As of writing this article and about a year an a half into publishing my web comic, This is Pi Day, I’ve switched lettering fonts no less than three times.
I’m just about to switch for a fourth time.
In the era of hand-drawn and hand-lettered comics, a font was –bluntly– the artist’s printing style. All caps? Neat. Scribbles. Expressive. Clean. Uniform. Varied. Messy. Tilted. Rushed. A thousand different adjectives could probably be listed to outline the variety of options available to the hand-letterer of a classic strip.
In the era of digital comics, I like many other artists before me, have looked to the web to choose, download, install, and nudge into the framework of our art a font that blends into the process.
Why Use a A Font?
My art is entirely based in vector graphics. I have in recent strips dabbled in hand lettering some of the more expressive bits of text. A “GAH!” or a “AHGHHK!” as my character falls off of her bicycle becomes a blurting bit of background drawing, firm black letters that I mark out as part of the scene.
But for the bulk of my text I fall back to using a font because of one reason: simplicity.
Simple quick layouts.
Simple consistent lettering.
Simple adjustments and tweaking to my scripts.
I need simple because drawing a comic is not my full time job. Drawing a comic is something I squeeze into the time-gaps in my busy life, so if I needed to hand-letter every strip, then tweak that lettering to match the style of my art process every time I massaged the script, I would be lucky to produce one comic per month.
Font equates to simplicity which means I’m faster and more productive.
Also, a font package, when used effectively, becomes part of the visual identity of your comic. It becomes part of the look and feel that define your style. People when they read your comic may ignore some of the fine details of the artwork, but I’d bet most of them read the words. Most of them use the font.
A font is usually the most legible option.
A font is reliable.
A font can be used across your art, your website, your printed materials, whatever, to create a cohesive characterization of your work.
So Why NOT Use a A Font?
Alas, one thing that has never sat right with me about my font choices, and why I’ve switched three (about to be four) times, is that a font is someone else’s art.
Maybe it’s a free font you downloaded off an internet site. Maybe you’ve actually bought a license. Maybe it was just something you found on the pulldown font menu in your laptop. Maybe it was made by a corporation. Or maybe some struggling artist hand-designed the font you’ve now chosen to letter your strip…
Whatever that font is, chances are good that it’s someone else’s art… invading your strip.
I’m all for synergistic design, using multiple tools, concepts, scraps, samples, or styles to create something new. But, the font thing has always bugged me.
A font is generic.
A font is limited to what the font creator made.
A font may be owned by someone and you may not actually have permission to publish something using the font you’ve been incorporating into your work for years!
Making Your Own Font
I will disclose that the reason I’m writing this post now is simple. During a summer hiatus, and as I prepare to jump back into regular publication, I burned off some of my creative energy moving a step closer to a clear lettering conscience: I’ve designed my own font.
To be precise, I’ve design two fonts: PiDay Bang & PiDay Chat. A mash-up of these two fonts will become my new lettering style.
PiDay Chat is destined to be my primary lettering font, for basic dialog:
PiDay Bang will be used for emphasis or expressive text:
Not that designing a font is for the feint of heart. It’s been more work to create what I’m calling “Version 1.0” of both these fonts than it was to create any of my character models. Arguably, the font has become a character in and of itself… or it will be.
And more vital to the act of this work… I own it: artistically, and maybe more importantly, legally.
Choosing a Font
Yet, you don’t have the time or the skills to make a font, and you just came here looking for some advice on picking a font.
What would I recommend?
- Before you do anything else, make sure you’re allowed to use it. Copyright, licence, creative commons. Fonts actually have a lot of rules around how they are used and how you can reproduce them. Don’t assume. You can wipe out years of effort by using a copyright font only to get blocked from sharing your comics because you couldn’t be bothered to find something legally valid to letter your panels.
- Simple always wins over fancy. Always. Pick something clean and basic. If you think you needs a fancy, curly, scripty, ding-batty, over-designed text, then it will detract from your message. I’m not going to tell you to use sans-serif or handwriting fonts or any of that stuff, but if you’re even thinking of Brush Script or Cabin Sketch I’m going to recommend you go for a walk and think it over… hard.
- Try lots of different fonts used in different ways. Letter some sample comics in different fonts, styles, sizes, kerning, and angles and see what you like and what best blends with your art style. Try long blurbs. Use one or two word pieces of dialog. Block it, bubble it, use background color or patterns to test it out. If you run into trouble testing, you’ll always be compromising your art for the font. Not good.
- And ALWAYS — ALWAYS — aim for legibility over style. Don’t use a font if there is any doubt about how a letter looks or sits on the page. If readers can’t actually read your comics, then you’ve lost them.