Lettering comics — The Trickiest Letter

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I have another tip for potential/amateur comickers out there. This one is about lettering the trickiest member of the alphabet–especially if you elect to use the classic all-uppercase style in your dialogue and narration.

lettering I

This is primarily a kerning issue. Crossbar I uses a lot of white space on either side of itself, pushing the surrounding letters away. When it’s followed immediately by a period or apostrophe then it’s much less obstructive to the reading flow.

“Why is it that some words in comics are in bold?”

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This is why.Lettering emphasisEvery now and then I’ll see someone complaining about comicbook emphasis in balloons and captions. Most of them seem under the impression that when words are emphasized it means they’re being shouted for some reason. Hey…when someone shouts in a comicbook, you’ll know it. Exclamation marks, jagged balloons, huge text–they’ll let you know, trust me.

Emphasis on certain words in balloons and captions is used for two reasons: to clarify the intent of the words (as above), and also as an aid for page-skimmers who may be too wrapped up in the artwork to give bubbles and captions a second glance. Balloons and captions have lots of art to compete with. Emphasizing key words aims to draw readers’ eyes enough to at least pick up the gist of the text.

I’m not saying every comic needs to use comicbook emphasis–not at all. It would be great if people could cut it out with the “they’re shouting words at random, this is dumb” stuff, though. This is one of the things that comicbooks just plain do better than other forms of silent media out there. It’s such a shame whenever I see it getting disrespected by certain fans and amateur creators(!) alike.


Is there still room for amateurs in modern webcomics?

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Inspired by a forum topic, as more than one of these blog posts seemed to gestate. Let’s begin with a quote and move on from there:

“Used to be when you clicked on a comic you expected the early pages to be kind of (or extremely) crappy and it just got better as it went. Used to be tons of popular comics were just kinda… mediocre. The art wasn’t perfect. The writing was sloppy. But they got better.

Now it seems like there are so many comics that start straight away with professional quality art, that are just amazing the whole way through, that those of us who started by floundering and trying to learn the craft are just shoved under the bridge, shuffled off to the wayside by people who’ve hired artists, marketing teams and are creating amazing comics.

There’s no room for the slow evolution and process of improvement. People expect instant gratification. There’s too many good comics to bother giving the amateurs a chance anymore. Is it even worth starting a comic anymore if you don’t have it polished to perfection from page one, written and rewritten and perfected before you ever let someone lay eyes on it? I’m talking about us, you guys, us with our page one to page 300 showing vast improvement, us with our one or two man teams, us with our 5 dollar marketing budget spent on 3 cent Project Wonderful ads. Is there room for us anymore?”

-Tiana, Between Places and Stargazer’s Gate

I never really took note of webcomics until a big name got involved with them. Warren Ellis is one of the finest writers in comics today, and when he announced he would be publishing a series for free online I looked into the scene and was captivated by the possibilities. The way he described the landscape held such an allure that by the end of the year I had sorted through the ten-plus years of character and plot work that I had been accumulating for this one character since 1998 and front-loaded it into Zukahnaut.

I knew it would be the hardest thing I’d ever done and that I would have to improve as I went, but the way Ellis talked about webcomics made me feel as though it was both okay and totally worth it. “We don’t wear no stinking badges here,” he said, and gloried in the freedom to do whatever he wanted in the webcomic medium because “hey, I’m not charging you for it!”

So the big dogs jumping in the pool isn’t a downside at all, not to me. It raises the water level, sure, and maybe those without the endurance to kick their legs and stay afloat will drown. Let’s be honest here — most of them would have drowned anyway. This stuff is hard. But when someone with Eisner awards and television shows and movie scripts comes to play in your pool, passersby take note. They come to watch. They treat the other people there with a new respect. “Oh, you do a webcomic? Like FREAKANGELS? I loved that!” is much more preferable than, “Ugh, like that Tails Gets Trolled thing my cousin showed me…?”

Sure it’ll be harder to get noticed when there’s good stuff out there to compete with, but would you honestly rather be the brightest teenager in a room of toddlers, or the fresh-faced kid at a conference of seasoned veterans? When you’re around people who are better than you, you have the opportunity to study them and learn from them. You can more easily grow to their level and again, they elevate you by association.

I say there is room for average comics. There’s room for mediocre and downright bad comics, too! More importantly, there’s room for them to grow into something more. Their time in the light is still there waiting for them — it might take a little longer to get there now than it used to. It might involve someone giving them a break or taking them under their wing if they’re especially lucky. With endurance and with patience and with a determination to learn, anyone can swim with the big dogs. There’s no shortage of space.

We just have to keep kicking our legs is all.

Artist Commentary and Webcomics: Supplementary or part of a whole?

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I have always mistrusted the common practice in webcomics where artists include their commentary directly beneath new pages. Often reading this extra material is comparable to watching a movie or television show with the commentary track turned on… and who elects for their first viewing to include commentary? It does a (sometimes minor, sometimes major) disservice to the work when you don’t allow it to speak for itself, and I’ve seen far too many comics lean on those blocks of text to actually convey what’s going on more than the page above does. This is a dangerous trap to fall into. When a comic simply doesn’t make any sense if I ignore the commentary I usually stop reading altogether. “It’s part of the presentation,” some say. So are indexes in books, and like all supplementary materials they should never be required reading to understand what the supplemented work is saying.

What I would like to see rise in the place of piecemeal commentary on individual pages is a separate section for Creator’s Notes where an entire chapter gets mused about at once (and after its completion). I have seen the writer Kieron Gillen do this with his comic book issues and I fancy the idea of applying it to webcomics. Or maybe an audio version! There is potential there. If it’s being released once the chapter is finished then there’s also less concern on the artist’s end of tiptoeing around spoilers for the next page(s), granting an added sense of freedom because now they’ll be commenting on more than just a snapshot of the story.

There are people who contend that including commentary below the comic helps to spark dialogue with the readers, giving them a jumping-off point and offering them encouragement to themselves comment. I agree this is a valid usage and many artists utilize their commentary section just so, posting things like “Zukah sure is in trouble now, isn’t he?” or “Ten thousand imaginary Zukahnaut Points if you can guess what colour underwear Darius prefers!” or perhaps “I got a new puppy and named him Bloodweiser! Do you have a dog?” While I have no issues with this sort of thing, I don’t see why you can’t just say it in the comments section itself rather than present it with the comic like it’s part of the narrative package. If your goal is to have a conversation with your readers then it may be worth considering putting yourself down on their level rather than looming over them above a divider while directing the topic of conversation below.

Another popular usage for the artist notes is relating news. This is well and good for week-to-week happenings of a limited or urgent nature, sure, but when you’re repeating the same information over and over again why would you not just put a news section on your website? There is nothing wrong with a separate news section. Yes it will get less eyeballs on it. That’s to be expected. I don’t seek out every bit of information on most things that I otherwise enjoy very much — I just watch/read/listen to new content when it’s out, and when it’s late or I hear a rumour through Twitter or Facebook or somewhere I seek out a press release or news posting. I think it’s a safe-ish bet that anyone who would be interested in your blog or news posts will probably follow/like you on a social network or two as well. Use those channels to tease them whenever you have something to announce and then link them to the official posting if you’re worried about it not getting seen by who needs to see it.

Ultimately am I saying I wish artist commentary would vanish? No. Zukahnaut does not use one and that was our choice to make, just as whatever you elect to do is at your discretion. I would urge you to consider that there are alternatives, however, and above I have offered a few ideas for you to chew on and evaluate their taste as you will. I would be very interested to hear your own take on the best uses (or most egregious misuses) of the artist notes section in webcomics, especially if it includes an approach that I haven’t considered!



Thoughts on Utilizing Chapters in Webcomics

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Prompted by a comic’s fans comparing a review done on a single chapter to be “like opening up a book halfway and expecting the author to cater to your ineptitude,” a line that got me thinking.

In comic books it’s a cardinal rule that every single book/story/chapter should be treated as though it’s the first one the reader has ever picked up. Characters should refer to each other by name. Their interactions should convey to the audience the kind of people they are and how that relates them to one another. Conversations and narration should sufficiently catch up any newcomers to where the narrative is at within the first few pages. What’s happening? Who’s it happening to? Why?

Webcomics are a different animal than comic books, sure. A reader who gets introduced to a comic book with issue #11 of a series only has that one book in their hands. Going back to the previous ten chapters may or may not be a convenient option. Webcomics, on the other hand, have all of the previous chapters right there in the same place as the newer material — it’s all included the same package. Many people contend that starting a long-form story based webcomic at Chapter 4 instead of Chapter 1 is like opening up a novel and doing the same thing; I can see where this comparison comes from because of this.

But webcomics are not novels. Novels generally are not released one page or chapter at a time like webcomics usually are. For many readers the most recently released content is their first exposure to the work, very much like coming across single issues of comic books on a stand. Say the reader is hooked by your newest page. They want to know more about an element of the current story. They crave context! Are they going to go back a hundred pages or more to start at the onset of the entire franchise, or are they going to go back to the beginning of the most recent apparent jumping-on point (the start of the current chapter, surely)? Well, if they’re intrigued by something going on in the current story they’ll probably choose the latter.

Nobody with any sense picks up the penultimate issue of Batman: Death of the Family from 2013 and then goes back to start reading at Batman #1 from 1940 just because they’re interested in why the villain is wearing his own face as a mask. No, they’ll pick up the first comic in the Death of the Family chapter from 2012 and read from there. If the writer is worth his salt he’ll explain everything we need to know from thereon in.

These things need to be considered when making long-form story based webcomics, even ones with one main plot that runs throughout the entire series. If you use chapters then there must be a reason, even if it’s just to mark the resolution of one sub-plot and the assumption of a new one, and if you’re dividing your story like that anyway then please show consideration for new readers who have been conditioned by 75 years of comic books to see the start of a new story as a jumping-on point. If they can understand what’s going on enough to like it, they will probably go all the way back to page 1 and start chewing through the archive. But first you need to hook them. If you display your latest page on your homepage and/or promote it on sites like Reddit and Twitter and the various social media outlets trying to reach new people, think of that as the bait for any newcomers. The current chapter has to be the hook.

Story driven webcomics are not comic books and they are not novels. They are new. They are weird. They require their own considerations and their own approaches.

I would love to hear any insights people may have, whether they agree with what I’ve expressed here or not. I’ve always liked questions better than answers.