The Art of Lettering

Minding the Ps, Qs and Every Other Letter

As a writer, the artist is the person who puts your ideas on the page. The letterer is the person who puts your words on the page. A good letterer is a necessity for a good comic. One of the pieces of advice I always give people is that an otherwise professional comic will end up looking like an amateur effort if it has poor lettering. If you're putting together your own comic, it's always worth the (comparatively slight) expense of getting a professional letterer to handle the book.

Letterer/designer Nate Piekos, who letters books for Marvel and Dark Horse in addition to creating his own webcomics, has a great site at Blambot.com. He posted an article on Comic Book Grammar and Tradition, which serves as a great primer for the basic language of lettering. By all means, go read it here and absorb the knowledge.

The lettering on most of my books is done by Troy Peteri, who handles all of Top Cow's lettering duties, as well as freelancing for a number of other publishers. I met Troy when he was on staff at CrossGen, and he lettered some of my books there, including "Sojourn" and "Scion."

Troy's been lettering my stuff for so long, we don't bother with balloon placements or very much in the way of notes. He knows what I'm looking for, and I know what he's going to do. Rather than working exclusively full script, I generally rewrite/polish all my dialogue once the art on an issue is complete. It allows me to match the dialogue exactly to what's on the page, in terms of content, as well as space limitations and speaking order. It's not unusual for me to feed Troy batches of script, a few pages a time, throughout a day or two, once the art is complete. Most often, I work in sequences, rather than strictly beginning to end, so he receives the pages out of order. Within an hour or two of me finalizing a page's dialogue, the page is lettered. Troy trusts that I'm not going to make extra work for him, and I trust him to do what he does.

I feel like my job is to hand Troy (or any letterer I work with) exactly what he needs to letter, making sure everything is perfect before it gets to him: spelling, grammar, punctuation, selection of bold words. Ask most letterers and, if they're honest, they'll tell you tales of scripts riddled with bad spelling or grammar that the letterer is expected to fix. That's a completely foreign concept to me. As far as I'm concerned, the writer (or editor) owes the letterer a pristine script that can be lettered exactly as it appears.

Troy answered some questions for me this week, in between lettering pages of "The Magdalena," "Witchblade" and "Netherworld." He also provided commentary on three versions of "Shinku" #2, Page 6, explaining his reasons for each attempt and the final version we used in the book.

Ron Marz: How long does it take you to letter an average script?

Troy Peteri: Ideally I'd like to take two full days to letter a book, in order to make sure everything flows correctly and leads the reader's eye in the right directions, etc. I'd like to take more time to choose the fonts, do the sound FX and create the caption styles. Sadly, deadlines often make that an impossibility, and I do a book in a day and some change. Worst case, a very hectic and nerve-wracking afternoon or laaaate night. Those are the scenarios that make me wanna strangle an editor and/or writer, due to me fearing that I'll get the unfair blame if something goes to press late! It's more cutthroat than fans realize. I have welts from where I'm chained to the desk, and the whip marks take forever to clear up.

Is it easier to letter a script when you're enjoying the story, as opposed to one you're not enjoying?

It's definitely a lot easier when I enjoy the script. As both a fan and a writer, it kills me when I'm mentally re-writing, editing or correcting a clunky script. That also tends to make the work days drag on longer, because I'm just looking forward to working on the books I really enjoy. But working on a book I love still makes me feel like a fan/reader. Even if I'm working on pages in a non-chronological order, then it gives me that whole "how's this gonna end?!" feeling a reader should have. Thankfully, the lousy ones aren't all that common, but there are a handful of books that, if I see them in stores, they make my eye twitch or cause a flare-up of Tourette's Syndrome.

What's the one thing writers do in scripts that you hate above all others?

I guess the one thing would be overestimating how many words/balloons fit in a single panel, and forcing me to absolutely bury the artwork under dense text. Especially if it's unnecessary expository dialogue that would work just as well in half as many words. For instance, newer writers have a tendency to want to put every cool bit of dialogue they've ever thought of in one issue. It usually crowds the whole book and ends up being less cool and more showy. But, if you're reading this and you're a writer whose work I've lettered, I'm sure you've never done these things and there's nothing for you to see here. Move along, move along.

What's one thing you always like or appreciate in a script?

Again, I turn into a fan/reader and I just really like good, believable dialogue or convincing humor. Other things I always appreciate: a good page-turn surprise that makes me look forward to the next page, or good callbacks and payoffs at the end of an issue that cause a reader to re-think things from earlier in the book. A recent example of a series I worked on that covered all these bases was Josh Fialkov's "The Last of the Greats" from Image. There were pages where I'd place the artwork to letter the page and just actually exclaim out loud at some of the shockers in the book. P.S., the writer may be at least slightly insane.

How do you go about choosing fonts for sound effects?

It all depends on the style of the art or the overall feel of the book. If it's a straight-up superhero book, I'll use more classic, blocky SFX fonts that are reminiscent of what an Average Joe would picture when they think of old-fashioned comics. If it's a darker, edgier book I like using more messy, hand-drawn SFX. And I look for any excuse to make stuff look like classic John Workman SFX from the [Walt] Simonson run on "Thor." Overall, though, I'm not a fan of SFX in most modern books. I think it looks and reads dated a lot of the time, and they should be used sparingly, especially avoiding the really silly non-existent words. As fans, we're used to guns making BRAKKA BRAKKA BRAKKA sounds, but I'm not a fan of random SPLRRRGCCCHKs and WHAKATHOOOMs in this day and age, unless the tone of the book calls for it.

I always tell people the easiest way to have their book like an amateur effort is to have bad lettering. Agree?

Yeah, I agree. I think people commonly believe that as long as the words are in balloons and on the page, it's as good as done. They're not taking into account how word balloons should lead the eye to the appropriate reading order in the panels, or how too much/not enough negative space in the balloons themselves can also make things look amateurish. Same goes for sound FX that look like they're merely words typed out and dropped on the page. I honestly think that good lettering can make an amateurish effort look less so, similar to the way good visual FX in an otherwise low-budget movie can make that movie feel bigger and better. But I might just be saying that because I'm always looking for more freelance work. Ask for me by name.

I won't ask you to throw anybody under the bus, so how about naming some writers you enjoy working with?

You and Mark Waid have it down to a science to where I know there won't be any groaning of "How am I expected to fit all of that into one panel?!" Some writers don't get that at all. As for guys who do get it: Paul Jenkins, Paul Dini, Chuck Dixon, Jason Aaron and Josh Fialkov. And even though they've only done a couple series, Rob Levin and Bryan Edward Hill are really good at knowing what's gonna fit on a page and what's unnecessary.

Do you do a little happy dance when a silent page shows up?

If I'm disliking the book, definitely. Other times I feel like, "You sure you don't want a random sound effect or caption somewhere on here?" just out of guilt. Although a silent double-page spread often causes at least a happy Moonwalk or Running Man.

Rules to Letter By

I think one of the biggest "light bulb" moments for writers is seeing your dialogue on the page for the first time. You start to understand the translation of your script to actual lettering: how it looks on the page, how it fits, how it should lead the reader's eye. It's another skill a writer needs to have in his toolbox. There's no substitute for that firsthand experience, but here are some lessons to take with you:

  • Writers, tell your letterer specifically what you want, whether it's small type in a normal balloon, a wavering balloon outline, a certain SFX style, a burst, a bridge between balloons. Don't make letterers guess what you want. Their job is to letter, not read your mind.
  • By the same token, don't ask for things that a letterer can't give you. Troy mentioned once getting an instruction for a "pensive balloon." As he said, "What the hell is a pensive balloon?!" When I've edited other writers' scripts, I've removed instructions like "angry balloon" or "sad balloon," because those are not instructions for anything specific.
  • Understand how much verbiage fits in a balloon, and how many balloons fit in a panel. Don't expect the letterer to just "fix it." My rule of thumb is about 25 words per balloon or caption. Much more than that, the balloon gets to be unwieldy (not to mention ugly). If you have more text than that, split it into multiple balloons. I usually refrain from more than three balloons in a panel, unless it's an especially large panel with ample room.
  • Never cross balloon tails. It's the writer's job to indicate to the artist (in the panel descriptions) the expected left-right character placement in a panel. If the art ends up not fitting your dialogue order, adjust your dialogue. Rewrite and re-place the dialogue so it flows naturally with the art that's on the page: left to right, top to bottom. Again, don't leave letterer to just "fix it."
  • Writers and artists: understand proper balloon placement. Artists: leave room for balloons; no one likes covering up important art. Writers: if there's not enough room for all your genius dialogue, start cutting it. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, as well as the letterer's best friend. Especially in a visual medium.
  • Yes, almost all lettering is digital, rather than hand-lettered, so revisions are much easier to execute. But that's not an excuse for the writer (or editor) to make more work for the letterer. I've heard my share of letterer horror stories about writers or editors who treat a complete, lettered issue like a first draft, making substantial revisions on every page. Not cool. Letterers get paid once; they shouldn't have to letter an issue twice because someone in the process hasn't quite figured out what they want. Yes, there are always some corrections to be made. But doing wholesale changes once an issue is lettered is bush league. See above: "...pristine script that can be lettered exactly as it appears."
  • And finally, for a book to be lettered well, the writer, artists and letterer need to be in sync, each taking the jobs of the others into account. It's not about you, it's about the finished product.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com

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