September 1, 2018

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A Little Something for Letterer Appreciation Day


Today is Letterer Appreciation Day, and while I remembered this too late to do something in detail, I wanted to share a few thoughts on Letterers.


Letterers, not unlike Color Artists, tend to be left in the dust when it comes to crediting comics. I will admit that even our site was late to the idea of making sure the full team is credited, so I'm not throwing stones at anyone for this. I think there's often a feeling that letters in a comic are akin to the typeface in a book--you shouldn't really notice them, and if you do, it's usually for the wrong reason.

That's completely untrue, of course--since comics require a harmony of words and pictures, the placement and style of the letters is also a part of the whole picture. I'm sure that this is something we internalize, and the push to refer to comics by only their writer (really bad) or their writer and line artist (still bad) in solicitations doesn't help matters. I really appreciate that some creators (like Chris Sebela)  push their whole creative team, both on the cover and when discussing the books themselves. The publisher Vault also does this. I'm really hoping that catches on.

What's weird about this is that it's not like Marvel was shy about letterers in their internal credits when they began their heroic age. I knew Artie Simek and Sam Rosen from my earliest memories of reading reprint comics. Rick Parker lettered a good chunk of the newer comics I read growing up. I'm well aware of Richard Starkings and Comicraft. When I eventually went back and read DC, I learned about Todd Klein.

So while I generally have been aware of who the letters were in my comics, I don't think I always understood just how much of a difference that meant, except here and there. (For example, I always thought Simek's sound effect lettering was a bit stronger than Rosen, at least as a kid.) I could tell when lettering was bad, but I rarely would think hard about why the lettering was good.

Over the course of 2018, I've been trying to think harder about how the lettering interacts with the comics I'm reading. A good example of this is Shanghai Red by Sebela, Joshua Hixson, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. (And a disclosure here that I talk to Hass on a regular basis.) Hassan wobbles the letters when Red is drunk at a bar, just enough to make it clear the character's speech isn't clear, but without making the lettering so rough as to be illegible. It's a really subtle touch--in the past, other writers and/or letterers might have inserted crude indications of drunkenness, like *hic* or a similar notation that feels like something out of a comedy. Doing that here would serve the same purpose, but completely break the mood set by the darkness of the art and the somber revenge theme of the book itself.
An example of Hass's lettering, from his website
Perhaps one of my favorite letterers working today is Simon Bowland. While his lettering isn't flashy, I can't think of a single instance where I've been confused as to who is speaking, and he does an amazing job of placing his word balloons and text boxes. Simon always finds a way to keep the text both in order and away from the key drawings within a panel. That's not easy to do.

An example of Bowland's lettering, from his portfolio

These are just two examples of the excellent lettering work being done in comics right now. While their styles are slightly different, both letterers are key to making their projects stand out by ensuring that the comic as a whole works like a finely oiled machine.

Next year, I'll try to put something longer together. Other letterers who I take note of when they're on a project include Rachel Deering (who is doing a lot of Vault work, I've seen), Aditya Bidikar (working with IDW/Black Crown), Todd Klein, and John Workman (two legends who keep going). I also haven't touched on people who do their own lettering, like Stan Sakai, Ben Passmore, or Liz Prince. That's a different branch of the same tree, which I'll cover for another day.

For now, in closing, I'd like to ask you to start paying closer attention to who is doing the lettering of your favorite comics. What are they adding? How do they approach placement of the letters or changing the style of the words you're reading? Or maybe, unfortunately, you're seeing that the comic that you're reading doesn't make better use of its letterer. That happens, too. Either way, as critics and fans, we need to make sure we are appreciating what letterers bring to the table, and start advocating for them to receive credit for their work alongside the writers, line artists, and colorists.

Full credits for all! That should be our rallying cry between now and next September. Let's get Letterers on the same page, no pun intended. If we all push hard enough, it can happen.