Monday, 10 February 2020

Zound Effects And More!

(aka Lettering the Zaucer of Zilk)




Very shortly after 2019's excellent Thought Bubble convention, I received The Call from none other than Tharg the Mighty who, as I'm sure you know, is the alien editor of 2000AD, the Galaxy's Greatest Comic. More accurately, he tasked his human assistant, Matt Smith (longest-serving holder of this thankless role) to invite me to join the lettering team on 2000AD.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been a cause for much rejoicing — I've been a reader and fan of 2000AD since 1979 and have had the pleasure of doing some non-2000AD work for publishers, Rebellion. However, this came as a result of the sad news that one of the regular team, Ellie de Ville was seriously ill. Tragically, Ellie died a few weeks later. Although I never met her, her work has been a constant through 2000AD and many other UK comics of yesteryear for decades and her untimely passing was a sad loss and, I'm sure, a terrible blow to her family and many friends. You can read a short selection of tributes here.

That made my addition to the lettering roster the first change in 2000AD's line-up of letterers since the death of Tom Frame, back in 2006, which is certainly a testament to both the loyalty felt towards the comic, and extended back to its contributors.

All of which made picking up that baton a strange and sad thing. Over in the Judge Dredd Megazine, I was asked to take over lettering a fan-favourite strip, the entirely brilliant 'Lawless' by Dan Abnett and Phil Winslade. Given that these episodes are likely to end up in a collected edition at some point, alongside pages that Ellie lettered, I could do no more than find a lettering style that would jar as little as possible for the transition.


Lawless © 2000AD/Rebellion Script by Dan Abnett/Art Phil Winslade
There are already two collected editions of the series, which I would urge you to check out: Volume One and Volume Two. If you like a science fiction Western (and who doesn't?) this is going to be right up your street.

Meanwhile, I was also asked to letter two strips for 2000AD's bumper end-of-year edition for 2019. One was a (sort of festive!) one-off Durham Red story by Alec Worley and Ben Wilsher.


Durham Red © 2000AD/Rebellion Script Alec Worley/Art Ben Wilsher
The other was a new series, a sequel to 2012's Zaucer of Zilk by Al Ewing and Brendan McCarthy, continuing with Peter (Resident Alien) Hogan taking over co-writing duties and Len O'Grady sharing colouring.

Brendan is possibly best known outside UK comics for the career he took up in the late 80s and early 90s as a designer and storyboarder for film and TV, and perhaps most famously as co-writer of Mad Max: Fury Road.

UK comic fans of a certain age will be familiar with his work going back to the early days of 2000AD where his bold, graphic style and phenomenal use of colour warped many a fragile little mind.


Judge Dredd © 2000AD/Rebellion Script John Wagner & Alan Grant/Art Brendan McCarthy & Riot /Lettering Tom Frame



ABC Warriors © 2000AD/Rebellion Script Pat Mills/Art Brendan McCarthy/Lettering Pete Knight
Even though 2000AD has never had a 'house style' and is always home to an amazing range of artists' styles, it was fairly obvious from the outset that the new series of Zaucer wasn't going to look like anything else in the prog, and with a series that I can only really describe as the bastard offspring of Dr Strange and Yellow Submarine, wasn't going to read like anything else either… so I decided that maybe the lettering ought to catch a little of that whimsy, too.

I quickly settled on Comicraft's CCMoritat for the dialogue — it has lots of character, is still legible and, if you run it with the horizontal scale up a touch, it reminds me a lot of the wonderful Steve Parkhouse's hand-lettering…



The Bojeffries Sage © Alan Moore & Steve Parkhouse Script Alan Moore/Art & Lettering Steve Parkhouse

Using balloon shapes drawn 'by hand' (albeit digitally) that referenced the many years of classic hand-lettering for 2000AD, I came up with a lettering style that I hoped hit the mark…


Zaucer of Zilk II © 2000AD/Rebellion Script Peter Hogan & Brendan McCarthy/Art Brendan McCarthy/Colours Brendan McCarthy & Len O'Grady
Matt Smith showed my sample page to the Mighty One, and, to my relief, he liked it. In fact, he even commented that the style reminded him of Steve Parkhouse's hand-lettering… so that was job done!

And I'm having a great time working on the series. Peter has kindly brought back the desperately unfashionable thought balloon, which is a device I've missed terribly and rarely get to letter outside Garfield books:



I've enjoyed trying to integrate the lettering into the art where I can, rather than just letting all the lettering float on top of the art… even if it's just a little overlap, as with the first panel below, where the Tailor's hat and a tiny bird overlap the caption.





I also know that Brendan has said in the past that he's not much enamoured of digital lettering, which was another reason I wanted to bring a little extra character to the strip's lettering. Plus, y'know, Brendan's a mad genius.

Sadly, almost no publisher will sign off on hand-lettering dialogue these days — it's slow (and more expensive than digital because a letterer needs to charge extra to reflect the additional time spent on the pages) and makes doing both corrections and repurposing lettering for translated editions much more difficult.

However, there are relatively few sound effects in Zaucer, so I thought I might be able to spend a bit of extra time on those, and draw them by hand — creating them in Photoshop on new layers over the artwork for reference using a Cintiq, and then bringing them into Illustrator and converting them to vectors.

(I'll confess that Photoshop isn't my first choice for drawing anything, but the workflow is easy — simply collapse any layers with elements you want to bring into Illustrator, draw a selection marquee over the sound effect and you can just drag and drop from Photoshop onto your Illustrator page. Once there, Illustrator's Image Trace will vectorise the effect in moments.)



With a little bit of care, it's even possible to try and combine them into the art. I've seen plenty of Brendan's hand-drawn sound effects, and I wouldn't try to pretend that mine look half as good, but I was quite pleased with the way this one, in particular, combined with Brendan and Len's lovely work.


And that's it. A quick look behind the curtain(down)…I hope you're having as much fun reading the strip as I'm having working on it.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Affinity Designer: Alternatives to Adobe Illustrator for Lettering


Anyone who follows me on social media will know that I fairly regularly point people to Serif's Affinity suite (Designer, Photo, Publisher) as a viable alternative to the design/print portion of Adobe's Creative Cloud offering (Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign respectively). The software is very reasonably priced, is a one-time purchase for a perpetual license rather than Adobe's subscription model, and is available for Mac, Windows and iOS (although only Designer and Photo at present).

I've been intermittently doing test pages lettering with Designer, usually whenever the application gets an update, but I'll confess that I haven't attempted to actually do a job using it, until now. For the record, I'm running the current Mac versions (1.7.3) of all the Affinity applications on Mojave (10.14) but I've seen no reports of issues running them on Catalina (10.15).

Designer certainly covers a letterer's requirements in all the big ways — you can set up colour-managed CMYK documents with bleeds, control important trapping settings like knockout/overprint, and export files successfully in all the commonly-used file formats (TIFF, EPS, PDF for print and JPEG or (God forbid) GIF for web comics). 

(As an aside, I've checked how these file exports fit into an Adobe-only print workflow of the kind a publisher is likely to be using. EPS files place in InDesign exactly as expected, and a lettering-only PDF file with transparency effects places over a separate artwork file in InDesign with all the transparencies rendered correctly.)

One thing you can't do is export a file that is fully editable in Illustrator — in theory, a PDF exported from Designer should be fully editable in Illustrator, but in practise, it isn't. The developers at Serif have had this flagged and report that this is down to how Illustrator is interpreting the PDF data, which is 100% standard-compliant. Short version: this is something Adobe would have to fix on the Illustrator side, and they have no reason to do so and I have no realistic expectation that they will.

So, if you have clients who want lettering delivering as live .ai files, Designer isn't going to work for you.

The typographic controls are also good. OpenType features are fully supported and all the fine-grain controls over tracking, kerning, leading, horizontal scale and the like are present and familiar.

The shape and pen tools will all also be very familiar to Illustrator users, so the creation of captions and speech balloons is pretty much as you'd expect and the ability to merge balloons and tails non-destructively (so you can edit tails separately to the main balloon within the merged shape) is very welcome.

Text can be outlined, manipulated, merged, stroked and filled, so sound effects are also taken care of.

But… it's important to remember that this is a product that hasn't yet reached v2 and doesn't have the massive resources of a company the size of Adobe behind it, so there are some notable omissions that might catch you out.

There is no direct shear/skew tool. You can achieve this by numeric input into the Transform panel (which is how I usually do it in Illustrator anyway) but you can't deploy a tool to do this by eye on your document.

There is also no free distort or perspective distortion option, nor any warp/distortion tools at all. I use these, Roughen along with specific distortion effects like Wave/Flag, all the time in Illustrator, so this is a fairly big negative.

There are workarounds — most of these options exist in Affinity Photo (and the Affinity Suite allows you to switch between applications to utilise specific features without actually leaving your current application) but this requires the text to be rasterised. If you don't mind mixing your vector and raster elements, then this is a perfectly workable solution.

If you're supplying finished files with lettering and art combined, then using Photo for these effects is a reasonable option, but if you're delivering EPS/PDF files of lettering only, then it's likely to border on a deal-breaker.

I should add that the existence of these features in Photo suggests that they should be implementable in Designer (the applications share a large amount of common code) and all of these features are on the developers' 'Road Map' for features to be added. My suspicion is that we may not see them until Designer hits v2.0, which will be the next upgrade that will be paid-for and which (to the best of my knowledge) does not have a release date.

There are other Illustrator features that have no equivalent in Designer that I would characterise as "would be nice to have but not a deal-breaker" but which other letterers may use more and whose absence they would feel more keenly. There's no equivalent of Illustrator's Image Trace, for example. 

Also missing are a Knife tool (for slicing up shapes after they're drawn) and a Blend tool (where you can map one shape onto another and the software draws a user-specified number of intermediate steps transforming, say, a triangle into a square).

There's also no way to apply a calligraphic brush stroke to a shape (like a balloon). I like this effect a lot and use it frequently, but I can live without it. Again, other people's mileage may vary.

All of these are on the developers' road map, but there's no formal timescale for when any of them will actually appear.

So, in summary, yes, you probably can replicate an Illustrator-based lettering workflow using Designer, with some fairly significant caveats. Some of those caveats listed above may well be deal-breakers for many letterers, but everyone's workflow is so different and so personalised that it's impossible to say which ones might be problematic for a specific letterer.

Nonetheless, Designer is very, very near to being a direct replacement for Illustrator and I continue to watch its development closely. The iOS version is particularly exciting since it brings the very real possibility of being able letter comics on an iPad Pro, taking advantage of the best-in-class digital drawing capabilities of the Apple Pencil.

Further posts on this as and when updates to the software bring us closer to that goal of a feature-complete Illustrator replacement.

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:
CCDearDiary:
Beelzebrush BB:
CCHipflask:
CCEnemyLines:

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!