Behind the Heroes Pt 6: The Letterer
What are some of the things that you think about when it comes to comic books?
The creative stories?
Or perhaps, it’s the characters?
What about the sound effects, the narrative and dialogue lettered inside a comic book?
Think about it, when you recall your favorite comic book moments how often does the lettering inside a comic come to mind?
Odds are, not very often if at all.
But what would a comic look like without the creative sound effects lettered across a page?
How much impact would be lost in a panel if an explosion were simply to be labeled ‘Boom’ in standard Times font?
So if lettering is that important, then why is not one of the things that people readily recall?
Search through interviews with letterers and you’ll find that even the top of the field (both past and present) say that the best lettering is usually invisible.
Meaning that while it adds to impact of panels in a comic book, it doesn’t take over and stand out above everything else; rather it enhances the comic by working with the other elements.
But like anything, if lettering is done poorly then it could take away from a comic book.
So what makes for good lettering as opposed to bad lettering?
Good lettering is clean, keeps the dialogue and narration structured so the reader can follow it easily. It also applies various styles for emphasis, and uses balloons correctly.
Bad lettering is crowded, messy, unvaried, uses balloons without thought and has an uneven flow in the scripting of the dialogue and narration.
While this may sound like a very simple explanation of what a letterer does, it is really just the basics.
A good letterer is an artist who is as equally talented as the pencillers , colourists and writers.
Let’s take a closer look at these basics to emphasize how important the lettering and a talented letterer is.
Clean lettering; sounds pretty simple doesn’t it?
But what does that actually mean?
Clean lettering is evenly spaced, easy to read, keeps the narration and dialogue moving at a steady pace and pays attention to grammar. The letterer must also know which comic book formats to use; for example in certain forms of academic writing the first word after a period is double spaced.
Do that in a comic and it not only takes up valuable space, but also will earn the wrath of your editor.
Another detail the comic letterer must know is when and how to capitalize letters.
Take ‘I’ for example, when used as part of a word at the beginning of a sentence it has no top and bottom cross bars, but when a speaker refers to himself or herself it does.
These are just a couple examples of what a letterer must know.
Varying the styles for emphasis and expression is fairly straight ahead.
Using the same font in the same style over and over would be fairly dull, such as listed in the explosion example above.
Consider how something was written helped set the mood and tone of a comic panel.
In many ways a comic book letterer has a similar role to a movie sound effects artist.
Lastly, the correct use of balloons.
This goes beyond simply knowing what balloon to use to show whether it’s dialogue or a thought.
The balloon has to be properly placed so it’s clear who is speaking or thinking; as well as properly placed in the panel so it doesn’t block out the imagery. Beyond this is correctly inserting the lettering inside the balloon so it makes sense when read and isn’t crowded together or too close to the edge of the balloon making it difficult to read.
When one stops to consider them for a moment, these few seemingly simple examples add up to show how important good lettering is; and emphasizes the letterer’s abilities as an artist.
While computers are widely used for lettering now, it doesn’t mean the letterer’s job is neither easier nor less skilled than before.
One could argue that a computer just puts more tools at a letterer’s disposal more quickly, and that computers haven’t made the demands on a letter any less than they have been before.
The ‘invisible’ art of lettering.
As crucial and important to comic books as the people who draw the heroes and write their stories.