Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The (Cursive) Writing on the Wall

A topic I mull over every now and then is the decline of basic handwriting skills amongst the general American public. Anecdotal observation over years, impromptu classroom surveys with my students, and common sense, all tell me this might be the swan-song of a quaint, cultural pastime, especially in the case of cursive script. More and more schools abandon teaching handwriting in favor of the more practical training proficiency at keyboarding. Most folks probably never set pen to paper anymore for any reason other than signing checks or contracts. But by this logic we don't need to teach math either, since everybody now uses calculators or computers, right?

Aside from the connected topic of instilling basic literacy, where I get curious is when it dovetails with comics, as writing/lettering is an essential attribute of the medium, hand-in-glove with the drawing. And just like a useless appendage that atrophies over the course of evolution this trait may join other such antiquities like actually drawing on paper, or for that matter, turning the physical pages of an actual book. Hopefully not, as I much prefer the aesthetics of a handwritten comic over any mechanically produced font. It reflects a degree of intimacy, intent, effort and skill not achievable by any typographical means. Even the faddish fonting of one's own lettering style ultimately results in a bland, anesthetized product. I mean, come on - if your so concerned about the amount of time it takes to spend on actually lettering a comic by hand, than maybe not wasting any precious time creating the artwork at all would be just as good of a solution. 

Add to this a personal penchant for hand-writing in comics: the aesthetics are more intimate and engaging, and work together with the drawn images to impart, in my opinion, a decidedly more authentic flavor. At its most basic level, that's what handwriting represents: invested time spent focused on creating the work. That in turn asks the viewer to spend time with the piece, as reading commands more conscious engagement than superficially skimming an image alone. Hence the unique potential of sequential art to be more of a rewarding, engaging and participatory experience than, say, watching film.

One of the finest and highest points of pride I had in high school was the ability to write small enough and clearly enough on those cassette-tape box inserts all of the pertinent info about each track (song title, artist) for my mixes. Years later after a correspondence with my cartoon hero Don Martin, he crushed me with a critique about how illegible my handwriting was, which I took to heart and immediately set about improving upon. I consequently learned how there is a subtle difference between writing - largely unconscious flow - and lettering: the deliberate, meticulous rendering of each individual shape of a letter.

This is crucial communication for the cartoonist, as the average viewer spends only a few seconds skimming over items on a page, and should you throw up a speed bump and make someone struggle to decipher the text, it's functionally equivalent to a stand-up comedian mumbling their lines on stage. This butts up against another attribute of cartoons - everything is geared towards rapid dissemination of information: imparting all the visuals as quickly and cleanly as possible so as to seamlessly engage the viewer. Any hitch in the process and you effectively lose the reader, especially given the societal tendency towards ever-decreasing attention spans. This also accounts for the industry-wide adoption of standard fonts like Comic Sans, which homogenizes the task of reading to it's lowest common denominator and relegates it to a bland, background functional aspect (often similar to much of the tiresomely stereotypical styles of artwork).

From The Comic Sans Project

This contrasts with alternative, independent works where the lettering is as much of an integral part of the product as is every other aspect of the work. Whenever asked in the classroom about developing a personal style in cartooning (or art), I've often used a quick example of having everyone just sign their names, or write down a simple phrase on an index card, then post them all up on the wall and point out that this is a raw, unfiltered example of individual style. While I don't assign any more credence to graphology than I would astrology or any other such woo, but there is no denying this small, brief mark made upon a piece of paper can be just as symbolic as other elements of a drawing - a literal signature statement.

And then there's the opportunity to use sound effects as a way to explore how the individual shapes, sizes and styles of letters and words also contribute to constructing and understanding a narrative. I was really pleased to see a course taught at SCAD in the Sequential Art department specifically geared towards addressing this part of drawing comics:

SEQA 386 Hand Lettering and Typography for Comics Through lectures, demonstrations and studio work, students are introduced to the tradition of hand-lettering and typography in sequential art. The use of word and image in service to a narrative is explored as the students practice conventional and contemporary techniques. Emphasis is placed on skill-building and practical application.

This is so much more of an attractive option than resorting to the soulless cookie-cutter approach favored by most comics creators (Comicraft et al). Unfortunately, along with a corresponding decline in the general population, hand-lettering looks to potentially go the way of inking itself
That is, until the power goes off, which all those years spent working in a cabin in the Alaskan woods has instilled a legitimate respect for.


  1. You cover a lot of ground here. I saw that news clip about dropping cursive too and had mixed feelings.
    1. I remember having a parent-teacher discussion when my son lost math points in the 4th grade for poor handwriting. It seemed to me that was ok if it was so bad she couldn't tell the numbers, but if she didn't like the style, that should be dealt with in his handwriting grade and not penalize the math. Besides, I added, he'll do everything on a keyboard when he grows up. She wasn't pleased. But he does use a keyboard mostly (dvorak because it's faster) but he also can print beautifully.

    2. My Chinese students said that they are forgetting how to write some of the less common characters, because mostly they are keyboarding.

    3. With the newspapers shrinking the comics (at least the ADN), it's getting harder and harder to read the balloons.

    Finally, I just like how it feels to write with a good pen. It's a totally different experience, but I don't do it that often any more.

  2. Point 3 is well taken: the decreasing real-estate within the pages of newspapers and how it has shrunk the comics has to be the biggest (or actually, smallest in this case) and most immediate factor in impacting readership.
    And that physicality of writing also translates into drawing: the tactile sensation of creating a work on paper is the main hang-up I have with going totally digital.