Monday, 30 December 2019

Facts matter: an apology

Facts. They're important. Recently, talking on social media about a previous matter relating to Bleeding Cool and Rich Johnston specifically, I got something wrong and I owe Rich an apology.

To be clear: I don't like Bleeding Cool. I don't like what they do or the way they do it, but that isn't the issue here.

A few years back, I got a surprising amount of stick for criticising the wave of outrage directed at Jeremy Clarkson over his "striking public sector workers should be executed in front of their families" comment. People were aghast that I was "defending Jeremy Clarkson". Except that wasn't what I was doing. Clarkson's remark was the punchline to a perfectly good joke about the BBC's "balanced coverage" policy — my point, the principle I was defending, was that it is fundamentally wrong to strip words of their context and use them to claim someone said something that they patently didn't say. My point was that if we allowed such behaviour to go unchallenged then none of us is safe. 

If we allow someone to be misrepresented simply because we don't like them, or because the false statement or sentiment attributed to them aligns with our own feelings about them, then it stops being a principle and who will stand up for us when we're on the receiving end?

Which brings us to my apology. For the purposes of clarity, what I said (more or less) was that Bleeding Cool gave a platform to white supremacist Vox Day and that, when faced with a backlash, Rich Johnston was removed from his position and that this was obviously a transparent attempt at damage limitation because he was back in post a couple of days later as if nothing had happened.

To his credit, Rich sent me a perfectly civil email simply saying "That isn't true". So I googled the whole sorry affair.

And it isn't true. It was initially reported by some online sources that Rich had been removed, due (I think) to confusion between his role/job title at BC and that of Mark Seifert, author of the Vox Day interview.

I don't know now whether I missed the subsequent clarifications on this point, or whether my own inherent biases have cause me to remember the matter very selectively. 

It doesn't matter. I was wrong. People can (and have) argued at length about how much happens on BC without Rich's knowledge, and I think it's uncontroversial to say that the whole interview with Day was, at the very least, disastrously misjudged, but none of that matters, because facts matter and I made a specific accusation against a specific person based on incorrect information.

Truth and facts are under attack from all sides. There are people and organisations out there in the new and old media actively trying to undermine the very notion of objective 'fact' and they need to be resisted with every fibre of our being.

And that's the thing. Facts either matter, or they don't, and I believe that they do. We can't defend the notion of 'objective truth' if we only choose to defend it in instances that align with our own philosophical, moral or political positions. We have to be better than that. I have to be better than that.

Rich: I got this wrong. I'm sorry, and I wanted to set the record straight.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Desert Island Fonts

About a million years ago, artist PJ Holden (who's actually a very handy letterer himself) tweeted on the subject of lettering:

"Ok-you have six fonts you have to live with forever: what are they?"

And then rather presciently added… "(This is a good starting point for a blog post...)"

I dutifully started typing up a blog post on the subject and then, unsurprisingly, forgot all about it. When I decided to revive this blog, however, I remembered that half-written post and tracked it down.

So. If I was only allowed six fonts to try and make my way as a letterer…?

You can probably get away with just one all-purpose dialogue font to do the heavy lifting… one that's 'neutral' in tone (something 'bouncy' feels specific to stories that are lighter in tone, something heavier or spikier is likely more suitable for darker or more serious projects, so you'd need to steer a course between the two).

I'd almost certainly plump for Blambot's Heavy Mettle BB, mainly because you get an all upper and a mixed-case version, plus an Extra Bold weight. I've used it on a wide variety of projects (from Giant Days for BOOM to SIX for 451) and it's never looked out of place. The letterforms themselves also put me in mind of John Workman's always-amazing lettering, which is never a bad thing.

Giant Days #47: Words by John Allison, art by Max Sarin, colours by Whitney Colgar

SIX #1: Words by Andi Ewington, art by Mack Chater, colours by Dee Cunniffe

Weavers #1: Words by Si Spurrier, art by Dylan Burnett, colours by Triona Farrell

You'll need at least one ‘handwriting’ font for the inevitable diary/ journal/ letters. Handwriting fonts are the bane of my life — I must have spent hundreds of pounds on dozens of fonts and the inescapable truth is that fonts that actually look like handwriting are never legible for large blocks of text, and ones that are legible never look much like handwriting. Given the choice between these two options, I always opt for legibility and assume that the reader will be able to infer that the text is meant to be 'hand-written' from context.

My default choice is almost always Comicraft's CCDearDiary. (Honourable mention for Blambot's Chewed Pen BB, which has the benefit of being free for amateur/small press/indie letterers.)

You need one ‘clean’ sound effect font to do the bulk of the SFX lettering. I'm not a fan of using dozens of different fonts for SFX on any given project, so this would be no major hardship for me.

I'd probably settle for Blambot's Fight To The Finish BB. It's not my absolute favourite, but comes with multiple weights/styles and is neither too jaunty for 'serious' books nor too weighty for lighter ones.

Add in one rough/brush SFX font for variety. I'd go with Blambot's Beelzebrush BB — it comes in regular and black weights, with alternate font versions for both weights, so you can get six non-repeating ‘O’s in that BOOOOOOM by using the uppercase ‘O’, the lowercase ‘o’ and then zero, and then repeating with the alternate version of the font.

Two left…? A couple of general purpose design/titling/signage fonts, maybe? Comicraft's CCHipflask and CCEnemyLines.

The obvious omission here is any kind of special/creature dialogue fonts. I'm not averse to using those, but (like a lot of letterers lately) I'm trying to push back on their over-use. In all honesty, you can probably distinguish that robot/vampire/whatever dialogue with some creative balloon and colour choices, so I haven't chosen any.

And just to tidy that all up:

Heavy Mettle BB:
Beelzebrush BB:

Monday, 21 October 2019

Quick Workflow Hints #1

I really need to stop neglecting this blog. I apologise – I've been lured away by the siren call of other social media and my brain has been mildly broken by three years of unending Brexit madness. Let's try and get some content back on here on at least a semi-regular basis!

So… in that spirit, I'll try to get the ball rolling with some shorter posts about simple things that might help your workflow. This will likely often be Mac-specific, so further apologies to users of other platforms, but Macs are what I know…!

Quick Workflow Hint #1

Here's a handy Mac Finder hint… you all know about CMD-ALT-I…? Forgive me if you already do, but it's incredibly useful if you don't.
Where CMD-I in the Finder gives you an info window on your selected item, CMD-ALT-I does two things. On multiple selections, it shows you all the commonly shared info on those files (so if they're not all, say, grayscale, it won't tell you the colour space) and the combined disk space they take up. If you want to change the default application to open all the JPEGs (or whatever) in a single folder but leave the general setting for the default unchanged, you can do it here.
On a single file selection, it gives you a persistent floating 'inspector' window, so you can use the down-arrow key to work down a list of (say) TIFFs and the info window will update for each new file as it's highlighted, so you can check that all the TIFFs are the same size (it will only give you pixel dimensions, but you can immediately see if some of the files are a different size), that they're all CMYK, even that they all have the same colour profile.
Not earth-shattering, I know, but this regularly saves me a couple of minutes and those minutes all add up over repetitious tasks.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Value Your Time: No One Else Will

I recently mentioned on Twitter that I was having a good work day, averaging eight pages of lettering per hour, which prompted a surprised reaction from some people.

So… I thought it was worth breaking this down. I'm amazed how many freelancers seem to struggle with the idea of valuing their time appropriately and managing it with their "business head" on. Make no mistake: as a freelancer, you're doing something creative, but you are a businessperson and you can end up either starving or working an insane number of hours if you don't get into the habit of business-like thinking.

So… that eight pages.

I aim to letter a page every ten minutes on average. That's not to say that I stop working on a page after ten minutes, or cut corners to hit an arbitrary time limit, but if a page takes much more than ten minutes, I try to stay conscious of the fact that I'm now behind schedule and make an extra effort not to dally over easier pages.

The key thing is: those ten minutes are the actual time spent lettering the page. There's a whole lot of other stuff that goes into getting a book across the finish line. Let's assume a standard 22-page book, so we're talking about three hours and forty minutes to letter the book.

First of all, I treat preparing a book for lettering as a separate task. It's a fairly dull, unchallenging process, so at the end of each working day, when I'm likely feeling a bit worn out, I'll prep the next day's book so I can hit the ground running in the morning.

The script needs reformatting (a process detailed here) which is usually fairly quick, but dependent on exactly how the writer has formatted it originally, can be quite time-consuming.

Then I create blank Illustrator pages for the whole issue and insert those blanks into an InDesign document that I'll use later for generating PDF proofs. Once all that's done, I place the art on each Illustrator page and copy and paste the text from the script onto the lettering documents, ensuring that text formatting matches (pasting text into Illustrator doesn't keep bolds and italics, so you need to manually re-apply those).

That whole process usually takes about an hour, which translates into adding near enough an extra three minutes per page.

Then the lettering, which takes an average of ten minutes per page.

After that, I need to generate a PDF proof, upload it to somewhere like Dropbox and email off a link to the proof to the editor or the creators. That takes about ten minutes — or maybe another half a minute per page.

At some point, the corrections will come back. Occasionally, 'notes' will actually be cover for a stealth re-write, but this isn't the place for that rant. Even a 'normal' round of corrections will probably take an hour… call it another three minutes per page.

Repeat the proofing process for another thirty seconds per page.

Assuming there are no further rounds of corrections, that means that each page has effectively taken seventeen minutes. That's an extra seven minutes of non-billable time that you need to make sure is covered by your page rate — whilst it looks like you're doing six pages an hour, you're actually doing less than four.

Once you've had approval, you'll need to upload the final files. Whilst you can automate the export process to a degree, when batch exporting, say, EPS files, it's still necessary to re-open those files and manually delete the artwork layer. The whole process probably takes another twenty minutes, or another minute per page.

At some point, you'll need to generate an invoice and get that sent off. Even if you don't have to expend time chasing payment, that's probably another ten minutes of work there, or near enough another thirty seconds per page.

So… that's eighteen and a half minutes per page, assuming only one round of corrections, and assuming that you don't have to chase payment on your invoice. One extra round of corrections will easily push that total over twenty minutes per page, meaning that you're doing less than three pages an hour.

All of which neatly illustrates how all that 'invisible', non-billable stuff quickly adds up and eats into your page rate. You need to count all of it and keep track of it, or your page rate can quickly fall to the equivalent of an hourly rate lower than you'd make flipping burgers or stacking supermarket shelves.

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.