Friday 7 May 2021

Dave Evans: RIP

The news is making its way out on various social media platforms that Dave Evans, aka Bolt-01, died unexpectedly earlier this week.

Dave was like a landmark in the UK comics scene, as co-editor and publisher of FutureQuake Press, home of the FutureQuake anthology, the 2000AD-themed fanzine Zarjaz, and the Strontium Dog-themed fanzine Dogbreath. He was a perennial presence at conventions, his table laid out with comic book wonders, sought out by fans and pros alike.

I've often described Dave and FutureQuake press as the backbone of the UK small press, because it's true. Dave and his co-editor, Richmond Clements, set the bar high for their contributors and many UK creators' careers have their origins in the pages of FQP publications, in no small part due to the diligent, thoughtful editorial skills Dave and Rich brought to their titles.

(Dave was also a prolific letterer, handling many of the lettering duties on FQP's books, and for other publishers, with great care and skill.)

And that's what Dave did, for many, many years. But that's not who he was.

Dave was a lovely man. A warm, genuine human being about whom I have genuinely never heard a bad word spoken. Everyone knew Dave. Everyone loved Dave. And he was my friend.

I didn't know Dave as well I'd have liked, largely due to my own patchy attendance at UK conventions, but I'd run into him every couple of years, and I'd contribute to FQP's books whenever he asked me. I was emailing him barely two weeks ago, exchanging lettering tips and talking about how much we were both looking forward to the convention circuit eventually resuming and planning to hit the bar at the first available opportunity.

And now he's gone. My brain refuses to process the fact that I won't be loudly greeted by him (often from halfway across the hall), that I won't make my way through the more-or-less permanent crowd at his stand and be met by that great, friendly grin of his. That I won't sit in a pub and talk extraordinary amounts of Nerd Shit™ with him over a pint (or several).

All of British comics is poorer for his loss.

But, for all that, I'm unable to imagine how much greater the loss is for his many close friends, and for his family, his love for whom was evident whenever you met him. My heartfelt condolences go out to every one of them.

Farewell, Dave. I'll miss you, you loveable old bastard.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Workflow Hints #3

One tiresome thing (of many) about Adobe Illustrator is the inability to automate layer-specific actions. This means that you can't include any action in a batch process that involves targetting the contents of a specific layer, which has the practical consequence of meaning that you can't delete the Artwork layer in your document if you're exporting lettering-only EPS files.

Or I thought that was what it meant. I can't believe it's taken me twelve years and 60,000 pages to figure out the workaround for this.

We all keep the art layer locked in our working documents, right? Then record this action:

  • Select All 
  • Create Outlines
  • Select -> All on Active Artboard
  • Cut
  • [Layer Palette] Unlock All Layers
  • Select All
  • Delete
  • Paste In Front
  • Save As [EPS/AI/PDF/Whatever] to [whichever folder you dump your exports to]
  • Close
  • Don't Save

And you're done. That's it.

It's worth noting that if you want your layers preserving in the exported EPS, just turn on the "Paste Remembers Layers" option from the Layer palette, and everything will get pasted back onto their original layers, in their original positions and stacking order.

This option is global — once you turn it on, it stays on for all future documents until you turn it off again. If you don't use this option in your regular workflow (although I have it turned on at all times) then simply activate it before you start your EPS batch process, and turn it off again when you're finished!

There are a couple of hiccups, here:

1) If you include some kind of title bar in your lettering for proofing purposes, like this:

Then this action will pick that title bar up and paste it back in with the lettering, even if you want it deleting in the final EPSs.

There are two workarounds for this. Either,

a) Put the title bar in the locked artwork layer. This means you'll have to send the placed artwork to the back of the layer (so that the title bar floats over the art) before locking the artwork layer, or…

b) If you're proofing from InDesign, consider moving the title bar to the master page of your ID proofing document. That way, you can take advantage of ID's auto page-numbering as well as keeping your Illustrator documents 'clean' for export purposes.

2) If you submit a full set of files, even for blank lettering pages, there's no way to clear the clipboard between documents in Illustrator (there's no equivalent 'purge' command like there is in Photoshop) so if you have a page with NO lettering on the active artboard, AI will paste in the lettering from the previous page. I haven't figured out a workaround for that one yet, beyond maybe adding a tiny square or other object somewhere in the bleed to any page that doesn't have lettering.
(Or, obviously, just don't submit files for pages with no lettering!)

Despite those two caveats, this is a real time-saver. Not only do you now not have to open up your exported EPSs and manually delete the artwork on every page, because you're now saving out EPSs without artwork, the export batch process runs in a fraction of the time it used to for a full book.

So, there you go. I thought that one was too good not to share!

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Workflow Hints #2

Just another quick timesaver.

Has some kind soul sent you a bunch of artwork files that are on-spec but have annoyingly huge file sizes because they've saved the TIFFs without LZW compression?

(Artists and colourists! Seriously, stop doing this. LZW compression is lossless, meaning that there is zero effect on quality. What it does dramatically effect is the file size:

You'll save both disk space and upload/download time for everyone in your entire creative process if you just check that little LZW compression radio button!)

Obviously, you could just set up an Action and batch process the files, but Photoshop saves you the trouble by providing a ready-built option.

If you look under File -> Scripts you'll find an option called "Image Processor" which, if you set it up like this…

…will handle it for you. It also seems to be much, much faster than running a batch process using Actions.

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. You can apply a slight stroke weight variation, however, which is a decent approximation of the same effect. 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:
Beelzebrush BB: