Delirium Speaks

BriefLivesPanelImages © DC Comics.

When I lettered the original run of THE SANDMAN, it was all hand lettered except for a few bits in the last few issues. Where we had time, it was often lettered on the pencilled art. Where we didn’t it was lettered on vellum overlays. Each of Sandman’s siblings had a unique style, suggested by Neil Gaiman and realized by me. The most unusual was the style used for Delirium. Our idea was to make it seem unfocused and constantly varying in pitch and loudness, which I accomplished by making the lettering continually larger and smaller, and in wavy lines, as you see above. This was fun in small amounts. On the “Brief Lives” storyline it got to be less fun, as there was a lot of it, and it did take longer than regular lettering, but I got through it okay.

As the years went by, I was only asked to use this style once since computer lettering became the required norm at DC, and that was on THE SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS, the hardcover anthology Neil wrote about ten years after the series ended. For that book I developed fonts from my own hand lettering for all the regular Sandman characters used, with the exception of Delirium. There’s no possible way to imitate what I did for her lettering on the computer, except possibly using a stylus and tablet, which I haven’t tried, but I don’t think I could make that work either. Certainly no font could possibly be as random as what I did by hand. As it turned out, there were only three balloons needed in the classic Delirium style in ENDLESS NIGHTS, and I hand lettered those, then scanned them and through a series of time-consuming steps, brought them into my computer-lettered file.

So, I’m lettering the new THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE series, and wondering if Delirium is going to show up. I get to issue 6 pages 8-11, and there she is, so I followed my previous plan for her lettering. There were 14 Delirium balloons on those pages, and the following process was used for each of them.

DeliriumonDeskWhen I work with artist J.H. Williams III, he gives me balloon placements on a copy of his art file, at printed size. When I lettered comics by hand, the art was usually about 150% of printed size, but in this case I thought I should work a little larger to give my out-of-practice lettering skills a better chance, so I made 200% copies of Jim’s placements for Delirium’s balloons, and hand lettered over them on vellum using the same Castell TG-1 technical drawing pens I used on the original series.

DeliriumSampleANext I scanned those vellums (each was about 8.5 by 11 inches), and combined all the lettering into one image for convenience. On the sample above, you can probably see some areas that came out a little too light, and a slight smear on the final period. There are lots of other small imperfections that are harder to see.

DeliriumSampleBOn this image I’ve adjusted the brightness and contrast, and then made digital touch-ups in Photoshop using the brush tool to add blacks and the eraser tool to remove unwanted dirt and blobs and rough edges. This was the most time-consuming part of the process, and I probably overdid it. One of the dangers of Photoshop is that you can zoom in real close and see mistakes that are practically invisible on the actual lettering, but if I see them, I HAVE to fix them.

DeliriumSampleCMy goal was not to end up with perfect letters, just to make everything look clean and readable. Once I’d done that, I converted the color scan to grayscale and then to bitmap so that there is only 100% black and 100% white on the image. Then it goes back to grayscale for the next step.

PrintAnd that is to place the image in a new file in Adobe Illustrator and auto-trace it, allowing the computer to virtually draw an outline along the edges of all the black shapes. The auto-trace is not perfect, if you look closely you’ll see some small variations from the image before, but it’s close enough. So, there’s now a vector file (rather than the Photoshop bitmap file) of black and white shapes. Next I ungrouped everything, then selected all the white shapes and deleted them. Then I regrouped just the black shapes in each balloon, the letters and border, so what you see here is one group.

Delirium Traced ColorAI’d be nearly done except that Delirium’s balloons also need those radial gradient color fills, and that’s part of the lettering job now, too. So, I put a new layer BELOW the black shapes, locked the upper layer with the black shapes on it, and using the Illustrator pen tool, drew a light green color shape below the balloon. This is similar to the masking process used by many colorists in Photoshop, but it takes longer in Illustrator.

PrintThe next step was to create the color gradients and drop them into the green shape, as above, trying to get something similar to what the colorists on the original series had done. Something different for each balloon, of course.

When that was finished, I copied and pasted each balloon into the correct spot in my lettering document for each page, having to reduce them about 50% to fit the original art size, which is what I work at. Minor adjustments and changes were need there, I’d misjudged some of the tail positions, and so on.

So, start to finish, about six hours to letter and place 14 balloons. The rest of the lettering for those four pages was far from standard, and took about another two hours, but all using fonts, so a much simpler process. I don’t know if Delirium will show up again in this final issue of THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE. (I don’t like to read ahead.) If she does, I’ll be doing more of this, but I kind of think she won’t be back. At one time Neil talked about doing a Delirium mini-series, and she is a wonderful character, but I really hope that never happens! I couldn’t possible make a living wage lettering it.

10 thoughts on “Delirium Speaks

  1. Johnny B.

    Very interesting work. The old school way is always the best way. Thanks for the info and the photos. Regards.

  2. Alfredo

    Thank you for the detailed, delightful explanation of your process. It is very cool to know in depth another aspect that makes Sandman, well, Sandman.

  3. James

    Really interesting process.

    One iIllustrator tip. When you auto trace, there’s an option in the advanced section that says “ignore white” which will do just that. That way you don’t need to delete the white fills.

  4. clem Robins

    i hope they paid you extra for it.

    i do wonder if there’s some filter, either in Photoshop or Illustrator, that could distort typeset lettering after this fashion.

    anyway, nice. it’s always great to solve problems for people.

  5. MackDK

    Todd, I guess if you are fan of Jack Kirby you know the feeling of seeing pictures of his drawing table.

    The “DeliriumonDesk” picture cause the same effect on me. It’s like to see the magic room of Merlin or maybe some room of the House of Mystery…

    Have nice dreams!


  6. Val Quainton

    I just found this post via Neil Gaiman’s Tumblr and, as a huge fan of your work when the originals were coming out, I just wanted to say THANK YOU for what you did to bring Delirium to life for me. As a (then unbeknownst to me) person on the bipolar spectrum, I related to this character *so hard*! And the way you made them speak genuinely reflected the confusion, social uncertainty and general ‘waviness’ I experienced. But without making the character themself scary or monstrous. Thank you again, your hard work and dedication is as appreciated now as it was then!

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