23 May 2007

Breaking the Frame with Hong Kil Dong

One highlight of last weekend's SCBWI New England conference for me was hearing from author-illustrator Anne Sibley O'Brien. First there was the cabaret act she performed with Charlesbridge Editorial Director Yolanda LeRoy and pianist Marilyn Salerno. I hadn't expected such professional-quality singing. Don't miss them if their tour takes them through your convention!

The next morning I attended O'Brien's workshop on new graphic novels for kids, and specifically on how she created The Legend of Hong Kil Dong with Charlesbridge editor Judy O'Malley and art director Susan Sherman. This legend of the "Korean Robin Hood" features a hero with some superhuman powers, so using the comics format made artistic/literary sense.

At the same time, some of the creative team's practical decisions seem to have led to trouble. The book's trim size and 48 pages make it look like a standard picture book, despite the panels on the cover. Some reviewers and librarians have had trouble categorizing the book: graphic novel or picture book? Just recently Booklist threw its weight behind the former category, including it in the Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youth for last year. It’s really a hybrid of the two genres, I think, and more power to it.

Behind the scenes, O'Brien decided to draw all the speech and thought balloons into her art. That no doubt helped with composing the pictures and giving all the art the same line quality. (Korean-style brush work, not pen drawing, by the way.) But the text eventually had to be rewritten to fit well into those inflexible balloons.

I was sitting next to another old fanboy, Greg Fishbone, during the presentation, and we both knew that for decades comic-book publishers pasted the speech balloons onto their panels. Now most comics artists go digital at some stage, another way of solving the same problem. But O'Brien didn't feel confident of her computer abilities, so she and her team were reinventing the wheel with a kink in it.

Now Charlesbridge has the challenge of selling foreign rights in the book with the news that any translated text would have to fit into those same spaces. This sounds like a job for someone with superhuman powers!


Anonymous said...

Actually, most word balloons before ten-fifteen years ago were not actually pasted on, but drawn and lettered directly onto the original art. Pasting the balloons on was usually done if there was some sort of time crunch. That meant the inker and the letterer (and often the penciller and the letterer) could work at the same time, but gave the production department of the publishing company more work. And having to letter on a vellum overlay rather than on the art was a pain.

I still letter directly onto my art for Age of Bronze, but now when I don't do my own lettering, it's done on computer.

I've known cartoonists who draw the balloons first and let the letterer fill the words in later. But the most important thing to do if using this technique is to pencil in the lettering first at correct size so that the balloons are not too large or small.

My French publisher doesn't particularly like the fact that I letter directly onto the art. It means he has to erase all the English words from the computer file of each page and then force the French translation to fit into the same space. And since French is typically 20% longer than English (so he claims), I guess he has to perform some liguistic gymnastics. I suggested that he drop the lettering a point size.

I have seen translated comics with different sizes of lettering from balloon to balloon, but it's not very aesthetically pleasing. It can give the impression that a character with large point-size lettering is speaking very loudly or shouting.

Comics art lettering on computer can be done well or badly, just as traditional comics hand-lettering can. But I still prefer the look of hand-lettering.

Eric Shanower

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the insights. I did most of my reading about comics creation in regard to Marvel in the Stan Lee era, where there might have been a lot of time crunches. And I still see comments about missing balloons on what must have been time-crunched art.

In the case of Hong Kil Dong, the text was set on computer, but apparently the font wasn't chosen until after O'Brien had drawn the balloons to approximate her text in another font.

That produced some awkward fits. The easiest fix seemed to be changing the words to fit the balloons, which caught the editor by surprise.

Basically, the processes that the industry has worked out for picture-book publishing don't necessarily work best for the comics form.

Anonymous said...

One other reason for pasted on word balloons was if the art was done overseas in a country--for a lot of Marvel and DC comics in the 1970s it was the Philippines--where English wasn't the first language. Then the lettering was done in the USA and pasted up onto the artwork.


J. L. Bell said...

And we think of outsourcing work to Asia as so modern!