After chattering about this subject a bit on Twitter, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss some of the things we’re doing differently in lettering Errant Story, and why we’re doing them that way. Before I get into this, I’d like to recommend reading Nate Piekos’s article about comic book lettering conventions, because it’s really important to know about the industry standards before you decide to go around subverting them.
First and foremost, here’s the important thing to know about Errant Story: this is a work that is entirely handled in-house. That means that we do everything up until the files go to the printer, all the writing, all the art, all the lettering, all the editing, everything. Because we do that, and we don’t have umpteen different people putting their hands on this project who need to all be communicating in the same standardized language, we have the freedom to do things our way, even when our way isn’t the industry standard (or even, necessarily, the best way of doing something).
When I came in as an editor and started looking into editing Errant Story for the collector’s edition, one of the first things I did was draw up a style guide. Basically, this is a document that lays out how to handle all the little lettering quirks that might come up in the course of lettering the pages. When I did this, I made a few decisions that ran counter to the way comic books are traditionally lettered, such as…
Because the pages of Errant Story are small and dense, there’s not a lot of negative space for large bubbles with a lot of text. Instead, text is routinely broken up into phrases so that the bubbles can be moved and distributed around the art in what little negative space there is.
However, this runs into a lettering issue. Traditionally, dialogue which trails off and begins in another bubble ends in ellipses in the first bubble, and starts with ellipses in the next. I scrapped this, because the result was a whole lot of ellipses needlessly taking up precious page space and introducing unnecessary visual pauses into the dialogue. Instead, dialogue which trails into the next bubble ends with ellipses, but the subsequent bubble begins without them. I figure our readers are smart enough to follow that, especially since it’s pretty close to literary grammar.
I eliminated the double dashes in Errant Story for the same reason I eliminated the secondary ellipses: to save room, and bring the lettering back towards a literary standard of grammar. I’m sure the original reason for the double dash had to do with the difficulties inherent in hand lettering, and I’ve done enough of that to sympathize, but Errant Story is not hand lettered. The ideal in moving to digital lettering is to mimic the feel of hand lettering, but without slavish devotion to the restrictions it created. Errant Story doesn’t have a seventy year history of lettering style to match, so I feel no remorse whatsoever about bidding the double dash adieu.
In Errant Story, we only ever see one type of caption, for locations or times. These always appear in a shadowbox, in a specific font, in mixed caps.
At one point in the story, Sarine is going to spend a ridiculous amount of time talking about the past. These are not, strictly, narrative captions, so they’ll appear in their own unique format to indicate that they are voiced over the art.
Traditionally, the letter I only appears with crossbars when it is a personal pronoun or part of an acronym. This is one of those comic book lettering conventions that I understand from a lettering perspective but loathe from an editing perspective. In this case the editor in me teamed up with my lazy side and won, and consequently anytime an I is capitalized in Errant Story it appears with the crossbars. To do otherwise would require either manually dropping the letter into lowercase anytime it would be required, or routinely typing it in lowercase within the script. Neither is something I feel to be an acceptable use of my time.
Emanating Dialogue / Off-Panel Dialogue
Traditionally, dialogue that isn’t coming from a character on screen (as it were), ends in a tail to direct the reader’s attention off panel or to the point from which the dialogue is originating. Again, Errant Story has small, dense pages (because in Poe’s head letters don’t take up any space, much to my continued annoyance), so there’s usually no room to do this. Instead, any dialogue bubble that can’t be directed to the character doesn’t have a tail at all. There are a couple exceptions, but generally we assume the readers are smart enough to figure out who’s speaking and follow the dialogue without that little cue.
Errant Story has small, dense pages, and all the art is against a black page background. Butting bubbles up against borders (which is preferred for most books) makes no sense in that context, so all bubbles in Errant Story break the borders of the panels. I feel that keeps the eye moving across the page better, as well, though I might feel differently if the pages were on a white page background and had a lot of negative space to play with.
There are all kinds of rules about how and when to use quotation marks in a comic book, and they’re good rules… but rather than pay them any attention, I have done my level best to eliminate quotation marks from Errant Story dialogue altogether. I personally think they’re ugly and there’s no very good reason to include them in dialogue lettering, as we rarely speak with them in life. The exception is when a character is speaking in a way that clearly calls for air quotes. Everything else, I’ve found a way to work around that I think is just as clear.
The traditional approach to indicating dialogue in another language is to enclose it in chevron brackets. I kept that, but also decided that in Errant Story, the elves are hoity-toity enough to demand their own special font, which is something that is not always done. I then spent hours swearing and trying to find a font that was both arrogantly old fashioned and still legible as a dialogue font.
In Errant Story there is also a special font dedicated to reading or rote recitation. This appears without brackets, because it’s meant to only indicate a change in the character’s tone.
Telepathy in Errant Story is kindof a nightmare from a lettering perspective, but mercifully one that doesn’t come up a lot. I eventually settled on an italicized dialogue font inside a bubble with a drop shadow and a bracket of smaller (also drop shadowed) bubbles. The drop shadow is color coded to the “speaker.” This is nothing like the usual telepathy bubbles you might see, but I think it manages to be clear.
The above list is the only set of lettering changes you’re likely to see on the page, but we’ve also made a lot of non-conformist decisions about our editing and lettering process. For now, though, all this rebellion has about worn me out, so I’ll have to talk about those process decisions in another post.