After taking in an overview of Simon Bowland’s letter in Motherlands last week, I wanted to take a closer look at a few lettering techniques. To do this I have chosen the latest issue of The Dead Hand from Image Comics.
There are a number of very good reasons to be reading The Dead Hand, Jordie Bellaire’s colouring over Stephen Mooney’s Art for one but it’s Clayton Cowles lettering work that I’m focusing on today.
Lettering has an important function within any comic while at the same time has to be the one aspect that is the least noticeable on the page. A comic wouldn’t function without lettering but the reader doesn’t want it to distract from the action or the narrative. When done badly, the lettering breaks the momentum of a page and no matter how good your story is, or your art, once the reader is distanced from the narrative it can be difficult to get back into the flow.
However, when done right, the lettering can enhance everything else, as I illustrated in my previous post about Motherlands. And in The Dead Hand Cowles does an excellent job of using the lettering to add more than just information to the page; in fact, his lettering helps to highlight aspects of the art, the narrative and the flow of the panels.
The page below is a good example of Cowles ability to employ basic lettering techniques to make the page easy to read. The consistency of his word balloons and the balloon tales show off his understanding of ground floor lettering. Each of the balloon tales has the same width and lead directly to the mouth of the person speaking. On occasion the tale is short, such as in panel two, leaving a larger distance from the mouth to the balloon but this is so the art isn’t obscured and the positioning of the tale makes it obvious who is talking.
The balloons themselves exist within their own space, covering the background artwork so as not to detract away from the characters and their conversation; except on one occasion which I will come back to in a moment. The placement of the balloons helps to lead the conversation and show who is speaking when. A bonus touch is added when Cowles overlaps a couple of the balloons, in panel 4, highlighting the pace of the conversation and the fact the characters are almost talking over the top of each other.
The artist obviously has a part to play when it comes to balloon positioning. A good artist will leave enough space for the letter but this isn’t always the case. In this example it is as if the artist, Stephen Mooney, and Cowles are working very closely together to maximise the effect of the words and images.
There is one moment on this page that stands out, from a lettering point of view especially, and this is in panel 5.
Harriet is having an argument with her mother and the Sheriff, she feels as though she is being deliberately left out of something and treated like a child. The discussion reaches a point where both adults talk down to her with a condescending tone; she is better off not knowing something. It is at this moment that Harriet becomes aggressive and literally stands up for herself. In the first 4 panels Harriet has been seated, towered above by the adults but in panel 5 she stands up, she raises herself to their level and reaches out as if to tell her mother to back off.
And it is at this moment that Cowles' wonderful lettering becomes more than technique and enters the realm of storytelling. Renae tries to calm her daughter, to reach out by saying her name, but Cowles places this speech beneath Harriet’s hand and for the first time on this page the word balloon covers up part of a character. This helps to emphasis the fact the Harriet is distancing herself from Renae; she is putting up a barrier. Her outstretched arm indicated this and so does the word balloon hanging between mother and daughter.
Cowles also adds an extra dimension to this barrier building. Instead of using a straight balloon tale and ending it a great distance from Renae’s mouth, as he did in panel two with the Sheriff, he bends the tale around Harriet’s hand. This illustrates how hard it is for Renae’s words to reach her daughter, the speech has to curl around her out stretched hand.
This also highlights Harriet’s movement, like underlining a piece of text. This one speech balloon adds so much to the panel; emphasising the character relationships and enforcing physical movements.
The placement and design of the Speech Balloon’s are as important to a narrative as the artwork. They are more than a ‘necessary evil’ and when used correctly, as with Cowles work in The Dead Hand, lettering enhances the story telling. Everything on the page can be used to highlight, define or express character and plot: the creators of The Dead Hand know this and use everything at their disposal to tell the best story they can.
Issue 4 of The Dead Hand is published this week by Image Comics
Written by Kyle Higgins
Art by Stephen Mooney
Colours by Jordie Bellaire
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.