There’s No Sunday in Comix

c_a026So tomorrow we bring back the comic (finally!) in regularly updated installments. There’s been a lot of work done on the mechanics of both the comic and its website since we premiered it on Bloomsday back in June. Probably the most time-consuming, and maybe the most important, change since then is our decision to switch to hand-lettering. Josh and I (though mostly Josh, thank god) will be drawing all the text on the original art rather than adding it using a computer font. Yes, it’s a crazy, old-school way of doing things that I’m absolutely certain is worth every bit of the trouble. See the before and after examples below.

digital font (left) and hand lettered (right)

digital font (left) and hand lettered (right)

Hand-lettering has been disappearing from modern comix lately for numerous reasons. Comix are already notoriously time-consuming. Most conservative estimates put the average rate of production time to reading time at about 1,000-to-1. This means that for every minute you spend reading a comic the odds are that someone invested about 16 1/2 hours  making that happen. That number might seem high for something like graphic novels but, remember, strip cartoons are part of this equation. Not a whole lot of people spend half a minute reading something like HENRY, but that kind of subtlety doesn’t get made without some hard work. Simply put, comix take time and, to keep making them, artists take the short-cuts they can to produce them faster. Historically, stuff like this was handled through a division of labor and there were guys who became legends in the industry through speedy, clean, easy-to-read lettering. This was and is skilled precision work that a computer can help facilitate leaving the artist more time to focus on the drawing. Quite a lot of mainstream comix are lettered completely on separate computer files these days and there’s numerous companies that have made a good business of developing fonts for comic artists to use.

I’ve talked to quite a few collectors of original comic art, and they feel that there’s something lacking in this. The separation of lettering and drawing as two separate tasks with two sets of hands is one thing, but now, with digital lettering, the words aren’t even part of the original page any longer. For some people, and for me certainly, this spoils the essence of how comix work as a language; the connection between reading words and pictures in the same moment.

Some of the most personal and craft-oriented comix are still being hand-lettered, of course. I don’t mean to judge the whole of the industry by the short-cuts occurring in the more mainstream material. It’s all just people, each in their own way, trying to make comix better and faster these days is often a big part of better.

When I first conceived of Joyce’s ULYSSES for comix the idea of hand-lettering, though certainly more appealing to my sense of a crafted look, seemed completely impossible. One major and immediately obvious reason for this is that I’ve got horrible penmanship. Truly bad. Add to that the large focus on dialogue and the overall scope of this work and the idea of hand-lettering just seemed too daunting. So, initially, I took the short-cut of using the computer so that I could focus on other aspects.

Big thanks have to go to Jessica Abel for talking me away from that kind of short-cut. Jessica saw some of the first pages of the comic about a year or so ago and encouraged me think about how the text and images are more integrated with hand-lettering. She was, to my horror at the time, quite right.

(Jessica and Matt Madden have developed what i think is the indispensable text on making comix that is complimented by an on-line learning guide. Some of their discussion about the benefits of hand-lettering can be found here.)

Josh is doing a great job making the adjustment to the difference in process and there was a whole lot of fussy photoshop work involved in changing the earlier pages to this new style. Just another part of the project that wouldn’t be possible without his involvement. I’m just glad we made the decision now rather than a couple hundred pages into the thing!

Take a look, a close look, at the  comix and graphic novels you read. How many are hand-lettered? What’s that do for the way text and image seem to fit together? For me, I find it frees up my line quality quite a bit. I ink almost exclusively with a brush because I like a more organic line. I don’t like comix that look like they’re made with a t-square. By putting the handedness back into the lettering my ink line doesn’t compete with the evenly ruled text and things feel a bit more as they should; images and text working simultaneously to present the story.



You can buy copies of the works referenced above by clicking on the links below.


3 thoughts on “There’s No Sunday in Comix

  1. i’m not sure where to place this comment, but in today’s new material (oct 12), panel 35, the verse about mary ann is misquoted; it’s “hising up her petticoats,” not “hissing.”

  2. Now that we’re a few months into it, I can comfortably say that the decision to letter by hand was a good one, and that has, despite what one might think, been a very enjoyable part of creating this work. I’ve found that I’m drawing letter forms more than writing them. It’s actually quite a bit different than simply writing, using your best penmanship.

    I will also say that I think it has GREATLY improved the look and feel of the pages, in that it makes them feel more alive to me. That hit me immediately when I did the first test page of the reverse white lettering on black in a panel from one of Stephen’s heavy thought pages, and it hit Rob immediately when I showed him.

    So, it’s a bit more work, but I’m happy to do it. It’s well worth it. I think it will make even more of a difference in the next chapter…

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