Interview with Ariana Maher

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Ariana is a comic book letterer currently working on Flavor, Prism Stalker, Outpost Zero, Circadia, Nancy Drew, and Sfeer Theory.


Ariana, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into lettering? At what point, did fandom become career motivation?
 
Back in 2010, I read Scott McCloud’s “Making Comics”, where he explained how important it is to find the balance between words and pictures. From there, I started seeing comics in a whole new light. 
 
In my free time, I began goofing off with Adobe Illustrator CS3 – getting a grasp of vector shapes and reading any tutorials and tips I could find online about lettering and design. Some of the best articles were from Balloon Tales, Blambot, and Jim Campbell’s incredible blog. I needed material to letter and my friend, colorist Donna Gregory, was drawing a webcomic, so we goofed off together as I slowly taught myself the process.
 
For a while, I simply considered it an odd hobby… but then I read Thor: The Mighty Avenger #4. There was something magical about it – how the entire creative team worked at their best together to create such a memorable story. Rus Wooton’s work on that book deeply inspired me – instead of simply for fun, I wanted to start cultivating my hobby into a new skill. I wanted to be a part of the creative teams and help make comics that I’d enjoy.
 
Building up my skills, I started working with Jayd Aït-Kaci on Sfeer Theory and it has been one of my most enjoyable ongoing book over the years. Eventually, other creators started to get in contact with me. In time, I started working with several creative teams for different publishers. At this point, I feel that the time and effort I’ve put into lettering is now rewarding me with fulfilling work and a full schedule. 
 
Anyone who comes across your work, or portfolio, will notice your books tend to have a unique look all their own. I love when I see lettering that is tailored to a book’s needs (I especially love the tails on Firebug). How do you develop a lettering style for a new book?
 
When I start a new project, I take the elements I’ve used for previous lettering templates as my skeleton and then I put some fresh meat on those bones. I test out different ideas until I find a style that feels natural for that particular book and meets the creators’ expressed needs. I don’t know if I succeed often, but it has grown easier for me to make a judgment call and feel good about the result.
 
Sometimes the creative team already has ideas of how they would like the lettering to be and that gives me direction. For Firebug, Johnnie Christmas liked the style of my lettering in From Under Mountains, so I started building the style from that template until I formed a more unique look. On Prism Stalker, Sloane Leong wanted to draw from her manga inspiration with fuzzy free-floating thought balloons and multi-color captions, so I developed a completely new style based on the manga she shared with me and we went back and forth on different techniques until she was happy with the result.
 
Without suggestions from the creative team, it’s all on me. Usually, I build the style up based on the book’s theme and the artwork, such as the line weight used in the art. Thicker lines could mean heavier fonts and strokes. Thinner lines may mean a lighter feel to it overall. 
 
Flavor was a fun template to build because I started on the first issue when Tamra Bonvillain’s colors were already completed. I love the way she gives the background a paper texture and the foreground a cell-shaded look. When I first saw that, it gave me the impression of watching an animated feature or reading a comic in the Sunday paper. The latter idea stuck with me, so I made the balloon stroke heavy to go with Wook Jin Clark’s lines and then cascaded the balloons without uniting them, a bit like drawing out dialogue in newspaper strips.
 
There are occasions when the font carries the lettering style best and I build around that. Blambot’s Spinner Rack font is beautifully constructed –the clear, legible appearance turned out to be a lovely fit for Outpost Zero, a YA Sci-Fi story from the perspective of scientists.
 
What are some of the things you consider when taking on a new title, and being part of a new creative team?
 
My considerations have a lot to do with personal interest, collaborative relationships, and – most importantly - time. 
 
I hold down two jobs: a day job that automatically absorbs 40 hours per week and my freelance lettering work that takes up a good chunk of the rest of my free time. Healthcare and rent is expensive, so my day job keeps me safe and sane – but lettering is my passion, so I dedicate myself equally to both. 
 
Since I have less time available than I would if lettering were my sole career, I have to be careful about how many books I can work on without overworking myself or overlooking the quality. In my experience, about half a dozen books per month (my current amount) is as perfect a work balance as I can hope for.
 
So time is a major factor for me. If the general timeline works for me, I’ll consider a book. From there, if the creative team features people I’ve worked with or have dreamed of working with, that’s a big deal for me. In addition, if the concept for the series is something I would put on my pull list if I saw it in Previews, then I’m already onboard, eager to get started. Every book I’m working on right now are comics that I feel terribly passionate about.
 
When I have to turn a project down, it’s usually something I would want to work on but I can’t – and that’s due to timing. I have to be careful not to overextend myself. Fortunately, I have a growing list of letterers that I recommend to the creative team for them to consider instead of me. I don’t want a client to restart their search for a letterer empty–handed - I want to make sure they know that great talent is accessible to them, so it helps to point them in the right direction. 
 
I usually have a good idea of which person to recommend to a team based on the style of a project, but it helps to know if that letterer is available to take on more work. So I appreciate it when fellow letterers mention when they are looking for new projects on platforms like twitter, since I can help spread the word.
 
Many of your current titles are out via Image Comics, do you prefer to work with creators directly? Has DC or Marvel come knocking yet?
 
Working with creators directly helped me establish my little corner in the comics industry thanks to word of mouth. Going forward, I hope to keep working with creators directly, though I’ve found that working through editors and assistant editors has been pretty fun and rewarding too. I enjoy the rapport I get to build within creator-driven teams and I also appreciate how editor-driven books keep the process focused, so I don’t have a particular preference to one or the other. Both are enjoyable. 
 
So far, I’ve worked with Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Hiveworks, Skybound, and Boom Studios. Those have all been positive experiences, but I don’t know what it is like to work for DC or Marvel. Perhaps it is much the same, but it could be wildly different. If they ever do come knocking, I’d definitely give it my best shot because I am curious to learn from such an experience. 
 
However, getting hired by one of the Big Two isn’t my particular career goal, so I’m not waiting for any knock at the door. The projects I’m working on right now are what make me happy, so my current goal is to do more of whatever this weird, wonderful thing is that I’m doing right now.
 
Having a day job presents some obvious hurdles in being available for publishers, and creators as a letterer. How have you gone about setting boundaries between the two, and have you had any struggles in keeping those boundaries?
 
Communication is very important. My creative teams are aware that I have a day job and also other books that I work on. They know my time is limited and they also know that I value the time that I work on their books. Likewise, my co-workers know that I have a freelance job in a different field. In fact, when I get comp copies in the mail, I often share them at the office. They’re big fans of Flavor!
 
It’s not a weakness to admit I hold down two jobs. In fact, by being clear about it, collaborators do not expect me to produce finished work at the snap of their fingers. They set a deadline, I confirm that time frame with my schedule, and I turn in the pages on the agreed time. If something unexpected comes up, I’d speak with them as quickly as possible. If they suddenly demand results well before the agreed deadline – I can either refuse due to scheduling conflicts, or I charge extra per page for the shortened deadline. Communication and contract agreements are some of the most important tools a letterer has to set up clear boundaries and trustworthy relationships.
 
Don’t be afraid to push back when necessary. It’s good to form relationships in the industry to build your career, but if someone makes unreasonable demands and you fold to them without protest, then what is to stop them from doing it again and again? If editors and creative teams know where you stand and respect the value of what you contribute to a book, they will hear you out.
 
On the flip side, thanks to finding a balance between the two, I’ve discovered some benefits to the situation (aside from retirement savings, I mean). There are times when my day job is frustrating, so coming home and getting into the zone to letter a series I enjoy is the best way to relieve stress! I did get into lettering from what was originally a hobby, after all. 
 
Conversely, when I get really stuck on the design for a page or if I’m not quite sure how to develop the lettering style for a new book, taking 8 hours out of my day to force myself to be somewhere else and do something completely different lets me put those thoughts on the backburner. When I start a day unsure of how to tackle a lettering conundrum, I often end up having new ideas percolating by the time I get home in the evening, ready to start lettering.
 
A few weeks ago I noticed some tweets you had posted.  More or less they were about being the right fit for a book. What goes into your decision making to determine if a book is the right fit for you?
 
I think each letterer – especially those who have grown experienced and relatively confident in the profession – bring something unique to the table. And that unique quality can be the sum of one’s skill and limitations. I think it’s important to identify my strengths and understand how to negotiate with my current weaknesses. Having a clear idea of what those are helps me decide whether to join a project. 
 
I can be a good fit for a book for one or many reasons. The book could appeal to me as a comic book reader. It could be a challenge I’d be excited to tackle. It could be a project where the creator wants to dig in and help guide my lettering style right down to the minute details – that approach seems to work fine for me, since I’m pliable and always willing to give experimental lettering ideas a shot. I find that I’m a good fit when I’ve built friendships with the rest of the team. If we’ve previously worked together and it was a good experience, I’m quick to join any new project with that creator, if time allows. 
 
Have you ever had to leave a project after realizing you were on the wrong book, with the wrong people?
 
I don’t believe I’ve actively decided to leave during a project. Nothing quite so dramatic. Early in my career, I’ve had a few difficult projects where things weren’t clicking and I’ve had to power through to the end, but I learned from those experiences. 
 
Through that, I learned that if I’m not passionate about a book, then it’s more difficult to motivate myself to put in the time I have available. It’s poor business to limit myself like that, but it’s also something I have to be honest with myself about. I find it difficult to leave a book after getting started so, for me, it is best to identify any issues as early as possible and make a decision before I find myself in the thick of it. Seeing past my ego to acknowledge my limitations is both fairer to me and to potential clients.
 
Also, I’ve learned that if something is not legit about the client, I end up regretting that I didn’t listen to my gut. So I try to keep on my toes. For one thing, I’m wary of anyone who implies that “exposure” is as important a reward as payment. The one client I had (early in my career) who insisted I would get “exposure” as a letterer was quite quick to short-change me on my work. I was so naïve.
 
Don’t feel bad about that, most of us have come across clients offering exposure or some other form of non-payment.

Something I ask everyone I interview…If you could only give one piece of advice, be it for lettering, or life, what would it be?    
 
 
Center your professionalism in empathy. It helps you understand, forgive, move forward, and be a better person to yourself and also to others – including your creative teams, editors, and fellow letterers.
 
There’s plenty of pressure put on letterers since we are one of the last steps in the process before going to print. We are aware that shit (i.e. deadlines and associated stress) tends to roll downhill, right to our feet. There’s frustration because we are often not credited well enough (on covers, in reviews, etc) to acknowledge how important we are to making comics look good and read well. There’s a perceived scarcity of work due to how much we have to hustle to reach the notice of editors, get invited onto creative teams, and build up a sustainable amount of ongoing books to be successful. It’s easy to fall into lonely cynicism and it is hard to muster empathy. But if you take the hard path, I believe it rewards you ten-fold. Instead of seeing a bleak rat race, you start to see a warm - and rather geeky – lettering community. After all, I believe we letterers have our hearts in the same place: despite numerous frustrations and difficult deadlines, we love comics.

 

You can follow Ariana over at Twitter: https://twitter.com/CommentAiry

And check out her website: https://www.arianamaher.com/