The Art of Lettering

As anyone who’s ever read a comic text like “Unwritten” should know, typography is a big deal.  The way letters are shaped, the space in between them, and the thickness of the lines all play a big part in how we read the actual words presented to us.  Inflection is hard to show in plain text (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted a sarcasm font), and therefore artists and letterers go to great lengths to try to show what the author really wanted to show.  Other times, fonts and stylistic choices are used to distinguish between story-lines.  In “The Neverending Story”, text color is used to tell the difference between the real world, and the story being read by Bastian.  In “Unwritten”, different font styles are used in the story version of Tommy Taylor, the movie version of the books, and the present, real world.

I found all of this interesting, and wanted to share a bit about what I know of typography.  First off is the basics – what I learned from my Photojournalism I class in high school – letter spacing.  More specifically, kerning and leading.  Kerning refers to the horizontal space between letters, while leading refers to the vertical space between lines.  Both seem like simplistic and pointless things, but they really can change a text a lot.  Squishing the letters together can drastically change readability, and thus, the mood of the comic.

The difference that kerning can make.  [Wikipedia - Kerning]
The difference that kerning can make. [Wikipedia – Kerning]
But not all typography is intertwined with comics.  Some people do typography for a living without ever working on a comic.  Two of my favorites are Lee Crutchley and Chris Piascik.  I stumbled upon both of these artists years ago, and have been following their blogs ever since.  Chris Piascik is an independent illustrator and designer from Connecticut.  He tends to do large fonts with quotes, or all-over prints involving words and small drawings.  His work reminds me of comic lettering because of the way he matches the style of lettering with what the words are trying to say.

"Haha Wow Pattern" by Chris Piascik
“Haha Wow Pattern” by Chris Piascik

Lee Crutchley has a blog by the name of Quoteskine, from which I love almost everything.  As the blog name implies, he does mostly drawings of quotes in a Moleskine notebook.  The unique thing about him is the shape his words and letters often take on.  His most famous example is the “why so serious?” quote from the Joker, but all his work does a nice job of showing the reader what all you really can do with a few felt pens, some quotes, and an imagination.

"Heath" by Quoteskine
“Heath” by Quoteskine

So the point to all this rambling is simple.  Sure, fonts in comics are important – they help us read what we’re supposed to read.  But they’re also interesting in other contexts.  Typography isn’t all about being able to tell the difference between the fonts, superhero 1, superhero 2, and superhero 3.  It’s also about art.

  3 comments for “The Art of Lettering

  1. Kerry
    April 5, 2013 at 12:37 am

    As the letterer for my webcomic group, I am getting really into typography, so I appreciate the nuances you’re describing. I knew about kerning, but I didn’t actual know what leading was, so thank you. I like that you considered lettering outside the comics context, I think a lot of people consider it a highly limited art. The two sites that you mention are lovely and I would never have found them without this post. Just to contribute and not simply praise, another interesting element that I’ve played with is the size of the letter outlines. It’s a more subtle way of placing emphasis than bold. Similarly, I like to scale colors back slightly to change the mood (though, I don’t know if this is really effective). Let me know if you ever find that sarcasm font!

  2. Kevin
    April 5, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I, too, have a specific interest in comic lettering. To me, it is the element of comic construction that requires the highest degree of skill. This week, for our webcomic, we switched from a computer font to handwritten lettering. As the letterer, I found it extremely difficult to write with consistency in such a constrained space. It gave me a true appreciation for the work that professional letterers do. I found the information in your blog post regarding kerning and leading to be very interesting. It’s amazing how even the tiniest alterations can make all the difference. I’ll have to do more research on styles of writing like this before lettering our group’s next webcomic. Thanks for sharing this, and I agree that there should be a sarcasm font.

  3. Lindsay Bennett
    April 8, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    I am also in charge of the lettering of my web comic like the above commenters. As I was going through different fonts on the various names caught my eye and I started to wonder first of all who names these fonts, and secondly how some of these names are assigned to the different images because I honestly could not find a relationship. We used the font chronicles of a hero for our main character and I had to laugh to myself because Hugh is far from a hero. He is a character that is contemplating suicide and feels extremely lost in the world. We chose to use this font because we thought it showed a sense of insecurity and shyness, obviously not what the font creator felt. Now whenever I create a new text box I have to chuckle because it is funny that two different groups of people have such opposite feelings about a font.

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