Saturday, 31 December 2016

Looking Forward, Looking Back…

Well, good riddance, 2016. What a thoroughly dismal year you turned out to be.

Brexit. Trump. Seemingly everybody dying. Not just distant celebrities (and, for the record, it's okay to be upset about those people dying… if their work was important to you, they became part of your life) but people like Stephen Prestwood, a prolific UK small press artist with whom I've worked for years, like Stewart 'WR Logan' Perkins, a much-loved member of UK comic fandom who I met often enough to consider a friend. Like Steve Dilllon, who I never got to know personally, but who was a constant fixture in my comic-reading life for three decades and was a good friend to some people I know quite well. Somehow, it all felt closer to home this year.

In the plus column, I worked on a great many fantastic books with too many fantastic creators and editors to list here. I still can't believe that I closed out 2016 with 8,646 pages lettered.*

Also very much in the plus column, was meeting up with a posse of fellow letterers at NYCC in October. I hope Sal Cipriano won't mind me stealing his accomplished selfie from Facebook to share here, which shows (left to right): Phil Balsman, me, Deron Bennett, Nic J. Shaw, Taylor Esposito, Nate Piekos, Thomas Mauer, Paige Pumphrey, and Sal himself.

Photo shamelessly stolen from Sal Cipriano. What is the collective noun for letterers anyway.
Although I wasn't expecting to win Comics Alliance's award for Outstanding Letterer of 2016, by virtue of simply not being the best letterer on the list, they did have some kind words to say about my work, which provided a real lift to the spirits at the end of the year. You can read them here.

And looking forward? I'm going to rescue my drawing table from the great pile of junk I've stacked up on it, and I'm going to start drawing again. At least an hour a day drawing, and another hour writing. I've missed doing both those things, and I'm determined to do more in 2017. If that means my working day ends up being two hours longer, so be it.

So, screw you, 2016. Onwards and upwards into 2017.

*That's not try-outs, covers or non-story pages. That's actual comic book pages.** An average of almost 24 a day, every day, for the whole of 2016. Wow.

**Just in case anyone is now trying to work how much money I made in 2016, I should mention that a fair chunk of those pages were for small press projects, which I still try to work on whenever my schedule will allow!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Comic Lettering Minutiae: Punctuation…

Number 1:

It's ?! not !? — you're adding emphasis to a question. If it's not a question, then the sentence shouldn't have a question mark in it.

Number 2:

Sound effects don't generally have exclamation marks (or any other kind of punctuation) at the end. Whilst I'll use them very occasionally for comedic effect, as firm rule, I don't think they're appropriate, for two reasons…

Firstly, aesthetically, the usually-rectangular upright of the character combined with the more-or-less circular point has a habit of throwing nasty tangents on a regular basis.

Secondly, logically, the purpose of an exclamation mark in prose is to add emphasis to a phrase or word that cannot easily be denoted otherwise. In a novel, the body text has historically all tended to be the same font at the same point size with only italics, or possibly all caps, available for additional emphasis. The exclamation mark exists to add emphasis.

With a sound effect, if the text is in a poster font, bright red and set to 144pt, it's probably got enough emphasis!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Adventures in Space and Time

One of the key, unique elements of the comic medium is its ability to use space to create time — check out this brilliant flip-book-style illustration of the concept by Balak 01 over on deviantArt.

I came across a really neat illustration of this, and its relevance to lettering while looking for a sequence from Swamp Thing #51 as part of a completely different conversation.

Here's the scene, written by Alan Moore, art by Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, colours by Tatjana Wood and lettering by John Costanza. (Click any of these images to embiggen.)

Swamp Thing & John Constantine © DC Comics
I was struck, however, by the placement of the last balloon in panel 3. I should mention that back in 1986, it was far more common for letterers to be given placement guides by the editor, so we have no way of knowing whether the decision to have the balloon straddle the border was made by Costanza, or editor Karen Berger, but at first glance, it's curious:

There's clearly acres of dead space within the panel to accommodate the balloon, and yet it breaks the panel borders and straddles the gutter. These are things a letterer usually avoids except when really tight for space or tackling a difficult page layout where the reading order isn't immediately obvious and it's necessary to give some extra assistance guiding the reader's eye.

None of which applies here.

What the floating balloon does do, however, is pull the reader's eye into the top right corner of the large bottom panel. If you were reading the page normally, without the straddling balloon, your eye would automatically begin the final panel in the traditional manner, starting top left.

Meaning that the first thing your eye would hit in the panel is the punchline.

Instead, the balloon pulls your eye to the empty space where John Constantine should be standing, but isn't. And then your eye has to travel across the empty space to the top left corner, physically delaying the reader getting to the punchline, using space to create a pause and effectively dictating the comic timing of the joke.

It's one tiny decision made by either the editor or the letterer, but it neatly demonstrates how small lettering choices can have significant effects on the storytelling rhythm and flow of a book.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Onwards Into The Future!

A belated Happy New Year to one and all…

I did slightly better about putting some content on this blog in 2015, despite lettering 6,454 pages in total for the year and I'm hoping to do better in 2016.

In the meantime, I hope everyone who reads this and patiently waits for the rare occasions I actually put something worth reading on here had a brilliant New Year, and I wish you all a healthy, peaceful and prosperous 2016.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Quick Illustrator Tip#3

Text Boxes

I've had cause recently to work on Illustrator pages that have originally been lettered by other people and was surprised to learn that they weren't using text boxes, but were rather simply clicking on the document and typing on a path.

Nothing wrong with that, but when I queried this, they seemed genuinely unaware that Illustrator can create text boxes, which have certain advantages.

Creating a text box is ridiculously easy:

If you're copying and pasting text from a script, using a text box has one key advantage — you can create a text box that corresponds to the rough area available on the art for its speech balloon. When you paste in the text, the lines will break naturally and it will often become instantly clear how best to stack the text. 

In some cases, the text will form itself into a satisfactory stacking arrangement with no further work on your part.

None of the text in the above example has had any of the lines turned manually (ie: had returns inserted by me to force the lines to break). It doesn't always (or even often) work that way, but sometimes it does, and it's a time saving.

It may not sound like much, but saving a few seconds per page quickly adds up to minutes over a whole book, and minutes saved here are extra ones you can spend making that sound effect look extra-special, or drawing a perfect mask for that speech balloon.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Credit Where Credit's Due…

(That font is Blambot's ProtestPaint BB, if you're interested…)
I'm not really a militant on the subject of crediting letterers; I've never been one to agitate for a front cover credit, for example. Some creative teams or publishers have taken to giving the letterer a cover credit, which is fantastic but I have no illusions — no one is buying a book based on who's done the lettering.
Ours is a contributory, supporting role in the creative process, but that doesn't mean it's inconsequential or unworthy of recognition.

So… what does get my back up is when a reviewer credits the writer, artist, colourist, sometimes even the editor, and doesn't include the letterer.

I'm certainly not asking for reviewers to undertake a detailed analysis of the lettering in every book, but the choices a letterer makes concerning dialogue fonts and balloon styles, the way they choose to handle sound effects, make every bit as much of a contribution to the overall look of any given book as the choices made by the colourist.

You're not supposed to notice the craft of the letterer; it's supposed to be more-or-less invisible. Nonetheless, ours is the hand that ties the writer's words to the artist's images in a fashion that's clear and readable, ours is the stage of the creative process that makes comics, well, comics.

I don't think asking reviewers to remember that is too much.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

It gets my back up…!

Or, more accurately, my back-up.

I've been startled over the course of this year so far to see the number of fellow creative professionals who've reported disruption to their schedules, or the loss of their work, due to hardware failure or data loss. Now, admittedly, before my life in comics I spent several years as a production manager, meaning that a non-trivial fraction of every working day was spent worry about contingency plans, but if you do any work of value on your computer, from paid freelance to work to cataloguing family photos to saving your favourite recipies, then, forgive my bluntness, but this is the best advice anyone is going to give you today:

Back your shit up.

(I'm going to talk about Macs, because I own Macs, and I know Macs. If anyone wants to chip in Windows/Linux back-up solutions in the comments, please feel free.)

If you own a Mac, you already have a head start, because you have Time Machine. It's built-in, it's designed to be a back-up solution for people that don't use back-up solutions and people still don't use it! External USB hard drives are cheap. Buy one that's at least the same size as your internal drive; plug it in; your Mac will actually ask you if you want to use it for Time Machine. Click "yes" and you're done. Your Mac will now invisibly back itself up every hour until the drive is full, and then it will ask you if you want to a) switch to a bigger drive, or b) start deleting the oldest back-ups.

Level One:

Time Machine is Level One of my back-up strategy. The external Time Machine drive is twice the size of my Mac's internal drive, so it keeps back-ups of my entire drive going back a decent length of time. I use it less for protection against data loss than almost as a versioning tool, and insurance against accidentally deleting or overwriting files. Meant to go "Save As" to create a new version of your file, but hit "Save" instead? No problem. Do your "Save As" and then use Time Machine to retrieve the old version of the file you've just over-written. Deleted a file only to discover that you actually still needed it? No problem, assuming that it was on your system for over an hour, Time Machine still has it.

If you own a Mac, enable Time Machine. Do it. You have no excuse. Short of USB ports? No problem — Apple sells the Time Capsule, which doesn't even need to be attached to your machine. Your Mac will back itself up over wifi.

Time Machine is great (as an aside, you can also use it migrate the entire contents of your computer* to a new Mac painlessly) but it has one key problem: it doesn't create a bootable back-up.

Level Two:

If your Mac's internal drive fails and your machine won't boot, you can't start it up from a Time Machine back-up. If you hold down ALT (Option) at start-up, your Mac will look for alternative drives from which to boot. If the normal boot drive has failed, it will automatically look for another drive for start-up, and your Time Machine back-up ain't it.

Which is why I have a second external drive hooked up to my machine. This one is a portable drive the same size as the internal. There are lots of third-party back-up solutions, but I use Carbon Copy Cloner

Because you can schedule CCC back-ups, and you can schedule your Mac's start-up time, my machine auto-boots at 6:00am and at 6:15, CCC makes a bootable clone copy of the hard drive, which takes about 20 minutes. By the time I sit down at my computer in the morning, the entire drive has been backed up, meaning that, in the event of a complete drive failure, I can boot from the clone and, at worst, I will have lost whatever work I've done that current day, since the CCC back-up. If you have the luxury of a lunch break, or time when you're reliably going to be away from your machine, you could set CCC to do one or more back-ups during the day.

(This is not to say you can't work while CCC is running — you can, but the machine slows down noticeably, and the back-up takes longer, so there's a trade-off.)

Level Three:

Archiving. Particularly if you're doing a full-time job, internal drives fill up rapidly, so it's sensible to have a third drive for archiving off old jobs. Fairly recently, I realised that this drive wasn't getting backed up by Time Machine. Now, I could add the archive to the Time Machine preferences, but this is largely static data, so backing it up hourly seems like overkill. I used to keep a rolling system of backing up to DVD, but optical media isn't always as reliable as people like to think, and the process was time-consuming and required extra record-keeping to maintain an index of what projected were archived to which disks.

So I bought a 4TB RAID1 drive. It's actually two standard 4TB drives in a single box. In a RAID0 configuration (these sound complicated, but it's literally a tick box to configure in the software) both drives are used to write data and the drive appears as a single 8TB drive.

I have no idea why anyone uses RAID0. You have no data redundancy in this configuration and if either drive fails, all your data is gone. In RAID1 configuration (the default it ships with), identical data is written to both drives simultaneously, so it appears as a single 4TB drive on your desktop.

In the even of a drive failing, I can simply order a replacement, carry on working from the still-working drive, and replace the failed one when the new drive arrives. Yes, it's possible that both drives might fail simultaneously, but we're entering mathematically improbable levels akin to my house being totalled by a falling jet airliner. Possible, but not really worth losing sleep over.

(There are higher RAID configurations, but RAID2, 3, 4, etc, simply describe more complex configurations of larger numbers of drives.)

Level Four:

I haven't yet implemented Level Four, but I'm mindful that I'm still vulnerable to, say, burglary or a house fire, so I'm currently investigating off-site back-up options like CrashPlan. Services like Dropbox might look like an option for off-site back-up, but I don't think they guarantee the integrity of your data, and I'd like something a little more solid. I'll update this article when I've made some progress with this.

For most people, you don't need to go further than Level One, or Level Two, but take a moment to stop and think about what's on your computer.

Now think about how you'd feel if it was all gone. Think about how much it would cost you to recreate lost work. Think about what can't be replaced at all: family photos, correspondence… yes, some of this might be recoverable if you kept it in some Cloud services, but you're entirely reliant on someone else to look after what's precious to you.

Data storage is cheap. Backing up is easy.

Back your shit up.

*Except Adobe CS products, which can't be migrated. You have to de-authorise your current Mac, run a Time Machine back-up, plug the Time Machine drive into your new Mac, restore everything except your CS applications, then install your CS apps fresh from the original installers. Thanks a bunch, Adobe.