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Lettering, Typography and Layout

December 20, 2011

Sorry for the delay, Macketeers. Oldest story in the book: I slept in.

Which is to say, I was awake at 3 AM (after going to bed at around 12:30 AM), but needed to go back to bed around 7AM, and didn’t get up again until around 11:45. My sleep cycle doesn’t actually work.

I wish I had a really sexy-sounding explanation for why that is, but honestly, it’s the medication. I have sleep aids, to counteract the sleeplessness, but they give me a terrible morning after hangover that ruins me for the day, so I won’t take them. If I’m going to feel wrecked for a day, I’m going to get wrecked the night before; not take some lousy pill that doesn’t even give me a buzz or come in interesting colours or flavours.

Okay, so back to it. Today’s going to be the last of these little ‘getting to know me’ articles, because I’m just not that interesting. Well, no, actually, I’m bloody fascinating, I am, but it’s considered impolite to brag. So today’s topics are going to be typography, lettering and page layout; basically, Graphic Design. Sounds pretty unexciting, doesn’t it? Well, maybe it is to many, I don’t know.

All I do know is, I’ve been fascinated with the shape and style of letters printed or drawn on the page since I was a small boy. Probably saw too many episodes of Batman. Pow… Biff… Bam, and all that crap it’s taken forty years to make people forget. I can vaguely remember sitting and drawing comic book sound effects as a boy, just doing my little doodles and providing the sound effects, which I believe gave me something of a charge.

It didn’t occur to me that there was actually an art and technique to that process, or even that it had a name: lettering. I discovered that when I was around nine or ten and leafing through the comics my siblings and I had stolen from our father’s workplace, and seeing these fantastic logos and sound effects and special lettering styles used in the speech balloons of The Uncanny X-Men comics. I became transfixed by the art of John Byrne and Terry Austin, and the stories of Chris Claremont (St. Christopher, we call him in around here) were the best I’d ever read (I was a pretty avid reader as a youth), but none of those guys were responsible for this thing called ‘lettering’. That was done by this guy named Tom Orzechowski, and just the name alone made him sound like some exotic creature from faraway lands where they mastered the art of making words look better on the page.

I barely understood the subtleties of what I was seeing, but I was reading a lot of comics in those days, and I was noticing that, while most big name comics had pretty good lettering, Tom’s just felt the best to me. It suited the art and didn’t stand out unless it was supposed to. Not too big, not too small, slanted at just the right angle to feel like real speech feels. Weird how I imprinted on all of that, and yet my hand lettering is absolutely atrocious.

Around that same time, I discovered calligraphy, but it wasn’t the same thing as what I was interested in, and I couldn’t afford one of those fancy nib fountain pens, so I never really got the knack, which is a shame because I still think calligraphy looks fabulous when done right. I didn’t even know what an Eames Guide was (still don’t own one), but I knew that, if I wanted to get good at lettering, I was going to have to practice. And I did. My problem was, I found it boring just drawing lines and putting letters on them at even intervals. I wanted to see them on comic pages.

Now it never would have occurred to me to deface one of my comic books, because I didn’t even know what liquid paper was, and if I had, it would have gotten pretty horrid, because I never did master the art of making Liquid Paper look good. Always clumps up and crumbles on me before I’m finished. And I didn’t have money or even any notion that I could find unlettered comic art samples or anything to work over. The Marvel Try-Out book didn’t exist yet, and when it did, it was too expensive for me to buy, so I was forced to improvise.

I started trying to write and draw my own comics. It didn’t occur to me that I might not be good enough at any of these functions, and indeed, I was horrible at all of them, but I was determined to learn to make comics, and I used every opportunity to practice drawing panels and filling them up with drawing and balloons and those all-important letters. Happily, almost none of those pieces of work exist to this day, because really, they were pretty awful. I suspect one or two are still in storage somewhere, but if I have anything to do with it, they will never see the light of day in my lifetime.

What I didn’t notice through all of this was that, while I was making comics, I was learning some pretty essential fundamentals about layout and graphic design, including typography, on those occasions when I was messing with typewriters; all trial and error stuff like:

1) You can’t type text onto comics because the type paths are too far apart to fit in a balloon, and narrowing the gap too much causes overlaps. Plus, it really doesn’t look right when you’re done.

2) You can do the most intriguing panel layouts imaginable, but it you try too hard to make the layout look cool, you lose focus on the art telling the story, and it all suffers. Plus, too-complicated panel work also makes lettering a bitch later, because the best lettering has to fit inside those panels without obscuring essential art, and it really doesn’t work well if there is no balance or structure to the lot. Letterers need room to improvise and place lettering where it is the most effective and the least intrusive, or it sticks out and breaks suspension of disbelief. Plus, the artist quits and you get fill-in art from guys who really have no business drawing comics.

3) Stories in comics have to mostly be told visually and through dialogue. So if you can’t write what you mean briefly and with punch, you’re going to give the letterer too much to do, and again, the balance goes off and the artist does too.

4) Finally, you can’t use too-fancy lettering effectively for dialogue. Even interesting dialogue needs to be told with lettering that is appropriate but not too fancy, or they become illegible at the size they’re going to be printed. That’s something I didn’t learn until quite a bit later, but I learned. I finally saw what size paper comic artists were expected to work on, and it all kind of came together for me. Of COURSE my comics looked lousy. I was drawing them on standard size paper, trying to get in all of those little details I loved so much, and watching as the ink destroyed my work time and time again.

What most of this taught me was that I wasn’t really going to master these techniques any time soon because I lacked the wherewithal to make it happen. It’s not impossible, but you do need to have some basic tools, including some sort of drawing table and fairly professional level tools to draw and ink with. And lots of practice with them, which wasn’t going to happen even in my schools, where such tools could be accessed. As it is, I didn’t get my first drawing table until I was in my early thirties, which, coincidentally, was when my art and graphic design started to come together at long last.

There are just a few samples of work I’ve done using the skills I’ve developed:

And that’s our time today. Thank you for reading this series, and I hope to have more interesting things to talk about in the days ahead.

Eddie.

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