The TMNT #1 Production Negatives: Part 05 – Signatures In Printing (The Upside-Down Negatives Explained)

Please be sure to read the previous articles in this series.

As it turns out, although a comic book ultimately consists of multiple printed imposed sheets assembled together (each with four pages – two per side), they are very rarely printed as single individual sheets that require assembly in order, sheet by sheet.  That’s especially true if they are being offset printed (which most are – and have been for decades).  In fact, comic books actually only have the appearance of being multiple individual sheets that get assembled in order, sheet by sheet.  And that’s all the result of something in the printing industry called a signature.  Which, incidentally, also unlocks the mystery behind the upside-down negatives.

Goldenrod Flats 1 & 2 – KEY

A signature is essentially the resulting sheet of paper (or parent sheet) containing multiple imposed printed pages that, after being folded, forms a group of the comic book’s pages.  In offset printing, a signature very rarely equates to just four pages (a single printed sheet) in a comic book.  A signature most often amounts to eight or more pages (two or more of the printed sheets) in the comic book.  The quantity of pages that make up a signature varies depending on the page size being printed as well as the size of the press to be used for printing.  Note that a very common signature size for comic books is 16 pages (8 pages on the front and 8 pages on the back).  Interesting.

Goldenrod Flats 5 & 6 – KEY

The multiple imposition of a signature means that fewer press runs are required to print all the pages of a comic book.  Comic books (as well as magazines, books, etc.) are printed as groups of signatures.  For a 32-page comic book, two signatures of 16 imposed pages each would be able to print all the comic book’s pages – and in just two press runs!

Goldenrod Flats 3 & 4 – KEY

So, apply this to the six goldenrod flats that make up The TMNT #1 Production Negatives and the result is a group of three signaturesGoldenrod Flat 1 & 2 combine to make one 16-page signature; 3 & 4 combine to make a second 16-page signature; 5 & 6 combine to make an 8-page signature, which is the third.  All together, that’s 40 imposed pages printed on three parent sheets that, after being folded, result in three signatures!

This is where it gets really cool!  Once all the imposed parent sheets from a comic book are printed, they are then individually folded, using a piece of aptly-named offset printing equipment called a folder (or folding machine).  The way they each get folded, usually right-angle, and how many times, is completely dependent on the number of pages the signature is to have.  An 8-page signature gets folded twice (quarto) – first top to bottom; then right-angle, left to right.  A 16-page signature gets folded three times (octavo) – first left to right; second right-angle, top to bottom; third right-angle, left to right.

After each of the parent sheets are folded into signatures, the comic book’s signatures are then combined together (collated) in order to form the entire body of the comic book.  The collation process is either done in a collation machine (which is typical for most comic books) or done manually (for smaller jobs).  Of course, if you combine folded signatures without having trimmed or slit the folded edges (top, right, bottom) to remove the folds, then you can’t open or turn most the pages.  Slitting or trimming of the folded edges is either integrated into the folding process itself or occurs post-folding after page collation (typically along with the cover).

So, in case you missed it in all the technical jargon above, it’s the folding of the parent sheets into signatures that requires half of the page images to be upside down.  If they weren’t, half  of the pages in the final comic book would be upside down.   Crazy, huh?

With that said, I have my suspicions that all 3 parent sheets for TMNT #1 were actually collated first (with the 8 page parent left-aligned in between the two 16-page ones) and then folded (and possibly slit / trimmed) all together at once…producing a single 40-page signature  Please keep in mind that this is just my speculation based on analysis of the final signatures; which, it should be noted, comes without knowing the specific equipment used / available at the time and with little insight into all possible capabilities or functions of said machinery.

Nonetheless, here’s where my hypothesis comes from.  The imposition of the negatives doesn’t seem to work (or work in a way that I’ve been able to decipher) for post-fold signature collation.  All the pages are oriented correctly after being folded into signatures but their order within each resulting signature makes collation in the correct page sequence very difficult.  I’ve actually tried to fold and then collate the three separate signatures of TMNT #1 and I’m not seeing how that would have worked (or worked easily) given the way the pages are imposed.  Still, the most important argument for my premise is simply this: collating the three signatures first and then folding them all together works…and it works perfectly!  (see exercise below)

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether the parent sheets of TMNT #1 were collated first and then folded together OR folded separately first and then collated.  The resulting pages in either scenario (after being folded) would always be oriented properly and they obviously got collated at some point in the process; it’s the post-fold signature collation (in this specific instance) that just isn’t readily apparent to me.

mini-TMNT #1

Now, if you’re having a tough time visualizing all this, don’t worry.  I have a fun little exercise you can do at home to see all this in action.  And, if done correctly, you’ll end up with a mini-TMNT #1 as well (minus the cover).  If you want to try it, all you need is a printer that can print duplex (both sides of the sheet), three sheets of 8.5″ x 11″ paper (similar sizes work too), and scissors (or, better yet, a paper cutter – PLEASE BE CAREFUL!).  Also grab a stapler if you want to keep your little TMNT #1 souvenir together when you’re done.  Here’s how:

  1. DOWNLOAD this PDF of the six TMNT #1 parent sheets (the six goldenrod flats).  Don’t worry, it’s safe!
  2. PRINT all six pages in the PDF using the duplex setting of “Flip on TOP EDGE” in your print dialogue window (this is important or else some of the pages will appear upside down).
  3. CUT paper sheet 2 (containing 5/6) in half, removing the blank part
  4. COLLATE (assemble) the three sheets in the following order:
    • Bottom –  paper sheet 1 (containing 1/2); BIG number 1 upright & facing you
    • Middle – paper (half) sheet 2 (containing 5/6); BIG number 5 upright & facing you; AND left-aligned – not centered (very important!)
    • Top – paper sheet 3 (containing 3/4); BIG number 3 upright & facing you
  5. FOLD all sheets together three times as follows:
    • FIRST FOLD – in half; left to right
    • SECOND FOLD – in half; top to bottom (a.k.a., right-angle)
    • THIRD FOLD – in half; left to right (a.k.a., right-angle)
  6. TRIM approx. 1/8″ off the top, bottom, and right edges (to remove the folds on those edges).  DO NOT CUT off the left edge!
  7. (optional) STAPLE at the center of the book along the fold and…
  8. COWABUNGA!!!  It’s a mini-TMNT #1 !!

And now, until Part 06, I leave you to marvel at the magic of (properly imposed) signatures.

- PrintWiki - The Free Encyclopedia of Print
- Designer Insights - Understanding and Working with Print Signatures
- PrintNinja Printing Academy

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