Ascender #1: Getting loose (but not wild!) with letterer Steve Wands
Image credit: Dustin Nguyen
Image Comics’s Descender has a special place in my heart. Kingdom Come opened my mind to the possibility of comics. Snyder and Capullo’s Batman showed me the potential for all of the superhero stories I loved when they weren’t bound by the visions (and budgets) of movie studios. But Descender? Descender blew my mind. Comics could be more than superheroes, and yet no less imaginative! Jeff Lemire’s characters and Dustin Nguyen’s magnificent watercolors made me start buying indie comics, and while the Dark Knight and his superfriends will always have primacy, I have had the joy of reading countless indie titles in the years since Descender first came out.
Descender came to an end last year, but the story is far from over. Its sequel, Ascender, debuts today, and its first issue has all of the beauty, mystery, and danger of the original series, but with the added intrigue of wondering what’s up with the characters we left behind in Descender. The series also features the same insanely high level of quality, thanks to its original creative team remaining intact. The oft unsung hero of that team is letterer and designer Steve Wands, a regular Lemire collaborator, and one of the nicest folks in comics. Steve and I corresponded over the past few weeks, talking about Descender, Ascender, and more, and I’m pleased to share our conversation here. Enjoy!
You built a style and design for Descender—how much of that work are you able to bring in to Ascender, or did you start from scratch?
Much of it will carry over. There needed to be a visual continuity from Descender to Ascender. Though you can pick up Ascender and enjoy it on its own, I wanted the lettering to feel familiar to readers of Descender. Over the course of the series, I'll have plenty of room to create new things along the way.
Tim-21—the hero of Descender and mythical savior of Ascender—is a robot, but a convincingly human-like one. What led you to the style used for his dialogue balloons and font?
Initially, I pitched a style to Jeff and Dustin that was all squared balloons. I had seen some Moebius lettering with a squared treatment and I thought it would be cool to give that a try. After some back and forth we ended up using that for Tim-21 and that was the birthplace for all the different treatments for robots and humes.
The interesting thing about Tim, though, is that he’s got the squared balloons like the other robots, but a distinctly “human” font treatment. Am I reading intent where there isn’t any, or were you hoping that this juxtaposition would reflect who Tim is—the most human of robots?
Nope, you're reading that right, though Tim-22 has the same treatment, as do many of the other alien races we come across—so while maybe not specifically human, certainly humanoid. I wanted there to be a noticeable difference between the mechanical and the, I dunno…organic? I tried to give the more menial robots very simple, clunky lettering styles, and the more advanced [robots] more sophisticated choices.
Mila is the new hero in Ascender, and she’s a young girl. Can you talk about building an aesthetic for her vs Tim?
Her treatment is no different than the other humans in the story. My only hope would be to help convey a sense of wonder with her balloon placement and tails and that really boils down to following Dustin's lead visually. Her small world is about to be disrupted in big ways, and I'll be looking for any way to accentuate that.
So how would you do that? What are some placement strategies/tail styles you could use?
To be honest, I'm still figuring that out. We're only on issue 3 right now, and while she's an important character, we haven't seen a whole lot of her just yet. She does have a very distinct caption style that carries over from Descender. It's a loose, handwritten look. I don't think she'd have a chance to learn cursive, and the letterforms are rough–the way someone still learning might make them, so I think that's a great fit for her that conveys a bit of her character.
You recently got to letter a story in Detective Comics #1000 with Dustin and Paul Dini. How did you get the gig?
Years ago, I lettered Streets of Gotham with the same creative team, and I believe Dustin—maybe Paul (maybe both)—approached Chris Conroy, editor-at-large, about getting the gang back together.
You’re lettering over the same artist (Dustin), but obviously the finish is quite different, as there are inks (from Derek Friedolfs), and the colors are more conventional, supplied by the excellent John Kalisz. Quite different from the watercolors in Descender and Ascender. Can you talk about the thought process that goes into selecting fonts (broadly and specifically) and other stylistic elements for each context?
For Detective I approached it with a bit more of a conventional look. Ascender uses a looser font, and generally there's a bit more real estate to play with, as opposed to Detective where we needed to get a lot of story into 8 pages. The lettering in Detective—by necessity—needed to be more restrained. With something like Ascender, or any painted book, you'll have some opportunities to get loose—not wild, mind you, but loose. I like looking for ways to blend the lettering and art, and painted work tends to give more chances of that happening.
You offer your own organic, hand-rolled, unfiltered fonts under your Lo-Fi Fonts brand. What’s new in that arena lately?
So far this year, I've added three new fonts to the catalog. It's a fun side project that I hope continues to grow. I've got a few fonts in various stages of development that I'll be rolling out as they're ready. With every font made, I learn something new and apply it going forward, so that every new font is the best I can offer.
My thanks to Steve for taking the time to answer my questions (and for being an all-around great friend to Comics Now since its inception). Ascender #1 is in stores today. Read my review, then run to your store and get your copy before they’re all sold out!