An incredible amount of work and attention to detail goes into lettering a comic that the average reader is likely not aware of, despite the fact that it is the lettering of a comic that can help guide the reading experience from panel to panel. Nate Piekos has been working in comics lettering, typography, and graphic design for over fifteen years, after graduating from Rhode Island College in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in graphic design. His name appears on many, many comic credit pages and earned him several accolades, and he is the mastermind of the font website Blambot. He is also the creator of the webcomics, Atland, and The Berserker’s Daughter, and the online choose-your-0wn-adventure novel, Dead Ends. His expertise has helped shape the comic book industry, from the biggest titles, to indie and webcomics.
In my research, I discovered several interesting articles written by or about Piekos and his work as a letterer, including this one on how he created a font to mimic Wendy Pini’s handwriting for Elfquest and went on to letter the story’s final quest. Taking time out of his busy schedule, Piekos answered a few questions about several of these pieces, as well as all the helpful tools Blambot has to offer.
Two years ago, you offered a list of 13 things to help readers like me better appreciate the work letterers do, including the evolution of lettering practices, just what letters a letterer is responsible for, industry specific terms, and more. Do you have any updates to that list, based on changes in the industry/technology/etc.?
No changes—it all still holds true, and letterers are still trying to reinforce those standards, but it’s a hard sell when lettering is an “invisible art.” I was thinking about this recently when I went to see a superhero movie; there was comic book lettering on-screen throughout the film, and clearly no one hired or consulted an actual comic book letterer to create that lettering. The very specific conventions of comic book lettering were ignored. I can’t think of a comic book movie that’s gotten it right yet.
You recently introduced “Contextual Alternate Feature” for your pro dialogue fonts. Can you break this down into layman’s terms?
Contextual Alternates and Opentype Autoligatures are ways that the font designer can program a font to react a certain way as you type. A little behind the scenes magic. My new pro dialogue fonts contain six different versions of each letter, three versions of each number, etc., so that as you type, they seem to swap out so the whole thing looks more handwritten and organic. Last year I created my first font featuring all these perks, called Collect Em All BB.
Blambot has been instrumental in refining the comic lettering craft and the industry as a whole, but your focus is not only on the big publishing companies. By offering free fonts to the indie creator community, tips and tricks, instructional videos, and more, you’re making the industry more accessible to everyone who is passionate about making comics. What inspired this approach to your business? Why do you feel it’s important?
When I was in design school, I was making my own photocopied comics and passing them out to friends. There were no affordable comic fonts at the time, so I started figuring out how to make my own. After graduating, it took me about six years to “break into” comics, so I know what it’s like to have a passion, but not have the resources. I decided then that I would always support folks in my situation. I got lucky, and this has been my full-time career for almost 15 years, but I’ve never forgotten. At the same time, I’m raising the overall quality of comic book lettering; teaching people how to do it well. That’s important to me, too.
Earlier this year, you worked with Kriota Wilberg on an interview regarding work-related injuries you have struggled with. How has your work evolved to accommodate and hopefully prevent further injury? What advice would you offer to amateurs and other professionals to avoid or mitigate such concerns for themselves?
I made it a mission to make my office as ergonomic as it could possibly be; sit-stand desk, Herman Miller Embody and Aeron chairs, I retired my Wacom Cintiq for an Intuos tablet, and on and on. But most importantly, I don’t work myself to death anymore. I work a reasonable day with breaks and stretching. I will no longer kill myself for my job. My advice would be: there’s this bogus notion in comics that it’s heroic or “just something we have to put up with,” to do over-nighters, or work all weekend. But this will catch up to you. It’s cumulative. I’ve shown some physical therapists the typical workspace and body positions that most comic creators are in all day, and they were horrified. I wish someone had warned me in my 20s. But people don’t pay attention to these things until it’s them personally suddenly going through the pain and expense. The good news is I’m better, but it’s taken years just to get to “better.”
What inspires the creation of a new font? Typically, how long does the process take?
Inspiration comes from a lot of places, but usually necessity! I’ll get a new project to letter and realize I don’t have a font that would fit a certain function, or work well with a certain style of art. Of course, it’s too late to use on that project, but I file away the idea for future development. The process can vary widely based on the font, usually anywhere from a few weeks, to a few months. The more complex the font, the longer it takes. I usually start out with good old ink and bristol board, then move to Adobe Illustrator to do the bulk of the design work, and finally to Fontlab to make the actual software.
Is there a particular font creation project that stands out most for you, for good or bad reasons?
Some of my favorites include the font used by Charles Schulz and Associates, which was eventually turned into the new PEANUTS logo that you see everywhere now, including the 2015 animated movie. They hired me to develop an entire alphabet from some of Schulz’s drawings. Another is the font, Might Makes Right BB, which I feel like was a high benchmark for me. I’ve designed hundreds of fonts, but up until that one, I’d never been more satisfied with the end product.
As far as low points, I have a hard time looking at my older catalog; I only see the flaws. I wasn’t good enough at kerning, or the design needed more work, etc. But luckily, there’s always some people out there who really like them.
What are your tools of the trade? How has your process evolved over time?
I’m predominantly digital like everyone else: my studio has a primary 27” iMac with a dual monitor set up (another 27” of desktop). I use a Wacom Intuos tablet. I also have a secondary iMac (truth be told, it’s mostly for Netflix and music while I work…) and a MacBook Pro that’s basically just to check email when I travel. For software, I letter, design logos, and fonts in Adobe Illustrator, I digitally hand letter in Photoshop, and I build font software in Fontlab. But I still have a complete hand lettering set up in the office: my dad’s old drafting board from the ‘70s, Bristol board, ink, and all manner of modern and vintage lettering tools. And yes, I still use them! Mostly for concept work that eventually becomes fonts.
My process is now all about streamlining. I’m constantly chasing down ways to shave time off the process of creating and focus more on the creating itself. All kinds of shortcut keys, programmable actions in Illustrator, etc. I barely even look down at the keyboard, or use the tools menu in Illustrator. My left hand operates by muscle memory on all those shortcuts, while my right holds the stylus for my tablet.
Name three things that you love about your work as a comic book letterer, and one thing that you wish could change/vanish.
What I love:
1.) That I’m my own boss. I set my own hours. I grew up at the foot of my dad’s drafting board; he’s a self-employed architect, and I knew even then that I wanted to call my own shots.
2.) I get to work in an industry I’ve loved since I was a pre-teen. I get to work with my heroes; people I looked up to as a kid are now people I talk to all the time. And also, working with my contemporaries, who are amazingly talented. We all came up together, and there’s a bond that comes with that. And of course, now I’m old enough (43) to work with the people coming up under me. It’s truly an honor to hear, “I’ve been following your work since I was a teenager, and you’re the reason why I wanted to do this.”
3.) That my work is appreciated by the folks buying the comics and my fonts. I’m so lucky that those people afford me the opportunity to make a living doing what I love.
As to what I would change in the industry, I touched on above; comic creators are all too willing to sacrifice their health. And sadly, there are publishers out there who realize that this works in their favor, and treat freelancers as disposable and interchangeable. We can’t change that unless we all communicate better, and refuse to treat ourselves, or be treated, that way.