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.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Onwards Into The Future!

A belated Happy New Year to one and all…

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

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

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Quick Illustrator Tip#3

Text Boxes

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

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

Creating a text box is ridiculously easy:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Credit Where Credit's Due…

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

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

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

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

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