Each week in Snapshot, I take a look at one of the main three creative parts of a comic book that can often go unnoticed: inking, colouring, and lettering.
This week, a new book by James Tynion IV, Rian Sygh, Walter Baiamonte, and Jim Campbell came out, called The Backstagers. Published by Boom!, it’s a fun and magical romp through high school, involving a theatre club and the backstage crew.
What struck me after the first couple of pages was how Campbell was lettering the book. You see it first on the second page, where our main character – a nervous chap – is walking towards the drama club at his new school. There’s a bunch of ways to render quieter speech in a comic, and often you get the dashed-line bubble to indicate a kind of whisper, or a smaller bubble, but here Campbell instead just turns the opacity of the text down. It makes it more of a grey, rather than black, and it has the added emphasis of making the text seem a little “weaker.”
So what I mean is if you look at other bubbles on this page, even the one two panels over: You can do this. It’s black. The text is at full opacity, and it feels a lot heavier than the “Okay, Jory…” bubble. So it feels stronger, and that’s a particularly important theme for this book, as well. Primarily it deals with the nervousness and general fear of the main character here on this page, and so creating these moments where he doesn’t seem as confident is just as important a point as making his text seem quieter. It’s a very clever moment of how a speech bubble design can add just as much to the characterization in a book as the writing and art can.
The other interesting thing about this is Campbell doesn’t really ever change the size of the bubbles he’s using. Again, sometimes you’ll see letterer change a bubble to make it smaller to indicate volume, bigger for louder, but Campbell doesn’t. Instead he just changes the font size within the bubbles. And that is a nice approach, because it doesn’t start to make a ‘point’ about the bubbles on a page. By rendering them all uniform, we’re not getting distracted by the bubbles themselves, but more the contents within them. It also means you can start to play around with negative space in a bubble for added effect. So, that “Okay, Jory…” panel, we understand the parameters of normal dialogue, but now this is smaller. It’s another way of showing all this dead air around his voice.
If you flick a couple of pages ahead, you can see how Campbell deals with the opposite. Here our protagonist is shouting, calling ahead. The bubbles are no bigger or smaller than we’ve seen them already, but see how the font is bold, and made bigger within the bubbles. The space around the text is getting smaller and smaller, and it feels like his dialogue is jamming up against the walls in them.
You can see this in a great effect again, a couple of pages on. There’s the character of Sasha, in the middle left panel, and the dialogue becomes bigger throughout the bubble. The “baby!” is made bigger, and emphasised with italics and placed in bold. The font size within bubbles changing is a great way of showing the escalation in volume, again, without needing to detract away by filling more page space with a larger bubble. It’s actually quite restrained design on Campbell’s part, and even though Sasha’s bubble is smaller than Aziz’s in the same page, you get that he’s louder, right? So Campbell is getting the job done.
It goes to show that even in something as seemingly simple as lettering, there isn’t just a standard approach to the way you do it. And it all adds up to building character and story, even changing the font size and opacity in a bubble can tell you something else about the character on the page.
Lettering is such a large part of the storytelling process – so next time you’re reading a book and thinking it tells a good story, take a look to see how the lettering helps build into that. It’s more than just bubbles on a page.