So, this 90’s Rob Liefeld page was making the rounds recently on Reddit’s /r/comicbooks message board:
Taking digs at Rob Liefeld’s art is one of comics fandom’s favorite pastimes (which is as lazy as it is unfair–but that’s a subject for a different post, perhaps) and this page is a favorite because The Enchantress in panel eight really shows off Liefeld’s (in)famous female anatomy quirks. Looking at this page anew, though, the thing that really stood out to me was panel three, in which The Enchantress’s butt apparently speaks:
Mis-pointed voice balloon tails are fairly common in comics but this one’s particularly notable (and hilarious) since it’s pointing to a butt cheek instead of the speaker’s head. As I started thinking about this particular bit of lettering, it occurred to me that this whole page is lettered in a way that’s very different than the way I’d have lettered it were it one of my own pages.
I don’t know who lettered this page and I’d never presume to “correct” a professional letterer, but I thought just for fun that I’d go through and re-letter this page and talk a bit about what changes I’d make and why. Just to reiterate: this isn’t necessarily a better way to letter this (well, except maybe for the butt thing), just a different way.
So, here’s the result:
So what’d I do?
Panels 1, 2, 4, 5 – In all these panels I’ve done the same thing: I’ve moved the balloons to the top of the panel. To do this, I’ve moved the figures lower in panels one and two. In panel three I’ve shrunk the figures slightly to create more room up top and I consequently had to add a bit of the Enchantress’s shoulder up top. I’m guessing you’d get in trouble if you did this to someone else’s work you were lettering, but I do it with my own work as needed.
So, why’d I do this? As a general rule, I think all lettering should be at the top of the panel–especially with small panels–unless you have some really compelling reason for it not to be. Partially this is to keep the balloons as unobtrusive as possible. Let’s face it: voice balloons are an awkward device. Try to draw as little attention to them as possible. And for sure, avoid putting them over figures as if you can.
Also, though, as Eddie Campbell astutely points out in one of his “comics rules”:
In spite of what you may read, comics are not a nested system; a reader will read a balloon and then read the next nearest balloon even if they haven’t already read all the ones in the current panel.
Basically: what really controls how people move through a page isn’t the left-to-right/top-to-bottom way panels are arranged, but how the word balloons are positioned. I chatted a bit about this “rule” with comics linguist Neil Cohn on Twitter and he seemed to confirm that his studies pretty much back this rule up as fact.
So, what I was trying to eliminate with these changes are the places where balloons from an upper tier are more adjacent to the balloons on the tier below than to the balloons in the next panel:
I should probably have shoved the second balloons in panels one and two up a little closer to the first balloons… but, you get the idea:
Panel 3 – Given the way this panel is staged, there’s really no getting around the fact that you’ve got to put a balloon over a giant butt, but I at least changed the balloon tail a bit so that it’s pointing upward to where her head presumably is:
Panels 6 and 7 – The main thing I had to deal with in these two panels is the dreaded Manga Eye Panel™. (Blaming stuff on manga is another popular pastime for comics folk, by the way!) A tightly-cropped panel of an eye (or both eyes) is a pretty common occurrence in manga and it’s gradually seeped into the vocabulary of western cartoonists. Wisely, though, when you see it in Japanese comics it’s usually a silent panel, often employed as a “beat” within a fight scene. Here, though, we have to deal with placing speech over the eye, which is tricky.
There’s really no good way to place a balloon into panel seven and not have it look like the eye is speaking. It’s not a great solution, but what I opted to do is this:
I’ve added an ellipsis to the end of the dialog in panel six and to the beginning of panel seven and then enclosed panel seven’s dialog in quotation marks–indicating that the dialog in panel seven’s caption box is a continuation of the dialog begun in panel six. This is similar to a “voice-over” in film. It’s still a bit odd in that this kind of lettering device is usually used when the dialog in the caption box is not coming from the character in the same panel. (Or, if it is, it’s the character at some earlier time. This is a common way to transition to a flashback scene: present tense caption box narration over panels of past events.)
Panel 8 – This was a pretty minor tweak, but again: I just wanted to get that voice balloon as far away from panel three’s voice balloon as I could. I shrunk The Enchantress just slightly to accommodate this.
Well, that’s it!
One thing to note here: What Liefeld is trying to pull off with this page is pretty difficult. He’s having to set up an eight-panel conversation between two characters, one of whom is never seen until the final, eighth panel. (This setup makes things pretty challenging for the letterer, too. They’ve got to place seven panels of balloons for a character that’s not actually in each of those panels.) And he’s done a pretty effective job of it I think. He’s got different panel compositions throughout via the device of gradually getting closer and closer to Loki in panels 1-7. Also: the way Loki’s staged in panels 1-3 really accentuates the character’s movement: going from prone to kneeling/looking up.
I’m betting page length constraints prohibited him from doing what seems to be the obvious layout trick here, though: having this as a right-facing page and moving The Enchantress/panel eight to the following page so that the reveal occurs at “the flip.”