Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sunday Surgery: The Doctor Isn't Needed!

In the absence of any requests for the Sunday Surgery slot, and my inability to think of anything meaningful or useful to put here in its place, I'd like to apologize for the lack of a proper post today. I do have a couple of opinion pieces in preparation, but both touch on some potentially delicate subject matter and I didn't want to rush them out incomplete simply for the sake of filling some space.

More substantive content coming next week -- honest!



Saturday, 30 October 2010

Lettering In Adobe Illustrator: Four

Part Four:
Basic Balloons and Captions
Once you've created a nice looking block of text that looks like it will fit in the space provided, you need a balloon to put it in.
Make sure that you are on your Balloon layer:

(NOTE: It's not essential that you use layers in the way I describe, but, as mentioned previously, I firmly believe that it does make your life a lot, lot easier!)
Select the Ellipse tool (Shortcut: L)

In Photoshop, the two elements on the palette below are the foreground and background colours, but in AI, these are the Stroke and Fill colours. Whichever one is at the front is the one whose colour you are editing in the colour palette.

You can swap between having the Fill and the Stroke active by hitting X, and you can swap the two colours over with SHIFT-X.

For the most part, you're going to want a white Fill and a black Stroke.  (Another handy shortcut for speed is that D sets Fill and Stroke to their Defaults, which happen to be the white fill and a black stroke you’re after.)
The weight of the stroke is up to you, but around 1 point is a good start. I've come to favour 0.75pt:

(Keep in mind that you’ll almost certainly need a higher stroke value on outsize pages. Some publishers work on artwork size documents, which can be one-and-a-half or two times final printed size; a 0.75pt stroke will all but vanish if reduced by half in the in the finished product!)
You now need to draw an ellipse. If you hold down ALT, the circle (or any other shape) will draw from the centre; if you hold down SHIFT then an ellipse will constrain to a perfect circle, a rectangle to a square, and so on:

Some letterers can get away with perfectly circular speech balloons. Bob Lappan and John Workman spring immediately to mind, and I’m pretty sure Tom Orzechowski has used them on Spawn relatively recently, but I honestly think you need to be a letterer of that calibre to really get away with it. The rest of us should probably stick with ellipses.
At this point, it's worth explaining the difference between AI's two selection tools. I've met people who've used the programme for years and never understood the difference, but getting to grips with them will save you a lot of time.

The black arrow is the Selection Tool and the white is the Direct Selection Tool - you can toggle between them using the V and A keys respectively. 
Put simply, the Selection Tool is for selecting whole objects (including groups) and moving or scaling them, whilst the Direct Selection Tool is for selecting and moving individual points within a path, or component objects within a group. You'll see an illustration of why this is useful a little further down.
There's no reason why you can't leave your balloon as a perfect ellipse, but this does look a bit mechanical. Probably the easiest thing to do is flatten the balloon slightly -- note that this method is not the same as simply squashing it with the scale tool, which would still result in a perfect ellipse and just change the proportions.
Use the Direct Selection Tool to select the top point of the ellipse:

If you look very closely, you should just be able to see that the top point has changed to a solid red (or whatever the highlight colour of your layer is) to show that you have selected it, while the other points have a white fill.

If you use the arrow key to nudge this point down, you can count the number of times you do this, then repeat the process on the bottom point, and nudge it up by the same amount, giving you a flattened ellipse that’s even on both sides:

The more you flatten the top and bottom points using this method, the more the balloon will come to look like a rounded rectangle.
Where you stop is entirely a matter of personal taste.
I know this sounds like an enormous faff, but you can re-use this balloon as many times as you want, now that you've created it.

Put your balloon on the artwork, and then your text on top of the balloon. One of the advantages of putting your text in a text box, as described yesterday, is that you can now position the left and right edges of the box so that it is the same width as the balloon, and your text will be perfectly centred:
All artwork in this section by Kev Levell

Note that having centred your text, if you want to change the size of the balloon, you can use the Selection (V) tool to resize it, whilst holding the ALT key which will scale it from the centre rather than the corner.
Then you need to add a tail. Balloon tails should, wherever possible, point at the speaker's mouth. It's not necessary for the tail to end particularly near the mouth, but it should always point in the right general direction.
Whether you want to create a straight tail -- basically a triangle -- or a curved one, you'll need to use the Pen tool (Shortcut P):

A straight tail is simply four clicks to create a triangle (you should close shapes by joining the last point to the first where possible -- it makes PathFinder operations more reliable), whereas a curved tail is slightly more involved:

Click to start the tail, here I've started inside the balloon. Click again to form a second point where the end of the tail will be. As you click to create that second point, hold down the mouse button and drag to make a curve.

This is known as a bezier curve. The degree of curvature you’ve created will be reflexive and will affect the next section of the shape, so hold down the ALT key and click on the second point, at which point one half of the bezier handle will disappear:

Click back inside the balloon and again hold and drag to create another curve:

Then close the path by clicking on the first point:

Using the Selection tool (V), select both the balloon and tail by SHIFT-clicking

Go to the Pathfinder palette and click on Add To Shape Area:

Your balloon and tail will now appear merged, but will actually be two separate elements that can be selected individually with the Direct Selection (white) tool, or as a group with the Selection (black) tool.

IMPORTANT NOTE: CS4 changes the default behaviour of this operation and expands the group into one, non-editable shape - hold down the ALT key in CS4 or CS5 when using Add Shape to create an editable group.  Although you can’t change the default behaviour of the Pathfinder operation, you can record an action using the ALT behaviour of the function and then assign it to a function key.
CMD-4 will apply the most recently used Pathfinder operation to the current selection, so you don't have to use the Pathfinder palette every time.
One of the easiest ways to create extra space for lettering is to crop the balloon to one of the panel borders. I favour top and bottom over left and right, but all four borders are acceptable. There are two methods of cropping balloons.
The first uses a different Pathfinder operation.

Create your balloon as usual, allowing the unused portion to fall outside the panel border:

Using the Rectangle tool (M), draw a box completely covering the part of the balloon you want to remove:

Select the balloon and the rectangle with the Selection (black) arrow using SHIFT-click:

It is important that the rectangle is on top of the balloon. If, for some reason, your stacking order has become confused, click on a visible part of the rectangle and use CMD-SHIFT-] (that's a square close-bracket) to bring the object to the front of all the objects on that layer.
Now select Subtract From Shape Area from the Pathfinder palette:

And the rectangle, along with the unwanted part of the balloon will disappear:

Note that -- as with the Add to Shape operation -- you can select and edit individual elements within this group using the Direct Selection (white) arrow. The same CS4/CS5 proviso applies: you need to hold down ALT when applying this function in order to maintain an editable group rather than a single shape.
The alternative method uses a Clipping Mask. I've recently come to favour this method, but have been told that DC Comics in particular actively discourages the use of Clipping Masks.  (Thanks to Clem Robins for the info!)
At the time of writing, this is sadly not an issue for me, but is something that is worth keeping in mind.
The Clipping Mask is a similar operation, except that you use the Pen tool to create a shape and only objects or parts of objects inside the shape remain visible.
Create your balloon as usual and then draw a shape around it with the Pen tool:

The shape only needs to be accurate where it intersects with the balloon - in this case, along the top edge.
Select both the Pen shape and the balloon with the Selection (black) tool using SHIFT-click and then, using the Objects menu, choose Clipping Mask -> Make

Once again, the unwanted part of the balloon will disappear:

Using a Clipping Mask is slightly more involved, but has two advantages:
1) It means that you only use 'Add Shape' from the Pathfinder palette, so that operation will always be CMD-4, whereas Make Clipping Mask will always be CMD-7
2) It works for irregular and non-right-angle panel borders.
And that's pretty much everything you need to know about standard speech balloons.
Caption boxes, by contrast, really are just rectangles with text. Unless you can exactly match the stroke weight of the panel border, I think it looks untidy to butt the boxes flush to the border, so I always try to indent them:

Beyond that, however, there isn't much more to them!

Next, we'll deal with non-standard balloons: radio, burst, whisper, thought, and so on.

If you've seen a specific balloon that you'd like to be able create, but can't work out how it was done, post a link to an image of it in the Comments section of this post, and I'll try to figure out how it was done and include a how-to in the next section.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Normal Service Will Be Resumed…

…As soon as possible.

Those nice folks at Zenescope Entertainment, via their new Silver Dragon Books imprint, have me grappling with sharks at the moment -- the ten deadliest, actually!

I'm hoping the next instalment of the Illustrator Guide will be along tomorrow, but in the meantime, can I draw your attention to Fractal Friction …? It's a weekly web-comic by five of the UK's finest small press artists, plus a healthy smattering of guest artists, written by the enigmatic Emperor and lettered by me.

There's a new instalment pretty much every Friday, but if you're new to the Fractals, then you might want to start with the episode we could only call … Page One.



Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Wednesday Surgery

Come File With Me…

Matt Brown asked in Sunday's Surgery about recommendations for a logical filing system.

I always hesitate to offer my own template/system/practice as a model for others unless it's something I've been taught by an older, wiser head somewhere in the distant mists of pre-history, when phones came attached to houses and you moved large files by splitting a Stuffit Archive across multiple 1.44Mb floppies. Plus, filing systems are a bit subjective -- I've never figured out why people object to the way iTunes files their MP3s if left to its own devices… I mean, who wouldn't want their music organized Folder: Artist/ Folder: Album/File: Track …?

On the other hand, simplistic as it is, here's an illustration of how I keep my files organized. Top level directory (with an alias on the desktop and again in the sidebar of Finder windows) unsurprisingly called Lettering, contains an Admin folder, inside which there are folders for each publisher, inside which invoices and contracts are kept. Then there's a folder for each publisher, inside which the structure goes:

Project Name/ Issue Number/

Inside Issue Number is a folder for Artwork (with sub folders for Colour and B&W if you start working on pencils before the colours are ready), a folder called AI Editable, and ones called TIFF Final and EPS Final.

(These last two are for outputting files and may not be necessary depending on how your publisher wants the files submitting.)

AI Editable contains the live lettering files, which are similarly named something logical like … you can then record an action with the necessary export settings specified by your publisher and then use AI's 'Batch' function to export everything in the AI Editable folder into the relevant TIFF or EPS (or PDF or whatever) folder.

Once the job is signed off, I always clear out the exported files, since these can always be re-exported from the original AI documents with minimal effort.

Getting My Back Up

Whilst we're on the subject of house-keeping, I'm going to mention backing up.

Time Machine on OSX 10.5 and higher is great, and a real life-saver when you accidentally overwrite a file, but you also need a proper back-up and archiving strategy, too. It's possible to become over-paranoid about the levels of redundancy you require, but you need to keep two things in mind:

Optical media degrades. Don't believe me? Go find a data back-up CD-R that you wrote five years ago and stick it in your CD drive. I did this with a stack of them recently, and discovered that half of them didn't work.

Hard drives fail. I had two, bought separately and used for different purposes, fail within a fortnight of each other. One with no warning at all, the other with a brief bout of chugging noises and then nothing. Everyone seems to swear by a different brand of HDD, and everyone seems to have a horror story about a different brand of HDD.

Going forward, my strategy is to use an external drive as an archive, and to assume that it won't last more than two years. At eighteen months, I plan to migrate all the data onto a brand new drive and relegate the old one to a back-up of the main, new archive.

There are plenty of free back-up utilities available on the internet -- for the Mac, I like CarbonCopyCloner, although I know plenty of people have other favourites. Feel free to share any recommendations in the Comments section.

By Order of the Management

Still in the same general area of computer housekeeping, I've also been asked about font management and keeping track of your fonts.

I know there are lots of people who like font management software, and Extensis and Linotype both make font managers that are well spoken of.

However, I've never got on with font managers; I've always found them disruptive to my workflow and you're unlikely to have a vast number of lettering fonts. I'm a complete font nut -- I even ask for them as Christmas presents! -- and I have about 90 individual fonts, which represent about thirty actual faces. Before I install a purchased font, I use OSX's Finder Labels to colour code the file itself, and I only ever install them in the Username/Library/Font directory, so that they're easy to find and identify.

It's a bit rough and ready, but it works…

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.