Batman: Last Knight on Earth #1: Flexing those letterer muscles with Tom Napolitano
If you’re a listener of the Comics Now podcast—and you really should be—then you know Tom Napolitano. He and fellow AndWorld letterer Deron Bennett were guests on the show some time ago, and it was an incredibly informative and humorous time. Tom’s been faithfully—and skillfully—lettering Justice League since Scott Snyder came on board, and now he’s hard at work on another Snyder project, Batman: Last Knight on Earth. The first issue dropped this past Wednesday, and after seeing Tom refer to a particularly challenging spread, I decided it had been too long since I’d interviewed someone, and I went about resetting the clock. I reached out with a few questions about the series—and that tricky spread—and Tom was good enough to get back in a flash. Enjoy—this is a good one.
How’d you land Last Knight on Earth? Editorial happenstance, or did Scott [Snyder] request you after your work on Justice League?
Back in February, the Associate Editor, Amedeo [Turturro], contacted me to see if I was interested in lettering Last Knight on Earth. The book's due-to-printer dates were on the same weeks where I have a couple of [other] books due, as well, and they wanted to know if I could handle it. They gave me a little plot synopsis, and I of course was game to be part of such a blockbuster project. And then I pretty much started lettering the first book that day.
I don't have any knowledge of Scott literally requesting me, but I do think he prefers to work with people he trusts, and I feel I earned his trust when I worked my first major event with him lettering the spin-off stories to DC's Metal🤘. And that was a very challenging experience—for example, balloon styles would go through a change in the main line, and I would have to re-balloon a whole issue. But Scott was very grateful for my efforts there.
And again, no knowledge if he requested me, but we've worked together a lot since: Action Comics #1000's "The Fifth Season" story, half of No Justice with Deron Bennett (AndWorld), Justice League, and Detective Comics #1000's "The Longest Case" story. So, I definitely don't think it's been random.
Do you approach this book any different knowing that this is Black Label—prestige format, a book that may be talked about for years to come? Or is it like any other project?
I approached it very similar to any other project—because you never know what will become a break out success. My biggest concern is to always try to compliment the artist's style and the tone of the book. This book is, luckily, a rollercoaster of emotion, action, comedy and drama. So, I can treat one half of the book using more subtle tic or zzz sound effects, and then in the next half throw in an over-the-top, hot pink BONG, and it works, and it's fun!
More specifically, just like our story in Detective Comics #1000, Scott wanted the lettering to match the style from when he and [Greg] Capullo started this whole journey. I use the same typeface for the dialogue, the grey Batman captions are back, and Joker's wacky typeface with the more traditional balloon tail is back.
But there are subtle changes. My balloon and tail strokes are more irregular than the initial Court of Owls run. That's a combination of me always trying to make my balloons look more natural, even when I'm using perfectly rounded ellipses; but in this instance, at least I think, it also adds a level to Batman's journey, the consistent balloons slowly breaking down over time.
Joker used to have very dark green type, so dark that it might as well have been black, I've lightened that up a bit—he's a head in jar—but I do use meatier type for when he laughs. That's my stylistic preference—I get that his laugh can't always be breaking out of a balloon, but when he laughs, and it's still in a balloon, I want to feel as if it's hardly able to be contained.
Okay, let’s talk about the spread that prompted this interview. It’s in part 4, it’s a double-pager, and it’s a whole lot of narration boxes. First off, what did you think when you got this spread and all of the text?
My realization was a slow buildup. I was placing the text, and you start thinking about how you're going to work on the composition, reading order, and how to cover the least amount of artwork: "I'll put some along the top half and some along the bottom," "hmmm, some of the dialogue is clearly addressing a specific image—I gotta work the caption over there somehow," and then a full-blown "holy smokes! It's 24 captions (the original caption count)."
What was step one when you began trying to tackle it?
I took everything off the art and worked out all the stacking and caption sizing on the pasteboard (area around the artboard). This was so later I could just place these "finished" captions one at a time, and completely focus on the composition and reading order—and go back and adjust any captions that weren't working.
Did you have to make adjustments at any point in the process—redoing something you’d already done to make it work better?
As I hinted at before, it was originally a 24-caption spread. So I had a similar but less dramatic/dynamic serpentine shape in the first few proofs. Initially, my composition didn't go up and over the red crystal.
Later, it became 33 captions, so I had to work in an extra 9 captions. After trying to just cram them into the original serpentine shape, I decided to go back to step one, took everything off the artboard, and re-placed them all again. And honestly, I prefer the 33-caption spread over the original 24-caption spread.
Did you have any doubt about whether or not readers would follow the winding path? Particularly in paper with the clear line between pages?
I of course had my doubts. But combined with Capullo's already strong composition, it's a pretty safe bet how people would read these pages. Your eye follows that first large crystal down towards the middle, then he has these smaller crystals pointing straight back up, making your eye follow them to the 2nd big crystal, where he has used his perspective lines on the Hall of Justice to go back up and over at a similar angle on the 3rd crystal, where its lines bring you back down to the edge of the last crystal, and that line falls back towards the middle—then you follow the smaller crystals back over. Capullo's so good, I couldn't have messed it up—as long as I followed his architecture.
Anything else of note about this particular issue?
Humorously, the "hello" echo panel caused me more stress—and probably took me more attempts to get right—than the 33-caption, double-page spread. For a while, both the "hello" and the "is anyone out there" were in this one panel. And I just could not make the lettering look right/cool. I tried an effect—I and everyone else hated it; we went with a normal balloon with a drop shadow on the text, which wasn't as bad as my original effect, but looked REAL out-of-place. But then someone, probably Scott, decided to put the "is anyone out there" on the next page, and that's when my idea light bulb finally turned on and I did the long "hello" down and through the broken shards, and I finally got to a place where the lettering worked with the art rather than against it. It was such a relief to get to a point where I wasn't gritting my teeth every time I looked at that panel.
Huge thanks to Tom for his awesome work on Last Knight on Earth, and for taking the time to go this deep on my questions. Let us know if you have any follow-ups for Tom in the comments, and I’ll see if I can’t get some answers.