What the Hell Does A Letterer Do?

A letterer's job in some sense is meant to be invisible. They're supposed to lead you along through the story without jerking you out of it. Some readers may only really notice the lettering when it's done badly instead of recognizing when it's truly great.

Jared Fletcher is one of the great ones. He's an Eisner-nominated comic book letterer, world-renowned Steven Seagal aficionado and one of my favorite people in comics. And recently I asked him to tell me a little more about how exactly he does whatever the hell it is he does.

Jason Aaron: So, what's your background, other than watching lots of Patrick Swayze and Steven Seagal movies? How did you break into the comic book biz?

Jared Fletcher: I think we can all agree on the holy trinity of "Point Break"/"Red Dawn"/"Roadhouse." Show me a guy who doesn't like any of those movies and I'll show you a godless commie. But Seagal is my dude. It's well documented at this point that I own almost all of his films, and I even got to meet him (briefly) once.

I am a graduate of the Kubert School. After I got out, I was applying for a job at Hasbro in my native Rhode Island when Andy Kubert called me and told me I should look into this new lettering department DC [Comics] was starting. A shaky interview, 2 months of waiting and a background check later I had the job. I was there on staff for about 4 years. I like to look back on that time as "comics grad school." I learned so very much there and made a lot of friends and worked with a lot of great people. It took me about a year to achieve escape velocity and break out of there to go on my own as a freelancer. People there were and continue to be very supportive of that, and I am forever grateful.

What's your work schedule like?

I am never not working. I log at least six long-hour days a week, but often seven. I'm a work horse for sure, but so are most freelancers. Because of that, I have always had a studio that is not in my apartment. I like to keep my work separate as much as possible. Right now, I have a studio a few blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn that I share with Cliff Chiang and Andy MacDonald. It's rather fantastic. Will Dennis is right up the street, and a few other friends and comics people are in our hood, too. We still have to come up with a name for this place, though.

I am always working on a bunch of different projects at the same time. Right now, my biggest thing is redesigning the new X-Men logos that are going to be used after "Schism" wraps up. I have been living inside of that project the past few weeks, and it is far from over. But I love it. It's easily one of the biggest projects of my career so far. Nick Lowe continues to be a champion for me and my design work at Marvel. His whole crew is solid. I am also lettering all of "Schism" and designing the covers and variant covers too. I design the recap and Cutting Edge pages for four of the Wolverine books and "Uncanny X-Force" every month. I am lettering a handful of the new #1's at DC, including Cliff's "Wonder Woman" (great stuff). I am finishing lettering on "DMZ," and a few other Vertigo graphic novels, too. In between all of that, I run my webcomic "Stranger Fictions." That is my baby. With all the other work I do, it's nice to have something that is all me and no direction from anyone. I try to set aside a few days a week to work on that. I'm almost at the one year mark for that, and it seems to be going well and picking up steam gradually.

Yeah, we first worked together at DC, on my two issues of "Hellblazer," I believe, which looked terrific. I'm happy to have you doing Marvel stuff now too.

So how do you do what do you? What are the tools of the trade for today's comic book letterer and graphic designer?

I should buy stock in Adobe Illustrator the way I use it. It's almost my only tool for lettering and a big part of my design work. A little Photoshop and InDesign are thrown in there as well. My design work is a mix of analog and digital tools. I keep a sketchbook on me, always. That book saves my ass more times than I can count. I always have some random idea for my comic, notes while on the phone with an editor, logo sketches, layout plans, random shit. I draw and ink my webcomic by hand, the way I was taught, but it's all colored and lettered digitally.
When I first learned to type back in high school, what seems like many, many years ago, now, they taught us to double-space after each period. Just recently, I heard that because I still did that (and apparently nobody else but me still does), some poor letterer was having to take out one of those spaces in every one of my sentences. Is this true? What other kind of shit I am unknowingly doing that makes your job harder?

True -- but that is thankfully fixable with the Smart Punctuation tool in Adobe Illustrator. Same with dashes and other punctuation irregularities. An invaluable tool if there ever was one, if you letter comics.

Your books? The amount of telepathy balloons in "Schism" is no picnic. But if that's the worst thing I have to deal with, then I'm ahead of the game. It's just comics. Never forget that. Joe Kubert once told us, "We're not curing cancer here, boys." A wise man indeed.

Indeed. Too many telepathy balloons though, huh? Just wait until you see the all-telepathic finale, bud.

I'm glad you can't actually read my mind right now.

How long does it take you to letter a book, start to finish?

It all depends. How wordy is the writer? How much room did the artist leave me to do my job? On average, it's between six and eight hours.

The dialogue in my scripts is usually pretty close to final, but I still always like to do some corrections once I see the first lettered copy. Tell me you don't hate me for that. Does that drive a letterer crazy? Do some writers like to make whole-sale changes after that first lettering pass?

You see something after the fact, I have no real problem with that. It's the nature of the creative game. I only hate it when someone is using the lettered version as an obvious first draft and working out all the shit after I'm done with it. That is the most annoying thing. In a perfect world, the writing part should be done by the time it gets to me. Some people don't seem to have any concept that this isn't a find/replace game. Someone has to actually go in and redo all that work. I've worked with some dudes and we've had nine or ten rounds of rewrites. I've worked with other dudes who never want to touch it after they turn the script in, unless there is some glaring mistake. Guess which one reads better.

Is there a rule of thumb you'd suggest to writers in terms of a limit for how many balloons to put in a single panel or how many words per balloon?

Far be it for me to tell anyone how to do their job. I'm certainly not a fan when it happens to me. This reminded me of Warren Ellis quoting Stan Lee about this very question:

"Around '88, someone told me the Stan Lee rule -- 28(ish) words per panel. An average panel on an average page can't usefully hold more than 28 words of dialogue and/or caption. I do that by eye, now -- if a single balloon or caption runs into a third line on the script page, it's starting to run too long."

So that's Jared Fletcher, quoting Warren Ellis, quoting Stan Lee. A perfect note to end on.

While not complaining about lettering my thought balloons, Jared Fletcher can be found online at strangerfictions.com and jaredkfletcher.com

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