Strange Animals 19mar2019: Free the North, Save the World

Looking at the date up there, that’s almost a quarter of the year done, and I’m still settling into the rhythms of working less. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been taking on less work over the last many months, and it’s now at a point where I’m working around two eight-hour days a week. And after going through the usual work withdrawal of the former workaholic, I’m now relaxing into it – perhaps a bit more than I’d like.

Theoretically, the rest of the time I have is supposed to be spent writing and working on font designs and generally fixing my life (I literally have a to-do list titled ‘Fix Your Life, Ho’), but I seem to be spending a lot of it … napping, actually. I went through a period of puzzling over what to do with so much “free time”. I have a lot to do, so this free time is illusory, but I have no deadlines on the writing and the font designs, and deadlines tend to be terrific motivators. On the other hand, I figure I’m still recovering from a three-year fog of overwork, so I’m allowing myself the rest, and watching lots of movies and reading a lot of comics in the meantime.

It’ll soon become a problem, but hopefully by then I’ll be a bit more motivated to do something about it (and my bank account is bound to point at its mouth and cry at some point).

In other news, the video I linked to last week (this one, if you missed it) got a rather lovely response from people who watched it – it seems to have helped a lot of people understand precisely what skills are involved in lettering, and someone even told me that they showed it to their sequential art class to talk to them about why good lettering is important, which was touching as hell.

For this week, as I said last time, I wanted to do something special related to Little Bird, and maybe I’ll do this for more books in the future. (You might want to make sure that images are turned on for this one.)


According to my files, I started work on Little Bird in January 2018, so that’s slightly more than a year I’ve been working with Darcy and Ian on their labour of love. They’ve been working on it for over five years, but that makes sense, since lettering takes less time. But Darcy, smart man that he is, had done a rough draft of the lettering himself (using Photoshop, I think), to make sure there was space and everything read fine. He sent me this when we started work on the book, along with some notes based on his discussion with Ian:

  • We’d love to see a hand-lettered look so that it fits in with Ian’s style of art.

  • Be expressive. I’m not an expert on what words should be bolded or italicized or otherwise. If it feels right to you – go for it.

  • Ian occasionally draws in the SFX but there are definitely places where we need them and they aren’t there. Go for it.

  • Little Bird narrates this story [spoiler redacted] so I think it would be cool to have those feel like a hand-written journal.

  • Go crazy. Have fun and try at least one thing you’ve never done before.

That last one was definitely something I tried to take seriously – I think every issue of Little Bird has something you won’t find me doing ever before. Based on this, I sent back these three options (click on the image to make them bigger):

You can see certain commonalities in all three – the uneven lines, the fonts that look like as much like hand-lettering as possible, including two of my own, and the balloons that open up to the gutter.

That last factor goes through all of them, because I felt that with Ian’s wide open gutters, it’d be useful to have something that interacted with them as directly as possible. Open balloons serve to anchor the lettering to the art rather than floating above it like you see sometimes with overly digital lettering on top of art with rough lines. With that choice made, I also had a reference point for the line thickness I could use for the balloons and the overall visual weight of the fonts.

Of these, the team went for the fonts from the first style (my own Mighty Mouse for the body copy, and Blambot’s Chewed Pen for Little Bird’s diary captions), but for the background for the captions, Darcy said…

Could we try something that resembles birch bark? When my grandparents lived in the bush they would write notes and poems to each other on the insides of birch bark. […] Story-wise it works well because this is literally what Little Bird would have to work with and works as a nice contrast to the more technologically advanced world we’ll soon be introduced to.

… which is the kind of request I absolutely love. It comes from a desire to go big, but it’s also specific and actionable. So I did the obvious thing – I found out what birch bark looks like…

… and I drew a version of it that I could conceivably use in a comic. This went through a print test to make sure that the background was visibly varied while not interfering with the readability of the text on top of it. With that, we had a working style (click to make it bigger):

On the right, you can see the page as it actually appears in the book. Apart from the dialogue tweaks, you can also see that I changed my mind further about the captions, and decided that the whole thing should look like it’s actually torn from bark, hence the ragged edge all around.


On sale this week, obviously, Little Bird #1, written by Darcy van Poelgeest, drawn by Ian Bertram, coloured by Matt Hollingsworth, lettered by me, designed by Ben Didier, from Image Comics, and The Long Con #7, written by Dylan Meconis and Ben Coleman, drawn by E. A. Denich, coloured by Fred C. Stresing, lettered by me, edited by Robin Herrera, from Oni Press.


Throughout the lettering of Little Bird, the main question I’ve asked myself while making a decision is what I’d be doing if I was lettering this book on paper. Little Bird has both moments that are quiet and contemplative, and moments that are all-out violent fun (for the reader, probably not for the characters). So my lettering decisions, page by page, were about expression, and the ability to go from very big to very small seamlessly.

The key difference to me between hand-lettering and digital lettering is that hand-lettering is great for variation and digital lettering is great for consistency. If you’re trying to get all your letterforms consistent and readable, that’s a cinch in digital lettering, but if you’re trying to be expressive and vary sizes, weights and styles, those are decisions you can make very easily when you’re lettering on paper. I wanted to bring to this book the best of both worlds.

(Sidenote: This is why Tom Orz, especially in his early nineties stuff, is a god to me, because he could switch between inhumanly precise letterforms and some properly bonkers lettering styles at will.)

I can’t show you too many of the bigger moments, because that’d spoil some key scenes from the book (and trust me, they’re cool as fuck), but here’s a selection of some stuff from the first two issues that I like which shouldn’t spoil anything for you. In particular, you can see the result of my decision to mix the normal body copy font and a more shouty style within the same balloon:

It’s rare for me to be happy with what I’ve done on a book, but with this one I am – even the bits that maybe I could’ve done better are things that I’d never done before. It was a privilege to get to work with this team, particularly, as I’ve said before, Darcy himself, whose vision drove this, who never let me settle for doing less than my best, and somehow still remained an absolute pleasure to work with.


This one’s not much of a recommendation, I suppose, because 1) you’ll either really like it or really hate it, and 2) if you’re gonna like it, someone’s already told you about it. But anyway, I’ve been watching the anime One Punch Man, and I find it hilarious.

The setup’s simple – the most powerful superhero in the world can basically solve any threat he faces with (literally) one punch, so life gets boring for him very quickly. Saitama’s world is populated by a lot of strange costumed characters, all of them very self-serious and bloviating, and nearly every scene is a very po-faced shaggy dog story that’s going to end with the same punchline.

The creators obviously realise this, and add in a lot of complications, but they’re all variations on essentially the same joke – Saitama knows how every fight he’s in ends, and the other person doesn’t. Apart from that, the animation of the show is frequently fantastic, as are the sheer number of visual styles it goes through.

Recommended if you’re a fan of the comedy stylings of Chris Morris, Stewart Lee, or just want to watch a superhero story that flat-out refuses to take itself seriously.


I have a lot of extracts from Alan Moore interviews in my commonplace book, because he’s a north star for my writing, and he tends to say some very valuable things in his interviews, but the gent tends to hold forth, so there’s not many short things I can quote without losing context. Here’s a bit on Jack Trevor Story, from this interview:

There was someone who, after he died, suggested the Jack Trevor Story prize for literature, where the prize would be something like £200 and the only condition would be – say £500 to £1000 – and the only condition would be that after two weeks the recipient would have nothing to show for it. Which was pretty much the pattern of Jack Trevor Story’s life. Whenever he got any payment, two weeks later he would have nothing to show for it.

Filed under #writing.