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Custom Lettering in the Digital Age

2018 June 26

Hand-drawn lettering and technological substitutes coexist with tension.

For example, try bringing up the subject of cursive writing and younger generations, and strong opinions are likely to follow. Ohio state legislators recently proposed that the tradition of cursive even requires intervention by the state, to preserve it from extinction in a society where many people carry around a networked supercomputer by early adolescence, making QWERTY text composition or even spoken word recognition nearly as convenient as pen and paper.

The tension between custom letters and mass production long predates the smartphone, however. After reading Micah Bowers’s blog post “Power of the Pen – A Hand Lettering Tutorial,” it occurred to me that the subject is a rich one.

My own first instinct is to begin with desktop publishing, as he did, but in a real sense this tension probably dates back much further.

I know from historical research that movable type did not replace the manuscript book instantly, or completely halt hand-lettered book production even at the same pace that letterpress technology spread through Europe. Hundreds of years ago, connoisseurs were already arguing for the value of craft and aesthetic superiority of hand lettering relative to the regimented lines of a printed book. (Some were also, in all honesty, likely motivated to maintain their sense of membership in an elite, which book ownership alone no longer accomplished once the option of printing dramatically lowered a book’s cost.)

It would not astonish me if some form of this tension existed even earlier. Perhaps 2,000 years ago, aesthetes debated the merits of basing engraved lettering on brush-drawn forms vs. stencils.

Much more recently, I was spectator to an entire additional front in the post-Macintosh lettering conflict which Bowers describes more broadly.

Comic book lettering, during the years that I was a regular reader and collector, could probably be the subject of an entire lengthy work itself.

Publishers of even the earliest comics, as most of us would recognize them, had access to and made use of machine typesetting. Despite which, up until the 1990s this tended to remain limited to one or two text-focused pages, and unused in the comic content itself.

The main reason for this, I’m confident, was mostly bottom-line practicality. The almost universal convention of comic storytelling involved integrating narration and dialogue into the illustrations, in non-repetitive ways. Using machine lettering for at least some large portion of this was technically possible, I’m sure. But prior to desktop publishing software it likely would have been more costly than paying a professional to custom-letter each story by hand.

Despite which this was, I think, always to some extent a matter of aesthetic preference as well. No rule actually required that comics include word balloons as part of the artwork, expressively lettered “sound effects,” etc. Most creators and even profit-seeking publishers nonetheless chose to stand firm on these features.

Over the course of the 1990s, however, the comics industry gained the option of deploying automation while keeping their aesthetic conventions.

This wasn’t an instant process, as I recall. Unlike John Henry and the steam drill, I would guess it was a matter of years before the most popular and efficient letterers faced a clear market case to invest in a Mac, Quark XPress and a type library. But I think by the turn of this century, most of the comics from major North American publishers were primarily computer-lettered.

Hand-lettering persists within comics, nonetheless. I really don’t keep up with new comics nearly enough to write with authority, here, but I do know that such growth in anglophone comics as exists has a good deal to do with independent artists like Kate Beaton working outside the assembly-line production pipeline of the big publishers; for them, the economic incentive for computer lettering may just not be meaningful.

I also know that even at the big publishers like Marvel and DC, the art of hand lettering persists, even if computers play a role. I would guess that some letterers still custom-draw a “sound effect” now and then, when seeking some extra novelty. I’m certain, meanwhile, that one enduring convention within comics is that the cover title isn’t typeset. Most probably exist as vector art, these days, but they still reflect the approach of custom, hand lettering rather than that of typesetting. (I explored some favorite examples several years ago.)

Upon reflection, I wonder if my familiarity with comics’ aesthetic influenced my readiness to employ custom lettering when I began studying graphic design. I have always recalled this as simply a response to the difficulty of finding typefaces which matched the proportions of featured lettering within a sketch layout… but perhaps that wasn’t all.

At all events, it isn’t something that I do as often, now. I quite agree with Bowers that it’s an option well worth keeping open, however. One needn’t be versed in fine calligraphy, either (although all encouragement to those who are). Some times, e.g., relatively low-finesse lettering may send exactly the right visual message, and simply picking up a marker may be the best way to produce it.

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