Learning to Letter
Learning to Letter in 3 Easy Months
by A. Nixon
When I tell people that I’m learning to letter comic books, they look at me with complete incomprehension until I tell them, "I put in the speech bubbles." So then we’re at least thinking of the same thing, even if they still don't understand how it all works.
It's a very fun and interesting task, for anyone who enjoys either comics or letters. We’ve come a long way from the days when comics were lettered by hand and, as a result, it requires a much different skill set. It can be a faster process, but last-minute changes from artists and creators are much more likely, and some letterers (my boss included) can make tiny changes for hours that no one but a fellow letterer will even notice. I’ve learned to subscribe to more of a "Does it look good? Then it's finished" type of style. Although I can still find changes I'd like to make even after a project has gone to print!
When I first started, I was set to the task of cleaning art pages. This is done after the pages are inked and before the lettering commences. It's a thankless portion of comic book creation but very important to getting your pages looking their best.
Cleaning is what it sounds like, when rogue pencil lines are erased, whites are whitened and pages are cropped to fit into whatever template they'll be printed from.
From here, the pretty panels are put into Adobe Illustrator so that the lettering can begin. You're excited, I can tell!
The most important thing that I've learned is that you write down any choices that you make regarding typefaces, font sizes, and display fonts. This helps keep the comic consistent between pages and between issues. The worst thing you can do is give a character a stylized font (I'll give you Dream from Gaiman's Sandman series as an example of a particular voice) and then forget and use a different one in the next issue!
Choosing the fonts is one part that I find the most fun, but it can also be the most subjective. It's a matter of personal choice and readability. Do you have a harsh character who doesn't talk much? You could probably get away with a slightly less readable but "rougher" font than you could for the main dialogue. But for your main dialogue font, I’ve learned that it’s really important that it be readable. Nobody wants to struggle through something they should be enjoying.
Once you've chosen your fonts, it's time to letter! Dialogue is in round bubbles and captions are in square boxes with no tails. I knew that before I started this journey, but now I can letter a page without thinking, because I know most of the rules that a letterer should know.
As Andrew has said multiple times, lettering is the one job where if you’re doing it right, no one will notice. The words of the comic book tend to be fairly secondary to the experience of the art and the story itself. The words should lead the reader around the page and tell the story, but it's only in the event of glaring problems that most people will notice the lettering at all. Unless the person reading it is a letterer too, of course.
Before I started at UysFaber, I had read a few comics and graphic novels, like the Sandman series and The Watchmen, but not nearly enough to prepare me for this experience. Since then I’ve read countless issues and volumes and I always find myself looking at the lettering first. It's crept up on me, but now I think I can safely say that I am a letterer.