New Post Alert

As promised, this is my final post from Substack, and it is purely intended to tell you that the first edition from Buttondown has been sent out. It’s Part 1 of my Comics Creator’s Technical Handbook, and you can read it here. This one talks about Page Sizes, and tells you what “bleed, trim and safe areas” actually mean. Plus, you can download art templates formatted at the right size, with a guide layer that explains everything you need to get going.

If you have received this but not that, you might want to check your spam folder to see if it’s in there.

Cheers!

Strange Animals: Moving from Substack

This is not a regular edition of the newsletter – just a notice that I’m moving this list off Substack to Buttondown.

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There has been some degree of controversy about Substack’s practices recently, and while I’m still reading up exactly what’s happening and how I feel about it, I’m definitely uncomfortable with the lack of transparency as someone who uses their platform. Here’s Annalee Newitz writing about the issues, and here’s Anne Trubek about the wider transparency issue in publishing.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking at Buttondown. I made an account there a few years ago, because the idea of posting in Markdown has always been attractive – since that’s what I write in anyway – but the rest of the interface was a bit basic, and it had no way of importing an archive from my previous platform.

It has come a long way since then, as I realised when Kieron posted about his move to Buttondown. The platform is full-fledged now, with a very friendly interface, and the creator of Buttondown personally helped me move everything over (which he does for everyone who wants to move), and helped me link it with my professional email, and now I’m nearly all done. My web designer friend is currently adding a new sign-up sheet to my website (customisable, unlike Substack’s), and I’ll be good to go.

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You don’t need to do anything here. Your email has already been imported to the new platform. I will be sending one more message via this newsletter, once I make my first post on the new platform, just in case it is stuck in your spam filter, but, for the nonce, that’s it for me and Substack.

If you are reading this online and haven’t signed up yet, here’s where you can do it.

Strange Animals / 2021 / #7: Shy Hi

Slow return

Hello! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? And I was doing so well too – I’d managed more or less a post every week. But then I fell ill for a bit, after which my health issues have continued – all aftereffects from last year – and I’m now on a new diet and exercise regimen that’ll hopefully help me get back to fighting form.

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A lot of books came out since the last time I wrote to you, so I won’t recount all of them here. But I’ll just remind you that I’m currently lettering Swamp Thing and Detective Comics for DC, Home Sick Pilots and The Department of Truth for Image, and The Picture of Everything Else and Giga for Vault, plus a smattering of short comics for various publishers.

That slate reflects just how much I’ve cut down on my work. I think till around last year, it was normal for me to be on ten ongoings/mini-series (apart from OGNs and short comics). This is very much a good thing. I’ve been working on my health, and I’ve finally amped up my work on fonts, as I’ve been meaning to for a few years, and crucially, you’re not staring down deadlines with those, so it’s a lot more relaxing as work goes.

Speaking of font design, I’ve almost wrapped up Michael Walsh’s font. He has a playtest version that he’s checking out, while I’m putting the finishing touches on the italic, bold and bold italic weights.

Here’s what it looks like. The page on the left is Michael’s actual hand-lettering, and the font is on the right.

I’ve also managed to figure out how to code in the “auto-crossbar”-I, which’ll automatically make sure that the crossbar-I is only applied to personal pronouns. Here’s what it looks like in action.

I also really enjoy adding in multiple punctuation marks to make my fonts more “comics-y”. You can check that out here.

Finally, let me get personal about lettering for a moment. I haven’t talked much in public about how I feel about my craft. It’s definitely not just a way to make a buck for me. I really love the intricacies of comic-book lettering, and I like figuring out new solutions for both new and old problems.

Nevertheless, within comics, it’s a peripheral discipline. You depend on other people and the work they’re doing to put your skills on show. I can’t show you a snazzy new lettering trick if the script doesn’t demand it. I’m the rhythm section – you can have a fantastic bassist, but a shit song would still be shit with a great bass. Thankfully I’ve been very lucky with my collaborators, and very often I get to put on a show, but it’s their work that’s the primary draw, and I’ve always been aware of it.

In fact, I like it. I didn’t go into comics craving glory. I like the fact that a book doesn’t live or die by my work, because it means that when I sit down to work everyday, all I’m concerned with is doing the best I can – I don’t have to worry about audience response or sales. In fact, my biggest audience is my team – those are the people I’m trying to please, surprise and delight.

So it always makes my day when I do get a compliment, and even more than that, I’m taken aback when someone writes about my work. That someone felt like putting in effort and creating something about my my work. And I’ve been lucky enough to have some great writing done about my work.

Ritesh Babu is one of the smartest comics critics writing at the moment, and you can imagine how flattered I was when Comics Bookcase published a 5000-word piece by Ritesh analysing my work in Blood Moon, Coffin Bound and The Department of Truth, and how they relate with one another. Even apart from this being about my work, I think this piece is well worth a read for how it looks at the things lettering can add to a piece.

Frankly, it’s something I’m going to keep coming back to when things feel a bit pointless, as they occasionally can. If sometimes I feel like I’m not adding value in this industry, I can read this and know that at least for some, I am.

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Let’s leave it at that for today. I’ll have a full-fledged version for you next week, but for now, I just wanted to say hi.

Strange Animals / 2021 / #6: Senses

Laws / Type / Memory

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I have, as I declared on Twitter, decided upon two laws of horror:

  1. Horror is about encountering something that cannot be reasoned with.

  2. Any sufficiently incomprehensible science or magic is indistinguishable from horror.

  3. Corollary of Law 1: If it has the tropes of horror but can be reasoned with or reliably defeated, it’s not horror – it’s dark fantasy.

I haven’t backed this up with all that much research, other than a lifetime of intermittent horror reading, but I’ve been trying to articulate this for a while – boil it down to the essentials. Because it’s not the supernatural that defines horror, it’s not the tropes, and much as it might be the desired effect, it is not the fear.

(I do notice there are technically three laws listed here, but #3 definitely doesn’t function without #1, to the point of being, essentially, 1b.)

Dan Watters had an interesting comment on #3: “This was an interesting thing to navigate when [Sumit Kumar and I] did a Lovecraftian Atom story for Secrets of Sinister House; how to do that in the DCU, where the Justice League’s first villain was Starro, an essentially Lovecraftian being, who’s proven entirely punchable.”

#2 (after Clarke’s Laws) isn’t necessarily big enough to be the literal second law, it’s just an interesting thread I was chasing, since I’ve been reading a lot of post-Lovecraft cosmic horror. I wrote it down at the top of a story pitch, and decided, Alan Moore–like, that it was a True Statement.

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On sale this week, with my lettering:

Future State: Dark Detective #3, with a lead story by Mariko Tamaki, Dan Mora and Jordie Bellaire, lettered by me, and a “Grifters” back-up by Matthew Rosenberg, Carmine di Giandomenico and Jordie, lettered by Andworld Design. Edited by Paul Kaminski and David Wielgosz, published by DC Comics.

Home Sick Pilots #3, with Dan Watters, Caspar Wijngaard and Tom Muller, published by Image Comics.

Lost Soldiers, the collected edition, with Aleš Kot, Luca Casalanguida, Heather Marie Lawrence Moore and Tom Muller, published by Image Comics.

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In other news, I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was building some comics typefaces in collaboration with some very cool artists, and I put up a sneak peek of the first of these on Twitter, that I’m developing for the amazing artist Michael Walsh (Secret Avengers, The Vision, Black Hammer/Justice League). Michael has been hand-lettering his latest comics, and reached out to me to turn his lettering into a font. He talks here a bit about why.

Comics Bookcase has a new feature called Love of Letters, and the first edition is an interview with me. It was a delight talking to Ariel – we talked about how I approach the lettering process, including for specific projects, my collaborators and my inspirations. We had a free-ranging conversation, not all of which made it into the text piece, but you can listen to the audio as an episode of Ariel’s podcast Ride the Omnibus.

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This week’s reading:

  • Wet Hot American Summer – Christopher Hastings, Noah Hayes, Rebecca Nalty & Jim Campbell: Just found out this existed, and had to get it. It’s much better than one might expect – Hastings nails all the voices, and Hayes deserved to be way better-known for his facility with body language. You have to have watched the movie/series, though, otherwise it might just be incomprehensible.

  • Lucifer – Dan Watters, Sebastian & Max Fiumara, Dave McCaig, Steve Wands et al: I reread the whole thing since the final volume was just released. Frankly, I wouldn’t have trusted anyone but Dan to write Lucifer after Mike Carey’s run – this is smarter than the series has ever been, and the Fiumaras and McCaig are a revelation of a team, particularly when it comes to depicting the more abstract aspects of the visual storytelling. The final volume was released direct-to-collection, and I have a feeling the series might’ve had more buzz if it had released in singles. Nevertheless, one of my absolute favourite DC books in quite a long time – everything good about classic Vertigo, updated for 2020.

  • Attack of the 50-Foot Blockchain – David Gerard: Well-written, accessible and frequently hilarious history-cum-explanation of Bitcoin, blockchain and everything around it. Clarifies just how much human fallibility is involved in “trustless” technology. Goes a bit slack towards the end, with slightly too many details for the layperson to take, but the first half-to-three-quarters is just excellent.

  • The Dreaming – Si Spurrier, Bilquis Evely, Mat Lopes, Simon Bowland et al: Not quite what I expected. It’s a very enjoyable story, but it sort of sidesteps what a Sandman Universe story “should” be, and builds the Dreaming as an urban fantasy world instead, with the kind of worldbuilding that comes with that. A fun read, nevertheless, and Evely’s art is truly astonishing. She’s got a fan for life.

  • Adventureman Vol. 1: The End and Everything After – Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson & Clayton Cowles: Enjoyable and atmospheric pulp. The artwork is great – lots of mood and scene-setting – though occasionally too cheesecakey for the context it’s in. Not sure I’ll pick up Vol. 2, but I had a good time with this.

  • Super Sons Vol. 1: When I Grow Up – Peter J. Tomasi, Jorge Jimenez, Alejandro Sanchez et al: Thoroughly fun superhero comics, though it exemplifies my main issue with monthly corporate comics – a lack of density, with a story that could’ve been told in half the length without losing much. The art is great, and it’s clear Jimenez is going to be a star.

  • Aquaman Vol. 1: Unspoken Water – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Robson Rocha, Daniel Henriques & Clayton Cowles: A thoroughly competent comic on all levels, but one that just didn’t spark with me. The kind of comic that I can imagine someone else loving, though, so don’t take that as a thumb-down.

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It’s been … a fine week, I suppose. But some weeks the outside world is particularly bleak, and it feels odd to tell yourself that things are okay on a personal level, or to even ask yourself if they are or not.

I used to listen to music almost obsessively from the age of about 14 to 22, and there was a hard break in my mid-20s – a traumatic one, I guess – after which my reactions to new music are far muted, with little of the passion and obsession of my younger years.

But, in the way some people have with smells, I have memory triggers associated with music from back then, when I had a soundtrack to my life. I’ll listen to a song and remember where I was sitting when I heard it, what I was looking at, who or what I was thinking about. I get the sense of moving curtains when Tom Waits blew my mind with Rain Dogs, thinking about a doomed crush while listening to “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, my dad passing me an awed look when the vocals kicked in on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.

Recently I’ve been listening to some of those songs, which feel like someone else’s favourites, and remembering another life.

Strange Animals / 2021 / #5: Could Be Better

Self-Evisceration

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It’s a quick one this time. I’ve got a main essay and an update, but nothing else for you. Fortunately, the new format means I can actually do this. So in your face, Past Me.

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New this week in books I lettered:

Future State: Swamp Thing #2, written by Ram V, art by Mike Perkins, colours by June Chung, edited by Alex Carr and Marquis Draper, from DC Comics.

Afterlift came out in print from Dark Horse. It won the Eisner for best digital comic last year as a ComiXology Original. Now you can hold it in your hands. Written by Chip Zdarsky, drawn by Jason Loo, with colours by Paris Alleyne, and edited by Allison O’Toole.

Razorblades #3 released this week too, and I lettered Ram V and John Pearson’s “Learn to Swim” for this edition (first page up top), and got to try some very interesting lettering stuff.

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Last week, my former colleague and excellent editor/writer Ashwin Pande sent over a ten-year-old portfolio that I sent him before I started working with Graphic India. I posted it online, with a sigh of relief that I’d come a long way since then. Some people asked what I felt was so lacking in the portfolio, and I figured it’d be interesting to do a draw-over critique of my own ten-year-old work.

First of all, I’m pleased to say I’m not entirely embarrassed by it like I would be if we were talking about the very first pages I lettered. Mostly, this work is professional, but it’s lacklustre, and could use revision. Like I said, I had a long way to go. Let’s do two pages as examples.

First, the good. The font choice is absolutely fine – but David had already lettered issue #1 with that font, so that wasn’t really a choice I made. The balloon style is basic but functional. Doesn’t look off, though it could be just slightly thicker to match the font.

1) The current version is fine, but if the second balloon were moved, it would pull the eye across the panel, particularly to the girl looking in the mirror.

2) This is not okay. The second balloon should be lower than the first, so there’s no confusion in which order to read them in (which would become even more relevant if note 1 is executed).

3) Okay as-is (I know a few letterers who try and always push captions to the edges of panels), but it looks weird the way it cuts off the character’s neck, which can be fixed.

4) This is the big problem on this page. I don’t know why I was reluctant to butt the first balloon against the border, but there’s no reason for balloon 2 here to be outside the panel, especially since you’re supposed to read that and then travel back left for balloon 3. Also, balloon 3 is not really monumental enough to need a separate tail. The fixed positioning would let you read the balloons properly.

5) If we move the previous balloon, there’s more than enough space to move this into the second-last panel, which would let the last panel’s action stand by itself rather than making it feel static.

6) The SFX is clearly happening before the scream, but is represented after. I vaguely remember agonising about this, but the “GAH!” would be just fine coming at the bottom of the panel. Finally, I’d definitely render both the burst balloon and the SFX much better now.

First, the basics. That font choice is just not right for the tone of this story or the art. Clearly, I’d just purchased the font (Blambot’s CloudSplitter – it’s a good one) and was enamoured by it and wanted to use it in the next thing I did. You see this a lot – designers and letterers always want to use the fancy new tool, sometimes without thinking deeply about whether it works in that particular instance. Here, it does not. (Full disclosure: This was literally the first pro font I’d purchased – I’d always used free fonts before this – and that is exactly why I used it here.)

The font is playful and modern, and feels like it’d fit either a comedy book or some sort of SF story. This story needs something a little more sombre and clean, probably something like CC’s Meanwhile.

The balloon style is adequate, but nothing to write home about. Now to the specifics:

1) The choice of SFX font is alright, and I like the effort taken to mask it behind the ape – and it’s good masking too, though ideally the second A would show through the earring, or be positioned such that the question doesn’t arise. The problem here is the way the letters bounce too evenly, in a tick-tock fashion. I’d be a lot more bouncy with them, and increase the size of some of those As. Though these days, I’d just draw the SFX whole-cloth. 

I’m also happy with the colour choice here, but not so much with whatever’s going on with the black strokes – this doesn’t feel like it needs two stroke widths.

2) Tangent. I’d move it a bit lower to avoid it.

3) This is the big one here. Like … what the fuck is that? It’s barely readable, does not go with the colour scheme at all, and a font with “shaky bits” thrown out of the letters is probably the worst way to indicate the ground shaking. Just … nonsense.

First of all, a sound effect should feel like it’s part of the design of a panel. So you should be able to imagine the artist drawing it. And the strokeless border here is just the wrong way to go. This needs a black border to anchor it to the panel.

Next, the arc shape is a valiant newbie attempt at indicating the flow of the sound, but what I’d do now is move the SFX off the ape’s fist, ground it to the bottom of the panel, and have it be “DUU … UMM” separated by the ape’s fist, and angled backwards and forwards as drawn in the figure. Also, much taller and thinner – a thick sound isn’t always indicated by thick letters.

4) Same here – the strokeless method is just the wrong call. Needs a black stroke. But otherwise, surprisingly decent.

5) I actually love how that KRAK is drawn, but the colours are all wrong. I’ve clearly pulled them from the ape’s chains, and the sound just doesn’t pop. Red or orange would be better.

6) Okay, this is a clusterfuck. It’s trying to guide the eye via masking, but it’s neither necessary nor effective. One could charitably assume that the smoke might actually be drifting behind the old man, so it can go behind the balloon, but the tail that goes above the cloak that leads to a balloon that goes behind … I mean, since this is a top shot, it’s not technically breaking planes, but it very much looks like it does. And it’s just not necessary. Sure, it adds to the feeling of motion, which is probably why I did it, but the likely break in the reader’s reading is not worth it. Much better to stack it all at the bottom of the panel. Plus, it’s not like they’re two distinct thoughts, so we can do without a connector.

Overall, I don’t think this is embarrassing work. But I’d definitely not do it like this today. Past Me had a lot to learn.

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This week’s reading:

  • Tardis Eruditorum Volum 7 – Elizabeth Sandifer: I’ve been in a bit of a Doctor Who mood, so I tore through this. I read most of these essays when they were serialised, but it’s a pretty great experience to read them in one go – it gave me a real sense of the Virgin New Adventures, and I managed to compile a reading list. (I’ve only read five of them before this, and needed one.) The new-to-this-book Kate Orman interview is quite excellent.

  • Spam Kings – Brian McWilliams: Entertainingly written profile of spammers and anti-spammers involved in the early internet spam wars. Often reads like a Carl Hiaasen novel, given the peculiarly American subject, with pornographers, neo-Nazis and penis enlargement pills all vying for space.

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Where the hell does the week go? Every time I send one of these out, I tell myself I’ll send the next one midweek and aim for that every time and yet, now it’s Sunday night, and I’m a day later than I was last time, even though I knew exactly what was going into this edition. Let’s see if I can land the next one in the coming week.

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