I often find myself just hanging out at my local comic book store. I’m not really shopping, though, I usually buy something. I’m really just killing time. I’ve known the owner, Andrew, for a couple of years now, plenty long enough to trust his judgement completely when it comes to comics. He’s a 2nd generation comic freak who’s owned a shop for a pair of decades. He can go from speaking with authority on the best indie titles being released next month to bending your ear far more than it might want to bend on the intricate ins and outs of all those DC crisis storylines. I keep all this held in my mind when I tell him:
“I need something to read.”
You see, I’m one of those folks whose ear doesn’t bend too far when discussing those DC crisis storylines. Or the latest bit of X-Whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a comic snob or a purist for black and white indie stuff. Looking to my left as I write, I see every single trade of Ultimate Spider-Man published on my bookshelf. I just…I get sort of lost in those giant, twisty, turn-y team books with the 30 years of continuity.
“Have you read any Hawkeye at all?” He asked.
“The Avengers guy?” Didn’t he know me at all?
Andrew was already moving across the store to dig through a long box. He handed me a bagged issue.
“It’s not what you think, trust me. Just check it out.” Andrew said to me. “Issue 11. Came out last June.”
The cover was simple, minimalist. A dog walked offstage with his tracks stretching out behind him. It was basically black and white with touches of red. I liked it. My first impression was that, for a pin-up, it probably didn’t take a long time to color. As a person who creates comics and has to worry about things like time spent per page, I can really appreciate not only the art of the piece, but also the simple conservation of effort. Impressed enough, I started flipping through.
Initially, I wasn’t really paying attention. I completely glossed over the title page, which caused me to miss some key information. I’m dumb sometimes. I liked the art. It was straightforward. The color palette is muted. Understated. Plenty of each page was a sort of draftsman’s style of line art simply giving us architecture. Stairs, doorways, kitchens and the like. My project manager’s brain was busy whirring away thinking about how quickly an artist could churn out these pages. How efficiently the colors are used and kept only to panels which really needed them. Then, a bolt of lightning.
What the hell are these weird logic chains with the simple sketching?
Why is the lettering all screwy?
I flipped back a few pages. The title page (or title panel, in this case) was a simple film noir-ish piece of art outlining a body with a dog sniffing around from bird’s-eye view. Pawprints called back to the cover. It was elegant. It reminded me of Hitchcock. Then I saw going down one side of the corpse’s leg, “Pizza Dog in…” and the title, contained within the black outline of the body, “Pizza Is My Business.” I looked up.
“Is this from the dog’s point of view?” I asked.
“Isn’t it awesome?”
I flipped back a few more pages, then forward again. It kinda was. Now that I GOT it, I started to actually read the thing. I was blown away. This was perhaps the greatest single issue of a comic book series I’d ever read. I mean, I knew who Matt Fraction was. And I’d heard of David Aja. But this was something completely different. A full issue of a Marvel book, a character from The Avengers, one prominently featured in a pretty popular movie no less, being told from the dog’s point of view? I was in love.
Only a few more bits that sound like a review: I ended up buying and reading every issue of Hawkeye both leading up to and away from “Pizza Is My Business.” Fraction is a solid writer with an interesting sense of humor. Here’s comicbooked.com’s review of Sex Criminals #4, another fine Fraction book.
Lastly, the work on the first five panels and the last five panels….really fun. Brought this old chestnut of symmetry to mind:
OK, enough with the review. When I read a comic, part of me is enjoying the comic. Another part is like a disgruntled construction worker inspecting the foundation for cracks and the plumbing for leaks. I think a lot about how the book is made. How much time/effort/money did it take to put the art on the page? Then to get it into my hands? I think about this because I love creating comics. I like helping my friends make comics. And I think some folks out there might be interested in the same kind of thing. For this particular issue of this particular book, one thing really stood out for me. The lettering.
Lettering is an oft overlooked part of the creation process. One that many an amateur (myself included) thinks they can go ahead and do on their own. We’re wrong. Lettering is maybe the second most important aspect of sequential storytelling as the lettering must be unobtrusive enough to not disrupt the art, yet gently guide the eye correctly through each panel. A good letterer is key to a story’s success. The lettering in Hawkeye #11 is superb.
In this particular book, we have to separate the logic chain thought processes of Pizza Dog from the lettering. It was obvious to me that the logic chains were done by the artist. The lettering represented not only what the humans of the story were saying, but what Pizza Dog was hearing. Pizza Dog only understands a handful of English words, and the rest is gibberish. Thinking about this for minute, I wonder what that’s like. You’re a letterer. You receive a script where most of the lines of dialog are dashes and dots, with a few words here and there. Where do you even start trying to place balloons?
Examples of Lettering in Hawkeye #11
I was fascinated by this method of communicating an important story element through the creative use of lettering. I wanted to know a bit more. I shot an email out to Chris Eliopoulos, a talented artist in his own right and the fellow who’s listed as letterer for Hawkeye #11 at Marvel.com. Chris was kind enough to engage in a brief correspondence with me to answer a couple of questions. I sent him a note filled with effusive praise (a good way to approach artists) and asked him to describe his work on “Pizza Is My Business.” The answer I got was exactly this:
“To be honest, I barely had anything to do with that issue. That was all David. All I did was put the book together.”
So, putting aside that fact the merely putting the book together is in itself a big job and extremely important, I thought he had misunderstood me. I replied back explaining that I understood that the “dog-think” sketches were Aja, I was referring specifically to the actual lettering. From the human characters. Again:
“Literally all David.”
I was pretty interested at this point. I mean, when you have a letterer on a book, they like to letter. How did this come about? Chris explained to me that they had discussed it and that they didn’t think a dog hearing a human talk would look as smooth and polished as Chris’s lettering. So, to keep it rough and to separate it from the other issues, David Aja hand-lettered all of it. I didn’t think I could love the issue any more, but I was wrong.
Hand lettering (as the webcomic and debate on the forum I linked will show you) is a disappearing art in the comics world. It is faster and cheaper to use a program with preset fonts to letter. Personally, I’ve had comics digitally lettered and I was happy with the results, but hand-lettered stuff just has a certain something that sets it apart….Kinda like a comic written, in every respect, from the viewpoint of the main character’s dog.