THE UNDERAPPRECIATED ART OF LETTERING
One of my big crusades through the years has been to raise awareness for the fine art of lettering in comics. Too many people just ignore it, or don't bother with it, or completely misinterpret it. For starters, the best letterers do get noticed, just as the best inkers should get noticed. Neither of these arts should be considered done best when invisible.
Lettering, at its best, adds the perfect shine or polish to a piece of art. At its worst, it makes the whole book look like crud. When you first flip through a comic, you don't see the story. You see the overall pages, and two things generally define their look: the artist's layouts and style, and the lettering. These are the visual parts of the narrative.
The right lettering will allow you to feel comfortable in your reading. The best lettering blends in naturally with the art around it. The best lettering, from a purely technical standpoint, is spelled correctly, laid out properly, and flows smoothly.
It's not just a matter or writing down what's in the script, no more than an inker is just a tracer. It's more than just using the proper fonts in your lettering. It's also about the thickness of lines used in the word balloons and the style of pointers used to indicate who's talking. It's the size and shape of the balloon around the lettering and the way the lettering is laid out - is it wider rather than deeper? Does it try to hide itself only on the borders?
There's a lot more to be discussed here already than you thought, isn't there? Let's handle this by example and show off how different letterers can handle different situations correctly. Let's look at their strengths and learn from them.
If his name isn't familiar to you, then you probably read only small press books and have never read a best-selling comic in your life. Orz is best known for lettering two books. The first is THE UNCANNY X-MEN, starting in the Cockrum and Byrne days and lasting straight through into the Jim Lee era and the advent of computer lettering. Nowadays, most of his time is spent lettering SPAWN for Todd McFarlane.
Orz's lettering acts as a textbook guide to lettering super-hero comics. His letters are almost perfectly square, with the exception of the letter "I." Everything has a solid, uniform look to it. Letters stand straight up and down, not at a tilt. They're all painstakingly the same height. Orzechowski doesn't use twenty different fonts for his lettering. Yet when a character cries out in pain or anguish or surprise, he can alter their lettering to look almost like sound effects inside the balloons. The balloon changes its line depth and style along with it. Generally speaking, the balloons fit around the letters, giving white space as needed. Word balloons do not fit around the letters like a second skin, but do stay close to the right shape. The balloons are generally well rounded. In some cases, they'll have flat tops or bottoms with rounded sides.
If I didn't know any better, I'd say Tom Orzechowski was a machine. His stuff is just that well regimented. He doesn't draw many bad letters.
If there was ever a chameleon when it comes to lettering, it is Todd Klein. Best thought of, perhaps, for his work on SANDMAN, he's equally adept at lettering standard super-hero books as he is Scrooge McDuck comics. His style can fit into any type of art it may need to. He's also done a great job in design with the America's Best Comics line over at WildStorm/DC/ABC/Jim Lee's Studios/Whatever division Alan Moore Wants To Hide It Under.
Looking at it now in a few different books, I'm finding it hard to put into words just what it is that makes Klein's lettering so great. I really think it may be something as simple and as basic as good letter formation. The letters look consistent with each other and with repetition. The balloons are always placed in places least likely to interrupt art, which you would think most letterers would do.
In THE LIFE AND TIMES OF $CROOGE McDUCK, he went above and beyond the call of duty. Disney Comics are laid out differently than the rest of American Comics. The artist draws in the word balloons and captions on the art. So when the letterer comes along, he often has to deal with being left too much or too little room. When Klein came across areas where too much room was set aside, he redrew parts of panels to shrink the balloons down to their proper size without leaving large open areas of space in the art. He did so without making the separation between his work and Don Rosa's obvious.
Klein may be responsible for the popularization of multiple fonts in comics. While others had done it before him, nobody did it so often and frequently and effectively on a book as he did for Neil Gaiman in SANDMAN. When you look at a book like X-MEN or THE AVENGERS and see different characters speaking in different fonts, you can arguably trace that back to Todd Klein. That didn't happen before computerized lettering, and SANDMAN. (That's why you get those heavy-footed letters when Wolverine speakers or the odd balloon shapes for IRON MAN or mythic fonts for THOR.)
JOHN WORKMAN JR.
He defies most of the rules I've discussed here so far. His lettering sticks out the most. It often replaces panel borders. The balloons are unapologetically too big for the letters, done with a thicker line, and always straight off the templates - no flat lines in these circles. Balloons don't run together as they do elsewhere. They often interrupt a panel's border, to help give the art a more 'open' feel. If there's room for it, they'll be separated by vast distances and have lines running between. The tails pointing to the heads of the people talking might take weird turns along the way. His letters looks larger and more spaced than some others. You can spot Workman's style a mile away.
I'm fortunate enough to own a page of original art from THE INCREDIBLE HULK -1 that he lettered. Most of the lettering guidelines are still visible in pencil. Workman's lettering is centered on the guidelines, but doesn't necessarily adhere to any of them in particular. The letters go slightly above the line as well as below the bottom line.
Workman's talents also go to the pen and ink. It wasn't all that long ago that his artistry skills were on display, usually with cheesecake art. He contributed a couple of pinups to AMAZING HEROES SWIMSUIT SPECIALs that were rather well done. He seems to have given up on those pursuits, unfortunately.
Here's the flip side of the coin. I picked him out to prove where lettering could be a distraction. This isn't The Best of Lettering 101. First of all, the lettering is done by a computer and then pasted onto the art boards. In other words, any tiny flaw in the original design will be automatically magnified with repetition. So if the font he's using turns you off, you're in deep trouble. My problem with the lettering has to do with the variable thickness of line used in some letters. The letter 'Y', for example, has a thinner line on the right side than it does on the line sticking up and to the left out of the center.
Letters have a variable size to them. Some are slightly taller or shorter than others, some (like the 'G's) are wider than need be, and ruin the spacing. Check out the example from X-MEN: THE HIDDEN YEARS included in this column. The 'G' in 'garb' sticks out like a sore thumb.
But the truly awful part of Byrne's lettering, to my eye, is in the caption boxes and word balloons. They're done by hand, after the lettering is done on a computer. It's a juxtaposition that shows. First of all, the thickness of the line is too thin for the lettering. Done in comparison to the thicker and more variable lines of the art underneath it, it looks terribly thin. Secondly, it looks like they're all hand-drawn. Instead of getting that nice circular look to the balloons, they often have the bumpy and squiggly lines you'd expect from someone drawing freehand. These odd, misshapen balloons look amateurish.
This isn't to say these are the only examples of good lettering out there. Dave Sim does wonderful stuff with lettering, making it just as much a part of the original art as anything else. Comicraft is trying something different on a couple of the McFarlane books, most notably SAM & TWITCH. There are no word balloons. The words float out there, with an underline and a pointer to the person speaking. It allows the art to show through the lettering and is wonderfully effective. It's also done in a mix of lower-case and uppercase lettering. This is a prime example of the cliché that the computer is just another tool for lettering.
I think the computer lettering distracts too much. It's inorganic, too perfect, and often overused. There are times when it's a good idea. When a small press creator really has no lettering talent and can't afford a letterer, doing it by himself with Whizbang! or whatever Comicraft font might be available is the preferred alternative to their illegible hand-scrawling.
The bane of my lettering existence is Janice Chiang. Her style worked well for GHOST RIDER, but just looks ugly everywhere else. It's like no single line made in a letter doesn't end in a heavy gob of ink. The lettering is not uniform at all.
Gaspar Saladino's work in THE FLASH is a bit uneven, too. I think his letter construction looks just fine, but his balloons and caption boxes are all over the map. Pick up and flip through an issue. There are some very odd choices for balloon shapes in there, coupled with caption boxes drawn in very weird shapes. There's nothing wrong with plain old rectangles!
Anyway, I hope some of this opened your eyes. I truly do believe that lettering contributes to the overall aesthetic of a book just as much as the inker can. It definitely contributes to a book's readability, and at a level greater than just "is the lettering legible?" Maybe this will help you look for what's good and bad in lettering. I'm in no way a trained letterer myself. This column was not written from the textbook perspective, although I'd love to read such a manual, if it existed.
My only fear now is that you'll look at a comic that was once your favorite and start complaining about how ugly it is as you pick through all the mistakes the letterer made.
In the meantime, come back here next week for more fun and games. It's a column inspired by reading 50 continuous issues of Chris Claremont's UNCANNY X-MEN. Nope, not the Byrne years. I'm talking about UNCANNY #206-#255, an era of the title which is unjustly criticized, in my opinion.
Welcome aboard, Warren. It's great to share Fridays with you!