Lettering a Legend: Aditya Bidikar on the highly-collaborative "Isola"
You really, really need to read Isola. A gorgeous song of loyalty and longing, it is a work clearly born of much care and thoughtfulness on the part of its team of creators. The only thing I wasn't nuts about on my first read of issue #1 was the stylistic choices made by letterer Aditya Bidikar for the dialogue balloons and principal font. Thankfully, I've lived enough years and stuck my foot in my mouth a sufficient number of times that—instead of simply writing these choices off as "bad"—I decided to seek Bidikar out and better understand the aesthetic that ultimately made it into the book. I won't patronize him and imply that his insights somehow fix that first reading; but I can honestly say that his answers to my questions are fascinating, and that I have a rich appreciation for the craft that went into lettering this book.
Brian Warshaw: Most kids probably don’t think “I want to put letters in comic books when I grow up.” What was your path toward becoming a letterer?
Aditya Bidikar: Comics didn’t come into the picture for me until very late. I read them as a kid, but by the time I was an adult, I’d forgotten about them, and I was trying to get work as a prose writer. I pretty much rediscovered comics as a medium (rather than just as a platform for fun kids’ stories) through books like V for Vendetta, Sin City and Transmetropolitan. Once I discovered that the medium could and did tell the kind of stories I wanted to be doing, I immediately started writing comics and working with artists. I lettered one of my early comics rather badly in Photoshop, and showed it to Tony Lee, a British comics writer with whom I’d connected over a mutual love for Doctor Who. He gave me a wonderfully thorough critique of my lettering, and talked me through how much lettering could influence the look, the feel and the storytelling of a comic. That was when I realized that lettering was a whole world in itself, and I was hooked. So when I discovered that writing prose wasn’t a financially viable career for me, lettering was the perfect fallback, because by then, I sneakily enjoyed it more than writing.
BW: Who are some of your strongest lettering influences, inside or outside of comics?
AB: Within comics, I tend to look at hand-letterers and artists who letter themselves for inspiration. Probably my very favorite letterer is Gaspar Saladino, who I feel instituted a lot of what we now see as standard tropes of comics lettering. You can still learn a lot by picking up any random Gaspar book. But other than him, I think John Workman’s done some very interesting and unusual things with how lettering can tell a story—his work on Simonson’s Thor and the Morrison/Case Doom Patrol is worth a study—and Todd Klein is probably unparalleled in designing a title page.
Among artist-letterers, I think I’m strongly influenced by Jeff Smith, Dave Sim and Carla Speed McNeil. I think it’s always worth studying the work of artist-letterers, because they’re absolutely unafraid to cover up huge swathes of artwork with sound effects, if it adds to the overall effect; and, in that area, all of us digital letterers could use some more confidence.
Outside comics, I follow a bunch of artists, calligraphers, letterers and sign painters, on various platforms, for inspiration. A lot of the time, it’s about getting to know different tools, and the kind of letters and lines you can get out of them that’s really interesting.
BW: Do you do any non-comics design work?
AB: Not really. I came to lettering primarily as a storyteller, and I don’t have any sort of design background. I’ve done some design work, but I’m pretty slow at it, and I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as lettering, so I prefer to stay away, at least for the moment.
BW: Turning to Isola: how did you end up working on this book?
AB: I’ve been working with Brenden on Motor Crush for the last couple of years, and I guess he liked my work enough to ask me over to Isola. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with Brenden—he’s absolutely the sweetest—and I’ve been a huge fan of Karl’s since the early days of Charles Christopher, so I said yes immediately.
BW: Did you do all of the design, as well—the cover's letters and symbols, the typesetting of the opening verse?
AB: The design is all Karl—he does the covers, the credits, and he created the symbols—but I did the typesetting for the opening verse. The symbol at the bottom, and at the end of the comic, is recreated from Karl’s files.
BW: The ssss sounds at the beginning—I love those balloons. They seem so appropriate for a sound heard through the rain. From a conceptual level, what were you trying to do? From a technical standpoint, how did you create the broken “ripples” around the balloon?
AB: Basically, Karl had already done a rough version of the lettering, and had drawn a bunch of the sound effects. I absolutely loved what he had done with those, and when we chatted about it, we talked about being influenced by manga and creating a script from scratch to communicate sound rather than relying on English onomatopoeia (I do believe I introduced him to the work of British indie artist Lando in that conversation, and I in turn must tip my hat to designer Emma Price for telling me about Lando in a very similar context).
So, for some sounds, I recreated the ones Karl had done, and I extended the script a little to add some other "letters" for unrepresented sounds. They were all hand-drawn in Photoshop, and then imported into Illustrator. There are other sounds which are still the ones Karl did originally, and at this point, I don’t think I could even tell you which are which. Technically speaking, for the broken ripples on the ssss sounds, I used a few different Illustrator brushes layered on top of each other to create that effect.
BW: Karl’s lines are very clean and slick, but you went with dialogue balloons with odd shapes—a less-clean aesthetic. Can you talk a bit about your decision to do so, and what you were going for?
AB: When Brenden and Karl sent me the rough PDF, I read through it and discussed with them what exactly they wanted me to bring to the project, because Karl’s lettering was already pretty good, and I wanted to know what they thought worked there and what didn’t work, so I could make sure I wasn’t either just recreating Karl’s work or going too far away from their intention.
First came the borderless balloons—if the artist has chosen not to have panel borders in a book, and the artwork is richly colored with few whites, borderless is the first thing I try. You have to be very careful about how the balloon style interacts with the artwork. The lettering doesn’t exist in the "world" of the comic, but it can’t feel like it’s too far above it. In this case, bordered balloons would’ve looked too distant and pasted in, particularly considering how closely the sound effects interact with the art in this book. Here, I was going for the idea that the balloons have been "punched through" the artwork rather than layered on top.
The shape of the balloons was something that Karl was strongly in favor of. This is not something he told me directly, but the way I see it, Isola is not a book that sits neatly in the "Western comics" mold, so I like the idea of the tall balloons which make it look almost as if it’s been translated from a language that runs vertically, a very slight allusion to manga and the sound effects, once again, but nothing too obvious. For the same reason, we wanted to make the balloons look like they were drawn in, so I hand-drew each one rather than relying on pre-made shapes.
And finally, we went back and forth on a few fonts for the body copy (I think we tried about six to eight), but throughout, we wanted something tall and almost gangly to match the look of the balloons. The slight italicization was a request from Karl, and I think it ended up looking pretty cool.
BW: I really liked the sound effects overall. Are you using fonts for all of those, or doing them by hand?
AB: I answered a bit of this question before, but I’ll expand on that. As a letterer, I think it’s limiting to rely on fonts for sound effects and burst dialogue—it’s like you’re leaving tools out of your toolkit. In Isola, of course, they’re not in English, so Karl (and I, following his lead) drew them in. But also, I think using only fonts for sound effects can mean that you’re not engaging fully in designing the panel/page.
I’ve seen a tendency for more and more artists these days to draw their own sound effects—I work with some of the best artists who do that, in fact, like Karl on Isola, Babs Tarr on Motor Crush, Esad Ribić on VS, Nic Klein on Drifter—and it’s immediately clear why they like doing it. They get to exercise a lot of control over the sounds by drawing them in, and make them part of the artwork. Also, as I said before, they’re not afraid of covering stuff up if it improves the overall image. So, inspired by them, I’ve moved towards hand-drawing most of my sound effects and I’ve found myself a lot more satisfied with the final product.
BW: What are some unique lettering challenges with Isola?
AB: The most unique challenge was obviously the sounds. Karl did most of the work, but I rather enjoyed adding to his "alphabet". I also worked out part of an entirely different sound alphabet for which I took a lot of inspiration from Indian scripts like Gurmukhi and Bangla, but we dropped that one because it didn’t have the intended effect. It was quite a lot of fun, though.
BW: Did you get much direction from the other creators or editors?
AB: Yeah, I did, and in a good way. Karl and Brenden told me what they were looking for, and then they let me explore the territory and gave me feedback on the options I showed them. I like working like that, because you have a core idea to work around, and you have people who’ll pull you back if you’re going too far. Once we settled on the style, they let me work out the details myself.
BW: What did you enjoy most about working on it?
AB: The best and worst thing about working on Isola is the amount of time I lose just staring at Karl and Michelle’s work. It’s an utterly gorgeous book, with colors and characters that feel alive, and I’m pretty damn lucky I get to contribute to it. Other than that, I like working with my hands, so drawing all those wobbly balloons and tails, the song Rook sings while huffing and puffing up a mountain trail—all of that stuff’s fun.
BW: What are some other projects you’re working on right now?
There are quite a few in various stages of production, but limiting it to things currently being published—there’s obviously Motor Crush. Then in other books for Image, there’s VS, Black Cloud, and Days of Hate. I also letter most of the output from IDW’s Black Crown imprint, including Assassinistas, Kid Lobotomy, and Punks Not Dead. I’m also lettering Maxwell’s Demons and Deep Roots for Vault Comics, Bloodborne for Titan Comics, Night’s Dominion and The Long Con for Oni Press, and finally, I’m hand-lettering (yup, actual pen on paper) the upcoming graphic novel Grafity’s Wall for Unbound Books.
Big, big thanks to Aditya, both for agreeing to the interview in the first place, and for providing such fascinating, insightful answers. I hope you've learned a lot, too, and if you haven't already, pick up Isola #1 at your local shop today and see this gorgeous book for yourself. And once you're done, come back and read our review.