Strange Animals 26oct2020: Feeling Blue

Last week’s main essay seems to have gone down well – it’s the second-most read edition ever, and I got what we call in the trade a crapload of new signups. So, hello, I’m Aditya Bidikar – mostly a comic-book letterer, but starting to be a couple of other things now. You can usually find me … here, for now.

It’s now nearly a month since I went off social media, and, you know what, it’s been okay. I miss the little interactions with other comics folks that’d happen on there, but I don’t miss, you know, nearly everything else about Twitter, so I’m counting that as a win. I’ll keep going for another little while, till I feel organised enough to get back on there.

On the other hand, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting one of my more ambitious projects – The Comic Creator’s Technical Handbook, which would be a guide to the technical aspects of making a mainstream western comic. Something to fill in all those little gaps in knowledge that can feel silly to ask people about, but which you eventually need to know.

A quick example for writers: Colourists love you to state the time of day for every scene, because otherwise they constantly have to guess or ask you. Letterers love you to specify who’s talking regardless of whether it’s off-panel dialogue, quote captions, or narrative captions, otherwise … er, we don’t know who’s talking? Artists love you if you stop saying that comics have infinite special effect budgets, because otherwise you’ll eventually be found dead in a ditch with exquisitely crosshatching all over. True fact.

1. Notes

Giga #1, The Department of Truth #2 and Blue in Green are out this week, so please check those out. Really proud of all these.

Giga #1 sold out of its first print run of 28,000 copies, which is lovely to hear.

GOG announced last week that Cyberpunk 2077 will come with an exclusive digital comic – Big City Dreams – written by Bartosz Sztybor, with art by Alessio Fioriniello and Filipe Andrade, colours by Roman Titov, and lettered by me!

I finished lettering Hellblazer #12 on Friday – the finale. It was bittersweet, but I think we’re going out with an absolute corker.

2. Blue in Green

In the tradition of Grafity’s Wall and Little Bird, I wanted to do a process post about Blue in Green – about how I ended up lettering it the way I did. Handily, it also documents my attempt to create a viable “digital hand-lettering” process.

As with Grafity’s Wall, I volunteered to hand-letter the book. Unlike the last time, I tried out a page using fonts before doing so, but it looked off to me, to the extent that Ram and Anand have never seen it, and I can’t find it on my hard disk either, so I doubt I even saved it. Hard dislike, I guess.

The next step was to figure out how I’d do it. For one thing, Grafity’s Wall was all drawn in ink and then coloured digitally, and this time Ram and Anand intended to go more of a multimedia route, with the primary media being pencil and acrylic, with some collage involved. It didn’t seem like lettering on paper would be the best way to go. Secondly, the last 20 or so pages of Grafity’s Wall had been particularly tiring because of deadline crunch, since I had to wait till the art was all done before I could letter it, and I wanted to avoid that this time – to avoid burnout, but also to ensure the highest quality I could manage.

I wanted to see if there was a way I could hybridise the process – as usual, I’d do a digital placement draft for Ram to make any script changes he wanted, and then the letterforms would still all be drawn by hand, but maybe I could do the rest on the computer, so that, if needed, I could letter before the art was entirely done, and leave the compilation for later. (Ironically, because of the freeform way the book was made, this time around it was the script that chased the artwork, because Ram and Anand would often design the pages, and Ram would script it in batches of 5-10 after Anand was done drawing them. Even so, the process went much smoother this time, and I think there are around 20 pages in there that were partly lettered before the art was done, and you can’t tell the difference.)

One of my early hybrid experiments was a story called “The Dead Sparrow” for which I’d done the letters on paper, and then made the balloons in Photoshop (and then showed it to my friends to see if anyone could tell). (Words: Rick Quinn, Art & Colours: Quinn Rae Manning)

Around the same time, I’d acquired my favourite new device – now more than two years old – a 10.5-inch iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil. I’d been practicing lettering on the iPad, trying to create custom lettering brushes that both felt good to use and looked good in print. See, one of the reasons you haven’t seen a truckload of hand-lettered books from me is that it’s expensive, and even people who are interested in having me hand-letter something will baulk at the cost – for good reason – so I wanted to figure out a process that looked as good, but didn’t end up costing either me or my clients too much time and money. Here’s a page I did as an experiment, from a book that didn’t end up happening. (Words: Deniz Camp, Art: Max Diallo, Colours: Vittorio Astone)

You can see the heavy Moebius influence, but also hints of the lettering style I’d end up using on Blue in Green. I did this in Clip Studio Paint, but by then I’d landed on Adobe Photoshop Sketch as my go-to app to draw letters in, because I could access Kyle Webster’s brushes, and customise them as I needed. It has a ton of limitations when it comes to drawing or creating balloons and so on, which Procreate and Clip Studio Paint do far better, and Sketch can be very annoying to use, but it gave me the best results in this particular case, so I had to work with all of its oddities and just hope they didn’t put out an update for the next two years that might wreck my process.

I lettered the text from one of our early pages (which at the time was still being worked on), and ran it by Ram before I put it on the page itself. At this point, there’s no other way anyone will ever see this, so here’s my first “stylesheet”:

Ram pointed out that if we used a style that neat, it didn’t feel too different from lettering it digitally, and that I should lean in far more into the idiosyncrasies and roughness of hand-lettering. So I did another version, which you can see side-by-side with the same text in the original style:

It’s not apparent at a glance, but that’s actually the same custom lettering brush – in the former, I’m just putting a lot of pressure on the pen to make it look neat and even, while in the other one, I’m a lot looser, so the brush can do its own thing. I also let in an Art Deco influence creep into these letterforms, where rounder letters are exaggeratedly broad, while the other letters are much slimmer, providing a contrast that, when translated into hand-lettering, gives the whole thing a nice staccato feel. To even out the reading a bit, I made the Rs, Ps, and Ss as broad as the other round letters, unlike most Art Deco type, where it’s just the top-to-bottom round letters that get that treatment, like C, D, O and Q.

Ram and Anand both liked this a lot more, so I went ahead and compiled it with the page in Photoshop after experimenting with the brush I used for the balloons, because it needed to sit well both with the letters and the artwork.

Once I’d lettered the whole page, Ram and I looked it over together, and he suggested that I try out a more angular style for the balloons, and maybe let some of the white of the balloon show outside the lines (but not the tail), and to try out coloured captions rather than white ones (because Anand uses a lot of white in his pages, and it might interfere with his storytelling). So he described the exact style I should’ve used, and goddamn me if he wasn’t bang on the money.

This is the final stylesheet you can see throughout the book (you can see that the stacking shifts with the shape of the balloons – you can’t just draw a different shape and have the same word arrangement look good):

We also toyed with using a different lettering style for the flashbacks, or maybe using the same letterforms but drawing round balloons, and a couple of other ideas, but when the flashback pages started coming in, we realised that’d be overegging the pudding.

Most of the book is lettered like this, except for the Suited Man, our weird inhuman guest character. I love the effect I managed to get by simply tweaking the brush to randomise the width of each stroke. There was a lot of undoing involved because I’d often get a stroke that was far too thin or thick to be usable, but I always enjoyed doing these.

And finally, there’s a letter towards the end of the book, that Ram originally wanted to be done in the standard or italic style, but I convinced him to let me try it in mixed case, because I thought it’d look good – hinting at how it’d be written diagetically – and because I wanted to add in a throwback to Grafity’s Wall, which I’d hand-lettered in mixed case. To maintain continuity with the rest of Blue in Green, I lettered it using the same brush, but I had to re-setup the guides for mixed case, and that was a nice trip down memory lane.

There were a few other fun things we did with the lettering of this book, including some interesting digital work, but I’ll leave those for you to discover on your own. (My particular favourite is the page with the jazz quotes – I lettered it and Ram added colour effects that shifted it into another space. Loved that one.)

Blue in Green is available in stores on 28th October!

(PS: I always thought this deserves to become a meme response. Maybe once the book is out …)

3. Sundry

Linkblogging for the week:

There’s John Connell of Massachusetts, who arrived on a mission from God, liquidated his savings, and bought the historic Grafton Center Meetinghouse, transforming it into the “Peaceful Assembly Church,” an endeavor that mixed garish folk art, strange rants from its new pastor (Connell himself), and a quixotic quest to secure tax exemption while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the IRS to grant it. There’s Adam Franz, a self-described anti-capitalist who set up a tent city to serve as “a planned community of survivalists,” even though no one who joined it had any real bushcraft skills. There’s Richard Angell, an anti-circumcision activist known as “Dick Angel.” And so on.

This week’s reading:

  • Hello, Bastar – Rahul Pandita: A potted history of the Naxalite movement, written with a sympathetic eye to their motives and the circumstances in which they emerged. Mainstream reporting on this is incredibly one-sided, so this feels like a necessary rejoinder. But, as seems usual for Indian non-fiction, could’ve used some copy-editing.

4. Recommended Listening

Deep Work and Digital Minimalism – both by Cal Newport – are two books I’ve found valuable, and I often recommend them to people. The first was a lodestone that I didn’t implement entirely (I don’t think producing more is something I need help with, at least since I started lettering for a living), but I swear by digital minimalism as something a lot more people could use practicing than in fact do. (And it’s not nearly as all-consuming as you might expect before you read the book – it’s about navigating useful technology that certain people have added addictive mechanisms to.)

Newport has started a podcast during the pandemic, called Deep Questions with Cal Newport, and it’s excellent. Each episode is formatted as Newport answering reader/listener questions, and this lets him get into the nitty-gritty and specific applications of the general advice he’s been giving for years (in the aforementioned and other books), and I’ve found a lot of value in every episode, especially since Newport doesn’t believe in wasting his listeners’ time. He also contends with many situations specific to life during the pandemic, and I’ve found this part useful for navigating current challenges.

Not everything he says will apply to absolutely everyone, and he’s pretty quick to admit that himself, but – as he pontificates in several episodes – how we use our time well and without carrying excessive anxiety about it is something that our institutions and systems should be concerned with, but sadly are not, so it is left to us to do the best with what we’re given.

As with his books, this podcast is a tool, and one that I’ve personally found useful.

5. From the Commonplace Book

Sometimes I’ll clip a line from an article because it’s strange, or sad, or because it puts a story in my head. This is back from 2008, from a report about someone concealing a stillborn baby:

A South Wales Police source said: ‘We were called in because there was a record of a woman being pregnant but no record of her baby being born. It is a very sad set of circumstances.’

Filed under #research.