Lettering a comic – a guest article!
A while back I reviewed the first five issues of Terrance Zdunich’s self-published comic, The Molting, which is a pretty cool horror comic (Zdunich was nice enough to send me the sixth issue, too, but I haven’t reviewed it yet). Zdunich thought I might like to get some perspective on the way the comic is lettered, so Oceano Ransford, the letterer on the book, was nice enough to send over this article about his process, with some examples to illustrate them. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’re in the mood for some weird, creepy horror, give the comic a look!
When I was a kid, my uncle gave me my first stack of comic books. The scantily clad heroines and muscled barbarians slicing their way through hoards of demons enticed my imagination, but what seemed to make them come alive were the WHOOSH-ing, CLANGG-ing sound effects and the subtle ways that storytellers convey what our heroes are yelling, whispering, or whimpering. Having no concept of how the artistic process worked, I gave little credit to the unsung artist humbly known as “the letterer” and eagerly devoured the works of such artists as Moebius, Miller, Bisley and the late, great Frazetta.
Cut to 3 decades later, I’m sitting in a dive bar, sipping whisky with friends discussing a new project and the subject of comic book lettering is breached. Terrance Zdunich (of Repo! The Genetic Opera fame) has a new graphic novel project and asks, “Why don’t you letter it?”
Of course my response was simply that I’d never lettered a comic book and wouldn’t want to ruin it, to which my comrades rolled their eyes. Terrance says, “I’ll send you the test I’m sending prospective letterers. It’s a page from the first issue. Show me what you can do and if it’s good and you want to do this, it’s yours.”
I’d made typography, typesetting and design my passion for nearly 15 years, but comic book lettering was a different animal. I pored over my old comics and researched some of the big names in lettering, like Todd Klein, Gaspar Saladino and Nate Piekos. When I found the lettering test in my inbox I excitedly lettered the hell out of it. I must have redone it 3 times but in the end I was pleased – and so was the creator. We soon set to work on The Molting, written and illustrated by Terrance Zdunich, colored by Brian Johnson and lettered by yours truly.
We wanted the main characters to have distinct voices, singled out by type style, color and balloon shapes, which was a great idea, but meant the first issues would be labor intensive, as styles were established. As a purist, I thought it might be fun to hand-letter my first comic, but I had a full time job and time wouldn’t permit; placing the artwork in a vector program would have to do, and frankly there seem to be few letterers who still work outside the digital realm. As the balloons began to materialize I found they needed a degree of bloat to carry the weight of the dialog, visually and intellectually. As well, both balloon and tail often needed to convey emotions, while still holding true to character style. Then there was the issue of how to fit them within the panels without concealing the characters and making sure they read in the intended order of the dialog – all very tricky.
The day the colorized panels arrived brought great excitement. The work I’d done so far was sensitive to the content of the inked black and white panels, but now I had to consider the richly textured color versions and adjust the balloons and dialog so as to give the rich color combinations and subtleties their proper due. It’s quite possible I have a little too much respect for the work of illustrators, as there were times that I almost felt dirty covering up a portion of the art – like some hack tagger scrawling his neighborhood moniker across a Picasso, but then came the realization that the letterer is as much an important part of the story as the penciler, inker, or colorist. Still … I cringed a little when I had to place a speech balloon over a particularly delicious bit of background.
I’ve left the most satisfying for the last … the sound effects. Sometimes a scene needs a little more than just a BANG or a POW so I was inspired to do a little aural research. Much like a foley artist on a movie, I found myself slapping objects together, tumbling to the ground, and spending hours at the dinner table surrounded by plates, bowls and glasses, “tinkling” the spoons and “scritching” the knives. There was the idea that these inserts would not only be part of the dialog, but the landscape itself. Color mattered. Mood mattered. Direction and tone mattered. More importantly, blending into the background – but NOT blending too much – mattered.
Today I’m hard at work on the 7th issue of The Molting, settled into a routine and comfortable in my abilities, even as each issue brings new challenges. Sharing my auditory world with you in visual form is one the most rewarding experiences of my life and I hope you’ll pick up a copy of this labor of love.
About Oceano Ransford:
I grew up in a small community north of San Francisco, my artistic zeal fueled by the artists I admired within the pages of comic books and Heavy Metal Magazine and the artwork of the underground music scene during the 1980s and ’90s. In ’95 I moved to L.A. to attend Otis College of Art & Design, embracing graphic design and typography as my passion and earning a degree from Otis in ’98. After graduation I began, and continue to design props for tv and film. My work has been seen in such movies as Fight Club, Panic Room, and Black Dahlia as well as in the TV series Medium, Numbers, and Bones. With L.A.’s rich history in the music industry, I began working with local musicians on album art, show posters and band logos. In ’09, I began lettering for the graphic novel, The Molting, written, illustrated and published by Terrance Zdunich. When not working in the prop industry or on The Molting, I spend my time taking pictures, or exploring the nuances of historical and cultural typography.
Thanks to Oceano for this nice taste of what kinds of things a letterer has to consider when he sits down in front of a comic. We often concentrate on the writer and penciller and forget the colorist and the letterer, so it’s always fun to hear about those aspects of comics!