Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lettering: Visualizing Sound in Comics

Last week I finally had a chance to read Gene Kannenberg Jr.'s essay "Graphic Text, Graphic Context: Interpreting Custom Fonts and Hands in Contemporary Comics" in a collection entitled Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation. It's a fascinating piece that makes a good argument for why we need to focus on the visuality of lettering rather than simply seeing it as a transparent vehicle for the linguistic element of the text. In other words, where the text is placed and how the text is lettered is as important as the words themselves and can help the reader to make meaning of the text within the context of the story being told. Kannenberg describes these as narrative and metanarrative qualities of lettering that help to shape textual meaning; in addition, Kannenberg argues that comics lettering also displays extranarrative qualities that may identify the work as by a particular creator, part of a specific title, or of a particular genre. In other words, lettering is of crucial importance in comics and comics scholars and teachers need to pay more attention to it.

As I have thought and continue to think about the way comics make meaning in multimodal ways (linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial) through the combination of all of these elements, I keep coming back to the notion of the audio. After all, comics in their traditional forms (without taking into account recent attempts at motion comics) are a silent medium. Yet when we read them, we vividly imagine the sounds in our heads (even more than we do when reading linguistic texts) because we are given cues as to how we are supposed to hear them. As Kannenberg puts it, "The sound of characters' voices in radio, film, or television contributes greatly to audience interpretation; comics, developing this century along with these other media, uses visual emphasis as a metanarrative device in order to replicate this additional characterization tool in its own, mute medium" (174). In other words, from a multimodal perspective lettering does triple duty as it works as a visual element within the text (a point Will Eisner always emphasizes in both his theory (Comics and Sequential Art) and in the practice of his art (especially, I think, in The Spirit)), as a crucial stand-in for the audio element, and as a complex, non-transparent mediator for linguistic element. Comics may be mute, but we see, and thus hear, the words in ways that have an enormous impact on how we interpret them.

Just take a look at the complexities of the lettering (different fonts, bolding, changing font colours, balloon shapes, balloon colours, captions) in this Calvin and Hobbes strip by Bill Watterson (click on the strip to see it in a larger size). Now try to imagine the cartoon if all of the linguistic elements were printed inside uniform word balloons and caption boxes in a black font such as Times or Helvetica. How does the meaning change? Is it still funny? How do we interpret the words? The images? The gestures and facial expressions? The spatial layout? All of the choices that Watterson has made in lettering this strip are crucial for the narrative and the joke; without the lettering it falls flat.

I'll have more to say about lettering later this week in relation to Unstable Molecules. For now, let me leave you with more on lettering from a creator's perspective.

Comics Lettering Theory Part 1 by ~themightyfro on deviantART


Marianne said...

I am a graduate student at Westminster College studying rhetoric and professional communication. I'm excited to see a blog dedicated to this topic. I'm writing a paper now about comics and idiomatic phrases in archetypal fantasy-themes and the topics and discussion here were instructive and interesting. Thanks - I'll continue to follow your discussion.

Gene Kannenberg, Jr. said...

Hi, Dale -

Thanks so much for the kind words about my essay! I'm looking forward to reading your blog, even when it's not talking about lettering :-)