Thursday, April 29, 2010

Man of Letters

I thought I'd do a post on lettering, seeing as how I've been nominated for an Eisner Award for it and all. I've touched on the topic before, but it's been quite a while and I've learned a bit since last time.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional letterer! I have a lot of respect for those who are. I don't know if everything below is optimal or even right. If you want to tap the brain of a master, go visit Todd Klein. This post is just based on my experience, the lessons I've learned and mistakes I've made. I get by.

Lettering in comics is important, and too often overlooked or an afterthought. Neat, legible lettering can make the difference between work that looks like that of a novice or a pro. Where the words are placed on the page is critical--absolutely critical--to how the reader's eye is guided through the action. It can control pace and convey urgency, confusion, anger, and other moods and emotions.

It can also reveal something about a character. Some of the smartest lettering in comics was done for Walt Kelly's "Pogo," where a deacon spoke in ornate Gothic script and a showman pattered in circus-poster bluster. A more subtle example is Marvel Comics' character The Vision, an android who often spoke in rectangular yellow word balloons to suggest an eerie mechanical voice different from everyone else's.

Pogo's P.T. Bridgeport sounds like W.C. Fields to me.

The spooky-voiced Vision (right) versus . . . Captain Space Pirate Zombie? I read this one long ago but don't remember.

Lettering serves different purposes in different types of comics. The slickest, cleanest, most professional lettering tends to show up in mainstream comic books and some comic strips--you might think of them as the more "corporate" or studio-produced products. It serves its purpose of telling the story without calling attention to itself; when it's done right, no one notices. In contrast, comics produced by a single creative vision often have unique, idiosyncratic lettering, usually that of the auteur him/herself. The lettering of Charles Schulz and Robert Crumb is instantly recognizable and as integral to their work as their words and pictures.

A person's handwriting is an intimate thing--think how much more a handwritten note means than an e-mail, or how an unexpected glimpse of grandma's graceful cursive can conjure powerful memories. Lettering gives a story a voice and personality. As a cartoonist, it's worth putting some thought and effort into.

In Which We Learn by Fumbling
Until recently in comics history, lettering was always done directly on the paper the art was drawn on, and was the first ink to hit the paper. Lettering first, to make sure it was placed right and had enough room, then art. Many cartoonists still work that way, but increasingly the lettering is done digitally and placed after the art is complete. I've done both.

On Mom's Cancer, I lettered directly on the page, just how it looks in print. I lightly pencilled guidelines onto the paper, with the space between lines of text half as high as the letters themselves (e.g., letters 6 mm high with 3 mm line spacing ("leading") between). How large you actually make your letters depends on the size of your original and published art, whether for print or web; that'll take some trial and error. Easy legibility is the goal. Take into account the fact that some readers may have worse eyesight than you and err on the side of writing too big. Fat, wide letters read better than thin, crowded ones.
Hand lettering should have a nice, relaxed flow to it, not look too fussy and cramped. You can fall into a very pleasant rhythmic groove while lettering. Find a pen that gives you the look you want. For example, some of the best letterers use calligraphy-style flat nibs that vary their line width depending on the angle of the stroke. They take a lot of practice but can look great. I've always preferred a uniform line weight for my letters, and so used Speedball nibs B-5 and B-6, which have a round tip. I enjoyed the look, feel, and ritual of dipping a pen in ink but you could also use a fountain pen or even a dark, permanent felt-tip.
I love the authenticity and hand-crafted quality of lettering by hand. But here's what happened as a result: If I needed to correct something, I either whited out the original and relettered, or lettered the fix on a separate piece of paper and pasted it on (at first physically, later digitally). When we got around to preparing Mom's Cancer for print, my editor made some edits; more relettering and pasting. If we wanted to shrink or delete a word balloon, I had to redraw the art around it to fit. Later, when it came time to translate Mom's Cancer into other languages, I had to digitally erase all the lettering so the translators could fit new text into the existing balloons (which, depending on the language, may have been too large or small). In general, changing anything was a huge chore.

None of that was efficient or fun. As much as I love and respect old-timey ink on paper, I decided to march boldly into the 21st century (or at least tiptoe warily into the late 20th) and letter digitally. But I still wanted my lettering to be un-sterile and reflect me as much as possible. So I set out to convert my own handprinting into a computer font.

Rise of the Machines
Now, there are websites that will do that cheaply or free. You print your letters on a template, scan it, upload it, and a few minutes later they'll send you a font ready to install on your computer. I tried that and found the results inadequate. The resolution and quality were poor, as was the kerning (more on that in a sec). It might have been fun for sending notes to family but wasn't good enough for professional work. Your mileage may vary.

On the recommendation of a cartooning friend, I purchased a program called FontCreator. This isn't a plug, there are competing products that might be as good or better. But FontCreator could do everything I wanted plus a ton of things I didn't want or even understand. It's overpowered for my needs. I wanted a Hyundai and got a Ferrari. Still, it wasn't hard to figure out the basics. Using letters sampled from Mom's Cancer, I had a pretty good digital font up and running in a day.

Something To Think About #1: Fonts have upper- and lower-case letters. Comics are generally lettered in all upper-case. What to do with the lower-case letters you don't need? Make them upper-case, too, so that you have two versions of every letter. Especially when a letter repeats, making them slightly different subtly softens the mechanical perfection of digital.

How this works: in my custom font, upper- and lower-case letters are both represented as capitals penned slightly differently, which breaks up the monotonous regularity of digital type.

Note the "I" in the middle of that anguished cry above. It's sorta important. One of the conventions of comics lettering is that the "I" has serifs (the little horizontal lines at top and bottom) when it refers to oneself and doesn't when it's part of a word. So the "I" in "I," "I'd," "I've," etc. should have serifs, while the "I" in "serifs" shouldn't. Take a look back up at that panel of the Vision vs. Captain Space Pirate Zombie and the words "I must admit." See? So in my handmade font I made my capital "I" with serifs and my lower-case "i" without. Sadly, this is a fine point of craft that more and more people who make a living slinging letters don't seem to know anymore.
To write this in my font, I typed "I like ice."

Something to Think About #2: Kerning, or how your letters are squished together. Letters have different shapes and need different amounts of elbow room. Letters like "T" and "V" are top-heavy; letters like "A" and "L" are bottom-heavy. Kerning is the art (and it is an art) of overlapping differently shaped letters so they look good together.
For example, the top "A" and "V" below aren't kerned at all. You could draw a vertical line straight through the voluminous void between those letters. In contrast, the bottom "AV" is kerned; the bottom right of the "A" slides under the top left of the "V" so they overlap and fill each other's white space a bit.

You can see the impact of kerning in a word like "AVATAR." The top example below has no kerning and there's too much air around the "V" and "T." The middle example has, I think, a nice amount of kerning. One of the loopier reviews I read of James Cameron's "Avatar" movie criticized the poor kerning of its poster font, at bottom. Curiously, the letter that looks most out of whack to me is the "R," which seems to be a light-year away from its "A." I guess when you earn a billion dollars you can kern any way you want.

You build kerning into a digital font by going through every two-letter combination likely to need it and defining how much space you want between them. This is hard--doubly so when your font has two versions of every letter and they're handprinted, which means you can't blindly apply the same kerning to every pair. Keeping in mind that my lower-case letters appear as upper-case, "AV," "Av," "aV," and "av" all require separate adjustments. Then there are the many permutations of VA, AT, TA, LT, LV, PA, etc. As I work with my font I continue to discover new combinations of letters that need work and send me back under the hood to tweak.

So I used my custom digital font in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. Here's what happened as a result: If I needed to edit my text, I opened the file in Photoshop and revised it in a few seconds. If I needed to expand or delete it: done in less than a minute. If I needed to prepare my pages for translation into other languages: my letters and word balloons were already on separate Photoshop layers, so all they had to do was delete my text layer with one click and substitute their own.

I'm not saying you should letter digitally. Your needs, skills, priorities, talents, and logorrhea are different than mine. I'm saying that with the type of work I do--say, writing a 200-page graphic novel that'll pass through two or three editors and has the potential for foreign publication--it would be an insane waste of my time not to. There are trade-offs; I think they're worth it.

As I described a couple of weeks ago, I used three main fonts in WHTTWOT, plus a bunch of fonts meant to evoke era-appropriate indicia, ads, signs and such. Most of the book is lettered in my handprinted font because it's a conversation between me and the reader. You and I are talking here. I used a much slicker professional font for the "Space Age Adventures" comic books within the comic book, and a third font that I thought kind of combined the aesthetics of the other two--formal but relaxed, with lower-case letters--for the final chapter, where the threads come together. I put a lot of thought into how lettering could convey meaning in ways the reader wouldn't be consciously aware of. To the extent I succeeded, I was happy with the result. To the extent I fell short, well . . . I know I have a lot to learn.

Oh, final piece of advice. Don't use Comic Sans. Just don't.


Mike Peterson said...

I came to Pogo a little late because, as a youngster, I couldn't read the fancy fonts. They were as off-putting to me as a huge block of fine print. However, I realize now that I wouldn't have understood much that was being said in Pogo at that age anyway, which may be why I didn't make a greater effort to stumble through it.

What I'm finding now is (newspaper) cartoonists using the cheap handwritten-emulating fonts you mention, and they look terrible. Worse, I've noticed in the past couple of weeks cartoonists using standard fonts for signs in their cartoons, and that looks even worse. My response as a reader tends to be, "Look, if you can't make the effort as an artist, why should I make the effort as a reader?"

I'll admit that I didn't pay attention to the lettering in either of your books, and I think that's probably a compliment. Once you were put up for the award, the work that went into lettering in WHTTWOT became obvious, but it certainly wasn't as out-there as the showy stuff in Pogo, and I think that's a sign of how well the pieces of your complicated puzzle fit together.

Brian Fies said...

Mike, thanks for the thoughts and compliments. Your comment inspired me to go back and add a couple of paragraphs about how I actually lettered by hand, since that's what my digital font was based on. It's got to look good from the start--especially when making a digital font, where you're going to be stuck with it for a while. Garbage in, garbage out.

I used standard fonts for signs and such, too. I think the trick is integrating it with the art so it doesn't leap obviously off the page and poke you in the eye. The biggest flaw I see is when the lettering doesn't match the perspective of the drawing, which is easy enough to handle in Photoshop. Also, I always tried to soften the stark coldness of the type, often by outlining the letters and filling them with a medium tint or tone. I approached fonts the same way I did photos in WHTTWOT: everything on the page should look like it belongs in the same universe.

I'm often discouraged by the state of "professional" comics lettering these days. When the letterer of "Dick Tracy" started using Comic Sans with serif I's in the middle of words, I despaired. It's too easy for anyone to load up a cheap font, hit the Caps Lock key, and think they're making comics. Lettering is more important than that.

Namowal said...

Lettering drives me crazy.
It's taken me years to learn what works and what doesn't and I'm still learning.
Of course, "still learning" can be a good thing.