Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #158

Tue, June 13th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

VARIOUS AND SUNDRY

My friendly local neighborhood comic shop took a vacation this past week. Thus, the store was closed on Wednesday, the day new comics arrive in stores. This left me with two options:

1. Skip new comic book day for a week.

2. Go to another comic shop for this one week and buy the new books.

The second option was very tempting. I've seen the release list for last week. It included books such as REINVENTING COMICS and the Steranko SHIELD collection.

I, however, took the first option. Tomorrow, I will no doubt go to my LCS right after work and spend more in one day than I've ever spent in a comic shop before, as I play catch up. Next week's column could very well be loaded.

What I did instead this week was live off my own fat. It's similar to the way the body feeds on itself when it lacks anything new to feed on. Don't eat, and you'll lose weight. Don't buy new comics, and you'll start to actually read stuff from that long box next your computer which is filled with books you haven't read for one reason or another. Either you've fallen behind on a series, or were waiting for a storyline to be complete before reading it, or it's part of an on-going back issue bin-diving quest.

My first mission was to tackle AVENGERS FOREVER. That's right; I haven't read it yet. Nor have I read CAPTAIN MARVEL, for that matter, although I've bought all those issues. With writing from Peter David, I'm sure it's worth a shot, so I'm willing to take a chance on it later. AVENGERS FOREVER is much talked about and has significant impact, from what I've read, on Avengers continuity. I just didn't want to read it until I had all twelve issues in hand. Then I didn't read it because I didn't have the time. And now that I have all twelve issues and the time to read it, what do I think?

I almost fell asleep reading the first issue. Kurt Busiek loves captions. It's his writing style and can work really well at times. He writes books rich in history and demanding explanation. His prose, itself, is descriptive and often eloquent. In AF #1, though, some of it was just terribly superfluous. Carlos Pacheco's art is gorgeous, but half of it on some pages is covered up by caption boxes and thought balloons.

"Carlos Pacheco's art [in AVENGERS FOREVER] is gorgeous, but half of it on some pages is covered up by caption boxes and thought balloons."
[Avengers Forever #1]

This is more of a novel than a comic book. Pacheco's art is rendered to a secondary role. Sequential storytelling isn't really needed, since all the word balloons and caption boxes explain everything you're looking at. It's good in one sense that if you have to wait a month between issues, you know Busiek will slip in a summary of what's gone on so far inside of the first two pages. I have to think that this series will read better as separate issues than as a trade paperback, or as read in all one sitting. Reading the issues together gets very repetitive very fast.

I'm only halfway through the series by now, and probably won't get the time to finish it this week. The good news is that by the fifth issue it's started to pick up steam. The bad news is that by the fifth issue, it's still moving along slowly. You have something like 8 different Avengers from 5 different points in time shunted to three different points in history, meeting up with another team of Avengers characters at each point, or at least as many different characters as might make up an Avengers roster. Even with 22 pages per month for 12 months, I can't imagine any characters getting too much time in the spotlight. Most of it is spent explaining who is who and what their relationships are. This is a dense and epic saga, ambitious in its undertaking. I can only hope that by the time I finish it, it will have been worth it.

There's more than just that I had the chance to read this past week. I read large chunks of BIRDS OF PREY, SAVANT GARDE, HELLBOY, MISTER MAJESTIC, SUPERGIRL, and more. Most of this stuff you'll see in the coming weeks in one form or another. If you have any particular desire to see one of those talked about, just yell. I can be swayed. =)

Such dead weeks are also good for sorting through comics. I've got a large pile here that need to be filed. Still do, but I did get a bunch organized and put away. Of course, it's never so easy that I can just file things away and be done. Inevitably, I end up flipping through things. One such thing I flipped through was SHOCKROCKETS #1 and #2, another Kurt Busiek-written title. (Stuart Immonen and Wade Van Grawbadger draw it. It's one of slickest, smoothest things to be read on the comics racks today.)

[Lettering styles]What I noticed in SR was the lettering. Comicraft does the job here. Comicraft uses, by now, dozens of different fonts for the titles they do. Most titles have their own lettering styles. SHOCKROCKETS' font is the closest thing to Richard Starkings' original lettering style that I've seen in a long time. It reminds me of the NICK FURY, AGENT OF SHIELD title Starkings did about ten years ago. It also looks like a smaller version of what was used when Starkings was lettering the animated-style Batman title. (Tim Harkins does a fine job on that title now, but I still like Starkings' stuff in there best.)

That, of course, nicely segues into this:

LOOK - A LETTERING RANT!

I would heartily recommend to all of you Michael Thomas' article on comic book lettering, which appeared here at CBR yesterday.

It's really well done, and you can look at my take on the best letterers in the business from the December 3rd, 1999 Pipeline, archived here.

I'm a big fan of hand lettering. I think it just looks better, nine times out of ten. Unfortunately, due to the on-going computerization of anything that can possibly be digitized, good old-fashioned hand lettering is going the way of the dodo now.

I'm no Luddite. I make my living programming computers. I like a lot of the computer lettering that's out there now. The days of Whizbang! only fonts are behind us. Even the smallest independent comics have a decent-looking computer lettering font to their names.

However, computer lettering just sticks out at me. Where the art on the page is magnificently detailed in by hand, the cold hard lettering of a computer sitting on top of it is often distracting, at best. At worst, it's an oddball stunt positioned over the art that completely obscures the art and makes everything look cheesy. At best, it's a smooth finish to some slickly produced comics. Even then, though, it's too smooth.

Richard Starkings and Comicraft have brought computerized lettering to the fore in the past ten years. They're to blame for most of it. =) And Starkings is very defensive of his computer lettering. I can't blame him. I probably would be if people like me were attacking what I did for a living.

But there's one quote in the article in particular that stood out at me. Here's a quick bit of the article:

"That's a strange question," says Starkings, "I still use my hands to do my work. No one I know uses their hands to letter; they use a tool called a pen. I use a tool called a computer. It's just a different skill. Pens are filled with ink, my computer is filled with fonts. Many of the fonts I have created were originally designed using pen and ink. Computers don't letter comics. People do. Electronic Lettering guarantees a finesse and polish which pen and ink cannot, and consequently moves the responsibilities of the letterer away from the precise and studious role of calligrapher, to the more flexible and far-reaching role of graphic designer."

It's a cute answer, but it misses one basic fact of life in the ongoing debate between computer lettering and hand-lettering. (Yes, I'm sticking with those terms.) The old line has it that the computer is just another tool to be used. And if a letterer can use the computer to get the job done instead of his hands and a pen, more power to him.

The problem is that the technology isn't there yet to better approximate human handwriting. Yes, you can draw a font with pen, scan it in, and then replicate it to your heart's content with the computer. Some even go so far as to draw the same letter two or three times, and then vary which of the three iterations of the letter get used in each word. That's getting close to hitting the point, but it's still not there yet.

"With computer lettering, the lettering achieves a certain kind of perfection... Even if only subconsciously, the human brain can pick up on that and reject it."

The thing is that humans strive for perfection but never hit it. That's the same with lettering as it is with everything else in life. It is the nearly perfect, but imprecise, nature of hand-lettering that makes it look great. Not every letter will be perfect to the micron with the letter that preceded it. Not every "E" will have three perfectly parallel lines jutting off the main vertical. It'll look close, and to the human eye as it's reading, it will look perfect, like something printed out of a laser printer. But it's not. It's imperfect, but consistent. With computer lettering, the lettering achieves a certain kind of perfection. All the letters look alike. And while the letterer has the option to change spacing between letters and between lines, the computer draws each letter to mind-numbing perfection. Even if only subconsciously, the human brain can pick up on that and reject it. Thus, computer lettering often sticks out to me like a sore thumb.

Until such a time as computer technology and programming has advanced to a state where the computer can take a font and add enough little random changes to each letter form to make it appear as if the letter were drawn in by hand with an old-fashioned pen, computer lettering will look cold in its perfection, an ugly inkblot in front of the imperfect, more human art drawn in beneath it.

SILENT STORY

I had a few people write in to name the silent Brian Stelfreeze story mentioned in this column last week.

I'm just going to quote Brian Saner-Lamken here, whose COMICOLOGY came out two weeks ago. Not only is his answer the most precise, but it gives me another reason to plug his already wildly successful magazine. =)

"The silent story was a collaboration between Stelfreeze & Devin Grayson, it was neat and gorgeously illustrated, it was called "Desire", it appeared in BATMAN 80-Pg. Giant #1 in 1998, and it won a Thompson Award for Favorite Short Story from the members of the Comics/Animation Forum on CompuServe last year."

Thanks, Brian! (I also like the fact that he got in an extra plug for CompuServe's excellent Comics and Animation Forum. They're a great group over there, folks.)

Thanks also to Wayne Vinson, Michael Sullivan, and Eddy Choi for writing in with the answer, too, to that query.

LAST WEEK'S CONTEST

I didn't fool too many people last week with my themed headers. By the time I woke up last Tuesday morning, I had 17 entries already in my e-mail box. By the end of the day, it was up to 50. And they were pretty much all right: Last week's headers were titles of Clint Eastwood movies, with special thanks to the IMDB for the assist in finding names.

I can't list all the names here. It would just be mind-numbing, sort of like Todd McFarlane's last issue of SPIDER-MAN, wherein he listed the names of all letter writers who had written in during his time on the title. Yes, my name was in there, but the type was so small and the list of names so long that it made the mind boggle. So here is the list of the first ten people to correctly guess the answer. The first writer with the correct answer will have his name in bold-faced type. Thanks for playing our game, and I'll be sure to announce the next time we do it.

Tim O'Connell, Jose de Leon, Benari Poulten, Robert Clark (contributing editor to my other comic employer, THE COMIC READER), Mike Frost, Arild Waerness, Justin Jewett, Richard Johnston, Tremendo the Great, Jeremy La Mastus.

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