14. Sequential Matters: Credit and Fair Compensation with ‘Harleen’ Letterer Gabriela Downie
Essential Lettering Tips from a DC Black Label and Indie Comics Letterer
Howdy Brave Being,
Welcome back everyone to Sequential Matters, a series typically written from my perspective about comic craft, but I wanted to chat with one of my collaborators about her experiences as a letterer. So today, I’m joined by Gabriela Downie, letterer most well-known for DC Comics’ Black Label title HARLEEN. She and I worked together on DEAD DREAMS: THE LUCID CHRONICLES #1 and I cannot recommend her highly enough as an ace collaborator. Her professionalism, accuracy, and incredible speed were a match made in heaven.
Let’s hop to it!
Gabriela works for DC on a slew of titles and freelances for indie creators not only as a letterer, but also as a character designer, pre-press artist, and cover artist. On top of all that, she’s a writer whose words always opens my eyes to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Gabriela came recommended to me by way of HELM GREYCASTLE writer Henry Barajas, a fantasy series which Gabriela lettered and tackled a variant cover of issue #3 as well.
Brittany Matter: What's your first step in the lettering process?
Gabriela Downie: The first step is always to gather all essential materials. That means art, script, and references, making sure the materials are formatted correctly to help ensure a smooth production/lettering process.
BM: What do you think makes good lettering?
GD: The best lettering is self-aware. That means the sound effects and dialogue situate themselves in positions that help emphasize intention. A lot of inexperienced letterers don't keep in mind how their graphics are "touching" the other art elements in the panel, leading to a disjointed, or worse, distracting (and not in a good way) lettering job.
BM: What kinds of decisions did you have to make for this page from HELM GREYCASTLE #3?
GD: My biggest concern is keeping the text information neat, polished and consistent with how it interacts with the graphic elements of the page. Next, how the lettering graphic elements "touch" the art elements of the page.
Therefore in panel 6 I consciously "wove" the sound effect through and around art elements and graphic elements alike, helping immerse the reader deeper into our comic book experience.
BM: When you picked up the letters from Ariana Maher in DEAD DREAMS: THE LUCID CHRONICLES #1, who had tackled a handful of pages, how did you make them your own?
GD: I did my best to preserve the balloons, tails and font Ari started with, she has excellent graphic design sensibilities. Sound effect designs were up to me, and the script did a great job discerning when to use them to help pull the reader deeper into the unfolding mystery.
Related: Read more about the history of DEAD DREAMS: THE LUCID CHRONICLES #1 here.
BM: What is it that you think most people don't know about lettering?
GD: Most people don't know how underpaid and overworked we are, it's unacceptable how poorly we are compensated.
BM: What can creators do when hiring a letterer to mitigate underpayment and also reduce the possibility that they'll overwork them?
GD: What tends to happen is letterers get paid $10-$15 per page, $20 if they're lucky, and more than 20 if they beg and plead and forfeit their unborn child. That page rate is all they get. Even so, they are expected to design, redesign, letter, re-letter and format the pages. When all that extra work is needed in several rounds of corrections (because let's be honest, the rest of the team isn't happy unless they've poked lettering pages to death—I mean "perfection") when all that is said and done, HOURS HAVE BEEN SPENT ON THESE LETTERING PAGES. So last year when I was lettering full-time for DC Comics, for example, I walked away with making 23k for the whole year. That's pretax money btw, and I never got benefits, overtime, royalties, insurance, and hardly any recognition or credit, if someone still refuses to see how this is exploitation, it's because they're probably benefiting from our unpaid labor, that's the ugly truth!
Creators can budget better! And pay us what we ask, respect it, respect us, and become part of the solution instead of continuing such a grotesque unfair practice.
BM: HELM GREYCASTLE was the first comic that included your name on the cover. Do you think including the letterer on the cover is a must or something flexible?
GD: Letterers should get credit and fair compensation. When we get excluded from appropriate credibility, we are essentially being reminded how "replaceable" and "insignificant" we are to a project. Which is manipulation, because when a woman or poc box has to be checked off in the team, they hire "that one female/poc letterer" so that the fans don't totally outrage or have the ability to call out the gatekeeping. These publishers are gaslighting us on how much we matter, how much we contribute and how much we IMPACT the industry.
Letterers should get credit on the cover, without their contribution you’d get art with no letters/script/context. At the end of the day we are competent high level graphic designing professionals and should be revered as such. But most importantly we need humane/fair monetary compensation.
Getting to know Gabriela Downie
BM: Lettering isn't all that you do! You're also a pre-press artist and cover artist, and have been working on your very own original graphic novel (OGN). Tell us a little bit about it.
GD: My original graphic novel is a creature-romance story with an extraterrestrial marine biologist Latina lead who is confronted with taking ownership of her forced participation in a corrupt profit-driven-multi-planet-exploring-pillaging-aquarium industry. Along the way we unravel the secrets of her past as she dives bravely into her broken heart to find answers and truth. All while being responsible for protecting the innocent lives of loved ones who get swept up in the current of her past mistakes.
BM: How does your art inform your life or vice versa?
GD: My art pushes me to constructively question my understanding of life. State new questions and continuously pursue truthful answers. Storytelling reminds me we are all multifaceted characters, and that "real life" is the comic book page we're all drawn on.
BM: When you sit down to make art, letters or otherwise, who or what are some of your inspirations?
GD: Anime and video games! I'm a member of the millennial-weeb-cult culture and this is my way of informing you that we will be taking over.
BM: How has working in the comic book industry changed your life and art?
GD: Wow, it's made me painfully aware of the racism and misogyny within everyone, including myself. I've learned that my self-limiting beliefs are practices that were conditioned into me by a generational-white-supremacy-programming society. So it's pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone in all areas of my life, speak up for myself, expand myself, practice vulnerability and hold my peers accountable for the roles they play in this unjust system. Not as punishment, but as incentive to change the way things have been, benefiting only a few as it exploits the rest.
BM: What are you working on right now?
GD: My original graphic novel is still being drawn as of this moment. My heart swells even thinking about it. Every time my skies grow dark, hardships pile up, when depression, grief, and anxiety latch onto my feet, I look up and see my comic, and I feel safe again. I feel powerful again, and am reminded of who I am.
BM: Beautifully said, Gabriela. Can’t wait to see more of your OGN!
Follow Gabriela’s work here.