For comic book writers, there is much debate surrounding how to go about lettering. Some authors stick to the old-fashioned approach, while others will take advantage of the new technologies. In either case, both options have their merits. Depending on the art style and which tools were used to create the art, it can play a role in which techniques are being used for applying font. For example, if an entire story is hand drawn, lettering by hand might be the ideal option as it would naturally match the art. Lettering via computer would most likely be too distracting and out of place in that scenario. If the art was created digitally, lettering by hand might appear drafty than a completely polished piece. These scenarios are over simplified reasons for why some would letter by hand while others would letter by computer especially in this day and age where artists are looking for new and creative ways to merge the traditional and the digital together.
Renowned graphic novelist and teacher, Gene Luen Yang, the author and illustrator of American Born Chinese and the two-parter, Boxers & Saints, covered this topic on Book Riot in his post, Comics Lettering: By Hand or on the Computer. Speaking from his own experiences, Yang describes when he first began creating comics in 1984 as a middle school student and that lettering by hand “was a daunting task”. Because PCs were in their state of infancy at the time, the Ames Guide was the tool comic book authors took advantage of. For Yang, lettering by hand was more of a nuisance when it came to retaining neat handwriting for such a long time working as well as it leading to hand cramps. While Yang favors lettering on a computer, he points out a very important reason why some writers stick to the traditional. “I do, however, sympathize with the other side of the controversy.” he highlights. “The polish of computer lettering can sometimes be jarring, especially in a comic that’s meant to be personal, one that’s meant to feel like a diary.” He goes on to describe the lettering process behind American Born Chinese, in which to create the fonts, he used WhizBang and enhanced the letters in Photoshop “to scrunch the font’s width down by about 20%” and from there, he started using a font that closely resembled his handwriting. While typing makes comic lettering look easy, there is a level of craftsmanship that goes into creating a unique font that is as distinct as your own handwriting as Yang indicates that this process consisted of a set number of days, but is satisfied with how they came out. With Boxers & Saints, Yang dubs it as his “most ambitious project font-wise”, because he created three sets of letterings. The spoken word fonts, influenced by Yang’s handwriting as a means to represent the characters’ thoughts in the present moment, the serif font for the Bible passages and, inspired by his wife’s handwriting, a cursive font that resembled that of writing in a journal. Yang’s approach to lettering is an example of how comic letterers select their fonts. It's similar to how a filmmaker would set the lighting to be effective in a given scene or how a painter chooses a color to convey a mood or state-of-mind. When lettering fonts by a computer, the comic writer’s selection is based on what will be an effective font to use in a particular moment in the story. If, for instance the reader is going inside an individual character’s mind, the typeface will vary from the standard text used throughout much of the story.
In Yang’s conclusion, he pinpoints expert letterer Janice Chiang, who loaned her skills to works such as Conan the Barbarian, Transformers and Alpha Flight, is adept in both typing and hand lettering. Also, a friend and fellow comic artist letters via computer first and then traces over the typed fonts “in order to give them a more organic look”, to which Yang is impressed with how it looks. There are also even some great resources and tips for lettering by hand, such as Webcomic Alliance’s own Chris Flick’s (Capes-n-Babes) post, A Guide to Hand-Lettering Your Strips… as well as Todd Klein’s Hand-Lettering Basics. That being said, lettering by hand will always have its merits, too and curious beginners might give it a shot just to get the feel for what creating a comic in the old days was like. It never hurts to experiment with either. Whatever the art style, your lettering skills, what works best for you and what matches the medium the art was created with can play a major role in how you go about lettering your comics.
If you’re a comic letterer, feel free to leave a comment below describing your approach to lettering. I would love to read your thoughts on the topic.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.