Lettering Rant

On Twitter today, I went off about comic-book lettering (as I do), and went on at enough length that I thought it’d be worth preserving it here, in case anyone’s interested.

Here’s how it started:

What will drive me from comics won’t be money or bad deals or trolls or bad sales. I will be driven from comics by lettering that annoys me.

Too small. Too hard to read. In the wrong place. Should butt to the border. Should match the line weight of the balloon border. Aiee! I will be the unshaven lunatic Howard Hughes of comics, gibbering in my penthouse about annoying lettering. On books I don’t even write.

My cryptic last words will be “goddamn captions didn’t harmonize with the line art…”

**

I went on:

Last night I read three comics, lettered by excellent letterers. Two had lettering stuff that annoyed me. [The third was by Chris Eliopoulos.]

It’s not that the lettering on the other two books was bad, it just had tics and aspects that bugged me, that threw me out of the story, made me think about lettering rather than story and character.

**

Anyway, it inspired this:

Used to be, ordinary lettering, balloon borders and panel borders were done with the same pen. So there’s a long tradition of these things all having the same line weight, and thus this looks “normal” (at least to old people). It’s a rule of thumb worth knowing, even if you decide to break it for aesthetic reasons. It also ties everything together; the lettering, balloons and panel borders are all part of the same sensibility, all part of the same picture plane, framing the art. Change that, and you change that effect, for good or ill.

[We broke that pattern for THE AUTUMNLANDS, for instance, where the balloons have no borders, the panel borders are thick and organic, and the lettering font has nothing to do with it. This is because we want the lettering to feel as if it sank into the artwork, as a cut-in rather than hovering over it. The captions, however, have borders made of the same thick-brushy line as the panel borders. To my mind, at least, this makes the captions part of the proscenium, separated from the action, while the dialogue is cut in, very much part of the action. Whether that works for you, I dunno. But we chose the effect deliberately.]

If word balloons never (or rarely) interact with panel borders, they look like clutter, like Skittles scattered on the page. Worse, they create a new plane—a lettering plane—that has nothing to do with the panel borders or art, which can make them feel like they’re in the way rather than part of the proceedings.

If lettering only goes in whatever space is available, rather than interacting with the dynamics of the art and helping lead the eye, then it can feel like an obstacle, rather than part of the art.

Graphically, lettering is rectangles, ovals and circles. It’s going to either be part of the layout dynamics or it’s going to clash with it. Being part of the dynamics is better.

If the lettering is in multiple fonts, having them all the same point size won’t work, because different fonts have have different weights. All of the fonts should feel like they “weigh” the same on the page, that they have the same footprint (unless they’re meant to read as louder or quieter). So lower-case fonts need to be a little bigger to match the “weight” of all-caps fonts. Skinny-line fonts need to be a bit bigger than thick-line fonts, because they feel flimsier, lighter. If the reader has to keep adjusting, the book gets harder to read, but if the letters have the same approximate “weight,” then it all reads smoothly. [This is not a mechanical thing, it’s a matter of judgment; you have to see what looks like it weighs the same.]

Too many different fonts or balloon styles on a page will also start to feel like clutter even if they’re all the same weight; a little style-play goes a long way, but too much just creates a mess. We learned this in AVENGERS, where we went kind of overboard and learned to rack it back.

And any font should be readable. If you’re mimicking some exotic letter-set, mimic it enough to get the flavor of it, but not so much that it makes the reader slow down to decipher it. Readability is rule one, unless you’re designing death-metal logos.

Oh, and fancy-ass caption boxes with color gradations and built-in logo-chunks can look great over art that’s every bit as slick and fancy-ass, but over gestural, rough linework it usually looks out of place, clashing with the art. Don’t clash with the art style, mesh with it.

That’s about the caption box styles. For lettering itself, crisp, precise lettering can make rough, gestural art look deliberate, while rough, sloppy lettering can make the same art look amateurish. Different styles of lettering brings out different aspects of the art; try to bring out the good ones.

I think that’s my lettering rant for the day.

On top of this, let me add that I’m not a professional letterer, and the closest I’ve come is designing a few logos for friends who couldn’t afford better than my meager abilities. So take everything I say with a grain of salt. But I think it’s worth thinking about, at least.

**

Hope that’s useful to anyone who reads all the way through. And even if you disagree with me on this stuff, it’s worth thinking about what effect lettering has and why, so you can create storytelling effects with it deliberately, rather than just applying one reflexive formula to everything.

Happy New Year!

[And hey, as long as it is New Year’s, I should mention the Comicraft Font Sale! Check it out, letterfolk and would-be letterfolk!

One thought on “Lettering Rant

  1. Surprised eliopoulos doesn’t annoy you as well. I found this article because of how sloppy I think his lettering is. While he may stick to the line weights, etc you mentioned, it looks like its written by a middle schooler. Just a rambling on of lettering to. I was looking at a book where the narrative was showing a “report” style of writing with “subject”, “info”, etc that really would have looked better if there were some line breaks but it’s just one long paragraph. Very jumbled and unprofessional looking.

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