Size of Newspapers
The first thing to mention, is that newspapers used to be much larger than they are now. I’m lucky enough to own a few original copies, but the original artwork, as it appeared in the newspapers, was much bigger. The image below compares a full sized iPad with a page from 1936.
This is good news for microfilmed versions of newspapers, as the artwork can be better rendered the larger it is. The drawbacks occur depending on the quality of the microfilming itself.
Poor Quality of Microfilm
Old copies of newspapers were usually kept by the newspapers themselves. There could be copies in libraries, or with collectors. It wasn’t until the late 1930s when the commercialization of microfilm gave the idea to libraries that newspapers and other old documents (which could be deteriorating due to the acidity of the newsprint or due to age) could be preserved. So some older material could already be in worse shape when it was finally microfilmed.
In this example from 1921, you can see how the lighting used in the microfilm process has resulted in a dark top edge which can make it difficult to read.
Photographs could be very poorly rendered in microfilm, and could become black blobs like in this example below.
Care was also not always taken by the microfilm photographer. In this example, you can see how text has been cut off on the side from the fold of the newspaper (this may be the newspaper was bound for long term storage, and the microfilmer did not remove it from its binding).
Sometimes the problem is not with the microfilm, but with the original source material. If the original copy was damaged in some way, nothing could be done.
In this example, you can see the side of the newspaper was badly ripped and cut off.
In another case, the center of the comic was cut out!
These types of errors would not only be with older newspapers. Even their later work in the Montreal Standard would be affected by poor microfilming. This sample is an original paper copy.
And this is how it looks in microfilm, spread out over two pages. Because of the spread, the artwork gets cut off.
A close-up of the text shows that the print copy was pulled apart for microfilming (as indicated by the perforations, which was likely from later binding), but even then, they cut off the text. This is a particular problem with the Montreal Standard microfilm.
Colour and Microfilm
This brings us to the last problem with working with microfilm, colour. All early microfilm is in black and white, and is dependent on the quality of the camera used. In most cases, colour does not look good. The earlies Greg-Jim stories were illustrated in black and white, but quickly moved to colour. The earliest Life’s Little Comedies usually suffered from the poor microfilm copies of the 1920s newsprint, but that improved quickly, and generally the copies of Birdseye Center were not too bad (except for some of the samples shown above). But when Jim moved to colour with Juniper Junction, I was concerned since the microfilm copies were mostly unreadable.
Luckily, I became aware of the publication of the same comics in the Family Herald, but in black and white, thereby preserving the art.
As a last word, I would like to point out that the real appreciation of Jim Frise’s art can be felt mainly in the original colour. I have to rely on a few copies I have, plus sample from internet auctions. Perhaps someday I can make a visit to the Toronto Reference Library to see more examples of the original newsprint (the only place where print copies still exist).