Ng Suat Tong On Lettering – Old and New

Posted by on December 15th, 2009 at 10:15 AM

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.’s article on lettering (written in 1999) is firmly focused on mainstream “hand-letterers” 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:

“The 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.”

Blieck’s 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 – 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 Blieck’s article was written. Blieck’s complaint is that “computer lettering distracts too much. It’s inorganic, too perfect, and often overused” – feelings which I can sympathize with, but which also seem the natural consequence of an industry which demands speed and “perfection” 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 “machine” because “his stuff is just that well regimented”.

Another survey of famous letterers can be found at Fans!. It is obvious that the writer’s governing aesthetic here is a little different from Blieck’s, particularly in his choice of Dave Sim and Will Eisner for his top two letterers. We’ve 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 won’t spend much time elaborating on them. Here are but two examples of his abilities which I’ve selected at random:

Eisner dispensed his lettering ideas with the effortlessness of a master.  There were remarkable examples of sound effects as art:

…as well as periodic displays of his acute understanding of the evocative qualities of various fonts:

Here a gun shot heard “off” panel interrupts a train of thought…

…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 Foster’s 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:

There’s 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 “in” 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 won’t say which ones), his approach to lettering remained intact.

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8 Responses to “Ng Suat Tong On Lettering – Old and New”

  1. Just wanted to point out that the lettering in those “Spirit” pages was done by Abe Kanegson.

  2. Ng Suat Tong says:

    Thanks for pointing this out, Rodrigo.

  3. Dries says:

    Hey Suat, interesting!
    I would like to add two other innovative letterers:
    Brecht Evens: here a page from “The wrong place”
    and Dominique Goblet who handlettered the dutch translation of her “Faire semblant c’est mentir”. She considers the typography of her works as an integral part of her work.

  4. Ng Suat Tong says:

    Hi Dries, thanks for the comments and the link. I will have check those books out.

  5. Michael Grabowski says:

    There could probably be a whole McCloudian textbook written on Lettering Comics and how that literal reading affects our experience of the comic. Maybe McCloud himself addressed it somewhat in his first book, but it’s been a long time since I read it.
    It seems to me that lettering is significant to the experience in that it has much to do with the pacing of the reading. If the length of time the reader’s eyes take in a particular panel approximates the duration of the scene in “real time”, then the letterer has some control over the storytelling aspect. In the more traditional comic book examples you show (Eisner/Kanegson, Sim, Chaykin/Bruzenak) the lettering certainly does just that. Certainly bad lettering interferes with the comics reading experience by interrupting that story-telling process. How much more enjoyable would the EC horror & SF comics be to read if the type-burdened captions and dialog were hand-lettered? It wouldn’t help the prose any, but it might be less distracting at least. (Kurtzman’s EC comics, I think, are good examples of lettering done in a way that improves the experience.)
    In a not-comics sense, comics-type lettering as art or “art” was clearly meaningful to Lichtenstein, and in a different way was as important to the 1960s Batman TV show.
    Clowes’ cover to the 2nd Brunetti anthology is a good joke on how we perceive word balloons themselves as props in a comics image, how we manage not to see them as occupying physical space. Eddie Campbell wrote an artists’ perspective on lettering and word balloons a few years ago on his blog that are well worth considering, too.

  6. Michael Grabowski says:

    An example of really poor lettering that I never see discussed is Winsor McCay’s, particularly in Little Nemo! Awkward line breaks, often with words hyphenated, and balloons that barely contain the words (with letters on the right often slanting up the side in order to fit). It’s as if he consistently underestimated how much space his words would occupy. For all his other strengths, it’s as if he never could figure out how to deal with word balloons properly, and the sub-panel captions form a visual static noise that makes it difficult to enjoy the strip. There’s no attempt at symmetry or justification in the word balloons either. Maresca’s giant size editions rescue the strip a bit from this problem for me in that I’ve found most other reprintings frustrating if not unreadable because of the lettering problems. This is surprising, and to me, egregious since McCay’s (regularly changing) logo lettering is gorgeous, and there’s much to admire in his letter and number designs when used in the images themselves, among his other great artistic gifts on display.

  7. Ng Suat Tong says:

    I did a quick flip through Understanding Comics and there’s not that much on lettering in it. I think pg 134-135 are the main pages on it but, as I said, I only did a flip through the book. And you’re right about how the quality of the lettering can interfere with the entire reading experience and how it can alter the pacing from panel to panel, almost like a stuttering soundtrack. The Clowes cover you mention is definitely worth checking out but I don’t remember and cant’ find that Campbell article any more.

    I wonder if the word balloon thing with McCay was intentional in part and not simply due to a lack of skill. It does give the strip a kind of spontaneity which can be useful in a whimsical strip like Little Nemo (or even Rarebit Fiend). Then again, it’s possible that I’ve gotten so used to this aspect of McCay’s art that I’ve started making excuses for it.

  8. Michael Grabowski says:

    Yeah, it’s hard to imagine McCay lacking skill, so I hope there is a better reason for it. My problem with it may have as much to do with my having been weaned on 70s & 80s superheroes & co. where the lettering was perfectly functional albeit largely hack work. Homework assignment for comics critic scholars: explain McCay’s seemingly inelegant lettering style in Little Nemo in light of the rest of his talent on display!

    Eddie Campbell’s blog posts turn out to be mostly about speech balloons and not lettering itself but you can find them here: