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TYPE DESIGN · March 20, 2009

For Spring Hath Sprung the Cyclotron

In typography, it’s a commonly held belief that a typeface should do its job quietly, in the background. The reader’s attention is for the content of the story, not the form. Type does affect the text’s tone of voice, but usually in subtle ways.

In comics, the relationship between form and content is different. Cartoonist Walt Kelly pioneered the use of different lettering styles to represent his characters’ personalities and accents in his amazing newspaper strip, Pogo. Often the word balloon’s contents were as elaborate and expressive as the funny animals who uttered them.

Pogo Possum, on the left, speaks with his friend, the very conservative and dour Deacon Mushrat.

Deacon Mushrat’s gloomy vulture friend, Sarcophagus MacAbre, speaks in black bordered funerary scripts.

My favorite examples are the blustery proclamations of P.T. Bridgeport. His word balloons look like posters advertising that the circus is in town. The lettering could have been set with wood type and even contains dingbats.

P.T. Bridgeport could also speak fluently in newspaper headlines.

Kelly knew when to tone down the lettering so the content could shine though. The profound meaning of Churchy LaFemme’s poem celebrating the coming of spring (or something like that) is rendered in a more neutral style of comic lettering.

I’m not the only one to have been impressed by Kelly’s lettering. René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo were quick to acknowledge Kelly’s influence on the lettering in their series Astérix le Gaulois.

In this English language edition of Asterix and the Goths, different lettering styles are used to represent different languages.

But perhaps the greatest tribute to Walt Kelly came not from cartoonists but from the world of law enforcement. In the 1970s, J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation became convinced Kelly was encrypting subversive messages within the Pogo comic strip. The FBI employed a team of crack cryptographers to analyze the lettering, looking for patterns in word emphasis and who knows what else. If I were one of those FBI agents, I would’ve milked that assignment for as long as possible.

(All images in this post are copyrighted by their respective owners)


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