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    Font Savant

    By Chris Arrant


    That’s what we’re here for, right?

    The corner of the Internet here devoted to comics has allowed for animated discussion on titles, companies and even expanded to follow writers and artists as individual. But one of the under-appreciated and overlooked aspects of it comics is lettering. As the quintessential tie-in between the words of the writer and the artwork of the artist, a good letterer can make the difference between a good story and a great story.

    While lettering in some cases is still done by the artist, the comic industry at large is still living by the divisions of labor set forth in the early 1900s of a writer, penciller, inker, letterer and colorist. In the space that that division provided, each position allowed the person to specialize at one specific skill set in the broad range of comics.

    As technology expanded, lettering was one of the first disciplines to transfer to the age of computers. Without forsaking the penmanship skills a great hand letterer has, the then-new tool of computers and desktop publishing software opened new doors for amateurs and professionals to lettering. But when did that switch-up occur, and where has it left us?

    “Richard Starkings of Comicraft was the one who came up with the most commercially viable method, but several others were there before him, including David Cody Weiss and John Byrne,” explained Eisner-winning letterer Todd Klein.

    The innovation of digital lettering not only made the process easier, but also opened a cornucopia of styles and adaptation. In the pre-digital days of lettering, the qualifiers of being a “hand letterer” were to letter crisp, legible and on time. But with the advent of computers, letterers are increasingly asked to letter in new styles and fonts tailored for each book.

    “I first became aware of computer lettering when David Cody Weiss lettered a Shadow graphic novel digitally in 1990 or so,” said Starkings. “Then John Byrne created fonts based on the lettering styles of letterer Michael Heisler and artist Dave Gibbons. Neither Mike nor Dave were happy about Byrne’s adaptations of their work so he struck a deal with letterer Jack Morrelli and lettered Namor and many more of his Marvel books digitally from then on.”

    “Seeing Byrne’s work was the wake up call and I quizzed him about his process in the lobby of the Westgate Hotel during the San Diego Comic-Con of ‘91 or ‘92. I pretty much decided then and there to get on the digital beam.” After some trial and error, Starkings produced created a digital font version of his hand lettering style. At the time Starkings had been a hand letterer for several projects at Marvel, and convinced a couple editors there to let him switch to the digital format.

    “I still needed to print out the lettering so it could be pasted up, but it got people accustomed to the idea of digital lettering,” said Starkings.

    The first books lettered by Starkings in this new digital method were Punisher/Wolverine and Hellstorm. Although there were some admitted mistakes in the beginning dealing with point size (”The lettering was WAY too big”, said Starkings), the real breakthrough work was on Ghost Rider 2099 and Generation X.

    The changes from hand lettering to digital lettering were monumental and alleviated much strain from hand letterers who switched. “[It was] an incredible relief,” exclaimed Starkings. “[Hand] lettering is an enormous struggle — you’re fighting with pens, ink, textured art paper and/or slick vellum, and you’re often fighting tiredness and eyestrain on top of all the rest. Digital lettering never tires, and it’s been years since the middle finger of my right hand has been calloused and stained with ink. And of course, it’s easier to work with assistants who can attempt to match your style when you’re working digitally as opposed to with pen and ink.”

    As hand letterers first came on board to the digital age of lettering, most generally created their first font based on their own lettering style. Starkings’ first font, ‘Letterbot’, was admittedly stiff at first. “I caught myself consciously trying to improve the look of my natural lettering style,” explained Starkings. “Comicraft’s fontmeister, John ‘JG’ Roshell, took the work away from me and preserved all the elements of my lettering that made it unique. We now sell that font style under the name ‘HedgeBackwards,’ after my semi-autobiographical cartoon strip.”

    Now more than ten years later, digital lettering has gone from being a strange occurrence to the norm in comics publishing. Most digital letterers use the program Adobe Illustrator, along with font creation programs.

    If you were looking for a definitive answer as to which font is king of the mountain, that’d be a hard answer to give. “I don’t know that there is one most popular font at present, or overall,” said Klein. “In the early days of commercial comics fonts, ‘WhizBang’ was the clear leader due to its low cost and ready availability as advertised in the comics magazines such as The Comics Buyer’s Guide.”

    “Ten years ago, the font ‘Whizbang’ was everywhere,” Starkings said. ” J.G. and I consciously marketed a font which we felt was cleaner, tighter and of a higher quality… at a better price. I think we succeeded.” That Comicraft font, ‘WildandCrazy!’, has become their most widely selling non-sound effect font in their library.

    Thanks to the tools of computers and the digital age, the discipline of computer lettering has become more accessible and more freeing than the days of hand lettering. With a variety of pre-existing fonts along with graphic manipulation programs such as Illustrator, it is still prone to both great and poor lettering (and everything in between).

    At the end of the day, the true measure of a good letterer lies not in the type of pens and t-scales or selection of fonts they have, but the critical eye of someone able to bridge the gap between the art and the written word provided by the writer. In a way, letterers and lettering are the glue to this whole sequential art thing we find ourselves in.

    Posted by Tim Leong on July 5th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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