Friday, April 07, 2006

Comics Lettering

"I just wanted to ask, when making originals for your comics, do you prefer to include the dialogue balloons in the panels using Photoshop(or is it Illustrator?" -RE

I replied by email, but I thought it would make a nice springboard for something I could write here.

Honestly, I prefer to hand letter my own comics right on the originals. I've done so for many of my past works, specially Wasted, Johnny Balbona, my Graphic Classics adaptations, Dead Heart, Terror, and now for ELMER. I started out hand lettering Humanis Rex, but I've since lettered it via computer to make the work go faster. That said, I find I really like the look of my hand lettered Humanis Rex pages better.

There are definite and clear advantages to using computer lettering over hand lettering. If you know what you're doing, it can really make the work go faster. You have much more freedom to change fonts and arrange the balloons and words on the page. Substandard illustration can be superficially uplifted by gorgeous computer lettering.

The advantages however, are far outweighed by the satisfaction I personally feel upon completing a finished hand lettered comics page. There is something about a completely lettered original comic art that I find very appealing. My lettering may not be as precise or even as good as computer lettering, but I nevertheless feel greater satisfaction, and a far deeper sense of accomplishment.

There are certain nuances in hand lettering, certain differences in how letters are written, certain quirks and accidents that make it more consistent with a hand illustrated page. Computer lettering, even though it is often based nowadays on real handwriting, is done with so much precision, clarity and sharpness, with hardly any room for nuance or error, that it always seems to stand out and often seem out of synch.

Now if don't have a choice, like how it sometimes happens with Humanis Rex, I'd much rather use Photoshop than Illustrator to letter the pages. Since Photoshop is a pixel based program, I feel that it can produce lettering that would mesh much better with my pixel based scanned illustrations. To use Illustrator that produces razor sharp vector based letters and balloons would once again make the lettering stand out a little too much from the art.

Many artists feel that they can't hand letter their own art because their handwriting sucks. I try not to think of comic book lettering as handwriting. Instead, I think of it as "drawing" the letters. Any artist can letter well. They just have to treat the letters as just another part of the art (which it is), that they need to "illustrate". If an artist can draw horizontal lines, vertical lines, circles and diagonals well, then he can letter well. There's no question about it.

Lettering *IS* part of comics art. The form in which the readers see this art is through the published comic book, where each page tells the story through words and pictures. So the combination of both art and words need to be arranged in such a way that the page not only looks aesthetically pleasing, but also tells the story well.

Unless the story is meant to be wordless, as in some of Moebius' work, then lettering really should be part of the art, as important a part in a page as the background, the foreground, figures, etc.

With easy access to computers, a lot of young artists today automatically think of doing the lettering and the art separately by default. And I think that may put them somewhat at a disadvantage. If I were teaching all of this in a class, I would advice them to start their experience in comics by hand lettering their own art first. This forces them to really consider the lettering in laying out the page, forcing them to consider the lettering as a significant and essential element of comics art. If any young artist do not go through this process, I believe it could impair the development of his composition and storytelling skills.

Doing comics art without lettering forces the young artist to make the page look good without the letters. The pages may indeed look good, but once you squeeze in the letters, they will look exactly that: squeezed in.

This is why, and I can see this is in many current local comics, a lot of the pages seem cramped and confusing to follow. The balloons and words, because insufficient thought went into their inclusion, are often pushed out of the panels in inappropriate places, seriously damaging the logical flow of the storytelling, and/or covering up really cool parts of the art.

After the artist learns how to do it by hand, and now wishes to do further lettering using the computer either by necessity or by choice, then that he can at least know that he has sufficiently trained himself in treating the lettering with a lot more consideration and thought, and will make better comics art because of it.