The Working Woes of a Letterpunk.

‘Letterers are the roadies of comic books!’

Somebody said this to me recently, and I can’t begin to tell you how it resonated with me.

Coming from a musical background, I know a little about the work that roadies and riggers do. It’s unseen. It goes without a great deal of recognition. But the undeniable fact is, those guys make the gigs, the tours, the open air concerts, WORK. In comics, the deal with letterers is pretty much the same.

Letterers don’t get a lot of public recognition. We don’t get front cover credits on the books we handle. We don’t generally get guest spots at conventions. We don’t OFTEN accumulate a fan base. I suspect a large number of fans don’t particularly care that we’re even here. But without us, your comics wouldn’t be the same. We make them work. And we have to put in a lot of work to do it.

Over the last little while, as I’ve worked harder to cut further into the business, a few folks around me have expressed concern that I’m working at something that ‘isn’t a proper job’. Even some of the folks I know, whose enthusiasm for comics rivals my own, don’t really get it. They fail to see where the labour and skill is involved.

Coincidentally, a number of people have also been asking for my input on their own projects of late. I thought it might be a good idea to make a post here to kill two birds with one stone.

On the one hand, I hope to flag up some common errors in comics crafting that I see on a regular basis. On the other, I’m going to explain how these have an impact on ME as the letterer on a project where these problems arise. Hopefully, this will be of some benefit to those of you who are seeking to learn more about the technical aspects of putting together comics pages… and maybe it’ll make informative reading for anybody out there who seems to think that what I (and other letterers) do is easy.

So, for this entry, I’ll concentrate on some common problems that I see much more regularly than I’d like to.

#1 – INCORRECT ORDERING OF SPEAKING CHARACTERS.

This is, without a doubt, the source of some of my biggest headaches when lettering pages. It’s a basic rule of panel and page composition, and yet it’s startling how often I see it disregarded.

If you check out the submission guidelines for certain comics publishers – most notably, the UK’s 2000AD – you’ll see that some of them provide this simple guidance for artists: FIRST SPEAKER ON THE LEFT – ALWAYS!

I’ve heard several arguments against this rule, which have run the gamut from ‘rules are made to be broken’ to ‘you’re just saying this because you want your part of the process to be easier!’ My personal favourite is ‘but this compromises the integrity of my shot!’ to which I say: no it doesn’t. A badly composed page will hurt your comic far more than not being able to draw a panel how you perhaps instinctively want to. You’re not making movies. You’re drawing comics. We’re talking about a fundamental of the art form, here.

The general principle here is that we read comic books, whether we realise it or not, in an ordered fashion. We start at the top (usually the top left) of the page, and we work our way to the bottom (usually, the bottom right). We read across each panel from left to right. This is naturally how our brains do things.

A key part of the letterer’s trade is the business of leading the reader around a page in a logical, easy-to-follow fashion. We’re trying to give the reader the smoothest reading experience possible. So we HATE it when the artist works against us in that regard.

To illustrate, here’s a comic panel with a typical reading order:

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This should all be straightforward enough. The blue figure, on the LEFT is the first speaker. He could be saying anything – it doesn’t matter. If the script indicates that Mr. Blue speaks first, then Mr. Blue should be drawn on the left of the panel. Note the reading order of the speech balloons. I’ve numbered them in the order in which they should be read. This all makes good, logical sense, yes?

However – supposing the artist is inattentive, and he draws his figures the wrong way around. Then, we’re confronted with this:

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Mr Blue still speaks first, but he’s over to the right. Notice how this immediately impacts the logic of the reading order and dialogue flow. This could pose a serious problem. Imagine if Mr. Blue is asking Mr. Red a question – we’d conceivably be reading his response before we know what he was asked!

The letterer, then, has to put his thinking cap on to get around this. Thankfully, even though our artist here has made a design mistake, he’s had the sense to leave some dead space in the panel. The first workaround an experienced letterer will attempt under these circumstances would be something like this:

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See how the balloons have been situated so as to preserve the correct reading order? This works, but it’s far from ideal. Having that long tail arcing close to Mr. Red’s head is truthfully quite unsightly. This isn’t always necessarily going to be a huge problem, and if there’s space ABOVE the characters, then there’s usually some leeway for making things work. However, this all assumes that dead space is there – I’ve seen panels like this:

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In that case, options really are limited, and the letterer may find himself having to make the best of a bad job.Your panel, very simply, will not look good.

There’s also the issue that this panel layout might be causing a troublesome disconnect with the panels around it. A letterer will be looking to direct reading flow throughout the ENTIRE PAGE – not just within a  single panel. This wider view of ‘the big picture’ is what separates a truly skilled comic book letterer from somebody who owns a few fonts and can get the job done. A really talented guy might be able to make the whole page work in spite of mistakes like this – but it’s going to add a lot of deliberation and consideration onto his workload.

#2 NO NEGATIVE SPACE.

This is another one that really causes me no end of grief. I have simply lost count of the times I’ve seen a panel that looks like this:

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You may ‘wonder what’s wrong with that?’ the answer is simple – there is NOWHERE to situate any lettering in that panel.

A letterer will be looking to keep his balloons and captions away from important areas of character art – especially heads and faces. I also personally try to keep away from hands, as some artists use those as excellent, expressive storytelling aids.

There’s some wisdom in leaving about a quarter to a third of your panel completely free of character art to avoid this sort of problem. A good comic book will constitute a pleasing combination of images and words – you do NOT want to draw panels that will butt up against the lettering and fight the writer’s content every step of the way. Nothing is worse than a panel where a character is struggling to be seen behind a speech balloon.

This leads me neatly to point # 3:

#3 INSUFFICIENT SPACE ALLOWED FOR LETTERING AS INDICATED BY THE SCRIPT.

Another head-slapper. I’ve seen comics pages that seemed to suggest the artist had not bothered to consult their script. How can I tell? Because there are panels where artwork is almost obliterated by text, while surrounding panels have enough dead space in them to park the Titanic.

I once received a page to letter which contained just three panels. The middle panel was a slender letterbox panel, neatly dividing the page. The two huge panels either side of it had just two balloons or captions each, while the middle panel was supposed to contain SIX. This made needless work, and turned what should have been a very quick page into a nightmare to turn around.

The letterer’s workaround here is to start splitting things up and apportioning parts of the captions or dialogue elsewhere – but that’s risky. There’s a possibility of altering the writer’s intent for the page here, lessening the impact of their work. It’s also not always possible to pull off properly, depending on what’s happening around the problem panel in question.

It may seem incredibly obvious, but a lengthy exchange between two characters in a panel will require more dead space than a single balloon with a one word statement. Some artists seem not to understand this. Writers can help to alleviate this problem as well by limiting their word count per balloon. Acquaintances of mine who worked for Marvel in the ’80s tell me that there was a commonly held edict of no more than 25 words per balloon, which is a good benchmark. Personally,  I think you can push a little above that. But any more than 50 words per panel all told is probably pushing it.

These concerns now lead to my final observation:

#4 OVERLY AMBITIOUS LAYOUTS.

It really is possible to put too much on a page. Take a look at this layout, which is a roughly approximated re-creation of an ACTUAL page from a best-selling comic that I won’t name. (But only because I like staying in work!)

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Just look how panel 4 cuts into panel 5… Ahh, I HATE that! But maybe that’s a subject for another rant, another time.

Okay. Just let that sink in. The industry standard these days hovers between 5 to 7 panels per page. This sucker boasts TWELVE. I’ve actually seen pages with as many as twenty panels.

Now, there ARE a few sets of circumstances that could call for this sort of layout. If some of these panels are meant to be ‘silent’, then it might work. Similarly, if it’s a dialogue-light page, it’ll probably be okay. If there’s a lot of dialogue, it might still work. But your page is probably going to look something like this:

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See how much of the available space is eaten up by those balloons and captions? The final panel is almost completely obscured, and there are multiple reading order problems at the top of the page. A letterer is going to have to work very hard to make a page like this work. And just imagine if the artist were to revisit the 1990s with a set of angled panels and dynamic layout choices, panel overlaps and whatnot. The page flow could quickly spiral out of control.

The solution? Simple layouts are best. If you can combine panels to fit in a little more information and free up some space, it might be worth doing. If there are silent panels in a layout like this, it may be worth evaluating if they’re REALLY necessary. You may be able to get away with cutting them out completely.

I hope all this stuff is helpful to somebody. I know it’s easy to come off as an embittered, know-it-all freelancer, but trust me… if you’d seen these gaffes as many times as I have, it gets VERY hard to see them again without feeling your blood pressure rise.

To paraphrase an episode of The Simpsons: “Kids… now that you know what you do… DON’T do it!”

Peace out. Now, go and make great comics!