When I read Batman: White Knight, I immediately noticed a striking difference between it and pretty much every Joker-related book I’ve seen in the past few years: Joker’s dialogue was set in the same font as everything else. Whereas other recent stories have made use of crinkly, Jokerized fonts, letterer Todd Klein chose to use a uniform dialogue font (at least in issue #1). To be fair, Clayton Cowles went the same way in the latest Batman arc, but his standard dialogue font there is fairly whimsical to begin with, so it still feels as though Joker’s speech is stylized. Klein’s font on White Knight is much more neutral, so the effect is more pronounced.
I wanted to pick Klein’s brain about this decision, and his long career lettering comics, so I reached out to him last week and asked if he would answer a few questions. You can read our exchange below.
Brian Warshaw: You’ve been working in the industry for quite some time, and seen a lot of evolutions in the art form—not just the stories being told, but the processes used to tell them. At what point did you make the transition from hand-lettering to laying out text in fonts?
Todd Klein: Like other letterers, in the early 90s, I’d been watching the development of comics fonts by David Cody Weiss, John Byrne and Richard Starkings with interest, and came to believe it was the wave of the future, and one I should be surfing myself. In 1994 I was working on Deathblow for WildStorm, and they were pressing me to create fonts from my hand-lettering and supply them with digital lettering files for their all-digital workflow. I had met Richard Starkings and JG Roshell of Comicraft in 1993, and I had my first few fonts made by them from my hand-lettered samples and alphabets. I used what they did as a template to make many other fonts myself once I had my first Apple desktop computer in late 1994. By the summer of 1995, I felt I was ready to take on an entire issue of Deathblow digitally, and issue 20 was the first one I did that way. Over the next ten years, there was a gradual-but-steady changeover from hand-lettering to digital lettering, and by 2005 it was nearly all digital.
BW: Do you hand-letter anything today, like sound effects, limited projects, etc?
TK: Nearly all story lettering is done digitally using my own fonts most of the time, or commercial fonts occasionally. That’s what the big companies want, it fits into their current workflow best, and is ideal for foreign reprints. Occasionally, there will be some specific thing that I need to either letter by hand or on a tablet and then scan or add to the digital files. For logo designs, I often begin with hand-drawn sketches, then take those to the computer to develop further. The only full-page hand-lettered work I’ve done in recent years are the prints I sell on my website:
BW: The advantages of the modern process are obvious, I think, but what are some challenges that you didn’t face in hand-lettering?
TK: It’s much harder to be spontaneous and do quirky one-off things digitally, things you don’t have a font or digital brush for, but most of the time I have ways to get what I want digitally that are pretty close to what I used to do by hand.
BW: Shifting to White Knight, the first thing I spotted was that you used a uniform font for dialogue. This was particularly noticeable in the Joker’s dialogue, because it has become standard for letterers to use the stylized, crinkly “Joker font” that most books use for him today. Whose decision was it to go a different way here? What was the rationale?
TK: I don’t read any DC Batman comics these days, so I wasn’t even aware there was a standard font for the Joker. Even if I knew that, I wouldn’t have used it here. In this story, the Joker is the protagonist, and the reader needs to be able to identify with him. An odd font is likely to get in the way of that. Plus, Sean Murphy wanted me to keep the lettering simple and straightforward for the most part, and that means keeping unusual fonts to a miminum, though there will be some.
BW: The next thing I noticed was that, early on, it seems like Batman and Joker’s balloons frequently break the panel border and live above it. But as time goes by, other characters start to get this effect, as well. Was there a particular artistic reason for this, or was it more a matter of space or circumstance?
TK: Having balloons and captions open at the panel edge is not something I do often, but when pressed for space, it’s a way to get a little more room. Sean Murphy admitted when he saw the first round lettering proofs of issue #1 that he hadn’t left enough room for the lettering in some places. Open borders was one of the ways I coped with that. We also decided to make all the lettering ten percent smaller than I usually work for this title, and that helped too.
BW: Thanks, but I meant situations like this one, where the balloon occupies space in two multiple panels:
TK: That’s a common thing I think, where you don’t have room in the panel unless you cover something important. Sean does a lot of small panels, so it’s bound to turn up.
BW: Any other interesting information you can share about working on this book?
TK: I worked with Sean as writer/artist only once before, on Punk Rock Jesus, and I enjoyed that, which is why I took this project. Sean’s writing is just as interesting and surprising as his art. He’s also open to suggestions if I have any, and is ready and willing to work with me to solve any problems that might turn up, so it’s a good working partnership.
BW: Any other recent or upcoming projects that you would like our readers to know about?
TK: Other things I’m working on at present are Batman: Creature of the Night and Doom Patrol at DC, Black Hammer at Dark Horse, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman Volume 4 at IDW/Top Shelf and Kino at Lion Forge. Miracleman at Marvel has been on hiatus, but I’m hoping to get back to that soon. There are a few others that aren’t announced yet.