Here's To The Letter

Lettering in comics is, I imagine, a tricky business. But I don't really know: for all of my interest in process, I've never really investigated the art of lettering. I guess I figured one letter, one letterer, was as good as any other. 

On its face, this is an assumption that is obviously not true. Typography, at its best, leaves an impression by not leaving one. At its worst, type leaves an impression for the wrong reasons, because its gimmicky, because its unclear or because its hard to read. Take, for example, comics' bastard child-- comic sans. The font, invented by a Microsoft designer in the mid-nineties, has been often criticized, so much so that it has been the object of attempted bannings for almost a decade and a half. The backlash against it seems overblown-- except for being goofily rounded and purposefully sloppy, the font is, on its own, innocuous and inoffensive. While sort of pernicious in its ubiquity, the real problem with Comic Sans, according to the Holly Combs, the cofounder of Ban Comic Sans, is the way that its used incongruously with the purpose of much of the text typed with the font: way back in 2005, while speaking to the Boston Pheonix, Combs said that she had recently received a death notice in it. Surely, then, if bad typography can take a way from the words that are set in it, good typography can add something to them. This is certainly also true of the comics letter, which Comic Sans, with its sloppy lines, is supposed to mimic.

Last month, after years of lettering his comics digitally in photoshop, Evil Inc. webcartoonist Brad Guigar switched to lettering his comics by hand. At his blog, Guigar explained his reasons for switching over saying that, after doing it on a guest strip for Dave Kellet, he and Dave got to talking about the process:
Have you ever considered it?" he asked. 
"Considered, yes... but I'm a little scared of it." 
And it is daunting. But as he pointed out, he was able to get such a broader range of expressiveness out of his hand-lettering than I could -- even taking into account a full range of wonderful special-effect fonts purchased at several consecutive Comic Craft New Years sales. 
"But my lettering stinks." 
"Only because it's a skill you don't practice." 
Boy, that sat with me all the way home. I mean, who's that guy that's always telling people that it's impossible to get worse at something that you do every day?
Me and my big mouth. 
What Guigar realized, and what I think is probably hard to understand until you notice it, somehow, or until someone points it out to you, is that lettering changes feeling, even if it doesn't necessarily effect meaning (although sometimes it does that, too). Guigar's comics have always had a great visual flair, but not in every way-- take, for example, the last computer lettered strip that Guigar did, from August 31st.

This is a great strip-- Guigar's art is fluid and expressive, look at the grin on the alien's face in that last panel, and his simple figures move from panel to panel quite easily. While his font choice for the dialogue isn't bad, it also doesn't add anything to the strip-- it serves only to display the dialogue. There are, in other words, pictures and text coming together to tell the same story, but, beyond that, they don't really cohere. Then look at a more recent strip of Guigar's, say, yesterday's:

Dig that? The differences between this strip and the one above are slight and, yet, this one is much more alive. While the other one seems kind of stilted, because the words don't flow the same way the pictures do, Guigar's hand lettering here is much easier to follow from one end of the strip to the other, and it adds depth; the word that Guigar used in the blog post to describe this extra depth, expressiveness  is close to perfect, since the comic really tells you a lot more this way, gives you a better feel for not only how the characters are speaking but also of what it is exactly that they're saying, because this gives you the peaks and valleys of speech. It makes Captain Heroic sticking his tongue out in the third panel that much more interesting and, more importantly, it adds a layer of meaning to the words that wasn't there before, simply because Guigar did it by hand.

So here's to the letter, and to the letterer, ladies and gentleman. May it, and he, get the credit that they deserve, and may make your comics experience that much more meaningful.

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