Creating a font from a classic comic

Typographer Nate Piekos describes how he created a 21st-century typeface from a 1980 issue of Elfquest—just in time to begin lettering the comic series' conclusive installment.

I remember asking my mother to get me the collected Elfquest trade paperbacks for Christmas one year. Weeks went by, and being a nosy kid, I stumbled upon them, concealed in the back of a closet just before the big holiday. Giddy with anticipation, I told no one. I bided my time ...

Wendy and Richard Pini's epic tales got me through junior high and beyond. I carted those trade paperbacks with me when I left my mom's house, went to design school, started a career in comics, got married ... and moved a half dozen times in between.

Fast-forward to just a few months ago. Editor Sierra Hahn told me new Elfquest comics were coming to Dark Horse and asked if I was interested in not only designing Wendy's hand-lettering font, but if I'd also like to take on the lettering duties of the whole series! I couldn't reply fast enough. Of course I was interested! It was one of those surreal full-circle moments when I get to work with some of my comic book heroes. I immediately broke out those faded, dog-eared Elfquest collections for reference, and they sat on my desk the entire time I worked on Wendy's typeface.

I've designed hundreds of fonts, but designing the definitive typeface of Wendy's classic hand lettering was a pretty big deal to me. It had to capture the essence of the original Elfquest, it had to be top-notch software, and it had to be special.

Wendy Pini's lettering from Issue #9 of Elfquest

Here's how I did it

Wendy picked out what she considered her best hand lettering-a selection of pages from Elfquest #9. And Dark Horse provided me with high resolution scans of all the pages. My first task was to study the letters in Photoshop, make an intimate analysis of the style as a whole, and choose the characters I thought were most representative.

Every hand letterer brings unique qualities to the page. Some are slight, others overt, like the wiggle on the bottom of Wendy's L's!

Idiosyncratic letterforms help establish the series' distinctive voice

Once I had enough characters picked out to work with, I brought the art into Adobe Illustrator and began creating vector objects of each character. Many typographers would autotrace these, but I always create the objects point by point. The time invested is hours versus seconds, but the results are far superior.

Obviously, there are a lot of characters on your keyboard that don't show up very often, or at all, in comic book lettering. But it's important to me that a finished font contain these things—brackets, a plus sign, accents, etc. It's a matter of craftsmanship and pride in the end product. You could drive a fancy car just fine without a paint job, but it just wouldn't seem finished, would it? Many of these lesser-used characters were missing from Wendy's samples, but the Pinis gave me permission to invent the missing pieces, mimicking Wendy's style. In the end, I think I did a pretty seamless job.

Piekos traces and adjusts the letterforms manually, avoiding use of automated tools available in applications such as Adobe Illustrator

At least two versions of each letter were created, so later on, when I moved the project over to Fontlab, I could program Open Type autoligatures for any instance when two of the same letter appeared side by side. (Think of the two o's in the word book.) The autoligatures swap one letter out so that they're slightly different in appearance, creating a more organic look.

The art contained fewer samples of bold and italic lettering, which are used less often than regular text, so I needed to search a larger number of Wendy's art pages to get what I needed. I repeated the same process of checking off my top choices of which letters to create as point-bypoint vectors. Characters that I couldn't find in the art were once again designed from scratch, simulating Wendy's style. Over the course of about a week, I had re-created or simulated everything I needed.

I decided the italic style would be created by slanting the regular characters in Fontlab, so I took some measurements of Wendy's natural italic slant. You may imagine some very technical equation for figuring this out, or even some preprogrammed action in Illustrator, and those things probably exist, but taking the simplest approach, I just back-slanted some samples of Wendy's italic letters with Illustrator's Shear tool until they were nearly vertical. This gave me a measurement of 30°-35°. I made a note for later and moved on to tidying up the vectors that I'd made.

The completed typeface

As my work progressed, I'd send regular previews to Sierra and the Pinis, getting feedback and making adjustments. The Pinis decided to dial back the degree of slant on both the italic and bold italic sets-we ended up at a 24° slant-and reduce the weight of the bold italic a bit. Here are the samples I submitted to the Pinis for final approval before moving everything over to Fontlab.

A font finally becomes a working piece of software once it's been programmed. This happens in Fontlab or similar software, and it's when things begin to get very technical, but don't worry—I'm just going to hit the highlights!

The most important process at this stage is kerning (how any two characters fit together). Imagine a letter T next to an A. They have to scoot together to look right within a word.

Over the last decade, I've assembled a proprietary list of over eleven thousand kerning pairs that I check and adjust for every font I create. The process can take anywhere from hours to days and is the true measure of a professionally made font.

Careful adjustment of distances between specific pairs of letters — kerning — is a time-consuming process essential to a high-quality typeface.

Each typeface also needs to be cleaned up one final time, spaced, and hinted (the process of making characters render properly onscreen), and the Open Type autoligatures must be programmed.

After much work, the software was saved as installable font files and approved by the Pinis. As I remember it, we made barely any changes at this point. (Always good news!) The font Richard and Wendy decided to call "Elfquest" was finished, and it was about to get a trial by fire!

Dark Horse was going to print the Final Quest Special issue that the Pinis had already completed. But first it needed to be relettered with the new font to match the style of upcoming issues. So within a day or two of finishing, I was hard at work using the new typeface and developing a style guide that evoked those classic tales I grew up with while bringing a fresh, uniform aesthetic to the series' lettering.

If the lettering didn't really jump out at you in this comic, I'll take that as a compliment. When comic lettering is done well, by a letterer with a love of typography and graphic design, it's unobtrusive to the reader and complements the art. When it's done poorly, it's a distraction, and worse yet, it makes your reading experience difficult. It's a serious business to me.

That said, if you did enjoy the lettering in Elfquest: The Final Quest half as much as I enjoyed designing it ... well ... I guess we both have my mom to thank!

Issue #1 of Elfquest: TFQ is available now from Dark Horse Comics. See more of Nate's work at Blambot.com.

A panel from Elfquest typeset ... in Elfquest

Nate Piekos graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Design from Rhode Island College in 1998. Since founding Blambot, he has created some of the industry's most popular fonts and has used them to letter comic books for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Oni Press, and Dark Horse Comics, as well as dozens of independent publishers. In 2001 he became type designer to Harvey Award Winner, Mike "Madman" Allred, and has had his designs licensed by such companies as Microsoft, Six Flags Amusement Parks, New Yorker Magazine, The Gap, and many more. Nate's work has not only been utilized in comics, but in video games, on television, and in feature films as well. When not designing, Nate is committed to a regular fitness routine, reads voraciously, writes and illustrates webcomics, and is a dedicated musician. He's married and lives in New England.

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