Ng Suat Tong On Lettering – Old and New

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

Warren Craghead’s How to be Everywhere contains drawings and comics made to the urgings of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry. He writes in his introduction to the book:

“I wanted to make things that didn’t merely illustrate the poetry, but worked with the words to make something new.” That newness, that surprise, combined with a rich affection for the world, is at the core of Apollinaire’s project…”

In Craghead’s drawing which begins with the words “Let us rejoice”…

[Let us rejoice not because we are so tall many mistake our eyes for constellations nor because rooted in poetry we have the power of words forming and deforming the universe.]

…words flow across the face, body and clothes of a man. The man’s left eye appears to be missing, replaced by the letter “e” – a letter which we see floating in white space, marking the extent of the drawing page like a constellation, the tailing words crumpling in sympathetic deformation with the poetry.

In his adaptation of Apollinaire’s passage from “Echelon”, we see pictures supplementing the words, making sense and elaborating on them. Are these images the “red poppies” which Apollinaire mentions earlier in his poem? The words read either from left to right or more distinctly and elaborately through the fragmented, diagrammatic connections which reveal a half-whispered landscape.

[“They have hung death

At the edge of the woods

They have hung death

And her beautiful gilded breasts

Glint in turn

Oh rose forever alive

Oh France

Perfume the hopes of a breathless army”]

Another tortured wasteland is revealed later in Craghead’s book, one with words like leaves on branches or so much broken flesh. We are given context through language and image, a feeling of space through the arduous passage of isolated words through the thicket of war from which we must form a single sentence or being.

[“I am in the frontline trenches and still I am everywhere or rather I am just beginning to be everywhere.”]

Now some will ask whether these drawings constitute illustrations or comics. The answer to this inquiry would depend on whether we can acknowledge as comics a story where the reader is guided through the imagery by letters and words as opposed to panel demarcations and the flow of narrative action. Others might find Craghead’s experiments here tedious and barely readable. Whether these artistic liberties aid or hinder his intentions is a matter of opinion but I find that they add a significant layer to his comics. There can be little doubt that ease of readability was not the primary motivating factor in these comics. In any case, we have moved very far from mere legibility and uniformity to an area where composition and artistic expression have come to the fore.

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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: