Reading Lettering: Comic Book Lettering, The Comicraft Way
By Tim Hartnett
Comic Book Lettering, the Comicraft Way
By Richard Starkings and John 'JG' Roshell, with Jeph Loeb and Kurt Busiek, as well as several special guests
Publisher: Active Images, Los Angeles, CA, 2003
Lettering; Exposed and "Stark" Naked
It's the "hidden art" in lettering that Comicraft founder Richard Starkings, with John "JG" Roshell, outline in their new book, Comic Craft Lettering, the Comicraft Way. Those little thought balloons that tell us what Superman is thinking, those specialized flaming circles designed for the Human Torch, and those lovely stenciled "THROOOMS" we get when the Batmobile gears into action---all described by Mr. Starkings and company in his new work. Its colorful sixty four pages are so inviting, even the hardcore penciling artists will be jealous by its design.
Take a Letter
The subjectivity of this book is routed more in how to design and letter pages, than the art of lettering itself. The authors take the most likely overhearing reader on a ride through the process of Comicraft lettering, and then onto the actually lettering techniques themselves. Even readers who aren't aspiring Comicraft interns will be marveled at the work that goes into "inking the writer" as current Batman scribe Jeph Loeb writes in his introduction.
Starkings and Roshell are quick to note that lettering is an important part of the comic book storytelling process. "The truth is people generally don't notice comic book lettering unless it's bad", says Loeb. Everything is true about that. When was the last time you saw on the cover of your favorite monthly, "Welcoming new letterer Richard Starkings to the pages of Superhero!"? Probably not this Marvel age. But perhaps that would be a rightful announcement, for Starkings clearly shows signature method, inspired by years of work in the comic industry and writing out the pages of the funnies.
It's stuff I know you'll appreciate but probably never gave thought to.
"Nicer letters, please."
My fifth grade social studies teacher used to write that on my papers; I subsequently found that I had the worst handwriting this side of Genosha. That's why I rely on a computer these days for 97 out of a hundred things I pen. Starkings and Comicraft aren't much different when it comes to the digital age.
The methods shown in Comic Book Lettering are mostly computerized; Starkings presents certain computer programs and works with them throughout the book. Want to know how to reduce "hot air" in your Superman balloons? Just consult an entire section early on regarding the shape of the balloon, as well as the placement of the lettering. Also present are tips on how to avoid hyphenating, when to use huge letters to introduce passages, whether to put things in front or behind artwork, and so much more. It's like watching a movie you've loved for years in slow motion for the first time---you'll appreciate it in ways never possible with the added detail to the dialogue you've always repeated.
Comic book lettering is no different. Starkings presents such an interesting take on this unnoticed art form, that any reader will pay more attention to the lettering next time he visits the drugstore. There's so many different lettering styles out there, from the wide types in CrossGen, to the All-Caps of DC, to the more modern Uppercase and Lowercase lettering in Marvel comics. If part of Starking's goal was to entice an appreciation for the lettering artists, he'll get it from a high school drop out.
A History of Typefaces
In addition to showing you how to letter pages, Starkings and Roshell point out the history of comic book lettering, the best letterers, and the influences which have shaped their business since its inception decades ago. The evolution of lettering and why we letter comics in the first place is routed in a cost-cutting measure by authors and illustrators when comic strips first became popular in the 1920s. The advancement is fascinating since then, with different fonts and narrations coming about, and many techniques which have evolved since the digital age.
The different fonts and styles are here too. You can compare this book and Bob Gale's 2001 run on Daredevil, and realize that Starking's letters have their own manners. Then you can refer back to this how-to paperback, and decide when it's best to customize lettering and how progressive or conservative you should be when doing it.
There are also tips on how to create your own font. I remember a classmate of mine in high school, who wanted to put his own writing into a computer, so that the machine would do his work for him; then he could just print it out and hand it in with a mischievous smile. With Comicraft's help, he just may have been achieve that grin.
It's all in the Lettering
The lettering makes the feeling and flow of the comic, yet it is rarely validated. The eyes of comic book fans for years have simply gazed over the words and actions of their favorite superheroes, only to pass on the hard work of John Costanza for Barry Winsdor-Smith's next Conan. The letterer is just as important as the artist, or the
writer---the transfer from the page to the mind's eye is accomplished only through the interpretation of the letter, and what the writer wants you to feel.
With Starking's and Comicraft's revolution, perhaps we'll see the "Industry's Hottest Letterers" in Wizard next month. After all, chicks dig lettering---just ask Starkings and company.
After they're done flirting, I'll hire them to ink my social studies' papers.
Tim Hartnett is a reviewer for Silver Bullet Comic Books. He currently resides in Columbia, MD, USA. Tim still insists he has the worst handwriting ever. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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