Breaking the Rules
Originally written for PanelxPanel magazine.
“Well, you won’t know if you don’t try, will you?”—that’s the one thing I remember from the email exchange, seven years ago, that led to my first professional lettering project. Specifically, it was said to me by my publisher in response to my telling him that I lettered a bit, just for fun, but I didn’t think I could do it professionally.
I’ve tried to carry that in my mind, especially since I decided I would make a career in comics while working from India, where the comics industry lies in sub-zero temperatures, a twitching near-corpse. To be clear, I have had extraordinary good luck in terms of employers and collaborators (two of whom come from similar circumstances and talk about them above this little bit), but
A large part of the journey so far has simply been to listen to prescriptions and to doggedly ignore them—you can’t make money in comics in India, everybody wants to hire someone in their geographical vicinity, you will only ever be seen as somebody to outsource cheap work to, you gotta know people to get ahead.
Specifically that last one has been the most hollow, because the single biggest reason I have any work right now is that I asked strangers to look at my work and they responded with kindness they had no reason or obligation to display.
I’ve tried to carry this into the work itself, especially with my contention that the received wisdom about comics lettering—“Good lettering is invisible”—is bullshit. I sincerely mean this, but apart from that, it’s just useful to think so.
Your opinion about your craft will define the contours of the work you produce, and I fail to see how aspiring to be unremarkable is of any use to producing good work.
Witness Paradiso, where my collaborators and I have been attempting to put our money where our mouth is. Working around the script, I habitually add little touches like taking a panel where the reader doesn’t hear speech and reinforcing that idea by adding squiggles, implying speech, or responding to Dev’s turning a panel on its side by rotating the balloon likewise.
As we continued to work on the project, Ram noticed and enjoyed these things I added, and, in issue 3, decided to build an entire section around the lettering, to the extent that he and I laid out the pages for that section and marked out panels for Dev (who, to his immense credit, responded with enthusiasm rather than with annoyance) to then draw. The lettering for these sections was then baked into the artwork and sent over to our colourist Dearbhla who added her magic. All because we looked at the rule—“Good lettering should be invisible”—and went, “Sez who?”
I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere, but part of producing interesting work is feeling ownership of what you’re doing. If you trust your collaborators, you can be assured they will let you know when you’re going too wild, where you need to rein yourself in, but even if you face the occasional embarrassment of failing in public, at least there remains a chance of you producing something genuinely interesting.