Greg Rucka and Richard Starkings have a little debate on lettering at Rucka’s journal.Then Starkings begins a
thread at the Engine that covers much of the arcane history and process of lettering:

Having witnessed Marvel’s archaic method of production back in ’89 when I lived in New York and visited the Bullpen on a regular basis, I knew that Marvel would eventually switch over to digital lettering, not just because of the quality control it allowed, but also because of the tremendous cash savings for Marvel. One thing I didn’t expect was that editors and their assistants would stop proofreading scripts before sending them out for lettering. I’d say that 90% of comics today are proofread only after they’ve been lettered. I’d also say that many editors today are so pressed for time that they rely on writers to check copy, which pdfs and the speed of internet communication has made possible. Unfortunately, although I think it’s essential to keep the writer in the loop, he or she isn’t always the best person to double check scripts for typos and other errors. A couple of years ago we were sent the script for a fairly high profile mini series which featured a page of dialogue which completely obscured all the art on the page.

It is true that The Beat egged Starkings on to start such a thread. Lettering, ballooning and the art thereof are one of the little mysteries of comics–something you can never know too much about but which only a few truly understand. In a recent conversation with Starkings we were wondering if there was any validity to the idea that the Bill Jemas-mandated upper and lower case lettering that was the rule at Marvel for a while really was any more readable. We noted that we had always found it impossible to read, and it looked jarring and stupid. But maybe we were old fogeys and just weren’t used to change. Starkings noted that “It’s readable if its done well.”

Then we happened to pick up a book by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert and realized that they had been using upper and lower case all the time and we never even noticed. That’s what’s called doing it well.

[Art from THE PROFESSOR’S DAUGHTER published by First Second.]


  1. I use upper and lower case in NORTHWEST PASSAGE, because I like the decidely un-comic-book look of it. No one’s ever complained that they found it difficult to read (though maybe they just aren’t doing it to my face.)

    I hadn’t even noticed that Marvel had been doing it (though this might have something to do with how often I look at Marvel comics.)

  2. I try to stay traditional all caps at all times… but our Forgotten Realms books have script font mixed case. That can sometimes be tricky when certain D&D words are capitalized and others are not…

    I can’t really imagine what a pain lettering Ultimate Spider-man is… but reading the mixed case has never bothered me.

    I believe Darwyn Cooke self lettered in his SOLO issue… that was really amazing, he always has amazing letterers… Jared Fletcher is kicking ass on the Spirit… unfortunately I’m at a loss at the moment to bring the other names to mind.

  3. Crowley – Over at the Digital Webbing Lettering message board, there was an exercise once. Three pages of an Ultimate Spider-Man comic along with the actual scripts were used. Chris Eliopoulos was kind enough to loan the board his font for the exercise. Lots tried, most grumbled, nobody aced it. I tried it — it was painful. I don’t know how Chris does it every month, and he probably only has a few hours to do the entire issue.

    Right now, I’m most impressed with Sean Phillips’ lettering job on CRIMINAL, where he draws his own balloons and then lays the lettering down on the computer.

  4. I think the point about the way books are edited post-lettering is worth repeating. Often I have received a script that is not close to publishable and only after they see it on the page do the writers (rarely the editors any more) make the changes. I suspect that rather than laziness (I have NEVER met a lazy editor in my career who lasted more than a couple of issues…its a damn demanding job!) this is due to cut backs on the editing staff, but it also could be to perceived convenience and time constraints. Sadly, as Richard said, often the writer is the last person who should be doing the proofs as they are far to close to the material and completely unable to separate the story from the words.

    As to sentence-case lettering, I have (forgive me) mixed feelings. I have certainly done it and I feel I have done it well, but I never felt it was more readable. In fact, I feel it slows down the reading a tad because the ascenders and descenders get in the way of the lines above and below. This is subtle, and certainly debatable, but I’ll stick with my instnct that it slows down the process.

    I remember when Bill Jemas made the switch and one of the main reasons cited was that the reason for ALL CAPS lettering was now a non-issue: the printing process had improved so much that even the smallest derivation could be seen…therefore the blockiness of ALL CAPS wasn’t needed for readability. While true, I also believe, as a letterer, I can letter faster in all caps…hand lettering that is…so I’m inclined to believe the tradition probably started out of speed and convenience as much as readability.

    In the end, there will always be a time and a place for sentence case lettering…but I, as both letterer and reader, will always prefer ALL CAPS.

  5. AUGIE: you’re right, I posted that activity and failed it myself. It’s a MUCH harder mindset to letter in sentence case because you have to consider how the lowercase letters interfere with each other above and below. And yes, I agree that Chris may be the master of this!

  6. Augie: “Right now, I’m most impressed with Sean Phillips’ lettering job on CRIMINAL, where he draws his own balloons and then lays the lettering down on the computer.”

    I’m going to be doing this on my next creator-owned project. I don’t mind the look of computer lettering, but creating decent-looking balloons just drives me nuts.

  7. Stan Sakai letters Usagi Yojimbo himself and does a mighty fine job, I think. That guy is amazing.

    As far as majuscules vs. minuscules go, I don’t think I really have a preference. I sort of grew up reading Tintin, so minuscules always seemed pretty natural to me. Jason Lute’s works seem to flow naturally here by using minuscules. As well, many of the best webcomics (Penny Arcade and Questionable Content, as well as Stuart Immonen’s Never as Bad as You Think) use minuscules.

    That said, majuscules obviously work fine as well (see 95% of comics). In the end, I think that so long as the text is both legible and fits the art and story it’s supporting, it’s good lettering.

  8. I lament that on most original art these days the lettering isn’t part of the page (although I guess it saves me money, because a lot of times I’ll not buy a page because the words are an important part of what makes me decide to buy a page).

  9. We just talked about this over on the CBR Marvel Forum, Seems like the Marvel editors are really gettin’ lazy over there, I mean, I don’t even know what they ‘edit’ nowadays.

    jk, But seriously. More likely, Marvel wants to save time and money by not doing such basic things. bleah… :(

  10. Jemas also told editors that upper case lettering made comics look childish.

    Of course, some might say that grown men running around in their pyjamas looks childish, but NO — THAT’S not the problem — it was THE LETTERING!

    As Heidi noted earlier, what’s important is context. Lower case hand styled lettering in TINTIN books = easy on the all-ages eyes; scratchy lower case hand styled lettering in FROM HELL = slightly disturbing and adult.

    The font in THE PROFESSOR’S DAUGHTER samples Heidi posted is actually a freely available hand lettering font which sometimes goes by the name Felt Tip, but goes by a whole number of other names as well. Ironically, as a pen letterer, you couldn’t letter for very long with a felt tip because, well… the tips turned to mush after about two pages!

  11. Augie,
    Thanks for the heads up… a Bendis script seems like it would inherently be tough to letter based on placement alone.

    Also just wanted to toss in that I’ve never lettered by hand and can’t imagine ever doing it… That said… I have nothing but total admiration for those who did it in the past and continue to do it today.

  12. Heidi,

    Was going to respond to you in regards to balloon placement at The Engine but I’m not logged as a creator there and I’m uncertain how to quite go about changing up that status… but anyhow…

    In my limited experience thus far… I usually do the placement. The sole exception has been Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe Declassified in which Larry laid out where the balloons were to go. For me it was a really eye opening experience… Larry has a very intuitive sense of storytelling and I learned a lot from it.

    One other thing that has occurred is that on a rare occasion a new, young artist might typically take an issue or two before they realize they need to leave me a bit more negative space to work with.

  13. “there’s a faster way if you have Illustrator 10 or above”

    Here’s the ballooning method we’ve used for the last decade or so, invented by Albert Deschesne: The Layer Method. It basically involves placing the balloon outline, tail and balloon fill on separate layers, so balloons can be copied and overlapped easily.