Meet Peter Ahlstrom

Among the 39 employees let go by manga publisher Tokyopop during a recent restructuring was Peter Ahlstrom. Peter was kind enough to respond to my interview offer, and after carefully reviewing a non-disclosure agreement, he submitted the following responses to my questions.

What was your title at Tokyopop, and how long did you work there?
Junior Editor, for a bit over a year. Prior to that I was a Copy Editor. I also did a lot of freelance rewriting on the side. In total, I worked at TOKYOPOP for four years.

Could you summarize your responsibilities for them?
As a Junior Editor, I was in charge of up to seven books per month. Right before I left, I was going over first printouts for September books and had just finished editing all my scripts for October books. I was in the middle of reviewing bluelines (proofs) from the printing companies for the August books. I was also putting summaries for December books into the internal database (so the marketing folks could write solicitation copy), and picking rewriters for books coming out in 2009. So basically, I was involved in every step of the publication process for my titles.

What were some of the highlights of your time there? Projects you’re particularly proud of, or experiences that had a major impact?
I got to see CLAMP no Kiseki through from the beginning to the end, first as a copy editor, then as a rewriter after Jake Forbes passed the project to me, and finally as editor for the last half of the series. Sometimes it seemed like it would never end, but the final printed volume came into the office last week or so.
I also am particularly happy with the work I did on .hack and Kingdom Hearts, doing what I could to make the script faithful to the games. .hack//XXXX vol. 1 should be showing up in stores any day now, and that may be the book I’m most proud to have my name in. When we first got the Japanese books in the office, I looked through them and noticed that the artist was using a lot of digital effects that had obviously been created by computer. This is unusual in Japanese manga, where most of their production is still done by hand; most Japanese books are still printed from film rather than ever being scanned into a computer. So I asked about whether the digital files might be available from Kadokawa, and it turned out they were. Okay…I hope you don’t mind if I get a bit esoteric here, but let me explain how complicated it was to get the best final result possible.
Kadokawa sent us two different sample files for the first B&W page of .hack//XXXX vol. 1. One was a PDF file with text on it, and one was a layered PSD file with text on a separate layer. The PSD file was at 600 dpi, and when I looked closely at the lines I saw some fuzziness that the PDF did not exhibit. Preflighting the PDF showed me that the image in the PDF was actually 1008 dpi—so the PSD was a lower-quality image. Obviously, the PDF was the way to go—if we could get the text off the image. Now, if you know anything about how PDFs are made, you know that generally, images and text are separate objects. This was indeed the case, so no problem. I went ahead and had our licensing coordinator order the digital files for the whole volume…and then set about looking for a way to extract the image data cleanly.
The basic problem with the PDFs was that the images were stored with a DeviceN colorspace instead of Gray or K-plate. If I tried to use Acrobat’s TouchUpObject tool to edit the image in Photoshop, Photoshop would tell me it didn’t support the colorspace. Acrobat 6 also refused to export images at anything greater than 600 dpi. Acrobat 8 Pro’s options to change the colorspace and export at more than 600 dpi also did not fix the problem: the colorspace conversion led to a shrinking of the gamut. (Basically, on a scale from 0=black to 255=white, pixels that were supposed to be 0 were ending up with a value of 35. I could adjust this using levels later, but only with some loss in image data.) What I wanted was just to get the raw image data out of the PDF with no conversion for rendering intent, and though I tried various different third-party programs, none of them would do the job. So I turned to hex editing.
Using a hex editor, I was able to locate the image’s flate-compressed stream inside the PDF file (flate compression is basically the same thing as Zip compression) and copy it out into a new file. But I couldn’t just stick a .zip on the end of the file and hope it would unzip; I had to compile a simple commandline program called zpipe from sample code on the zlib website. Using zpipe I was able to decompress the stream file into a RAW file which I then opened in Photoshop, inputting the pixel dimensions that Acrobat’s preflight told me I should use. And voila, I had my full-resolution, full-bit-depth file.
So now I knew I could get the image files from the PDFs, but it was a painstaking process. No worries…I asked my brother-in-law who works for Google for some help, and he came up with a perl script that would find the flate-compressed stream in the image and extract it to standard output, which I could then pipe to zpipe. The script’s syntax wasn’t quite right at first, but I was able to figure out the problem and get it working. Then I did a little reading up on the zlib functions available to perl, and rewrote the perl script to use those functions instead of relying on the external zpipe program. So I was left with a script that I fed a PDF and out popped a RAW file. A simple shell script then let me automate the process for every PDF file within a single folder.
But that wasn’t the end of it. When the PDF data for the entire volume came (one PDF file per page), and I ran my script on it, only the odd-numbered pages turned out right—the even-numbered RAWs were duplicates of the odd-numbered ones! Turns out each PDF page had two images in it–one being the one that showed up when you opened the page in Acrobat, and the other being the opposite page on the same spread! I had to make a different version of the perl script that would take the second flate stream rather than the first. Ultimately, I was able to extract the image from every page. (The story does get a bit more complicated, such as the files being 13 different resolutions, but I’ll leave it at that.)
One more thing I’m proud of contributing to at TOKYOPOP was the use of stochastic printing. I don’t take very much of the credit for it, but I did push for its consideration and participated in discussions with the top-quality printer Worzalla. In traditional linescreen B&W printing, only black ink is used on white paper—any gray you see on the page is an illusion formed by regularly-spaced black dots. In stochastic printing, the illusion is even better because the dots are much smaller and their placement is pseudo-randomized instead of regular. Now, most TOKYOPOP books, especially the ones from Japan, are scanned as bitmaps with no gray at all, so printing them stochastically looks identical to printing them via traditional linescreen. However, anything with gray in it looks much sharper and shows more details when printed stochastically. .hack//XXXX is a book that has a lot of gray details and really benefits from a stochastic treatment—but the Japanese book was printed traditionally. I made sure that when we printed it, it was done stochastically—so the end result is that for once, the English version of the manga looks better than the Japanese version (barring the presence of a slipcover, of course). I know many longtime readers of TOKYOPOP books will read this pronouncement skeptically, but I really don’t believe I’m exaggerating. If you get a chance to compare the English and Japanese versions of .hack//XXXX vol. 1 side-by-side, pay close attention to gray areas such as flashbacks. The English version shows fine details much more clearly.
Well, that’s the end of my rant on .hack//XXXX, and some of you may be asking whether everything I did was in my job description. The answer is…not really, but my love for the books I worked on kept me from holding back the skills I could bring to bear in making my books turn out as best they possibly could.
Something else I’m proud of during my time at TOKYOPOP is having convinced at least a handful of manga fans to give the later volumes of Dazzle a chance. I love that series a lot, and hope we get to see many future volumes. I do know that volume 9 is still scheduled for September, and I’ll be buying it right away.
A fun curiosity is that after knowing about and working on the book Fool’s Gold for several months, I realized that its creator, Amy Reeder Hadley, was in three semesters of Korean classes with me back at Brigham Young University. It’s a small world!

How did you get into the comics industry?
I suppose it’s safe to say this now, but I actually started through scanlations. After I graduated from BYU, I moved to New York (in June 2001) in order to apply for publishing jobs there. Though I sent out dozens of applications per week, I only had four interviews during an entire year there, and got close to getting hired just once. In my off time, I discovered scanlations through a link from the Planet Namek forums (I had gotten into Dragonball Z only the year before, and had watched some anime with friends in college—Vampire Hunter D, Ranma 1/2, Evangelion, Kenshin—only casuallyy, though). One of the major scanlation sites that did a series I liked a lot put out a request for editors, and I joined up. Before long, I was coordinating projects and making assignments to other editors. Kinokuniya was just a subway ride away, so I started buying Japanese books there too.
I enjoyed working on manga for free so much I decided to try it professionally. It was a while before that could happen, though…I never did get an interview at Viz when I applied there, and eventually I found myself teaching English in Okayama, Japan (my B.A. is in Linguistics; many Linguistics majors end up teaching English to speakers of other languages). It was around that time a friend of mine from the scanlation group started interning at TOKYOPOP, and he got another friend of mine from the group an interview there as a copy editor—and he was hired. That friend then got me an interview when I got back from Japan, and the rest is history.
—Oh, there is a bit more of a comics connection in my childhood, but I don’t know how consequential it was. My dad collected comics back in the 50s/60s, and we had a shelf full of them down in the basement. We kids didn’t treat them very well, though…almost all the Batman/Superman comics were ruined from being on the floor when the sump pump overflowed, and Mom threw them out. There are a few old Uncle Scrooge and Gyro Gearloose issues that didn’t get moldy, but I wouldn’t say they’re in great shape. (I have fond memories of them being very entertaining, and I have no idea who worked on them.) Oh, and there are some Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers comics that we didn’t touch much…we weren’t nearly as into Westerns as my dad was.

Could you tell me a little bit about your education and training, or other professional experiences that have contributed to your skill set?
I’ve always been a big fan of science fiction and fantasy (leaning more toward science fiction)—it all started with my older sister Helena reading to me the books she was reading at the time; beginning with Betty Brock’s No Flying in the House and continuing on to Tolkien, Star Trek books, and Heinlein. My dad also had a lot of SF paperbacks from the late 50s/60s—including the issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction that has the original “Flowers for Algernon” story and Anne McCaffrey’s first published story—and I devoured those as well. Back in elementary school and junior high, I wrote constantly (I got 7th place statewide in Ohio’s Power of the Pen contest when I was in 7th grade) and planned to be a writer “when I grew up.” The writer Diann Thornley (who published three books for Tor back in the day) moved into the area and started attending the local LDS church my family attended, and toward the beginning of high school I started going to her writing group. Having my writing critiqued in a setting like that was invaluable; I recommend it to everyone. (Also in the writing group was Helen E. Davis, who I consider a great writer, but she’s never been able to interest a publisher—she eventually resorted to self-publishing through Lulu.com, and I really enjoyed her Silent Runners and plan to get her By Blade and Cloth as well.)
Anyway, Diann Thornley was an early member of BYU’s science fiction community, from whence sprang the Leading Edge magazine (TLE) and the annual Symposium on Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE). In 1980, Orson Scott Card was supposed to teach a creative writing class at BYU, but he was unable to at the last minute. That may have been a disappointment to some of the students who had signed up for the class, but a core group of dedicated genre fans continued on under the replacement teacher, Dr. Marion K. Smith (a.k.a. Doc Smith…of course not THAT Doc Smith). When the semester ended, they kept right on meeting, forming The Class That Would Not Die. Diann Thornley wasn’t in this first class, but she joined up the next semester. Anyway, the science fiction/fantasy magazine that they started back then is still going strong today, and when my older sister (the same one who read to me as a child) went to college, she joined the magazine staff and had a grand time.
Five years later when I went off to school I joined the magazine staff as well, and it wasn’t long before I realized that editing and publishing were a lot of fun. We met three times a week, 90 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and 2 hours on Saturday mornings (or something like that). Most of the time we sat around reading the slush pile and writing critiques (the magazine gets submissions from all over the world). And complaining to the other staff members how horrible the stories got. (It was actually at these meetings that my wife Karen and I met; my interest was piqued by her love of Gordon Korman books.) But we would eventually get around to selecting stories for publication, and we put out two issues per year. I became the circulation director, then the fiction director, and then the managing editor. I also took all the editing and publication classes that the English department had to offer.
When the Leading Edge‘s 20th anniversary was coming up, I spearheaded a plan to publish a special issue featuring stories of people formerly associated with TLE who had gone on to make it big—for that issue we ended up printing stories from Orson Scott Card and Dave Wolverton (David Farland), as well as others who had seen some success like Shayne Bell, Scott Parkin, and Michael Carr. (Most of the stories were reprints, but it was cool to do anyway, and we got a cover from James Christensen that ended up winning a Chesley award.) Fellow editors with me on that issue were Brandon Sanderson and Daniel A. Wells. Dan has recently sold a horror novel to Tor, and if you’ve been paying attention to the fantasy world recently I hardly need say who Brandon Sanderson is—he was twice nominated for the Campbell award, and he was chosen late last year to finish up the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s passing. (It was also this group of friends that introduced me to Ranma 1/2, Kenshin, and Evangelion.)
Working on a student-run magazine throughout my college years was an incredibly helpful experience. There’s no better way to become a good editor than to sit down and do it (well, this is the case with most professions/skills, so it should be no surprise). It was also great fun, and I met people who will be my friends for life—not the least of whom is my wife, of course. I don’t know how many universities out there have an active student-run genre magazine that gets submissions from worldwide, but if you’re interested in the publishing field and you’re currently deciding which university to attend, you may want to keep this in mind.
Oh—you may also guess, from my reported adventures above with the PDF files, that I’ve dabbled a bit in computer programming ever since elementary school. I’m not sure how many people would find that kind of experience useful when it comes to publishing comics, but you never know.

What would you like to do next? Keep working in the comics industry? Or are you open to other avenues?
I would be happy to work elsewhere in the comics industry, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to pursue my earlier desire to work in fantasy/science fiction publishing. Of course, it’s a very restricted field, but I have a lot more experience under my belt now that will hopefully make a difference. It’s not like I can move to New York on a wing and a prayer this time, though, not with a 5-month-old (incredibly cute) baby girl to take care of! But there are lots of opportunities for an editor in many different publishing and non-publishing sectors. I’m also going to be looking at jobs in the Utah publishing industry, and I’m looking into freelance copyediting (the Deanna Hoak way).

And I also wanted to leave a sort of “open question” for anything else you’d like to comment on – the state of the comics industry, where you’d like to see it go, how you’re doing since you got the news. Anything’s fair game.
Did you know that a fan community of musicians has grown up around science fiction and fantasy conventions over the last 55 years or so? The music they produce is called filk, and it’s one of my favorite musical genres. The filk rock band Ookla the Mok (named after the Thundarr the Barbarian character) has quite a few great songs involving comic books that I really love—check out the songs “Arthur Curry,” “Theme from Super Skrull,” “Stop Talking About Comic Books or I’ll Kill You,” “My Secret Origin,” “Super Powers,” “Cowboy Secret Space Detective,” “Bride of Wolfman”…heck, check out all their songs (even though most of the ones I didn’t name focus on things other than comics).

Thanks so much!
No problem. It’s been fun.

15 Responses to Meet Peter Ahlstrom

  1. [...] has always been ready to discuss his work on forums and in blog comments, read the fine print and answered David’s questions, giving an interesting look at the life of an editor (Seven books a month? Mercy!) as well as a [...]

  2. A production nerd after my own heart. Good luck, Peter!

  3. Tony Salvaggio says:

    Super Cool Peter. Thanks for doing this David!
    I am totally enamored with process reports like this. I tend to do a lot of that kind of process analysis and troubleshooting in my jobs. Way to rock the books and printing. I think it’s awesome that you went so far above and beyond.

  4. Alex W. says:

    Cool interview. I especially liked the geeky pre-press details of saving that high-res text. :-)

    One thing I noticed, though, was some duplicate lines of text. They were “Obviously, the PDF was the way to go—if we could get the text off the image. Now, if you know anything about how PDFs are made, you know that generally, images and text are separate objects. This was indeed the case, so no problem. I went ahead and had our licensing coordinator order the digital files for the whole volume…and then set about looking for a way to extract the image data cleanly.”

    Maybe someone else has caught this by now, but if not, just FYI.

    Good luck to Peter Ahlstrom, both with your career and the new baby girl! :-D

  5. Yeah, that second one should be deleted.

    Thanks for the good wishes. :)

  6. davidpwelsh says:

    Thanks for spotting that Alex.

  7. That was fun to read! Thanks!

  8. John Jakala says:

    As someone who often experiences those small moments of triumph when you solve some technical issue at his own job, I really enjoyed reading this account. It also gives a nice insight into the odd little things that might go into the job of being an editor, probably something few comics or manga fans really stop to think about.

    Now I’m going to have to go off and research filk — sounds interesting.

    And congrats on the new baby girl!

  9. Karen (the wife) says:

    You should’ve seen the way he worked for HOURS on those images at home. I kept asking him, “Are you getting paid for this?” (answer: no) and then, “Are you having fun?” (answer: yes) I figured there were a lot worse ways to spend his free time, so I just shook my head and let him have his fun.

  10. Boy, I learned more about my brother-in-law reading this article than I’ve ever managed to in conversation! Those were some fascinating details about your work. Thanks for taking the time to write this up and share it with us.

  11. [...] David Welsh has an exit interview with former Tokyopop junior editor Peter [...]

  12. LKK says:

    Thank you for publishing this. I’ve spoken with Peter numerous times at Tokyopop’s forum and happily count myself among those whom Peter convinced to read Dazzle. (Like him, I will be buying volume 9 as soon as it hits my local bookstores.) TP laid off many talented people in this reorganization of theirs. In my opinion, Peter was one TP should have held onto as it goes forward with its new business agenda. Best wishes to Peter and Karen and their incredibly cute baby girl.

  13. st_owly says:

    Nice interview, I hope you find sucess elsewhere Peter.

  14. Jim Ahlstrom (Peter's Dad) says:

    Very interesting article, Peter. I didn’t realize my old comics collection made such an impression on you. Too bad you didn’t like the westerns. ^_^

  15. ErinF says:

    Hey, I just read .hack//XXXX, and the art was really great, even if I’m not a dot hack fan. I really appreciate the hard work it too to do hex editing and make it look nice!

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