Some comics have a large amount of text. Whether this takes the form of speech, internal character dialogue, or narration, the job of the letter is still the same: they have to include all of the text without diminishing the art or disrupting the narrative flow.
There are ‘rules’ about the amount of words that a comic book page should include, Alan Moore famously was obsessed by his own word count and he stated in an interview with the Zarjaz fanzine:
“it you’ve got six panels on a page, then the maximum number of words you should have in each panel is 35. No more. That’s the maximum. 35 words per panel. Also, if a balloon has more than 20 or 25 words in it, it’s going to look too big.”
This was based on advice given to him when he worked for DC Comics and it formed the basis for his own work. Anyone who has read Alan Moore’s comics will come to expect heavy word counts and layer upon layer of information per panel; it is the way he works after all.
But not everyone is used to that intensity and coming across a comic that has a lot of text can be daunting, which is why it is important that the lettering gets it right.This year I have seen examples of comics getting it right and, some, getting it very wrong. Earlier in the year I compared the recent Go-Bots comic with an old Tales From The Crypt to illustrate a point about heavy text based stories (Fig 1 below).
This month IDW Publishing released issue one of Pandemica, written by Jonathan Maberry. It is obvious from reading the comic that Maberry is an accomplished novelist and this is reflected in his dense script. Despite a number of action sequences, Maberry packs the page with conversation and narration, with some pages running up words counts over 220 across five panels. These pages stand out in the comic, instantly noticeable for their word count on the turn of the page. , However, letterer Shawn Lee handles the heavy workload superbly. He turns a difficult word count into a wonderful storytelling experience.
There are two examples of placement I am going to look at from Pandemica #1 that illustrate Lee’s technique, both of which are about leading the reader across a page.
In example one (Fig 2), a conversation is happening off panel about the spread of an unknown infection through certain area’s of America. The text is in caption boxes laid over images showing the effects of the infection. One element of the page, the text, is about the cause and the other element, the images, are about the effect. Together they combine to give the reader a fuller picture of the situation.
This page is about the horrific nature of the infection with the text hinting at a greater conspiracy. To portray this through the text Lee has decided to make the images the focal point with the narration almost in the background, like a voice being drowned out by the horror and death. Lee accomplishes this by keeping the caption boxes to the top and side of the panels.
There is a clear line for the reader to follow through the visuals, down the centre of the panels, taking in the worst of the infection. Lee then places the text in a way to facilitate this reading. The reader follows the text across the top of the page and down the right hand side mirroring the natural flow of the images.
The text does not interfere with the images but instead draws attention to them allowing the reader to digest both the visual and social outcomes of the unknown infection.
The second example follows directly from the first. On the next page Dr Katz, one of the central characters of the comic, is being interviewed for a television news programme. The very nature of the scene makes it speech heavy as the question and answers flow back and forth.
On this page, artist Alex Sanchez is trying to relay as much information about the character of Dr Katz as possible through the use of body language. The confidence and potential arrogance of the man is illustrated using facial expressions and the positioning of his limbs.
To assist this reading and emphasis the subtle visuals, Lee positions the speech balloons in a diagonal reading line across the page from the top left to the bottom right (Fig 3). The reading line brings the reader into contact with Dr Katz in each panel helping to focus on the man’s body language. As you read his answers to the questions posed, you can’t help but notice the smirk upon his face and his slouched position within his chair.
Letterers sometimes have the hardest jobs. They have to work with a script already written, art already drawn, and often have little say in either. It is their job to place all of the required text on the page to make it easy for the reader to follow while at the same time not infringing on the narrative. A good letterer can make the speech appear invisible on the page, serving its purpose in telling the story, however a great letterer incorporates the text into the storytelling process, enhancing the reading experience.
In Pandemica Shawn Lee does just that; he uses the large amount of text to lead the reader around the page, highlighting specific elements of the panels, and contrasting the speech with the visuals.
He enhances the reading experience and turns a potential textual quagmire into a visual treat.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.