By the Letters: Nate Piekos’ Word on The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering

A drawing of something exploring and the sound effect "BATOOOM" bursting out of it

With over a decade in the comics industry, Blambot’s award-winning typographer, letterer, and graphic designer Nate Piekos has created more than 300 fonts. We see many of these fonts every day, though we may not realize it as we surf the internet, play video games, shop for products, skip through ads, and, of course, read comics. Many letterers consider Piekos to be their inspiration for taking up the role and look to Blambot’s regularly shared tips and tricks to hone their craft. As a prominent expert in his field, Piekos explains that he was often asked if he would compile his information in a handy book. Returning to our By the Letters series for the third time, Piekos tells WWAC that he initially didn’t think such a task was possible. Given all his other work, there simply wasn’t enough time in his day. “But one day in October of 2019 someone tweeted that question and I just decided it had to get done. Everything written up to that point was either somewhat outdated or only covered the bare minimum of information. There needed to be an exhaustive reference guide to digital comic book lettering. I would just have to work on it slowly after my daily chores were complete. Little did I know I was adding a second full-time job that would last two years!”

Since the announcement in March 2021, Piekos has been quite busy with what has clearly become a labor of love, as evidenced by the progress shared on social media or in the Blambot newsletter. Originally announced at 200 pages, the final product, available this month from Image Comics, comes in at 256 pages and is an exhaustive look at the work of the unsung heroes of comics. Through its 10 chapters, The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering details “everything from creating lettering templates, emotive dialogue, and dynamic sound effects to developing design skills and building a lettering career in the comic industry.”

 

Featuring a foreword by letterer Tom Orzechowski, The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering offers an introductory section that defines the role of a letterer, spells out what a letterer can expect as part of the comics industry, and details Piekos’ typical day (which drives home just how much effort he put into this guide, on top of his regular work). Piekos isn’t shy about telling it like it is. Lettering can often be a thankless job, with tight deadlines and publishing expectations that don’t respect the level of detail and time a letterer needs to apply to each page.

He briefly speaks about the significance of discipline, dedication, and the ability to multitask, which are important to any freelance role. He also touches on the importance of a healthy balance of personal life, and a focus on mental well-being, as well as physical health. The latter is something he’s spoken in-depth on in the past after struggling with work-related injuries that could have ended his career. Thankfully, as Piekos shared in an earlier interview with WWAC, he has been able to heal from that experience and takes preventative measures, such as creating an ergonomic workspace, to avoid experiencing such a situation again.

Still, Piekos describes lettering as a “fun job” and, given the two years of hard work he’s put into creating the guide, it’s one he absolutely loves. While he wants to be honest with aspiring letterers about the difficult parts, he closes the introduction with positives:

“…the rewards for your hard work can be many. You’ll be getting paid to do something you presumably love. Every day you’ll have the chance to hone your design skills and see your work get better and better. You’ll develop life-long bonds of friendship with other creators—people just as passionate as you are. You’ll be contributing to the comic book characters you read about and obsessed over as a kid—lending your talent to the next generation of stories. You’ll be helping to create new fantasy realms for the next crop of readers . . . inspiring kids to follow their passion just as you did! You may even get to work with the legendary creators that shaped your love for the medium. You’ll walk into comic book shops every month, pick up comics off the shelf, and see your work presented to the world… with your name in the credits.”

With the final print copy of The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering now in his hands, Piekos describes the feeling as “Bizarre! I’m excited and terrified and relieved all at once. The comps showed up at my house yesterday and I held it in my hands for the first time. It’s real!” The response to the book has been bigger than he expected, with more than 60% of the first print run already sold as pre-orders, prompting a 25% increase in the print run.

Copies are also getting into the hands of creators who are already singing its praises. “I wish I had this book when I first started. Looking at it makes me realize how much I don’t know about comics lettering,” tweets Umbrella Academy’s Gabriel Bá. Praise like this is wonderful to Piekos. As much as this guide is essential and specific to letterers, it’s important to him to see other comics professionals reading it to better understand the significant role letters play in what is often the last step in the comic creation process.

“I feel like other pros who aren’t necessarily letterers don’t have much detailed information on what we actually do or how much graphic design goes into our job,” explains Piekos. “I hope this sheds some light on the process and the value of having a good letterer on their teams. Since the advent of digital lettering, we’ve been pushed further back in the process and lumped in with the production end of things by folks who don’t understand what we do. A good letterer is a graphic designer who can elevate your project. A bad letterer can ruin it.” Piekos stresses the value of crosstraining within the industry to improve communication and streamline project workflow. “Even being able to use each other’s verbal shorthand is helpful.”

I’d argue that comic readers should take a look at this guide as well to better appreciate the work that goes into creating the SNIKTs, SKARAKOWs, THWIPs, and other sound effects that have come to mean so much to us.

 

A letterer is always making very deliberate choices about the fonts they use and how they are displayed on the page to help guide the reader. Obviously, Piekos has been no less discerning when putting together The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering. “The body copy font is called Budrick BB, which I designed specifically with this book in mind,” he explains. “Body copy fonts are not my forte, but I was really happy with this one. Simple, yet distinct, and easy on the eyes in large blocks. I also used Thunderclap BB and Home Planet BB for chapter headers–a very heavy font and a very thin font. They look great together. For supplemental text on a lot of the graphic examples I used Susurrus BB, a condensed sans typeface which stood out, but complemented Budrick BB. For section headers I used Ready for Anything BB, one of my favorite comic dialogue fonts just to keep a comic book vibe. At its core, this is a textbook. Most of my decisions on design were to ensure this was not flashy. It’s instructive and clear.”

This is the kind of attention to detail that you can expect throughout the book. At 256 pages, this is clearly a comprehensive read. But is 256 pages enough to gather up all that knowledge? “The plan was originally for 160 pages,” says Piekos. “Then it ballooned (pun intended) to 200. Then 256. There wasn’t much that I cut for space, and what I cut tended to be subjects covering personal choice rather than standard conventions in the profession. So I’m happy with what’s covered. It’s got all the foundations. But I’m sure I missed something.”

A description of word balloons

Speaking of balloons, Chapter Five of The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering is entirely dedicated to this, ending the heated “balloons versus bubbles” debate that has haunted the comics industry. But for fun and because I just can’t let it go, I had to ask… If both the words “balloon” and “bubble” disappeared from the English language, what word might Piekos consider using instead?

“Cumuli? Legendary cartoonist Mort Walker wrote a book called The Lexicon of Comicana, where he gave names to all the ephemera involved in cartooning, much of which involved lettering. I think he used the term cumuli in there somewhere. I’d have to dig it out of the Blambot library to check, though. That sounds good to me.”

Indeed it does and we’re happy to add it to our list.

Series NavigationBy the Letters: An Interview with Troy Peteri >>
Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

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

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