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Comic book grammatical and aesthetic traditions
February 3, 2009 1:31 PM   Subscribe


 
QUESTION MARK/EXCLAMATION POINT COMBO

Clearly, this author has a good grasp of grammatical language.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:48 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ellipsis is used when a character's speech trails off. If a character is speaking, trails off, and then resumes in another balloon, you should always end the first dialogue with an ellipsis and then begin the second dialogue with an ellipsis. [...] There are only THREE periods in an ellipsis.
Aha! Finally, dear Doctor ... I ... understand! This is why idiots so often misuse and mangle ellipses! Because they've seen them used in comic books, not real writing.
posted by orthogonality at 1:49 PM on February 3, 2009


That was fascinating.

Folks interested in comic book lettering may want to check out Todd's Blog, from Todd Klein who seems to have lettered half the comics on earth. Todd's Blog previously on Metafilter.

This is also as good a place as any to tell the story of the Flicker. I couldn't find any confirmation of this, if anyone can please let me know. Apparently there was a minor villain in a Spiderman comic named "The Flicker" or "Flickerman." He had some kind of psychedelic wheel that made you dizzy. With the all caps lettering and cheap newsprint, the L and the I in Flicker bled together: FLICKER. Imagine if the L and I were smooshed together, a character named FLICKER with FLICKER GUY getting ready to FLICKER you.

If that was a big-ass urban legend derail, my apologies. If it was an interesting bit of comic book lettering trivia, you are welcome, I'm here all week.
posted by marxchivist at 1:50 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


♫ ♪ SO, WE MEET AGAIN, MY DEAR DOCTOR!! ♫ ♪
posted by not_on_display at 1:53 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cool read. I had an intuitive awareness of what all those lettering shapes and styles mean, but had never given much thought to how much they contribute to a comic's tone and narrative flow.
posted by evisceratordeath at 1:53 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


One convention I always enjoyed, but don't see on the list, is the use of angled brackets to denote a foreign language being spoken:
<So, we meet again... Doctor!>
I'm sorry, my good man, I don't speak Esperanto.
I miss hand-lettering. I should break out my Ames Guide one of these days.
posted by lekvar at 1:59 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


"With the all caps lettering and cheap newsprint, the L and the I in Flicker bled together: FLICKER"

There was a guy named Theodore J (?) FLICKER listed in the credits for the cop comedy Barney Miller. The credits were also in a blocky, squared-off font, on an old analog-signal TV, and my sister insisted that the guy's name was ... well, you know. No amount of argument that no pre-cable TV production would dare display such a name, or that the FCC wouldn't allow it to be shown, would convince her. Five nights a week in syndication she'd watch as the blocky fuzzy letters rolled up the screen, and insist that she saw a FUCKER.
posted by orthogonality at 2:00 PM on February 3, 2009


I've always thought it was sort of weird that comics had separate people to do the lettering. It's kind of like imagining an engineer who only uses flathead screwdrivers, and has to hire a special guy to do the tricky Phillips work.

This blog post, while entertaining, did not disabuse me of the superfluousness of letterers.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:01 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


marxchivist: If that was a big-ass urban legend derail, my apologies. If it was an interesting bit of comic book lettering trivia, you are welcome, I'm here all week.

The way I've always heard it is that there was special trouble with Hawkeye, who's first name was Clint.
posted by Kattullus at 2:01 PM on February 3, 2009


How do you do that?
DO WHAT?
Speak in all caps?
posted by ooga_booga at 2:03 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was a guy named Theodore J (?) FLICKER listed in the credits for the cop comedy Barney Miller.

See here at 1:26.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:07 PM on February 3, 2009


I've always thought it was sort of weird that comics had separate people to do the lettering. It's kind of like imagining an engineer who only uses flathead screwdrivers, and has to hire a special guy to do the tricky Phillips work.

I think it might be more like imagining a guy who frames a house and has a specialist come in to handle the electrical.
posted by brennen at 2:07 PM on February 3, 2009


QUESTION MARK/EXCLAMATION POINT COMBO

Clearly, this author has a good grasp of grammatical language.


They've been doing it a lot longer than we've had Internet. Let them call it that.
posted by rokusan at 2:14 PM on February 3, 2009


With the all caps lettering and cheap newsprint, the L and the I in Flicker bled together: FLICKER. Imagine if the L and I were smooshed together, a character named FLICKER with FLICKER GUY getting ready to FLICKER you.

I have never encountered this villain -- gotta check my Encyclopedia of the Marvel Universe, I suppose -- but the general principle is not uncommon. As with orthogonality's sister, I did a double take in the credits of Barney Miller; likewise, this is a minor point in Alexander Payne's movie Election, where Reese Witherspoon's character, Tracy Flick by name, is running for student council president.

And in my own high school, I was part of a play that had the stylistic trappings of a vaudeville show, complete with title cards on an easel at stage left. One segment was called A FLICKER OF HOPE, which was retitled A GLIMMER OF HOPE during rehearsals when our slightly nearsighted vice-principal popped by the auditorium at an inopportune moment.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:20 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Huh. And to think that one man pretty much started it all. No letterer needed.
posted by elendil71 at 2:21 PM on February 3, 2009


I've always thought it was sort of weird that comics had separate people to do the lettering.

It was an assembly line approach. Do you want Jack Kirby drawing things or lettering?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:28 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


This blog post, while entertaining, did not disabuse me of the superfluousness of letterers.

I do not work in the comics industry and only have a vague idea of how comics get made, but I can see at least two advantages to using dedicated letterers, particularly for the big two publishers.

1. The comics get done faster and are more internally consistent. Once a page is drawn and inked and coloured, is one of the people who did that going to break workflow and switch to lettering, or finish drawing the whole book before they go back and letter it? Nah, they're going to pass the completed pages to a letterer, who gets the words in while they're drawing the rest *and* never switches from lettering.

2. Marvel and DC put out a huge number of books every week, from a vast stable of artists and authors, all with different styles. Having letterers on staff, all trained in the house style, helps to maintain consistency across the line in an otherwise very diverse set of books.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:35 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's true. I am a letterer and I can speak to the list being accurate. =D
posted by aliceinreality at 2:44 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, when the artists do their work, they are generally not thinking about where the dialogue will go. Often dialogue gets changed after the art has been done, so the letterers can squeeze in the word balloons in relatively unobtrusive spots.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:35 PM on February 3, 2009




I've always thought it was sort of weird that comics had separate people to do the lettering.

Pencilling a page a day is difficult. Inking a page a day is difficult. Lettering a page a day is difficult.
Doing all three is Herculean.
posted by lekvar at 3:39 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


they are generally not thinking about where the dialogue will go.

A lot of artist do allow for lettering in their art... leaving the top third/side of a panel uncluttered, (or more, if there's a lot of verbiage in the script).
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:44 PM on February 3, 2009


Lettering a page a day is difficult.

So you're saying it takes some font expert all day to do a single page of comic-book lettering? I really don't want to demean anyone's profession, but that seems sort of slow to me. I have to ask: why does it take so long?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:11 PM on February 3, 2009


Actually, I have to amend that. When I was leaning lettering it was all done by hand. First you had pencil in the rough area you were going to place the balloon and text in such a way that you wouldn't be covering any crucial artwork. Then you'd take your Ames Guide and manually lay down the guides. Then you'd rough in the text, experimenting with different ways of wrapping the words within the limited space you were allowed to work with to make the text pleasing to the reader. Finally you'd go in and ink the letters. Sounds easy, but trust me, there are different levels of skill at lettering. Your letters have to be straight and crisp, and they have to reduce well and remain legible.

See here for a better explanation.

I have no idea how computer production has changed all that; I was learning back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.
posted by lekvar at 4:43 PM on February 3, 2009


This seems as good a thread as any for the Comic Sans treatment.
posted by fiercecupcake at 4:48 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stan Lee wrote some of his best work in those "* SEE ISSUE 212--Ed." captions.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:33 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great post!
posted by EatTheWeak at 5:51 PM on February 3, 2009


very interesting.
i didn't realize it was so conventionalized.
are all of these longstanding conventions or have any been introduced recently?
Do you get any credit in the comics world if you do something innovative with the lettering? Or is it just a sideshow to the story/art? Graphical novels break most of these conventions, right? That would be where the innovation occurs?
posted by cogneuro at 6:54 PM on February 3, 2009


Cogneuro, these are pretty much all traditions that were established in the fifties and sixties - with the exception of the parts he mentions as being recent changes. Most comic book lettering is quite unnoticed by anyone who's not obsessively dissecting the work, unless it's very distinct; dig up the Cerebus/TMNT crossover where the Turtles and various incidental characters follow these rules, but Cerebus retains his own distinctive "tone of voice" due to the fact that Sim drew and lettered his character in the space Eastman and Laird left for him on the pages.

"Graphic novels" are more prone to playing with these conventions, but most of them do not. The place you're most likely to see these conventions broken is in web-comics, usually as the mistakes of amateurs who don't realize that having their zombie character speak in a blood-dripping font renders his dialogue completely illegible.
posted by egypturnash at 7:26 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


CLINT FLICKER WILL NEVER DIE!
posted by Artw at 8:43 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pencilling a page a day is difficult. Inking a page a day is difficult. Lettering a page a day is difficult.
Doing all three is Herculean.


Where does coloring fit in?
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:03 PM on February 3, 2009


Artw stole it, but my friends and I did have a snicker at CLINT's COMICS at the mall.
posted by fleacircus at 9:28 PM on February 3, 2009


"Captions"???
I believe the correct term is "little yellow boxes".
posted by PontifexPrimus at 12:59 AM on February 4, 2009



How do you do that?
DO WHAT?
Speak in all caps?


Hello! My name is Brian Blessed!
posted by Magnakai at 2:05 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Where does coloring fit in?

The lines?
posted by inigo2 at 9:50 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


*cough*

Hello! My name is Brian Blessed!

HELLO! MY NAME IS BRIAN BLESSED!
posted by Pronoiac at 9:53 AM on February 6, 2009


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