This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 5, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
I was proofing the lettering with Sally Cantarino on our upcoming comic and the importance of lettering as a storytelling tool really hit me. More than just putting words on the page, the placement of balloons and captions really guide the eye through a page. Who are some of your favorite letterers working currently?
I’m disappointed in myself. That’s not because I couldn’t think of any letterers to answer this question with, but because I had to think about it for a moment
For me when you ask someone what their favorite thing is of any subject or grouping, it’s not the thing that they ponder over for hours or create a categorical argument for correctness about, it’s the thing they fire from the gut the moment they hear the question completed. Deep down you know what your favorites are and you don’t have to think about them. They may not be the best or the most refined of whatever it is being discussed, but they’re what you know you love without even thinking about it.
If you’d asked me about so many other different groups of creators in comics, I know I could have fired right back at you with an answer. No need for thought or words to filter through my brain, it would have gone straight from ear to mouth.
Writer? Brian K. Vaughn. The range and consistent quality of his comics work has kept me enthralled since I entered high school, and never has he left me feeling underwhelmed. Each new phase of his career is a delight to behold. He’s also a genuinely great person who has had a small, but notable impact on my own life.
Artist? Frank Quitely. Again, here is someone whose work I always enjoy. He has shaped how I look at superheroes and the comics page. No matter how long I have to wait for new pages to arrive, I know they will always be worth the delay, whether it’s the unassailable action of Jupiter’s Legacy or the medium-bending efforts of Pax Americana.
Colorist? Nathan Fairbairn. This man is perhaps the single most undervalued person working in American comics today, as revealed by his being the best coloring work of the past couple years without a single Eisner nomination. He brought new life to Scott Pilgrim (a book I love) and made Pax Americana tick like the clockwork metaphors it created. His recent career is the case for colorists being treated like a more integral component of any comics-creating team.
I could go on, touching on editors and inkers, but I think the point is made. Each of these positions within a collaborative comics team holds a favorite spot in my heart. So why did I pause and then stutter when you asked me about letterers?
Without trying to excuse myself, I think part of it comes in that if a letterer is doing their job well, oftentimes you won’t notice it at all. Like good lighting or sound design in a film, it’s far easier to pick up on mistakes than it is to notice the small things that might show a truly refined hand. Placing word balloons, captions, and other text on the page must do certain things. It should follow the reading order and track with the reader’s eye and design of the page. It should minimize its impact on the art itself, never obscuring important details or getting in the way of a certain moment. It should simply be legible and never leave any doubt as to who is speaking (or thinking). Achieving these goals, which are far more difficult than most comics readers know, doesn’t just benefit a comic, it is absolutely necessary for a comic to function.
Yet when you’re reading the page of a run-of-the-mill superhero comic or even a well produced indie pamphlet, there’s no call to appreciate the letterer for doing their job well. Simply reading the book you will not notice their efforts because that is often the goal. Unless there’s a special call for lettering effects or a tricky page design, things often dreamed up at the scripting stage, good lettering ought to let your eyes pass along as smoothly as a cruise liner cutting through placid ocean waters.
This isn’t to say that the craft of lettering shouldn’t be admired or respected, only that it is something it takes greater time, attention to detail, and understanding of the comics form to achieve. Once you start to realize what bad lettering is, it’s hard to miss it and it makes you that much more grateful for good letterers. The same thing applies to the design of letters themselves. Ask an advertising or visual media student about kerning and prepare to have how you look at the world ruined forever.
So it took me a moment to think about who my favorite letterers are, the people who when I see their names on a comic book make my heart leap. They do exist, but I clearly don’t think about them nearly enough. Their work does elevate the comics I enjoy and I think I owe it to myself to pay more attention to their names in the future and not take for granted the contributions I enjoy. That’s generally a good lesson all around when consuming art and media, as recognizing who and what you enjoy can only benefit your taste and ability to select what to consume in the long run.
Now that I’ve worked through all of that, I suppose I owe you a few answers to the question you asked me.
The first name I want to throw out is someone who anyone that has read Marvel Comics in the past decade has almost certainly encountered: Joe Caramagna. I’m an admirer of the man’s work just based on his enormous output. As a big Kirby fan, I have lots of respect for people in comics who not only do their work well, but who create that work at a fevered pitch. Caramagna’s name plasters Marvel Comics like wallpaper and everything credited to him is damn good lettering.
The baseline for Caramagna’s work is that imperceptible addition of just what the comic needs that I mentioned earlier. He puts the words in the best possible places on each page so the comic reads just as it should. Yet when he’s on a comic that aspires for more, he is always an essential part of the team aiming to elevate genre fare to the next level.
I’ve written in-depth analyses of the Mark Waid and Chris Samnee Daredevil a couple of times here, and both times Caramagna’s name has come up. He looks at the story and everything important about it, the art and how it is designed to function within both medium and genre, then makes very specific choices about his lettering. In both instances, his efforts are additive, creating clear effects on tone, style, and theme. It’s in Daredevil that I first noticed his name and now I never miss it.
The second letterer to come to mind is both the first person to ever make me notice the art of lettering and the seemingly default winner for the Eisner category each year: Todd Klein. Klein is best known for his work onSandman, work that holds up better after almost 30 years than every other aspect of the comic. He created a mood with each balloon in these stories and helped readers clearly identify amorphous characters both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Picking up where he left off in Sandman: Overture, Klein showed the world that he was still on top of his game and capable of crafting some of the most effective and recognizable lettering in all of comics, ever.
While Sandman and other premiere series may be what Klein is best known for, it’s his work on Suicide Squad that has won him an eternal place in my heart. Suicide Squad was a series with none of the flashy elements or calls for praise that Sandman had, yet Klein still brought his A-game. It’s here that you can tell he is someone with a deft understanding of how the comics form functions as he gracefully guides readers through each page. Whispers, shouts, and banter all read with the exact effect desired by co-writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale. Klein was a master in the 80s and he’s still a master today, a rare case of longevity in craftsmanship for American comics.
Speaking of Suicide Squad, my last pick for a current favorite rests in the hand-lettering of a certain series inspired by that under-loved diamond of DC Comics. I’m referring to Michel Fiffe’s work on COPRA. None of what I’m about to say is meant to understate the technical prowess of Fiffe’s lettering. He understands the comics page better than almost any of his peers, and his lettering backs that up. It is always exactly where it needs to be, every bit as integral to the page as his colors or inks.
What I really love about Fiffe’s work though is its personal quality. You know when you read a speech bubble or caption or letters column that you are reading the words of Michel Fiffe. They are clearly handwritten without appearing amateurish or low-budget. He has perfected a style that leaves his own influence intact while creating a font every bit as legible and well-distributed as those you might purchase online. Like everything in COPRA, it is his, and that helps to form a direct connection between artist and reader. Those letters are made with love.
And here’s the thing, that’s not a list of the best letterers working comics today. It certainly features many of the greats, but it’s far from being comprehensive or ranked in any way. Those are just a few letterers who leap out from my head only a few moments after hearing this question. They’re guys whose work I love and have some level of personal affection for.
While I’d like to encourage people reading this column to check out all of their work, I’d also like them to ask themselves this very same question. It’s okay if it takes a moment or two to come up with an answer. I bet once you start thinking about it, it won’t be easy to stop. Whether or not you’ve been conscious of it, if you’re a comics reader lettering has been having an impact on you all along. You do have favorites, even if you might not remember their names.
It’s worth taking a little more time to stop and recognize the contributions of these very talented artists. I’m certainly glad you asked me to take the time.