Welcome, X-Fans, to another uncanny edition of X-Men Monday at AIPT!
Words and the bubbles they live within — essential parts of most comic books. And yet, pull up a random comic review and it’s unlikely to devote much attention to the lettering (not to mention colors, inks and sometimes, shockingly, pencils). While I believe there are certainly people who have no business evaluating comics if they don’t fully understand the art form, thankfully, there are reviewers who do touch on every aspect of a comic.
But what about those folks in between? Personally, I think there are reviewers who just feel comfortable writing about what they know — and what they know is writing. As a result, you often end up with 500 words about the writer’s choices, but not much else for the rest of the creative team.
So… how do we fix that? Well, if you have a weekly X-Men interview column, you devote an installment to a letterer currently working on multiple X-Books: Ariana Maher! Despite her heavy workload, Ariana was nice enough to pull back the curtain on comic book lettering and, of course, talk a bit about X-Men. I hope you find this educational, X-Fans — I sure did!
AIPT: Welcome to X-Men Monday, Ariana! Let’s go back to the beginning. What was your first X-Men eXperience?
Ariana: I loved the animated series. I re-watched my Pizza Hut VHS copy of “Night of the Sentinels” a million times as a kid. So when I spotted Jubilee and Jean Grey on the cover of a comic packaged with a Price Club bundle, my mom agreed to get it for me. That’s how I ended up reading my first comic book: Uncanny X-Men #303, the death of Illyana Rasputin.
AIPT: Wow, what a first issue. Before we dig into all things lettering, which comics in and outside the X-Men line are you currently lettering?
Ariana: Currently, I letter S.W.O.R.D., Hellions and Excalibur. Outside the X-Line, I’ve also been working on Star Wars: High Republic, Silk, The Trials of Ultraman, Demon Days, Marvel’s Voices: Pride and various other titles. Outside of Marvel, I’ve been lettering DC’s Crush & Lobo, as well as Dark Horse’s Critical Role series.
AIPT: You’re definitely staying busy. How did you get into comics lettering?
Ariana: Back in 2010, I was living in Japan and working as a translator/interpreter. I thought it would be my dream job, but it turned out to be pretty stressful and, at the end of long workdays, I needed to do something different to relax. So I started teaching myself graphic design on Adobe Illustrator as a new hobby. I soon got interested in comic book lettering and read everything on Jim Campbell’s blog and Blambot’s website to figure out the basics. When a friend needed help with a webcomic, I offered to help because it was fun to figure out how lettering worked.
Lettering was just a chill hobby until I started reading Thor: The Mighty Avenger. It was such a well-balanced comic where every member of the team (Writer, Artist, Colorist, Letterer and Editor) brought something amazing to the book. I was blown away especially by Rus Wooton’s confident lettering. It inspired me so much that I slowly ventured into my own comics career, one project at a time.
AIPT: For those who aren’t familiar, what are the responsibilities of a letterer?
Ariana: A letterer’s job is to figure out how best to bind the script and the artwork together to make a cohesive comic book. This work includes designing word balloons, balloon tails and sound effects, as well as selecting fonts and arranging the dialogue on the page so that the story reads well. If there are design elements in a comic, then that is often the work of a letterer.
A chunk of lettering tasks can be seen as copying lines from the script to paste on the art, but there’s a challenge to arranging the lettering in such a way that the reader does not get lost on the page. The last thing I want is for a reader to stop and think, “Oh, what order do I go in? Where do I read the next line?” When a reader’s gaze jumps from a word balloon to the art to a sound effect to a caption box to another word balloon in a single comic book panel, I have to find a path to reading it that feels the most natural for both art and story.
Letterers can also be responsible for the production end of the creation process. That can mean preparing the book layout, the files for print, and all the necessary tasks to help to get the final product to the printer. This isn’t always the case for every project or publisher, but professional letterers develop those additional skills out of necessity.
AIPT: Could you describe your process on a single issue? Basically, where does your work begin and end in the production of a comic book?
Ariana: I start when the editor sends me the art pages and the lettering script. I break down the script and transfer the lines over to individual lettering templates on Adobe Illustrator and then place a page of art in each template. The art is on the base layer and my work is layered on top of that. Then I complete the lettering on each page until I’ve made an initial proof of the comic. In that sense, I get to read the completed issue before anyone else.
Once the proof is ready, I send it to the editor, I get feedback, I revise my work, send back a new proof, repeat, and eventually, the book gets an OK to be printed. That’s when I prep the files and send them in. Next thing I know, I’m starting on the next title. There’s a brisk rhythm to the work that I like, but there are times I’m sad to tie up a major project because I’ve enjoyed it so much.
AIPT: As an eXtra special treat, readers, Ariana provided the following images to better illustrate how the lettering process works. These images come from “Life in 4 Stories” — written by Deniz Camp, with art by Sinnerman — which was featured in the Tales From The Quarantine anthology.
Ariana: I’ve broken down the different stages I go through to letter a page. This piece was an interesting challenge because four pages of script had to fit into one page of art. The second image helps break down what I see when I decide how best to place text on the page — you could call it a letterer’s eye view.
AIPT: That’s very cool to see — thanks for sharing! In your opinion, what defines effective comic lettering?
Ariana: Clarity and consistency are key to effective lettering. Once a lettering style is set for a series, then that establishes a baseline for the comic. Readers may not notice the details of lettering, but they catch on to design changes. So variations to the baseline style need to be made on purpose. Great lettering sticks to the series style so that the reader can focus on the art and story. When the letterer breaks that consistency with something wholly new — like an epic sound effect or the sudden intonation of an Eldrich creature’s voice — then that is intentional, it is done to catch the reader’s attention.
Readers pick up on the design language of the lettering even when they don’t realize that’s what they are doing. Think about the difference between Spider-Man’s regular dialogue style and Venom’s monstrous one. You’re used to seeing Spider-Man’s balloons and fonts on the page, but once you see Venom’s creepy white font in jagged black balloons — even if he hasn’t appeared yet — you’ll know that the speaker is someone dangerous. If you’ve read a few Spider-Man comics, then the Venom balloon will immediately tell you who it is and what peril Spidey is about to encounter next. You don’t have to stop and wonder what is happening. Effective lettering keeps you immersed in the story.
AIPT: Are there any current or past letterers you look to for inspiration?
Ariana: I keep Todd Klien’s lettering prints framed over my desk for inspiration. I also love checking out the lettering of Will Eisner, Stan Sakai and Tom Orzechowski, though I could never hope to emulate their skill at handlettering. The Virtual Calligraphy team is a constant source of inspiration for me as well. They are always there for me when I need help or guidance. They really look out for me.
Outside of VC, two letterers who inspire me a lot with their modern innovation is Aditya Bidikar and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. Those two have a cool podcast about lettering called Lines & Letters, if you haven’t checked that out yet.
AIPT: What, in your opinion, is the biggest misconception about comic lettering or letterers?
Ariana: I think it is a misconception to say lettering is an invisible art. It’s a subtle art, sure, but not invisible. Readers need the lettering to move them through the story, even if no one notices how the letterer is making it work. It’s a visual art that sets the pacing and mood of a comic book through text placement and style. Calling the work “invisible” can sound intriguing, but I think it is also a hyperbole that can diminish a letterer’s contribution to the comics they help make.
There’s also a misconception that letterers are quite competitive since it’s such a niche career. That’s never been my experience. There are not that many letterers in the industry, even fewer who letter as their full-time job, but we’re pretty essential to making comics and we hate seeing a good comic poorly lettered. So we look out for each other as best we can. We celebrate our wins and give each other advice. We recommend each other to creative teams for work when our own schedule is full. Maybe there are jerk letterers out there, but I have yet to meet any.
AIPT: Back to the X-Men before we wrap up — Who is your favorite X-Character and what is your favorite X-Story of all time?
Ariana: Julio Richter. Rictor is incredibly powerful, especially now that he’s studying “mutant magic” in Excalibur, but he can be his own worst enemy at times — he gets frustrated and tired and he’s not the sort to hide his bad day behind a genial smile. Despite all that he’s been through and wanting to give up, he keeps going, grumpy but determined. I feel for a character like him more than noble or sweet characters who face more external strife than internal turmoil. Rictor is the kind of character I want to see succeed most. And also, he’s just pretty cool.
For X-Stories, there’s a deep well of incredible Chris Claremont stories that I could name, but I think I’m most nostalgic for the “Age of Apocalypse” event. It happened at just the right time as a kid to feed into my passion for comics. I was so excited to go to the comic book store every week to see how the AoA played out. I think that feeling has only been matched by seeing how stories tie into the greater whole during this new Krakoa era.
AIPT: Finally, you need an X-Character to fill in for you on a lettering job. Who do you turn to for help who you think will do a pretty good job?
Ariana: Doug Ramsey would be brilliant at seeing the patterns for dialogue placements and pacing. The work is about communicating between the creative team and the reader, so I think he would know how to marry the text to the art seamlessly. Also, he probably wouldn’t mind quiet, helpful work.
By the way, Shatterstar would be the worst letterer I could think of. I adore him, but he would hate my desk job oh so much.
AIPT: You hear that, Shatterstar? Don’t quit your day job. On that note, thanks so much for taking the time to dig into all things lettering, Ariana! This was both super educational and fascinating. As Ariana letters Hellions, here are three eXclusive images from this week’s all-new issue, courtesy of X-Men Senior Editor Jordan D. White!
And for more eXclusive images, including preview art from this week’s X-Men #2, return to AIPT later today for a second edition of X-Men Monday, featuring Cable artist Phil Noto!
Until then, X-Fans, stay eXceptional!
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