Zipatone, Hair, and Really, Really Lengthy Avalanches

Thanks to the arrival of the Internet and an impulse on Tony’s part to visit my web site and say hi, he and I have renewed our acquaintance by email and swapped info about our respective lives, as they have unfolded during our (gulp!) fifty-year gap in communications. Tony, it seems, has worked as a television news anchor and radio journalist in a number of cities (Huntsville; New Orleans; Springfield, MO) during those years but now devotes himself full-time to collaborating with and managing the career of his wife, singer-songwriter Carrie Beason. The two of them presently reside in the Ozark Mountains, Tony tells me.

Anyway, one of the ways in which I whiled away my pre-pubescence was writing horror novels like Creeping Doom on the old family Underwood, by which I mean our typewriter, by which I mean (for the benefit of younger readers) a now-obsolete mechanical contrivance what writers of my generation made do with while waiting for humanity to get smart enough to invent computers.

Lacking access to professional publishing venues, I used to share my novels chapter by chapter with a few of my Springville schoolmates. Tony was among these indulgent early samplers of my literary oeuvre, he reminds me now, and somehow or other it seems that I inadvertently left a portion of Creeping Doom in Tony’s care when my family moved out of town late in 1960.

Tony had forgotten about the manuscript himself until he discovered it by accident decades later while rummaging amid his life’s debris. And now, having located me via the Internet, he has been kind enough to bundle up the pages for my perusal me in all their aging and yellowed glory.

Will I let you read any of this treasure from my past? How cruel it would be of me not to! But why not milk the suspense by saving that treat for the end of this blog entry?

How Have I Been Occupying Myself
Since My Last Post?

I’ve been letting my hair grow pathetically out of control, for one thing.

Thanks to an archaeological find rivaling the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a childhood friend of mine has sent me the concluding 53 pages of a horror novel I wrote when (as best I can deduce) I was roughly twelve years old.

(I even embellished my manuscript with an appropriately dread-inducing illustration, displayed herewith.)

My friend’s name is Tony Beason. He and I played together during our grammar and junior high years in rural Alabama but lost touch once my folks switched me from Springville’s school system to Indian Springs, a boarding school south of Birmingham.

Call it my "second childhood," if you will, or an embarrassingly self-indulgent reversion to my youthful "flower-child" identity. Maybe it will pass and I’ll go respectable again soon, hair-wise. But for now I figure that since I have less hair by the minute on the front of my head, I may as well compensate by beefing up my stash of strands in back.

Other Activity of Note

First some background. If you’ve ever peered closely at the "gray" tones in newspapers and magazines or are generally savvy about mass reproduction processes, you know that what appear to be different shades of gray are really just rows of tiny black dots separated by the areas of white paper still showing between the dots.

It had to be thus, since there no gray-colored inks are used for most printing. Fortunately, the black dots are small enough that, when seen from a foot or two away, they blend with the areas of white paper to create an appearance of gray. The smaller the black dots, the lighter the gray. (If the gray gets dark enough, the field becomes white dots on a black background, but the optical principle remains the same.)

In times past, a cartoonist who wanted to include gay tones in his cartoons without asking his publisher to opt for more expensive "halftone" reproduction modes would usually put sheets of Zipatone (or Zip-a-Tone) to use.

Above: Tony and me as Alabama lads in 1958, courtesy of the 1958 Springville High School yearbook (which amazingly I was able to locate today without too much burrowing around). Obviously, I’m the dorky-looking, big-eared one on the right.
Recently, though, I discovered a different approach that works. It turns out that heat from a hair-dryer will cause the adhesive from even well-burnished Zipatone to release its grip.

And that’s why I’ve been brandishing a hair-dryer for hours on end during the past week, without once pointing it in the direction of my aforementioned locks of ever-lengthening tresses!

The obvious if dauntingly tedious solution would be to manually detach each of the dozens of bits of Zipatone screen, large and small, one by one from each of the pages of artwork to which they were so lovingly applied thirty years ago. With the Zipatone discarded, the pages could be scanned like any other drawings and new gray tones applied digitally with Adobe Photoshop that, unlike their Zipatoned predecessors, would look beautiful when printed. Anyone who happens to have both Wendel on the Rebound (my 1988 Wendel collection) and Wendel All Together, its 2000 successor, can compare their contents to see what I mean. The latter’s digital screens are clearly a huge improvement over the former’s Zipatoned ones.

But removing Zipatone from old artwork is no easy matter. That adhesive backing on the film just doesn’t want to let go of the paper it has been stuck to for decades, particularly if it was rigorously burnished when it was laid down — and boy! Was I one industrous little burnisher! Try too hard to pry the stuff off and you end up with objectionable scars on the drawing’s surface.

Colleagues with whom I’ve discussed the problem have suggested that I use rubber cement thinner to dissolve the adhesive. Many adhesives are no match for this magic fluid, which is usually safe to use on artwork because it doesn’t affect india ink or leave a residue. Unfortunately, I have discovered to my regret that rubber cement thinner does dissolve the ink that was used to print the dots on the Zipatone, resulting in ugly dark smudges being left on the drawing when the film is lifted.

It’s still a tedious process, but at least it works!
Below: A new scan of a de-Zipatoned panel from "Gravy on Gay," along with the same panel after new gray tones have been added with Adobe Photoshop.

Below: From Zipatone to grayscale to the new (and more perfect) screen that Photoshop generates with ease. Stages 1 and 3 look similar, I know, but trust me: the Photoshop screen will reproduce as smooth as silk, with nary a moiré to be seen, when the image is printed on paper.

Zipatone, which refers to sheets of transparent, adhesive-backed film with half-tone dots of varying sizes printed on them that you could buy at any art-supply store when my career was young, was the tool I turned to back in 1974 when Stan Lee suggested I add gray tones to the Barefootz comics I was drawing for Comix Book, the underground-overground hybrid that Denis Kitchen was editing at that time for Marvel. Stan thought that the toneless Barefootz stories I had been turning out for underground comix prior to ’74 had too much of a "coloring book" look. They needed gray tones, he thought, to break up the areas of pure black-and-white.

I complied, and for a while thereafter I became enamored of the "Zipatone look" for my comix. Little did I know how much I would come to regret that infatuation. True, many years would pass before the arrival of the digital age, when all professional print media would switch from the photographic reproduction of artwork to digital scans. By that time I had lost my enthusiasm for mechanical tones and used them sparingly, choosing instead to employ more labor-intensive but satisfyingly hand-crafted techniques like crosshatching when I wanted to add tones to my drawings.

That was all well and good when the time came to print my newer, post-1970s comics, but it still left about three years of my comics — those heavily Zipatoned ones from the late-1970s — all but unanthologizable. To put it bluntly, scanners hate Zipatone screens, in large part for the reasons my cartooning colleague Jay Lynch offers in this online post on the subject. Unless the sheets are aligned with a uniform precision that no human hand can hope to achieve, scanned Zip-a-tone screens are infuriatingly moiré-pattern-prone, even at very high resolutions.

And there are other problems. In general areas of Zipatone that have been cut to size, applied carefully, and burnished thoroughly so that the adhesive binds thoroughly to the surface of the paper underneath it, will stay put for quite a long time. But with the passage of years, shrinkage can cause its shape to change perceptively so that it no longer fits exactly with its drawing. Also, if a bit of the film gets damaged from handling (as in the old Barefootz drawing below), there is no way to patch in a replacement Zipatone patch that isn’t glaringly apparent to any reasonably sighted reader.

So what’s the upshot of all this? Thanks to a lowly hair-drier, the inclusion of my very first gay-themed comic book story ("Gravy on Gay," from 1976’s Barefootz Funnies #2) in a new compilation of all my short gay-themed comics from the last three decades has become a possibility, even in this scanner-happy digital age.

Horror in a Cave

Now, speaking of new exposure for very old works of art, here’s the thrill you’ve been waiting for since this blog entry began. (NOTE: In the interest of authenticity — and because once one starts, y’know, where does one stop? — misspellings and other errors in the foregoing excerpt have not been corrected.)


by Howard Cruse
(written at age 12 or thereabouts)

Due to the continuing AWOL status of my manuscript’s opening pages, we shall of necessity join the boys’ story already in progress.

After what seemed like hours of exhausting work, Bobby and Monty lay breathless on the rock floor of the tiny cave, blood oozing from thousands of tiny cuts. They were covered with bruises, and Freddy would have been unable to look at them if he were not in nearly the same condition.

The boys did not relax for long. Soon they were all pulling together, hoping that they could save Gene. But when the bloody form lay before them, they saw that the rescue had been too late.

Gene McCoy, their buddy, had been battered to death.

And the avalanche was not over. More and more huge boulders roared past the hollow. The three survivors, after placing Gene in the back of the hole where they wouldn’t have to look at him, sat and looked at the falling destruction. This was the only avalanche on Mount Infinity that had ever been recorded. Probably the danger had built up over the years so that a mere sand slide could trigger the inevitable landslide.

For half an hour the slide continued, slowly lessening in force. By now it was night, and the boys were hungry. They had no idea how they would get out of the tiny hollow.

Even in the cave, the avalanche left its mark. The three adventurers were startled when the whole back wall crumbled to reveal a giant, round stone, enclosed by slabs of rock. It was a very queer specimin, for its sides were as smooth and round as an eggshell. Even this discovery did not relieve the monotony in the tiny place, and soon, in spite of all the excitement, everyone was sleepy. They agreed that they would have to spend the night in the hole anyway, so Bobby suggested that they try to get to sleep early, so that the next morning they could figure a way of escape.

An hour passded. All was black now, except for the twinkling stars in the evening sky. Bobby and Monty were asleep. Freddy was still wide awake.

After deciding that sleep for him was impossible right away, Freddy decided to look around a little more. He got up, and tip-toed back toward the curious stone.

Something about that stone made him uneasy. An air of mysteriousness moistened the atmosphere, an eerie hollowness which caused Freddy’s heart to speed up. Freddy had had that feeling each time he neared the stone. Something…something he couldn’t describe, made his blood run cold. The very silence cried out “Danger!”

The boy ran his finger over the surface of the rock. Smooth. Smooth as an eggshell.

Freddy had made this comparison before. Eggshell. Common-sense told him that it was a rock. And yet…


His pulse quickened. He ran his finger over the place again and again. Yes, it was no mistake. THERE WAS A FAINT CRACK IN THE STONE.

A long crack. A crack which Freddy felt sure had not been there earlier in the day. Freddy ran his finger along the length of the break. Strange…

Suddenly, as his fingers touched the tiny crack, it widened jerkily to the width of about a fourth of an inch. Freddy jerked his hand away in horror. Before his eyes, more and more breaks appeared, and the original one widened again to an inch. The boy drew away, staring at the opening which revealed darkness within. Again and again the opening increased, until the space was fully a foot wide.

Freddy gasped. He saw movement inside the stone. Stone? Freddy’s heart sank as he realized that it was no stone. The avalanche on Mount Infinity had somehow uncovered a long-buried egg. Yes, egg! An enormous egg. Freddy gulped. An enormous egg undoubtedly contained an enormous creature. A monster.

And there was no doubt in Freddy’s mind that the monster, whatever it was, was a creature of darkness…of evil…of death…

Freddy stood transfixed as the egg from a black age hatched. Once again he saw movement, then a faint glimmer of reflected light. Becoming more and more clear in the darkness, Freddy saw the brightness come into focus, and recognised it as a large, yellow eye.

An eye. The eye of the monster. Peering into the hollow at the humans trapped in the mountainside.

Its first victims.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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3 Responses to Zipatone, Hair, and Really, Really Lengthy Avalanches

  1. You should read the things I wrote when I was 9 or 10… and I’m just 34… 🙂

  2. Your early attempts at fiction have aged so much better than mine.

  3. Pingback: Zipatone, Hair, and Really, Really Lengthy Avalanches « Loose … | UniqueComic.Com