Strange Animals 17may2019: Life Is the Burning

Back after two skip weeks and change. It felt like a lot, and there was some guilt involved, but I needed the break. I thoroughly enjoy writing these, and since they’re easier to write than fiction, it’s tempting to just keep doing fun essays, but I’d rather not let them come between me and writing stories, and that had started to happen. So the last two weekends, even though I knew what was going into this one, I decided to write some fiction instead.

I hope you missed me a little.

Some news up top – I won the 2019 Tripwire Award for Best Letterer. Thanks to everyone who voted for me, and to my Punks Not Dead compadre Martin Simmonds for picking up the award on my behalf and sending me this lovely photograph.

On the writing front, I finished a short comic script last month, and I’m working on two more at the moment, which should be done by the end of this month. There is a longer comic I’m itching to write – a veritable epic at six issues of sixteen pages each – but now that I’m finishing things, I have a better feeling about the fact that this stuff is a marathon and not a sprint, and that I can get to it after I’ve finished a few more shorts, and reacclimatised to writing comics.

I’m also 4,000 words into a prose novelette that looks like it’ll land between 20,000 and 25,000 words. This was originally a novel that I tried writing a few years ago and abandoned, but I recently realised that the length was the problem – it has a very specific, surreal tone that couldn’t be – and, more importantly, didn’t need to be – sustained over the length of a novel. It’s an intense writing experience, with some of the most unpleasant writing I’ve ever done. But I’m leaning into that – trying to be authentic in my fiction has made me realise that a lot of my urge to write comes from places of discomfort, and that’s not a bad thing.


(Note: This one has a lot of images, so you might want to make sure you have images turned on or are reading this in the browser.)

Maxwell’s Demons #4 (with Deniz Camp and Vittorio Astone) came out recently, wrapping up the series, and the trade paperback should be out next month, so I thought I’d write about how we approached the lettering in this book. Warning, spoilers follow.

As you might realise if you’ve read the book, working on Maxwell’s Demons was particularly interesting because every issue (five in total, the last two having been released together) takes place at a different point in Maxwell’s life, sometimes thousands of years apart. Furthermore, every issue is a different kind of sf, with a different tone to it.

So for the basic style, I needed something that reacted well to Vittorio’s art, that could fit these different tones while unifying the look of the series, and that would be robust enough to encompass any surprises that came my way (since, if I remember correctly, only the first two issues were completed when I came on board).

I usually present the team with a set of style options that they can go over, but since Deniz and I are friends, I just showed him various bits and pieces from previous books that I thought could work, explained how I’d be deviating from them, and sent him this:

I was of course prepared to continue working on this if the team wasn’t happy, but they loved it, so we went with this. Particularly, I wanted to make sure that Max’s narration style could take us through the entire run, whatever the colour scheme/genre we might have to use it.

Issue 1 is fairly simple in terms of lettering, with most of it down in the basic balloon style, apart from a few deviations like the storybook narration at the very beginning, and Corvus’s dialogue and later transformation.

For Corvus, I took inspiration from late 80s DC and Vertigo, particularly the ethereality that Todd Klein managed to achieve for Morpheus in Sandman by simply reversing the colour scheme from ‘normal’ dialogue, while for Corvus’s later transformation, I tried to maintain a genteelness to his monstrosity (“We are alien. Don’t try to understand us.”) by not going for a straightforwardly monster-style typeface, instead going for simple italics, which can do a lot of work conveying menace if you deploy them right.

Issue 2 is … well, it’s a rug-pull, isn’t it? The equivalent of an entire prologue followed by “10,000 Years Later”, or however many years later this is. We’re dropped into a far-future sf story and Maxwell is nowhere to be seen. Page 1, furthermore, is a mission statement, with a near-unchanging view of one character while the text drowns both her and us in information about the kind of world we’re in.

I don’t know if it was Deniz’s idea or mine, but the Know-Ware captions are another straightforward theft from Todd Klein’s work, this time from Promethea. Or so I thought until I looked it up again for this essay, and realised that we stole only the idea of contrasting cursive text with sans serif text (Art Deco in Klein’s case, Space Age in ours). The rest I came up with, to convey the idea of text that gets dropped directly into the listener’s ears without passing through the actual air – I doubt I succeeded, but it was worth a go. The record-scratch interruption at the bottom of page 1 was a lot trickier to do than it looks, but it made me quite happy to get it mostly right.

Horizon’s dialogue (white-over-black surrounded by Kirby Krackle) is, if I’m not wrong, very similar to Ne-Bu-Loh from Grant Morrison’s JLA stories, though I’d have to check. In fact, I find this sort of half-remembering a really good way to create styles, because you’re bound to filter what you’re borrowing through other experiences you’ve had which’ll change the actual thing just enough to get you somewhere new. (A bit like Keith Richard composing by playing someone else’s riff and changing note after note to end up somewhere new. But not really like that at all.)

I don’t know if any readers have figured out what’s going on with the captions (we call this iteration the Mass captions), but the captions and the style used here – and their visual relationship with the Know-Ware captions – are story-relevant, i.e., you get a little extra out of the story if you realise what’s going on here.

In general, I try not to overdo it with different fonts/styles for different characters, and specifically, I’m of the Nate Piekos camp of changing the balloon styles rather than using a plethora of fonts that the reader has a hard time keeping track of. But then there are times like this, where you have multiple personas living inside a single alien body, and the body dies at the end of the page, so you can go wild.

(I remember, for the following panel from Black Cloud, confirming with Ivan first that none of these characters would ever appear again in the series before I thought about what I could do here.)


Out last week was These Savage Shores #4, written by Ram V, drawn by Sumit Kumar, coloured by Vittorio Astone, lettered by me, from Vault Comics.

Out this week are Little Bird #3, written by Darcy van Poelgeest, drawn by Ian Bertram, coloured by Matt Hollingsworth, lettered by me, designed by Ben Didier, from Image Comics, and Bloodborne #12, written by Aleš Kot, drawn by Piotr Kowalski, coloured by Brad Simpson, lettered by me, from Titan Comics.

There is also a new episode of Letters & Lines out in the world, and I think it’s one of our best, if I say so myself. Hass’s topic this time is comic-book cover design, and my topic is comics criticism and what it could look like. Have at it.


By the time Maxwell’s Demons #3 came about, I knew what to expect – Deniz would throw stuff at Vittorio and me, and we were supposed to figure out how this would work (as one of my other frequent collaborators Ram V once put it, “What’s the fun in always giving you stuff I already know you can do? I prefer to be surprised.”)

This time around, we have giant talking bees …

… angelic beings that require silence even in thought (I must reluctantly acknowledge that this is a legitimate Good Idea on Deniz’s part) …

… a library in which a different language is spoken in every room (on a page which had a tricky reading order, to say the least) …

… and a thinking planet, for which I stole (ahem, homaged) Swamp Thing’s balloon style, treating the planet as a sort of elemental that lives at a different pace from Maxwell himself.

It’s tricky, this visual referencing business. Comics have been doing it for ages, in their writing and in their art (witness the singularly large number of comic covers that reference Crisis on Infinite Earths #7). Done right, you’re adding a layer of meaning, but do it wrong, and you might confuse your readers or draw them out of the story needlessly because they’re far too familiar with what you’re referencing.

I try to avoid outright imitation, instead trying to figure out what key elements would mean to the reader, taking those and leaving the rest on the table – like a thesaurus you pick and choose from. Every comics creator is a part of a history, an ever-expanding canon, and there’s no point pretending that this vocabulary doesn’t exist.

Maxwell’s #4 contained perhaps the first element that Deniz pushed back on, and for good reason. There’s a strand going through the issue of text messages being ignored, and I decided to show off a bit and re-create iPhone message notifications exactly.

Except this breaks the layering of reality on the page. These messages, while shown to the reader extra-diegetically, exist within the world, and need to be seen as part of the same reality as the rest of the ballooning, rather than this strange skeuomorphic representation of messages in the real world. (As you can see, other things changed as well when I realised that the “scribbles” in the script were meant to be scribbles rather than just me writing the word “scribble.” I can be an idiot sometimes.)

Other than that, there’s possibly Deniz’s favourite bit of lettering from me, when he asked for a character to speak in frequency notations and I tried to imply emotion and inflection:

And this Workman homage:

Maxwell’s #5 was probably the biggest reason I said yes to the book as quickly as I did. (If you don’t want to be spoiled on the finale, you definitely shouldn’t read this bit.) Deniz had sent me issue 1 to read, and then he laid out the remaining four issues of the series, and issue 5 is when you realise that Maxwell Maas, the smart boy-hero, in fact grows up to be a supervillain, a Lex Luthor who managed to kill his Superman, except that he did in fact have plans for humanity and he wasn’t exactly the bad guy everyone thought he was.

Lettering-wise, the biggest challenge here were the placements, because nine-panel grids are dense. Stylistically, the only new thing here were the captions that were supposed to look like a photocopied psychology test form Det. Soil is filling out:

There is a visual reference here both to Rorschach (Watchmen being the most famous nine-panel grid comic book) and to the Question (specifically his captions in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the Question, of course, being the original inspiration for Rorschach but also legally on far firmer ground than Rorschach) that isn’t necessarily meant to be picked up, but that hopefully adds referential weight.

Other than that, it was fun to do this big blow-out panel for a lark, and to do a thought bubble perhaps the first time in two years:

Finally, I’d like to commemorate the worst pun Deniz has ever made (at least to me), which made me walk away from desk just so I wouldn’t bang my head against it.

As you can imagine, working with Deniz is fun, for a certain definition of fun.


I have recently started listening to audiobooks. Before this, I’ve been ride-or-die for radio plays (mainly BBC and old American sci-fi) and podcasts for years, but somehow never figured out the appeal of just having text read out to you.

But a few months ago I listened to this interview with Stephen King in which he read out a portion of his book 11/22/63, and I realised that there was a certain style of writing – clean, simple prose that focussed on transparent storytelling – that would work for me in the audio format.

At the moment, I’m a few chapters into Dan Stevens (him from Legion) narrating Frankenstein on recommendation from artist Michael Walsh – one of my favourite books, one that I have read multiple times over the years, enhanced by Stevens’s frankly amazing voice. It’s also surprisingly short at just 8.5 hours, if you’ve felt previously intimidated by the book.


Quoted from this article, Luther Standing Bear in The Land of the Spotted Eagle:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth as “wild.” Only to the White man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land infested by “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it “wild” for us.

And the authors of the article on the monstrous nature of capitalism:

Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of Gaian life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.

Wetiko short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. It is this false separation of self from nature that makes this cannibalism, rather than simple murder.

Filed under #history and #culture.