Tuesday, 18 December 2018


Front page of hand-lettered promotional leaflet, sans address &
'phone number

As regular readers of this humble blog should know by now (all four of them), your fearless host has never been one to avoid subjects of a controversial nature.  So, let's once more leap into the fray and tackle the topic of the role of computers in comics, and whether or not they've taken some of the 'art' out of the process of producing them.  With that subject in mind, I once enquired of a computer-colourist if he'd be able to colour a comic the traditional way, by hand.  "No!", was his short and honest answer.  Apparently, he didn't think he had sufficient ability and was therefore dependent on technology to enable him to make his comic contributions.

Technology has taken over in other areas too.  Lettering, for example.  Most comics nowadays are lettered by computer fonts, enabling practically anyone who can type (which is just about everyone) to overlay speech-balloons, text panels, sound effects and logos onto a comics page.  All of which most of them would be unable to create by their own hand to a satisfactory professional level.

From the reader's point of view I don't suppose it matters so long as it's done well, although I find all those perfectly elliptical balloon shapes quite tedious.  I prefer the spontaneity of hand-lettering (again, when it's done well), because it permits the letterer to accommodate the artist's layout in a far more personal and sympathetic manner than computer fonts can allow for.

When I used to earn a full-time living from lettering many years ago now, I took great delight in making speech-balloons fit in spaces that one would think had no room for them, and to do it in such a way that didn't seem forced and awkward-looking.  For the most part I succeeded, and derived immense satisfaction from making a page look as if art and lettering were an 'organic' whole.  I find that a lot of computer-lettering looks as if it isn't part of the artwork, but rather some 'disembodied' shape that floats over the surface of each panel.

Promotional leaflet's centre-page spread of hand-lettered logos

A few years back, I briefly considered returning to comics work and had a go at computer-lettering with some fonts someone lent me, just to see what the process was like.  How mind-numbingly tedious compared to the joy of handling an actual page of art and affixing the lettering directly onto the page or acetate overlay (for colour work) in such a way as to make it a 'finished' piece.  I soon abandoned the exercise as it afforded me not even an iota of creative satisfaction.  I felt like a secretary.  (Which is fine if that's what you want to be.)

I should make it absolutely clear that I have no problem with genuine hand-letterers putting their fonts onto a computer programme and going down that route.  After all, these guys have been in the trenches for years and earned their stripes, so anything that makes their job a little quicker or easier is not something I'm going to grudge them.  Legendary 2000 A.D. calligrapher TOM FRAME eventually resorted to computer-lettering (I believe his deteriorating eyesight made it increasingly difficult for him to continue in the 'old-fashioned' way), but he'd earned the right to do so, and it was his own lettering style he utilised.

It niggles me though, when I see some of the newer people called letterers when they should more properly be credited as typographers - or in some cases, just plain typists.  After all, they couldn't letter by hand if their lives depended on it.

If you can't play the game, then don't wear the name.


(Agree or disagree?  Feel free to let me know, but try and do it without cussing.  You know how sensitive I can be.)
Back page of hand-lettered promotional leaflet


Terranova47 said...

In a similar vein, I trained as a Graphic Designer back in the mid 60's. While we were taught typography, including setting metal type on a stick, (never did master tying it with string to transfer to the press) we created layouts of ads etc with pencil and ink. Do they still make Rapidograph Pens?

For many years I made my living using advanced Kindergarten skills of colouring, cutting and pasting to creating Comprehensive Sketches, that is a dummy copy of the future printed piece.

Headlines were inked in by hand or Letraset rub down letters and text was dummied in.

In the late 80's early 90's this changed to having to learn computer software to replicate the old hand/eye skills. It was certainly nice to spend less time setting and manipulating the actual type and it was far less effort than 'specing' typed copy for the typesetter. It gave increasing creative control to the hands on designer and saved time.

Has it over time improved design? No is the answer. Instead of a trained creative person designing a printed item it is frequently assembled by a 'Graphics Technician' using a pre-designed layout and dropping in the elements. The typist that once provided the sheets of original text can now put that text straight into a layout. Like a computer lettered comic page it looks neat but does not reflect any individuality or creative input. I am truley amazed now at the number of printed items I find using typefaces that are quite unsuitable for the application yet to the untrained eye they are acceptable.

The whole joy of comics whether the action kind or the funnies was finding styles of illustration, Jack Kirby for example, with hand lettering that complimented the style. If you replace the hand lettered text with machine generated type it changes the feel of the art.

If modern comics are to be drawn with computer software then use computers for the text.

If you want to enjoy the tactile experience of a printed comic that was hand drawn then so should be the lettering that's part of the whole experience.

Kid said...

Nowadays of course, T47, even comics letterers who use computers can utilise their own style of lettering fonts, but that only applies to those who CAN letter by hand in the first place. Those that can't have to use someone else's fonts and though the ordinary reader probably doesn't notice the difference, the finished page has less of an individual and spontaneous feel to it. The one advantage to computer lettering is that it allows publishers to produce foreign editions easier, without having to squeeze another language into pre-existing balloon and caption shapes - each page can be lettered from scratch in whatever language is required. However, give me a page of Sam Rosen hand-lettering over even the best examples of computer lettering any day. When a page is lettered by someone using a computer who couldn't do it by hand, there's less 'art' involved in the finished product - technology has taken over. (And yes, as far as I know, they still make rapidograph pens to this day.)

Great comment.

Paul Mcscotty said...

I am always in awe of people who have a talent for lettering, I can draw to a pretty decent standard (no pro level but I'm ok at that) but lettering is so difficult to me and an art form in itself- these are brilliant pieces of art Kid - As to hand lettering over machine lettering, I'm not 100% where it all merges (if at all) but new comic lettering looks too universal to me it is good but it looks like its from a machine (not that keen on computer art either) give me hand lettering every time it just looks better to me.

Kid said...

And my completely impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced assessment of your comment is that you're 100% correct, PM. (I do so like to be fair.)

Dave S said...

I very rarely read any modern comics, but a few years ago I decide to buy 4 or 5 new comics and see how I enjoyed them.

I found the stories to be glacially slow compared to the comics I grew up with and still love, but the lettering was one of the things that stood out for me - they all looked very similar and lacked oomph.

Letterers like John Workman, Jim Novak or Tom Orzechowski each had a recognisable style that helped bring the pages to life. I don't see that in comics where the lettering has been done on a computer. I much prefer the work of the gentlemen I mentioned above, others that I always liked too are the late Bill Oakley, Janice Chiang, Annie Halfacree and John Costanza.

Incidentally, Kid, I was re-reading some old Crisis issues a few months back and flicked to the front of the mag to find out who had lettered a certain strip (as I found it very pleasing to the eye), and found it was your good self! (I think it was New Statesmen, if I remember rightly).

Kid said...

There's a couple of letterers in your list whose work I'm not wild about (too stylised), DS, but my own favourites include Sam Rosen, Art Simek, Martin Epp and myself. (Well, why be modest?) There are others, but their names escape me for the moment. It's possible that I lettered an episode of New Statesmen (can't remember), but my regular gig on Crisis was Third World War. It wasn't my best lettering as I was still searching for a style I was happy with, but at least it was functional. Sometimes I cringe when I see my early lettering, sometimes I think I did a great job on my later stuff. When I was good, I was very good, but when I was bad, I was just okay. Must confess, I'm still big-headed enough to get a bit of a thrill when I see my name in an old comic.

Dave S said...

To be honest, I think it was Third World War - that and New Statesmen were the two stories that were in the early issues of Crisis which is probably why I got mixed up. Oops!

Kid said...

Yeah, I think Annie Parkhouse (Halfacree) was the regular letterer on New Statesman. I seem to remember doing another strip in the comic, but don't have a clue what it might've been. I remember being in the Oxfam shop in Byers Road a few years ago and they had a stack of old issues of Crisis. I was quite proud to be able to show the person with me my name in the comic. Fame. Never much liked Third World War to be honest - too preachy.

Dave S said...

Third World War didn't grab me either, it was very sincere and well-meaning, but had too much social conscience and not enough story for me.

Crisis did later reprint the New Adventures of Hitler, which I think you worked on too. I bought those issues from the shop I done my paper-round for, and the man who owned the shop was intrigued and puzzled that a comic would have Hitler riding a bike on the cover- from then he on always referred to comics to me as 'your Hitler magazines'. I got some odd looks from customers sometimes when I'd be in the shop and he'd tell me he had 'some new Hitler magazines' in stock!

Kid said...

Yeah, it caused a bit of a controversy at the time, with Pat Kane disassociating himself from the mag ('Cut' I think) that first published NAOH. Again, it was a strip that failed to grab me, but I never found it objectionable in the way that some people did. Just boring.

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