Astro City Mail – January

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Our first lettercolumn of 2016! Tra la!

Let’s see what it said in the comic…

As I write this, scrambling to make an early-December deadline before my wife’s company Christmas party and a flight to Florida tomorrow morning, we’ve only gotten three letters in response to ASTRO CITY #29, and one isn’t even about the story. So it goes, sometimes. At the very least, it’ll make writing the online lettercol a snap.

But luckily, one of those letters makes a fine choice for our Letter of the Month. Take it away, Simon:

Simon Bullivant

I’ve reached a time in my life (let’s leave it at middle-aged), where ever-quickening reboots and reinventions, not to mention endless empty promises that the world will never be the same again, no longer quite do it for me. As a consequence my superhero comics purchases have dwindled considerably in the last couple of years. Dwindled, but not disappeared completely. The reason for that is ASTRO CITY. The universe it depicts is free from the groaning weight of constantly-revised continuity, and concentrates instead on honest to goodness storytelling. Indeed, Astro City is a place where such stories—with beginning, middle and end—can still be told in the space of twenty or so pages. This month’s story, “The Menace from Earth,” will run a little longer, of course, but deserves to.

The story, told from the viewpoint of a complex alien culture, was essentially one of mistrust and misunderstanding. In such an atmosphere, the eruption of violence with which the issue concluded was almost inevitable. Arriving as it did in the wake of the terrible events in Paris, ASTRO CITY #29 felt astonishingly prescient. ASTRO CITY #30 can’t come soon enough for me. I just hope that when it does, the resolution doesn’t turn out to be too easy and straightforward. Such problems in our own world have no simple solutions, and despite the presence of superheroes, I imagine things are much the same in Astro City. Everything I have read in the last two decades leads me to suspect you will not disappoint.

As I write this, I can only hope that #30 delivered on what you hoped, Simon. As you read it, of course, you already know. So write in and let us know how we did!

We, of course, weren’t thinking about Paris (how could we be?) or any Earthly cultures when putting together “The Menace from Earth” and “Enemy of the Empire,” just messing with classic superhero comics tropes—in this case, the militaristic alien empire—and looking for a new angle on it, a way to explore a human story by looking at the lives of characters we don’t normally get to see in a story like that. It wasn’t one of the story concepts that went into the original series proposal, but it’s been kicking around for a very long time, and it was good to finally get to it.

So now that it’s out, I can certainly see echoes of current events, but can’t say that they shaped the story or the ending. If they had, I think I’d have tried to make the Zirran Empire more nuanced—but hopefully there’s nuance enough in Zozat, Ziriza and company, and the possibilities inherent in their hoped-for future.

That said, thanks very much for the letter, Simon, and like always, them what writes the Letter of the Month gets the goodies. Or in this case, goodie. So e-mail us your mailing address, and we’ll send you a signed by me) copy of this issue, as only the crack Juke Box Productions support team can.

And that brings us to the end, except for what will be a short online column, I expect.

Let’s find out!
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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 – December

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If This…Be…Lettercol! Well, yes, so it doth be. Let’s start things in the traditional manner, with the text from the print edition…

According to the date up top, it’s Christmas Eve Eve, or should be when this issue hits the stands. I was wrong the last time I tried an opening like that, but hey, hope springs eternal. [ADDED: It’s not any more, but it was when the issue came out!]

For me, it it isn’t even Thanksgiving yet. There’s still Halloween candy by the front door, and today I discovered I was dead on Spanish Wikipedia. But someone fixed that, so I’m alive again, and happy to be here. Hope you are as well.

So. Letter of the Month? Yeah, Letter of the Month. And it’s from:

MARK ZUTKOFF

When I opened ASTRO CITY 28 and turned to page 1, my first thought was, “Uh-oh… what are they thinking?” Having the lead character of this book drawn on top of the word balloons? A cartoony style of art which is pretty far away from regular artist Brent Anderson? And then, page 2, which rips off Spider-Man’s origin with a twist? What’s going on here?
 
As I continued to read, I quickly got used to the art, and started getting into the story. Not only was this an homage to Spider-Man, but even more an homage to Kurt’s own creation, Thunderbolts! Neat! And set in Australia, which we don’t see that often in comics. Well done!
 
And then there’s that Australian dialogue. I cannot pretend to vouch for its authenticity, but it certainly seemed so. Except – isn’t “kookaburra” normally spelled with a K in the first position? Did the not-so-good Captain change it for a reason, or are all our northern sources incorrect for its spelling?
 
I was very pleased for an “uh-oh” to turn into “oh, nice!” Keep up the great work, with Brent or any other artists.

Glad you liked it, Mark. To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about Spider-Man in writing Wolfspider’s origin. Just how deadly all that Australian fauna is. And after all, the bite didn’t give him powers, it almost killed him. His mom gave him powers in the process of saving him.

I did notice the T-Bolts similarity, but since it didn’t involve redemption of any kind, it was just bad guys pretending to be heroes, which has got to go way, way back in comics history.

I can’t vouch for the Australian dialogue myself, but Gary Chaloner can, and he says it’s fine. As for kookaburras, yes, they spell their name (er, we spell their name) with a K. But Captain James Cook, explorer, cartographer and the first known European to reach the eastern coastline of Australia, spells his with a C. And Cap’n Cookaburra is kind of a mashup of both, with a fair amount of professional-wrestler-gone-to-seed mixed in there too.

[We had to do it that way. There’s already a Australian hero named Kookaburra in ASTRO CITY, established back in the Confession volume. Honest, you can go look!]

Anyway, no worries if you didn’t catch it—Queenslaw was a cartoon aimed at Australian kids, not Americans, so readers may not know what a numbat is, or why the hero of Victoria is named Goldrush, or why “Banana Bender,” but that’s not important. What’s important is that Wolfspider knows…

In any case, since you wrote the Letter of the Month, you get the reward. We’ve said it many times before, but we’ll keep saying it once an issue, as long as we do this thing: E-mail us your non-electronic mailing address, and I’ll sign a copy of this very issue and fire it off to you at a snail’s pace.

And that’s it, except for the online column!

So, uh, yeah. Online column! What have we got, Johnny?

Here’s BRAD:

Dear Kurt,

Wolfspider’s story was fair dinkum!

Too right! Thanks!

[Actually, Autocorrect tried to change this from “fair dinky” to “fair dinky”—which, if you think about it, could also be correct!]

So who’s next? Ah, ANTONIO:

After reading the latest issue, I have to say that Wolfspider is my favorite new hero. He’s very interesting and if he had his own series, I’d read it in an instant. My question is, would you ever consider doing a story on Max O’ Millions. I’m craving to learn more about him to get a better understanding. I’m hopeful that you will do an issue all about him.

My top 4 other characters I want to see get their own issue are:

1. Halcyon Hippie
2. Point-Man
3. The Green guy holding the coffin at Supersonic’s “funeral”
4. A day in the life of Deke McManus

If I ever come up with a story to tell about Max, Antonio, I’d certainly do one. You never know. As for the others, I can assure you we’ve got plans for at least one of them. Which one? Ah, that would be telling.

And then ANTONIO wrote in again with another thought:

I just want to say thank you. I’ve just read “In Dreams 2015” and am happy to see the return of my favorite Crossbreed member, Peter. It was a very cool surprise and it’s cool of you to keep giving us insight into the Crossbreed. I’ve always felt that they’ve been underutilized, which is a shame.

Glad you liked it!

And now, ANDREW:

ASTRO CITY #28 was another great spotlight issue in the Mighty Busiek manner! My question, since I have one, is this: With all the vast quantities of great characters you’ve created for ASTRO CITY, why did you give us Triathlon and Silverclaw for the Avengers? Not exactly break-out hit characters, no. There was Lord Templar and Pagan also, but not household names there either, not now. And another question: Any chance that Astro City and its vast pantheon of superheroes may come to the DC Universe someday? They could still have their own series: ASTRO CITY!

No, sorry, no chance that ASTRO CITY will ever join the DCU. They have their own vast pantheon, and do just fine with it. I’m happy to have Astro City on its own stage, where our characters get to be in the spotlight because they’re not trying to share a crowded universe with Superman, Batman and all that other riffraff.

As for Triathlon and Silverclaw, I think that’s a related answer. If I’d introduced either one of them in ASTRO CITY, I think readers would probably think they were cool, but introducing them in AVENGERS meant that they were occupying space that readers would rather have had used on characters they already knew and liked. Similarly, if the Confessor or Quarrel were introduced in the Marvel or DC Universe, I bet they’d have been forgotten by now, since they’d have been inevitably overshadowed by the already-famous heroes there. And you’d be asking me “How come you tried to have a nobody like Quarrel join the Justice League when you were spotlighting characters like that cool Triathlon in ASTRO CITY?”

It’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to new characters in the established universes. But here, they’re the stars, and they can get the space and attention they need to shine, without readers resenting them for not being Spider-Man or some other character they were hoping to read about instead.

That’s all we’ve got this month! Short lettercol, but I can only work with the letters I get!

See you next time!

Astro City Mail – November

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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…
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Astro City Mail – October

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Hey, if I get this lettercol done tonight, it’s still October! Happy Halloween and all that stuff, and let’s go!

First off, the text from the print lettercol…

It strikes me that I’ve been remiss in not saying much about our guest artists. Last month, we were graced by the work of Joe Infurnari, who draws the compelling THE BUNKER at Oni, but whose work I’ve loved since I first saw ULTRA LAD (and the deliriously insane TIME F*CKER), and I was thrilled to design a story especially for his versatile art skills. This month, we’ve got Australian cartoonist Gary Chaloner, known for series such as RED KELSO and THE JACKAROO, and superstar American inker Wade von Grawbadger (currently working on a stunning run of STAR WARS with penciler Stuart Immonen). I’ve worked with both Gary and Wade before, and it’s great to bring them together for this look into the life of Honor Guard’s Australian member.

[Special thanks to Gary for backstopping me on Aussie dialogue, so I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of having someone say something was “fair dinkum” when it clearly and obviously wasn’t.]

I’ll try to do better by our guests in the future, since it’s a treat to see their varied approaches and they’re crucial to getting you this book monthly. But speaking of monthly, let’s now segue to the Letter of the Month, why don’t we? This month, it’s from:

MATT SABONIS

So…it’s been twenty years since ASTRO CITY started, making it roughly eighteen since I started reading it. I was thirteen, we were on a family vacation in Arizona, we made a stop at one of the local comic shops (if I remember right, it was called Red Alert Comics) in Tucson, and the clerk said I should try out Life in the Big City, one of the best comics he’d read in years. I read it, I was awe-struck, and when I got home I started digging to find news on new trades.  Once I’d gotten the Family Album trade, I started getting the book in single issues and haven’t really turned away since.

It’s only a year and a half ago, though, that I started realizing why ASTRO CITY is something that’s stuck with me so much. As much as I love things like the mystery of the Hanged Man, or the sturm und drang of the Enelsian War at the end of Confession, or seeing Samaritan or any of a number of dozens of different characters saving the day, it’s the human moments that stay with me. It’s Rex of the First Family arm-wrestling a 19th-century robot (I’m still waiting for an Ironhorse story, by the way). It’s the Crossbreed, who don’t just want to save people’s lives, but their souls, too (I’m waiting for their story, too). It’s the way it’s a world where common goodness rules, whether it’s adventure in a game of hopscotch, courage in chasing down a killer even when nobody believes you, or heroism in choosing fatherhood over crime-fighting. This last one hit me really hard; my dad had died when I was 11, and he was the person who introduced me to comics at a very early age. I like to think that he and I would have read ASTRO CITY together, passed issues back and forth, talked about our favorite parts.

So thanks for twenty years of great comics, and I’m looking forward to twenty more.

Thanks very much, Matt. We appreciate hearing it. And we’ll have to get to some of those stories! Meanwhile, send us your mailing address, and we’ll send off a signed copy of this very issue.

And now…more.
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