Comic lettering, part two: My custom font

After years of doing my own hand lettering I’ve become frustrated with how much cleanup work is required to finish my pages. Open spaces in the characters of my scanned lettering were filling in at an alarming rate, coupled with the fact that my letterforms were getting waaay too inconsistent for my tastes, led me to spend too much of my production time cleaning up individual letters. But how to retain the mark-making of my hand lettering while reducing my workload? The answer: a custom font!

Knowing nothing about how to create a font, yet knowing that other artists (John Byrne and Jeff Smith, for instance) had done it, I took Kansas City cartoonist Mike Sullivan up on his offer to create a font based on my lettering. He did a great job with it, adapting my lettering into a full character set, a bold alphabet, and a variety of dingbats & special characters.  I was a demanding customer– I asked for a full keyboard set, including non-dialog characters like |, {, %, and + not typically used in comic lettering, but Mike worked with me to get the results I was after at a very reasonable price, even suggesting options I wouldn’t have thought of.  If you’re interested in a font of your own, and don’t know how to do it, I’d definitely recommend hiring Mike for the job.

Rather than just a collection of drawn characters, I set out to design a more consistent font than my lettering had become. I filled them out to a consistent height, balanced out the symmetry, and evened out the curves … but I may have gone too far in that direction, as I’m not entirely happy with how some of the characters turned out. Certainly not because of Mike’s translation of them, but rather because of how far I designed them away from what my lettering looks like (or at least what it looks like these days). It’s taken me a while to warm up to how the font looks after seeing my hand lettering for so long, but I’m enjoying it more and more as I continue to use it and fit it into my working method.

In fact, if there is any downside to the change in process, it was how little experience I had using a font before I designed mine. I wish I’d tried lettering some pages with a font first– even just as a test case– to better understand how I’d be using it in actual pages. Sadly, it hasn’t yet been the time-saver I’d hoped it would be, and I still find myself preferring some of the variety in my hand drawn lettering, especially for emphatic bolds and punctuation elements. Overall, though, I’ve been happy with the improved legibility the font has brought to my recent strips, which was the whole purpose of the change.

Comic lettering, part one: My hand lettering

For years I’ve been talking up the virtues of hand lettering, and how your individual mark-making can be expressed in your hand lettering just as much as it is in your drawing style. Even for those who feel their lettering isn’t what they’d like it to be, that distinctive, hand-drawn essence adds a lot to the look of your comic pages (I’m talkin’ to you, Joel!)…

In an effort to bring some order to my own (often sloppy) lettering, I came up with this method, first shared with the public in the pages of Tim Corrigan’s Small Press Creative Explosion #16, Dec. 1998. It’s still the same method I use for hand lettering today, even if I’ve gotten looser (sloppier) with my technique since then:

“A Foolproof Method of Comic Book Hand Lettering” / ink on paper / 14.75 x 11.25” / 1998

This method has served me well for a number of years and through a number of projects, though I did eventually change my pen of choice (to a fountain pen and liquid ink). But gradually– whether through inattention to detail, being able to devote less time to my art and thus rushing through it, or something else entirely– I became increasingly unhappy with not the concept of hand lettering, but with my execution of it … which is why earlier this year I began experimenting with typeset lettering in my Watusi strip.

Next time I’ll share my experiences– both pro and con– with that change in process. In the mean time, here are some links covering the art & science of comic book lettering:

  • Hans Presto made this page dedicated to comic book lettering, including lots of technical and theoretical info for both hand and computer methods. Also features a great essay on “The underappreciated art of lettering” by Augie De Blieck Jr. (from CBR, Dec.1999).
  • Todd Klein may be one of the most well-known letterers around; here’s his history of his career in lettering.
  • Ken Bruzenak was the letterer of Howard Chaykin’s groundbreaking American Flagg! series. Catch this podcast interview with him on Sidebar.
  • Balloon Tales is Comicraft’s online guide to comic lettering and production!
  • Blambot’s Nate Piekos writes about some of the grammatical and aesthetic traditions unique to comic book lettering.