Tuesday, December 29, 2020

REVIEW: What the Font?!: A Manga Guide to Western Typeface (nonfiction manga) by Kuniichi Ashiya, translated by Jocelyne Allen

What the Font?! is a one-shot edutainment manga. It's licensed by Seven Seas. I bought my copy brand new.

Although the story isn't the point, this review does include a potential spoiler for the story aspect of this manga.


Note: I realize that I use "typeface" and "font" pretty much interchangeably in this review, even though they're not really the same thing. But trying to figure out when to use one vs. the other was too confusing, so I left it as is.

Marusu works in the Sales department of a small company. The company's designer has gone AWOL, so Marusu is roped into laying out a proposal, the reasoning being that she can draw a little and is therefore best suited to fill in for the designer. However, she's definitely out of her depth and knows nothing about typefaces. That's when Helvetica, the personification of the Helvetica typeface, suddenly appears. He offers to introduce her to other typefaces, who can then each tell her a little about themselves, their specialties, and ways in which they've been used.

The book begins with sans serif types (Helvetica, Futura, Gill Sans, Arial, Franklin Gothic, Impact, Frutiger, DIN, Optima, Gotham), then moves on to the Roman (serif) types (Caslon, Garamond, Times New Roman, Bodoni, Didot, Clarendon, Rockwell, Centaur, Jenson). After that, it covers a few examples of script (Zapfino, Mistral, Comic Sans), display (Trajan, Peignot), and blackletter (Fette Fraktur) fonts.

Each font is introduced with a few pages of four-panel comics in which Marusu gets to know their personalities, work, and history a bit better. The margins contain a little extra information. Then at the end of their section there's a page of notes about the font (or fonts - some are covered in pairs): their category, classification, year of creation, designer(s), foundry, more detailed information about their history and creation, and a usage example or two. After that, there's a page with the font's upper and lower case letters, as well as numbers.

Each larger section (sans serif, Roman, other styles) ends with additional notes and images of logos or other things that use those fonts. The book ends with an attempt to give a more chronological perspective of all the typefaces covered. And of course Marusu finishes laying out the proposal. A list of references is included at the very end of the book.

I'll start by saying that I am definitely not a designer, and I know very little about fonts beyond how to recognize serif vs. sans serif ones. I am, however, drawn to edutainment-type manga. This wasn't too expensive and I knew it'd be an easy donation to the library I work at after I finished it, so I figured "hey, why not?"

The overall story was pretty weak - this definitely leaned more towards education than entertainment, with only one story element that was at all surprising and intriguing, although nothing was done with it (what was up with Helvetica calling Marusu "Ars"? was Marusu a typeface all along?). Theoretically, the personified typefaces could have worked as a way to remember each of their specialties, but their introductions were usually pretty brief, and their personalities were a little underwhelming.

Overall, I'm not sure this book is the best way to learn about typefaces. Even I realized, after a while, that the organization was kind of strange, almost reverse chronological. It made for some annoying moments, like when the text mentioned blackletter before it had even been explained what blackletter was. Also, it still bugs me that the author took the time to explain why Trajan has no lowercase letters but didn't even bring up the oddities in Didot's numbers. I did actually read the whole book, though, which probably wouldn't have happened if I'd attempted to read a textbook about typefaces, and I did learn a few things, so there's that.

The artwork got the job done but wasn't spectacular. The various characters' faces were cute, but Ashiya clearly had trouble with hands.

Additional Comments:

While writing this review, I noticed a typo in the table of contents. Didot is incorrectly called "Didoni." Oops.

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