Caitlin Yarsky isn’t a comic book letterer by profession, but it was her lettering as much as her spectacular illustrations in Coyotes from Image Comics that caught my eye. In fact, her unique lettering style is what prompted my recent hyper focus on the art of comic book lettering in this “By the Letters” series.
Typically, lettering is considered an invisible art, despite its prominence on the page, quietly guiding the reader along from panel to panel. Yarsky’s stylistic choices defy many of the accepted lettering tenets, shifting away from the subtlety typical of lettering, while enhancing each character and the overall story. As the artist of the comics she’s worked on, this is a liberty that she uses to utmost effect, not only enhancing her own art and the story, but also spotlighting just how important lettering is as part of the bigger picture.
How did you get into comics, both as a reader and as a professional?
I was never a huge comic fan, as far as the more mainstream superhero genre goes. I loved more indie stuff, anything from Maus to Calvin and Hobbes. I really fell in love with comics when a friend in my freshman year of college lent me the first volume of The Sandman. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and really opened my eyes to what was possible in the medium.
Who are the creators that influence and inspire your work?
I’m influenced by masters of the field like Matteo Scalera, Sergio Toppi, Greg Tocchini, Joshua Middleton, James Harren, Fiona Staples, Jill Thompson, and Skottie Young. But I started in fine art and illustration, so I have a lot of influences outside of comics, including Brian Froud, Alan Lee, Karla Ortiz, Wylie Beckert, Arthur Rackham, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, and animators like Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki.
What inspired the story of The Changeable Harper Finn? Will we see more of Harper?
I’ve always loved old Irish mythology and folklore, ever since my stepmom gave me her copy of Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. They showed the darker, more original world of Faerie and the artwork was unbelievably beautiful. So I wrote a story about a Changeling named Harper Finn, and while that first chapter has a lot of flaws it was the beginning of my pursuit of comics and what got me the job illustrating Coyotes. I am totally re-thinking the story and world, but yes! I am working on a new Harper Finn comic.
Harper Finn features a very unique approach to lettering and visually stunning use of dialogue balloons, something that has extended into your work on Coyotes. Furthermore, your choices don’t follow the typical conventions of lettering. Most notably, you use lower case letters in Coyotes. How do you determine your font choices, how you use them, and the different looks for each character’s words?
Thanks very much! Well to be honest, when I was doing the Harper Finn story I was so new that I had no idea what the rules were or anything, so I thought I would give every character their own typeface, their own bubble style and even their own bubble colors. I’m glad I tried it, but I think in order for the story to read smoothly, I need to scale down how much variance is in the lettering and bubbles. For Harper and for Coyotes, I took a lot of inspiration from The Sandman lettering, which at times is wildly different depending on the character and seems to say something about the character’s personality. I’m still working on making that more subtle. As far as lower case lettering, I’m not sure I will do it again, because I’ve heard it’s easier to read all caps lettering. But I do enjoy trying unconventional fonts that speak to the style of the art and the mood of the story. For example, the Duchess wears Victorian clothes, so I kept with that vibe in the dialogue, using old Victorian-inspired shapes and patterns, and a bit of a throwback to some of the frames around dialogue in silent films.
What does your lettering process look like? Do you plot the dialogue into the page as you are illustrating? Or does that come after?
A general idea of where letters go will be in my mind as I sketch, and I’ll make sure to leave room as I start penciling and inking. It’s tricky because writers often make changes after the art is made, so I just try to leave enough wiggle room for when bubbles need to be added/subtracted/edited.
Is comic book lettering something you’re interested in pursuing outside of your own illustrated works?
Well, I just love drawing so much that it’s hard to find time to dedicate to the craft of lettering as a profession on its own. I’ll do it for my comics as much as I can, but there are far more experienced letterers out there who I’d love to ask to work with me in the future.
Does your lettering work extend into your work in game design?
I’d say any of my typography skills I owe to my 10 years in game design, yup! I learned all of that on the job, about hierarchy and typeface, leading and kerning, etc.
What books/comics are you reading right now?
A bit late to the game, but I’m really loving Rumble right now, and I’m amazed by James Harren’s art. I’ve been playing catch-up as a comics consumer since getting into the industry, but it’s hard to make time to read ’em when you’re making ’em. I also love fantasy and sci-fi books, and the last fantasy books that have really blown me away are the Name of the Wind and the Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. I haven’t enjoyed fantasy that much in years; it’s a masterful series called the Kingkiller Chronicle. And I’m among the desperate (but respectfully patient) fans waiting for the third book to come out.
Aside from Coyotes, what other projects can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I am working on a new comic series with Sean Lewis that is yet to be announced, as well as my own Harper Finn story. Other than that, who knows! I’m just so psyched and grateful to be in the industry now and can’t wait to make and share more. I do have high hopes of one day doing a Sandman (or any Gaiman) comic, as his writing has just the right balance of darkness, mystery, and humanity for me.