Thursday, 2 January 2014

THE FORGOTTEN ART OF COMICBOOK LETTERING...



Imagine, if you will, that a new computer programme is made available, enabling anyone to replicate the style of any cartoonist or comic strip artist of the past or present (or even a new style), and which offers poses and character types which can be used to produce pages of sequential art in either the humour or adventure strip medium.  (And, for all I know, perhaps it already exists.)

Anybody who has ever dreamt of producing their own comic strips would suddenly be able to do so, with the result that writers would no longer be dependent on artists as they'd be capable of completing the entire strip from start to finish all by themselves.  Of course, it wouldn't happen overnight, but, eventually, many traditional-type cartoonists and artists (which is not to imply that the two titles are mutually exclusive) would inevitably find demand for their services diminishing to the point of redundancy.

People who could 'draw a bit', but were never quite good enough for professional publication ('though it never seemed to hinder some people on The DANDY) would be enabled, by computer technology, to elevate their work to the required standard and offer it at reduced rates to publishers desperate to save a bob or two in a world of spiralling costs and diminishing circulation.

Actual artists might be able to discern the derivative and less than spontaneous nature of strips produced in such a fashion, but the majority of readers wouldn't (or, indeed, even care about it if they could), so the fact that many a comics contributor could potentially find themselves being robbed of their livelihood would hardly be of any concern to the consumer.

That's progress - or so it's said.

Sadly, that's exactly what happened to another art form in the world of comicbooks some years back - the art of lettering.  And don't be fooled - it is (or can be) an art in itself, despite it being looked upon by many as a lesser skill in the pecking order of prerequisite powers in the production of published comic periodicals.  Nowadays, anyone with access to computer font programmes can letter comic strip pages, which, to the untrained eye, look just as good as good as those lettered by the likes of ARTIE SIMEK, SAM ROSEN, IRA SCHNAPP, or anyone else you care to mention.

One thing, though, that many practitioners of modern-day lettering have been unable to master is the placement of speech balloons and captions in a way that complements the art and aids in the reading of the page in a pleasing and 'natural' manner.  I've lost count of the times I've picked up a comic with computer-font lettering and been appalled by the way in which the art has been obscured by the clumsy positioning of text and sound effects.

As I've said elsewhere, I don't have a problem with 'actual' hand-letterers putting their own styles onto computer programmes for their own use if it makes things easier for them.  After all, they've earned their stripes and are still utilizing the same artistic sensibilities as previously.  However, now that practically anyone with a computer who can afford to purchase the necessary programmes can set themselves up as a 'letterer', the 'art' has been taken out of the process and it has been diminished in some way.

No doubt there'll be a few cartoonists and artists who think I'm overstating the case and that my antipathy towards computer calligraphy is down to 'sour grapes' on my part.  Although, should the same thing ever happen to them, you'd soon hear them whistling a very different tune.

Any thoughts on the matter?

15 comments:

DeadSpiderEye said...

You can do that sort of thing now really. The thing is the markets in Asia and Europe, where comics are enjoying healthier circulation figures are creator driven, so in that context it depends how those creators want to produce their comics. Here the comic and periodical scene is pretty depressed, In fact fiction periodicals are practically extinct beyond those dire literary journals like Granta. The only periodical I've examined recently that features fictional content is The People Friend and guess what? it now features computer generated art, in the form photoshoped images adjusted to look a bit like those wishy washy water colour illustrations.

Kid said...

Wow! Who'd ever have thought that The People's Friend would be so cutting-edge?

cerebus660 said...

I definitely miss the personal touch of hand-written lettering in comics. Guys like Sam Rosen were indeed artists in their own right.
On a similar subject, I've looked at a couple of those hardback DC / Marvel Chronicles or whatever they're called in bookshops recently, and was dismayed to see that, when vintage artwork is reprinted, they've replaced the original lettering with characterless typeset lettering. It may seem a petty gripe but it's put me off buying the books, even at discount prices :-(

Kid said...

I'd noticed that myself, Cerebus, which is why I haven't bought any, although someone gave me a Marvel one as a present.

When Dark Horse were reprinting the Marvel Conan series a few years back, I noticed that some stories were relettered by computer fonts (Mainly in Volume 5, which I returned for a refund). Thing is, I could probably have lived with it if they hadn't made so many spelling mistakes in the process. I'm assuming the only reason some strips were relettered was because the original lettering was 'muddy' in the proofs they had access to, but they made things even worse by trying to 'fix' things.

Gey Blabby said...

Those reprinted Conan stories were horrible in every way. Their alterations were just so heavy-handed.

Ah, well, another part of my youth gone. What a shame to hear that The People's Friend no longer features painted covers by 'J. Campbell Kerr'. It was my granny's favourite mag when I was a wee boy, and although the covers were excessively twee, she and I both looked forward to it to see which village or town would be featured on it that week.

Kid said...

I have to be honest and say that I didn't mind the recolouring, GB, but the fact that they omitted the intro box at the top of some of the splash pages really ticked me off. That, and the fact that they didn't reprint the covers (not in the softcover editions anyway).

Paul McScotty -Muir said...

I'm not a fan at all of the computer lettering (Comicraft etc) and you can spot these books a mile off - don't get me wrong its all very nicely done but just too homogenised for a medium that thrived (used to?) on originality - another nail in comic book coffin IMHO - I loved the letterers you mentioned (especially Sam Rosen) but also artists like Dave Sim, Walt Simonson, Moebius , Bode etc who all had unique lettering styles that were part of the comic art itself - a sadly missed craft indeed. Wow I can't believe there is now computer generated art ! I wonder how artists like John Byrne will feel about that if it takes off (after all he "borrowed" a lot of letterer art and computerised them for his use in the 90s without their permission )! McS

Kid said...

I had noticed that Byrne was using computer lettering on his mags back in the '90s, McScotty, but I seem to recall him claiming he had used fonts he had created himself. Can you give me some background to this 'scandal'?

Got to be honest - hated Moebius's lettering on the Silver Surfer tale, Parable. Absolutely dire.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Yeah Kid, I hear they've given Morag the tea lady the boot and installed a coffee machine up there too. I won't miss her, took a peek in her urn once, it was like peering into an abyss, I'm sure I saw something alive swimming under the muddy surface of her tea too.

I think I have to echo the sentiments, expressed here about the innovation of typographic lettering. Although I wasn't hugely enamoured of large quantity of the old hand lettering, It's not that it wasn't skilful, just a bit too constrained for my taste, with most of the flair and creativity being reserved for the larger inserts. One of the problems with typographic lettering is that the standards applied are those easily accomplished with standard digital font metrics and the standard character set, it leads to weird spacing that is particularly noticeable when you try to emulate hand lettering. That's probably solvable with decent software but the fonts available, that I've seen, only have a standard character set.

Kid said...

Ah, I assume you're talking about Blue Peter, THB?

As for the weird spacing, I don't think Comicraft ever suffered from that, but Byrne's fonts (whoever they belonged to) did - as well as DCT's lettering on The Broons and Oor Wullie strips for a good while (although I think they've solved it now).

My main beef is the perfectly elliptical balloon shapes and, often, the positioning. Also, it's demoted something from what was often an art (depending on who was doing it) to a mere technological task.

Paul McScotty -Muir said...

I read in a fanzine at the time (and think I also saw it on line somewhere) that Mr Byrne did indeed make his own fonts but that he also took some of them from existing letterers/artists (including most notably Dave Gibbons) without their permission. He still uses a computer font based on letterers but now with their permission (think he uses a lot of the work of Jack Morelli ( with his permission.) Saying all that he's still a great artist. McS

Kid said...

Ah, right - I missed that story at the time. Thanks for that, McScotty. Yeah, great artist, not so great a letterer - take a look at FF #273.

Marionette said...

Typeset fonts in place of hand lettering are hardly new. Looking at Tammy (IPC) and Spellbound (DC Thomson) from the mid-70s I find that both employ ghastly emotionless typeset lettering, and the balloons are the finest example you could find of thoughtless placement and ugly design.

The modern computer lettering is actually a large step up from this kind of rubbish.

Kid said...

Indeed, Marionette, but there's a difference between typeset and computer fonts - and although the latter is far better than the former, it's still not as good as hand-lettering done by experts. Typeset lettering never tried to masquerade as art, whereas computer fonts do. (And fail in a lot of instances.)

Kid said...

Oops! Meant DSE, not THB in one of my above responses.

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