Run Wooton lettering resume

The Evolution of the Letterer

Above and beyond the ability to lay out balloons, it used to be that one good signature style could make you a great letterer.  Your style would be immediately recognizable.  When an editor hired you to letter their book, they knew exactly what their end product was going to look like. Let’s look at a few examples of this:

Tom Orzechowski

Tom Orzechowski letters Uncanny X-Men #125

From “Uncanny X-Men” #125

Tom Orzechowski has the perfect square-ish superhero hand lettering.  He packs words in tightly.  He adds flourishes that match the tone of what is being said.  He can give his words bounce, when needed. (You don’t see that here so much, but look towards Jubilee in the Silvestri X-Men era…)

But most of all, that Orzechowski style is easily seen from a million miles away.  There are fonts that attempt to duplicate it, the best of which is probably Comicraft’s Monologous, but there’s no replacing it. Orzechowski is likely best known as being the letterer on all the best issues of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne/Terry Austin “X-Men” issues 35 years ago.  You know they’re the best issues because he lettered them. He didn’t letter them all, though, and those fill-in issues suffered from it. Nothing against the fill-in letterers, but they were no Tom Orzechowski. The total look of the package needed his lettering. To modern readers, perhaps, Orzechowski is known as the “Spawn” letterer, going back to the very first issue of Todd McFarlane’s series.

John Workman

workman_orion6_500

From “Orion” #9

John Workman is likely best known for his work over Walter Simonson in books like “Thor.”  He has a larger style than many letterers. His letters feel wider and more open.  His balloons have more white space. They often butt up against the panel borders and cause them to disappear.  His tails are sharper pointers.  He’s also skilled with the sound effects.  He can fill a page with a recognizable “DOOM” or “KA-POW” better than just about anyone.  He’s inspired a whole generation of letterers with that.  His influence on the letterers that came after him is undeniable.

Todd Klein

Todd Klein letters Top 10

From “Top 10” #7

Todd Klein is another letterer with an instantly recognizable single style of lettering.  Check out those straight-lined “U”s or the distinctive shape of his “S”es. But that’s not all he’s ever had, and he proved that with “Sandman”. Klein does still have a very distinctive style to his lettering, but he started to win all those Eisners with his multiple lettering styles and then his graphic design sensibilities added on top of that.  Think back to the America’s Best Comics series, where he was designing everything, but particularly “Promethea”‘s covers. But, still, when you think of Klein’s work, you know the lettering style you’re picturing in your head right now.  You know those perfectly crafted letters in oval balloons that stop just short of being football-shaped, with the Just Right Length tail.  (Football balloons are when the oval isn’t very tall and you get something close to a football shape with pointed ends on either side.) That’s his thing, and it works amazingly well.  His earlier Eisner Awards dominance proves that out.

Letterers: The Next Generation

Those are the three big examples that came to mind first, but there are obviously more.  Names like Janice Chiang, Willie Schubert, Ken Bruzenak, Clem Robins, Chris Eliopoulos — all letterers I can name on sight when I see a page they lettered by hand.  Unmistakable. Things changed when lettering went digital, though. That signature style was not enough any more. The letterer’s job duties grew to include font creation, post-production handling, and graphic design. Today’s letterers have to morph with every new project, creating new styles to fit everything you can imagine. You can’t make it for being known for that one style you do anymore. It’s not enough.  You’re expected to bring something new to the table for each project, unless there’s some kind of house style to stick with.  You still get that at Marvel and DC in large part, but once you get past them, everyone’s looking to stand out just a little bit. Graphic design is a big part of that, and that often comes right down to the lettering. How many ways can one letterer work?

Our Example for this Article, Rus Wooton

Take, for example, Rus Wooton.  His work appears across lots of Image titles, from the likes of Skybound, Rick Remender, and Jonathan Hickman.  Let’s take a look at what his lettering looks like on various series, and how much their styles vary:

Rus Wooton letters The Walking Dead

With “The Walking Dead,” he took on the lettering duties from Robert Kirkman.  Wooton maintains that style, which is clearly inspired by Workman’s earlier work.  You have large square-ish lettering, big round balloons with lots of air in them, and a lot of balloons that butt up against the panel borders and knock them out.

 

Rus Wooton letters Clone

In “Clone,” he sticks with the round balloons and butts them up against the panel borders often.  The black gutters, though, mean that you won’t get that open look of the balloon knocking out the border. He’s also using a different font that’s much smaller.  Or maybe it’s narrower?  It’s definitely less “perfect.” If you look at the letterforms, you’ll see that there’s a purposeful lack of symmetry to the letters.  Check out how the “M” and the “N” break down.  See how the diagonal line on the “R” sticks more out than down. The tails are the same and the balloon shapes are the same, even with the same amount of white space between the words and the balloon, but that font makes all the difference between “Clone” and “Walking Dead.”

 

Rus Wooton Letters Black Science

We can push that font difference further with “Black Science.”  The balloons are the same (maybe a touch more circular), but check out the letters. Those look straight out of a hand-written European comic album.  The x-height is really low — look at where the middle line on the “H” or the “E” is drawn.  It’s much closer to the bottom line than the top.  Those proportions make the letters look taller.  They’re fairly uniform in their width, though, even with the “W” shape.

 

Rus Wooton Letters Sex

Then there’s Joe Casey’s “Sex”, which pushes the European influence even further.  The colored words are a bit over the top, but are a great stylistic flair for the series.  The balloons butt up against the panels frequently, but never knock out the borders.  Pay close attention to the balloon shapes, too. They’re not circular.  They’re a bit wobbly.  It looks like an attempt to mirror the imperfections of hand lettering by creating balloons that aren’t perfectly round or symmetrical. The font here is different, with even more personality and differences in the letters.  Check out the huge “O” by comparison to every other letter, especially when placed next to the extremely skinny “U”.  Or the way the “W” opens up to the right.  The “U” is almost as skinny as the “I”. I love the font, but it feels like it’s breaking a half dozen rules of font creation.

Good!

Rus Wooton letters Outcast for Robert Kirkman

Speaking of wobbly balloons…

“Outcast” is the title that tries the hardest to look hand-lettered.  The font for it looks unbalanced.  Letters don’t all stand straight up.  The x-height is very low again.  The top crossbars on the “T”, “I”, and “E” all angle down to the right. The bold-faced words look more like special effects lettering than strict bold versions of the base font.

It’s an interesting look, but the balloons are the most interesting part of it.  Those are just lumpy.  Look in particular at the last two balloons in the example above.  There’s some major pushing and pulling going on with the handles on those balloons in Illustrator, if I had to guess.

 

Rus Wooton Letters Green Valley

(Update: Whoops, had a mix-up here. The lettering on “Green Valley” is actually by Pat Brosseau.  He happens to be the one member of the creative team NOT listed on the cover.  #ArtCred )

We get back to the Workman influence on Skybound’s “Green Valley” series.  The lettering is very square and regular — the “O” is as wide as every other non-“I” character, for example. The x-height is fairly centered, which gives the characters part of that symmetrical, regular charm. (The “A” is much lower, though.)  It looks almost mechanical, in a way, but it’s very easy to read. In fact, I’d say this font verges more towards the Orzechowski influence than the Workman.

There’s lots of white space in the balloons here, too.  Maybe that’s because the dialogue is fairly sparse, or delivered in shorter bursts? Either way, it matches the art, which frames its figures here in plenty of white space to help them stand out.

(OK, back to Wooton now..)

 

Rus Wooton Letters Invincible

Now, on “Invincible,” there’s one defining aspect to the lettering that you can’t miss. Check out how short the tails are on every balloon.  That’s the key style point for the series, beyond the font, itself. Wooton uses the same stubby tails across the Invincible universe, including “Tech Jacket”, “Brit”, and “Invincible Universe.”   (It shows up in “Super Dinosaur,” also, but that’s another universe.)

This, like “The Walking Dead,” is a case of Wooton replacing Kirkman, and keeping the same lettering style.  It’s close, but Wooton’s lettering is much more — er, professional?  Go look back at the earliest issues of “Invincible,” and you’ll see the difference.  Kirkman’s balloons were too big, the lettering was off-center in the balloons, balloons would often reach past the panel borders by a hair, etc.  Things tightened up when Wooton came on board.

 

Shifting Balloon Shapes

With the books Wooton does for Rick Remender, the balloon shapes begin to change.  The perfect circles and ovals are gone.  Thanks to Illustrator’s handles, the edges of a circle can be pushed in just a bit and a new shape formed.  The balloon is roughly more square, featuring flatter edges. We can start with “Seven to Eternity”:

Rus Wooton letters Seven to Eternity

Wooton is still breaking panel borders, but notice how the balloon shapes changed.  There are no perfect circles or ovals here, even when there could be.  The sides of the balloons are getting duller as they start to square off.

 

Rus Wooton letters Low

On “Low,” the balloons are squarer just as a matter of course.  It’s more obvious and more regular.  Most of all, I like this font.  Love the way the vertical lines extend past where the horizontal lines coming off them begin. Check out the tops of the “E”, “R”, and “D” forms for examples.

 

Rus Wooton letters Tokyo Ghost

Things are getting really square-shaped here with “Tokyo Ghost.”  Balloons fit tighter to the text, with the text laid out to fit in better.  The diamond shape to the text inside the balloons is less necessary. The lettering more closely resembles manga lettering, narrow and taller. That’s mostly a coincidence of these sample panels I pulled.  The more traditional oval balloons are used through more of the series, but there’s also a ton of caption boxes that carry the bulk of the story in “Tokyo Ghost.”

The smaller font and tighter balloons make sense in an effort to squeeze the lettering around Sean Gordon Murphy’s detailed line work that fills every panel. You don’t want larger balloons, because they’d hide more stuff.

 

And Then Things Get Crazier: Skinny Tails Edition

Wooton has also done work for Jonathan Hickman, which has resulted in lettering even further afield.

 

Rus Wooton letters Manhattan Projects

Obviously, the big change here is that he font is mixed case instead of all caps.  It’s a staple of the Hickman oeuvre.  Again, we have large circular balloons. The whitespace inside balloons with mixed case lettering never looks right to me, so I won’t judge that here.  But look at how skinny and straight the tail is leading to the character’s mouth, and between the two balloons.

If you look at “Black Monday Murders,” also, you’ll see the same exact style choices in font, balloons, and tails.  I’m guessing he’s working from the same template there, perhaps even provided by Hickman, himself.

 

Rus Wooton letters High Class

On Rick Remender’s “Deadly Class,” we’re back to ALL-CAPS lettering and the balloons aren’t squared off anymore. But check out those tails.  They’re curved lines that don’t have a point.  They’re blunt at the end.  With the white panel borders, we’re also back to balloons breaking apart border panels, too.

 

Rus Wooton lettering "Horizon"

Finally, here’s a close-up of a balloon from “Horizon” at Skybound.  Check out that tail.  One side is thicker than the other.  It’s not something you’d notice right away, but it has an overall effect.  I like it. The balloons have a universal thickness to their stroke, which might be even more interesting with a similar differential as the tail. This font is very compact. That’s not necessary for the book, which has plenty of open space on its pages.

It reminds me of Sean (“Queen & Country”) Konot’s font a bit, in how narrow and small it is, but with a little extra life in it. Konot’s lettering style always seemed a bit more mechanical and uniform than this font.

What’s the Point?

While I’ve spent a lot of time breaking down the elements of style Wooton is mixing up in his assignments, there’s a bigger picture here to look at. It’s simple: Every project has its own unique look that goes beyond just which font the letterer picked. It’s a combination of things, from the balloon shape to the tail style to how the balloons connect to one other and how they meet up with panel borders. Lettering a comic is a bigger thing than just copying-and-pasting from the script and dragging balloon shapes over.  The design aspect of it has never been more crucial.

 

The Tip of the Iceberg

This analysis is only looking at the standard dialogue and word balloons in these books.  This says nothing about the styles of the sound effects, the caption boxes or thought balloons (where they exist), special dialogue balloons like when someone is speaking through a spacesuit or armor, etc.   This doesn’t get into title pages, credit boxes, or special design elements.  Signage in the backgrounds, even. Forget logo designs or even letters column designs.  I’m not even taking into account overall flow and layout of the balloons, and how a good letterer can cheat things to get around an artist who doesn’t leave them enough room, for example.

It can be a big job. On a couple of the books referenced above, Wooton is also credited as a “designer.”  Lettering as a profession has expanded.  Comics want to be designed packages now, from front to back. Jonathan Hickman is perhaps the most extreme example of this.

That’s how the role of letterer has evolved.

 

Not Just Wooton

I use Wooton as an example here, but he’s hardly alone.  Take a look at the kind of work Troy Peteri, Nate Piekos, or Fonografiks do on their titles, for three examples.  And, of course, Comicraft has always been a design agency as much as a lettering one.  You can spot one of their designs a mile away, generally speaking. It’s part of the job now. Mastering a single lettering style is not enough.  The books demand more thought.

It’s more important today than ever to have some kind of grounding in graphic design to get a job as a letterer in comics. You need to be not just good at the technical part of your job, but also in the ability to be a chameleon, changing your own style to fit every individual job.

Next time you read a comic, take a closer look at the lettering.  After you read a second comic, take a look at the differences and how well they work on their individual titles. This is all stuff that’s carefully considered on every new title. No part of it is accidental anymore, nor is it limited by what is even physically possible to pull off with ink and pen.  (That doesn’t mean transparent balloons are a good idea…)

 

Share This

Pinterest Image for Lettering EvolutionPinterest Image for Lettering EvolutioneringPinterest Image for Lettering Evolution    

5 Comments

  • Toben Racicot November 23, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Wooton doesn’t letter Green Valley. Pat Brosseau is the letterer on that. Also on Birthright.

    Reply
    • Augie November 23, 2016 at 10:50 am

      Thanks – I updated for that. In the process of putting this post together, I nearly credited Wooton with at least three titles he doesn’t letter. “Birthright” is one I caught myself on. But I’ll be kicking myself for missing “Green Valley” for a while…

      Reply
  • Dru Tan November 23, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    Great article. I appreciate your analysis of the different styles. A lot of those finer details are so subtle that I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t pointed them out, and I’m probably the only person in my (small) circle of comics-reading friends who can even name a single letterer. It’s an element of the craft that doesn’t get enough love, so thanks for this.

    Reply
  • Mario Lebel November 23, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    That was great!

    Question, any thoughts on why someone would choose to replicate hand lettering digitally as opposed to just doing it by hand?

    The only thing I can think of is that digital is faster.

    Reply
  • Alfredo Villegas November 24, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Great article, it is really insightful about the details we oughta pay more attention to. I will be sharing it.

    Reply

What do YOU think?

%d bloggers like this: