About a month or two ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to start lettering my comics by hand when I’d originally planned on doing so at the start of the next volume. I finished my page with some time to spare, so I gave it a go.
Lettering comics isn’t like writing at all – professional letterers, who are about as often seen these days as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster – say that proper comic letters must be drawn: each letterform must be treated as its own tiny picture that must be composed, started and finished, just-so.
I did hand lettering in college, but only because we generally had to when turning in pen-and-paper cartooning assignments. I didn’t take a lettering class, so I wasn’t really graded on my pretty sub-par, albeit perfectly legible, letters, but I wasn’t interested in getting good. I wanted my comics to look like the stuff put out by the big name publishers and big name titles. I wanted my work to look “legit”, and achieving that perfectly sterile, flat, and lifeless quality through the use of Adobe Illustrator was the only way to go about it, I though. Deep down, though, I always hated digital lettering.
Analog, hand-lettering is a living, breathing thing. It’s a creature that responds to the page, the environment it lives in, rather than just blasted over on top of it like a transposed caption from somewhere else. The latter is a fully composed, united piece of art. The former is a Frankenstein’s monster of dead, disparate ingredients forced to life with a jolt of electricity.
The problem with hand-lettering is that it’s slow, and it takes years to master – in short, the problem is that it’s a craft. And the comics industry, for all its noise and production, is actually pretty threadbare. An emperor without clothes, even. Most of the craft involved in making comics back in the 60’s and 70’s (and underground talent of the 80’s) is long gone now, because it’s simply too inefficient a method of producing flashy, colorful stories. Most comic work these days is a digital assembly line set to a ruthless pace and fueled by artistic compromise. I said on twitter recently that most comic creators these days aren’t cartoonists, but rather would-be animators settling for a poor man’s substitute. The things that make comics a unique and beautiful medium are being forgotten in the streaming age.
Lettering is one of those things, and I’m finding that I like the look of a fully inked comic page complete with word balloons and letters too much to ever go back. It’s how a comic pages were meant to look.
But I’m also doing a lot of thinking about writing in general – the analog art of putting words to paper. Penmanship became a lost art a long time ago, and cursive writing too, but it seems that all writing is in danger of becoming a niche skill. When was the last time you wrote something important by hand? Don’t remember?
There’s something about fountain pens that make you want to hold them and write. I plan on taking up scripting my comics by hand at some point in the near future, the idea of which was entirely inspired by my buying my pair of Kaweco pens. There’s a practical reason for this too, though. John Michael Greer and even The Atlantic both acknowledge the negative effects of word processors on writing. Not only do distractions reign on the digital device, but on a more fundamental level, it mashes together the writing and editing processes into one homonculus of seemingly increased efficiency. Turns out, it’s not actually a boon to productivity at all, because each aspect of writing requires a different part of the brain, and trying to do both at once results in a mental gridlock we know as “writer’s block”. And that’s after you’ve managed to stop compulsively checking Facebook for the umpteenth time.
This whole endeavor has made me question the concept of literacy, though. Can we really be said to be a literate culture if we’ve lost the ability to write longhand, or decipher a broad array of writing styles? Has “literacy” quietly come to encapsulate only being able to read letters formed by typefaces, and writing by punching with our fingertips at chiclet keys?
By removing the craft from these basics of daily life, from these art forms, we relegate them to the chronically underappreciated realm of mere utility, where they are eventually starved of passion and meaning until they’re either forgotten or picked up as hobbies by the rich and made even more inaccessible than they would be if they’d just been unceremoniously left behind.
2017 is the year I begin lettering all of my comics by hand, on paper. It’s also the year I start writing more in general. Grocery lists, notes, correspondence. It’s also going to be the year that I start scripting my comics longhand, too. I’ll buy a notebook specifically for this purpose, divide it into two columns – one for a messy first draft, the second for notes, a final draft, or a complete rewrite altogether – and hammer out pages of script just the same as I do on the computer. And unlike a digital text document, I’ll be able to leaf through the pages; dog-ear them; color-code or otherwise index scenes and important dialogue that I’ll need to consult later. I’ll be able to have a spatial understanding of the work I’ve done, intuitively understand where in the story I am just by feeling how thick the left side of the notebook is compared to the right. I will be engaging the whole of my body and senses in the writing process.
Because I’ve forgotten what that’s like.
And so, probably, have you too.