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Chris Eliopoulos on “Labels”

Letterer extraordinaire Chris Eliopoulos is also a name familiar to readers of his Desperate Times comic from Image, and more recently, on the excellent Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius series from Marvel, which Eliopoulos draws and co-writes with Marc Sumerak. Chris’ website can be found here.

Whenever I meet people at, say, a wedding or a party, they ask me what I do? I do plenty of things. I brush my teeth, I eat food, I take showers, I drive my kids to school, I watch football games. But that’s not what they want to know-really. What they really want to know is what do I do for a living, so they can judge me as someone worthy of talking to or someone to make a run to the bar to avoid.

But to be honest, I can’t really describe what I do, so I usually say I’m an insurance salesman and, moments later, they make that run to the bar. But seriously, what is it that I do? I know that people who read comics and those that are in the business label me a letterer. And that’s true, I do letter a bunch of books and have been doing so for fifteen years and that’s what I’m known best for. But I also do more that that. I do things that I think I’m better at, but everyone else thinks is a hobby of mine. I want to shout at the top of my lungs that I’m more than they think I am.

Let’s be honest here. Letterers are the scum of the industry. Everyone looks down on what we do-except maybe Augie De Blieck-and thinks that the art of lettering is akin to moving furniture. You can get just about anyone to do it and it’ll look the same. We are a necessary evil and are usually the least-considered member of the team on any given book. We don’t even get a credit on the cover like everyone else.

To prove my point, here’s a story from years ago. It’s no slight on Wizard-I like everyone there and they’ve always been kind to me and I love hanging out with them, so no Wizard bashing here. That said–I was lettering the Black Bull line of books at the time and they invited me to the Chicago show. I agreed, thinking that I was being shown a level of respect I didn’t get anywhere else. I was a member of the creative team. I later learned that they were paying my way, so I could man the Black Bull booth. That’s one way to deflate an ego. But, I always keep my word and shut my mouth and did what was asked of me. I spent the entire time manning the booth with my good friend Glenn Herdling, which made it fun.

Then it was time for the Gatecrasher team to do their signing. Mark Waid, Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, Paul Mounts and…well, I was manning the booth. It was my job to make sure the talent were taken care of. So, I was the one who had to get them drinks and snacks. It was embarrassing, both for me and my co-workers, whom I also considered friends. It was made better when Gareb Shamus saw what was happening and joined me in getting the snacks. Gareb has always been a stand up guy and he made me feel better about what I was doing, so no animosity at all. It was what it was and I was used to the feeling of being considered less than the rest.

But, I am more than they think I am, I can do more than they think I can, I can do different things than they think I can. But no one seems to notice.

For example, did you know that for the past five years or so, I’ve also written and drawn cartoons for the “Complete Idiots Guide” books? Did you know, for two years, I wrote a golf strip for Sports Illustrated? Did you know I wrote and drew my own self-published book at Image? Did you know that I write and draw a comic book for Marvel Comics? I’ve done all of those things and what is my label? Letterer.

Speaking of Franklin Richards, the book I co-write and draw. That book is labeled an “all-ages” book. Another label. It’s not a bad label either. Unfortunately, there’s a perception that comes with that label-“kiddie stuff”. People dismiss this book out of hand as beneath them, as children’s books, as something stupid people read. Sound familiar? That is what drives most people within the comic book industry crazy about the outside perception of the label “comic book”.

So, the world, in general views “comic books” as a label to describe material for kids or stupid people. They’re all about guys flying around in tights and nothing more, so why bother reading. Believe me, I understand it because my “all-ages” book has been ghetto-ized in a ghetto-ized industry. We’ve been nominated for an Eisner award, a few Harvey awards, but it’s just some kids book. But, as I said before, I’m used to being looked down on and I’m okay with it.

The label “comic books” is so bad now that movies will label their adaptation of a comic book as “From the graphic novel work of…” so that it isn’t considered cheesy and scare off potential viewers. There is a perception out there that makes everyone within the industry want to scream at the top of their collective lungs that we’re so much more than what they think we are. And no matter how many times we try to tell people that comic books aren’t always what they think, you’ll get a polite nod as they make their way to the bar.

So what do we do about it? How do we change perception? We’ve had movies made based on comic books-blockbusters even. We’ve taken to calling comic books graphic fiction or some other new term. We have major writers in Hollywood looking to write comic books. We’ve improved the quality of the books, the coloring, the stories, the diversity and yet, comic books are for stupid people and not worth the time. So, what’s the answer? I don’t know. I came into this industry with that perception because I hadn’t read comics. How I got here is beyond me, but I’ve had my perceptions change. I mean, there are still a lot of super hero comics and that’s not my thing, but there is so much more out there.

Maybe the answer is books like Franklin Richards-the kiddie books. Maybe now that comic strips are dying off with the newspapers that are folding, maybe we can get readers to follow strips to the comic book format. People buy strip collections in bookstores, why can’t we offer the same thing as well? Or why can’t we provide daily comics in newspaper format to newspapers around the world? Maybe that could build up newspaper readership and comic book perceptions. In February, a collected edition of Franklin Richards will be coming out and will, hopefully, be in bookstores. Maybe that’s a test bed to see if we can get some new readers to look beyond the perception of comic books and try something new and realize that comics aren’t for stupid people.

Anything’s possible, but what do I know? I’m just a letterer.

14 Comments

I agree with you that, hopefully, the collected volume of Franklin Richards will do well, because the comics industry is clearly spinning its wheels.

The big events in mainstream comics these days are geared to die-hard comic book fans. Civil War, which garnered alot of press outside of the comic book bubble is not an easy comic to jump onto.

Further, the new stuff that is coming out is not geared towards kids at all. I expect that within the next ten years comics are going to find that they have even fewer fans in their twenties, since right now they’re not being caught while they’re young.

Books labelled as “kids stuff” are the key to making this a thriving industry.

If we compare comics to other media like movies, television, or the internet, the comic industry comes up very short. Comics don’t have as broad a range of genres, and they definitely do next to nothing to appeal to different age groups or demographics.

I sincerely hope that your Franklin Richards work is well recieved, and wins over some young fans.

Oddly enough, I neevr knew who Eliopoulos was until he did “Desperate Times” in Savage Dragon. I view him as a cartoonist who does lettering, not as a letterer … hey, guess what, Stan Sakai is also a cartoonist who does lettering. Pretty good company there.

Chris, I agree with almost everything you wrote. But when you write: ” But, as I said before, I’m used to being looked down on and I’m okay with it.” Well, I don’t believe that for a second. The “OK with it part,” I mean. Used to it? Sure, I bet. OK with it? Not for a minute. Nor should you be. It’s bull$hit. And you wouldn’t have written this essay if you it didn’t bother you. And that’s a good thing: You’re pushing the medium — if ever so slightly; there’s a lot of inertia to overcome! — in a different direction with “Franklin Richards”. Keep up the good work!

You should write a series of essays, your take on the comics industry, called “What do I Know? I’m Just a Letterer.”

I guess by “okay with it”, he means “it won’t ruin my life, I’ll keep on truckin'”. This is what I mean when I say I’m okay with people disliking or hating my work, anyway. Of course I would rather they didn’t, but if they do, then life goes on.

Agreed that I would like to read a column from Mr. Eliopoulos. I think he’s lettered just about all of my favorite books for as long as I’ve been reading, and it’s a viewpoint on the industry that has never been really explored.

I published a web comic awhile back and getting decent lettering was an enormous problem. I’m not sure we ever really solved it, but it was an eye-opening experience. Ever since that I’ve found myself paying a lot more attention to lettering techniques and how they affect a story.

I’d just like to mention that I’ve always noticed the lettering in comics — my longstanding favorite is Tom Orzechowski, but nostalgia may play a big role there — and lettering really makes a huge difference in my comics reading experience. If I see a comic with bad or amateurish lettering, I simply cannot enjoy it: the whole book comes across as cheap and amateurish if the lettering isn’t competent.

Hmm.

I was expecting (and kinda hoping) for a write-up about how challenging lettering really is and why it OUGHT to be more appreciated.

>

Chris,

That’s just disgusting. If you’d been a team mate of mine, I’d have made Wizard’s EIC your personal body slave for the weekend.

Oh, you poor sad pitable man. I don’t know how you get up in the morning.

… Honestly, Chris, I don’t know what to tell you. I like you. Never met you, but your lettering is excellent, and anyone who thinks lettering isn’t a careful, painstaking art should see a John Byrne book where he does it himself. Or they should see Marvel books when they did mix-cased lettering before you helped them figure that out properly. I like your Franklin Richards stuff. I’ve enjoyed “Desperate Times.”

I guess what I would like to say is — get over yourself. Geez. Take pride in what you do, you big pansie. You keep people sane and amused when reading the idiot guides. You produce enjoyable artwork that children and adults enjoy. You make stories understandable through arranging the dialogue clearly. Be proud. I like your stuff. But so what if I don’t? You know what you’re doing, you make a valuable and worthwhile contribution, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either very ignorant or very stupid.

Chris Eliopoulos

December 6, 2006 at 8:29 pm

Right now, I’m writing from DisneyWorld and just wanted to check in. Don’t feel bad for me. Obviously, my point was missed by some. I was using my story as a metaphor for the comic industry as a whole.

Part of the reason comics are considered a low form of art is because of perception. That was the point of this article. Nothing more.

The thing with lettering is that when it’s done best people don’t really notice, but when it’s done badly, boy… It really screws up the whole look of a comic.

For instance, I didn’t buy David Lloyd’s Kickback because of the lettering. I liked the art and the story looked promising but I just couldn’t get over a couple of horrendous moments in lettering.

I’m looking forward to the collected Franklin Richards, good to hear it’s coming since I’m a trade reader.

Lewis Himelhoch

December 7, 2006 at 7:47 am

Like it or not, labels are generally how we get judged and some labels have negative connotations. When I was in college, for example, I was excited about becoming a computer programmer however, noone uses that term anymore. We are all software engineers. So why not fancy up your title when introducing yourself. Call yourself a professional calligrapher who specializes in applications for graphical story telling. Sounds impressive doesn’t it?
Play the game, man. Play the game.

Hey, Chris, don’t worry. Real comics fans know the value of a good letterer. I’ve seen a minicomic in NJ that did nothing but talk about the best letterers in the industry. Without, the marriage between words and art in comics would be like that of Britney Spears and…well…anybody, I guess. Lettering comics is a real art and skill, and you do it as well as anyone. And you’re a damn good cartoonist, too!

Whoops. Guess I did miss Chris’ point.

“Comic book” is often used as a synonym for “retarded” or rather — well, I think what people are referring to are — I was reading “Essential X-Men.” There are stories where Magneto attacks the X-Men. Why? No reason, really. He just does it so that there’ll be a fight scene to play to the fetishistic adrenaline blitz that superhero fans are looking for. And I think when people say “comic book” in a derogatory fashion, they’re referring to the idea of stories that exist solely to provide some form of absurdist violence or power fantasy without any real logic or genuine personality behind it. And that isn’t… you know. That reputation is not wholly unearned.

At the same time, I like to think that superhero comics have come a long way since then, offering civil rights metaphors, galvanizing messages that inside all of us are heroes, that the best way to pass through the world is to explore and try to understand everything there is — and basically offering a myth and legend that no other genre has to provide.

It’s fine to be hurt by the derogatory term of “comic book,” but it would probably be better to a) understand it and b) show that there’s more there than what might be immediately obvious.

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