Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Art of Comic Book Lettering Part 1

It's very easy to dismiss comic book lettering as a mere post-art production task, but I believe it is an art in its own right and I personally have great admiration for good letterers. I must confess that in the past my relationship to the words on a comic book page was quite different to what it is now and I didn't have the understanding or indeed value the power that lettering has in influencing the reader/viewer's conscious and subconscious processes. Neither did I actively stop to examine and break down the technique of lettering; I just accepted it as an ever present and non-intrusive and partly subliminal part of the comics medium that I skimmed over to get into the story. 

Once I started writing comics, however, and began to read my own work in printed comic book form, my perception began to change. Furthermore, we began to take an active role in the production process once the lettering function in the comics industry began to fall on the artist's (in our case Jozef's) shoulders. Indeed, it must be said you will find that many current comics contracts (both digital and print) no longer identify lettering as a separate task that is organised and paid for by the publisher. In fact, now there is an expectation that the "finished" art includes lettering, and that the artist is responsible for that job. He/she can either do it themselves, or subcontract the job out to an independent letterer, and we must add, pay for it out of their own pocket.

A few months ago Jozef and I began to look at the submission guidelines for several comics publishers – they pretty much universally wanted five pages of "finished" art which was defined as including lettering. Jozef was under heavy deadlines at the time so I volunteered to do the research to find the tools necessary for him to complete the job. 

The first thing I did to actually change my focus when it came to reading/viewing comics and graphic novels was to identify books with excellent lettering. The DC/Vertigo Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and various artists was a good example.  We had been used to seeing one typeface and one style of word or thought balloon throughout a series no matter who was talking through the panels. Sandman opened our eyes as to the scope of lettering. The shape, line, colour and the typeface of the various speech bubbles changes according to which character was talking on the page. For example, Sandman himself has a black, curvy, ink blot style word balloon with a white line around its edge and white upper and lower case, slightly fancy lettering. This contrasts to the ordinary mortals who have round white word balloons with a traditional comic book type face set in upper case. Words to be emphasised are set in bold. Villains – especially if they were completely psychotic – got their own style of word balloon and font too, usually jagged ones that symbollically represent their fractured state of mind, or, big lumpy cloddish styles if they lack intellect and are lumbering oversized oafs. In the Sandman books I have on hand at this moment, Todd Klein was the letterer.

On the local front I thought that WitchKing by Christian Read and Paul Abstruse (published by Phosphorescent Comics) with lettering design by Jason Kovacs was excellently conceived and executed, and all components blended in seamlessly.

In the next few parts of this lettering series we will explore objectives and criteria for lettering including genre and we will post a list of resources including websites where you can obtain comic book fonts.

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