Rulebreakers: Billy Johnson and His Duck Explore Lettering
Billy Johnson and His Duck are Explorers is a comic by cartoonist Mathew New, running here and there online and in print since about 2011. The premise is simple; it’s exactly as the title suggests. Billy and Barrace explore your classic pulp fiction ruins, chatting together as they go. It’s simple, but not emotionally simplistic. Map to the Monkey Kingdom, a full-length issue, can be purchased very cheaply on Comixology–I recommend it–and The Hero Trials is currently serialising on Patreon. Today I want to point out two panels from the first section of the latter adventure, and how they use maverick lettering choices to draw out the moments within them.
Panels five and six, above, both feature what’s often called a lettering don’t. They each display two characters, both of whom speak; conventional wisdom tells the neophyte artist never to draw the panel so that the second speaker appears before the first. In western comics, this means that whoever speaks first should appear on the left. In the panels above, this rule is broken. Why? For atmosphere. For environmental impression. And for the elongation of time.
Jim Campbell’s lettering advice, linked above, is based on the idea of a fairly tight panel. The people in it are seen head to torso, and though they’re standing fairly far apart the panel border hews them in:
Todd Klein’s, also linked above, reproduces this assumption and also emphasises the belief that the characters will be facing each other:
New’s panels do not follow this template. In his comic, both speakers are traveling the same direction; in panel five, it’s toward the reader (for the characters it’s just “forwards”). In panel six they both face down the staircase they are on, following the flow of the narrative at large.
Because they are pointed towards something other than each other, we understand that the conversation is not a regular exchange during a purposeful meeting. These characters are travelling together; they are remarking at leisure on the events of their journey. The narrative is the journey; how they while away the walk and deal with the results of their explorations are what the reader is here to enjoy, rather than an involved plot about which they must exchange vital information. The shape of the conversation is metaphorically different, and so the literal shape of the conversation is allowed to differ: the unconventional placement of the bodies and speech is designed to evoke a feeling specific to the nature of scene. The sky is blue, the air is clean, the grass is healthy and the staircase is long. These are characters moving with a purpose, but who regularly hike for fun in areas much like this. They enjoy this environment. Time is different when you enjoy your environment.
Placing the speaker’s text on the left whilst the speaker remains on the right, ahead on the page as he is ahead on the hike, forces more contained moment into one panel because it takes the eye on a longer trail. Top left to bottom right is a fine way to read, but back and forth means more. It evokes the pleasant freedom of talking right into the air as you look at the landscape around you, confident that your companion will either hear or yell that they didn’t, and it means the read literally takes more fractions of a second, keeping you in the moment with Billy and Barrace. There’s more literal and figurative moment set to screen than there would be if Billy were to the left, and Barrace to the right, taking their turn to speak in a comic-book mannerly fashion. It meanders, because they are. We are encouraged to move more leisurely.
Look: Arrow one, forward through the dialogue, arrows two and three down and back through Billy and his duck, arrow four down to see what Barrace has said, arrow five back up to what he’s talking about, arrow six (the purple one) off down to the next part of the story.And panel six, like so:
We’re pulled through the air, that cool blue cloudy sky, following Billy’s voice. He’s small, in the middle of a landscape so big we only see a few details; it can’t be contained within the panel. That sense of exploration and environmental embed, it’s very accurate! We look back to Barrace, trailing a little, we see how he’s managing the terrain because he’s different to Billy, he’s a duck. Different levels of ability on the obstacle course that is rewilded ruins are a real consideration, a necessary part of any relic hunting fiction. Not every body is the same. Not every adventure is as hard or as easy for everyone. That’s why we have more than one character! That’s what makes a party fun! (It’s also why Lara Croft travels alone.) Barrace’s dialogue fills up the grass, like Billy’s fills the sky–their walk together, their conversation in this big, empty environment: that is the story. That’s why we read. And the figures and the speech bubbles cup the diagonal stair so well that they pinch our eyeline neatly to it and our vision skids on down to the next panel, easy, fast.
Mathew New is a good cartoonist, and he’s better than he would be if he followed the rules just because he was told them. Rules are good, for when they’re sensible! But those times are not “always.” When it comes to lettering… Don’t be afraid to explore. Wink!