat is made of it in the same way the original comic-strip matrix was produced.  The page mat is bent into a half circle and placed in a large casting box, and the entire page cast in this form, ready for the circular roll of the high-speed presses which print the daily papers.”

The article is actually illustrated with a few rather enlightening pictures showing certain aspects of the process.  It seems quite possible that the above procedures were not universally in place, but it is probably the general method ordinarily used by larger newspapers.

A book called Newspaper Editing (New York, 1915), by Grant Milnor Hyde, discusses “plate services” rendered by syndicates.  Apparently plates were supplied to small newspapers, which normally might not have the facilities for using mats in the manner discussed above.  The book indicates that just about any form of content could be supplied, including, “sketches, maps, humorous drawings, comic strips.”  The same book also contains quite a bit of information on how mats were made, and how plates were made using the mats.

Both of the above references may be consulted via Google Books.

—Tom Sawyer

March 11, 2012

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