Reading this new series of articles will ruin your life.
Ok, that’s a little extreme. Let’s turn down the hyperbole. Reading this new series of articles may ruin your life, and will remove the shine from some of your favorite comic books.
Still think it’s extreme? It’s not. Bear with me.
Lettering is only noticed if it’s bad. That’s been said by so many people, it’s almost taken as an axiom nowadays. Largely, it’s a true statement. Most readers don’t think about lettering, and that’s not limited to readers of comic books. Sure, we’re the only medium that actually credits someone for doing the job, but lettering is everywhere: novels, movie posters, textbooks, billboards, TV ads, apparel, food packaging, even on the back of the sun visor in your car. All of those letters have capitalization choices, a font, a type size, kerning, and extra features like bolding or underlining.
Here at Multiversity, we strive to give equal attention to both the writer and the artist when we review books. If any other reviewing site is worth its salt, they will, too. But, for the most part, those are the only two areas covered. If the colorist did a remarkable job in a good or bad way, they sometimes get a mention, but that’s about as far as it goes. Inkers are hard to evaluate without being able to compare the final product to the original pencils. Any contribution from an editor should be impossible to separate without some specific commentary from the creators.
And letterers? Karen Bates, a letterer/designer/assistant editor for Bongo, describes a letterer as “a silent partner, a necessity that is often forgotten.” Tom B. Long, who has been lettering for 15 years, says lettering is “usually lumped in with the production process.” The general attitude seems to be that a letterer’s work should be invisible. If a letterer gets a mention in a comic review, they’re almost universally being called out for their mistakes.
That’s unfortunate, because a skillful letterer can enhance not just the text, but also the visuals on a given page. By making smart choices on text, bubble style, and selective emphasis, letterers can add life to otherwise stale dialogue. By wisely placing balloons and their tails, a letterer can help guide a reader’s eye across the page, even when the art alone wouldn’t. A well placed sound effect will draw your attention to the action. However, their positive efforts will usually be unconsciously and mistakenly credited to the writer or artist.
By now, you might be asking yourself, “Why should I care about lettering?” After all, you’ve been able to enjoy your comics just fine so far without paying it much attention. Compared to other parts of the process, letterers seem fairly disposable. Creative changes in the writer or artist aren’t just noticeable, they’re selling points. If you follow an artist closely, you can see the differences an inker makes. Colorists aren’t quite as obvious, but they can have widely varying styles. Letterers, though, seem more interchangeable. If they follow established style guides, even veteran editors sometimes can’t tell the difference. So really, why should you care?
Well, you’re reading this site, right? We write about comics because we love them, and (I assume) you’re reading about comics here because you love them. Right? Unless you’ve just recently discovered them, the romantic part of the loving relationship should be over by now. You don’t read every comic you can get anymore, do you? You’re discerning, and only buy the good ones. You proudly tell your friends about the mature themes in them, and boast about following creators, because that’s so much more rewarding than following characters.
You should care about lettering (and coloring, and inking, and flatting, and editing, and so many other things) because paying attention to it will allow you to enjoy your comics on more thorough and deeper levels. Don’t you want to do that? Because, really, if you’re only reading them to pass ten minutes (or less), there are much more cost effective options out there.
Have you ever watched the bonus features on your DVDs? The commentaries or the making-of featurettes? If so, it was most likely because you enjoyed the story and wanted to know more about it. You found out about the location shootings, the effort they put into their research, the method acting, the parts that were improvised, all the tiny things you would never have known otherwise, but which enhance your later viewings of the film.Continued below
Lettering is like that. It’s not something to gawk at during a first read when you’re wrapped up in the plot and just want to turn the page, and it’s not something something you need to pay attention to in every book. But when you really like a comic, that’s when you should take your time and focus on the finer points during later reads.
If you think there isn’t much to examine, you’re wrong. Every font change, every bold word is intentional. Every balloon was placed with consideration to what it might cover, and how it would move the eye. There’s thought and deliberation behind every single balloon and sound effect, and being aware of lettering will open the door to a whole other dimension of comic appreciation.
This series of articles has been crafted with the intention of giving you the background and understanding of lettering to fully value this aspect of your funny books. In the coming days, you’ll be treated to a history of lettering (did you know it dates back to the 1700s?), discussions on the merits of ALL CAPS LETTERING, showcases of various lettering effects, interviews, and a look at what it’s like to be a letterer. If I do my job, by the end of it you’ll be…well, not an expert, but at least an informed fan who recognizes letterers as an essential part of the creative team with the power to help make, or solely break, a book.
…and therein lies the rub. Remember when you started reading this diatribe, and I said doing so may ruin your life? There’s truth in the old saying “ignorance is bliss.” Odds are, right now you’re virtually blind to most of the lettering around you. You read it, but you don’t really see it. If I accomplish my goal with these articles, your eyes will be opened to all the terrible lettering in the world, and you won’t be able to unsee it. Pandora’s box will be opened, and there will be no turning back.
Still, I suggest you read them. Not just because I spent time researching, interviewing, and writing them, but because it’s worth seeing the crap to see the gems.