Thursday, 6 January 2011

STRIP Magazine Creator Interview: Jim Campbell

Jim's lettering for STRIP's re-presentation
of Hookjaw. Hookjaw © Egmont UK
Matthew Badham talks to ace letterer and STRIP Magazine's secret weapon Jim Campbell, who's offered some very useful advice on the project besides lettering projects such as Iron Moon and strips for the new anthology. 

This interview was first published on Matt's blog - bookmark it now! - and is reprinted here with his full permission.

For some time now, I’ve had the urge to do some serious research into the craft of lettering. I think it’s an under-appreciated and under-discussed area of the business of making comics (I imagine that’s probably because, to be fair, it’s only of interest to a minority of people, even amongst hardcore comic fans). 

Taking my first steps into this new area of research I decided to interview Jim Campbell, who recently became a full-time lettering professional. 

Anyway, over to Jim for a potted biography before we dive into the interview proper:

It’s all Dave Gibbons’ fault. Aged ten, I was immediately attracted to the Tully/Gibbons Dan Dare strip in the first issue of 2000AD I was bought, and couldn’t help noticing that, by doing his own lettering, Dave got his name on the credits twice! Coolest. Thing. Ever.

Despite never losing interest in lettering, or letterers, I decided instead that I was going to be an artist. Or a writer. Or a writer/artist. So I spent a large chunk of the late 1980s and early ’90s working for small publishers who went bust without publishing me.

A chance correspondence in the mid-’90s led me to work with Kev Walker as his co-writer on a number of projects, two of which actually made it into print: The Inspectre for the Judge Dredd Megazine and Dæmonifuge for Games Workshop’s Black Library, but overconfidence, overwork and girls caused me to take my eye off the ball as a comic creator and that was the end of that!

Being a graphic designer, I found I was able to make a contribution to the UK small press in a design/production capacity where I didn’t have time to contribute as a writer or artist, and this led to investigating the possibilities of computer lettering, first appearing in Mike Sivier’s Action tribute comic VIOLENT! in 1998 and continuing sporadically thereafter.

A series of lucky coincidences in the second half of 2008 saw what had been a long-time hobby turn into a paying second job that, by mid-2009, was proving just lucrative enough to make the life of a freelancer viable. 2010 saw the launch of my blog, and, I fear, the cementing of my reputation as the Internet’s premier lettering bore.

Thanks, Jim. Now, without further ado, the interview itself:

An excerpt from Charmed, lettered by Jim Campbell
Writer/artist credits above.
Do you think that lettering is an under-appreciated component of comics?

Hmm. That’s a question of two halves, depending on who’s doing the under-appreciating! As I’ve said to a number of writers and artists: I don’t expect them to care about the lettering, I only expect them to care that I care, to understand that making a decent job of lettering their strip is important to me and that they can confidently forget about the lettering while I get on with it.

Appreciated by the readers…? Well, if you got into the comics industry for fame, girls and fast cars, then you should have been a penciller!

I do think that the contraction of the industry as a whole and the attendant squeeze on overheads has led to ‘ancilliary’ creators (inkers, colourists, letterers) being under-appreciated to a degree by editorial. There are many smaller companies who have dispensed with inkers entirely and have their lettering done in-house by production staff, or by letterers with no real experience but who will work for insanely low page rates. The flip side of this, though, is that a great many of these titles probably wouldn’t make break-even if their overheads extended to paying a decent letterer and an inker, so I find it hard to be overly critical of the practice.

And, if you do think lettering is under-appreciated, do you think that it’s ‘invisible’ (i.e. only noticed when it’s done badly)?

To an extent, I think this is the curse of the letterer: the better you get at it, the less people should notice it. Not because you can’t do showy things, but if you do showy things, they should be in the service of the story. If you stick in a great big sound effect, for example, the reader shouldn’t think “What a great piece of lettering!”, they should think “What a cool explosion!” If you’re doing it really, really well then the reader should actually think that the sound effect was drawn by the artist, if they give it any thought at all.

What’s your take on the ‘state of the comics nation’ in terms of letterers/lettering? Are we in a good or bad way?

As we’ve already touched on, the contraction of the market has seen inking, lettering and colouring squeezed particularly hard. At the end of the day, I suppose that forces you to raise your game if you want to make a living from something like lettering — gigs are relatively thin on the ground, and you’ll only get them by being better than the next guy. In one respect, I have no problem with that — if your work is lazy or substandard then you damn well shouldn’t be getting paying jobs. On the other hand, I also know that Tom Orzechowski doesn’t make that much more a page than I do and that’s crazy. Tom-frickin’-Orzechowski. There’s something wrong there…

The back half of this year — post iPad, unsurprisingly — has seen a noticeable uptick in the amount of work on offer for digital formats, which is very promising. If the comic publishers would just learn the lessons of the music industry rather than appearing hell-bent on repeating their mistakes, we might stand a fighting chance!

What are those lessons?

It’s easy to forget that, before iTunes, the music industry made practically zero revenue from online music. This is because they tried to implement digital strategies that shored up their traditional business models instead of recognizing that the business model was changing fundamentally. The most perceptive comment I heard on this — which I can’t find a cite for right now — was that “Your customers aren’t pirates, and pirates aren’t your customers” so treating everyone who wants a digital download of your product with suspicion, making the process actively difficult for them, is just idiotic when they can get the product for free.

What iTunes showed was that you could get people to pay for digital music, but you had to make the purchase process trivially easy and purchase price trivially low.
$2.99 for a digital comic, any digital comic, is insane. $0.99 an issue? I’m all over that — that’s a price point for impulse buying, that’s a price point that will grow your sales.

What the iPad and the slew of tablets that are starting to follow offer the industry is a route back into the mass market; the market from which comics have been excluded since the publishers chose to retreat from the newsstands and into the specialist stores.

I worked in print production — newspapers and magazines — for many years, so I understand the problems of newsstand distribution and the economic reasons why the direct sales market looked so attractive. The key disadvantage of mass market distribution was wastage: comics had to be printed as cheaply as possible because you had to print a million of them to sell half a million, and accept that the other 500,000 would be pulped.

At a stroke, digital distribution dispenses with that entire cost factor, but you simply cannot formulate a digital business strategy predicated on defending your current business model, in this case the dead tree editions of the comics. You have to recognize that this is something new — if you can sell three digital editions at $0.99 instead of one print copy at $2.99, you’re automatically making more money because you haven’t had to pay to print and distribute those digital copies and you’re expanding your market which the industry desperately, desperately needs.

The $2.99 and (outrageous, in my opinion) $3.99 price points are a function of trying to extract maximum profit from a dwindling market: the specialist comic stores. What digital offers is whole new territories to conquer. What is required here is vision and courage, not caution and timidity.
Above: excerpt from Murderdrome, lettered by Jim Campbell.
Writer and artist credits above.

What has digital lettering brought to the ‘creative table’ for letterers? More time to experiment? More space to focus on the ‘artistry’ of lettering? Other positive stuff…? 

Are there negative aspects to the new digital age of lettering? (I think you’ve hinted at a couple already.)

I’m probably not the best person to comment on this, since my abilities and modest success as a letterer are entirely the result of the rise of computer lettering. I tried to master hand-lettering many years ago. My God, how I tried! And it’s hard! I just couldn’t master it to a degree where I could reasonably expect someone to pay me for it. Some letterers — I’m sure I’ve read interviews or forum posts from Rich Starkings and Simon Bowland — have said that they don’t miss ink and smudges and whiteout and ruling baselines with an Ames guide and I can certainly understand that.

One has to be philosophical about this: change comes to all industries — my first boss in newspaper production wasn’t much older than me and could remember the first Macs arriving at his paper, and the death of hot metal. With lettering, the job has ceased to be about calligraphy and become about type-setting. Type is an elegant, subtle artform in itself, it’s just different.

The downside of this is the same malaise that afflicts the design industry as a whole, which is that anyone with access to a computer and a basic art programme can convince themselves that there’s no real skill required, despite so very many of their ham-fisted efforts quite clearly demonstrating the contrary! It has the effect of devaluing the profession and driving down page rates. This, in turn, actually restricts the amount of time you can spend on a page… unless you want to make less than minimum wage!

Quote: ‘With lettering, the job has ceased to be about calligraphy and become about type-setting. Type is an elegant, subtle artform in itself, it’s just different.’
Could you expand on this a little and give some practical examples?

(NB: To fully understand the answer Jim gave to this question, I had to ask him what kerning pairs are and what a ligature is. Here are his explanations:

Kerning pairs tighten up the space between specific letters which would otherwise look a bit ‘gappy’, such as AV:

Ligatures are a feature of fonts where typing a specific combination of letters causes the font to substitute a third, custom character:

(NB: Both the these images are from Wikipedia.)

Anyway, back to the interview.)

To be honest, we are now straying into areas so rarefied that you can see the eyes of people who don’t do this for a living glazing over when you talk about this stuff! You can spend a lifetime learning typography; it’s about incredibly fine distinctions.

Understanding that leading (line spacing) is not just a function of type size, but also of font style, for example. I would never set a block of text in a ‘normal’ copy font on lines as tightly spaced as I would a block of comic lettering. It’s about being alert for ugly kerning pairs in the text as you work and caring enough to take the time to fix them.

Clem (Hellboy; BRPD; Hellblazer: Pandemonium; The Losers) Robins’ use of ligatures is a brilliant example of just how obsessive you can get about type. Clem’s pursuit of making font lettering look handwritten is magnificent!

For example: most modern lettering fonts use autoligatures — if you type an E and then another E, the font knows to substitute the second E for a variant character, which takes a lot of the mechanical feel out of the lettering. Clem makes his own fonts and not only has multiple variants of commonly used characters, but has autoligs set up to look five or six characters either side of each character, so that a word like PLEASE will automatically substitute a different E at the end, and a word like PRECEDE will automatically use three different versions of the letter E.

He recently revealed that he does this for punctuation characters, too, so that when he types ?!? at the end of a balloon, the font automatically uses a subtly different question mark the second time!

Jim offered PMP various lettering
styles for Iron Moon before the final
look was decided. Art © Keith Page
Do you get a creative brief from someone when you get a lettering gig? The editor, writer, artist or… whoever?
This varies enormously. Some editors are very engaged with the lettering part of the process: Clive Bryant, managing director at Classical Comics, is very much up on the lettering side of the process, so we’ll go backwards and forwards on fonts until we find the right combination of style, character and readability for each book.

Obviously, on tight deadline books, the editor is more likely to expect you to have a suitable font to hand and just get on with it!

Given a little lead time, I’ll generally try to produce at least three different sample pages to give the writer, artist and/or editor a choice, but for the most part everyone seems happy just to let me get on with it. A lot of the time, that’s flattering, but sometimes it’s nice to be challenged…

You’re also dabbling a bit in art and doing some work for the small press. Please tell us a bit about that. Also, why have you got such a downer on your art? (At least that’s the impression I get from having read your comments about it online). To me, it looks of the standard where if you scored regular pro’ work you’d soon be at the point where your art would be completely acceptable in a pro’ publication; you seem to be at that tipping point of ‘not quite there yet but could get there with a bit of mentoring’. Is art something you would like to pursue professionally or just a hobby?

It’s very kind of you to be so complimentary. I’ve always drawn, and my enthusiasm has always far outstripped my actual ability. I do believe that with hard work, application and practise, I could probably get to something approximating a professional standard and had set myself 2010 as the year to really work on my drawing. However, I ended up with a (very welcome) surfeit of lettering work in the last three months of the year, which kinda derailed that!

I’ve come to really enjoy digital inking in Manga Studio, and I’ve had some success swiping other people’s pencils off the internet and inking them — Chad Hardin, Eric Basaldua, EJ Su, Gibson Quarter and Boo Cook have all been very complimentary about the ink jobs I’ve done over their pencils, which is enormously gratifying. I think I’m nearly there in terms of the quality of the inks, but now I need to practise to the point where I can make that last leap in quality and work fast enough to meet a professional deadline. I’d be quite happy to add some inking work to my professional credits — a bit of diversity in your business model is never a bad thing! Maybe in 2011…
An excerpt from the Fractal Friction web-strip lettered
by Jim Campbell. Writer/artist credits above.

(You can see the pieces in question in the ‘Inks’ section of my deviantart page).

After that, maybe I’ll try and get my pencilling up to scratch, although the digital workflow does tend to blur these distinctions more than a little!

Where do you think lettering is going to go in the next 10 years or so and what implications will that have for letterers? Where do you hope your comics career will be in that time?

I’m hoping for a resurgent industry, obviously! CLiNT may be the first stirring of some small revival in the UK comic market and I believe that comics are one of the few areas of newsagent/high street publishing in the UK that is still seeing some growth.

I have high hopes for Strip Magazine and if that leads to a few more titles that aren’t reprint and/or licensed then that can only be a good thing. The main problem with UK comics is that kids up to the age of about ten are actually pretty well-served, but once they hit ten or eleven, the slot where titles like 2000AD and Battle would once have taken over from the more juvenile comics, there’s now nothing. If we could keep those kids reading comics through their mid-teens, then it becomes a natural progression for them to graduate to more ‘mature’ titles, such as CLiNT or 2000AD as it is today.

The model is very different in the US, where I think you may see the death of the traditional paper monthly, to be replaced by digital publishing, with print versions being reserved for the trade collections. A great many monthly titles are practically looked upon as loss-leaders for the trades anyway, so this would seem a logical step to me.

If it all goes well, then it should be good news for everyone who works in the industry. Personally, I’d like to have a few more clients in my portfolio and if they were larger publishers, I wouldn’t complain. :-)

It would be nice if I’d made some sales as an artist of some description, and equally nice to do the same as a writer but, if I’m honest, I just can’t turn work over in either of those fields at the sort of pace where I could expect to make a living at it; realistically, I’d anticipate the majority of my income continuing to derive from lettering.

If it all goes horribly wrong, then I’ll just have to get a real job!

Please tell me about your lettering blog and what you’re trying to do there…

I started doing computer lettering as one way of making a contribution to the small press here in the UK. What used to grieve me was seeing so many stories with great scripts and great art let down so comprehensively by bloody awful lettering.

At heart, I’m still a small press guy but, although I try to make a contribution to the small press as often as I can, I can’t letter everything myself, so that’s what the blog is for! There are some damn fine letterers in the small press (special mention for FutureQuake Publishing’s Bolt-01!) but there’s still a lot of bad lettering, too. What I’m trying to do is make enough advice and resources available to potential small press letterers for them to be able to make a decent stab at it. I’m also still not quite able to believe that I make a living from working in comics, so I feel a kind of karmic compulsion to pay some of that back, in the form of my time, my advice, and a hand-up, no matter how small, to those attempting the same thing as me…

Where can readers find your work currently and also what have you got coming up in the future?

The bulk of my ‘normal’ comic work is currently for Zenescope Entertainment, whose distribution is a bit spotty in the UK. I’ve done a couple of fairly high-profile books for them — the ongoing Charmed series (doing for that TV series what “Season 8″ did for Buffy) which has the trade paperback of the first five issues due out any time now, and the 120 page original graphic novel Ten Deadliest Sharks, produced in association with the Discovery Channel.

I also have the distinct pleasure of lettering some of Classical Comics’ literary adaptations. So far, you can see my work on Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet and The Canterville Ghost.

You can find other my lettering popping up all over the small press like a nasty rash: currently in Davey Candlish’s Paragon and the collected Jikan Chronicles, for example.

Plus, of course, I letter (and occasionally contribute on the art front) to ongoing weekly webcomic Fractal Friction:

I have lots more Zenescope and Classical work upcoming — I believe Classical are looking to have their adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream out in time for the Cardiff Comic Con in late February, which is a completely gorgeous-looking book with art by Kat Nicholson and Jason Cardy, and then the much-anticipated Dracula, with art by Staz Johnson, following fairly shortly after that.

I’m also lettering Hoax Hunters, which is the back-up strip in the new series of Tim Seeley’s Hack/Slash from Image, and had the pleasure of lettering the exclusive new strip in the upcoming “We Hate Tank Girl” collection. Oh, and Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht, by Alex Ronald and Emperor; which debuts in the next issue of Alan Grant’s WASTED and will be a genuine revelation in the development of Alex’s art, for those who haven’t seen his blog, at least! And I may have lettered a strip in an upcoming issue of CLiNT, unless Titan decide to have it re-lettered in-house, which I’ll be pretty miffed about.

And an online tie-in to a BIG movie that’s out about now; and a book for Markosia; and another for Timebomb; and – fingers crossed!– one for Com.X; and Iron Moon from Print Media; and a bunch of cool stuff for Strip Magazine; and, ooh, you’ll be sick of the sight of me by the middle of 2011!

And can I also say a big “thanks” to you, Matt, for being interested enough to give me space to ramble on about all this. If I have a ‘mission’, it’s not just to try and raise the standards of lettering across all the small press and web-comics where it can currently be of –ahem– variable quality, but to try and get people who aren’t necessarily that interested to at least think about lettering, and to perhaps value the contribution of the letterer a little bit more. In that goal, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Thanks, Jim, for taking time out to answer my questions.

• Jim Campell’s lettering blog can be found at

Myebook - The Iron Moon Sampler - click here to open my ebook
• Print Media Productions first hardcover graphic album, The Iron Moon, a new steampunk tale from Stephen Walsh and Keith Page, lettered by Jim Campbell, will be available soon. Here's a trailer for the book.

A six page 'teaser' strip for the graphic novel, "Hush Hush", will appear in the first issue of STRIP.
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