Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lettering Matters: an attempt to read 1602 and INFINITE CRISIS

I’ve got a stack of 9 out of the 13 books I got for Xmas sitting on my coffee table right now. Three others are read and shelved, but one of the graphic novels I received (and asked for) is sitting waiting to go up on eBay: Marvel Comics’ 1602, a book positing Marvel superheros in the early 17th Century.

I’ve tried three times, but 1602 is so ugly that I just can’t read the effin’ thing. It’s not so much the art. Andy Kubert is an okay cartoonist, although the “digital painting” by Richard Isanove (which looks more like colored pencils) renders his artwork a bit... soft. But that’s not the problem. The problem is... the lettering.

It’s not entirely the fault of the letterer; Todd Klein is an excellent letterer and designer, he has been lettering comic books since it was still an art done by hand. For the most part, those days are long gone. As with much of the comic book illustration process, lettering is now done with computers. But most comics utilize a font that tries to replicate hand-lettering, to mostly poor effect. And 1602 (like most, if not all Marvel books) compounds the problem by following proper grammar. That is, by using upper AND lower case letters.

Comic books should not use lower case letters. Yes, this is anal retentive purist mentality to the extreme, but it just looks... wrong. The placement of words in balloons and captions scattered throughout comic book panels is jarring enough. When you add the inconsistent sizing of lower case letters, the resultant white space between lines looks like wasted space. The clean, uniformity of all upper case lettering (with the use of bold and italic to break up the monotony and add emphasis) works much better in conjunction with the art.

So why don’t comics use mechanical fonts like Helvetica or Heroic? Well, that would look a little TOO uniform, although I’m sure that day is coming (if comics last that long). As it is, even the faux-hand-letter-fonts suffer from a sterility. Occasionally an ambitious letterer will use some effect to alter the look of a word within a sentence, but it doesn’t have the artistic flair of what a great hand-letterer can do with a pen and an exclamation.

Another problem is that I find the story in 1602 too clever for its own good and I just don’t care about the Marvel Universe enough. But that’s not my point here.

I think I’m just not the audience for modern comics. I picked up the first three issues of INFINITE CRISIS, the mini-series that’s going to bring back DC Comics’ Multiverse after 20 years (if you don’t understand, don’t worry about it). But I think I’m done with that too. And it ain’t the lettering. While all of DC’s books are computer lettered as well, unlike Marvel, they at least retain the all-uppercase formatting.

But there’s another element of modern comic art that I can’t stand that Infinite Crisis has in spades: Overloaded, too busy artwork. On some gutterless pages (gutters are the spaces between panels, necessary in pre-offset printing days, quickly becoming anachronistic in comics), the jammed panels run into each other in a headache-inducing mess. To top it off, since I didn’t read the many prequel mini-series or tie-ins leading up to this story, I don’t follow all that’s going on.

So while I appreciate DC’s acknowledgement that its line has gotten far too nihilistic and applaud its desire to return to a more classic universe (supposedly), I think it’s too little, too late. As I’ve mentioned before, I just have to accept the fact that my fanboy within is limited to old comics and new adaptations to other media.

Ah, these kids today. Wouldn’t know a Gaspar from an Oda, let alone a Toth.

No comments: