Out of all the elements that come together to make a comic book, lettering may be the most subtle. It’s meant to supplement the writer’s work by capturing character voice, setting the story’s pace, and, obviously, putting the words on the page in the first place. Many suggest that the best lettering is invisible, but I question if that’s true. After all, although lettering may not require the same kind of skill as a writer’s foundations or an artist’s creation of an entire visual world, an effective lettering job has its own visible tricks to guide the reader into experiencing the comic as intended by its creators.
Take The Spire, for instance. It’s an impressive comic in every way, a masterclass in worldbuilding. Much of the credit goes to writer Si Spurrier and artist Jeff Stokely with colorist Andre May for envisioning such a thoroughly detailed setting. However, the characters talk—quite a lot, and in many different ways, with their own very distinct voices. If it weren’t for letterer Steve Wands’ clever contributions, the world and the characters simply wouldn’t have achieved as much originality.
Compare how The Spire protagonist, Sha, talks versus the Gargs. Examine the different fonts.
The difference between the two fonts are meant to invoke a different kind of “hearing” for each. The dialogue of the human (or humanoid) characters in The Spire is lettered in relatively standard font. Wands intends the reader to “hear” these characters as you would hear the voice of anyone on any given day. For the Gargs, however, he uses a different font. This font is squatter, to match the squatness of the Gargs, and a little curlier to match the weirdness of the words themselves. The Gargs are gross. They’re also kind of funny. Thus, the reader “hears” their voices as distinct from, and probably stranger than, the humans’.
This playing with font happens also for another, more minor character. This character speaks exclusively in poetry and the world of The Spire has more than a bit of an Elizabethan flair. To depict this character and his speech patterns, as well as the danger he presents, Wands uses a font that evokes older writing. This font has sharp points and elegant curves, emphasizing the character’s barbed, but sophisticated language.
Those are just the fonts alone, however. It’s also of note that The Spire has an unusual amount of bold words within its dialogue in comparison to many other comics in the same industry. The characters also frequently whisper, a thing even less often seen. To work between these two opposites, Wands uses a wide range of lettering tricks in order to show character mood, vocal distance, and speech patterns.
Compare the two ways Wands shows quiet speech.
When a character in the panel’s focus whispers, the font fades to several lighter shades than standard speech. This lightness translates to the reader as words that have less power behind them, making them “hear” a lower volume. The speech bubble itself, however, remains standard in outline and attachment to the character and other bubbles.
On the other hand, when a character speaks from a distance, the bubble outline lightens in color along with the words. The bubbles are also placed as disembodied across the panel, showing that they belong to no person within the frame. The reader then “hears” someone they can’t see, someone not important to the story, and in doing so relates to the main characters in the panel.
Wands tweaks the bubble outlines for sickly characters too, making them bumpier than those of standard bubbles in order to depict an unsteadiness to their voices. As such, his speech bubbles convey almost as much as information as the actual words.
One last thing worth discussing about The Spire’s complex lettering is how it sets the pace of a character’s speech in relation to to the events occurring around or at them. Compare the closeness of Sha’s speech bubbles to when she’s holding something heavy to when she’s dodging a near-fatal strike.
To properly show her pain, her cries are separated into their own separate bubbles. This is to create the distinction between the vocal exclamations. However, then the bubbles are attached to one another in order to show speed. Each “ow” happens in immediate succession, which the reader “hears” because they read each bubble right after the last with no space between them.
The sword panel, on the other hand, requires the depiction of a pause between her exclamations. Therefore, Wands creates a trail between the first exclamation (“Nf.”) and the second (“Nice.”) Sha dodges and as she does: Nf. After she’s taken the time to appreciate the strike and the reader sees the beat of silence through the trail: Nice.
Nice, indeed, is one word to describe The Spire as a whole. From writer to artist to colorist to letterer, it depends highly on each of its creators in order to present its complex world and tell its story. Although lettering seems a small detail, Wands takes an unusual bulk of responsibility for this particular project. From font choices to character speech patterns to dialogue volume and pacing, readers certainly wouldn’t read The Spire the same way—and perhaps not as well—without his contributions.