What it’s like to be a comic book letterer?

What’s It Like to Be a Comic Book Letterer? A Working Podcast Transcript.

What’s It Like to Be a Comic Book Letterer? A Working Podcast Transcript.

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Oct. 3 2017 12:30 AM

The “How Does a Comic Book Letterer Work?” Transcript

Read what Deron Bennett had to say about the art and craft behind placing word balloons and sound effects in a Batman story.

Deron Bennett
Deron Bennett.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Deron Bennett.

This is a transcript of the Sept. 24 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season, we’re sitting down with the writer and artists behind the comic book Batman to learn a little bit about how their stories of the Dark Knight come together, from concept to execution.

For this episode, we talked to Deron Bennett, who is what’s known as a “letterer” in the comics business. In effect, that means he adds both words and word balloons to the page. While that may seem like a simple task, everything from font choices to the shape of the balloons themselves can have dramatic effects on the ways a reader experiences the printed page. In this episode, Bennett discusses those artistic principles and explores how his choices fit in with the broader creative process of producing a superhero comic. Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Bennett shares some thoughts on his favorite fonts and talks about the ones that really drive him crazy. If you’re a font person, this Slate Plus extra is for you.

What is your name and what do you do?

Deron Bennett: I’m Deron Bennett, comic book letterer and owner of AndWorld Design, a comic book lettering studio.

Brogan: What does that mean, exactly? What is the role that a comic book letterer plays in the process of making comic books?

Bennett: Essentially, the letterer is a role-player in comics. You have this sort of system where it’s sort of an assembly-line system. You have the writer, writes out the script, taken to the penciler to do the pencils, then it either gets inked by the same artist or another artist, which then goes to the colorist and the letterer at the same time. Now, the letterer’s role is to put on all of the text that the writer has scripted out, and so basically, any of the text that you’re seeing on a comic book page is the responsibility of the letterer, so all of the cool sound effects, the boom-pows and all that stuff, that’s also the responsibility of the letterer as well as the placement of the word balloons and all of the dialogue within there.

Brogan: We’ve been talking to a lot of other people involved with that process. The one thing you said that’s interesting is that it goes, at this stage, it almost sounds like the process forks somewhat. You said it goes to both the colorer and the letterer at the same time. How does that work?

Bennett: I think that’s more with the advent of digital lettering and coloring, you can sort of do it at the same time rather than have one person do the next step in the job and then hand it off.

Brogan: Because you’re both working from the same scans of the page?

Bennett: Exactly, so the digital file is already formatted and as long as we’re getting the same-size format, you can usually marry both the final colors and the final letters together without any problems. There have been situations where artists aren’t working from the same file and you can cause misalignment there, which tends to be a problem.

Brogan: I want to talk to you in more detail in a moment about the particulars of your actual part of the process, but before we get into that, I’m curious how you got into this line of work in the first place. How did you become a comic book letterer?

Bennett: I guess I’ve always been sort of an artist. Actually, growing up, I wanted to be the next Walt Disney. Everybody in my life at the time was telling me—

Brogan: A guy with a great signature. That guy understood letters.

Bennett: Yeah, so it was really more of an artist thing. I wanted to be an animator originally and I sort of followed that path as long as I could and ended up taking on writing, as well. Around high school, I guess, I decided comics was the medium for me because it married two of the things that I love, writing and drawing. I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design to study sequential art, basically telling stories through images, and from there, just looked around for any kind of job I could find.

A relative of mine was out in LA. I lived in New Jersey at the time, and they invited me to go over to the Warner Bros. Studio to just interview for a job, and so I took a risk, flew out there, and did the interview, but it wasn’t panning out fast enough. I had bills to pay, everything like that, and so I kept digging around for different jobs. I filled out an application or just basically sent out a blind email to the COO of Tokyopop, which was the biggest manga distributor at the time. Manga’s a—

Brogan: They do the translations of manga, I guess. Right?

Bennett: Yes, yes. Basically, yeah. It’s Japanese comics that we’re localizing in the United States, and they were the big company at the time. They brought me in for the job, and I ended up doing lettering on manga first. That was my first foray into lettering and what I found was that all of the nuances in lettering were sort of something pretty cool. I thought of it as a stepping-stone into something greater, drawing and writing, but I found that I actually liked it. I liked playing around with the fonts. In manga, they have hand-drawn sound effects and hand-drawn balloons and everything like that. I looked at those things as sort of a new artistic puzzle that I could kind of delve into, and typography just started becoming something more integrated into my life, and I really found it pretty cool as a way to express myself.

Brogan: In this series, we’ve been talking to a lot of people who worked on one particular issue of Batman, this one, 24, where Batman famously proposes to Catwoman, but how did you work your way from working on translations of manga to working with DC Comics and all of the artists that are on these books?

Bennett: It sort of snowballed from that one job working at Tokyopop as a letterer and layout artist there. I found more work looking for more work in manga, and I ended up talking to the editor over at CMX, which was DC’s manga line at the time.

Brogan: Sure.

Bennett: I started working with the editors over there. Jim Chadwick was one of those guys, and he was really pretty encouraging about my work and he would offer me opportunities later on down the line when CMX folded up to do the western comics. That’s how I familiarized myself with some of the DC editors and everybody over there and it sort of just snowballed into more jobs. The same thing, as I was working with different other companies, I’d get recommended for more jobs and that’s how I sort of established myself within the industry.

Brogan: How do jobs come to you? Do you have to seek out editors and say, “Hey, I have hours that I could fill up working on your book,” or do they come to you at this point?

Bennett: At this point, I’m fortunate enough that I get enough work coming in. Initially, starting up, I would seek out jobs. Social media was pretty big, where I would go online looking on Twitter, “Who’s looking for a letterer?” And I’d reach out to various independent artists or independent writers who were looking for things, but like I said, I was fortunate enough to make connections early in my career that I would get recommended for jobs here and there, and then it filled up so fast, where people were offering me jobs based on what I’d done before. Once I was finished with another job, then something else would line up. It was pretty good that way, where I didn’t have to always search out for jobs, and now, it’s more common that I get a lot of work just based on the previous work that I’ve done.

Brogan: Were you always a comic book fan? I mean, you were into animation and you found your way in through manga, but were you into superheroes and stuff?

Bennett: Oh, yeah. More when I was younger. I’d say some of the movies influenced me more, Superman and things of that nature. I was definitely into cartoons. That was my big thing, but I also read a lot of comic strips. Instead of comic books, I was really big into comic strips. I would read Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, any kind of Sunday funnies, Family Circus, all of those things really were my comics at the time. It wasn’t until the ’90s that I really got heavy into comics. This is around the same time I entered middle school, high school, where Milestone Comics was a big factor. I stumbled upon Milestone. They were pushing diversity and everything like that and I was drawn to that. I was drawn to the characters they were building, the world that they were building, and so that was where I really decided, “Oh, this is something that I can pursue. This is where I can tell the stories that I want to tell in a way that I want to tell them.”

Brogan: Yeah. Lettering is one of the parts of the process that is enormously important in producing comics, but that I think also often gets ignored by a lot of fans. There are a handful of letterers who are well-known. In the ’90s, for example, a guy named Todd Klein was well-known for his work on books like Sandman, but do you feel like you get recognition for what you contribute to these books?

Bennett: I think it’s probably you get more recognition within the industry, rather than from the fandom. It’s being a bigger push for letterers such as myself to sort of show what we do, as opposed to just sitting and letting it just be there. We want to let you know that there’s an artist, there’s a person responsible for this part of the comic. It’s become an important thing because things like this, where I’m sitting here and explaining, I think those are venues and avenues that we’re seeking so that the general audience can be aware of what it is that we do, what it is that we bring to a page. It’s not just these things just magically appear.

You’re brought on as a professional to really help tell the story in some way, whether you’re adding some sort of level of creativity through the balloon styles, through the art style that you’ve established, and whether it’s the sound effects or the captions or whatever. We’re bringing something to help tell that story, to help guide the reader through the book, and I think it’s important that fans and some other industry professionals, who might not be aware of what it is we do, also become aware, because it is an integral part of making comics.

Brogan: Yeah. Tell me what a typical day is like for you. It seems like it’s a full-time job, but is it a 9:00 to 5:00 gig?

Bennett: A 9:00 to 5:00 gig? I wish it was. I try to kind of tame my daily routine. Usually, I can be there from morning until well into the next morning, basically. Lettering is basically a game of volume. Whereas a penciler might be working on one single book, we have to work on multiple books at the same time in order to be successful as letterers. Deadline after deadline, you’re constantly trying to manage all of these different projects so that they go out on time, and so I’ll typically start my day, I’ll wake up, getting the kids ready for school and everything, and then get my coffee. Coffee’s important. Then I’ll go into the office and just start to go through—

Brogan: Is it a home office, or do you have a separate studio?

Bennett: It’s a home office. I moved in the past two years, but in my previous home, I was in a closet. I was stuffed in a closet, so this is an upgrade.

Brogan: A step up.

Bennett: I have the whole room to myself now.

Brogan: Do you decorate it with comics stuff, or is it a pretty spare environment in there?

Bennett: It’s fairly decorated. I’d like a little more stuff. I have the walls decorated with different art. I have an Iron Man photo and then I have toys all around.

Brogan: Nice.

Bennett: There’s a bunch of He-Man toys. He-Man’s my big childhood influence, and so I have a bunch of Masters of the Universe stuff. Voltron—

Brogan: Ever lettered a He-Man book?

Bennett: I have. I have. That was one of my biggest achievements. I was really excited. I get a lot of licensed properties, which is pretty cool. I’ve worked on ThunderCats, Voltron, and He-Man. These are some of my favorite things to work on because they’re so close to my heart that I get to do these things that I looked up to as a kid. I’m definitely pretty fortunate that I got to work on He-Man books through DC and the ThunderCats–He-Man crossover was pretty cool, too.

Brogan: Nice, nice. You’re working on, I guess, I imagine based on what you’ve said so far, almost entirely digitally? Right? Are you just getting these pages emailed to you? Is that how it starts off?

Bennett: Yeah. What’ll happen is they’ll send files via FTP or Cloud Storage.

Brogan: Because these are big files, right? They’re like—

Bennett: Yeah. The colors.

Brogan: An issue might be a gigabyte or something like this?

Bennett: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. You try and compress down files as much as possible. They don’t have to be big, but a lot of artists are sending their layered files and such just so that they can easily manipulate things in the end. When it comes to me, I try to compress them down as much as possible. I’ll get a file and if it’s oversized, I can size it down. I still have print resolution, but I’m basically trying to get it down to a manageable size so that these things can transfer easily, because it is all digital, but you can sort of clog up file transfers by just having these huge, enormous files, so I try to keep them as small as possible. The editors will send me through different methods, whether it’s FTP or Cloud Storage, or even email if they’re really small. I’ll get inks through email sometimes and I’ll get the script and go to town there.

Brogan: What program are you working in? What are you using to access the files?

Bennett: For general comics, I’ll use Illustrator. Adobe Illustrator’s the primary program for lettering comics. For lettering manga, which I still do, I use Adobe InDesign. They’re two different animals, manga lettering versus a traditional western letter. The different programs, you try to use the right tool for the right job and I think InDesign, it’s more catered toward layout, where you can sort of set up the pages a little differently and you’re working with just dropping in text over a series of pages, which helps out manga layout versus where you’re getting a little more creative inside of western lettering and traditional comic books. You can get more creative, so you want to use something where you can sort of manipulate graphics a little more.

Brogan: Sure.

Bennett: Illustrator’s perfect for that.

Brogan: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that when you get a manga, since you’re working from a translation and there was already text on the page, you’re working within the space of the word balloons, text bubbles, that are already there on the page, right? Is that the distinction? Whereas my understanding is when you’re working on these American comic books, you’re putting everything text-wise on the page, the word balloon and the words themselves.

Bennett: Exactly. Exactly, yeah. For manga, it’s already set there. Basically, your job is to kind of stay as true to the original Japanese book or whatever country of origin that it’s from. You want to stay true to the original style, and that’s really that part of the process there, whereas in American comics, you get to just have your own sort of style choices, whether you’re going to do classic rounded balloons or do something a little more untraditional and you can make those sort of choices there and just be a little more creative. That creative freedom is what draws me to American comics, which is why I wanted to get into American comics after working in manga so long.

Brogan: I think one thing that probably readers of comics often don’t think about is that the shape and style, not just of the words written on the page, but also of the text balloons themselves, the shape and style of those balloons can affect the way we read the page, the way that we interpret the meaning or the significance of the words that a character is thinking. A spiky-edged balloon might indicate that someone’s angry. One with kind of scalloped edges could indicate that they’re thinking, for example, instead of speaking aloud. Some of those kinds of details are just sort of formalized in the grammar of the medium, but do you get much choice? Do you have any kind of freedom when you’re working on these books about those kinds of details, about the shape and style and maybe even edging of the balloons?

Bennett: Oh, for sure, and that’s part of the thing that letters bring to the book themselves. What a lot of people don’t realize is lettering is a form of art like any other, and I liken it to graphic design more than anything else, where you have all these principles in graphic design that you can play with to make the artistic piece pop. You’re doing the same thing in comic books and lettering. You’re playing with principles like shape—like we were discussing here—contrast, spatial relationships, white space, negative space, and so you have all these things balanced that you’re trying to convey graphically, and you do those sort of things with lettering, and they help to really form the foundation for what the reader is ingesting. Different things like line weights and shape of balloons, they’re really choices that the letterer will make and personally. I make them based on the art that’s given to me.

If the artist is really sketchy with their style, really loose, then I might do something to sort of mimic that. I’ll do thinner line weights around the balloons, or the sound effects won’t be as bold and striking. They’ll be sort of more whimsical or have that loose quality as well. If they’re really tight drawings with strong contours and everything, I might do a more bold balloon shape where it’s just uniform around the edges. The strokes’ll be uniform, where they don’t have that tapering or anything. It really depends on what the art is giving me, then that’ll help inform my decisions to help design the balloons and sound effects and things of that nature.

Brogan: Do you ever have conversations with the penciler or the inker, maybe even the writer, about those choices, or do you pretty much have creative freedom there?

Bennett: There are times where I’ll be in contact with the rest of the creative team. I think those are the times when you can really tell that there’s really a lot of care put into the book and the quality shows, so I relish in those moments where I get to talk to the artist or the writer and ask their thoughts and opinions on how they want to approach something. When they let me know their vision, that helps to inform my ideas and we’ll sort of kick off ideas, brainstorm, and see what we can come up with and sort of really achieve what we’re trying to do with this book. But for the most part, it’s really just an isolated thing where the communication is facilitated through the editor. They’ll be my main point of contact and I’ll let them know some of my choices, and they’ll relay that over to the writer or the artist. We communicate that way, and that’ll sort of shape the identity of the book.

Brogan: How much time, when you’re working on a given book, would you say on average do you spend talking with, communicating with, the editor?

Bennett: It’s constant. Every time I finish the first leg of the book, we’ll go into proofs. I’ll run through an initial draft, send that over to the editor, and they’ll give it a look and see what they need to change, see what we need to improve, send it back to me, and so we’re in constant communication over the whole process, from start to finish.

Brogan: Is that because a lot of what you’re doing is literally laying these words over the art? Is some of that about moving things around, making sure they’re on the right place on the page and such?

Bennett: Oh yeah. We definitely have to be aware of placement, and the editor and the writer as well, the other members of the creative team, will have a say in where we want to put things. For the most part, I try to stay out of the art. I have a background in art, so that artistic sensibility works with me where I make sure I try and not take over the action or even the quiet moments as much, because you really want to let that part breathe. The role of the letterer is secondary, even tertiary, where you’re just there to sort of support what’s already there, so I definitely am self-aware of where I’m putting the balloons, but there’ll be some times where I might put something where, “Oh, you know what? That sword is really important in this scene. It’s going to play a role later. Can we move that balloon off of there so that we can really see that and sell that part?” It’s definitely a collaborative effort where we’re all trying to really make the book be the best that it can be.

Brogan: Yeah. This is maybe a really remedial, dumb question, but do you make your own fonts? I mean, the old-school letterers, like comics artists doing superhero stuff, say in the ’60s, they would write everything out by hand, I think, and they would literally be cutting out these balloons and pasting them on the art. You’re not doing that, obviously. You’re doing it digitally, but where does the font come from?

Bennett: For the most part, there are fonts out there. You can go through Comicraft, is one of the big names. Blambot is another font foundry where comic book letterers will go to. I have done my own fonts and we’ve done special fonts for different books. I think A Tale of Sand, which is the book I believe I’m most known for, it’s a Jim Henson piece and so we spoke with the Henson Company and they wanted to do something really special with this book. We all thought that it would be a good idea to use sort of Henson’s own handwriting and use that as the dialogue font. I was contracted to do the font for the book, and so I did a comic book font based on Jim Henson’s handwriting.

It really helped the aesthetic of the book because it was so integral for that particular piece. I’ve done a few fonts as well for other books, just because I really feel like it’s important not only to match, but sort of just give that sort of extra embellishment to the book where the font isn’t just picked out willy-nilly. You’re really thinking about “Why is this important for this book? How does it help the art itself?” If it calls for it, I will build a font, but it is time-consuming, and so that’s something that I haven’t done often. I’ve done maybe four different fonts and I’ll leave the rest to the other foundries and purchase fonts here and there.

Brogan: Does the script that you get from the writer ever dictate details like that, like, “This person should be in a kind of cursive-styled font,” or things like that?

Bennett: Definitely. With the different characters that are out there, you’ll have people who have more of a raspy voice, and so you want to sell that. The writer will leave notes within the script whether they want something particular for a character. If they want a scratchy voice or if they want something a little more out of the ordinary, they’ll leave a note there and say ... even the shape of the balloon might be in that note, where they want something angular or something a little more wobbly. If a character’s woozy or intoxicated or anything like that, they might want that wobbly balloon that indicates that this character’s not functioning normally— something’s wrong here. That’ll give the visual indicator to the reader that things are a little off here and “Pay attention to this part.” The writer’s definitely self-aware of what he wants to achieve and conveys that to us as well.

Brogan: Another really practical question: Are you drawing the balloons yourself in the program, or does it have pre-generated balloons that you can use?

Bennett: In Illustrator, Illustrator is a Vector program, so it does have different shapes already created, but what I find is that they’re too stiff and not as organic, so I work on a Cintiq, that’s a Wacom Cintiq, where you can use it just like—

Brogan: A drawing tablet, right?

Bennett: —a drawing tablet, yes, so you’re basically drawing on that tablet. I use that to create the balloon shapes. Not always. Sometimes I’ll use the ellipses from the program and reshape those just a little bit so they’re not as circular. They’ll have a little more stretch and pull to them, so you can use the established elliptical shapes or do something a little more organic. I find the organic stuff sort of helps with the art style a little more often than not.

Brogan: When a page first comes to you, to kind of return to that, when you first start looking at the thing you’re going to work on, you have inked art, panel layouts, all of that. You’ve also got the script from the writer, from which you’re going to decide what goes where, but it may be sketchy about, say, the placement of the word balloons within a given panel, right?

Bennett: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brogan: You just know how many balloons there are going to be, how much space they have to fill and such. What’s the first thing you do once you’ve looked at all that? Do you read the script all the way through before you get going, or are you just working one page, one panel at a time?

Bennett: It’s more of a one-page, one-panel-at-a-time format. I hardly ever read the script, as soon as that’s sent. It’s mostly once I have the art, I’ll look at the art and sort of brainstorm for ideas there. I think that’s a little more in my priority list. What I want to accomplish with the lettering is to look the art and sort of familiarize myself with that as much as possible to get a foundation for what I want to do creatively there. I’ll take a look at the art, go through each of the pages, see what’s there, and I’ll also look at the art for technical things.

I think that’s part of the letterer’s job, and that is sort of lost upon people who aren’t aware of what the job is, that we are responsible for a lot of the formatting there. If a page is not to spec, I’ll talk with the editor and just make sure we’re getting a page that is standard-comic-book size and make sure that the letters can line up within the safety. I believe I was listening to one of the artists, David Finch, and he was talking about having the bleed and the trim and from the margins.

Brogan: Where it’s that the art extends over the edge of the printable page, right?

Bennett: Exactly, and so as letterers, we also have to be aware of where we can stay within the margins so that we’re not having anything close to the trim and be aware of the bleed so that nothing is cut off. That’s really important there. I’ll take a look at the art for things like that, for the technical aspects, and for the creative aspects as well. Then once I get the first page into my template, I’ll usually drop them into a premade template that has some general balloons that I use as a baseline and then use those in trying to figure out where I want to go from here. I’ll set up that first page, determining the font that I want to use, determining the balloon shapes that I want to use, and general style things like that, and do that first page. If it’s a first issue or if it’s the first time I’m working on a book, I’ll probably send it over to the editor or to the creative team and see if this is something that they approve of. Once I get feedback on that, then I’ll work through the rest of the pages.

Brogan: Generally speaking, how long does it take you to do a given page? I mean, I’m sure it depends on the amount of text and all of that, but is there a kind of average time frame that you shoot for to maintain your working schedule?

Bennett: I shoot for six pages an hour, however that works out mathematically. Yeah, six pages an hour. I can usually finish a 22-comic-book-page project within around five hours, the five-hour mark. If I’m taking more than five hours, the project must have a lot of extra things going on there, whether it’s overly wordy or something like that, but if I’m more than five hours in, or conversely, it might not just be something problematic. It might be something where I’m doing it extra creatively because the art calls for it, where I might do some hand-drawn stuff. There are times where I’ll jump out of Illustrator, go into Photoshop or Clip Studio, and draw out some of the sound effects myself, and bring those back into Illustrator and manipulate those there.

Brogan: Are you copying and pasting words from the script, or do you have to retype it into Illustrator or the other programs that you’re using?

Bennett: The script is copy-pasted. That’s very key. I think a lot of people might not realize that, but in this digital age, everything is boom, boom, boom. We have to be really fast, and if I’m retyping, we might as well just go back to hand lettering, where I’ll write out every letter. There’s more cause for concern because retyping it, I might make a mistake there. Occasionally, somebody will send a PDF script, where the words you can’t copy-paste from the PDF unless it’s OCR-ready. If you’re trying to send me a PDF script and I can’t copy-paste from it, I’ll usually request a Word doc or RTF that I can copy-paste from because we’ll run into tons of problems if you let me copy-paste a script.

Brogan: Sure. What about copyediting? I mean, do you have to look over the work once you’ve finished a page to make sure that everything is in the right place and in the right order?

Bennett: I’ll do a once-over as far as balloon placement and things like that and to make sure things are aligned, whether we have balloons butted to the borders, make sure those things are in order, colors are within CMYK printing colors. I’ll do a once-over for things like that. As far as grammatical or text things, there are some things I touch, some things that I don’t. One, because I’m not a professional editor.

While I pride myself on writing skills and knowing some grammar, there are definitely things that I’m not aware of where I’ll leave that to the editor to make those decisions, but let’s say things like ... certain companies have their own style manual styles where I know, “Well, this ellipse shouldn’t have space after it,” so I’ll close up all those spaces, or if there are breath marks, those are the little whiskers outside of sighs and grumbles or things like that, if you’ve seen it in comics, where they’ll have spaces between them and we’ll close those up. Things that I’m aware of that I can change and make that call on, I’ll do those, but the rest of it, I’ll leave just because I don’t want to make a mistake of saying, “Oh, well, this is grammatically incorrect. This needs a comma,” and then they don’t necessarily need the comma.

Brogan: Do the editors at the comics production houses ever catch things like that after you’ve done your lettering and that you then have to go through and fix in the work?

Bennett: Oh, for sure. Yeah, yeah. I’m only human, so I’m definitely not going to catch everything and they’ll definitely point out when I’ve lost something that I should have caught. There are opportunities for always improving and always making sure that you’re sort of doing this quality-control check before you send that out, because you’ll end up looking at the final product and being like, “Oh, man. I wish I would’ve caught that,” so definitely you want to be self-aware, but you do rely on the rest of the team. That’s one of the things I love about comics. It’s a total team effort and having that support base where everybody can sort of check and balance each other, then that’s one of the best things I love about this industry.

Brogan: One thing I’m thinking about as I listen to you talk is that some of what you do is not unlike, say, introducing lineation into poetry, breaking a phrase up into lines where you can enjamb a phrase and suddenly suggest another meaning that gets transformed or changed by the next one. Do you have to think about the rhythms of language, the sound of it, these kinds of issues, as you think about how to organize the word balloons on a page?

Bennett: Oh, definitely. One of the things that will happen is maybe the writer’s trying to convey something. Maybe he wants a beat or a pause in a certain situation. There’s a silent panel or there should be a moment of silence or something that really create that, either tension or comedy, for comedic effect, and there are opportunities to sort of use lettering to help convey that message, that idea. There are times where I’ll interpret a page or try to interpret what the writer or the artist wants to do.

Sometimes those things change from script to the art. Your writer might have called for something where it’s a character really yelling and just really fired up, but the art may have not been drawn to that dramatic effect, and so, where in the script they might say this character—usually, if you’re trying to indicate in a script that some text should be big and loud for emphasis, it’ll be in all caps or something. When I go to the art and I look at the page and it may be the character’s not as animated or he’s a little more subdued, I might not add that big, bold emphasized text and create something a little softer. The same thing with a pause. I might break up the word balloons in a way where it’ll create that stretch of breath. We’ll use tail connectors to sort of determine that or maybe an empty word balloon that sort of indicates there’s nothing being spoken or just complete silence and decide on that.

Brogan: You worked on Issue 24 of Batman, that proposal issue, right?

Bennett: Yes.

Brogan: In that proposal issue that you did with Tom King and David Finch, Danny Miki, Seth and Clay Mann, do you remember any particular challenges or interesting details that came up in the course of that five-hour day, I assume, that you spent on that, or five-hour part of a day?

Bennett: Five hour, yeah. Well, yeah. It was really ... I think working on Batman is fun because, and I tweeted this out that day I was working on it, because I was so excited. It’s more so than other books a lesson in designing word balloons and designing the page. As I mentioned, it’s sort of like graphic design, and I was really focused on that aspect when I was working on that particular book. There’s this one page. It’s not a double-page spread, but it is across two pages—I think it’s six and seven—where I created this sort of semicircle of the word balloons across the two pages.

It’s not something that somebody asked for. It’s not something that was called for in the script or the artist or anyone said to do this, but I thought it created a nice balance and a nice rhythm. I do that throughout the book where I’m creating these rhythmic lines through using the balloons to kind of shape the page. David likes to do these overlapping panels, so I look at that and say, “Oh, well, what can I do with this?” I’ll overlap some of the panels with some of the captions to kind of mimic that and create that movement through the page.

Brogan: It produces that drama that David is trying to convey, I think, with that sense of dynamically overlapping panels.

Bennett: Yeah. It definitely does. You’re trying to sort of do this within the limitations of the page. You don’t want to cover too much art, like I was saying. You want to be in this sort of left-to-right motion, so you’ll have to sort of undulate the captions and the balloons as best as possible within this frame to create that look that you’re trying to go for. There were a lot of moments like that, where I was trying to really do something that helped it along. There’s a page, I think it might have been another page, not by David, by Seth, where there was this curvilinear perspective—

Brogan: Oh, that vertiginous shot where you’re looking down on the two characters on the top of the building?

Bennett: Yes, and so I wanted to let that breathe as much as possible, but I also wanted to sort of follow that shape, and so the tail itself became something that I was working with there. Usually, I’ll do these straight tails—

Brogan: The tail of the balloon?

Bennett: Yes. The balloon that’s going toward, I believe, it’s Claire speaking with a tail that’s going to her. It sort of follows this curve. Usually, I’ll use more straightened tails. They’ll have a softer curve, but this one, I did a little more exaggerated because I wanted to follow that perspective there. Things like that were just jumping out to me and I really wanted to do something dynamic with the book. I really hope it helped out the book.

Brogan: Well, you also have an interesting dynamic in that book, which is that there were two separate teams of artists who told the two stories, but the narrative, the text that we’re reading, often overlaps. You hear dialogue from one story while you’re looking at the images of another. You say that you’re really informed in your choices and your design work by the art that you’re looking at. Did having two different art styles in the book affect that?

Bennett: Not as much, I thought. In that particular book, I think the story itself is, as you say, we’re looking at something going on in Batman’s life where he’s going rooftop to rooftop with Catwoman, juxtaposed with his dialogue with Claire. I think that sort of helped, that idea where I didn’t have to worry so much about managing the two different art styles and obviously, it already has an established look to the book where I’m not going to stray too much from art style to art style. I would do certain things, like I said, with the curvilinear perspective on Seth’s pages. I did certain things there, whereas on Danny’s, with the overlapping panels. I think those different little smaller ideas were placed within the framework of the individual page, rather than this overarching theme that I created. It was more, from page to page, “What can I do here?”

Brogan: To turn to the larger issues, you said it takes about five hours to do a book on average, so that means you’re doing one and a half to two a day, usually?

Bennett: If it works out that way. I also run a lettering studio with seven other staff letterers, so a lot of my day is consumed by project management.

Brogan: Is that all comics work, or are you doing other stuff in that lettering studio?

Bennett: It’s mostly comics work. It’s primarily comics. We also do children’s books and design for different sorts of other publishing venues, but it’s primarily comics work where I have five of my guys, they work on lettering different books. I’m really sort of managing that, whether I’m looking at proofs from them to kind of give them feedback so that we maintain the established house style. A lot of my day is also spent doing day-to-day things like responding to clients, so on a given day, I can be working on a single book, but also sort of doing management for other projects as well. Like I said, I’ve got my hands on—I’d say we’re juggling maybe around 40 projects a month.

Brogan: Wow.

Bennett: Really taking care of those takes up the majority of what I want to do. It’s not always lettering the comic that takes the most time. I think a lot of people know a lot of the editors and people in the position to hire know that lettering doesn’t take really long. It shouldn’t take days, months, or what have you. Scheduling, they might think, “Oh, well I can give him this and he can turn this around by tomorrow,” but it doesn’t always work like that because there are other things, other factors, whether you’re working on another book to letter or whether you have other projects going on. I’d usually say if I get two days’ notice on a book, I’m good to go. I can jump on that and make sure that’s going to meet deadline. I prefer longer, obviously, but give me two days and I can make it happen. That five-hour day might stretch over a period of time.

Brogan: It sounds like the financial part of it must be really complicated since you’re managing a studio, working with contracts with different companies and so on, all at once.

Bennett: Yeah. It’s something that I didn’t anticipate, going into business for myself, and it is definitely something that I’d broach to people who want to jump into this career or any freelance career, for that matter. It’s a business, just like anything else, and so you’re becoming a business where you’re having to do all of that. You’re having to do your own customer service. You’re having to do your own taxes and financial department. You’re all of the departments for one business in a singular person, and the financial aspect definitely plays a role where I have to be concerned with keeping the books, keeping records, handling the taxes, handling other finances, whether it’s the day-to-day purchases and things like that. But also when you have to do anything credit based, it becomes a real task. Like I said, I bought a house a couple years ago and that’s bigger hoops to jump through rather than when they’re just asking for normal pay stubs. I can’t provide normal pay stubs.

Brogan: Right.

Bennett: It becomes something a little larger than just “Here’s my paperwork. Let’s go.” Both my wife and I are self-employed, so it’s even more difficult finding things like health care. That’s a little more challenging because we’re not under a company umbrella. We have to actually go out there and search through different health care companies.

Brogan: That speaks to a change, I think, within the comics industry as a whole. As I understand it, in the older days, letterers would have often been in-house. In some cases, going really far back, artists themselves might have done some of the lettering, but the more distributed business we see now, where someone like you is working for a bunch of different comics companies and publishing houses and things, leads to a really different model that affects the way that someone like you conducts their life, lives your life.

Bennett: Yeah. There was a couple years ago where I read this book about the E-Myth principle, and it sort of described how small businesses fail, and what succeed, and one of the things that sort of drew my interest was this factor of being the technician versus being the business itself, having a business worldview. I sort of took that to heart where, at the time, I was the business. I’m the person responsible for everything. If I couldn’t work, there’s no revenue coming in. Right?

Brogan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bennett: That really scared me, because as a father, as a family man, I have to be able to provide for my family. If something happens, how do I monetize this? How did I do that? Trying to separate my life from the actual business and turn it into something else, which is why I established the studio itself, was really important to me. I looked at that and, “How do I make this something where there can be a steady revenue stream and be something where I’m speaking with multiple clients, not just becoming a single house letterer? I can offer services to multiple clients and make a living.”

Brogan: Well, I want to let you go soon, but I also want to ask this: What’s the most satisfying part of lettering comics for a living? What do you like about this job?

Bennett: What do I like about this job? It’s comic books. It’s fun. It’s such a fun industry. I don’t have to call it “work.” I get to do something that I love. I get to play with characters, play in worlds that I love and get to be a part of this bigger pop culture phenomenon. I can talk to family members and they’ll ask me what I do, not necessarily strangers, family members, whoever asks, “Well, what are you doing nowadays?” When I let them know, “Yeah, I’m working on Batman,” their eyes light up. Even with this issue we’re discussing, Issue 24 of Batman and that iconic moment with Catwoman, my daughter, who pays no interest in me whatsoever, she could be far from excited about anything her dad works on, she says, “Hey. Did you know that Batman proposed to Catwoman?” I opened up my page where I’d lettered him on his knees, and she was like, “Wow. You did that?” That was a highlight for me. Things like that, it’s just being part of this larger culture and it’s just so fun. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Brogan: This has been really great. It’s so fascinating to learn about this stuff and I’m really excited to share it with people. Thank you so much, man.

Bennett: Thank you. Appreciate it.

Brogan: Bye-bye.


Brogan: In this Slate Plus extra, Deron Bennett shares some thoughts on his favorite fonts and talks about the ones that really drive him crazy.

What is your favorite font?

Bennett: My favorite font?

Brogan: Do you have a favorite font?

Bennett: I have a font that’s in heavy rotation.

Brogan: That sounds good.

Bennett: My go-to sound-effects font is Fight to the Finish from Blambot. Blambot fonts are becoming some of my favorites right now because they’re less conventional than what I’ve used in the past or what I used when I first came into the industry. They fit different styles, and so Fight to the Finish is one of those staples that I use for big sound effects. It has different formats for different characters where there’s a rough version of the font.

Brogan: Right.

Bennett: A rough bold version of the font, a skinner version of the font. That one’s my go-to for sound effects.

Brogan: So, this is for when someone gets punched in the jaw or whatever?

Bennett: Yeah. When glass breaks, I can go to that one. When someone gets punched, I can go to that one. It’s really versatile.

Brogan: What about for an email? What font do you write your emails in?

Bennett: That’s standard Helvetica. Helvetica might be my favorite font, probably because there was a documentary out a couple years ago that focused on Helvetica and how it’s a timeless font and it just basically went through the history of the font. It’s so fascinating to watch that and to learn about how that has been something that we’re seeing everywhere. It’s probably one of my favorite normal fonts, not a comic book–based font. My least favorite, Comic Sans, if we want to go there.

Brogan: Everyone hates Comic Sans, but I imagine—

Bennett: Everyone hates it.

Brogan: —you hate it even more than most of us. What is bad about Comic Sans?

Bennett: Comic Sans is just that fake font. I think the name of it is the most frustrating.

Brogan: It’s like an insult to the work that people in your line of work do.

Bennett: Oh, right. Yeah. That’s the biggest thing. It’s a slap in the face. It was originally based on a comic book font, but it’s poorly done and it’s become so popular for all the wrong reasons. It’s horrifying. I can’t forgive anyone who uses Comic Sans in a comic itself.

Brogan: I, for what it’s worth, write almost entirely in Garamond 11.5. I don’t know why.

Bennett: There you go. That’s a good one.

Brogan: That’s a good font. It’s all right.

Bennett: Yeah, strong.

Brogan: Well, Deron, thank you so much for joining us today to share your work with us. It was fascinating. I learned so much.

Bennett: Thank you very much for having me. Appreciate it.

Brogan: It was a pleasure.