12 January 2007

Font Fantasies and Typewriter Realism

In keeping with its combination of pictures and words, comics and novelistic narration, reminiscences and diary entries, Abadazad uses a variety of fonts--but in rather odd ways.

Most of the book's novelistic (as opposed to graphic-novelistic) pages appear in a font called CG Whisper. It sits somewhere between an ordinary sans-serif book font and a handwriting font, apparently to signal that we're reading Kate's diary.

Every so often we see pages supposedly from the original Abadazad books by Franklin O. Davies in a more traditional serif font, though the leading is much bigger than in one of the real models for that fictional series, Reilly & Britton's Oz books.

And then there are three pages at the front and back of the first volume, plus the back cover, set in a typewriter font. Not a common Courier, but a typeface with variations among letters as if they had been set down by steel keys hitting a cloth ribbon permeated with a gradually decreasing supply of ink. (Of course, there are no typos on this page, and the typeface includes an em-dash instead of two hyphens.)

I call this design touch "Typewriter Realism": it creates a page that looks much like it's been typed on an old machine. It's supposed to add authenticity to printed page--in this case, to make those three pages look like Kate has typed them out to introduce her diary. Of course, I chose a similar look for Oz and Ends. And the Class of 2k7 uses the same idea sonically at the end of their trailer.

But that allusion may be outdated, and thus decreasingly realistic. Manuscripts haven't needed to look like typed for years. Some aspiring writers assure others that manuscripts must be in Courier font. But at least fifteen years ago I was editing books in Times Roman and other standard proportional fonts, and my only complaint came when there was no digital file. Indeed, as The Rejecter recently noted, Courier is harder to read than older, proportional fonts. Typewriter style wasn't an improvement over the style developed for lead type; it was a collection of compromises necessitated by technology, and we're now free of those limitations.

In particular, does Typewriter Realism hold much meaning for young readers today? Kate is fourteen years old. Where did she even get a manual typewriter? How did she learn how to use it? (I don't mean keyboarding, which even preschoolers pick up. I mean more esoteric knowledge we've been able to set aside, like how to know when you're approaching the bottom of a page or how to make an exclamation mark out of an apostrophe and a period.)

Adult writers and illustrators and designers and editors may infer some authenticity from a page that looks like it rolled out of a typewriter, but does that appearance mean anything special to Abadazad's target readers?

2 comments:

tem2 said...

When we were growing up, we were exposed to anvils, candlestick telephones, Victrolas, and other items of period technology through classic cartoons like Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry.

I suspect that children today are picking up on typewriters, phonograph record players, and rabbit-eared TV antennae in the same way (and probably with the same level of accuracy--I didn't know for years that an anvil was a piece of blacksmithing equipment rather than a projectile weapon!

J. L. Bell said...

When the anvil fell on the coyote's head, or the red tube with the sparkly string on it blew up in his paw, it was easy to figure out that one was heavy and the other explosive. Similarly, it would be easy—perhaps even interesting—for kids to figure out what a typewriter is from seeing it in action.

But I'm talking about the emotional connotations of seeing a "typewritten" page or hearing the sound of steel keys hitting onion-skin paper wrapped around a hard rubber platen. For us old folks, those sensations have emotional meaning. But they carry less weight for kids, and even less for the generations to come.

Maybe typewriters will mean more one day if kids get to see the coyote having his claws caught in the mechanism.