In defence of Comic Sans
Comic Sans Relief? I already gave
A Facebook pal recently posted to his status:
Whenever you see this font, raise your fists and shout "Comic saaaaans!"
This is a splendid idea, and I have already promised him on your behalf that we will all join in this game. But it made me wonder: what is it about Comic Sans that inspires such excitement?
What excitement? Well, this font causes so much eye-rolling, the faces of its detractors resemble mid-spin fruit machines. Google 'comic sans' and you hit a legion of websites devoted to doing it down. The number one hit in the list, Ban Comic Sans, even aggregates anti-Comic Sans articles from other sites. It does not want for material. Recent entries include a notably lame 'Kill Comic Sans' game (that must have been a dreary Friday afternoon with the Actionscript) and even a snotty article on the blessed BBC Website. The Beeb's article, in turn, quotes the authors of Ban Comic Sans as asserting that misuse of the font is "analogous to showing up for a black tie event in a clown costume". Really? Oh dear. How awful.
The font of all wisdom
Some perspective for you. Comic Sans, as any fule kno, started life as an adjunct to a 1990s Windows 95 add-on called 'MS Bob' or, to give it its proper name, Microsoft Robert. (It is instructive to remember, in these days of Kin and Zune and Bing, that Bob had the distinction of being the very first monosyllabic Microsoft product to be laughed out of existence.) It so happened that in-house font designer Vincent Connare noticed that Beta Bob's word balloons were displayed in Times New Roman
Click on the door
to sign in...
which actually, looking at it, I think works quite well – gives the thing a certain, rather pleasant formality, not untinged by an undercurrent of threat. They could have hired Vincent Price to do the voiceover:
Click the door. Do it now.
Do not make me
tell you again.
Children love that sort of thing.
Anyway, Vincent (Connare not Price) didn't know when to leave well alone, and created jaunty Comic Sans, apparently cribbing it, in part, from the Batman book The Dark Knight Returns. Holy unlikely influences, Batman.
Microsoft Bob died quickly beneath a shower of journalistic scorn, but The Sonz lived on. It eventually escaped into the wild by clinging, like a freshly-born marsupial, to the soft, furry underbelly of Internet Explorer 3. This moment, the one just coming up right now, is the first time since 1997 you have remembered the existence of the not-very-good application bundled with IE called Microsoft Comic Chat. There. Sorry about that.
Once it was installed on every PC in the world, and the general level of computer training had reached the point where the average user could drop down the font combo with just three or four poorly aimed clicks, it was inevitable that the world and her live-out boyfriend would soon be using it for everything from email to spreadsheets. And so the trouble started.
What is it actually for?
Given its history, one might suppose that Comic Sans' niche would be clear. But it isn't.
Sure, it does look a bit like the fonts used in, well, comics – specifically the lettering used in speech bubbles – but actually not very much. Its tongue is too much in its cheek. It's la-ha-ha-laughing even before it's started to tell the joke. This won't do as a way of transmitting dialogue, even in children's comics. It's too distracting.
My first thought was what it most looks like is the kind of font used on a certain class of what I am snobbishly going to call "red top birthday cards". Yes, you do too know what I mean – I saw you in Clintons last Thursday, on a last-minute emergency purchase as usual, turning up your nose at
We all love you, we do,
And hope that this and every year
Are a lot better than the last few.
But that's not right either. For a font that is constantly being castigated for its vulgarity, it isn't really vulgar enough for the job. One really needs something plumper, jollier, more buxom. A font with a bust – no, a rack. Comic Sans is too flat-chested for the part.
However its very thininity (shut up, that could be a proper font-appreciation word for all you know) somehow suggests another application, the one I am championing as its natural purpose.
There is a certain variety of humour that is preserved for later consumption by a method akin to the way they freeze-dry instant coffee. It is poor quality stuff, compared with the real thing, but it is better than nothing. This freeze-dried material is printed onto car stickers and badges and posters and T-shirts, and eagerly purchased by those who, lacking any natural humour of their own, are obliged to ingest artificial supplements regularly.
I'm thinking about
I'm with stupid ☛
My other car is a Porsche
You don't have to be mad to work here, get a round tuit!
The Case for the Defence
Reading the twitterings and bloggery of the Anti-Comic Sans league, one eventually begins to wonder what it is that causes all this bile to be vomited over such an inoffensive target. One becomes, in fact, a Comic Sans apologist.
This is what has happened to me. Come here, little font, inside my coat, and let us see if we can't rub some warmth into your cold, thin limbs. Don't worry: Auntie Verity is going to make all the nasty people go away, but only once they have said they are sorry.
The league of anti-Sonzers broadly offers two principal arguments: that Comic Sans is visually horrible, and that it is persistently used inappropriately.
Readability as a virtue?
Against the aesthetes (and not forgetting, given the fonty subject, the æsthetes) one could try to suggest that Comic Sans' high coefficient of spindle, combined with dramatic diagonals particularly noticeable in the Ys, makes it a bold choice for mass communication in the early part of the 21st century. But I have to tell you that the Design Gang would be quite undeceived by this. This is the sort of tosh they are in the habit of dishing out, and they have no intention of taking it.
One might have thought that one could reasonably cite Comic Sans' readability as a virtue – for example the British Dyslexia Association identifies it as a good choice. So what if it offends the hypersensitive eye; if people can actually read what it says, that surely counts for a lot? But then the Counter-Sannists could point out this item in the Telegraph which claims a) Arial is easier to read and b) anyway "easy to read" is a bad thing, like "sugar is easy to digest", thus defeating the argument both ways round before it has had a chance to draw breath. Me, I suspect the Telegraph piece is rather lightly researched, but to cry  sounds like wiki-weakness.
No, the thing to do with the aesthetes is to ask: what do you suggest as a replacement? The answer, wonderfully, is this page. As Terry-Thomas might have observed, what an absolute shower: as hideous a mixture of dragged-in-by-the-cat alphabettary as you could wish for. If one accepts, and I think any honest defender of Comic Sans is bound to accept, that its I'm the font that laughs at your jokes attitude gets up one's nose after a while, how much more annoying would any one of these alternatives be? Their only teeny advantage is that their novelty has yet to be transmuted by exposure into irritation. But it is surely clear, that the cuteness of, say,
is beginning to jar even before the end of its own name, never mind a whole sentence.
We now turn to the overuse merchants. Here it must be conceded that there is a case to answer. I think most of us have seen peculiar uses of Comic Sans. If not, then a brief search will speedily furnish you with dozens of examples similar to this notice from a DVD store:
It is an offence for us to sell any video
DVD or game classified with a 12, 15 or
18 age rating to any person who is not
12, 15 or 18
I chose this instance because as well as demoing the font it also, as is often the case, suffers from problems of punctuation and logic. (If you happen to be 19 not 12, 15 or 18, would it really be an offence to sell you a DVD?)
This is suggestive. People who use Comic Sans for plaintive little notices and inappropriate medical letters are not designers of websites, nor are they running fancy Mac laptops with vast font libraries. They do not view typography and layout as an opportunity to express their inner souls. They just want a carrier for their thoughts that is clean, polite and, above all, amiable. When they see Comic Sans nestling in their font list, they – correctly – think they have found their solution.
They want a voice that is cheerful but clear, unthreatening but unambiguous, friendly but firm. A voice that says:
If you put your fingers into this bacon-slicing machine,
they will probably get cut off.
As you can see, Comic Sans does this job bloody well. What is there not to love?
Clinching the argument
Finally, I would like to wheel out in my support an example of its use that is so striking, and whose author was such a famous and much-loved champion of the Mac-using class, I feel confident that it will silence forever these dreadful font snobs – for that is all they are.
My example in fact predates the existence of Comic Sans, which with a lesser work would quite defeat my attempt to cite it. However, in this unique instance, the description is so particular as to be quite unambiguous. I have merely to observe that the font must have slipped through a wormhole in time, and my case is actually strengthened. (Ah, I see the bright kids at the back of the class have already tumbled it.)
For I am referring to an electronic tablet reader that is yet to come. And I speak not of the next generation iPad, nor the Kindle, nor yet of the Sony thing in Waterstones where the switch fell off the side but you hastily put it back before the lady noticed. I foretell a device that runs neither WebOS nor Android, but of something which comes with its own protective cover. And on that cover, printed in (to quote the man himself) large, notoriously-friendly letters, are the words
Cue Journey of the Sorcerer. ®