Ng Suat Tong On Lettering – Old and New

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

Howard Chaykin’s Time2: The Epiphany is another take on the same equation and is an ode to the spirit of collaboration. Anyone who has seen the original art for Time2 will testify to how naked the inked art feels without Steve Oliff’s colors and Ken Bruzenak’s lettering. Bruzenak’s sound effects are obtrusive, essential and yet almost never part of the line-art; filling up empty panel spaces and covering up figures with abandon. His art provides that spark of visual communication in Chaykin’s spartan narrative signaling commentary, ambient sound, overlapping voices and sudden action.

The form and convulsions of his letters scream jazz as much as the art itself …

…and they form an indispensable part of the cityscape.

The simple act of changing lettering styles can have a profound effect on clarity and atmosphere of a page. For instance, in Neil Gaiman and Todd Klein’s Sandman #15, a varied use of lettering is used to symbolize the states of mind and voices of the various dreamers as well as the different realities they inhabit.

There is a more quiet and poetic aspect to the art of lettering as well.

In Shaun Tan’s story “Distant Rain” in Tales from Outer Suburbia, the letters and words are the story. Tan’s story begins with the question, “Have you ever wondered what happens to all the poems people write?” In Tan’s imagination, these poems are neglected pieces of paper, disposed of in various ways, but occasionally growing into tight balls of verse which somehow survive, hiding from humans and animals alike before rising steadily into the sky. When set upon by the elements, they rain down upon an unsuspecting populace:

Each shred is a fragment of longer verse or simply a word – isolated yet distinct and personal in its calligraphy – each style reinforcing the nature of the words they form. Some are printed tersely while others are drawn playfully in crayons. As Tan’s whimsical tale draws to a close, the emotional collage of words and materials forge the very feelings they illustrate.

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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: