Strange Animals 28oct2019: Cases

We’re officially on Substack now – the sign-up form on my website’s been updated and everything. I’m sending a final blast through MailChimp for anyone whose spam filter might have caught this one, but otherwise that’s that for that.

I’m trying to figure out a way in which I can have this newsletter go out more frequently but not have it feel perfunctory in the bargain. Every instalment should have something of value, you know. Just telling you what I’m up to is not my idea of a satisfying edition, but on the other hand, I’ve established that I can’t write a 1000-word essay on a new topic every week.

So I’m trying something new – splitting a thought across editions. Let’s see if this works any better. I’m gonna try and get us up to weekly again, but officially I plan to stay unscheduled.

1. Notes

This section’s a bit long, since we’ve been away a while. You can skip to the main topic below if you like.

I have updates on two of my goals for the year. Last month, I completed 100 days of working out. This means, of course, that I won’t get to 200 total by the end of the year, but I’m okay with that, because I’m already ahead of last year’s goal. Also last month, I completed 3 years of not smoking. In real terms, I’m probably the healthiest now that I’ve ever been, so it’s all downhill from here, right?

The other thing’s a writing update: I completed a full pen-and-paper draft of PROJECT SAWBONES. This means I completed my goal of writing a whole novel/graphic novel by the end of the year. This also means that this is the first full graphic novel I’ve ever written, and the first full book I’ve written since the age of 16, when I completed my first … er … “novel”, let’s call it.

There’s obviously work to do on it. I think around 70% of this draft is usable. The rest needs solid rewrites, and I think I’ll be adding at least a couple of new scenes to flesh out certain relationships. After another draft, it’ll go to the artist whom I’d like to work with on this, and if they’re game, I’ll probably tell you what it’s called, and everything else.

I’m taking a wee break after this. I’m raring to get back to PROJECT STRANGER, but realistically, I’ll be doing lettering work flat-out till the end of the month, since I’m taking most of next month off to go to the UK for ThoughtBubble, and I’d rather not start work on STRANGER and then lose my thread. I might write a short story instead.

Sundry updates: I was interviewed by Platform Comics for their series of podcasts about the practical aspects of comics creation, and we had a nice free-ranging talk on everything from what lettering involves on a day-to-day basis to how one (I, in this case) can build and maintain a career doing comics. It was a fun chat, and you can listen to it here. I also recorded commentary on lettering a sequence for Little Bird, and they made it into a nice video that you can watch here.

Finally, I’m lettering the new Hellblazer series for DC Comics, written by Si Spurrier and drawn by Aaron Campbell. The story begins this month with a one-shot drawn by Marcio Takara that’ll be out this Wednesday, 30th October, titled The Sandman Universe Presents: Hellblazer.

2. A Matter of Size

I read this thoroughly entertaining interview with Jonathan Hickman recently, and I found myself disagreeing with him on something. He was asked the question:

Any reason you chose to use the ultimate type font? I assumed it would be something to do with the story but that wasn’t the case so far.

(By “Ultimate-type”, the questioner means a mixed-case font, which was the norm for Marvel’s Ultimate line of books, and which Hickman used as a formal trick in his Avengers run to differentiate Ultimate Reed Richards from the 616 characters.)

Hickman answers:

As for why we use a mixed-case font instead of an all-caps font for our dialogue, sorry to disappoint you, but there is no story reason for that, it’s purely practical. 

I noticed a couple of years ago that you could stick more words in a smaller balloon if you used a mixed-case font and so I made it standard for all my books. 

I like looking at a page and seeing the finished art not the word balloons. FIGHT ME. 

I empathise entirely with Hickman’s desire to see more of the art than the balloons, except – that’s not how it works, and I tweeted about it. A few letterers chimed in to agree with me, but I also realised that this is something that’s not too obvious to non-letterers.

Simply put – you can’t just change from an all-caps font to a mixed-case version of the same font and have that be it. That would take up less space, sure, but let’s see if it’s obvious why:

Well, it’s smaller, isn’t it? To illustrate this better, here’s a page from two books both written by Hickman, lettered one in all-caps and one in mixed case (not the same font, but two fonts by the same designer).

As you can see, the text on the right just looks smaller. You’re not just making the text take up less space, you’re compromising on readability.

There are two elements at work here. One, when you shift to mixed case, you need to bump up the point size a little to maintain the same visual weight and readability. And two, you need to increase the leading (i.e. vertical spacing) so that the ascenders and descenders of different lines don’t keep running into each other. Like so:

All caps, in fact, takes up less space and looks bigger. Now, different fonts will need different compensatory factors depending on the heights of their elements (x-height, ascenders and descenders) and the thickness of the strokes, but essentially, this is true for most if not all comic-book fonts.

In Hickman’s books themselves, which are, as he says, all lettered in mixed case, the result is, ahem, mixed. I feel CC’s Wild Words (used in East of West and Manhattan Projects) is more readable than the proprietary VC font used in Hox/PoX, which are the books under discussion. And there’s a simple reason for that – Wild Words is being used at a slightly bigger size.

Obviously, I don’t mean to say Hickman doesn’t know his stuff – he’s one of the smartest people in comics right now – but I wanted to present a different opinion.

There’s more to be said on cases and readability, which I’ll come back to in the next edition. In the meantime, here’s some homework. My pal Hass wrote a thread about this, and we’ll be using it as reference next time.

3. Recommended Viewing

I watched the Estonian film November recently, and it was one of my favourite films of the year. It’s shot in gorgeous black-and-white, and is a fabulist story based on Estonian folk tales, taking place in a world with kratts, witches and werewolves, where you can whistle for the devil at a crossroads.

Beyond that, though, it’s a darkly funny, politically alive film that doesn’t rest on the strangeness of its tropes, and instead tries to find new ways of wringing emotional resonance and a sense of wonder from its core ideas. And possibly my favourite thing about the movie are the actors – mostly amateurs – almost all of whom have incredibly striking faces and bodies, with which they communicate a sense of the alien and the bereft that grounds the film in its stranger moments and that elevates it in the more unfocussed sections.

I’ve tried not to talk about the story itself here, partly because it’s not what makes the film, and partly because it’s better if you go in more-or-less blind. I watched it expecting a horror film – I’m not sure why – and I wasn’t at all disappointed when it swerved entirely elsewhere.

4. From the Commonplace Book

I recently read this review/profile of the upcoming game from the makers of Monument Valley, and I think it had one of the most beautiful opening paragraphs of a review I’ve read. The rest of the article is worth a read as well, but this is something else altogether:

In another life, I worked in a video production studio. One day, a client came in with a broken tape from an old camcorder, with its ribbon clearly split. He held it out to me like a bird with a broken wing. It was of personal significance, he explained, and he just hoped we could help. So my boss took it to the back, where he gingerly deconstructed the tape, loosening the ribbon and carefully applying a piece of Scotch tape to fuse the tear. Then he spun the spools tight using the eraser end of a pencil, pirouetting like a prima donna. I pressed play, and began digitizing the footage like any other car commercial or football conference I edited at the time – until I saw what the client had been so protective about. It was a scene he’d clearly played, rewound, and played again, probably through the tiny screen of his camcorder, so many times that he literally wore out the tape: Roughly seven minutes of he and his wife holding a baby in the hospital. A baby who, I slowly gathered, never made it home.

Filed under #anecdote and #life.