10 Suckiest Comics Letterings

by Will Erixon

10. The Dark Knight Returns' "Fade To Black." You will not find a bigger fan of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns than me within a hundred-mile radius. For the most part, that extends to the lettering: John Costanza does a great job using colors to show states of mind and character voice... just like William Faulkner in the original draft of The Sound and the Fury. But towards the end of Book Three, where Batman's slowly going down from a gaping chest wound, the lettering goes from black on light gray to black on blackish-gray. I know it reflects the fact that Batman's "blacking out." I don't care. I can't read it. You want total realism, do a pop-up edition with a bayonet so the readers can experience Bats's chest wound for themselves. Otherwise, back off.

9. Knights of the Dinner Table, The Early Years. I like Knights even better than I like Knight... it's a documentary of gamer's lives. I've literally met these people. But for the first couple of years, it had this lettering font that was so bad its sole purpose seemed to be making the art look better by comparison. They still trot it out every so often when they WANT an "ugly and loud" effect, but for the most part they've switched to Comicraft fonts. Thank Gawd.

8. John Byrne. What the hell has happened to this guy? He used to rule fan-favorite lists with an iron fist (check out his Fantastic Four cover below). Now, not only are his stories boring reruns and his artwork like fingerpaint on sandpaper, but his hand-lettering and even some of his computer(!) lettering looks slapdash and sloppy. This particular font is based on another letterer whose handwriting is ALMOST as bad as Byrne's. Like Augie de Blount said, that "G" seems to be developing a mind of its own. (Hmm, now THAT would be a more interesting comics plot than "Spider Man: Year One." But what wouldn't be?)

7. M. Rex, by Dennis Heisler. Note to Dennis: You write too zarking


6. The 1980s Janice Chiang. Don't look at me like that. I'm all too aware of the scarcity of certain genders in the comics business. And Colleen Doran has built herself up from steady mediocrity (as a letterer, I mean) into a damn fine wordsketcher. Even Chiang eventually outgrew her Eighties stuff and evolved into a style that's at least... INTERESTING. But the Eighties Chiang's letters have more in common with movable type than organic "balloons."

5. Doonesbury Online. They been hawking their Website since '95, okay? So unlike a lot of other comics, they have no excuse. Memo to Trudeau: fix the jaggies on your site's lettering or you'll get to write about the failure of online business with a lot more real-life perspective.

4. Rudolphe Topffer. This is where it gets REALLY ugly. Topffer, for those of you who don't know, is credited with inventing the word balloon. Whether this makes him the oldest known "comics letterer" is up for debate; certainly he brought new considerations to the discipline. On a related note, the cockroach introduced several new features into the insect world, and is today the oldest species of life, all other species alive today having evolved more recently. That doesn't mean that I want to see a cockroach crawling on the pages of my comics. But if I had to choose between a roach and a Topffer balloon, it'd be close.

3. Winsor McCay. Now this guy had no excuse. Look at the sweep of those drawings, the bold use of perspective and outlines-- and then tell me he couldn't have drawn a better word balloon. McCay didn't produce a single memorable line of dialogue in his strips anyway-- they were all silent movies on paper-- so you have to wonder why, exactly, he bothered.

2. Anything except Kabuki that's lettered in WhizBang. Don't talk to me about WhizBang, I don't want to hear it. The line quality looks like it was designed by a bunch of schoolkids scrawling out "THE QUICK FOX JUMPS OVER THE DODGY LIZARD" after class. And while the name sounds either obscene or juvenile, or maybe both, seeing this font on a comic is almost a sure sign that you're in for another installing enthrallment of INCREDIBLY PRETENTIOUS AND UNORIGINAL COMICS. The only thing keeping it away from the #1 slot is our editor, who thought that what ended up at #1 "would make a decent punchline." Whatever.

1. FANS's "Renaissance Faire Capitals." What the hell--? Is that an "A" or a "U?" Cute gimmick, making the capitals look like the capitals in the illuminated manuscripts of old. Only problem is, those illuminated manuscripts were often just this side of totally illegible, and they took up half a page with one letter. In the twentieth century, spell this device L-U-M-E, "lame."

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