Peter Kuper’s “Ruins” and the subtle art of lettering

I can’t recall when I first discovered the art of Peter Kuper (probably an early ’90s issue of World War 3 Illustrated or his adaptation of The Jungle), but I was immediately drawn to both his graphic style– a combination of scratchboard and stencils– and his sharp political commentary. I’ve enjoyed his work ever since, and his ability to convey a story with few (or often no) words made him a natural fit for Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy”, a strip he’s drawn for nearly 20 years.

So, naturally, I was predisposed to enjoy his latest book, Ruins (Self-Made Hero, 2015). What surprised me, though, were the nuanced characterizations of his protagonists, New Yorkers Samantha and George. They are not merely ciphers, but fully realized characters. The story details their time spent during Samantha’s sabbatical year in Oaxaca, Mexico, their strained relationship, and the violent suppression of the local teachers’ trade union strike there in 2006. Their story is paired with the migration of a monarch butterfly from New York to Oaxaca, which gives Kuper a chance to touch upon additional issues of social and ecological damage. He has a lot to say in this book and he says is well. It’s an engrossing read, and he brings an admirable mix of illustration styles to its pages. It may well be my favorite work by him yet, and he takes full advantage of the scope of his vision.

KuperLetteringIn addition to the mix of illustration styles, Kuper also gives each of his main characters a distinctive speech bubble and lettering style that mirrors their personality. This technique, which too often comes off as a distracting trick, works well here, likely due to the mix of drawing styles already at play in the book. David Mazzucchelli did something similar in his Eisner and Harvey Award-winning book Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, 2009), another highly recommended read that is both a visual treat and an intriguing character study. In fact, one of the Eisners it won in 2010 was for his lettering.

So why, then, does this technique bother me so much when I encounter it in mainstream comics? I’m thinking particularly of the lettering in Marvel’s Avengers and Fantastic Four circa 1998 (the “Heroes Return” era): Thor had a Norse-evoking typeface, the Human Torch had a flaming speech bubble with red type, and the Thing spoke in chunky letterforms. Looking back on it in comparison to Ruins and Asterios Polyp, perhaps I found it such a distraction because they were applying such different speech lettering when there was not an accompanying variety of artwork within the story. Or perhaps it just turned me off because it became obvious that hand lettering had been cast out, and such tricks as transparent bubbles with gray type came to be used for “whisper”, instead of the dashed bubbles that had been its clearly-recognized sign for decades. Even though tricks like that, and the often-used choice to letter with a smaller type size rather than letter around the artwork, often caused readability to suffer as a result. But perhaps I’m being too hard on the Comicraft letterers making those early forays into digital lettering: after all, it wasn’t too many years later that Todd Klein proved one could produce subtle digital lettering in books like Tom Strong and Promethea. It just serves as a reminder to cartoonists at all levels that proper lettering is a skill that takes more attention to detail than simple typesetting.

I’ve employed digital lettering in my own comics over the years, but found myself tweaking it a fair amount in the production stage to get the look I want. Currently I’m hand lettering most of my comics again, and I’m enjoying taking the time to reacquaint myself with that process … which actually means less time spent cleaning scans and doing production, and more time drawing, which is a great tradeoff any day of the week!

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