Rocketeer sound effect indicates the point of origin.

5 Ways to Incorporate Lettering Into Comic Art

This past week’s Pipeline column over at ComicBook.com (#1039) deals with “The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom,” a four issue mini-series from Mark Waid and Chris Samnee from a time before they worked on “Daredevil” or “Black Widow” together. Jordie Bellaire colored it, so it was a full-fledged all star comic.

I mention in the review that Samnee does some great things with the lettering, incorporating his hand-drawn sound effects into the art for a more cohesive whole.  Shawn Lee is the credited letterer, who does all the dialogue and some additional sound effects, as well.

Lettering isn’t and shouldn’t be an afterthought in comics.  It shouldn’t be part of the production pipeline; it should be part of the creative pipeline.  I don’t believe in that old saw about the best lettering being the kind you don’t notice.  Bull.  You should notice great lettering, because it helps make the story sing.  It’s the thing you’re looking at on the page longer than anything else, after all.

So when Chris Samnee incorporates his own sound effects into his art, it’s worth looking at what he’s doing and how it impacts the storytelling.

Here are five ways Samnee incorporates lettering into his art.  After those, I’ll have one lettering technique that I have issues with.

 

1. Panel Shapes

Chris Samnee lettering for The Rocketeer includes a panel border of special effects lettering.

Check out that first panel, where “WHOOSH” is both the sound effect and the panel border

In Samnee’s original layouts for the issue, you can see where he had planned out the rest of the lettering, but changed this one.

Chris Samnee lettering layouts for The Rocketeer includes a panel border of special effects lettering.

You can also see where he changed angles/directions in the first two panels, as well. I think the action he’s going for is definitely clearer in the final version, so he made the right move there.

 

2. Origin of Action

 

Cliff Secord, the Rocketeer, delivers a haymaker to an appropriate sound effect.

Samnee effectively places the lettering in the background, behind the two people in the panel.  It adds more dimensionality to the panel.

The second panel gives you the suited gentleman’s point of view after the punch, which is also roughly where the reader’s point of view was in the first panel.  Neat trick. (Bellaire grays out the black lines on Secord here, also, to help push his further into the background. It’s a subtle, but nice tough.)

 

3. The Origin

The “POW!” not only gives you the sound to go with the action, but also circles around the center of the action.  It radiates out from the origin of that punch.

Here’s another example that I like a whole lot:

Rocketeer sound effect indicates the point of origin.

That “Fwaash” fits right in where it belongs — at the origin of the sound and on the same plane.  It also just barely appears behind the Rocketeer, as the starting “F” is behind his arm, and the rest of the letters are behind the front of the explosion.

Bonus points for facing sideways in the direction of the explosion there.

 

4. Movement

Look at the “POW” in the second example again.  Those lines inside it help show the impact and energy of the punch.  The lines radiate out from the source of the event.  It’s like you can see the explosive shockwaves coming from Cliff’s fist.

Here, then, is a more literal example of movement in a lettering effect:

 

The Rocketeer crashes down to earth, and the sound effect follows.

He’s dropping; the speedines run straight up and down. The sound effect does double duty here: it not only gives you the sound of the Rocketeer’s crash onto the car, but visually indicates that he fell to that crash.

Secondarily, the coloring is brighter near where he landed, to the point where it’s almost blinding at the bottom of the “K” and “H.”

 

5. Silhouettes

The Rocketeer lettering by Chris Samnee helps to silhouette a creature.

Here the lettering disappears behind the creature who steps in front of it, providing a natural silhouette without needing to add a small light source around the creature’s outline to set it apart from the completely darkened background.

This is a pure comics move. You can’t replicate it in a movie, unless you went full “Batman ’66” on it.  And given the way they can incorporate text into moving images these days, I’m sure someone will eventually try it again.  (Did the “Scott Pilgrim” movie do it?  Never saw the movie, but I imagine that would have been the one to try it.)

Again, it’s playing with putting the lettering into the scene to help indicate the origin of the sound as well as to indicate further depth in the panel.  We can nit pick over how strong the letterforms are, but we’re also so accustomed to everything being so “perfect” with fonts that we forget how imperfect lettering used to be the preferred kind.

I do wonder, though, if the lettering in this panel, in particular, would work better if, instead of butting the letters up against one another, Samnee went all Alex Toth and did an overlapping trick to force them further into the background as they go left to right. For example:

Alex Toth overlapping letters

(Not that Toth is the guy who started the overlapping letters, but for some reason Samnee’s lettering and art, in general, remind one of Toth’s style.)

That’s all the good stuff.  There’s one catch, though.

Breaking the Border and Logical Overlapping

Chris Samnee's Rocketeer lettering juts out of the explosion, but also out of the panel.

Here we have the one example where things don’t work quite as well as you might think at first.  I like the “BOOM!” part coming out of the explosion.  That’s pretty cool.  Again, the sound effect is placed in the middle of the action and indicates the origin of the sound it’s describing. It’s right in there.

The problem is in the way the lettering breaks the panel border.  This holds true when a character breaks a panel border, too. You have to be careful that the dimensional space the object breaking the panel border is in makes sense.

Here, the beginning of the sound effect breaks the panel border at the top, placing the sound effect in front of the action. But then, the second part of the sound effect not only continues to break the top panel border, but it also behind part of the explosion.

If those windows on either side of the explosion had also broken the panel border, this might make sense.  Or if Sally gets thrown so far out that she’s breaking the bottom panel border, perhaps it would make more sense, where all the action is forced off the page at both top and bottom.

It’s just a little confusing.

Also, that second “O” in “BOOM” forms a tangent with the panel border.

Am I being too hyper-critical here?  Are sound effects exempt from some of the rules that the hard is help up to?  I’m not sure.  I think they should exist on the same plane as the effects they’re describing, or entirely in front of them.  When they try to do both, it hurts the logical part of my mind.

Another Overlapping Example

Samnee isn’t alone in this.  Here’s a panel where the lettering is clearly done on the computer, so I assume it comes from Lee:

Shawn Lee Rocketeer lettering breaks the border.

The problem here comes from the sound effect being overlapped by the word balloon.  It’s a tangent, but it creates some confusion.  You assume that the word balloon is at the same depth as the person speaking, but the person isn’t busting out of the left side of the panel.  But the sound effect behind the balloon is.

That all said, I do like the way the “WHAROOM” letters butt up against each other, and aren’t in a straight line.  There’s some definite bounce in that sound effect (particularly in the double “O”s), which gives it a much livelier appearance.

 

In Conclusion: Lettering Is Your Friend

Lettering should not be invisible in comic book art.

Very few artists consider the role of the sound effects in their art.  But they’re not just things to slap on top of the art in post-production.  When considered as a part of the art, they can do wonderful things. It’s a shame that’s so infrequently considered.

In “The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom,” Chris Samnee goes that extra mile to incorporate lettering into his art, placing it in specific places to indicate origin, power, direction, and dimension in his art.  While I have some qualms dealing with keeping some of those effects on the right planes, the overall effects are worth the drawbacks that only a nit-picker like myself could possibly see.

“The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom” is available as a hardcover from IDW now for $25.  It looks like it’s part of the Comixology Unlimited program, so it’s available to you already if you’re a subscriber, or just $8 for a digital copy.

 

4 Comments

  • Mario Lebel May 3, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    Great post! Samnee is a monster and it’s been a delight watching him grow as an artist.

    Reply
  • JC Lebourdais May 5, 2017 at 10:06 am

    Interesting. John Workman is a god example of this, I remember his work standing out over Chaykin and Simonson, solid craft without being overwhelming.
    I haven’t read Rocketeer after Dave Stevens but the examples you present here seem like try-hard to me. I only know Samnee from taking over Steve Rude on Nexus, way back when we were young and handsome. That was a pretty tough act to follow but he did okay in my opinion, no more no less. Didn’t he do some Alpha Flight as well? That was mostly meh as well. The fact that you noticed his lettering technique tells me that it isa bit too on the nose here.

    Reply
    • Augie May 5, 2017 at 12:45 pm

      Yes, there is the chance that work like this could wind up too show-offy, but I don’t think Samnee goes that far. It’s a pulp-flavored book, anyway, so playing with the lettering here like this almost fits into the style of the series.

      Samnee has never done Nexus, so I’m not sure who you’re thinking of here . Samnee is best known from doing the short-lived “Thor” title with Roger Langridge,the recent “Black Widow” series, and a run on “Daredevil” with Mark Waid,

      And I’m a lettering geek — I notice all lettering, good and bad. The idea that good lettering shouldn’t be seen is crazy to me. I recognize that I’m in the minority there, though.

      Reply
  • JC LEBOURDAIS May 5, 2017 at 8:56 pm

    Samnee did this http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryPiece.asp?Piece=686824&GSub=45620
    Nexus and Sundra by Chris Samnee
    which is probably the reason why I got him mixed up with John Calimee. Silly me.

    Reply

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