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!

Astro City Mail – November

AC_postmark_chesler_2015

Lettercol lettercol lettercol. Here we go, first off with the text from the print edition…

First up, apologies to inkmaster Wade von Grawbadger, whose name was inadvertently left off last month’s cover. And a hearty welcome to Peter Pantazis, on his first trip to our fair city, as he steps in for Alex Sinclair and Wendy Broome, both of whom were too tangled up in deadlines to manage this story. Sorry, Wade. Yo, Pete!

And on that elegant note, time for the Letter of the Month. This month, it’s from:

KEVIN SEAN MAHONEY

I haven’t written in for a few months, but I haven’t missed an issue. I bought #27 the day it came out, and while I enjoyed it on its own, it synergized (can I use that word non-corporately?) with #25 to the point that they both got stuck in my head and forced me to write you again.

Those issues have a lot in common, on the surface. There are two female protagonists making tough choices. Each issue features guest spots by Honor Guard. There are two reality bending crises. Both stories have a mother daughter component to them. And of course each issue has a guest artist.

But there are plenty of differences too. The Hummingbird story really gives the reader a bird’s eye view (ugh!) of her whole life, where she’s come from and where she’s going. The Chibi story really is about one day, though it does reveal the past and sets up a new future for a couple of characters. The progression of the Hummingbird story focuses in more on how she relates to her heroic cohorts, thus she feels more complete and real. The Chibi story almost has that unreliable narrator feel, where her realizations are almost more important than the plot, but she doesn’t gain her emotional reality until the story’s close. The art in each issue couldn’t be more different. Mr. Merino has a similar look and feel to Brent, which helps sell the multi-era tale. Mr. Infurnari’s scenes set in the real world just jarred too much. The Chibi-verse looked great, as did the last couple of pages, but those first ten or so pages just didn’t sit right. If that’s his regular style and not a choice meant to evoke contrast with the other world, I guess I just didn’t like it. But I’m a story over art type of guy anyway, so it’s bearable because…

You made me cry, Kurt. Both times. Twice in three months. Dammit. Admittedly, there are certain tropes I’m a sucker for. Give me caring women sacrificing for a real goal and I’m a soft target. Combine that with young kids doing the right thing and I’m useless. I am sure it’s part of getting older and having nieces and godchildren in my life, hoping for them and helping them become good strong people, but when you hit that idea just right…well, I guess I had something in my eye. Yeah, I guess I’ll have to go with that.

So we get a story about Wolfspider next month? Cool. Was that story rescheduled? I want to say I saw a previews for it or something similar ages ago.

Always happy to make readers cry, Kevin—though I will say I doubt we could have done it without the tone set by Joe Infurnari’s nuanced character portrayals. I thought he brought the story to life beautifully. But to each their own. And no, this is our first time scheduling a Wolfspider story.

So you know the drill: E-mail. Mailing address. Signed copy. To you. Badaboom!

And boom chakka lakka boom, there’s more…
Continue reading

Eggs is Eggs

Today I was shelling my hardboiled eggs for my usual breakfast of sliced eggs on toast.

One of ’em shelled very easily, the shell and membrane coming off in big elegant arcs, leaving pristine egg below. The other was belligerent—a membrane that didn’t want to let go of either egg or shell, so it was a matter of picking at it and hurting my thumbs and the shell coming off fragment by tiny fragment, bringing chunks of egg with it here and there.

I couldn’t help but think, as I picked away, that stories are like this too. Sometime they’re easy to shape, and sometimes you have to chip away painfully and you end up with something pitted and ugly.

And in the end, none of that has any effect on how they taste.

And upon thinking that, my response was: “Get me the fuck out of this metaphor, I just want this damn egg peeled!”

Which is often how I feel while working on a story, but never mind.

What’s That Address Again?

Walgreens-FY14-Logo-Preferred1

So the other day, I was in Walgreens to drop off a prescription.

I was walking through the store, headed for the pharmacy counter in the back. Passing the candy aisle, the cookie aisle, the crackers, chips, soda and more. Whatever music they were playing on the in-store audio finished up a song and then there was a short promo from some country or pop duo (I’m guessing it was whoever had done that previous song), saying that they’re [name of band], and they love performing for their fans, but what they want most is for you to be fit and healthy.

And the best way to start that process, they said perkily, was to make great healthy food choices at Walgreens!

About then, I got to the pharmacy counter, and as I was handing my prescription slip to the attendant there, I mentioned how the in-store audio had advised me to get fit and healthy by making great healthy food choices at Walgreens.

She chuckled. “We don’t have any healthy food choices here,” she said.

That’s kinda what I’d been thinking.

Okay, they sell milk.

But if [name of band] thinks food shopping at Walgreens is that first step to health and fitness, I shudder to think what step two is…