where the writers are
J Marc Makes a Font
Sixsmiths panel.JPG

A while back, while I was chatting to a publisher about lettering in comics, I remarked that I prefer comics to be hand-lettered. I think it looks better, and "warmer," too. "Warmer" is a bit of an ambiguous adjective, but basically it means that it makes me feel better to look at a hand-lettered comic than at one with a font generated by a computer. It might be because I grew up with hand-lettered comics and am used to them, or that I like to see the humanity of the artist's hand on a comics page. It's not that I never use computer-lettered comics, either. In The Sixsmiths,the scripter, Jason, letters each page on Adobe Illustrator. Sharing the labor means I can draw the page more quickly, so that's a definite advantage.

The publisher said she preferred computer-lettered comics. She agreed with me about the aesthetics of hand-lettered comics, but from her point of view it was much more sensible to have the lettering all computerized, as it made the publication of any foreign-language editions quite a bit easier.

The middle ground was to make my own font. I'd looked into it in the past, but hadn't ever done it, as it takes quite a bit of time and effort. However, now I had a motive to make one. I couldn't find much font freeware for the Mac; there seems to be more for the PC. I downloaded the free font-making software, FontForge.

First, I wroteall the letters I thought I'd need, and saved them as a bitmap file. Next, I copied and pasted each letter into Illustrator, and converted it to a "vector" graphic. Fonts have to be vectors, which basically means you can make the letters as large or as small as you want and they will always have smooth edges. I saved the vectors, and pasted them back into the FontForge software. It took a while, but eventually the whole thing was done. Letters can be made without Illustrator, by the way, but it takes a lot longer, as you have to trace all the letters into FontForge directly.

Then came the really tricky part - the kerning. Kerning means adjusting the space between certain characters to make them look better together. So for example there is a space between "b" and "o" - "bo." But for "T" and "o," you have to reduce the size of that space, and tuck the "o" under the top part of the "T" a little, or it will look unattractive: "To."

FontForge kept crashing while I was kerning, so I postponed that task for a bit. It does look all right sans kerning, though, and I have already used it on the masthead of The Sixsmiths. Hereis a sample of it in a comic, and hereis the hand-lettered version.

People make fonts for all sorts of reasons, and often share them for free. I found one made from Edward Gorey's handwriting, which I usedwhen I was studying his drawing style. Another one, called "Mom's Typewriter," was at a large, free font database. I presume it was made from a sample from someone's mother's old typewriter.I used it to add verisimilitude to this recipe at The Sixsmiths. 

I'm glad that I have made my own font. It's satisfying for me and my publisher from both an artistic and a commercial point of view, and the process of making it was rewarding too.

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I'm so glad I came across your post

So THAT'S how it's all done. I just received my belleyang font from a company, which customizes people's hand-lettering. My graphic memoir was hand-lettered, but my editor said the writing was uneven, and it would be much easier for her to edit with computerized alphabet. I had the same concerns about "warmth." Warmth to me means the slight crookedness, the imperfections, which indicate the presence of a human hand. I was really nervous about the ultimate result. Last week, I received my first-pass proofs, and my first reaction was, Oh, they have yet to white-out my hand-lettering and replace it with the created font. Then I took a closer look, et voila! The entire proof had been replaced with the computerized belleyang font. My computerized alphabet looked right at home in the word bubbles and captions. It looks like my writing. It was better than my writing, because the crookedness remained, but it was more legible. Norton has sent me the font, and I am eager to use it in typing up a letter to a friend.



Belle Yang

"Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale," WW Norton, May 2010