INTERVIEW: ARIANA MAHER TALKS LETTERING AND QUEER REPRESENTION IN COMICS
Ariana Maher has been in the comic book industry since 2010. As a prolific letterer, she has worked for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dark Horse, and a number of other publishers. Maher is not only an amazing letterer, she is also an outspoken member of a relatively unrecognized portion of the comic book industry and especially for those of us who identify as members of queer and marginalized gender communities.
Prism Comics got the chance to catch up with Maher to discuss comic book lettering, representation in the industry and what’s next for the prolific creator.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Rebecca Kaplan: Lettering is as much an art form as any other part of the comic. How do readers see your personality and viewpoint shine through in your lettering?
Ariana Maher: I have a particular style that other letterers could probably identify, just like I can identify their work. I can tell the difference between Joe Sabino and Joe Caramagna‘s work by looking at it. I can see Aditya Bidikar‘s work has a tailored style for each project he’s on and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou‘s work has a really hand-painted look to it. Everyone has a way of approaching lettering that other letterers can identify, but if you’re a reader, you’re not going to pick it up too easily, because you’re not in the midst of making it. It’s like, if you decorate cakes, you’re going to notice the styles of your coworkers, but the people receiving the cakes may not be able to tell the difference. As long as the cake looks good, they’re happy.
You may not see my personality shine through, but there are moments where I feel like I get to put a little bit of myself into the work. I usually reserve it for times where it’s something really special to me.
One of my first Marvel assignments was Empyre: Avengers Aftermath, and it felt really momentous for as a bisexual creator who was raised by a bisexual mom during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a pressurized environment where your family and home life is great, but you can’t express yourself to other people on-base overseas because your dad could lose his job. The idea of seeing kind representations of queer characters in media felt impossible at the time. What we understood of ourselves and each other stayed inside the home.
On top of that, my mom always complained that as much as I love comics, she didn’t understand why. “There’s nothing for me,” she would say. I’d find as many queer comics as I could to share with her so that she could enjoy something. Now, I get to have moments like in Empyre, where I can show it to my mom and say, “Look, I helped make something that’s super gay.” Since she’s Brazilian, we both remember the big conservative uproar when Young Avengers: Children’s Crusade was selling at a book fair and someone spotted Billy and Tedding having their first on panel kiss. After I told her about the wedding issue, Mom had laughed and joked, “You make comics that Bolsonaro would hate! Good!”
There is a bit of me in the lettering of the Aftermath book; there’s a little sound effect when they are breaking the glass ceremonially at the wedding. It’s a crash sound effect, but I decided to make it rainbows. It was pretty much just me who cared, but that was my contribution.
Rebecca: Is there any character you still want to letter that you haven’t been able to yet?
Ariana: Oh, that’s a good question. I think a few months ago I was going to say Batman, but I’m now going to be the ongoing letterer for Detective Comics.
Ariana: Thank you. That was exciting. I was also going to say Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, but I got to letter a short story about them in DC Pride. That was the best thing ever. I’ll start lettering a book… And next thing I know, the characters are my favorite characters. I’ve been lettering Hellions, and it’s like a group of the messiest X-Men characters you’ll ever meet. I tend to get emotionally invested in a lot of the books I work on.
Rebecca: You were in both of the Pride issues for both the Big Two in 2021. Can you tell me about that experience? What was it like appearing in both?
Ariana: I would say it’s one of the bigger highlights of my career. It’s really hard to see how I could top that because Marvel and DC hadn’t done Pride issues before, and they both decided to do it in the same year. For Marvel, I lettered the whole thing, but for DC, I got to do one story and just being in that was something I was hugely proud of. Getting to tell my family about the Pride event books was definitely a highlight to my year. They’ve been very excited and supportive of me.
I also understand that these special Pride issues are not a sign of full progression for mainstream comics, but it’s a step forward. Back in the day when I was growing up, we never got stuff like this, so I’ll appreciate this and hope for more in the future.
Rebecca: Why is representation in comics so important?
Ariana: It’s supremely important not just because people who don’t see themselves in the media can finally see themselves in different ways, but also because it’s a matter of opening people’s minds. It’s a matter of making sure people aren’t willfully close-minded.
They can grow up to be more understanding people.
Rebecca: I have a follow-up question from earlier. You said your mom grew up in a different era, so what has that meant to her then seeing more representation in comics and you being a part of that?
Ariana: It’s been difficult because she lives in Brazil, and I haven’t been able to visit her for a long time now. Me being able to tell her about my accomplishments with comics and the fun stories I get to work on has been a point of connection between us. It’s pretty amazing considering I grew up in the ’90s and during that time, compared to today, queerness was treated in a very different way. We couldn’t express ourselves very much outside of the household, but my mom always nurtured this lifestyle for us. So finally seeing the world reflect more of how I wanted to see the world to is really encouraging.
For my mom, we get to connect in a whole new way. She can understand what my work is. She can celebrate my wins with me. If I kept doing my old work, which was translation and interpretation, she’d be like, “Well, that’s nice, but I have no idea what you’re doing.” With this, it’s creating media, so we get to have a more visceral reaction to things together.
Rebecca: Are there any current or past letterers that you use that are inspirational to you?
Ariana: I really admire my friend Lucas Gattoni. Out of all the letterers, I’d say we’re very similar in style to each other. I’m very excited to see him get more work. Bidikar and Otsumane-Elhaou are both really amazing guys. They do a podcast called Letters & Lines, but they’re also really accomplished letterers. I admire the new ideas they bring to the table. There’s also the entire team at Virtual Calligraphy. When I joined the team, every single one of these guys stepped up to mentor me and teach me he ropes at Marvel.
It’s a much harder to list any who I don’t admire in this industry, because there are not too many letterers out there. I think if you only count full-time professionals, you’ve got less than 50 people. Everyone is real supportive of each other. For example, Nate Piekos creates a lot of font for letterers to use, but he’s also a professional letterer. So it’s like having the person who makes the paint also painting professionally. He just finished a book. It just came out and letterers are losing their mind over it because now there’s finally an instructional book on lettering that provides a foundation for beginners. I highly recommend it if you get a chance.
As for older letterers, I actually keep Todd Klein prints over my desk for inspiration. He’s known for his work on Sandman and he had a lot of great information that he kind of put together into these cool calligraphy prints. I highly recommend checking out his work. One other person is Susan Crespi, the production manager at Marvel. She used to be a letterer as well, back before they went digital. When I started out at Marvel and was having a difficult day, she would reach out to me and check on me. She’d tell me stories about other women who’ve worked at Marvel or about her days as a letterer. She helped me feel that I have my own place here working within this industry.
Rebecca: One of the things I like about you as a creator is you are always promoting other people too.
Ariana: I honestly think that celebrating other people’s victories and promoting other people’s work helps your own career as well. It makes you someone that people know they can reach out to you if they need help. The only way I can help folks is if I make myself available to them. The only way I would ever expect other people to reach out and help me is if I help them as well.
With comics, especially with the comics industry, it’s not as cut and dry as bringing a lettering portfolio to a convention to show to an editor to get a job. Letterers don’t do that to get gigs. For letterers, it can start with meeting a writer or an artist, or it can start when a creative will talk to other creatives like, “Oh, you’re making a book. You should talk to this person. They’re a great letterer.” It’s a slow process but next thing you know, you’re working for multiple teams and editors on different series. For me, I was hitting deadlines and the editors would recommend me to other editors, and eventually that’s where I ended up where I am. But that’s not the only path to take. Different progressions can help you break into the industry, but keep in mind that “breaking into the industry” is a matter of finding a place that fits you best. Instead of searching for your place in the industry, it’s best to cultivate the place around you. Artists do that when they create fans with their artwork, they’re cultivating that place around them.
Letterers as well, we help each other out – letterers and creatives – because that’s the best way to succeed is by helping others succeed. By promoting other people’s work, those people are going to remember you and ask you to letter again. The more you help others, the more you help yourself. The more good energy you put into it, the more good energy get out of it. I would much rather prefer to work with people who are kind than people who are brilliant. I want to be kind as well. If I am ever gone from this industry, I’d rather be remembered as a Flo Steinberg than as a Stan Lee.
Rebecca: Are you responsible for coloring your own word balloons when they’re different colors? How does that affect the lettering process? And are rainbow balloons the dream, which I think they are since you already answered that.
Ariana: One, yes, I am in charge of coloring my balloons and my sound effects. Also the effects with the balloons, if they have the stroke around them, if it’s uneven – things like that – that’s my responsibility.
When choosing colors, I try to choose things in high contrast because I understand that there can be colorblindness for readers. I try not to play too much with colors for letters and balloons that are too similar to each other unless it’s the House Style for a book.
I try to think about readability. I also think about the style that would best display the voice of the character. Sometimes there is a house style that I have to work within. When it comes to Hellions, there’s a specific House Style to the current X-Men books that I privately call the Hickman style. At first, I thought having a particular style was restrictive, but it turns out that’s not the case. The style sets a baseline that allows me to do some creative stuff. For example, when I need to ensure that the characters are being expressive, I can do some special things with their balloons to communicate that in an unexpected or funny way. When Mr. Sinister is going off his rocker, you can practically hear him through the script dialogue. I want the lettering to reflect that.
When it comes to characters in S.W.O.R.D., it’s a little bit different than Hellions despite having the same House Style. The team is in outer space, so they can be a little bit more calm, cool, and futuristic. One subtle thing that Al Ewing does for the team is have each department in S.W.O.R.D. have a different color association. Wiz-Kid, for example, he’s the head of the Technology Department, which is associated with red. If he has a caption story within S.W.O.R.D, I can put a red border around those captions and the reader will immediately think of the head of that department.
Rebecca: As a reader, I think the colors surrounding the word balloons can really help track the action.
Ariana: Sometimes a little color indication can make people associate things like that. “Oh this color obviously means this character.” Because it’ll be associated with their costume or hair or something like that, so they’ll make that connection, and I’m aware of that.
Rebecca: Are you the one that decides on the little symbols when they go up on top of the balloons?
Ariana: It’s usually the editors who will step in and say, “Hey, we need a Spider-Man symbol here or a Nightwing symbol here.” It’s either something where, for Marvel especially, I can reach out to the other guys and be like, “Hey, is there a symbol that we always use for this character?” Then they’ll look through their archives and see if there’s anything. If there’s something, I incorporate it. If there isn’t something, I come up with my own idea.
One I did recently was Echo from Avengers. I had to do an Echo short story, and now I’m doing an Echo mini-series. For her captions, I wanted to have a symbol at the start of her captions to indicate her. The most notable thing about her is that she has a handprint over her face. There’s an imprint there. I vector-traced the imprint and edited it so that became the symbol in her captions.
Now that I’m working on the Detective Comics books, I was really worried about how to do the captions. I wanted ot make sure I adhered to any House Style for the Batman books. Now I’m starting to realize that they’re going to let me do my own thing because they know I know what I’m doing. For Detective Comics going forward, I’m drawing out symbols to indicate Bat-Family voices like Nightwing, adding my own touch. I get to have creative freedom there.
So my answer is “sometimes.”
Rebecca: Is there any single issue or title that stands out as your favorite project or one you’re most proud of?
Ariana: Oh, I think we talked a lot about the ones I’m already proud of. I’m proud of S.W.O.R.D. I’m proud of Demon Days. I’m proud of Crush & Lobo. I’m proud of both of the Pride books especially. I’m going to say it’s probably going to be any of the Billy and Teddy stories. They’re not my top favorite characters, but I always end up lettering really good stories with them and coming up with really cool ideas for their stories. Most recently there was a one-shot about them written by Anthony Oliveira. I’ve wanted to work with him for forever. He’s an amazing writer and it’s very exciting to letter his stuff.
I’m going to say my number one as Empyre: Avengers Aftermath, because that issue won the GLAAD Award. It’s tough to top something that’s won a GLAAD Award. If Demon Days wins an Eisner, I’ll definitely count that as a win. Letterers like me don’t win Eisners, but I think Demon Days would. I genuinely believe that.
Ariana Maher on Twitter: “Andrea works so hard making great comics and I’m so happy that her efforts are being recognized with multiple comics nominations. She’s talented at getting creative teams to pour their heart into their work thanks to her enthusiasm and support. https://t.co/as33QKW2oO / Twitter”
Andrea works so hard making great comics and I’m so happy that her efforts are being recognized with multiple comics nominations. She’s talented at getting creative teams to pour their heart into their work thanks to her enthusiasm and support. https://t.co/as33QKW2oO
Rebecca: How do we get a woman letterer win an Eisner? It’s time.
Ariana: Women have been nominated and I would say that’s a win. Usually, creators who both draw, letter, and write get the letterer nomination. I don’t think I’ve seen a career letterer who is a woman get the nomination. If that ever happens, that will be a win for me. It wouldn’t be about winning an Eisner, but getting a nomination, or seeing a book that I’ve lettered winning an Eisner. I’ve never done that before and I will consider that the biggest win. Hopefully, Demon Days gets in the running next year.
Rebecca: I want to know some about your process as a letterer…
Ariana: Now with digital lettering, a lot of us end up learning production tasks because we also sometimes help export all that stuff to the publisher for an additional fee. What happens for me is that I get the artwork and sometimes it’s not even colored yet because I can work in tandem with the colorist. Once they get their work done, I’ll color-correct the sound effects and any special balloons I do. Other than that, I don’t need the colorist to be done first to get my work done, so we work at the same time.
I get the art. I get the script. I break down the script into the dialogue lines. I hate getting PDFs because they’re a pain to cut and paste and to break down. If I get a Word doc that’s not overly formatted, it’s good. Once I break down the script and I delete everything except for the lines of dialogue in which page they’re on, I copy and paste these big chunks over to each page of the book, which I have pre-made templates for lettering in Illustrator. That has all of the elements like, “What kind of dialogue? What kind of special balloons? If they’re telepathic, what kind of balloon shapes do I use?” All kinds of things.
I set the artwork, I lock that layer, and then every layer on top, which I use several layers, is all of the lettering. That all floats on top of the artwork. I’ll go through line-by-line, set the balloons, and create the strokes, create the tails, create the sound effects. Page-by-page, I get it all done – which I’m going to have to do later tonight because I’ve got more books on the way – and then I send that in for the editor. They send me notes, I revise my lettering.
Usually, it’s not about fixing mistakes in the lettering. It’s the writer taking a look to see how everything is combined and giving feedback. It’s more like, “Actually, I want to change the dialogue because the pacing is like this now.”
The lettering helps set the pace, which you can see especially in Hellions. Zeb Wells is very good at seeing the artwork and knowing how to set the pace because the revisions are pretty minimal, but we get to see comedic beats by him reviewing the finished proof and seeing where my lettering is going. I make those revisions, and send those in. When I get the okay, I prep everything for print. For Marvel, I use InDesign. I prep it for print and then send it to the publisher. That’s my average work at Marvel. I’d say it takes about eight hours to letter a comic, which doesn’t sound like much, except you also have to account for sleep, and lunch, and three hours of revising other pages, and another book you have to letter.
Rebecca: What’s your typical week like then?
Ariana: Usually, my Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are relatively light on a good week because editors are busy revising the stuff I’ve already sent them, but I tend to get artwork and scripts around Thursday and Friday, so then my weekends get really full because I want to get as much of this stuff done while the editors are away and I can just focus on the lettering. On Monday, I can send in the initial proofs for them to start reviewing and revising. My weekends are pretty packed.
I have been reading the Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering. One of the most important lessons in that book is he has a really strict schedule. He measures out his projects and his time based on his daily schedule, so when editors send him things, he can say, “Okay, this will be done in this window of time.”
I’m trying not to push myself as hard. I have family here now. My brother just moved out here. His husband and the rest of their family should be moving out here next year. I’m married now, as of last month.
Ariana: Thank you. My family has grown. Now that I have all this life outside of my work, I’m trying to understand that I need to limit myself. A letterer’s life is very busy, if you let it be. The greatest thing you can do for yourself once you become more popular as a creator is to tell yourself and others, “No,” and to set more realistic expectations on when they can have something.
It really helps not push myself so hard that I break myself because this is going to be lifelong. I found the job I want. I don’t want to go to anything else. If this is going to be it, then I better plan for the long-term. I have an ergonomic chair and a standing desk. I’m getting medication for ADHD so that I can take care of my mind. I’m learning how to better understand myself through the help of my partner and my family, and that helps me be a better letterer as a result.
An average day can be hectic as heck, but I’m trying to restrain myself more to know how much I can push myself and how much not to push myself because, man, it can be busy.
Rebecca: Also, it feels like ADHD people are attracted to comics. [Editor’s note: A lot of fun and excited rambling was cut from this interview since we both have ADHD. But I throughly enjoyed every moment.]
Ariana: Yes, and we ramble more, like today. I think there’s an attraction to comics for folks with ADHD, because you can freely hyper-fixate onto it. When it comes to lettering, I can hyperfixate for hours, and hours, and hours and not have to be pulled out of that except to get tea. That’s work where I’m being rewarded instead of being scolded.
There’s a structure that you can build around yourself, that you can change as you go because you’re not going to want the same structure all the time. You’re going to want a different structure as you change. When you’re in an office environment, no matter how exciting the office environment is, it’s going to be a little bit too restrictive, too boring. There has been some people I’ve seen say cynical things like, “Oh, now that we’re in the pandemic, more and more creators are suddenly finding out they’re ADHD.” But what’s happening is that we’re suddenly giving people the space where they have to build their own structure, and they’re finding difficulty in that, for good reason. It’s really hard to diagnose this kind of thing.
I had a whole struggle last year talking to my doctor about it because the way I present ADHD is different than how my brother did. He’s had it since he was a kid. He would present it in a certain way that my mom could identify as, “Oh, that’s definitely ADHD.” Well, she would look at me and is like, “Oh, you’re fine.” When really, I would procrastinate work until the very last minute, but I would still work within the structure of the school, and then once schooling structure was gone, I was like, “What the heck do I do now?”
There’s a lot more freedom in working in freelance that helps feed the ADHD mind, I think. The creativity is rewarded and the ability to venture out into different areas that you’re not familiar with because you’re excited and you hyper-fixate on it, that’s rewarded as well.
Rebecca: Well, I totally meant that as a compliment, so I hope it came across that way.
Ariana: Oh, yes. Definitely. I’m embracing this change. It also helps that there’s just so many creatives out there with ADHD who are able to relate and talk about it openly, that we’re finally getting to understand it through each other as well. It’s definitely a compliment.
Rebecca: What do you wish readers knew about letterers or the lettering process?
Ariana: That it’s not invisible. Lettering is not invisible. It’s subtle, but it’s not invisible. When I want to get your attention, I can get your attention. When I don’t want your attention, I can be very subtle. When you pick up a book, if I’m lettering it the same way as I did the previous issues, if I’m consistent, you’re not going to notice the tone change until I make the tone change.
Say you’re reading a Batman book, I’m going to keep it consistent so that when you see a Batman caption, you’d think, “Okay, this is Batman, he’s thinking,” and then all of a sudden, the font changes into something jagged and cruel, and you’re like, “Oh, no, something’s wrong with Batman.” That’s me grabbing your attention when I intend to. The letterer is always thinking about what you, the reader, are going to see and how you’re going to take in the story, and what moments you’re going to take in, and how those moments are going to impact you.
We set the pace with the script and the art. We’re going to see the best way for your eyes to travel across the page, so you get both. Sometimes it works great, and sometimes the art and the script are a bit unwieldy with each other. Sometimes if the letterer can’t grasp that, it’s a failure in lettering, and sometimes you just can’t help it.
All I really want the readers to know is that we’re not invisible because the indication that lettering is an “invisible art” sounds charming, but it also erases our existence from the creative team. We’re part of the creative team. We can be loud when we want to, but we’re not invisible.
Rebecca: Do you use eye-tracking and other techniques to guide the reader then?
Ariana: Yes. It’s all in the process of placement. But it’s not just eye tracking, but also seeing which moments to emphasize and which moments to just let flow as per the script and art.
Rebecca: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Ariana: If you don’t see yourself as an artist and if you don’t see yourself as a writer, but if you have a passion for graphic design, I highly recommend checking out lettering. Now that we have a book about it, it’s even easier now than before.
Also, one other thing to remember is that if they ever have questions about lettering, or about promoting themselves as a letterer, or they just want to talk to another letterer, I’m always available on Twitter as @CommentAiry.
You can also find Ariana Maher at her personal website by clicking the link here.