“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
While she correctly identifies comic writers and artists as “rockstars,” Ariana Maher belongs to what has traditionally been the least appreciated (at least by general fandom) member of the comic-making band: letterers. Her creative path has brought her from language interpreter to full-time creator with an ever-growing portfolio and a great deal of knowledge to share.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Letterer
Your home base: Seattle, WA
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you to making comics specifically over other art forms? In your case, why the lettering craft?
Ariana Maher: I’m not particularly interested in other aspects of comic book creation, but lettering is like a puzzle I can’t put down. There are so many graphic design ideas to explore and choices I have to make in order to bridge the gap between the art and the script. I love that.
KS: To jump right into your specialty, what’s an aspect of the art of comics lettering you think general readers might not be aware of?
AM: I don’t think many readers understand what goes into lettering, especially digital comics lettering. For example, aside from notable design choices like the style of font, shape of word balloons, and SFX for a book, one thing that letterers pick up on as “Really Good Lettering” is placement. When a letterer has a great eye for placement, they set the pace for how the text flows over the artwork, mindful of the reader’s point of view and harmonizing with the creative vision that the writer and artist have for the story. Good placement means good flow and good flow means that the script and art don’t appear disjointed on the page. Everything is intended to keep the reader immersed in the experience.
KS: Help demystify the process a little. You receive unlettered pages of art and then what are your next specific steps?
AM: I get started once the creative team provides me art pages and a lettering script. If I have a lettering style established for the title, then I already have a template developed in Adobe Illustrator that provides me with the correct font, captions, etc. that I need for that particular book. I create copies of the template — one for each page — and then I get started.
My first step is to set the art in my template and lock it in place. I use the Layer Method — see The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering for more about that — for most of my projects, so the art is locked at the bottom layer with multiple unlocked layers over it that handle different lettering elements that show up on top of it.
Step two is to break down the script to the content that goes on the page. I copy that over to my Adobe Illustrator template on the text layer (the topmost layer). It takes time to arrange, adjust, and place the text wherever I feel each line should go, so I keep a tablet open next to my monitor to double check the full script and read through it as I go panel by panel. It’s important that the placements help the flow and that they do not confuse the reader.
Step three is to make the balloons, tails, and caption boxes in the layers that are sandwiched under the text and over the art. I can be rather fussy with the details to make sure everything fits well on the page.
I tend to leave the sound effect work for last since I want to see how to best make use of the space available for what I’m rendering. Sometimes, I use comic book fonts that look great for sound effects and then manipulate the text into something neat. Sometimes, I use vector art brushes to draw in letters in a rougher style. I try to keep in mind the tone of the book and art style when I’m working on the SFX.
There is more work after the page is lettered. There’s revisions, pre-production, loads of e-mails back and forth. Experience has helped me juggle the tasks for each project, but I’m still learning new things every day. My current goal is to become a more efficient letterer, getting the work done faster but at the same quality I try to maintain.
KS: What’s the balance for you between lettering being more of an “invisible” art versus standing out when someone reads a comic?
AM: Lettering is not an invisible art. It’s a subtle art. Your eyes are on the lettering for a good deal of time as you read an issue — not just the artwork. If you don’t notice the lettering style or flow in the placements, that doesn’t mean the letterer did a poor job of catching your attention. It can simply mean the lettering is effective at getting you to forget there is any barrier between the text and the artwork. This is mindful work — we anticipate how a reader takes in a comics page and arrange everything in such a way that you focus on the comic as a whole and not in its many parts. What we do tends to be subtle, but when we want to get your attention, we know how to do that too. Sometimes it means bombastic sound effects or in the change of a word balloon style into some sinister, crooked voice that’s just off-panel. We can do some fun things to catch a reader off-guard. There are times where I’ve shattered word balloons to emphasize a character being shattered like glass.
Neither the loud nor the soft work is invisible, but don’t get me wrong — I’m not offended when folks call lettering “invisible” as I understand the positive points they are making about the skill. I just get a bit wary of the few who take the idea of “invisible” to mean lettering is unseen and unimportant. Letterers end up uncredited and poorly compensated when anyone starts with that mindset, so I hope more readers come to understand and appreciate lettering in the future even when they don’t happen to notice it most of the time.
KS: On that note, when you’re reading a comic as a fan, is there some trait you especially appreciate when it comes to the lettering?
AM: I’ve already mentioned the importance of text placement, but there’s also the consistency in style. You can see those details in the shape of word balloons, the width of the balloon tails, the adherence to comic book grammar, and so on. Also, the work that goes into the sound effects — when you get used to developing your own sound effects, you take notice when others try out a new idea or two.
KS: Was some kind of art-based career always part of your plans?
AM: Not at all. My passion throughout high school and college was foreign language. I graduated with a degree in Japanese Linguistics and managed to build a career as a municipal interpreter in Kawasaki City, Japan. I loved comic stories and art, but simply as a reader. That changed in 2010, when I was in my late 20s. Although I had achieved my career goals at the time, I was starting to find that it wasn’t for me. Interpretation meant expressing other people’s views and not my own; I was feeling both self-conscious and stifled by my work.
As my confidence in my career began to wane, so I turned to developing hobbies. That way I could throw my enthusiasm into something that made me feel less uncertain and anxious. I began to teach myself how to use Adobe Illustrator and when I discovered a tutorial PDF by Jim Campbell on how to letter comics, I found something entirely new and fascinating. I can still speak and read in Japanese. I don’t regret my years of studies because of the friends and experiences I’ve received by going down that path. But I’m also happy that I eventually embraced a complete career change.
KS: How did you arrive at the idea of working in comics?
AM: I had been lettering as a hobby for a short while to help with a friend’s webcomic when Marvel put out a new series called Thor: The Mighty Avenger. Rus Wooton’s lettering struck me like a bolt of lightning. The style was unique and worked so well. That short series is one of the best examples of a creative team being the best at what they do and harmonizing their collaboration into something that leaves as lasting impact on the reader. That’s when I wanted to explore lettering as more than just a hobby — I wanted to work in a team, make comics, and hopefully hit upon a special wavelength with a creative team like that.
KS: Once you started exploring that option, what did the path look like to getting your first professional job?
AM: A friend was on a project that needed a letterer and so I ended up joining the team. I only had six months’ lettering experience by then, so I wasn’t confident, but it was for a major publisher, and I thought this would be my only chance to be a pro. I was terribly excited and nervous about the gig. Unfortunately, poor communication from the writer soured the project and we barely managed to wrap everything up at the end of six issues. The writer was quick to assure me that I’d get loads of exposure for my debut work, but that did not happen. I didn’t know how unfair my initial agreement had been until quite a while later. Doing the math, I had been paid one-tenth my worth when compared to usual amateur page rates. The experience burned me terribly and I stopped trying to work in mainstream circles.
KS: That ordeal didn’t sour you on the business?
AM: Despite that experience, I kept lettering and soon started working on projects with Little Foolery (littlefoolery.com), such as Small Town Witch and Sfeer Theory. The creators became some of my dearest friends and the experience renewed my passion for collaborative work. About five years passed before I finally took up another offer to join a series from a major publisher, but by then I had amassed a wealth of experience that helped me navigate freelance work. I set up contracts with my incoming indie projects and only accepted clear page rates instead of vague promises. I had a better time identifying poor collaborators and avoiding them.
Now that I’m doing better for myself, I take special care whenever amateur letterers reach out to me. I don’t want others to go through the sort of experience I went through my first time working on a comic as a professional.
KS: You’ve now established such a varied portfolio of work. As a freelancer in this area, how do projects typically find their way to you (or vice versa)?
AM: Reputation does a lot to attract new clients, either through word of mouth or by making my presence known. I make sure that my Twitter displays a link to my portfolio and that folks know that I’m always open to talk lettering. I do my best to stay on top of things and respond to genuine inquiries — either about lettering or general advice or about potential gigs. I also reach out to other letterers. It’s good to make friends and build up a sense of community among freelancers. It’s also great to know who is available to pick up more work. As I get too busy to comfortably accept new work, I don’t say no to gigs, I say, “No, but please let me recommend good letterers for you.” Competition alienates you from fellow letterers — the only people who understand your career best and can lend a hand when you need them the most. Recommending great letterers to potential clients can lead to a happy result for everyone. It’s a better result than overwhelming one’s schedule by saying “yes” to more projects than one can deliver.
I also follow editors on Twitter so that when they put out a call for new letterers, I can make myself known with a link to my portfolio. When I get a gig, I give it my all while also setting reasonable boundaries and making my needs as a collaborator clear. I used to be shy and kept my questions to myself, assuming everyone knew everything about making comics except me. I quickly grew to learn that it’s always important to ask questions. In a highly collaborative industry, everyone knows their own job but not each other’s, so the lack of contribution can lead to confusion down the line. By being straightforward in my needs and setting reasonable expectations that still fit within their timelines, I’ve built a reliable professional reputation.
When editors and collaborators work with me, I deliver results. People remember that and tell others that I’m someone to rely on. Reliability is an important trait for letterers. Writers and artists may be rockstars, but the letterer is like a roadie who gets the job done so well at every venue that folks want to hire her back for more gigs. That’s how gigs find their way to me — it’s a slow build that took years, but I managed to card out a space for myself.
KS: How often do you encounter “red alert” assignments where your services are needed urgently?
AM: Outside of Marvel? Rarely. Projects can take months to get going — years sometimes. I’ve even been a part of projects that fall through before they even get started. A lot of planning has to go into an independent project especially, so teams tend to be assembled early to begin preparation. Patience is key.
[At] Marvel, the pace is far more intense, since there is a high volume of comics being produced every week and the quality is set at such a high bar. But our team has the skills and resources at our disposal to tackle urgent assignments and I’m gradually learning to be a faster letterer. One day I’ll be just as fast as the rest of VC, but it will take a lot more work to get there.
KS: Could you decode “VC” for readers who might not be familiar?
AM: Virtual Calligraphy. Founded by Chris Eliopoulos, we’re a small studio of letterers who work on Marvel titles. That’s why you often see “VC’s” before my name whenever I am working on Marvel projects, but you don’t see it when I’m a non-Marvel title.
KS: Please tell us a little about your current workspace or studio setup.
AM: I’m not a Mac girl. I get teased for using a PC, but I don’t care — I built my desktop in 2012 and it’s only needed minor improvements in the past decade. I have Adobe Creative Suite, of course, as well as Sony noise-cancelling headphones to help me concentrate, a Microsoft Surface to display the comic script I reference as I’m lettering on my main monitor, an intuos tablet instead of a mouse, and a Genovation keypad that I’ve programmed with my Illustrator Actions as a way to speed up my workflow. I have a Hag Capisco office chair and a Jarvis standing desk — both are great for creating an ergonomic studio space.
KS: How about a passion of yours totally unrelated to comics or art… Could be something you collect, study, practice, whatever.
AM: There’s a Magic: The Gathering format called “Commander.” It’s a four-person card game that uses new and old cards to build a strategy based around a Legendary Creature, which is the commander of the deck. My husband taught me how to Magic on our first date, and it turns out that my brother is amazing at the game, too, so it’s our way to spend time together as a family. I’ve built a number of commander decks recently. Some of my favorites include Alela, Artful Provocateur — a warlock who creates an army of fairies — and Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Yeah, an actual Godzilla that stomps everyone.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?
AM: That’s a huge list to have to narrow down. Lately, I’ve been into vertical comics since the format is so fresh and interesting. My current favorites on Webtoons are Lore Olympus, The Remarried Empress, and Wayne Family Adventures. As for printed graphic novels, my favorites include Witch Hat Atelier, Rachel Rising, O Human Star, Bleach, and Not Drunk Enough.
KS: Finally, talk a little about what you’re working on now and what you’ve got coming up in the next few months.
AM: Demon Days: Rising Storm by Peach Momoko, Zack Davisson, and myself is [now available]. I’m super excited for that one! I’ll be the new ongoing letterer for Detective Comics starting with issue #1047, which kicks off “The Tower” storyline. Also, next year be sure to check out Galaxy: The Prettiest Star and Into the Heartlands, two YA graphic novels that are going to be great reads.