Comics Anatomy: Atmospheric Lettering in Gotham Central

By Harry Kassen — Hello and welcome back to Comics Anatomy. For this installment, I thought I’d write about one of my all time favorite comics: Gotham Central. Gotham Central is much beloved by comics fans and is a truly amazing comic for a wide variety of reasons. Chief among these reasons is its sense of tone. Like any good crime story, Gotham Central is steeped in atmosphere. From the very beginning it tells you that it’s a story about police first, and Batman second.

Vital to creating this atmosphere is the lettering, done in the first 11 issues by Willie Schubert. In his lettering, he makes one particularly important decision that contributes to the tone of the series in two ways. He places balloons against the edges of the panels, but instead of butting the borders, he breaks them, allowing the white of the balloon to be in contact with the white of the gutters.

Compare this to later lettering by Clem Robins which doesn’t do that, and instead places the balloons against the borders.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying one letterer is better than the other. This sort of decision sometimes comes down to personal style, but my guess is that the decision here was made differently. As far as I can tell by looking at the original art, issues 1-10 were hand lettered, and in that process it’s slightly easier to break borders, but not by much.

The remainder of the series was lettered digitally, which makes it slightly easier to butt borders, again not by a ton. My guess is that Willie Schubert lettered #11 to make it look like 1-10, but once Robins took over, he broke from the Schubert style entirely. While I am going to discuss the effects of Schubert’s choices, and sometimes compare them directly to Robins, I’m not trying to say that Robins’ work is of a lesser quality, just that it does things differently and creates a different impression.

The primary effect of breaking borders in the lettering is that it makes the balloons feel like part of the gutter rather than part of the panel. Instead of being a rectangular panel with balloons placed over the art, it becomes, in most cases, a generally rectangular panel with balloons cut out of it. The balloons make the panel smaller. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is this panel from issue 5, where the balloon is the entire top of the panel, making the whole panel feel a lot smaller.

It’s even easier to see when the text is removed.

The same effect can also be seen in other, less extreme, examples.

Compare that to what it looks like when borders aren’t broken.


Understanding the impression that breaking borders creates, we can now look at what that does for the atmosphere of the comic.

The first thing this impression does is it makes each panel read faster. Gotham Central, particularly early Gotham Central, is full of panel dense pages with lots of text.

The lettering choices help to pick the pace back up so it doesn’t lose the intensity and urgency appropriate for the story. Since the space taken up by balloons isn’t read as covered up, but cut out, due to the breaking of panel borders, it isn’t read as part of the panel, which means there’s less to read and the reading happens faster.

The balloon space isn’t processed as panel space.

The second thing the lettering does is it narrows the focus of the panel. By removing panel space and shrinking the panel, it makes clear what is meant to be the central point of every panel. This also contributes to the crime/noir atmosphere by heightening the focus on the important things, creating a beat-to-beat-to-beat rhythm on the page.

This fits with the series’ intent to be a hard-hitting police procedural. It’s tightly scripted and, to borrow some terminology from film and TV, tightly shot, with the lettering being the intersection of those two points, allowing each one to highlight the other.

The words frame the visuals, and the visuals frame the words.

What Schubert does with Gotham Central’s lettering is a great example of what comics can do that no other medium can. The fact that everything is represented visually means that you can create this interplay between words and images, where they feed off of each other more than just narratively. The words can be used to change the way people interact with the visuals.

Check out Comics Anatomy: Velvet’s Perfect Page and Comics Anatomy: Captain Marvel Pushes Boundaries!

Harry Kassen is a college student and avid comic book reader. When he’s not doing schoolwork or reading comics, he’s probably sleeping. Catch his thoughts on comics, food, and other things on Twitter @leekassen.