Letterer's Lexicon #2: Joe Caramagna - Spider-Man & Beyond

Click here for the entire process piece series!

Comic book lettering is perhaps one of the most misunderstood facets of the industry -- and not one that's easy to break into.

 

There's a rigorous schedule, a huge amount of nuance, not to mention that you might be working on a ton of books. Or in the case of Joe Caramagna, you might be putting nose to the grindstone three times a month, as the letterer for the non-stop "Brand New Day" era of Amazing Spider-Man.

But what's Caramagna's job like? What are the basic goals of a letterer? We went straight to the horse's mouth with the second edition of Letterer's Lexicon, to ask Caramagna how he made it in, what tools he uses, and how different writers affect lettering with their different styles.

Newsarama: Joe, just to start off with -- how did you end up working as a letterer? What made you decide this was what you wanted to do?

 

Joe Caramagna: When my love for comics reached its peak, I was about 13 or 14 years old and absolutely obsessed with Spider-Man, so I decided I wanted to be Todd McFarlane when I grow up. Unfortunately, I didn't have the talent. But I was able to fake it until my second year at the Kubert School when I finally realized that all I ever really wanted to do was WRITE comics. But somehow, the school put my name on a short list of potential Marvel interns for their in-house lettering department, and I was picked! Marvel liked me, so I stayed for fifteen months, but left to try some other things. Years later, I was still trying to break into comics as a freelancer when a friend of mine introduced me to Chris Eliopoulos, and I tricked him into hiring me. By "tricked," I mean, I wouldn't stop asking him until he said yes. And it was my contacts from my internship that finally changed his mind. So, really, I never decided on lettering, lettering sort of decided on me. But now I get to write comics too, so it's a win-win!

 

Nrama: Lettering is one of those gigs that I think nobody outside of the industry really appreciates, or even understands. What would you say is the importance of lettering in a comic, and what do you think is the biggest misconception about what you do?

Caramagna: I don't think I fully appreciate it or understand it sometimes! People always try to get into an intellectual discussion with me on fonts and kerning, and all I say is, "I'm just trying to make sure the reader reads the comic the way I think the writer wants him to read it, and stay out of everyone's way," and that's my entire philosophy in a nutshell. It’s pretty basic, but at the same time it’s an important task. If the reader reads balloons out of order, it takes him out of the story, and that's my fault. If my choice of font or balloon style doesn’t match the tone of what’s happening in the story, it takes the reader out of it and it’s my fault. So it’s not as easy as just fitting text into balloons, which is what I think a lot of people assume it is. And by “stay out of everyone’s way,” I mean that I know my place in the credits box, and part of my job is to make the guys at the top of the marquee look good. If I ever do anything to upstage them or show off at their expense, then I've failed at my job. I don't get hired to stand out, I get hired to enhance.

 

Nrama: Just to start us off easy -- let's talk about equipment. What do you use when you're lettering, and what do you like about these particular tools?

Caramagna: I letter in Adobe Illustrator using a Wacom tablet, which I guess most comics pros tend to use. Except I'm sure mine's not as fancy. And not wireless. My desk is a tangled mess of wires and empty coffee mugs. But I love the Wacom because I like the feel of holding a pen rather than typing on the keyboard, and it speeds things up a bit than fiddling with keyboard commands.

Nrama: Something that's interested me about lettering is making the script you get work -- hooking the reader in rather than having them gloss over particularly wordy panels. First off, do you see an upper limit of how many words you can pack in a caption or a panel before it gets overwhelming?

 

Caramagna: Well, the word count is entirely up to the writer or the editor, who may decide to break one dialogue caption or balloon into two. Some writers like Christos Gage tend to use more words per balloon and guys like Brian Michael Bendis use a lot of short balloons. My job is to make the dialogue fit where they want it to fit, regardless. If They don't like the way I do that, they'll tell me how they want to shorten or break up the balloons. There's really no limit other than the space the art allows.

Nrama: And to bounce off that last question a bit, for you, how do you look at lettering, and what do you look at in order to make the text hook you in?

Caramagna: Actually, I don't, haha. Like I said, I feel like it's my job to stay out of the way. If the lettering needs to hook the reader, then the book is in trouble! That doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but I don't attempt to jump out at a reader from issue to issue. However, with a #1 issue, I do choose a font and caption style that I think compliments what is there, and it could be that overall relationship between the text and art that can really hook somebody because it's meant to evoke a feeling. A good recent example is the new Black Panther: Man Without Fear. I went through a lot of trial and error to get the look of the book right and I think it really works nicely.

 

Nrama: Were there any big "a-ha" moments for your career, that really made you look at lettering in a new way? Or where there any moments you had that you thought, "wow, that was a really smart move?"

Caramagna: Well, I've probably made a lot more dumb moves than smart moves in my career, but whenever I look at a comic that someone else letters I always look at lettering differently -- and find things that I both should and shouldn't do in my own work. Sometimes I don't realize how bad or good something I letter is until I see the final product.

Nrama: As far as influences and the like, have there been any other letterers that you've really enjoyed? What about their work do you think has really made them the tops in your eyes?

 

Caramagna: I promise I'm not saying this because he has the power to fire me, but I think Chris Eliopoulos is at the very top of the field. I always thought so based on aesthetics alone, but now I've had the opportunity to see him in action and he makes it look so easy. And he's so modest about it that I want to smash his face. TOO modest. That being said, I don't think I've ever seen a letterer compliment a book as much as when John Workman lettered Walt Simonson's run on Thor. Years later, it still influences the way people letter Thor, including me, and you can see that influence clearly in Astonishing Thor where my lettering looks like John Workman and I had a Norse God baby and then I photocopied it and made a photocopy of the photocopy. And only people over the age of 25 will understand the photocopy of a photocopy reference since the kids have these newfangled scanners now.

 

Nrama: I know that letterers in general are woefully underappreciated, particularly as far as time-constraints go. You guys operate at a crazy-fast level, and I wanted to ask -- how do you get it all done in time? Are there any tricks you've picked up over the years that have helped you save time?

Caramagna: It takes a lot of sacrifice--of family time, of free time and hobbies, of a social life, of TV, of video games, of sleep. Though you do get faster the longer you do it, lettering still takes time, and caffeine is a letterer's friend. And I'm always tweaking my process so that I don't get bored. If you're bored, you drag. And I keep a level head and don't panic and I don't procrastinate. Sorry, bud, there are really no tricks. It's a matter of just doing it! It helps that I really love the job, and it also helps that I write comics too--it keeps me from getting burned out.

 

Nrama: Something else I'm curious about, in terms of making sure the lettering is the most effective: You've got color, placement and font. For you, what's the thing that's most important to you?

Caramagna: It doesn't do me any good to letter a page that looks beautiful to the eye if the reader is confused by it. Balloon placement -- well, clarity in general -- has to trump everything else, because the most important thing is the story.

Nrama: Lastly, for those who are trying to break into the industry as letterers, what do you think people should know that they just don't?

 

Caramagna: People who are looking for a career in comics think lettering is their best bet, especially now that it's all digital. The reality is that there are less letterers than writers, pencilers and colorists. Because we can each letter a lot of books every week, there are fewer jobs available. So my advice for people that want to letter comics for a living is to study art and design and the other disciplines, too. Sometimes when you have two connected balloons, they work better when they're connected by a leash rather than melded together, and it helps to know why--sometimes it's because of the writing, sometimes the design of the page. And the color of your sound effects matters too. And even if you get all that, be prepared to devote a LOT of time to each comic you letter, because after you're done, you aren't really done. There are writer rewrites, editorial changes, maybe some late-minute changes for continuity or legal reasons, and you need to be on call to make those changes. And it's usually on a Friday night when the book has to go to print, so don't expect to be available for many dates or Happy Hour with your buddies at the end of a long work week.

If you think that I'm trying to discourage aspiring letterers, you're right, haha. Frankly, I don't need any more competition. But also because I learned from the Kubert School that tough love causes the cream to rise. If you stop reading this and look up design classes available in your area, then congratulations! You have a leg up on other people that want to break in. And practice. By practice I don't mean repetition, I mean study your comics to see what makes lettering good or bad and apply that to your own work. Then figure out why your lettered page isn't as good as the one you studied, and try again. But if a career in comics is what you want, never stop improving, never stop trying and never stop believing in yourself. If you really want it, it's such an amazing feeling to be able to do what you love. Good luck! And HAVE FUN!

what do you think of Caramagna's technique? what do you think of Caramagna's technique?

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