Strange Animals 25apr17: In My Country They Call That a Rantephant

Conscious Uncoupling, Day 207

Hello, and welcome to the second edition of this newsletter. As with the first one, here’s some personal stuff (“human drama” as a friend kindly referred to it) and then some comics stuff. If the latter’s more interesting to you, just skip to the second header (SPOILER: I wrote about why I feel “Good lettering is invisible” is nonsense).

A week ago exactly was 200 days since I quit smoking. My app of choice (Smoke Free for iOS) alerted me of this in characteristic fashion:

200 Days

On that day, according to the app, I had:

  1. Been smoke-free for 200 days.

  2. Not smoked 1,600 cigarettes.

  3. Regained 50 days of life.

  4. Saved Rs. 12,000.

  5. Resisted 17 intense cravings.*

* Most of these were in the first two months, except for one, a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t hard to resist, but it was intense, and strangely, it happened because I was feeling rather good about myself, which is why I thought I needed to register it.

When I saw this, I thought, 165 days to being clean for a full year. And that terrified me. Clammy hands, palpitating heart – the whole deal. It felt big, and difficult.

I’m still an addict, and I’m constantly tempted to smoke. There’s very little physical craving now, but there’s still a moment almost every day when I think, “Wouldn’t a cigarette be nice?” And I have to gently pull myself away from the thought.

There are days when I wake up thinking that I gave in to temptation and had a smoke the night before, and then realise it was a dream. The thought that I might start smoking again is scary – I really don’t want to be a smoker again.

After I quit, one of my most painful thoughts was how my brain had betrayed me for ten years. It was only after I quit that I realised how much damage smoking had done to my brain chemistry, and my mind had lulled me into being complacent about it.

Which is why my current smoke-free state feels, at times, a little fragile. My brain betrayed me once – what’s to stop it from doing so again? I try to tell myself I’m more aware now that the fog has lifted, but I don’t want to underestimate the power it can and did once possess.

When I completed a hundred days, I wrote a post on my blog about it. I got a lot of messages from both current and ex-smokers about it, and most of them liked that it wasn’t written as a cure-all but as an expression of weakness from someone they could relate to. And I’m particularly glad it served its original purpose – preserving my thoughts so I could read them when I was feeling nervous, and know that staying quit is something I can do.

Originally Called Rant But Reclassified to Essay

Here’s a comics-related PSA, and the thesis of this rant:

The phrase “Good lettering shouldn’t be noticed” needs to be retired, along with its broodier twin with shirt sleeves rolled up: “Good lettering is invisible.”

I’ve been hearing both of these for ages, and usually, I’m just mildly annoyed, but recently I heard a couple of letterers say this, and I think that’s plain dangerous.

I’ve heard the same thing said about design, which, I think, is where this originates, but I’ll leave it to a proper designer or two to wade into the matter at their end. I’m going to explain why, when it comes to lettering, this statement is useless at best and actively harmful at worst.

First, think about the pieces of good lettering that you remember.

Here’s John Workman over Walt Simonson. There’s a good reason everyone recognises the round, airy balloons, the broken borders, the massive SFX slapped on large swathes of the art. a. They looked good – no – great, and b. You bloody noticed them. People talk about them thirty years later with awe.

John Workman

But let’s suppose that’s not enough. Here’s Todd Klein on The Sandman, a.k.a. the point when everyone realised you could do as many balloon styles as you liked as long as you did them well.

Todd Klein

Here’s Ken Bruzenak over Howard Chaykin:

Ken Bruzenak

Here’s some Tom Orzechowski from Excalibur #1 that a friend thought was good enough to stop reading the book, photograph and message me:

Tom Orzechowski

I could go on. All of these have two things in common: a. They’re very good work and b. They’re not one of them ‘invisible’.

The mistake is confusing plain for good.

Plain lettering is invisible. Just like plain lineart, plain colouring, plain design, and even plain writing.

There are, for sure, times when you need plain lettering that tells the story and otherwise stays out of the way. It would not, for example, be fun if I was trying to read Maus and the lettering kept calling attention to itself. But in Maus, that goes for the artwork too. For the most part, it stays out of the way and lets you just read the book.

This isn’t even to say that all good lettering has to stand out. Watchmen is a legitimately sublime work of comic-book lettering. It isn’t ostentatious. But it’s designed not to be noticed, in the same way that Dave Gibbons’s artwork in Watchmen is ‘plain but detailed’. It’s meant to be read for information, not seen for beauty, but the beauty’s there. And just like you wouldn’t say that Dave Gibbons being good invalidates, say, Dave McKean being good, plain as well as ostentatious lettering can be good.

In comics, I feel what separates craft from art is decision-making and ownership. If you’re presented with a page where all the decisions have been taken, and you’re executing your part, this is a matter of craft. But if you’re a part of the decision-making process, if you get to decide how your function interacts with everyone else’s function, that’s when you get to be an artist.

Practically, this is difficult. Making a monthly comic already consists of spinning so many plates in the air, you can’t reasonably expect everyone to have input from the script/layout stages. But it’s something that needs to be recognised.

I’m sure when colourists started to be known as artists and their input solicited on the storytelling, there were practical concerns and pushbacks, but it can be done, and hopefully will be, slowly.

But this is already a concern, and you can see it in the number of artists who choose to do their own sound effects right now. They recognise that lettering is important, and they want it to look good, and they do the practical thing, which is to take it on themselves to do a large part of it.

James Harren, Sean Gordon Murphy, Jillian Tamaki, David Lafuente, Esad Ribic, Nic Klein, Babs Tarr – all of these people do gorgeous SFX work that stands out.

They can do amazing stuff with their SFX simply because they’re not scared of the art. If you told them their SFX are too intrusive, they’d probably tell you to kindly go fuck yourselves (and I’d love them for it).

Digging deeper, to artists who do all of their own lettering, you have David Mazzuchelli giving every individual character a different lettering style in Asterios Polyp, Jeff Smith’s marvellous burst balloons and SFX in Bone, Moebius with all the fantastic nuances of his lettering.

Why? They’re very clear about the fact that they’re doing art. They’re not afraid to cover up their own work, or to screw with it, because the lettering is also art. They design the page around it, and they consider it integral, not an addendum. And that’s what we need to be clear about too – lettering is not just about staying off the important bits, it’s part of the art.

There’s a reason Naoki Urasawa and other mangaka feel free to cover up an entire eye or half a face if it means they can use that to communicate something extra to the reader.

I’m not trying to change industry practices by saying this. As I said above, I recognise the practicality of the way things work. But what we do need is to be a little less afraid of being noticed. Being noticed is not necessarily bad.

And in the meantime, I hope “Good lettering is invisible” becomes less of a crutch for bad commentary. “I didn’t notice your work” is not a compliment, folks.

(Note: More than most essays I’ve written, this one’s supposed to be a beginning of a discussion, and not a Last Word of any sort. If you disagree, have other ideas, or think I’m talking out of my ass, please let me know.)

Follow-Ups

In the previous newsletter, I wrote about panel structure in The Wild Storm #1. I then had a couple of conversations with people which I thought were worth noting.

First up is Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, who runs the fantastic YouTube channel Strip Panel Naked and has a Patreon which you should support.

In reference to my theory that the split between the six-grid and the nine-grid is to do with past and future (something The Wild Storm #3 seems to blow apart almost entirely), he said:

That’s good. I hadn’t been thinking of a reason beyond separation for that trick, but that’s interesting, very interesting! I’m gonna have to go back and re-read these first issues now to see this again! That page is great, too [the first page of TWS #1]. I thought it was cool that the “reveals” as such were all down the left side. Her, dead body, mutated hand, so it frames the rest of the row. The diagonal top-left to bottom-right was cool, too – the only panels flat on her face as it transitions. I still haven’t quite decided ‘why’ on that one yet, but I dig the effect. Gave the page a very nice backbone!

I like the idea of the left panel in each row establishing each bit of the scenario and the next two panels on the row being a reaction to it. You might notice that if this page was just panels 1, 4 and 7, it still has all the visual information for us to understand what just happened – the rest are teasing the moment apart and adding to it, which is great.

But Hass mentioning the diagonal really made something click for me. The page is constructed in a way that the middle panel is practically magnetic, drawing the eye back to it pretty much constantly: it’s the first action-to-action change, first bit of dialogue, and – Hass’s observation – the diagonal being straight-on shots of her face. The middle panel of any page tends to function as a handy centre point if you need it, but this is just amazing work on Ellis and Davis-Hunt’s part.

And a note from Deniz Camp, who’s an excellent comics writer and always a fascinating commentator (you can download Deniz’s short comic ‘Time Is of the Essence’ here):

One thing that struck me most was the way they used their pages/panels to explore space, all the corners, always pulling out and up, rarely cutting, looking at every angle in turn. To me that was them trying to define and inspect this ‘new world’, but also making a statement about where these people live/work/operate.

Which suddenly makes sense out of the – to me – strange decision of having the entire issue take place in a tiny geographical area.

(I loved these discussions, and the follow-up section is something I’d like to do on a regular basis, so please feel free to hit the reply button.)

Elsewhere, But Still Me

1.

Comics creators Anupam Arunachalam and Biboswan Bose recently started a podcast centred around interviewing Indian creators about their process and other stuff that’s interesting to them. It’s called Over the Shoulder, and their first episode is an interview with me.

We chatted for more than an hour about comics lettering, how I got interested in it, how it became my job, the art and craft of it, my influences, and other points of general process nerdery (Moebius came up quite a bit, I seem to remember).

If you’re interested in listening to me natter on about comics and lettering, you might enjoy it.

A corrigendum: I mentioned that Jijé’s lettering style was inspired by Alex Toth’s letterer, when it was in fact inspired by Milton Caniff’s letterer, which I should’ve remembered considering I even said that Jijé’s lettering looks nothing like Alex Toth’s. Ugh. Alex Toth, it should be remembered, lettered himself, and did a fucking beautiful job of it.

2.

Motor Crush #5 came out on 12th April. This is the big one - the end of the first arc. This book means a whole lot to me, and it was wonderful watching the creators bring the story together into a scorching blast (that last page!).

By Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, art assists by Heather Danforth, design and GFX by Tom Muller, edited by Jeanine Schaefer, lettering by me!

Recommended Reading

When I first got interested in making comics, David Brothers at 4th Letter was one of the best writers to read if you wanted to get excited about what the medium could contain – there was a year or so when I’d open up 4th Letter first thing in the morning, before I even checked my email, just to see if David had written something new.

I didn’t keep up with his writing when he moved to mostly posting on Comics Alliance, but I’m thrilled to see that he’s collected some of his writing for that site into four volumes that I can guarantee are worth your time and money (money-optional, considering it’s a pay-what-you-want bundle).

So this fortnight’s recommendation is I Used to Write About Comics by David Brothers.

Purely as a corollary, I just found out that David has a newsletter that he updates irregularly called (me + you) that I’m now signed up for.

Next Time

I completely spaced on writing “more about fiction than about my life, more on grids in comics (and the sexiness of the 9-grid), page division in Terry Moore’s Echo” as promised in this section of my previous newsletter, so let’s pretend that’s what I’ll write about next time. You may hold your breath.