Finding My Sunshine
...or, "Yet another thing I learned from a dog."
You doing okay? It’s been a rough few… what, days? Years? I’m not sure what metric to use anymore.
I’m back in Arizona at my dad’s house getting him set up to safely live alone and handling… all the things that need to be handled when someone dies, I guess. Phone calls, paperwork, notifications, Goodwill donations, etc. You know the drill. (Or you will, eventually.) Dad and Eileen had just moved here when the pandemic struck and the health issues kicked in soon after, so there are rooms full of boxes to be unpacked as well. Oh and one of the dogs was quietly using the guest room as a urinal so there was carpet that had to be ripped out and replaced.
I’m an only-child, a talented compartmentalizer and generally good in a crisis, but staring down all of this by myself1 while also doing my job(s) and meeting my regular responsibilities had me at the point of shutting down a couple weeks ago. I had to go home and get my head together.
[Folks on the #bgsdlist and the Marco Polo sharecast already know this, but my dad’s wife and caretaker, Eileen, died last month. Dad’s a diabetic kidney cancer-survivor with post-stroke aphasia. He’s not historically been the world’s most emotive guy and the aphasia makes it extra hard for him to express himself. Add to that the kind of grief that comes with the death of a partner of 40 years and all the usual symptoms are exacerbated; his body and soul are both exhausted.]
The morning before I left Portland to come back, I overslept. On my way to coffee, I could feel the panic starting when I stumbled onto this:
Stella’s the oldest of our dogs and a bitch in both the literal and figurative sense of the term. Portland isn’t known for its sunny weather, and we’ve had an overcast year thus far—dark days, even by our standards. But Stella found her light and stayed with it.
Something about the image unlocked what I needed to unlock in order to stop worrying about all the things and attend to the next thing. It hasn’t been a perfect process — it never is — but I’ve gotten a hell of a lot done this trip and I’m no longer ruminating on how I’m going to do it, I’m just doing it.
(I also asked for help, which is a difficult thing for many of us to do, myself included. McCubbin arrived today.)
Anyway, this is what’s working for me right now. I’m trying to be like Stella: to find a little light and hold it as long as I can.
Reaching out to you and trying to put all this into words is part of that process for me.
Okay so, Eisner nominations were announced last month! Milkfed has a number of nods and we’re very proud of them all, but I actually want to focus on one category that might not immediately catch your attention: Best Lettering.
Eisner voter registration is already closed and voting itself closes tomorrow. I suppose it would have been ideal to have gotten this out a couple weeks ago, but that assumes an email could affect an outcome and I’m not convinced that’s the case. Or that it matters. Look, awards are fun! And they can be a marketing boost, which is never a bad thing. But we can agree that there is something deeply weird about trying to rank art, right? I mean, you can rank sales, sure...
But, like, the Oscars for example. When you get to that level of talent, how do you say one performance is better than another? What criteria do you even use to make the comparison? There’s an endless number of variables that make a work of art resonate strongly for one person and less so for another. What qualifies as “best?”
Could you go to a museum and point to the Best Painting?
Oy, okay. I’m deep up my own ass here and I’m losing the thread.
The comic you end up holding in your hands is the one tiny part of the experience that’s anchored in this world. What’s the metaphor here—an iceberg, maybe? That’s not quite it. Let me try again…
The physical comic is like the code that programs the action that only ever exists in your head. Or maybe…
The panels are pavers—touchstones—that guide you through an invisible story.
Whatever the metaphor, there’s at least a triple alchemy to it: still images become action; time becomes space; sound is made visible…
Adding to the invisibility theme, the better a letterer is, the more they disappear.
Unskilled lettering stands out—it’s jarring, distracting. There are a dozen different decisions to be made for each balloon, and there are far more wrong answers than right ones. Poor line breaks choices make readers stumble over phrases as you “hear” them in your head. Inexperience with page design and eye flow can cause dialogue to be read out of order. A poorly placed balloon can take the reader out of the story for a second because it looks like someone’s armpit is talking.
Skilled lettering not only doesn’t distract, a skilled letter quietly strengthens the storytelling. Balloon placement guides the eye art details you might otherwise miss, for example. Overlapping balloons and a very slight font size adjustment make one character talk over another. Or a little bit of extra tail between two balloons adds a beat to the rhythm and lands a joke.
You can probably tell those are specific references. That last one was in an issue of Avengers Assemble—part of the red ledger storyline. I wrote some banter for Hawkeye and Spider-Woman and the letterer, Clayton Cowles, spaced Clint’s consecutive balloons with a bit of extra tail to suggest a slight pause—a hesitation—between the two thoughts. It was exactly what was required for the timing. I didn’t ask for it—I didn’t even know it needed it until I saw it. That’s craft.
[It’s killing me that I can’t find the panel to show you. I know I’ve posted about it before, but I’ve spent about half an hour looking and I’m not having any luck.]
Pick any issue of Bitch Planet or Pretty Deadly or Historia and I can show you something Clayton did to support the storytelling, something you probably didn’t even register on a conscious level. He’s that good. And just to twist the knife, he’s also a joy to work with.
So, if you are an Eisner voter and by some miracle you haven’t made your choices yet, I hope you’ll consider Clayton for Best Lettering. Probably everyone who’s nominated deserves to win—see my weird and distracting rant above—but I hope Clayton gets it, because I think he’s brilliant and I like him and winning awards is fun.
But honestly, what I really hope is that a comic fan who’s never given much thought to lettering reads this and appreciates the magic of comics just a little bit more.
I have like six2 other things I want to tell you about but I’m nodding off at the keyboard and I’m not sure I’m making sense, so I’ve got to hit send and to to bed. One more thing before I do though—
…Rantz reached out about the project a while back and I told him I appreciated his thinking of me but that I didn’t have time. But then… I don’t know what the fuck happened. It was some “these are not the droids you’re looking for” shit. “YOU DO HAVE TIME FOR THREE PAGES,” said Rantz and then I turned in a script?
I don’t know how that worked exactly. The fact that two of my favorite songs were still available probably had something to do with it. (We did “Leather.”)
All right. I gotta go to bed now.
I’m alone only in the sense that I don’t have siblings. Fraction is my partner in all things of course, and I couldn’t be here doing this if he weren’t carrying the full load at home.
Okay, not six. Six is an exaggeration. But three at least. I’m tempted to put codenames to them but I’m too pooped to come up with good ones.