Thank You, Text: Letterer Ariana Maher Never Stops Learning

Sample pages from various comics

When Ariana Maher first started testing the waters of professional comic lettering, the excitement of seeing her work published was undermined by a few people who felt that exposure ought to have been enough to satisfy her. Now that she has more experience in the field, she knows better when it comes to establishing terms that better reflect the time, skill, and effort she puts into her work. Those negative experiences initially made her shy away from the more prominent aspects of the comic book industry, focusing instead on webcomics and anthologies created by people she trusted.

“By focusing on the aspects I enjoyed, by seeing it as simply a fun hobby at first, I felt safer.” Maher explains in an interview with WWAC, “I didn’t venture out of my known circle very often. On the bright side, that gave me time to learn and improve as I developed my skills with those who continue to encourage my work.”

Lettering was, as she says, more of a hobby for Maher initially, inspired by Scott McCloud’s Making Comics. Plus, she still has a full-time job to consider. Maher’s Bachelor of Arts in Japanese Language and successfully passing the N1 on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test didn’t exactly set her up for this career path. Lettering was, instead, a chance to step away from the stress of her translation and interpretation work, allowing her to use a different part of her brain.

Though her day job skill sets differ greatly from her lettering, there are still elements that she could transpose into lettering. “There’s a lot more to lettering than placing text,” Maher points out. “My experiences as an international coordinator helps when it comes to keeping track of multiple projects, maintaining healthy correspondence with creative teams, and generally staying on top of things to set and meet reasonable expectations.”

“It would have been incredible to have an extensive educational background in design and lettering, but I would be a different person than who I am now if I hadn’t decided to go into Japanese studies —different friends, different experiences, different lifestyle — and I wouldn’t trade what I’ve got right now for the world. So I don’t really bother with the ‘what ifs.’ I’m content with both aspects of my career, which is good, because I don’t have a lot of time free to fret over it.”

In 2015, Maher was asked to letter an Image Comics series. That was when she started to consider comic book lettering as a viable career path. Having developed greater business acumen and design skills, she had the confidence she needed to press forward. That’s not to say she didn’t make mistakes along the way as a freelancer, “but I’ve been better at recovering and learning from them since I’m now more invested in being a letterer.”

Now she’s made a name for herself — though she shouldn’t be mistaken for Ariana Grande — with her word balloons gracing the pages of books from Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, and many more.  Her experience and success has allowed her to give back where she can, offering consultation and advice for aspiring creators and letterers who want to improve their own craft, while regularly promoting and advocating for the work letterers do, which is often taken for granted.

Maher’s skills are largely self-taught through online tutorials and research. “I was far more experimental at first—trying out ideas and failing often, only to try out something different to see if that worked instead. I don’t think I lettered poorly, but it took me a lot of time to get things done right. While taking that extra time, I figured out weird tricks like how to incorporate texture into my balloons and more useful tricks like how best to use clipping masks.”

While she was developing her technical skills, she realized that she still had much to learn when it came to effectively freelancing to get the most of out of her time spent on each project. “Thanks to advice from great letterers in our community, I think I’ve grown more consistent now, so I know when to experiment and when to keep it steady. There’s still so much I want to practice and learn. Hand lettering and how to create fonts interest me greatly, but my current study is how to develop effective shortcuts to trim down my lettering time and master time-consuming tasks more effectively.” Maher admits that she has tried her hand at hand lettering dialogue, but “no one is allowed to see the results of that,” she says, though she vows to keep practicing. “In my view, hand lettering a comic is more time-consuming than the usual methods, so those that do dedicate themselves to hand lettering have my deepest respect and I hope they charge considerably more than usual for such hard work.”

Despite her misgivings, Maher has had success with hand lettering when it comes to sound effects, which she describes as “loud, fun and usually messy.” She started developing the skill while working on Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain’s Firebug from Image Comics, and continues to cultivate and implement the skill.

While Maher believes that she still has much to learn as she perfects her craft, she has more than enough experience now to pass on her knowledge, or to guide those interested in learning about lettering to veterans like Nate Piekos and Jim Campbell, who both provide a wealth of knowledge through articles and other resources on their websites. Some people simply have questions to ask, which Maher is happy to answer to the best of her knowledge, or, if she doesn’t know the answer, find out from someone who does. “It’s always worth my time to help other letterers out, because those who I admire have taken time to answer my questions when I needed it, too. Letterers want to see comics lettered well.”

Though it doesn’t happen as often, Maher does provide consultation on lettering style for webcomics, which can differ greatly from what we see in a typical comic book. “Webcomics and similar indie comics are often made by only one or two people and the design practices for lettering do not always relate to what they’ve learned from all other aspects of comics creation. The writer, artist, colorist, and letterer all look at the same two-page comic spread differently, so if all of those aspects are being handled by just one or two creators on an indie project, then it helps to consult someone whenever they feel uncertain. I can help them understand what works for lettering and why, as well as how best to apply those ideas while they are lettering over their own art. I can even letter a few pages and then walk them through my design decisions to give them an idea of how best to get into that mindset. There’s a lot that letterers know about comics that other creators have never considered before, so I believe our perspective helps.”

It’s difficult for Maher to pick just one lettering project that she’s particularly proud of, but as seems to be a consistent theme with her, the one she finally settles on for this interview is all about what skills she learned and continues to hone through the process of the book’s creation. “Small Town Witch: Love & Wonder by Alex Singer and Jayd Aït-Kaci is a magical noir graphic novel formatted like one would see in a fully illustrated pulp magazine. I had to teach myself Adobe InDesign from scratch so that I could compose the story over the Jayd’s rough drafts for her art spreads. And it wasn’t simply putting columns of text in—the placements had to be dynamic and Jayd would often re-sketch her drafts based on how the text occupied the space on the page. It was a fascinating collaborative process, where I updated the lettering placements with each iteration of the art until we finalized the work.”

Small Town Witch: Love & Wonder by Alex Singer and Jayd Aït-Kaci

By the time Small Town Witch was complete, Maher had mastered InDesign, which has, in turn, vastly improved her workflow.

It’s clear that Maher is an eager learner, always looking to improve her skills, but she’s not taking anything for granted. Now her attention has turned to being more mindful of her work space and work habits. She’s taking Kriota Willberg’s words to heart, practicing the different stretches described in Draw Stronger: Self Care for Cartoonists & Visual Artists. The cartoonist and creator’s work has helped other letterers, including Nate Piekos, and will hopefully help more artists preserve their skills through better self-care practices.

Lettering remains an invisible art, but more and more people in and outside of the industry are starting to take note and give credit where credit is deserved, so be sure to keep an eye out for Ariana Maher’s name popping up on more and more of your favourite comics.

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Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.