Comic books are unique among written media in that they generally convey the majority of their story not through speech, but through images. Among the plot, dialogue, and art, readers often overlook one of the other names that makes the front cover of the book: the letterers.
Typesetters have been part and parcel of written media since the advent of the movable printing press, so their presence in comic books is hardly surprising. However, the deft hand of a letterer makes comic books feel like more than the sum of their parts, subtly influencing the story and adding yet another layer to the narrative. In looking at a few examples of lettering work both subtle and shouted, readers can better understand why those extra names get valuable cover space.
Superman and Step By Bloody Step Find Power in Ambiguity
Superman Smashes the Klan, written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Gurihiru, features lettering by Janice Chiang. In this comic, the Man of Steel’s alien status is paralleled against a Korean family he interacts with. Both parties have to understand their internalized racism of him, and Superman’s is brought to light through his distrust of his alien origins. In contrast Image Comics’ Step By Bloody Step (by Si Spurrier, Matias Bergara and Matheus Lopes) is intentionally wordless, with the only “text” being a garbled pseudo-language.
Though presented very differently, the two languages ultimately have the same goal: to make their speakers feel foreign and different. In the case of Superman Smashes The Klan, Kryptonian language is colored green and the font is completely different from what is used in the rest of the story. However, these words do bear a passing resemblance to another language briefly represented in the text. In certain places, Kryptonian resembles Hangul, the Korean written language and the first language of the immigrant family whose story is intended to parallel him. In feeling foreign, it forces Superman to challenge his internalized racism. Similarly, the written language of Step By Bloody Step is intended to feel foreign and unwelcome, emphasizing the silence of the narrative. Even when speech is present, the choice of lettering carefully ensures that words are clearly distinct one from another, but the language is unintelligible to both the reader and the protagonists.
Spider-Punk and Bolero Wear Color and Shape
Bolero (by Wyatt Kennedy and Luana Vecchio) and Spider Punk (by Cody Ziglar, Justin Mason and Jim Charalampidis) use lettering in a more traditional sense. Instead of using it for ambiguity, the texts use lettering to emphasize the emotions that the characters feel. In Bolero, Brandon Graham’s lettering of the protagonist’s primary love interest has different colors depending upon the situation. In intimate, loving moments, her speech is pink. When they have broken up and the protagonist is deeply depressed, all characters have plain black text unless what they say is grating or overstimulating. Bolero‘s carefully structured art is perfectly complemented by its masterful lettering.
In the case of Marvel’s Spider Punk, VC’s Travis Lanham’s lettering feels jagged and edgy, much like the art and the characters’ actions. Three major types of letters appear. The first is a classic speech bubble with black text. Any time that characters raise their voices, however, the text turns red and jagged. In keeping with the punk, extremist nature of the comic, this represents the grittiness and raggedness of the vocals. The third type is an internal monologue, black with white and red lettering. This contrasts against the more typical yellow monologue with black lettering and once again shows the rebellious nature of the protagonists.
The Wreath language seen in Image’s Saga is colored blue and represents the meta-awareness of the characters. People who are passing out or dying have words that appear to fade to white. If characters are drunk, their speech is often uneven and inconsistent. The careful work of letterers is tantamount to the subtle narratives of the books they bring to life, and a skilled letterer can see to it that readers get the full effect of the intended narratives.
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