Tuesday, 26 October 2010

You’ll have to speak up!

I have of late noticed an increase in talk of lettering comics using standard sentence case instead of the traditional block capital style. On a purely emotional level, I’ve always objected to it without giving any real thought to articulating the reasons why.

I was recently asked to put together some lettering samples for a strip which included, by request, at least one style that was in standard sentence case. Both the writer and artist are creators I’ve known for many years, and whose work I admire enormously. For a nerve-wracking twenty-four hours they leaned towards choosing the sentence case lettering and, to my surprise, I found myself seriously considering removing myself from the project. To my relief, they chose another style in the end, but I had no idea until that point that I felt so strongly about the issue and was forced to think further about the whole matter so that I could articulate those feelings.
(To be clear: guys, this article is not aimed at you, but I am grateful to you for making me think about the issue. More broadly, I will be stating some arguments in favour of sentence case so that I can try to refute them. These are real arguments, but they have been relayed to me by third parties so I won’t attribute them because I can’t be certain that I have the quotation correct, even if I have the sense of it right. These are not “straw men” that I am erecting, nor are these windmills at which I am tilting.)
I’ve always had an instinctive dislike of this alternative lettering style, pre-dating my own professional involvement with comic lettering by a number of years. In fact, I think the first time I saw it was in Ultimate Spider-Man, and my eyes just kind of bounced off it -- I found it near-impossible to read.

To me, it looked then and still looks now like everyone in the book is whispering. As such, it seems, to me, to suck all the drama out of the book. Don’t believe me? Try this:
(c) Marvel Enterprises

I’m sorry, but that weedy little balloon completely fails to convey any sort of drama or emotion to me. If the lettering isn’t going to change its style to meet the dramatic needs of the scene or the individual panel, if the lettering isn’t going to interact with the visual element of the story-telling, then why bother lettering it at all?
Why not just have a picture and a chunk of prose underneath it, Rupert the Bear style?
(c) Express Newspapers

So where does this break with previous lettering convention come from? I blame Neil Gaiman and Todd Klein!
(c) DC Comics

Well, obviously, I don’t, but from the outside, looking in, this looks a lot like the same failure of imagination at an industry-wide level that said “Watchmen was grim and gritty and realistic and sold by the bucketload, let’s make all our comics grim and gritty and realistic so they sell by the bucketload, too!”
(Disclaimer: you know those straw men I said I wasn’t erecting? This next statement is one of those. I’ll try not to do it again.)
It looks like there’s an element of thinking “Sandman’s dialogue was in sentence case, and he was cool and edgy and literary and won loads of awards, so…” except, of course, that only Morpheus spoke in lower case, and his balloons were reversed out, so the character played on the whispering convention to turn his dialogue into an emphasized whisper. Having everyone do it achieves nothing.
Except make them all look like they’re whispering, of course.
So… on one level, sentence case dialogue usurps an existing convention to no good end, as far as I can see. Are we then to reintroduce the dashed balloon to indicate whispering? The recent attempts to use lighter grey text to achieve the whisper effect impact readability but, to me, fail entirely to look like whispered dialogue.

Indeed, the only other place a reader might have encountered normal text alongside greyed-out text is on drop-down menus in computer programmes. If the argument we're making about sentence case is related to broadening the appeal of comics to people who aren't necessarily familiar with the medium, the context of greyed-out text that they will bring is unhelpful, to say the least.
An argument that I have heard made is that upper case words are intrinsically harder to recognize than lower case, that the letterforms of lower case make it harder for younger readers to recognize individual words.
I have nothing much more to say on this, other then to observe that it didn’t seem to bother the young readers of the Beano in 1957:
(c) DC Thomson
Are we to argue that today's comic reader is less capable that the average eight-year old from fifty-three years ago?

In fact, I have never, ever heard that complaint made by a reader. Not once. Additionally, I letter for Classical Comics, whose award-winning adaptations of curriculum texts sell primarily into the education market and are specifically aimed at the less …enthusiastic reader. These are, without exception, lettered in standard upper case. So, we’ll hear no more of that one, eh?
Then there’s the issue of uniformity… a standard all-caps font uses the entire character set twice over, with the upper case letters being, obviously, upper case letters whilst the lower case letters are utilized to provide variant versions of the upper case letters. Additionally, ligatures (where placing two characters adjacent will cause the font to substitute for a third combined character) are used to keep double Os, Es, Ts, from looking obviously mechanical, as here, where typing double-T results in the merged-TT character:

Note also that I have used a capital E and a lower case E when typing this word, so that the two Es are also subtly different. Although no-one will ever notice this, it gives a subconscious cue to the reader that brings to mind the irregularity of hand lettering.
With a standard sentence case font, the upper case is used for upper case and the lower for, well, lower. Where are the variant characters? There aren’t any, so in terms of mimicking the oft-mourned age of hand lettering, using lower case fonts is a step backwards, because they look more mechanical than a well-crafted upper case font.
(That’s Blambot’s excellent HometownHero in the sample above.)
Finally, we come to the issue of space.

In other words, the text has to be made bigger because the characters are, effectively, smaller, whilst up to half the line height is empty space and the space between the lines has to be increased, too.
So, you end up covering more of the artwork with bigger balloons that actually contain more empty space.
Which kind of neatly dovetails into another argument I’ve heard advanced: that use of sentence case lettering calls to mind more European comics (which sort of bears out my theory about wanting comics to look more “grown up”, whatever that’s supposed to mean) and the European comic market is a lot healthier than the English-speaking one.

This is true, but overlooks the fact that European market is a very different one to the UK/US market and one conflates the two at one’s peril. The European market has always been a lot more laid back about what has lately become known as ‘decompression’, so covering more of the artwork with lettering is a relatively small issue, since one can simply use more pictures and thus more pages to tell the same story. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve admired long some of those large stylish, open balloons you see in many European books with no small amount of envy, but there’s no denying that it’s still empty space.

By contrast, the value proposition of comics, particularly in these economically trying times, is one that is very closely scrutinized in the English-reading world. Witness the suspicion with which DC’s announcement that 22-page comics retailing for $3.99 would drop to $2.99 but only have 20 story pages. Despite the fact that this represents a 25% price reduction for a 10% reduction in content, the move has by no means been universally well-received. Couple this with a fairly significant groundswell of opinion against decompression in general amongst fandom and I find it hard to make a convincing argument that “looking a bit more European” is going to be of any benefit to the industry simply by virtue of the fact that it’s aping a more successful market.

Japanese manga is an even bigger market than mainland Europe’s comic scene, so why not make everything look like manga?

So, after all that, what is the point of abandoning a decades old convention? To counter a complaint about readability that no-one actually has? To make comics seem more “grown up”? Again, I’d argue that if you’re going to make comics look less like comics, why bother making comics at all? Why not an illustrated novel? Why not the Rupert Bear example mentioned earlier?

And don’t get me started on sound effects… that’s a subject for another post.

Footnote: As I said previously, I was genuinely unprepared for how strongly I felt about this issue. I’m open to a good counter argument, if anyone has one or has come across one. Use the comments section to make it, or link to it if it’s elsewhere on teh interwebs. I am honestly interested in being convinced by the contrary position.


  1. Gah, Jim, we get it! No lower case lettering in Monsterology!

    -pj :P

  2. My first question would be, if sentence case is so bad then why do novels -- plus technical publications, newspapers, magazines, web sites, movie subtitles, in fact every single written item in the Western world except comic books -- use it?

    The answer is that sentence case is more readable than all caps. Studies have been conducted and show that sentence case beats all caps in both reading speed and reading comprehension (amount of information understood/retained). These are quantifiable results, not vague "I think it looks better" opinions.

    So the only reason why we think all caps looks better in comics is because that's what we are used to. And it's well known that comic fans are a cowardly and superst-- er, I mean, a nostalgic and change-averse group ;)

    Now I'm not saying that's bad. If comic fans truely believe all caps looks nicer, that's a powerful reason for keeping them. Just as long as we are aware that it is purely the familiarity that we like, and not that the style is intrinsically better (because it isn't).

    If we had always seen sentence case in comics we would all think it was perfectly fine and would howl with rage if some upstart letterer started using all caps.

  3. (I should probably start this with a disclaimer: I grew up reading French comics and don't read any superhero comics so I come at this issue with very different set of prejudices.)

    I don't have a problem with sentence case comic lettering if it's done right and in an appropriate way. Surely it's just another tool in the letterer's toolbox and a good letterer should know when and how to use it to best effect?

    There are a couple of specific points in this article I would like to take up:

    I don't think the case of the letters is the only reason it looks like Captain America is whispering - surely even upper case of the same font size in a word balloon that small in that panel would look like whispering? I would have thought that the right choice would be to match the emotion in the panel with the text choice so, even if the rest of that comic was lettered in sentence case, that panel would be a prime candidate for lettering in upper case and, possibly, a bigger font size.

    Regarding legibility: I've had this conversation with my mother who teaches children to read and she says that they find sentence case significantly easier to read. That said, I don't think the legibility argument has much relevance to comics that aren't specifically trying to help children learning to read.

    I think you've got the core of a good article here but I feel it would make a much stronger argument if it were focused more on where it is inappropriate to use sentence case rather than "sentence case is bad, mmm kay? Don't do sentence case, kids." Maybe that could lead to a post where you outline where sentence case is appropriate and, if you are going to use it, how to do it well - that would be something I would be very interested to read.

    Keep up the good work, really enjoying reading your articles.

  4. Few more points:

    Size, bold and emphasis can be used in sentence case lettering too. In fact sentence case trades up an extra level of emphasis by SWITCHING TO UPPER CASE at the expense of a level of de-emphasis.

    When comparing the space required for upper and sentence case it would be better to show the same text for a fair comparison. (I also note that you've also used a squoval bubble for the upper case and an oval for the sentence case which introduces another variable in the comparison.)

    Fonts these days support a huge number of characters that generally never get used, especially in comic lettering, so the argument that upper case lettering is better because you can't have alternate letter forms in sentence case isn't really valid. Similarly, ligatures are possible between all characters - it's not an exclusively upper case attribute. Ease of use and availability of suitable sentence case fonts are valid arguments here but there's nothing inherent in the case choice itself.

  5. Blimey! Clearly I picked the wrong morning to make a blog post and then clear off out to run some errands!

    Firstly, to clarify: I was a graphic designer for many years before I became a letterer, with my background being primarily print and primarily typographic. The number of individual typesetting jobs I have done runs into the tens of thousands and it was my love of comic books combined with my nerdy love of type that led me to where I am now. I know type.

    David M:

    It's something of a straw man to ask me what I have against sentence case. I have nothing against sentence case. I'm not saying it's "bad" as a blanket statement.

    However, to then bring in novels as a comparison is something of a red herring. In a novel, the text is the sole means of conveying information to the reader and there are just great big slabs of it on the page. Of course I wouldn't want to read it all in caps.

    However, in a comic the text is part of an image and is intended to convey only one part of the information that the work as a whole is trying to impart to the reader. Of necessity, the text must be compact, where caps scores a point, but it must also be obvious and immediate and we are conditioned, not just by comics, to give text in caps our attention.


    Thanks for the feedback. As I've said elsewhere, this piece is not intended to represent a "position" as such, but rather presents my opening thoughts in the hope that they will be challenged, much as you and David have here, and push me towards a clearer argument one way or the other.

    A couple of things I do take issue with, though:

    "When comparing the space required for upper and sentence case it would be better to show the same text for a fair comparison. (I also note that you've also used a squoval bubble for the upper case and an oval for the sentence case which introduces another variable in the comparison.)"

    Is it your contention, then, that lowercase characters DON'T make less efficient use of the line height? Are you suggesting that the ascenders and descenders DON'T require a higher leading value to avoid ugly entanglements? Implicit in your sentence above is the suggestion that I've deployed some sleight of hand to bolster my point, which I don't believe is the case.

    "Fonts these days support a huge number of characters that generally never get used, especially in comic lettering, so the argument that upper case lettering is better because you can't have alternate letter forms in sentence case isn't really valid."

    I'm not saying that lower case lettering fonts CAN'T deploy alternate letterforms, I'm saying that they generally DON'T. In addition, I'm not sure how one is supposed to manually access them in a manner as simple and straightforward as using the SHIFT key is with a font that uses caps and variants across the two cases.

  6. It's worth noting here that I was unaware that far, far wiser heads than mine have already had this discussion. Kudos to the genial and ever-wise Todd Klein for pointing me to this two-part discussion over on Rich Starkings' Balloon Tales site:


  7. I'm not attributing your motives to malice but you certainly don't illustrate your point very clearly to me. For example, if I do a quick and dirty test it shows me that sentence case takes up less space than the same text in upper case because the letters have less average horizontal width: http://plixi.com/p/53012253 If you want to convince me with the space argument you need to come up with a better diagram than either mine or the one in the article above. I'll be the first to admit that my test isn't an effective comparison either but it would help your argument if you could compare the same text and show how you would get the upper case version to be as readable as the sentence case version in less space.

    I appreciate that the sentence case fonts aren't as convenient and don't have the features of the upper case fonts but you don't explicitly say that's why you are using the font argument to count against sentence case.

    I'm not saying you don't have valid arguments but I do feel that you haven't explained and illustrated them very well.

  8. Dave:

    "I'm not saying you don't have valid arguments but I do feel that you haven't explained and illustrated them very well."

    As I say -- this isn't intended to present a complete argument; I'm still very much trying to form my own opinion on this and I'm aware that my gut instinct against lower case lettering as the default biases that opinion and is the main reason I wanted people to challenge it in the first place.

    "I'll be the first to admit that my test isn't an effective comparison either but it would help your argument if you could compare the same text and show how you would get the upper case version to be as readable as the sentence case version in less space."

    Try the image below:


    Note that in the lower case example I should have set the leading value higher than I did, because some of the ascenders ARE touching the descenders of the line above. Note also that space was running tight in the second panel and I actually had to bump the final line over into the next panel where there was slightly more room.

    "I appreciate that the sentence case fonts aren't as convenient and don't have the features of the upper case fonts but you don't explicitly say that's why you are using the font argument to count against sentence case."

    I give an example -- the "LETTERING" illustration -- where I have manually used to variations of the letter E and explain why I would be unable to do that in a lettering font with upper and lower case. I'm not sure how I could be any clearer on that point, to be honest.



  9. That image is a much better example of the point about space.

    However, I have to confess that when seeing them side by side like that I much prefer the sentence case version and find the top version much too dense to read comfortably. But that's just my personal preference.

  10. Block capital style is much clearer for me, and I am surprised by this, I've never thought about it before.

    I think Dave being French might have much to do with his preference, and possibly explain a disquiet I have with the European comics (even thought I have enjoyed many European comics).

    Leaves me wondering what the Eagle used.

  11. "Leaves me wondering what the Eagle used."

    Hampson lettered in all caps:


    As did Bellamy:


    In the 70s, hand lettering was widely replaced by the horrible letterpress lettering (also all in caps) of the type that I'm currently removing from pages of Hookjaw prior to its reprinting in Strip Magazine early next year.



  12. As Dave does, I also prefer sentence caps because, opposite of Jim, I find that sentence caps makes it look like everyone is yelling. So I found that little insight truly hilarious. :) Thanks. Just to note, I am an American reader, but I grew up with novels instead of comic books, though I read mostly comics now.

    I think in the end, the blobs of text are so small (only a sentence or two) that the readability of all upper or sentence cap is not an issue. I do think that the choice should be conscious, though, even if it is just that it really does look better to you. I prefer sentence cap because it has more white space. But, as in the Captain America example, I think that the text blurb was to small regardless of whether it was all caps or sentence cap. If the balloon had been 2 to 3 times bigger, all upper would have looked like more strained yelling than sentence caps to me so that would play into my choice of all upper or sentence caps in that case (if the rest of the comic had been sentence cap).

    I never thought that discussion would be so interesting. :)

  13. Tin Tin has been done in Sentence case since inception. It is my understanding that most European comics are done this way.