Over at his Journal, Neil Gaiman addresses one of the comics questions that has always plagued me – what’s up with all the extra emphasis in dialogue? First, the question, from a reader of 1602:

. . . I’ve read the first issue, and I like it, BUT! WHOSE idea was IT to EMPHASISE every other WORD any CHARACTER says to ANOTHER CHARACTER? because IT gets REALLY really REALLY annoying SOMETIMES. Y’know, novels generally just assume the reader can figure out where the emphasis is, and this doesn’t seem to happen so badly in your other comics…so why in this one? It really breaks up the flow of dialogue, unfortunately.

And Neil’s answer:

Actually, I pretty much agree — if I’d known it was going to be in upper and lower case lettering when I wrote the script, I certainly wouldn’t have used so many stressed words. I actually like them when you’re doing all-upper-case lettering; I can use them to show what the stresses are, and try and push the words over into something that you hear rather than see . . . Once it moves into upper and lower case (it was an edict from Marvel, not something I chose), I think you read it more like prose, and the stressed words tend to attract attention, rather than disappear into the balloon.

I agree that the emphasis is less obtrusive using all-caps lettering, where it’s accomplished through boldface. But even this is something that I’ve never gotten used to. Granted, comics are their own medium, and different rules apply. I’ll buy that a certain amount of that kind of emphasis is perfectly cool in comics that wouldn’t be cool in prose dialogue, especially because in comics the words are drawn and become, in effect, part of the artwork. But too often, emphasis in lettering has distracted me rather than subtly cueing me to hear the words in my head.

In between starting and finishing this entry, comics guy and fellow Common Grounds lurker Steve Conley has convinced me that the real issue here is not lettering emphasis per se, but whether it’s done well. When I read Dave Sim’s Cerebus, I didn’t have the same reaction to lettering that I do with many other comics – because Sim knows how to do it effectively and seamlessly. (Incidentally, Steve cited the same two folks as Neal – Sim and Eisner – as examples of truly good letterers.) It’s only some of the time that the lettering distracts me, and those are the times when there’s a problem with the lettering. Which raises an interesting question: does the artistry of a letterer rest entirely on making the lettering transparent to the reader? Is there ever a situation where you’d want the letters to call attention to themselves as artifacts?

Jim Henley is unimpressed by the first issue of 1602, by the way. I was planning on waiting for the trade paperback to come out before reading it, but now I’ll have to check out Issue #1 so that I can quibble with him. Or maybe even agree.