Pipeline: Pipeline, #304

Tue, April 8th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

LETTERING ADVICE FOR THOSE PURSUING EPIC

Last week, I ranted a bit about some of the reactions to the Epic Line. This week, I'll give some pointers to those who are about to submit. If you write the script, you'll also be putting together the creative team including artists, colorists, and letterers. Let's assume for argument's sake that one of those people will also do pre-production work. Some have thought far enough ahead to consider doing the lettering in addition to the writing. This is a smart idea since it might teach prospective writers how difficult it can be to squeeze in those long flowing bits of prose into small rectangular panels in which the artists have left no negative space. (It also means you get to keep more of the $8,000.) On the other hand, even with the computer, lettering isn't the easiest thing in the world to do. The hand-cramping calligraphy is taken care of by Adobe, but there's more to it than just letters and circles. Give it a shot someday. You'll see it isn't all fun and games.

I spent some time this past winter with a copy of Adobe Illustrator, some fonts, and some graphics files. I used preview art off of web sites for practice. Those get posted all over the place, and often are just the art samples, unlettered. You can make up your own dialogue and captions. They don't have to be good. They just have to show that you can place text and shape balloons and maintain the flow of dialogue and events.

At a bare minimum, you'll need Adobe Illustrator to letter comics. Yes, you can do it with other packages (including Quark), but AI is the one the vast majority of the field uses and, I'm pretty certain, the one that all the other Marvel letterers use. The only other thing you may want to invest in is some sort of tablet input device. The Wacom tablet is fairly popular, and the smallest size (4x6 inches) can be had for under $100. I know a lot of people who swear by the thing. A lot of comic colorists use them, as well. It's tricky to get used to, but it flows easily after some practice.

Here's the short version of how to letter a comic book: Open up Illustrator. Put the scanned art file on the bottom layer. Create a layer on top of that for the balloons, and a third layer on top for the letters themselves. Put down your words and balloons on the appropriate layers and then shift everything around until it looks right. (Very rarely do the letters wind up dead-center in the balloon on the first try.) You can worry about the proper way to flatten things out and copy lettering files over later on.

To get started, check out these two sites:

  • Comicraft maintains a web site devoted to the "How To"s of comic book lettering. It's at BalloonTales.com, and the link in this sentence will take you to their "How To Get Started" feature. They're the ones who started this computer revolution. They know what they're talking about.

  • Blambot.com is the second major purveyor of computerized lettering and font design on the web. The Comics 101 section of that web site includes articles on how letterer Nate Piekos letters comics.

In all honesty, surfing around those two web sites alone is all you'll need to learn how to letter comics.

There are a couple of books you might also find handy. The first is Kevin Tinsley's crowd pleaser, DIGITAL PREPRESS FOR COMIC BOOKS. There is a section in the book that describes the lettering process. With any luck, Comicraft's book on the lettering process will arrive shortly.

However, you can't learn in a vacuum, and that's where lettering message boards can come in handy. For that, you'll want to visit DigitalWebbing.com. The lettering board there offers helpful advice, tutorials, and learning exercises for one and all. It's populated by all sorts of letterers, from beginners to professionals. I learned a lot from hanging out there. Be sure to check out the adjacent board, Lettering Archive, for tutorials.

You'll also need some fonts to play with. Don't use MicroSoft's Comics Sans font. Please. There are plenty of fonts available on the web, many of which can be had for free. And don't ever use Whizbang. That's not a font; it's a weapon of mass destruction foisted upon the comics world.

Blambot.com has the best free comics fonts around. "Letter-O-Matic" is great, as is "Acme Secret Agent" and "Kid Kosmic." Be sure to read the license agreement, though. In the case of Blambot's free fonts, you need to pay a licensing fee if you're using them for a book published by the likes of Marvel. Of course, Marvel may force you to use their mixed case lettering font. That doesn't make this all a moot point, though. You still need something to learn the basics with. Free fonts off the web are still better to learn with than the fonts that came with your computer.

Comicraft has some truly memorable fonts, from Astro City to Hedge Backwards (Starkings' original hand-lettering font) to fonts based on the handwriting styles of Jim Lee, Joe Madureira, and Joe Kubert. Those are a bit pricier, however.

Dreamer Design offers a few of their fonts on-line but they're even more expensive than Comicraft's. Their main font, "Dreamer," is currently on sale if you want your book to look like everything Top Cow produces.

If your take on the Marvel Universe should happen to look like a Carl Barks ten-pager, then might I suggest the Donald Duck font?

There exists across the web dozens of "Font Foundries," containing the best and worst of free fonts. Sadly, none of them will really give you a font good enough for day-to-day balloon lettering. You might find some display or title fonts of use there, but nothing to stuff in balloons pointing back to people. If you're adventurous, you can create your own font with the program, Fontographer. Sadly, there's very little good documentation on the process. I've tried to play with the program and it's a beast.

That's a good start. You've got the tools, the general process, and some help along the way. The tricky part is learning the technique. Getting balloons to flow is not easy, and won't come naturally to everyone. Different styles will work for different comics, and no one size fits all. (Ask any letterer what size font he letters in. No two will likely give the same answer, unless they're using the same font.)

Learning all of this is an on-going effort, just as any other discipline in comics. You can't learn it all overnight, and there won't be a Learn In 24 Hours type of book for this. The more you learn, the more there is to learn. There is some reading material that complements all of this nicely.

An Adobe Illustrator book will show you new techniques to create unique lettering designs.

Read anything you can about the art of drawing comics. Specifically, you want to learn about comics. Where everyone else can learn from "Real Life," the process of lettering a comic book is fairly unique. You can create new fonts based on what you've seen in the real world, and you can design new display lettering based on stuff you've seen there, but the nuts and bolts of placing balloons is secreted away within the industry.

One other tip: Read books and magazines for comics artists. Read DRAW! Magazine, in particular. The most recent issue has an excellent article by Paul Rivoche on how he creates depth in a panel. The only thing he failed to take into consideration is where to place the balloons in the panel. Many of the artistic tricks he used to create layers of depth likely would be killed by any word balloons. Still, if the letterer understands some of those depth tricks, he might be able to work around them or to disrupt as few as possible.

For final miscellaneous links, here is a page with various links from all over the place, including some interviews, How To's, and even a link to an old Pipeline column.

WHAT OF MIXED-CASE LETTERING?

Say the nightmare scenario happens and you're asked to letter a comic book in mixed-font case. I'm sorry. There's not much you can do to fix it. It's usually an ugly way to letter a comic book, but an understanding of why it doesn't work might help you to keep it from completely fouling up your final story.

From a technical point of view, the difference between mixed case lettering and all-capital lettering is one of uniformity. With the traditional all-caps style, every letter is of a uniform height, starting on the same lower line and reaching up to the same upper height. The only difference is in width, where a "W" is going to be much wider than an "I". In mixed case lettering, you don't have that. You have some letters that are the same height as their all-caps counterparts, but also some that are only half the height and, even worse, ones that slide below the invisible lower line that the all-caps lettering rests on. It's those "descenders" that cause the biggest problems. (They are the letters 'g', 'j', 'p', 'q', and 'y'.) In addition, the mix of letters that are only half-height (such as 'a', 'c', 'e') contrast with letters that are taller and leave dead space in the middle of words and balloons. Mix in the letters with ascenders ('t', 'd', 'h', 'k', b') and you get a real mess.

Imagine two lines of text stacked atop each other inside a word balloon. If the first line has descenders where the second line has ascenders, it's going to push the two lines of text apart, creating white space elsewhere along the line. If the top line has no descenders and the bottom has no ascenders, then you'll have two lines squished together in comparison to the rest of the lines of text on the page. If those ascenders and descenders aren't consistent across the line of text, the lines of text will look uneven and jarring.

The trick to lettering all of this in a way that looks pleasing to the eye is in creating the font. This, I believe, is where Chris Eliopoulos succeededs in THE ULTIMATES, and Comicraft failed miserably on DAREDEVIL. Check out the "Trial of the Century" storyline in the latter title for excellent examples of a very bad font. Note that Eliopoulos' font is used on the title now, as it is with just about every book at Marvel.

Eliopoulos' font has descenders that wrap neatly underneath the rest of the letters and don't leave too much dead space below them. They're also more uniformly designed, with a certain roundness that fills the space and creates less angularity than Starkings' font. The half-height letters come up about three-quarters of the way, and the lines of text can remain even. In addition, Eliopoulos doesn't need to resort to cheats such as squeezing letters and words together at the last moment in a word balloon to fit in the space. Letters aren't irregularly widened to fill out the middle of balloons. These are all things that looked wrong on DAREDEVIL.

In the end, though, it all goes back to the white space. It's something that's always going to be problematic with mixed-case lettering. A good font can minimize it, but it'll never go away. If all else fails, use only words in your script that don't contain letters with ascenders or descenders. Words like "nose" and "ear" are safe, but "mouth" and "chin" are more difficult.

Yes, that last part is a joke. If you're Alan Moore, though, you might be able to pull it off. (It would mix French and English, and employ no capitalization: "races move me. rea is mon ami." Try that at home sometime.)

Good luck with the lettering. Start practicing now. It's a lot more tedious than it looks. While a trained letterer can get a book done overnight, you're not going to do that and still make it look good for quite a while yet. The tools are relatively simple and the results will be much better more quickly than with hand lettering, but the technique and skill will take long time to master.

In case you missed it -- since I forgot to mention it here last Tuesday -- Pipeline Previews saw virtual print last Friday, looking ahead to books set for release in June 2003.

Pipeline Commentary and Review will be back next week with that promised look at FABLES.

Various and Sundry has been updated all week with the mandatory look at the week's DVD releases, the latest update on global warming, Meat Loaf's farewell tour and new album, farewell to a bad electronics store, new movie trailers, cheap spammers, bad movies, American Idol, the rejection hot-line, and much much more.

Last Friday, I handed in the latest "Pipeline Spotlight" column for the Batman-themed COMICS SPOTLIGHT magazine due out in about a month.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

It's getting late and I still haven't locked down my final summer convention schedule. I have my plane tickets and hotel reservations for San Diego, so I'll definitely be there. I'm thinking about Chicago again this year, and Philadelphia is very likely since it's only a two hour drive from home.

Nearly 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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