A Chris Ware Page Examined

Images © Chris Ware.

At the Baltimore Comic-Con I recently attended, an art dealer had a page of Chris Ware original art for sale. It’s the first one I’ve seen, and I asked and was given permission to take it out of its plastic sleeve and photograph it. The page is unfinished, with some panels complete, some partially complete, and some only pencilled in non-repro blue, meaning a pencil color that is easily removed after scanning or photographing for publication. (I know of a few other artists who work or worked this way.)

I asked the dealer if he knew why it was unfinished, and he didn’t but said the page is in print in one of the ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY volumes, he wasn’t sure which. I don’t know either, it’s not one I have. The dealer suggested Ware might have completed the page digitally, either adding in pieces done on other paper, or just inking it on the computer, which seems possible. This could also be a page that was abandoned and redone completely. Without the printed page to compare, it’s hard to say. In any case, I was quite interested to see all this original Chris Ware lettering.

Here’s a closer look at the upper left section. The page is pretty large, and even showing just this part, the lettering is clearly quite small. That’s characteristic of much of Ware’s lettering, it’s often too small when printed for me to read comfortably, which is one reason why I haven’t read a lot of his work. I like his blue pencil layouts for the title: very old-school sans-serif open letters with a nice bounce to them.

Here’s a similar section at lower right. Even at this distance you can see from the amount of blue pencil behond the large block of lettering in the center that he wrote out all the text in pencil before inking it, something I like to see. It was the standard method at DC Comics when I started there in 1977, many of the artists, especially ones that had worked for the company for years, loosely pencilled in all the text so they knew about how much space it would take up, and could draw the art around those areas. Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger were both quite good at this, and it made lettering their work much easier. Only a very few artists do this now, P. Craig Russell being a prominent example.

Here’s one tiny panel very close, about as large as it would look if your nose was nearly touching the paper. You can see that Ware began with horizontal guidelines drawn with his blue pencil, and probably made with the help of an Ames Lettering Guide. Then he pencilled in the actual words. You can see the word BE at the end of the third line. When he inked the lettering, he didn’t follow his pencils exactly, but instead made adjustments for good spacing. I would say the lettering is done with a Technical Drawing Pen, like the ones in THIS post, though perhaps not the same brand.

Part of another panel with even smaller lettering! This is approaching the limit of what’s possible with pen in hand, I’d say, at about an eighth of an inch high. A little shaky, but still quite readable at this size. (Probably barely so at printed size, at least for me.)

Here’s part of that large block of text. Note that he uses a different size pen point for his emphasized word BANK, though not for the comma after it, as I probably would have. Ware’s letterforms are very traditional and most would fit into a rectangle that’s a little narrower horizontally than vertically, giving them a slightly condensed look. The imperfections visible at this size are usually not apparent when printed at a smaller size.

One last panel which has only the lettering inked. This is a great example of getting maximum interest and excitement out of minimal linework.

The only letterer I know of who consistently worked as small as Ware was Bob Lappan. He lettered for DC in the 1980s-1990s. Lappan’s work was further from the classic lettering model than this, and I think perhaps harder to read, though I haven’t looked at any of it in a long time. Chris Ware’s lettering is often too small for my taste, but it’s well done and his title and display lettering are truly masterful.

More about lettering can be found on my COMICS CREATION page and the HOW TO section of my website.

4 thoughts on “A Chris Ware Page Examined

  1. Martin Gray

    Great piece. I’ve not read Chris Ware, but I always enjoyed Bob Lappan’s distinctive style, it had a character all its own. The readability was fine, for me.

  2. Dave Ball

    It’s from the hardcover ACME Novelty Report to Shareholders… (2005), in different form. Very interesting stuff, thanks for posting. db

  3. Kabe

    Am I the only one who thought Bob Lappan and Tom Orzechowski had a very similar style?

    BTW, speaking about letterers with unique approaches, would you happen to know anything about the particular fountain pen Dave Gibbons used to ink with, Mr. Klein?

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