Comics may be an arcane art, but there are few elements are misunderstood as the craft of lettering.
But thankfully, Steve Wands is willing to show us the answer. In addition to posting his illustrations, writing, lettering, and more on his website, Wands letters numerous books from the DC pantheon, including work Green Lantern Corps, Scalped, American Vampire and much more.
For a special edition spin-off of our "Artist's Alley" and "Writer's Workshop" columns, we touched base with Wands to talk about how he got into this crazy business, how lettering draws the eye and improves reading flow and how to take chances with the often-overlooked word balloon.
Newsarama: Steve, let's just start off with this -- how'd you fall into lettering professionally? I think that's a gig in comics that so many people are still in the dark over.
Steve Wands: Well, I attended The Joe Kubert School and in my last year there I interviewed for a few positions at DC Comics, one for lettering, the other for a production artist. I got the latter and eventually wound up lettering a little over a year later. It was, and is, somewhat of a rare opportunity because I can't think of another company that has an in-house lettering department.
Nrama: I'm going to open up with a broad question, but it's one that I think bears asking, particularly as people see it as "just" the lettering: as a professional letterer, why is lettering so important? What does good lettering give a product, and what does bad lettering take away?
Wands: Lettering adds, most importantly, readability. A good letterer can lead your eye to where it needs to be in order to read the page without having to think about it. This might not be a big deal to seasoned comic readers but someone reading a comic for the first time can become quickly confused. A bad letterer can make a book unreadable, can hide important art elements, and no one wants that. The letterer should be able to take what the writer has done and what the artist has done and unite them on the page.
Nrama: And one thing I don't think letterers get enough credit for is the sheer output of stuff you guys put out. How many books would you say you work on in a given month, and have there been any tips you've picked up to really maximize your productivity?
Wands: We do a lot of books, especially us in-house guys cause we have to meet numbers on a daily basis, but most of the letterers I know do anywhere 2-4 books a week I've had weeks where I've done a book a day. It can be pretty hectic, but it's not like anyone's life is at stake. Tips for productivity…? Try coffee and doing it right the first time.
Nrama: Outside of the time crunch, what has been the most difficult thing, as far as lettering goes, for you in your career? How did you overcome this hurdle, and what lessons did it teach you over the course of your career?
Wands: I wouldn't say I've come across anything too difficult, but when you but heads over creative differences just remember where you stand in the grand scheme of things and you should be okay. Some challenges a letterer does face is when an artist doesn't leave room for lettering and you don't have any choice but to cover it up. It sucks, but you have to be able to read the story. The lesson is to do the best you can with what you have and always remain professional.
Nrama: When you are lettering, do you have any particular artistic goals in mind, outside of giving clarity to the writer's script? Are there any examples (or influences) of top-notch lettering that you feel has really added a whole new dimension to the finished product?
Wands: My goals when lettering, aside from the obvious, is to make the story flow. Adding a little flourish to tails and connectors can make a world of difference from good lettering to great lettering. Being able to create some fun sound effects is also top on my list. When it comes to stuff like that its sometimes easier to think like a designer and be aware of special relations with the lettering and art. Good color choices can also elevate a books look and my own sense of merit-worthy work. I'd say check out my work on American Vampire for examples of all the above. I get to do a lot of fun stuff on Birds of Prey too.
Nrama: Now, you work digitally, correct? For you, how has digital lettering really affected the market? What sorts of tools do you use, and what made you pick these specific items?
Wands: Yep, most of us are all digital, and as long as I've been in it that has been the market. Its affect?--Speed. Its faster, easier to correct, easier to change. Adobe Illustrator and on occasion Photoshop and Indesign can be used for transparency and other print-based effects.
Nrama: For me, I get the feeling there's almost two different styles of lettering: There's the "traditional" style that's done at DC and Marvel, where there's a more uniform "house" look, and then there's the crazier sort of hand-lettering that some of the indier companies use, where it almost seems like marking your turf with unique designs. What's your stance on each of these two "tracks," and how do you maneuver yourself to change things up with your lettering?
Wands: I don't know if it's a matter of marking one's territory so much as it is an echo of the letterer's workflow and necessity, and means (font, or software limitations). My stance is that as long as the lettering doesn't take you out of the story, it's doing its job. For me, changing things up is a matter of doing a different book. I don't have the time to get bored, at least not yet. There's always another book to be lettered and for it a style to create.
Nrama: And spinning off that last question a bit: What do you think is the most "out there" or unexpected or untraditional work you've ever done? Can you walk us through just how you did this, and what made it so different from anything else you've done?
Wands: I haven't done anything too “out there” but I do try to make each book unique. For instance, the ill-fated Vigilante series the Marv Wolfman was writing not too long ago, I tried to give the book an old-school lettering look with the way I cut the balloons and the font choices and I tried to balance that out with some organic looking sound effects and colors that really popped out at the reader. Less traditional lettering you can take a look at Revolver that I lettered and Matt Kindt wrote and illustrated. It's ultra-simplified and has a lot texture and works well with Kindt's art.
Nrama: There's three things I don't think a lot of people think about with lettering: One is color. The second is font. The third is balloon placement. For you, how do you look at these sorts of things and judge what you think would be the most effective lettering?
Wands: The most effective would be placement. After that would be font choice, and the last is color. Many times the colorist and editor have final say in color, but I try to nail the color on the first pass, many times it works but many times I letter off of black and white artwork so every once and a while I strike out.
Nrama: Every time I hear about people asking how to break into lettering, I always hear what's kind of a non-answer: That it's really tough to break into lettering. So I wanted to ask you, what sort of advice would you give people trying to break into the industry as a letterer? What don't they know that you think they really should?
Wands: Well, if they want to always be explaining to their friends and family that they don't actually write the words and that they just letter them… then they can practice and reach out to a few editors that might be responsive to the type of work they are doing. Be patient, professional and determined. Is that enough of a non-answer?What's the coolest lettering you've seen?