Letterer Appreciation Day: An All-Star Lettering Roundtable

Sept. 1 marks the anniversary of legendary comic book letterer Gaspar Saladino's birth, and in tribute the day has been christened as "Letterer Appreciation Day." Lettering is one of the great unsung aspects of comics production, and a hugely important part of storytelling. Even the best-scripted, most carefully drawn page will fall apart without smart lettering -- letterers work at the last minute, under huge pressure, and are the glue which hold comics together (or staples, to be more comics-appropriate).

So in order to celebrate Letterer Appreciation Day properly, CBR arranged a letterers roundtable with Todd Klein (Doom Patrol), Marie Enger (Dept H), Aditya Bidikar (Motor Crush), Taylor Esposito (Red Hood and the Outlaws) and Saida Temofonte (Wonder Woman). We spoke about the process, the working day, and the recognition that letterers receive -- and should hopefully see more of in future.

What do you feel are the keys to good lettering in a comic -- when reading a comic, what makes you take notice of someone’s work?

Aditya Bidikar: Personality for me is key. First, the personality of the lettering has to match the art style -- the most elegant lettering is no use if it doesn’t resonate with the story and the artwork. After that, I want to see what the letterer adds to the comic. Personally, I’m not a believer in the "good lettering is invisible" adage. I want to see the lettering go above and beyond merely following the story -- I want to see it help to tell the story, and embellish it with its own flourishes.

Marie Enger: After reading through the script along with the art a few times, you get a feel for what font to use, what needs to go where... all that basic but important stuff. If you’re doin’ the lettering for your own comic (or hey, artists, if you want to help a letterer out), adding in a rough balloon/text placement is incredibly valuable. As wild as it is to say, I take notice of someone’s work when I don’t notice someone’s work. A well-lettered comic blends seamlessly in with the art -- adding to the page without distracting from it. Everyone has seen a poorly lettered comic and had that kind of "ehhhh" recoil. If you don’t even notice the letters, it’s good.

Saida Temofonte: I feel good lettering remains invisible on the page and allows the reader to flow seamlessly from panel to panel. I typically only take notice when the letters are obnoxious. The bubbles might be way too airy and take up space needlessly, or smack into key art or the character who is talking, and chip away a piece of the face because the letterer was too lazy to flush the bubbles into the panel borders. A similar argument goes for SFX, when the SFX is lazily splattered upon the action. I like to design huge SFX's and when the art allows it, I strategically place them in a design-y way, and around the action.

Todd Klein: When I started lettering comics in 1977, a commonly expressed idea was that good lettering should be invisible, and only bad lettering brought the readers attention to itself. As I looked at lettering being done at the time by those whose work I admired, like Gaspar Saladino, Tom Orzechowski, John Workman and others, I came to the conclusion this was incorrect. The best letters enhanced the story, adding something that was missing from the work of less accomplished letterers. Lettering in comics has been compared to the musical soundtrack in a film. It shouldn’t get in the way of the story, but can certainly add to and enhance it. When I see lettering that impresses me, I do notice it, and I think average readers do as well. I can admire the craft and excellence of it while enjoying the story even more.

Taylor Esposito: There are two factors here for me. There is what is objectively good lettering and there is what I as a trained letterer am fascinated and impressed by from my colleagues. Objectively, lettering needs to be unobtrusive yet still organic to the art. The occasional house style aside, the style I’d use on Dylan Burnett’s Doc Spektor is very different from the style I’d use on Garry Brown on Babyteeth. Both however, fit the artist’s aesthetic and don’t call any more attention to the lettering than they need to.

There are times when it is okay to stand out, such as a splash that demands the reader's attention. The recent Red Hood issue with Solomon Grundy is a good example; the impact of the monster coming for our heroes is made more unsettling by a larger uneven effect. Another key factor is styling your SFX to the style at hand. Basically, the best letterers always adapt their lettering to suit the book they are working on. Artists and colorists are usually hired for their signature style, letterers are found for their adaptability.

What’s your work schedule like on any given day, week, month? Letterers are usually one of the last to get to work on a comic, I believe, so does that tend to result in harder deadlines and longer hours?

Esposito: A letterer's workload is pretty insane. I’d say in any given month, I work on about 15 to 20 books (20-or-so page single issues). It’s kind of hard to break it down into days or weeks because I’m working on multiple projects at a time. Between designing style guides, logos, lettering pages, doing corrections, prepping final files for print, and the occasional print production (not necessarily a letterer’s responsibility, but it seems to be becoming more and more common, unfortunately). I’m never doing the same thing on any given day. On top of this is the usual responsibilities of any freelancer (answering emails, keeping your books, finding time to live, eat, sleep), so my days are pretty long.

I’d say I put in anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a day, and I think that is common for many of us. As you said, we do have the tightest deadlines at times (sometimes I think colorists have it worse, in that we are given art at the same time, and it takes much longer to color a book) so we are usually up to the wire. I try to keep myself on a business day clock, though, so after 5 or 6, there is no new work, it’s just time to catch up. The key is to keep as much of a schedule as is humanly possible.

Temofonte: This is incredibly unpredictable but some elements apply all the time. True to the fact the letterer is the last leg of production -- so if everyone else is late (quite often) it's up to the letterer to save the day. If the book is on a frequent schedule the editors will anticipate possible delays on art and have the letterer work on pencils, or worse, layouts. Some layouts are ridiculously loose and no significant advancement is achieved working this way, except for proofreading. When the final art comes in, I would probably have to rearrange things and flush balloons to borders in instances where not even borders are defined on layouts. Often it feels like lettering the book twice.

I’m freelance and generally editors would load me between 5.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. when they're done laying out guides, etc. Typically, corrections come in the earliest part of the workday, and those take precedence. A lot of times the "loading" occurs on a Friday evening and my weekend might be affected. That said, I can work remotely from anywhere as long as I’m on a reliable wifi. I’m an outstanding example of the "gig economy".

Klein: I have cut back my workload this year by about half (I’m 66), but I still have some busy days because the work tends to come in clumps rather than spread out evenly over time. This past week I lettered two complete books for DC Comics as well as designing two logos for another company and working on a cover design for a third. Next week I might have only a few pages or just some corrections on already lettered ones. It varies a lot. Letterers and colorists are now at the end of the work chain, but lettering usually can be done more quickly than coloring, so that helps make my deadlines less frantic. Tight deadlines are often caused by artists or writers taking more than their scheduled time, and it’s been that way for the 40 years I’ve been doing this. You get used to working on weekends and over long days at times, and take your free time whenever it turns up.

Bidikar: My work schedule’s around 50 percent relaxed -- 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week -- and 50 percent frantic -- anything between 10 and 14 hours a day for 25 days a month (I always take Sundays off). Stuff like miniseries or ongoing series that are yet to begin are generally created weeks or months ahead of schedule, so with those I have a lot of time (for example, I’m currently lettering issue #3 of a series that hasn’t been announced yet and begins serializing next year). But then there’s the books that need to go the printer yesterday, which, in accordance with Sod’s Law, tend to come in groups.

When I first went freelance, I ended up working late into the night on a lot of books to get them to the printer before the deadline so they didn’t ship late, but with more experience, I manage those deadlines better by asking for inks (or sometimes even pencils) in advance so that last-minute grunt work is kept to a minimum. I also have the advantage of having 10-12 hours in hand for every deadline because I live on the other side of the world, which I try to make good use of.

Enger: I actually write, draw, color, and do production design on comics and illustrate. My work schedule hasn’t been the same week-to-week for years. I’m where all the shit rolls when it rolls downhill... and man, it can really suck. When I get a lettering gig that comes in late and is due fast, I don’t get to go home or sleep. An occasional grind is fine, but it can wear you down big time when it happens consistently. Personally, the time it takes for me to letter varies from project to project so drastically that it’s hard to accurately budget for it. If I get a project late that has a solid font, I can get it done pretty quick… but I get asked to hand-letter more often than not, and that… can be a real time sink. It can be frustrating -- and as someone who has experience in all the jobs, my goal is to always turn in work to letterers early if I can.

Is lettering comics your full-time job, or do you balance it out with other work elsewhere?

Bidikar: Lettering comics is currently my full-time job. Before this, I used to work as an editor for a comics company here in India, but for the last couple of years, lettering’s been the only thing I do.

Klein: I began lettering part-time while on staff at DC Comics, and did that for 10 years. In 1987 I went freelance full-time, and have been so ever since. While on staff, I could only work on DC material with a few exceptions, once I went freelance I was able to accept work from other companies, and I’ve worked for dozens of them. Most of my work is lettering pages and designing logos. I do a small amount of other comics design work, and occasionally get assignments from outside actual comics from magazines like Entertainment Weekly.

Enger: I do a lot of different comic and illustration gigs. I probably letter about 2-5 projects a month (not counting my personal work).

Esposito: Lettering is my full-time work and then some! I’ve been very fortunate that I have enough clients and books that I can make a full time career out of lettering comics. It’s definitely the exception and not the rule in the industry, but many letterers can make it work. I actually warn people who try to get into lettering that most of us do it full time, so there isn’t really as much work to go around as one would think. When you consider most of us can do 20 a month, and then that some artists letter themselves, the workload disappears pretty fast.

Temofonte: Lettering has been a fairly reliable source of income for my past 20+ years although I've been known to find ways to round ends at times. I did storyboarding for live action movies for a number of years, and now I’m going to college churning up a couple of certificates. Just in case. But the industry has been good to me; I have never been without work per se.

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