Most people with an interest in Chinese brush painting realize that the calligraphy frequently found at the edge of such pieces form as much a part of the art as the image itself. Chinese calligraphy is of course a major art form in the Chinese cultural sphere.
The place of the letterer in the overall aesthetic of comics is less certain. Are letterers merely craftsmen, or are they artists in their own right? And if they are artists, what constitutes their contribution to the art of comics?
There are a number of articles on comics lettering available online. Most of these focus on the practical aspects of the craft, such as the placement of word balloons, the use of various lettering styles, word arrangements within balloons, the application of computer lettering and the creation of fonts. There are a few writers, however, who have undertaken a survey of the field from a more subjective and aesthetically concerned point of view. This is what I plan to focus on in this article.
Augie De Blieck Jr.âs article on lettering (written in 1999) is firmly focused on mainstream âhand-letterersâ of the era. Even so, the article is still pretty representative of the demands placed on letterers working in our present age by their clients and reading audience. Blieck writes:
âThe right lettering will allow you to feel comfortable in your reading. The best lettering blends in naturally with the art around it. The best lettering, from a purely technical standpoint, is spelled correctly, laid out properly, and flows smoothly.â
Blieckâs vision of comics lettering turns on an ag- old aesthetic based on functionality, legibility and consistency. The article also takes on the encroaching presence of computer lettering â something which no longer seems to rankle people as much, if only because its primacy in the field as it stands today. The prime mover in this trend was, of course, Richard Starkings, who was interviewed at Sequential Tart at around the same time Blieckâs article was written. Blieckâs complaint is that âcomputer lettering distracts too much. It’s inorganic, too perfect, and often overusedâ â feelings which I can sympathize with, but which also seem the natural consequence of an industry which demands speed and âperfectionâ at the cost of artistic considerations. In other words, an industry which views the letterer solely as a craftsman and technician. It is ironic then that Blieck compares his epitome of the great letterer, Tom Orzechowski, to a âmachineâ because âhis stuff is just that well regimentedâ.
Another survey of famous letterers can be found at Fans!. It is obvious that the writerâs governing aesthetic here is a little different from Blieckâs, particularly in his choice of Dave Sim and Will Eisner for his top two letterers. Weâve clearly moved from mere technical questions to an area where lettering has become an integral part of the whole, particularly in the upper echelons of the field.
The pervasive influence of Eisner on modern-day lettering can be put down to his consistently effective use of lettering as part of his art. He may not have been the first to use many of the techniques on display in The Spirit but he was, perhaps, their most compelling practitioner. His achievements are so well known that I wonât spend much time elaborating on them. Here are but two examples of his abilities which Iâve selected at random:
Eisner dispensed his lettering ideas with the effortlessness of a master. Â There were remarkable examples of sound effects as art:
â¦as well as periodic displays of his acute understanding of the evocative qualities of various fonts:
Here a gun shot heard âoffâ panel interrupts a train of thoughtâ¦
â¦and in another instance, words are used to emphasize the questions and doubts wracking Commissioner Dolan:
As for Sim, his knowledge of his predecessors cannot be doubted. In Church &State, he uses floating captions to suggest Hal Fosterâs Prince Valiant:
And here we have him expanding on a time-honored device used by Eisner himself above, only on this occasion making the overlapping words even more inextricably linked to his characters, who visibly resonate with the letters themselves:
Thereâs never any doubt how loudly, quietly, stuffily or quickly someone is speaking, especially in late-period Cerebus.
In the case of both The Spirit and Cerebus, writing and lettering become inseparable. It is the writer âinâ the cartoonist who is responsible for making decisions on when and in what manner words are incorporated into his story. Even when Eisner began to leave most of the chores of The Spirit to his assistants in 1951 (as shown in some of the panels above, I wonât say which ones), his approach to lettering remained intact.