Letterers are some of the many unsung heroes that help shape the comics we love. Word and thought balloons, sound effects (SFX), and narrative boxes appear throughout the pages of each book, but readers tend to take those storytelling devices for granted, without realizing just how much of our reading experience those seemingly simple letters and shapes control. Guiding our eyes from panel to panel and creating fluidity by melding the writer’s words with the artist’s images, letterers perform a vital function within the comic industry.
Troy Peteri has been lettering comics for over 15 years. You’ll find his name attached to a vast number of regular titles across several publishers, including Marvel, Dynamite, DC, and Top Cow. His career as a letterer is something Peteri’s die-hard comic-reading younger self would consider a dream job, but it wasn’t necessarily part of his plan when he was growing up.
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Peteri made his way to Wizard World, portfolio in hand.
“I met Richard Starkings, founder of Comicraft,” Peteri explains in an interview with WWAC. “We started corresponding afterward, and I flew out to L.A. for an interview, originally just to be a an assistant/runner/paste-up guy, but I ended up learning lettering right away, and immediately enjoyed it.”
In his early days, Peteri spent two years learning his craft on titles like Spider-Man, all the while enjoying a, “whoooa, I can’t believe I’m getting paid to work on a Spider-Man comic! Take that, high school guidance counselor,” feeling. As a self-proclaimed “huge old-school Marvel super-fan,” working on titles for his all-time favourite characters, Daredevil and Spider-Man, provided lots of opportunities to learn and to geek out over the experience.
For those who love comics and wish to follow a similar career path, Peteri warns that the industry is reasonably saturated with letterers, so to truly define yourself, his advice is “to study graphic design and layout, and really get versed in different kinds of art and art styles. Not just comic book art, and not just the era that drew you into being a fan. And then try to incorporate those influences into your style, so you don’t look like your lettering could be done by anyone other than yourself.”
Speaking from obvious experience, Peteri attributes his skilled lettering to the fact that he incorporates his various artistic interests into his work, matching style to story as appropriate, all the while considering how the book as a whole will look, including the cover design and credits page, as well as the individual panels and pages.
“For example, some of the kinds of art I’m into are mid-century modern and classic paperback illustration,” Peteri says, “so if I’m working on a crime book or a period piece, I’ll try to keep it simple and organic and ‘sloppy,’ as if it were a book from that original era.”
Peteri’s tools of the trade are Adobe Illustrator, with some Photoshop usage on SFX and logos, as well as a healthy supply of Post-It Notes for doodling and planning. SFX sometimes get the hand drawn treatment on his Wacom tablet. Though he doesn’t have any particular fonts that he’s fond of, like many professional letterers, Peteri has several go-to fonts, most of which are designed by Comicraft or Nate Piekos’s Blambot.
Peteri’s lettering work appears in a myriad of comics, with each book featuring its own unique style. In some cases, a single issue can feature distinctively different dialogue and narration for different aspects of the story. Determining what typeface, shapes, word colouring, etc., best complement the story are all part of a letterer’s job.
“In some cases, I’m following the footsteps of the people who’ve lettered a book before me, like when I‘m working on stuff from DC or Marvel. But I’m more partial to letting the style of the artist or the writer or the genre of the book itself dictate what I’m gonna do.”
This means that, with a digitally painted sci-fi series, for example, he’ll favour more complicated captions and SFX and fonts that suit the “deliberately cold, mechanical style” of the title. “But if it’s a crime book with traditional artwork, I’ll make it look like I lettered it by hand and the SFX can then look like the quick slash of a brush.”
Having been in the industry for so long, Peteri has honed his skills over time and his work has evolved. “I think I’ve become a lot more esoteric and less ‘traditional’ as the styles changed within comics itself in the last decade or so,” he says.
Working with Image Comics is an experience he describes as a thrill. “Image Comics has SUCH a wide variety of genres and art styles, that it enables me to do more weird stuff!” He cites Paul Dini and Kenneth Rocafort’s Madame Mirage as a particularly fun book to work on. “It enabled me to do a buncha strange stuff with the lettering, and the artwork is so ridiculously cool, that I eagerly awaited working on every next issue.”
But, as with any job, there are down sides. Letterers are typically the last people to touch a book, receiving each issue after the writing, pencils, inks, and colours are complete. In some cases, according to Piekos in a 13th Dimension interview, the letterer is working simultaneously with the colourist to complete the issue. Although a skilled letterer can turn a single issue around with a day’s worth of work, being the last person on the line when given an unrealistically tight deadline can be quite insulting, according to Peteri, and can make him understandably irate.
“To me it says: ‘your job isn’t too important to the process, so we just need you to get it done immediately. We’ll get you all the files tomorrow, and the book was due yesterday.’”
Peteri also points out the more obvious technical aspects that arise “when writers or artists don’t understand how many words fit in a word balloon, or how many word balloons fit into a panel.” Recently, other letterers took to Twitter to express their frustration with the lack of word processing formatting standards that resulted in writers who misuse tabs versus indents, for example, creating additional hours of unnecessary busy work for letterers.
Though he’s dealt with such issues throughout his career. Peteri has had the good fortune to work with many great professionals, particularly writer/artist combos who have great synergy and make the process pleasant for everyone involved.
His years of experience also mean Peteri is able to work a lot faster, giving himself more freedom to be a little “punk rock,” meaning that he can play around more with “strange-looking fonts and hand-drawn, organic balloons, and messy SFX.”
SFX can be particularly fun to letter. He doesn’t have a favourite when it comes to the SFX he’s used, but getting to letter the classics like Wolverine’s SNIKT or Spider-Man’s THHHWIP “makes me feel like a lucky fanboy, rather than a comics professional.”
When it comes to the various books he’s worked on, there aren’t any particular ones that stand out for him as the best example of his craft. But the experience of lettering itself has been immensely fulfilling for Peteri. He marks his work on over 100 issues of Top Cow’s Witchblade as a major highlight, “because it enabled me to work with a ton of great artists and I grew to really love the character and her world.”
He’s also proud of his recent work on Liam Sharp’s Batman and Wonder Woman mini-series (“Because it’s Batman! And Wonder Woman! By Liam Sharp!”), as well as lettering Darkseid for last year’s Jack Kirby tribute book (“That may have been the most fun I’ve had working on a book in a few years”). He’s very much looking forward to Marc Silvestri’s upcoming Batman series, and is especially proud of his long-running stint on Top Cow’s Postal (“Love the creative team and I love the book itself”).
The next time you’re reading your favourite comic, take a moment to appreciate the placement of that thought balloon, consider how a well-placed SKARAKOW can make or break a powerful moment, or think about just how much the right emphasis on a word can change the meaning of a dialogue balloon.
And be sure to take a good look at the credits page to see if it’s Troy Peteri’s letters that are guiding your reading experience.