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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

The appearance of a word affects how a reader understands its meaning. Even typeset fonts aren’t neutral. Each differs in line thickness, shape, and ornamentation, evoking an overall tone or personality. If the words are character speech, font is voice, whether in dialogue, thought, or narration. Even if words are not linked to a character, their style still communicates information. A caption box that includes only a time stamp and a location has to be rendered in a certain style and so with certain visual connotations. The most generic, no-frills, corporate-looking font communicates exactly those qualities. Retype that same information in Bauhaus or Broadway or Brush Script and feel the differences.

For Wonder Woman #20 (1988), George Pérez draws his narrator’s text in a font similar to courier news, because the narrator is a reporter seated at a typewriter in an opening panel. Dialogue and third-person narration still appear in standard hand-lettered style, differentiated from the character’s first-person narration as he types.

WONDER WOMAN (1987-2006) #20

When a character in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (2014) reads aloud the ingredients listed on a bottle, Roz Chast switches from curving lines of hand-drawn letters to typeset words arranged in choppy lines.

Comics lettering, whether hand-drawn or mechanical, typically features letterforms with no serifs and consistent line thickness. While sizing and spacing are usually uniform, typesetters can add bolding and italics to suggest the rhythms and emphases of speech. Comics lettering tend to use bolding more often, and letter sizes vary—as an inevitable aspect of hand-drawn imprecision, but for targeted emphases as well. Typesetting creates the impression of invisible lines holding the evenly spaced words and letters in uniform rows, an effect that can clash on a page that otherwise consists of hand-drawn images. Unless you have a targeted aesthetic reason to typeset, draw your letters.

In Skim (2008), Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s main character passes a road sign announcing a town named “Scarborough,” and her narrating self respells it “Scarberia” in a gothic font unlike any other word in the graphic novel:

Word style can vary for a range of such story reasons. Should a narrating character “speak” to the reader in the same font as she does in her dialogue with other characters? Should characters’ words differ too, perhaps echoing their visual qualities, so that the lines of their bodies and their lines of their words visually relate? Or if characters share a single font, perhaps their words differ in color or sizing or some other characteristic?

Mainstream comics traditionally include sound effects, usually onomatopoeia words drawn in expressive lines, shapes and sizes that visually suggest the quality of the sounds they’re evoking: Ka-Pow! ZAP! Even when there’s a separate lettering artist, these words are drawn as part of the initial artwork. In Walking Dead #1 (2003), Tony Moore renders the words of his sound effects, BOOM! and WHUMP!, in sharp lines and shapes that contrast the looser style of his other images, a stylistic difference that parallels their physical difference in the story world:

Mariko and Jillian and Tamaki play with the sound effect convention by placing drawn words within images even though the verbs aren’t always sound-related: “clench” beside toes, “stir” and “stab” beside a straw, and even “apply” beside a bar of deodorant a character rubs in her armpit. In their second graphic novel collaboration This One Summer (2014), the words “Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut.” trails behind a character’s flip-flops as she walks. The insult is in her thoughts after hearing older boys use it to flirt with older girls, so rather than a sound identical to all listeners, it’s filtered through just one character’s unmarked consciousness.

Sounds effects, like most letters on a comics page, are paradoxical because from the perspective of a drawn character they don’t exist. A character can’t “see” a “BOOM!” even though the lines of its letters might overlap with the lines of her own body. But she can see words tattooed on her arm or glowing on a computer screen because they are part of the story world. The division isn’t always clear. Will Eisner established a splash-page norm of words that playfully merge with the story world. The letters of The Spirit might be blocked by a passing ship, or form from the smoke spewed from chimneys, or appear on a card held by a character, or provide an object for characters to climb.

Image result for the spirit splash pages

Because it breaks the baseline naturalism of most mainstream genres, such effects are usually limited to opening titles—but not always. After a young woman agrees to go out with the main character in American Born Chinese (2006), Gene Luen Yang draws the repeating word “YES.” in a column above the narrator’s bed, with the last “YES.” shaped to the contours of his bed. In Hannah K. Lee’s Language Barrier (2017), the letters of the one-page “You Don’t Owe Anyone Anything” consist of variously stretched, yellow smiley faces:

In “Student Loans,” the letters of the second word are darker, thicker, and drawn in front of and blocking the letters of the first word. The artistic potential of words has been explored outside of comics too. Glenn Ligon’s How It Feels to be Colored Me (1989) and Kay Rosen’s The Ed Prints (1998) are paintings that consist entirely of rendered words.

Image result for Glenn Ligon’s How It Feels to be Colored Me

However a word is rendered, evaluate how that style relates to the word’s meaning. Does the style support the meaning or does it contrast it? Imagine the word “thin” drawn in thin letters and then in thick ones. Imagine the word “red” in red ink and then in blue ink. Comics titles are often drawn in letterforms that reflect the title character: Bob Wiacek and Todd McFarlane’s design for The Incredible Hulk #340 (1988) appears to be constructed from blocks of stone; Bernie Wrightson and Gaspar Saladino’s letters for Swamp Thing #1 (1972) might have grown from an actual swamp. The title design for the film Hulk instead uses metallic lettering, and after the character of Swamp Thing is revealed to be a kind of universal god, the lettering changed accordingly:

The appearance of letterforms can contradict word meaning too, as with this dilapidated billboard:

Browse magazine ads and cover designs for other examples of word rendering outside of comics. Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (2013), includes over a hundred variations on Nabokov’s novel, many consisting only of letters:

Image result for lolita covers

Beginning with its January 2018 issue, the covers of Poetry magazine include only the six letters of the word “poetry” arranged in a 3×2 grid and rendered in a different style each month.

Image result for poetry magazine cover design


Any word can be designed in countless different styles:

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