Comic Book Typography

rondomingue's picture

I recently blogged about typography in comics on my site. It was however brief and I like to go a bit more in depth with the concept on this forum. I worked in production/design at two comic book companies and the insistence of doing the word balloons and hand-lettered look always annoyed me. However, little has changed in typography for comics over the years, save perhaps the use of Adobe Illustrator to recreate the same dated look. Comics seem to suffer a permanent retrograde cycle when it comes to lettering when other aspects of it has evolved such as the art, coloring and paper quality.

I cite two examples of books that break the boundary for comic book lettering. Both Punks and The Nightly News do a terrific job at achieving some level of professionalism with the typography. I was curious if anybody else interested in comics can provide other examples. I know this has been under discussion here before I think its worth revisiting.

Comiccraft is regarded as comics premiere font foundry although I'm concerned that they perpetuate the current style and rarely step outside of the established type styles. No slight to Comiccraft but its more of what the major publishers are looking for, than what they are willing to innovate with their typefaces. I would very much like to see other foundry's be involved and help innovate an industry thats badly in need of a typographic overhaul.

metalfoot's picture

Blambot does some nice comic-book font work.

rondomingue's picture

You see I would have to disagree. That style is preaching to the old choir. I would love to see elements from the Swiss style used in comics as it would introduces elements of traditional design rather than the old adolescent comic book feel. Maybe its just me but I'm not a fan of the standard comic fonts.

metalfoot's picture

OK. Fair enough. I see where you're going with this now.

fontplayer's picture

Maybe its just me but I’m not a fan of the standard comic fonts.

I was a big comic book reader when I was a kid, which may explain why I am such a Blambot lover.

Also I can't dance, but it just makes me appreciate those kids on "So You Think You Can Dance" show. Similarly, I can't write very well, so I am enthralled with neat handwriting styles.

So to each their own. But if you want to see some unlikely type used in comic balloons, I submit my two comic balloon pages.
; )

rondomingue's picture

Oh I love the actual hand lettered style but that's not the case anymore its rarely if ever hand drawn today. I was heavily influenced by it as well. I'm looking for a progression in comic book typography, right now it only comes in one flavor.

fontplayer's picture

Well, readability will always be a consideration. In Nightly News the small size seemed to push that boundary a bit far. But I like the idea of what they are doing. You could use almost any of your favorite text fonts in those fields.

Punks was sort of thrashed looking, so I can't imagine submersing myself in that for hours like I did with Mickey, Green Lantern, Casper and friends.

rondomingue's picture

I suppose but I think the fact that very few are trying to push it is a concern. When I was working in comics, anytime I suggested that I like to try and letter anything in other than the standard comic font it was considered taboo. I think it would be a matter of a publisher letting go of their old comic sensibilities. I guess I see type innovation in comics so rarely that it baffles me that other methods have been adopted more readily—like the art, coloring and overall production—but lettering seems to wallow in old-school mediocrity.

Si_Daniels's picture

The examples on your blog have text that's too small to read or make typographic judgements. The images however appear hand-made. Isn't that the point of the lettering too? To look hand-made? Perhaps you could show visually in a side/by/side the kind of changes you'd make, if "the man" weren't holding you back.

Cheers, Si

jasonc's picture

Have you seen Paul Dini's (writer) run on Detective Comics? I think it's used some interesting type selections in the dialogue and other lettering. The book has an "old school" feel, so much of the artwork is art deco, and some of the lettering is designed to reflect that.

I'm not sure who did the lettering on the book, I don't have the book in front of me.

Jason C

Si_Daniels's picture

>The examples on your blog have text that’s too small to read or make typographic judgments.

Following the links I see there are larger examples, but still not large enough. The Punks publication seems to use all-caps Myriad Condensed, with some kind of image-wash filter applied. Is that what's considered innovation? I suppose if all the banks and corporations that use Myriad were to switch to a comicraft font, that might be considered innovative too ;-)

rondomingue's picture

Si,

Don't get me wrong I'm not dismissing hand-lettering. I'm commenting on how few try to do anything different. I think we see traditional typography touch so many facets of commercial art but comics seem to remain isolated with their own rules for lettering.

Jason,

No I haven't seen the Detective book but I like to see it. I think that was also the goal of this discussion—I wanted to see other examples of good typography in comics. I don't think anybody wants to dismantle the old comic look but I suggesting there are more ways to skin that cat. I would love to see Hoefler-Frere, Emigre, T-26, or Linotype typefaces used in a comic book application.

jasonc's picture

More info on the Detective Comics (featuring Batman) I mentioned before. This page has some preview images of one of the books in the series: Detective Comics Preview Of the six thumbnails shown for Detective Comics #821, see the middle one in the top row. Much of the dialogue is in a standard pseudo-handwritten font, but the descriptive boxes use alternate fonts which were chosen to go with the artwork. (I know it's hard to see in these low res images.)

Although this is somewhat separate from this discussion, have you seen the Justice League of America book that Brad Meltzer was writing? The lettering for most character's dialogue was the same, but the balloons were colored differently depending on who was speaking. It was an interesting try. Some characters, like androids or monsters, used different typefaces which were supposed to represent their characters.

Jason C

rondomingue's picture

Yeah some of the captioning is well lettered, very Art Deco. No I haven't seen the Justice League book but I was thinking the same thing in regards to avoiding the word balloons with the long indication tails. I mean how cool would it be to see Superman talk with a caption indicated by his red, blue and yellow color scheme or Batman with his black and gray?

I'm also very familiar with the balloons blocking parts of the art depending on how wordy a scene might be. Even the most skilled comic artist have been challenged with illustrating a scene and then some character reading the Preamble. I think it requires a well thought out idea of layout combined with copy that fits the story. That's why the most successful artist have also been writers, i.e. Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Will Eisner, etc.

lore's picture

Hi, I wrote a little essay on sequential narratives etc. you may be interested in. It's on my site:
http://www.lorepavesi.com/projects.htm
It's called graphic novels for graphic designers or something. Hope it helps.

Chris Rugen's picture

I must admit, I find many attempts to incorporate Swiss typography into comics to be ham-handed and a bit disposable. It reflects an better understanding of art than of type. The type they use is often too small or too dense to be appropriate. I like the aesthetic of Punks, but it's hardly Swiss modernist except that it uses sans serif typefaces. Other times, the type and art is so gorgeous on one spread and then just terrible on the next, as in Ashley Wood's Lore; beautiful painting and interesting type interspersed with pages and pages of poorly set Times New Roman. Ugh.

I admit that I love hand-lettering in comics, so I do have a bias. Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware and Hellboy by Mike Mignola are two of my favorites, though there are others that do just as well that I can't think of at the moment. Here's a nice Hellboy moment.

Generally, I find set type to be overly rigid for the format, and often too detailed and dense, unless it's got some other element counter-balancing it. It feels out of place for me unless it's incorporated in a more 'graphic design-y' manner, rather than for dialogue. Brian Wood's Channel Zero is an example of this.

rondomingue's picture

Lore,

I like the examples you sited in your essay! Save for Maus (I have bit of an opinion on this), you give some nice commentary at a glance I'll be sure to read it more thoroughly when I have a chance.

Chris,

I guess set type is something I'd rather see in a few books. I do however feel that the hand written look is appropriate for Hellboy, but someone like Ashley Wood may actually be served better if the Swiss style was applied, I think its density would compliment his art. I just used the Swiss style as an example but even a David Carson approach would be a welcomed divergence.

Comics in general is missing that typographic experimentation. There are really so few pioneers in that area and I would think especially in comics there would be more freedom to allow the lettering to become part of the art form.

jasonc's picture

Here's some images of what they've been doing in the Justice League book I mentioned earlier. My previous description missed some details. What they've done is retain the use of the tails on dialogue balloons, but in boxes representing thoughts, you can tell who's doing the thinking by which box color they use. for instance Superman "thinks in blue", as in one image on this page;

See in some of
http://www.comictreadmill.com/CTMBlogarchives/2006/2006_Individual/2006_08/001191.php

Batman thinks in gray, Wonder Woman in red, I think.

Jason C

lore's picture

Thanks Ron, even if the essay doesn't exactly address typography you may find the bibliography and references useful.
There's no Batman like Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum. If you haven't seen it yet you should check it out. Typography is also very unusual. Love him to bits and he's my favourite superhero ever (which is a very embarrasing thing to admit in public, I know). My fav superhero recreated by my fav illustrator. Pure joy.

lore's picture

Is today italic day? I see everything italic and I'm sober.

Chris Rugen's picture

Ron, I absolutely agree that there's a dirth of typographic experimentation. I think part of it has to do with the separation of tasks within the industry. Most comics have writers and artists. It's rare when they do both, and most production schedules don't accommodate it.

However, we're discussing non-mainstream books as well, where more collaborative work or single-artist works are more common. I think part of it is that comics are artist-centric, so their use of type tends towards that understanding. Often the subtle art of typography is too...different from the typical forms of visual expression, such as painting and drawing. Letters, words, and paragraphs carry an odd payload with them that can frighten away some from touching them at all. Others treat them as separate from the art, and their noodling just ends up widening that divide. Worst is when it makes the words harder to read. Word balloons are just safer, even with some typeface futzing/coloration.

This is a fasinating topic and I think there's a great deal of unexplored territory. I wish I had more time now to get into it. Perhaps I can dig around for some better examples later this evening.

Chris Rugen's picture

Is today italic day? I see everything italic and I’m sober.

Sorry, closed and em tag with an i. Fixed it. Though that seems to have kicked my edited post to the bottom, for some reason.

rondomingue's picture

Chris,

It is indeed a fascinating topic and I think its worthy of some experimentation and research. I mean is it really about the readability? Or even the usability, I know we don't often think in those terms regarding comics and words with pictures is nothing new, but sequential art is another matter all together. You have different characters speaking all with different emotions and inflections. How do you translate that with typography or lettering?

This may sound a bit arrogant but I really don't think a lot of letterers come from a strong typographic background (neither did I) however, I do feel that a lot could be gained from comics if they started exploring some of the modernist or post-modernist style of typography. I mean could you imagine if David Carson lettered the Dark Knight or The Watchmen done in Frutiger?

You are also correct about the separation of disciplines having a lot to do with the disparaging differences in the final outcome of a comic. If you have one guy penciling, someone else inking, another person coloring and yet another person lettering you will definitely have a book that is not consistent in style regardless how harmonious the working relationship is.

Lore,

Dave McKean is super cool!

Si,

I missed your comment earlier about if banks and corporations started using Comcicraft fonts—Would that be considered innovative? I guess innovation is the wrong word for what I'm suggesting for comic lettering. I just think there is an overall lack of traditional design in comics and a lot of the reason they fall behind artistically. They are hardly reflective of the contemporary art styles around them and that isn't always a bad thing, but it also seems to hardly gain any influences from the outside. Again not all books suffer from this stagnation but a majority of them do.

Mark Simonson's picture

Mad magazine has used type in its word balloons and titles since the fifties. Supposedly, the reason for this was to distance Mad from the comic book form (and by extension the comics code authority by making it look more like a magazine. Before that, EC (which is where Mad came from) frequently used Leroy Lettering templates as a way to get a consistent look with many people working on the books.

jasonc's picture

This is starting to sound like a potential talk for TypeCon '08

Jason C

rondomingue's picture

Unfortunately Type Con 2008 falls a week before the Comic-Con 2008. Be very difficult to attend both.

Kellie Strøm's picture

While nearly all mainstream faux-handlettering for comics inhabits the range between dull and ugly, I'm not sure that most cases would be well served by trying to transfer over a typographic æsthetic from other media.

Modernist type served Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby well because Johnson's drawing style was starkly modernist. But think what a disappointment it would be to find Walt Kelly’s Pogo appearing in Futura.

There's a similar issue in children’s picture books. Often the type chosen looks harsh next to the artwork, and both suffer.

In comics and picture books artists need to be involved in the type, which means they need to learn about it.

rondomingue's picture

Kellie,

“In comics and picture books artists need to be involved in the type, which means they need to learn about it.”

I totally agree, I guess that goes back to the creators having to educate themselves and being more a part of the entire process.

On a side note, Mike Mignola does hand-letter Hellboy which explains why it seems to fit the book—the actual artist draws it and letters it. When I was at Wildstorm, Comicraft scanned Jeff Campbell’s and Travis Charest’s handwritten alphabet both lower and uppercases to create a typeface to use with their respective books. This worked well because the lettering seem to compliment the art better.

Also your avatar is very nice. What typeface is the ampersand from?

rondomingue's picture

Bloody double post, I wish we could delete comments.

sara.witty's picture

I would recommend looking at Todd Klein and his various contributions to typography in comics. Particularly his work in Sandman and Promethea. There's also Gaspar Saladino's work in Arkham Asylum. I don't think the comics medium would benefit from the usage of already existing typefaces, regardless of their established awesomeness; the medium is best served by creators working specifically within the boundaries of the graphic style. And Saladino and Klein are just two examples of designers doing just that.

rondomingue's picture

Sara,

I disagree that comics couldn't benefit from existing typefaces, thus the two examples of books I've given use existing typefaces. I think its whatever appropriate for that particular graphic style and you've given fine examples.

Coincidentally there's a retrospective look at Todd Klein's work at Comic Book Resources, and in the comment section he credits Gaspar Saladino as his biggest influence.

Chris Rugen's picture

This is starting to sound like a potential talk for TypeCon ’08

Hmm....

::strokes beard::

Kellie Strøm's picture

Ron, the ampersand is hand drawn, believe it or not it’s from an unfinished comic strip!

vinceconnare's picture

I knew several people who worked at Marvel in the 1980s (and started Ren and Stimpy). all the work was done manually and the lettering was done by hand by the 'letterer'.

they always used Uppercase, Normal, Bold and Italic. In the middle to late 1980s there was an experimental digital comic that used an Amiga computer to do the graphics and letters but it didn't take off because it was very crude.

Ads in magazines where the only place for type. Neville Brody's Industria was used a lot since it looked 'futuristic'.

jasonc's picture

Although it's somewhat aside from this discussion, I should mention that in the comic strip "Pogo", Walt Kelly had some characters use distinctive lettering styles. Deacon Mushrat's dialogue was always lettered in a black letter style, while P.T. Bridgeport's dialogue resembled old Circus poster wood type. He also used a serif style whenever a character was singing.
Deacon Mushrat sample here
P.T. Bridgeport sample here

Of course, Kelly was doing this in a daily comic strip, and did all the lettering by hand.

Jason C

Sam M's picture

Ouch.

Firstly, i agree that comics, especially american comics, are way past due for a revolution. Manga and collector culture destroyed the industry and made it a retro novelty rather than a mainstream art.

But as an occasional sequential artist, i thank hand rendered writing is best 99% of the time. Digital "hand" type is not always great, but at least it matches most art. Alot of times the font is poorly selected unfortunately.

I think its really disturbing to see clean digital type on comics, like on the examples you gave - it just looks out of place, jarring, and i think sort of ugly. Some traditions should fade out (like the american comic book size format, and the inker/colorist/type guy assembly line), however i don't think hand drawn lettering is one of them.
-----

39smooth is an amazing, if very cartoony typeface. It is free, and i wish that most versions of it that you find weren't corrupty.

Sam M's picture

And just to add to my comment, my rationale is that the "gold standard" should be that the type should be as close to matching the artist's hand or the artist(s) process as possible. It would be perfectly fine for a more designy artist like ashley wood to use the full range of typographic elements - which of course he does and the results are fantastic.

jasonc's picture

>the “gold standard” should be that the type should be as close to matching the artist’s hand or the artist(s) process as possible.<

I'm curious why this should be the gold standard. I don't necessarily disagree, but I'd like to hear some people's thoughts on why this should be the ultimate goal all the time. I was brought up on mainstream US comic books and strips, so my initial reaction is that the lettering should look like it was hand lettered, as this is what I'm used to. But I'm not sure that obeying tradition is enough reason to continue on as was always done before.

Try to take a step back and look at the situation. Sequential art is (usually) a combination of illustration and lettering, and the tradition certainly has been to have an artist hand draw the lettering. However, lots of other media use combinations of illustration and lettering; book jackets, magazine illustration, album covers, just to name a few. Yet the lettering in these cases is sometimes typeset, and sometimes hand lettered. The ultimate goal is to achieve an aesthetically pleasing design, so the lettering needs to work hand in hand with the illustration. I'm not sure if sequential art is any different (may Eisner's spirit forgive me!) In many cases hand lettering would be appropriate, but in other cases it may not. Certainly in the field of sequential art there is an expansive range of illustration styles, so I expect that differing illustration (and layout) will call for different lettering solutions. Shouldn't each case be evaluated independently on the merits of the overall aesthetics?

Jason C

rondomingue's picture

I don't think it should be the “gold standard” either, however there should be some cohesion between the lettering and the art. A few comics are slowly departing from the “assembly line” tradition. Inking was born out of the inability to photostat pencils. Now we are seeing “digital inking”, where the pencils are sharpened and darkened in Photoshop. Some artist are coloring their own work and a few are lettering as well. Some of these practices will lead to some amateurish processes but I thinks its all part of a larger growing pain for American comics. Hand lettering will always be around as well as the word balloon, I'm not denying that. There is a lot of room for better typography is all I'm suggesting.

A lot of the “norms” for comics was born out of the old press methods and has changed very little. Comics have been stuck in a lot of traditional processes for quite some time. The fact that we have a blue uniform Batman is simply because inkers didn't want to fill in the blacks, so tradition stuck and solid blue was used often to translate as black. New artist didn't know Batman's uniform was black and just assumed it was intended to be blue.

The Japanese have indeed leap-frogged the Americans in terms of publication quality and format. Their hardcover books must be some of the finest design I've seen, even outside the comic genre. The Europeans have also took the lead in terms of story quality but that's another discussion altogether.

Sam M's picture

"The ultimate goal is to achieve an aesthetically pleasing design" --

Well, in comics you have to achieve something a little more than just a visually appealing design. The goal really is to intertwine the text and art such that the reader can read the text in the story while simultaneously paying just as much attention to the action and feeling in the artwork. If this balance is off, you end up either just reading the dialogue and not really paying attention to the art, or you have trouble reading it at all and just end up looking at the art (I have that problem especially reading bill sienkewicz comics)

i think the words should appear as if they are existing in the world of the art - within the frame of the panel, not on top of it. Digital bubbles floating on top of ink and watercolor always looks funny to me, and from a design standpoint, it is distracting. But like you said, there are many different techniques - When it is all start-to-finish digital you don't have the same seperation, so its ok.

jasonc's picture

true, Sam. Certainly Jhonen Vasquez' "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" needs to be hand lettered in his scratchy style.

Jason C

fontplayer's picture

Something I did many years ago from some free fonts made by Graham
& Petra...

fontplayer's picture

One with Harold's free fonts...

Chris Rugen's picture

Jason C, those Pogo samples are brilliant! Thanks for posting them. It's been ages since I've even glanced at Pogo.

I think there's something very valuable and unique about the hand lettering in comics that has developed with the form, and type seems too rigid in most cases. I find that most uses of type in comics separate the voice from the character, which can be an effective visual characterization technique, but is usually just jarring. Narrative voice is usually my preferred use of type in comics.

Though I'm sure much of this is reading best what you're most accustomed to.

Kellie Strøm's picture

Late notice, but there's another thread about this thread over on the Comics Journal Message Board which has accumulated some good examples of comics lettering.

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