Interview with a Letterer: Ariana Maher talks comics’ unsung craft

By Jarred A. Luján — In comics, it is often said that letterers are the unsung heroes of the craft. They’re generally the last hands on the pages, completing it as a narrative art piece, and they’re always the ones most pressed by deadlines. Being a letterer, suffice to say, isn’t exactly an easy gig, and it rarely comes with the credit it deserves.

That’s why today I’d like to really highlight a letterer whose work has long stood out to me—Ariana Maher. Ariana is someone who can provide insight into the work, as well as how they, specifically, approach the art form that is lettering. 

Ariana has done work for indie publishers for a minute now, working on a range of books from Dark Horse to TKO! Studios to Image. Along with publishers, Ariana’s work spans genres too, from spy thrillers to high fantasy. Though her style shifts depending on the book she works on, Ariana consistently handles her projects with finesse, firmly establishing herself as a vital letterer within the industry.

Check out our interview below…

Ariana Maher Interview

Luján: I actually discovered you and your work through Prism Stalker, which I’ve told you at least once before. I still really feel like your work in that is so special and unique. Is there a project you’ve done that stands out to you in a positive way?

Maher: It’s difficult to pick out just one. The projects that have brought me joy far out-number any that have brought me frustration. Aside from the growth I had while working on Prism Stalker, there are others that have had a significant impact on me, so I’ll just talk about just two here.

From Prism Stalker #3.

Working on Small Town Witch: Love & Wonder took me out of my comfort zone pretty early in my career – basically, I taught myself how to use InDesign from scratch simply because my friend and collaborator believed I could do it and, well, she was right -- in the end, I figured it out and helped her layout the art and text in the style of an illustrated pulp magazine. That training has paid off well: InDesign is incredibly helpful and saves a good deal of time if a letterer knows how best to incorporate it into their workflow.

Another positive stand out for me was my first Dynamite title, Nancy Drew: The Palace of Wisdom. When there was a call for letterers on twitter, I responded with my portfolio and was given a shot out of the blue. I ran with it! The book juggled an intense mystery, but there were about half a dozen central characters that were often in the same panels together having rapid conversations, so it was a challenge for me to ensure that the script was coming through clearly and readers could pick up the dialogue in the intended order on every page. I think that series leveled me up quite a bit and really got my name out there. By the end of the final issue, I started to feel far more confident of who I am and what I can deliver as a letterer.

From Nancy Drew #2.

Luján: You’ve worked on so many different projects from Ringside to 007. Is there a specific genre you prefer to work on? Do you approach lettering differently based on different genres of books?

Maher: I’m always eager to try out new genres and concepts. I’m often surprised by what I end up enjoying. 

As for my approach, it’s not so much the genre that helps me work on the style, but instead the tone and art for the book. Working on James Bond 007 and The Six Million Dollar Man has made me a fan of lettering spy thrillers, but my approach is different: James Bond 007 goes for a clean, direct look for readers to zoom through a fast-paced story with heavy hits and brutal impacts. The lettering for The Six Million Dollar Man harkens back to the superhero comedy of  the-late 80s Justice League International run, so the balloons get stacked over each other in a similar fashion and the SFX is far more over-the-top and cartoony – I didn’t have to hold myself back nor tone myself down.

From James Bond 007 #1.

All that said, I have a soft spot in genres that allow me to letter magic. I’m getting to do that in Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins II and Zatanna and the House of Secrets. I love it! Lettering magic effects pushes me to try out new ideas. 

Luján: I think a lot of people are really into TKO’s publishing style. For Eve of Extinction, has there been any shift in your personal approach from single issues to the entire graphic novel?

Maher: I really like their publishing style and how it’s going against the grain to ensure that the comics they are putting out are great products. As a reader, I support their efforts and can’t wait to see what they do next. As their letterer, it’s really not too different from other projects I work on because, in the end, nearing deadlines, it is much like completing any other graphic novel project – tackling big chunks until it is done. 

Deadlines are still deadlines. The letterer is still at the final stretch, pushing to get the pages turned in on time. For TKO, I know their projected schedule, so I am better prepared to brace for impact in the months ahead. That’s a plus compared to the unpredictable nature of monthly titles. However, the impact hits all the same. On the bright side, I’m blessed with a great editor for the titles that I am on and I can’t wait to see the reader’s response to Eve of Extinction and The Banks. It’s all looking really good from where I’m standing.

From Small Town Witch.

Luján: What was it about lettering that caught your attention? What made you want to start?

Maher: Lettering can be subtle as you read a comic, but when it wishes to be known, lettering can create a memorable experience. The more I paid attention as a reader, the more good lettering would stand out to me and I wanted to see how it was done. I started out pretty simply – I learned about the process to help a friend put together a webcomic. It turned out to be fun, though I hope to never see my old work again.

I didn’t really think about doing it professionally until I read Thor: The Mighty Avenger, with had an incredible creative team that included Rus Wooton as the letterer. That series was short, but it left a huge impression on me – I wanted to be on the same wavelength with a creative team, do what I can to help make a comic come together. I went from idle curiosity to wanting to be a part of the greater process. 

Years passed, I kept at it, and somewhere around the time I was working on Flavor with an exciting creative team, I thought to myself, “Yeah, I think this is what where I’ve been trying to get to.” It wasn’t any big “breaking into comics” moment. That moment felt more like finding my place in comics – a comfortable spot I’d made just for me.

From Flavor #2.

Luján: What do you think defines “good” lettering? 

Maher: Consistency is key. I’m a firm believer in that. Even if the style is not to my personal liking, if the lettering is consistent then it’s damn good. 

Lettering isn’t invisible. The reader is looking right at the lettering a good deal of the time while they are reading a comic. So the more consistent it is, the easier the reader can be absorbed into what is happening in the book, not noticing what we’ve done to facilitate that -- how the balloon placements navigates them through the page, guiding from one scene to the next. We make it easier for the reader to accept the lettering without a second thought, so that we can lower the barrier between the script and the art. A consistent book has more impact since it provides the reader with a default, a status quo to rely on. When sound effects and other methods disrupt that reliable element, the impact is stronger and the readers take notice. 

And by “consistent,” I don’t mean clean and orderly. In fact, one of my goals is to venture more into a messy consistency if certain projects allow: more handdrawn sound effects and testing out different methods to develop uneven dialogue styles that feel natural to the tone of grittier books. 

From The Six Million Dollar Man #4.

Luján: I know you’ve said previously you are largely self-taught when it comes to lettering, but are there other letterers you look at as an influence? Do you see their work in your own?

Maher: Like many, before I even ventured into lettering, Todd Klein’s work caught my attention first. Then, as I started paying more attention, I was struck by the work done in Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Tess Stone’s Hanna Is Not a Boy’s Name (and I’m enthusiastic for his current project Not Drunk Enough). If anyone wants to look for new inspiration, I’d shove those works at them along with Rus Wooton’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger. 

As for how I am “self-taught,” what I mean is that a majority of my understanding of lettering (especially when I started out) comes from Jim Campbell’s famous blog, Nate Piekos’ tips and tricks, and also reading both Comic Book Lettering: The Comicraft Way by John Roshell and Richard Starkings, as well as The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics by Mark Chiarello and Todd Klein. Whatever styles I developed had these resources as my starting point, so I think those influences show in my work even if I can’t pinpoint all of the connections.

Luján: Lastly, and this is always my favorite question, what is your favorite part of your own art? 

Maher: That is the most difficult question I’ve ever been asked concerning lettering. I suppose my favorite part of my own lettering is that I’m comfortable with it. Once I establish a lettering style for a comic, I’m rather happy and confident in what I’m doing – I rarely second-guess myself and I just keep moving forward from one issue to the next. Perhaps that sounds dull, but as I said, I value consistent lettering, so that’s what I measure my work against. 

Jarred A. Luján makes comics, studies existential philosophy, and listens to hip-hop too loudly. For bad jokes and dog pictures, you can follow him on Twitter.