DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional letterer! I have a lot of respect for those who are. I don't know if everything below is optimal or even right. If you want to tap the brain of a master, go visit Todd Klein. This post is just based on my experience, the lessons I've learned and mistakes I've made. I get by.
Lettering in comics is important, and too often overlooked or an afterthought. Neat, legible lettering can make the difference between work that looks like that of a novice or a pro. Where the words are placed on the page is critical--absolutely critical--to how the reader's eye is guided through the action. It can control pace and convey urgency, confusion, anger, and other moods and emotions.
It can also reveal something about a character. Some of the smartest lettering in comics was done for Walt Kelly's "Pogo," where a deacon spoke in ornate Gothic script and a showman pattered in circus-poster bluster. A more subtle example is Marvel Comics' character The Vision, an android who often spoke in rectangular yellow word balloons to suggest an eerie mechanical voice different from everyone else's.
The spooky-voiced Vision (right) versus . . . Captain Space Pirate Zombie? I read this one long ago but don't remember.
A person's handwriting is an intimate thing--think how much more a handwritten note means than an e-mail, or how an unexpected glimpse of grandma's graceful cursive can conjure powerful memories. Lettering gives a story a voice and personality. As a cartoonist, it's worth putting some thought and effort into.
In Which We Learn by Fumbling
Until recently in comics history, lettering was always done directly on the paper the art was drawn on, and was the first ink to hit the paper. Lettering first, to make sure it was placed right and had enough room, then art. Many cartoonists still work that way, but increasingly the lettering is done digitally and placed after the art is complete. I've done both.
On Mom's Cancer, I lettered directly on the page, just how it looks in print. I lightly pencilled guidelines onto the paper, with the space between lines of text half as high as the letters themselves (e.g., letters 6 mm high with 3 mm line spacing ("leading") between). How large you actually make your letters depends on the size of your original and published art, whether for print or web; that'll take some trial and error. Easy legibility is the goal. Take into account the fact that some readers may have worse eyesight than you and err on the side of writing too big. Fat, wide letters read better than thin, crowded ones.
None of that was efficient or fun. As much as I love and respect old-timey ink on paper, I decided to march boldly into the 21st century (or at least tiptoe warily into the late 20th) and letter digitally. But I still wanted my lettering to be un-sterile and reflect me as much as possible. So I set out to convert my own handprinting into a computer font.
Rise of the Machines
On the recommendation of a cartooning friend, I purchased a program called FontCreator. This isn't a plug, there are competing products that might be as good or better. But FontCreator could do everything I wanted plus a ton of things I didn't want or even understand. It's overpowered for my needs. I wanted a Hyundai and got a Ferrari. Still, it wasn't hard to figure out the basics. Using letters sampled from Mom's Cancer, I had a pretty good digital font up and running in a day.
Something To Think About #1: Fonts have upper- and lower-case letters. Comics are generally lettered in all upper-case. What to do with the lower-case letters you don't need? Make them upper-case, too, so that you have two versions of every letter. Especially when a letter repeats, making them slightly different subtly softens the mechanical perfection of digital.
You can see the impact of kerning in a word like "AVATAR." The top example below has no kerning and there's too much air around the "V" and "T." The middle example has, I think, a nice amount of kerning. One of the loopier reviews I read of James Cameron's "Avatar" movie criticized the poor kerning of its poster font, at bottom. Curiously, the letter that looks most out of whack to me is the "R," which seems to be a light-year away from its "A." I guess when you earn a billion dollars you can kern any way you want.
You build kerning into a digital font by going through every two-letter combination likely to need it and defining how much space you want between them. This is hard--doubly so when your font has two versions of every letter and they're handprinted, which means you can't blindly apply the same kerning to every pair. Keeping in mind that my lower-case letters appear as upper-case, "AV," "Av," "aV," and "av" all require separate adjustments. Then there are the many permutations of VA, AT, TA, LT, LV, PA, etc. As I work with my font I continue to discover new combinations of letters that need work and send me back under the hood to tweak.
So I used my custom digital font in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. Here's what happened as a result: If I needed to edit my text, I opened the file in Photoshop and revised it in a few seconds. If I needed to expand or delete it: done in less than a minute. If I needed to prepare my pages for translation into other languages: my letters and word balloons were already on separate Photoshop layers, so all they had to do was delete my text layer with one click and substitute their own.
I'm not saying you should letter digitally. Your needs, skills, priorities, talents, and logorrhea are different than mine. I'm saying that with the type of work I do--say, writing a 200-page graphic novel that'll pass through two or three editors and has the potential for foreign publication--it would be an insane waste of my time not to. There are trade-offs; I think they're worth it.
As I described a couple of weeks ago, I used three main fonts in WHTTWOT, plus a bunch of fonts meant to evoke era-appropriate indicia, ads, signs and such. Most of the book is lettered in my handprinted font because it's a conversation between me and the reader. You and I are talking here. I used a much slicker professional font for the "Space Age Adventures" comic books within the comic book, and a third font that I thought kind of combined the aesthetics of the other two--formal but relaxed, with lower-case letters--for the final chapter, where the threads come together. I put a lot of thought into how lettering could convey meaning in ways the reader wouldn't be consciously aware of. To the extent I succeeded, I was happy with the result. To the extent I fell short, well . . . I know I have a lot to learn.
Oh, final piece of advice. Don't use Comic Sans. Just don't.