Faking it!

Well, it’s been an age since my last update. What can I say? 2015 has turned out to be a particularly busy year!

I decided that, this time, I’d update the blog with something I lettered some time ago, because it addresses a common prejudice I encounter a lot. For some reason, when dealing with inexperienced comic book creators, the idea abounds that digital lettering is somehow inferior to how it was done in ‘the good old days’.

I’ve even had a few big name artists from back in the day opine to me that that letterers should be using traditional, physical tools, as if the use of digital type and vector drawing programs somehow invalidates the work.  But this is a wrong attitude for several reasons.

I’m going to sidestep the issue, for a second, that good and bad work stems from good and bad craftsmanship irrespective of the tools used, and simply stress a few practical concerns. First of all, virtually NOBODY is lettering by hand in the modern, mainstream comic industry. There’s still a place for it, and I’ll be the first to say that well executed pen and ink lettering looks beautiful. Secondly, hand lettering is simply not that feasible in today’s business climate. Can you imagine how unnecessarily complicated that would make things? Pages are far easier to send to a letterer electronically for digital work, and given the continual perceived need to drive down production costs, it’s extremely unlikely that editors would want to  bother with the hassle of sending physical pages through the postal system. And before you start thinking about clever ways to get around that, it’s worth mentioning that there’s not much money in this job. If we were asked to print out pages and letter them by hand, that would quickly eat into the time and profit margin we have on each precious gig.

Lettering with a computer, then, is a wise choice just because it’s expedient. But it doesn’t mean that the results are guaranteed to be of a lower quality. Remember – skill and craftsmanship determines quality – not the tools. And a computer is a tool just as surely as an Ames guide or a dip pen is. All that fundamentally changes when lettering digitally is the approach to the work.

It’s at this point that I should mention BULLDOG AND PANDA, by Jason Cobley and Stephen Prestwood, which currently appears in the excellent PARAGON small press anthology. It’s a revival of the strip, having first appeared in a UK small press comic back in the 1980s. Paragon’s publisher, Dave Candlish, put out a call for a letterer for the second part of this continuation, and because I saw an opportunity to experiment with different lettering techniques, I jumped at it.

Here are a few isolated pages:

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The timing here couldn’t have been better. I had  been thinking for some time about ways of making my lettering look more lively and organic. There truthfully IS a trap you can fall into with digital work whereby it starts to look clinical and sterile, and this is something I’ve been trying to steer clear of in all the time I’ve been lettering professionally. In truth, for a while, I’d been pondering ways to make my work look more like it had been executed with pen and ink.  So a new project with a distinctly old-school vibe to it was just the spur I needed. I dug out some reprint material of old 2000AD strips – Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, A.B.C. Warriors – and collected volumes of Marvel UK comics such as Transformers and Dragon’s Claws, and started to examine them studiously. These comics were chosen specifically, as the production methods of the day were pretty hands-on. I had gotten used to lettering in a very regimented, almost mechanical process of creating perfect balloon shapes and uniform blocks of text. What I was looking at in these older comics was much more organic. Slowly, I started to work out what the components of that aesthetic were, what made it work, and what parts of it I could convincingly ape.

There were two key aspects I focused on with this project: balloon shapes and type dynamics. The balloon design is probably the easiest part of the process to describe, so I’ll go with that first.

When lettering digitally, coming up with an attractive balloon shape is one of the most important aspects of page design. This is one of those things that IMMEDIATELY indicates the difference between  an experienced letterer and a beginner. Too many digitally lettered comics at indie and hobbyist level feature ugly, mechanical ellipses drawn with a marquee tool and left unfinished. Modern comics feature much cleaner, more rounded and attractive balloon shapes, and these are easy to produce in cookie cutter fashion in vector drawing software.

BUT… do you necessarily want that perfection all the time? Given that the aim here was to mimic the look of an old 1980s UK comic, that point was debatable. Looking back at comics of that era, the lettering was often characterised by irregular balloons which were very obviously drawn with a pen and ink. Hence, I decided to alter the curves of my standard balloon shapes in Illustrator, creating several variants that I could repurpose across multiple pages. I also introduced some subtle  variation into the line weight of the balloon stroke, to simulate the irregular flow of ink from an overworked and poorly maintained tech pen. No disrespect to letterers from that era – I’ve owned Rotring pens from that period, and they were always horrible, imprecise tools in my hands. Adding a little of the chaos those old, traditional tools used to introduce to the line, though, just sold the aesthetic a bit more.

Another trick I tried was a fake ‘paste up’ effect. Notice how the caption boxes have a reversed colour scheme in comparison to the traditional black on white of the balloons? This was something I lifted straight from Steve Potter’s work on early Nemesis The Warlock strips. To approximate the look of a hand applied caption, I placed a little sliver of white underneath the caption box and nudged it around slightly to look like a hasty and slightly imprecise scalpel job put in place by an art bodger. I even did this on a few select balloons as well, just to push that illusion a little further.

(‘Art bodger’ isn’t a derogatory term, by the way – it was a term used to describe people who worked in-house back in the old days who would carry out page corrections by hand.)

The final part of this particular design scheme is the type dynamics. This basically comes down to a simple trick, but it MUST be used carefully.

The best and most design savvy letterers of the ’70s and ’80s understood that a lot of creative mileage could be had by altering the height and thickness of certain select lines of dialogue . Pick up an old E.C. horror comic or an issue of 2000AD from all those years ago, and you’ll find that specific portions – usually just a few words, or even just a single one – were  rendered with a  thicker stroke. This adds a lot of character and drama to the dialogue, and it was something I REALLY wanted to put into BULLDOG & PANDA.

The biggest challenge at this stage was coming up with a font selection that would tolerate a bit of tweaking in each individual balloon, and also mesh with the irregular, hand drawn look. I have a fair number of dialogue fonts in my personal library, but trying to zero in on one that would fit this project was quite a test. Eventually, I found one which convincingly suggested the fluid penmanship of the best hand letterers, and a little fiddling produced results that I’m personally VERY happy with.

The final pages  became a real labour of love. While I’m not sure this exact approach would work for any comic, it certainly gave me a few new ideas about handling dialogue and designing pages, and I’m still experimenting with them on projects that call for it. Keep an eye on the blog, and I’ll show a little of them as time permits!