In our previous interview, Nate Piekos shared his processes and passions within the world of comic book lettering. He also expressed his disappointment in a recent superhero movie that clearly had not consulted a professional comic book letterer to ensure the authenticity of their film’s comic book aesthetic. The film Piekos was referring to is, of course, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a movie that elevates the concept of translating comic books into the big screen medium. But, while Into the Spider-Verse is an excellent movie for many reasons, it fails to follow some of the basic tenets of the medium it is working from.
As a long time typographer, letterer, graphic designer, and the creator of the font resource site, Blambot, Piekos knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the things Into the Spider-Verse missed. “The number one ‘tell’ that actual comic book letterers weren’t consulted on the lettering in a comic book movie is the personal pronoun error with the letter ‘I.’ In comics, there are two version of the letter I; a version with crossbars at the top and bottom used almost exclusively for personal pronouns (I’d, I’ve, I’ll, etc.), and a plain, ‘slash I’ used for everything else.”
This is the first tip that appears on Blambot’s Better Letterer! page, which is full of a series of resources to help letterers improve their craft. The average movie goer—and even the average comic reader—may not have noticed this particular error, but that does not make it excusable. This aspect of comic book lettering is more or less an industry standard. As more and more comics transcend to television and film, often taking very specific elements of the comic pages and panels with them, getting this simple component right should be a no brainer when it comes to ensuring the authenticity of the page to screen translation.
Piekos cites poor kerning as another issue with the lettering he’s seen on screen. This refers to the adjustment of the negative space between letters. In certain letter combinations, kerning that has not been adjusted can result in words that look disjointed due to what appears to be too much space between the letters. Through his work, Piekos has identified over 12,000 letter combinations where kerning can be a problem. Using programs like Fontlab, designers can adjust kerning during the font creation process, so that letterers do not have to do this manually when lettering a comic book. Through trial and error, Piekos’ font development process has incorporated many of these letter combinations to help make lettering easier for users.
But wait, there’s more! “There’s also a tendency to approach comic lettering as if all of it should look like the over-the-top, corny lettering from the ’60s Batman TV show,” explains Piekos. “Designers not familiar with actual comics tend to play the ‘goofy card’ when they’re hired to design something that needs to look ‘comic-booky.'”
Despite its importance to the comic book medium, the fact that lettering remains an invisible art is evident in the fact that comic book movies continue to make these mistakes. “To be honest, a real letterer could clear up 90% of their errors in a 20 minute conversation with the designers,” says Piekos. That’s not a particularly profitable consultation gig for a comic book letterer, but it goes to show how easily the role is dismissed, despite the critical function lettering plays in comic books. “[It’s] all the more exasperating that it would take a single, simple conversation to improve the quality of lettering in comic book movies.”
As, perhaps, a small consolation, Piekos’ work does actually appear in comic book movies and TV shows in a different way, thanks to the font licensing options Blambot provides. “Fans of my work tell me they spot my fonts regularly, but I like to verify them myself before I mention them,” notes Piekos, who did spot his fonts in Into the Spider-Verse, as well as the trailer for Glass.
The popularity of comics in the mainstream media ought to be a point of pride for comic lovers and creators alike, but for Piekos, his feelings remain mixed because the element of comics that is most important to him remains under appreciated. “I love seeing the translation of the medium in which I work appearing in movies, but as it’s mostly disappointing that it’s almost never executed properly, it’s usually not something I look forward to. I wish that wasn’t the case.”