So, for the last several months I’ve mostly taken over the lettering duties for Zombie Ranch, except on those rare occasions where I beg Dawn to help me with a certain visual effect I don’t feel confident of pulling off with my shaky non-artist hands. Even before I started doing the actual balloons and captions, though, I had begun the practice of formatting the text itself in certain ways, the most common of which was deciding to present certain words in boldface, for emphasis.
Not every comic does this. In fact it fell out of favor for a long time because careless hand lettering and/or print errors would make the sentence seem like it was being said by an insane person if you tried to read it out loud. Traditional comics lettering being all capitals, you would read “GREAT SCOTT!! THE MISSILE IS ONLY SECONDS FROM IMPACT WITH THE CITY!!”, and if you care to think about that, Superman now sounds like a malfunctioning voice synthesizer. “GREAT scott!! THE missile is ONLY seconds from impact WITH THE city!!”. Linkara occasionally loves to call this phenomenon out as part of his Atop the Fourth Wall reviews, although it’s perhaps unfair to do so for anything published before the advent of digital lettering.
Mind you, if digital lettering is used, then there’s really no excuse for using boldface badly. You can continue not to use it at all, and that’s a perfectly valid choice, but I personally have really fallen in love with it as a part of my comics writing toolbox. I feel it helps me in my simulation of the rhythms of how people would talk, and as such becomes an important storytelling element.
Examples, you say? All right, take a look at this page from Episode 7 (the link should open a new window/tab for you). Note how Frank starts off with no boldface in his speech, which suggests an even keel, even when he declares Eustace’s kin as good as dead. The one exception is the boldface on his exclamation regarding Muriel, where I let his simmering frustration with the situation briefly spike through.
Eustace meanwhile is making all sorts of desperate pleas. What about this? Or this? Finally Frank cuts him off with my favorite bit of the page, one of our “whisper balloons” we’ve already established that blends with the background and is in a smaller font, but is still boldface so that I, at least, can almost hear Frank hissing the command. Frank continues with a non-whisper and some emphasized words to drive his point home, but the font remains slightly smaller than the rest of the page. Even if a reader doesn’t consciously register that, I hope subconsciously there’s still a sense of restraint that comes through.
Panel 4 is back at regular size font, but not one word is bolded, suggesting an almost monotone speech that reinforces what’s being said. Slow and steady. Keep your cool. Don’t draw attention. In Panel 5 Eustace is, of course, too panicky a sort to follow that advice to the letter (heh), so his fear still bubbles up when he asks about the stampede, but Frank’s response is very simple and neutrally delivered, capping off the page.
So there’s a prime example of my using boldface (or lack thereof) to help show character, establish rhythms, and reinforce the story. Another thing you may notice (or at least may notice on another read-through) is that almost any time speech is coming from the camera drones or walkie-talkies, there is no boldface involved, which is my choice to show the detached and/or more “lo-fi” nature of such communications. On the other hand, the overproduced media interludes run rampant with emphasis to make sure the viewer is as excited as possible!
Now all this would be obnoxious in a pure prose story, but if we accept the idea of lettering being a visual element in comics as much as anything else on the page, then shouldn’t we be considering how to present it visually? As long as some care and thought is involved in the usage, I see no reason that you can’t boldly go forwards with some boldface type.