A Brief Appreciation of Comics Lettering

If comics are “Just words and pictures,” then lettering is what allows those two elements to blend into a cohesive whole. Lettering can be artful, it can serve story purpose, it can be decorative, it can be abstract and it can play a big role in the “performance” of any given character. The writer may write the dialogue, but the letterer, along with the illustrator, has to bring that dialogue to life, not unlike an actor. The illustrator can skilfully perform “face acting”, and the best sorts of comics artists are superb at this, but the letterer is the “voice” of a character, and it’s always the combination of the two that creates performance.

Letterers are sort of the “bass players” of the comics world. Rarely flashy, and sometimes completely anonymous, they are nevertheless an essential part of the artistry and storytelling power of the comics medium. In this inadequate and brief appreciation of the work of comics letterers, we’ll highlight some examples that demonstrate its power, but bear in mind that this is a big topic, the subject of several books, and has very deep cultural roots.

Lettering, of course, comes to us from the world of calligraphy and typesetting: not exactly new arts, even in Western culture. Letterers’ artistic ancestors include monks labouring through the Dark Ages to copy manuscripts, and add adornment to them and commentary in the margins (a form of comics storytelling, by the way). They also include Mandarin scholars and their elaborate alphabets that were literally pictographic symbols as well as “letters”, a highly refined system of written communication, all created with ink and pen and brush. In Western culture, as time went on and especially with the invention of block and movable type, words and pictures were gradually separated from each other, with words being given the higher social status, a status they sadly retain today, hindering the full cultural embrace of comics. Because comics, and allied art forms such as posters, were the one place that words and pictures remained linked, and where artistic lettering continued to evolve.

As comics, or at least the modern iteration of the medium, evolved through the 20th century, one of the earliest innovations was the “thought balloon”. Here’s a political cartoon from the early 19th century, showing the typically busy thought balloons and images, no doubt making some shatteringly astute political point, which is pretty much lost on a modern person.

The lettering here is in fairly typical handwriting for the time, but with proper spelling (that was a rarity in the era, where literate people were encouraged to make up their own spellings). But there’s artistry here, even if it’s only in retrospect. The lettering style evokes the era.

Now consider this splash page from the latest issue of Manifest Destiny, with lettering by Pat Brosseau.

He deliberately emulates the style of early 19th-century script, which even without the images conjures a whole other world. Set against the increasingly grotesque and fantasy-influenced action of the comic, this lettering style in the journals of Lewis, Clark and others (this page is actually from the journal of another expedition) grounds the book in some historical reality while simultaneously giving plot information.

Sometimes lettering can illustrate something historically interesting about the comic itself. Classics Illustrated, for example, adopted an almost type-style lettering in absolutely straight lines, often contrasting with the art and events being presented.

But it’s part and parcel with the actual imperatives of the comic, coming as it did from a deeply conservative era in American politics, and these books were considered “Serious” literature, meant to educate children in that extremely upright and proper way. Cartoony lettering simply wouldn’t do – this was Serious History. Seen now, the lettering here just reflects uptight, repressed, artistically restricted creators.

In “comix”, for all their visual freedom, lettering was also rather plain and conventional, quite possibly to help the reader through the often dense psychedelic imagery. But advanced storytellers like Harvey Pekar could employ artistic lettering when appropriate, such as this moment in Our Cancer Year, illustrated by Frank Stack.

An obsessive compulsive personality (as well as a deeply anxious one), Pekar hearing the word “cancer” is repeated here, haunting him in every way as he comes to grips with the new reality of his life. The word “cancer” itself is such a potent word in our culture. It’s one of the words you never want to hear coming out of the mouth of your doctor. In illustrating the power of the word, Pekar blends words and pictures here like the master he was.

Another important element of lettering is the “acting” component, particularly in comics that are adaptations of other media, such as film. This panel from the 1980 Marvel adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, for example (lettered by Rick Veitch) uses the common tool of bolding certain words in an attempt to re-create or at least add inflection to the character performance.

It’s all the more vital that this be done in an adaptation of a previously-existing aural medium such as film, where the reader will hear the inflections of the actors while reading. The equally valid opposing view would be that this addition of emphasis “locks” the character performance into one pattern, not allowing subsequent readers, who perhaps haven’t seen the original material, to imagine their own performance. But either way, the letterer is the one who creates a character’s voice.

And then there’s comics like DR and Quinch, from Alan Moore and Alan Davis in the mid-80s 2000AD days, which combine all of the afore-mentioned tools as well as that wonderfully distinct comics version of onomatopoeia, used in almost every contemporary superhero book.

Here, we have characters singing, chanting, receiving orders, performing inflected dialogue and there’s even conventional voice-over narration in the boxes.

This small glimpse into the power and the world of comics lettering should leave a lasting enough impression, but the important take-home message is that the lettering is just as important an aspect of our favourite medium than anything else. It’s easy to flip by (and sometimes just flat out unmemorable) but vital to the success of comics as a storytelling medium.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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