Hand lettering is something I haven’t done much of and usually try to avoid. The idea that I’ll never be able to change the text after, that I need to be neat and consistent, and even things like uppercase or lower cases are things I can breathe a little easier when doing digitally. Here’s a quick look at some different approaches to comic book lettering.
Craig Thompson’s Blankets is a long time huge influence. Most of the lettering is in lowercase, with uppercase used as a way to exaggerate specific words, as opposed to using a bold typeface. Note the lettering is anything but rigid, and tilts at different angles, complementing the organic overall style.
Cyril Pedrosa’s Three Shadows is similar, lowercase and freeform. Again, this suits Pedrosa’s visual style which is flowing and uses a variety of all-traditional brushes, pencils, and inking techniques.
Kate Beaton’s Hark, a Vagrant takes this even further, with simple, almost crude drawings again echoed in lettering that often looks almost like an afterthought. Again, the lettering and art are matched in style and support the content which is humorous, at times crude, and with a direct authorial control and manipulation of subject matter. Beaton is telling the reader that this is her own version of events, a reinterpretation of history by her own hand.
Miss Don’t Touch Me by Hubert and Kerascoet is drawn in the tradition of simple figures and complex environments, and the lettering again reflects this, with a more standard uppercase throughout within predominately square word balloons. The formal, realistic rendering of environments, contrasted with simplified, stylised characters, is a signature of Franco-Belgian comics, and the lettering supports this with its own blend of hand lettering within rigid enclosures.
In a similar vein, Chris Gooch’s Bottled also uses a somwhat Franco-Belgian approach, with stylised characters within consistently fleshed-out, believable environments and great attention to small details. He uses uppercase for text, a tradition within mainstream comics, which is complemented by a hand-drawn, seemingly by-eye approach to lettering and word balloons. This aids in seating his lettering naturally into the pages, again, lending a holistic feeling to the pages and his storytelling.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus manipulates the medium in countelss ways, including his consideration of lettering. In an early flashback scene, narration from the writer is delivered in lowercase, representing the present speaking to the past, and deliiniting timelines by writing dialogue by the characters within the past in uppercase. Although at times the word balloons are not perfectly formed, it is clear that Spiegelman has used an Ames lettering guide and drafted this all out before going in with pen (on final print sized plain copy paper no less!)
Spiegelman occasionally used lower case text for dialogue in present day scenes that are outside of the story, as a way to keep certain timelines separated from the rest of the story. In this example, Spielgelman is pondering his work in creating Maus and the toll it is taking on him.
Here we are situated fully in the present, and his dialogue is rendered lowercase, delineating it from the story and his father’s recollections.
Is there a Rosetta Stone of lettering? Appropriate choice of lettering, as with art, is part subjectivity and part objective rules, however the one constant is that there is an interdependent relationship between text and image in comics. The medium is founded on it.