Keep Our Secrets by Jordan Crane

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The fifth book in the McMullens series published by McSweeney’s, Keep Our Secrets by Jordan Crane is an odd board book for children printed with heat-sensitive disappearing ink. Billed as the first board book printed in such a manner, it’s a hard claim to dispute, especially with how few products are even printed utilizing this technology. The general premise behind such printed matter that utilizes this disappearing ink concept is that the artist creates an entire image upon which strategic blobs of black ink will be printed to blot out details of the image to be revealed by the reader or viewer by heating up the black blobs (usually by rubbing the blot with their fingertips).

Revealing the image is usually a tedious process when the “ink” is relatively fresh. I don’t have many examples of this, but over the years – these type of items usually have their ink degrade and what’s underneath the blobs slowly become visible as the ink loses its pigment over time. So based on my own ephemeral holdings, anything printed with ink of this nature seems to have a short-term shelf life compared to “normal ink”. Although to be honest, any board book of any type has a very short life-span due to invariably being destroyed by its intended audience.

As the pigment in the “heat-sensitive ink” degrades, you start to be able to see what’s underneath the previously opaque blobs of ink without any rubbing or other sources of heat being applied to the blobs. Based on one of my items, eventually the whole image will become visible without any opaqueness blocking any portion of the images out. So this book isn’t meant last more than a few years, which is moot with its board book binding and target audience. “Disappearing ink” printed matter always provide great entertainment for the reader, especially since there are so many ways you can have fun with the ink blobs. You can try to reveal the image itself or just play with the heat-sensitive ink blobs themselves.

The first time I ever experienced this type of printing – heat-sensitive disappearing ink, was on some trading cards featuring the Simpsons made by Skybox in 1994.

[important](Glossary Addition) heat-sensitive disappearing ink: a blob of ink imparted onto a page to turn that part opaque until heat is applied to the blob, turning it translucent and revealing the details on the page underneath the blob (a variant of thermochromic ink)[/important]

That trading card set produced in 1994 by Skybox was their ‘Series Two’ of their Simpsons line. There were several innovatively printed cards in this set, but most of the ideas came from the comic book industry or other products from the 1980s and 1990s. We won’t trace the exact lineage of the disappearing ink printing method for the time being, but rather look at the two items I have that sport this feature:

This is the essence of the heat-sensitive disappearing ink – a thick blob of ink is printed on the card to obscure whatever the actual printed image underneath is. The instructions are even printed on the card itself – rub the ink blob to ‘reveal’ the monster beneath. The fun part is that as this was the first time most anybody had ever seen one of these things, nobody really knew what would happen. This was also the pre-Internet days, or at least widespread Internet access for the masses. As it turns out, some people were actually afraid to rub the ink, since they didn’t know if the black ink would actually be restored (and thus, have the card permanently be ‘revealed’). The closest comparison one could make at the time would be to the scratch-off lottery tickets that use a form of foil to hide something beneath. Once scratched, obviously the opaque layer doesn’t restore itself.

“Disappearing ink” also isn’t very descriptive of what this thing actually does. Real magician’s disappearing ink is actually something that turns something black and then “disappears forever”. So this thing wasn’t even named properly in the first place – it took me a good few weeks to finally try to rub the image. And once I saw that the “ink” restored itself, I began to have fun with this card, rubbing it to reveal only spots, or just to watch it restore itself over and over again. For over a decade, this was the only piece of ‘ephemera’ that I had that displayed this feature. And it’s probably a missed opportunity by several publishers for not properly capitalizing the features of this “ink”.

As you can notice from the reverse of the card – the only thing mentioned is that it’s a Disappearing Ink card, without any description as to what it actually does. This is number D3 in the set – there were actually four Disappearing Ink cards printed, and the odds of finding one in a pack were approximately 1:36 (that being one card per 36 packs).

Chase cards have always been worth more than regular cards for the most part, but despite both the comic book and trading card collapse from the 1990s, it appears that the Disappearing Ink cards have actually maintained their value over the years. That’s probably because of the longevity of the Simpsons and how well printed the cards were in the first place. Skybox printed high quality cards.

With the background information out of the way – there are essentially two ways to reveal the image underneath that scary shadow. You can rub it for a few seconds (more like a minute) and start to see something being revealed underneath. Or you can use another method to apply heat – such as a hair dryer. Results are acquired rapidly with this method – and you’ll finally see what’s underneath that shadow:

As you can see above – the black ink color doesn’t completely disappear, but rather turns translucent with a gray hue, allowing what’s beneath it to become visible for a short period of time. Due to the thickness of the ink on this particular card, it rapidly turns opaque again:

Comparing this image to the translucent image shown above, you can see how most of the image has already turned black again from its temporary translucence. Within a couple more seconds, it turns completely black and opaque again.

While that series of “disappearing ink” trading cards was the first time I had seen the ‘opaqueness’ effect put to good use, it wasn’t the first time I had seen this printing method in use before. I’m not sure exactly when or where the method originated, but during the “comic-book boom” of the early 1990s, variant covers and “gimmicks” were in widespread use. I’ll eventually write about all of these “gimmick” printing methods over time here.

During the early 1990s, the focus was on the art and the cover, rather than the writing and the storyline, which is why so many comics printed in the 1990s can be had for less than a song, including the comic about to be featured below. They were overprinted and most everybody doesn’t actually want to read these comics, so their value has pretty much hit rock-bottom. This is great news for hunters of ephemera who like the old ads in these comics, the comics themselves, or the printed methods used on those comics.

Image Comics probably best personifies the boom/bust aspect of the comics industry in the 1990s. Bloodstrike #1 was published in April 1993 featuring a “Rub the Blood!” cover. I was unaware of this happening, but apparently Image Comics is re-releasing the comic series very soon with a tribute 20th anniversary cover for issue #26, inviting the reader to once again, “Rub the Blood!”. In an interview at Newsrama, Image publisher Eric Stephenson mentioned that:

Stephenson: You know, it’s funny – that cover blurb, “rub the blood,” was actually the continuation of our marketing for Bloodstrike #1. The ads originally said “Feel the blood!” and then Rob came up with the idea for the thermal-ink cover to the issue, where readers could rub the image and cause the blood to “disappear,” and “Rub the blood!” just seemed like the best way to describe that. Some people point to that as a crowning example of ’90s excess, but really, it was just good marketing.

The problem is that “thermal ink” is not really a pin-point description of the ink used. Everybody has had experience with actual thermal-ink printers. Anytime you get a receipt from some place that uses glossy paper with black ink – that’s an example of thermal-ink printing. It’s the paper in that case that has its unique properties (and could also contains chemicals you aren’t aware of, like BPA, but that’s a different story in its own right). The unique properties of the ink itself we’re discussing is actually a topic called ‘thermochromism‘.

Wikipedia mentions that thermochromic inks were developed in the 1970s, with the development of liquid crystals. But I’m not exactly sure when these inks were first used in conjunction with printed matter. There are several other products that use thermochromic inks, such as the current marketing campaign for Coors Light beer for their “Cold-Activated” cans, where the mountains turn blue when the beer is cold enough to drink at its “optimal” temperature. But there’s a dearth of information about when these inks were first used on paper.

Back to the “Rub the Blood!” cover for Bloodstrike #1. The cover for this comic had “splatters” of blood on it tinted red that was intended to evoke the tons of ‘blood’ promised in the storyline of this brand new comics series (as if the “Bloodstrike” name wasn’t enough). It was indeed good marketing – the cover alone was enough to appeal to several buyers who wanted to see what the heck Image was printing that nobody else had ever done before.

As you can see from the price tag slapped onto it, it’s worth considerably less than its original price. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the price I paid. When you rub the “blood splatters” (which don’t obscure anything underneath their light red hue), they turn translucent completely and the cover simply appears stained where the thermochromic ink has been applied. Then the ink slowly returns to its light red hue, giving the appearance of the blood splatter being actually sprayed onto the cover:

Bloodstrike #1 with thermochromic ink prior to the application of any heat to the ink.

Bloodstrike #1 after the application of heat (the red has faded but you can still see where the ink is (as it appears stained).

Bloodstrike #1 as the ink begins to cool down and its red pigment starts to restore itself.

After discussing thermochromic ink and its origins, and then researching Jordan Crane’s background, I think it’s readily apparent how he got the idea to do Keep Our Secrets. Crane is a comics artist that debuted in 1996, not long after the appearance of this ‘disappearing-ink’ printing method. Expanding on the concepts debuted above, with the Simpsons trading cards and Bloodstrike, thermochromic ink has been ripe for exploration. Children’s books have always attracted illustrators and creative thinkers, especially since so much design space is afforded by the format. And if it’s done well, it can transcend being a “mere children’s book” into a work of art.

Keep Our Secrets is a board book that tells the story of two young friends making up stories about what’s hidden inside people and objects during a party. It’s essentially a make-believe world with rich, lush illustrations based on wild, fantastical ideas. In short, it’s perfect for younger children that enjoy offbeat things. Most adults just think that the book is strange or ‘crazy’, but that’s part of the appeal to children. And that’s essentially the gist of the story itself – the chasm between the adult and child world. The children take a journey throughout a house while a party is ongoing and make up their own explanations about the composition of things and people.

The ink on the book is printed with thick ink, which is good, since the ink on Bloodstrike #1 was pretty thin, and the only problem is that the ink appears susceptible to scratches. It doesn’t seem to affect the opaque properties of the ink itself, but as you can see from my copy, the scratches are visible. (My book was sent directly to me from McSweeney’s as part of my McMullens subscription for my son, so I’m not sure if the “hair-dryer” sticker comes on all the books or just from McSweeney’s).

Notice the scratches visible on the large thermochromic ink blob on the cover

The cover image partially revealed after application of heat

Sample Page - notice the thickness of the thermochromic ink

Progression of the revelation after heat is first applied

The underlying image fully revealed

As you can see from the image above, just because you reveal one item doesn’t mean the rest of the items become revealed, even if using a hair dryer. You can use a bit of skill to only reveal a portion of the page or just a single image while leaving the other blobs of thermochromic ink completely opaque. The art style Jordan Crane uses in this book is pretty much comics-influenced, but that’s a great introduction for children to learn how to read comics, especially with the word balloons. And now, one final picture of the same two pages above, but with everything revealed:

Due to the subject matter and how hard it can be to read this book, I wouldn’t recommend this book for children younger than say 3 years old, depending on their capabilities. A lot of the word balloons may be nowhere near the items named (such as the ‘the vase has snakes’ in the image above being on an entirely different page than the vase). This may confuse very young children, especially those that haven’t learned all these words yet. In short, while they may enjoy the images and the thermochromic ink, it isn’t going to be a good reading experience for them alone. That’s also the reason why it’s recommended an adult read this book with their children.

With an adult reading it (preferably with a hair dryer in hand), this book brings around an unique reading and bonding experience for the child and the adult. The thermochromic ink effect will resemble magic to the child, although I’m worried that very young children may make the association that brandishing a hair dryer to large blobs of black ink will always produce a hidden image (or even rubbing these ink blots). All in all though, I heartily recommend this board book to anybody interested in this printing method or for parents who want to spend a few minutes reading a book together with their children – even older children will be interested in this for at least a few minutes, but the real value comes in reading the book over and over again with a younger child.

Overall Grade – A

Edition: McSweeney’s McMullens 1st ed. (January 2012)
ISBN: 978-1936365524
Binding: Board book
Page Count: 32
Paper Quality: Thick matte boards with glossy thermochromic ink (Excellent)
Original Language: English
Availability: Amazon or McSweeney’s

* – There’s an awesome book trailer made for this book by McMullens. (YouTube)
** – I’d love to hear from Jordan Crane about how he came up with the idea for this book.

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