The lettering is an important part of the comic media, which fixes the dialogues, thoughts and descriptions desired by the comic writer in the panels and captions. The balloons are so artfully integrated into the pages that an occasional and unaware reader of comic techniques does not even notice the work being done behind the scenes, automatically reading what flows before the eyes. We wrote “artfully integrated” because even lettering is an art, in fact.
We went to ask a few questions to those who have made their professional lives with this art, such as Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, a letterer for various British and American publishing houses.
Hassan, welcome back to the pages of Lo Spazio Bianco.
First of all, a bit of history and we ask you: when and with which comic (if it was a comic) did your career as a letterer start?
You know, I have a really bad memory even short term, so I genuinely don’t remember what the actual answer to this is. But, I think the first full-length issue I ever did was a pitch with writer Deniz Camp, which should actually be coming out in 2021. I did that back in I think 2016, and have actually re-lettered that same issue about two or three times over the years, as I’ve felt my abilities get better! So it’s a strange relationship with that comic, which, whenever it comes out, will in theory be both my most recent comic and the very first comic I worked on!
How did you get involved with this often unfairly overlooked aspect of comics. What was the step that transformed your passion into a profession?
Again this is Deniz Camp’s fault, really. I was working on a comic pitch of my own, and thinking about a letterer, and Deniz suggested it might be a part of the process I’d be especially interested in. I played around with Illustrator for a little while and it just sort of clicked. I was having fun! It just made sense to me, and then I just kept playing around with the software, playing around with lettering, and just trying to get better and better.
Have you ever had or do you have all of a reference letterer, some professional you look to for inspiration?
Yeah, someone that really helped me early on is my Letters & Lines podcast co-host, Aditya Bidikar. Aditya gave me a lot of tips and feedback early on, but beyond that, he’s just a phenomenal letterer who is always a good reference point if I need inspiration to push myself. There’s also Rus Wooton, who i think makes really interesting choices.
So, yours is a true passion for lettering, so much so that you also have a podcast on the subject: what do you deal with in the Letters & Lines episodes?
Yeah, Letters & Lines is hosted by Aditya Bidikar and me. Essentially we just talk a lot about lettering, as well as other parts of comics, but predominantly it’s an excuse for us to have a conversation about our craft. I’m not sure who the audience is, honestly, but for us it’s just about creating a space where we can talk about what we spend our day doing in a lot of depth. I think it’s especially interesting for something like lettering, which is often one of the least discussed aspects of comics-making.
There are various currents or schools of lettering in the world of comics, some internationally famous. For example, the American one, in which the letterer is responsible for the arrangement of the balloons as well as for the lettering as such and in which therefore there is a real artistic contribution to the entire work on comics. Or the Italian one – I always speak of the serial of course – today increasingly closer to the US one but in which until a few years ago the ballons were sometimes affixed by the same penciler and the letterer just had to fill them. I suppose you have always worked within the US one, do you think it is the most effective?
Honestly I think the best approach to lettering is if the artist themself letters their own work. That would be if the artist was proficient at it, which is not necessarily the case, but I do think that many of the best examples of naturalistic lettering are when the artist has lettered their own work. Alex Toth, Darwyn Cook, Moebius, Sakai, that sort of thing. And many of the best examples of separate letterers are when they are very natural to the line of the artist.
Have you ever received suggestions from the penciler on where to place the balloons, even with sketches on the comic page? If so, do you follow those directions or do you prefer to decide more freely the position of the balloons in the panels?
Yeah sometimes you get those. For example, when I lettered Eoin Marron on Killer Groove, he had roughs where he placed the balloons. I looked at those only if I struggled, though, because Eoin left plenty of space in his panels for the balloons it was obvious enough where they should end up anyway. If I do receive the layouts, I only check them if I can’t figure out what the intention was already.
Onomatopoeias: in Italy they are usually the work of pencilers, while for example in the USA they are the task of letterers. In your opinion, do these graphic elements belong more to the sphere of drawing or to that of lettering?
Well for sound effects, it depends on the way you approach them. I think they can be graphic elements when they are font-based and vectors, that feels a little more like a design point, if you think of it in an abstract way. However, when you’re hand-drawing SFX, that’s closer to drawing, because, well, I guess you’re literally drawing on the page. That’s an abstract way of considering them, but again with the previous answer, I think an artist integrating SFX into their art is probably the best thing in a pure way, but not every artist is necessarily great at that, or wants to do that. So as a letterer you have to be responsive.
The letterers are to the world of comics as sound engineers and sound directors are to that of cinema, if you pass me the analogy. It is your job to give voice to the characters and also to differentiate those voices, obviously from a graphic point of view. In this sense, have there been comics that have put you in trouble from a lettering point of view? And what is the work you are most proud of that contains your characters in the balloons?
The only trouble I think is when I make more work for myself. I don’t think there have been any comics that have been especially difficult because of their content. I think what I’m most proud of is Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, when we did the hand-lettered Eddie Campbell issue. There was a lot of fun in that, and also combining some of the digital lettering against the handlettering. I think there’s a lot of good stuff in that.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to pursue the profession of letterer?
Just try it! The actual kind of technical process of lettering isn’t that difficult, in all honesty. Learning how to use Illustrator – which is the software most professional letterers use – understanding the grammar of lettering, and the rules, exporting pages, learning about print, etc. That’s all teachable and learnable, but I think the thing that can separate my favourite letterers from others is the commitment to craft. The way they adapt what they’re doing for different genres and artists, a creative playfulness. That’s harder to teach, but I think that’s probably a common characteristic amongst the best.
What are you currently working on? What will be an upcoming comic that will have your lettering?
I’m currently working on Engineward, Red Sonja, Undone by Blood, X-O Manowar, Savage, Razorblades, and a whole host of other things! The fun thing about lettering is you seem to be working on a hundred comics all at once…!
Thanks for your time and your… fonts, Hassan.
Interview conducted by email in September 2020
Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, in addition to being the creator and editor of PanelxPanel magazine, winner of the Eisner 2019 award, is also the mastermind behind the Strip Panel Naked Youtube channel. His main activity, however, is that of a letterer for Aftershock Comics, Valiant, Dynamite Ent.