On Saturday night, Chicago Bulls star player Derrick Rose wore a black T-shirt adorned with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” during warm-ups as a way of showing solidarity with the family of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who was choked to death on video by a New York City police officer on July 17, 2014. The message on the shirt references Garner’s last words. Soon, similar T-shirts were being worn by players all around the NBA, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Deron Williams.
The story created a good deal of positive buzz in the New York Times and on ESPN, but pretty soon, critics started spouting off. But these critics weren’t objecting to the T-shirt’s message. They were objecting to the font.
With a few exceptions, the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts–including the one worn by LeBron James–were overwhelmingly printed in Comic Sans.
Obviously, Comic Sans is a contentious font. I’ve written my fair share of articles poking fun at Comic Sans myself. But I think the criticism of the use of “Comic Sans” in the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to be wildly off-the-mark. Not only does Comic Sans work to great effect here; there isn’t a better font that could have been used for the message Rose was trying to put across.
What makes typefaces so special is they lend printed words a character they otherwise might not have. What filters are to Instagram, typefaces are to prose: they emphasize different aspects of the content underneath. Take a picture of a tree in Instagram, and everyone intuitively understands that the mood of that picture changes depending on the filter. With X-Pro II, the tree looks dark and mysterious, like something out of a pagan fable; upload it with Toaster, though, and it looks like a cheery, sun-bleached Polaroid taken on a road-trip in the 1970s.
The same thing is true of typefaces, except typefaces are even more powerful than photo filters: they can impart authority, irony, silliness, or tragedy to even the most mundane sentences. “I Can’t Breathe” isn’t a mundane sentence. It’s a powerful and poignant rallying cry against the corruption, thuggery, and endemic racism of the modern American justice system. It hits you right in your solar plexus; to read the words are to feel in small part for yourself what Garner felt as a New York City police officer choked him to death for no reason at all. Is Comic Sans really an appropriate font to convey a sentence that is this important?
Yes. A thousand times yes.
Comic Sans gets a bad rap because it is wildly misused, but the reason it is misused is because it is so approachable. It is a font that evokes a friendly, everyman vibe. It feels innocent. Ironically, though, these are the same qualities that cause sophisticates to have such a knee-jerk reaction against Comic Sans: they view anyone who uses it as more than a little bit helpless. They are taking a prejudicial stand against a font that is, I’d argue, better than other fonts at conveying the character of approachability and innocence in a string of text.
Sure, there are a lot of times when that’s not the character you want in a typeface. Using Comic Sans in an email to fire employees before the holidays is just as wildly inappropriate as using Gothic on the sign for a pre-school. But many critics act like Comic Sans is a tacky and inappropriate font to use, full stop, when it can actually be a very powerful typeface when used well.
Whether by accident or design, by putting “I Can’t Breathe” in Comic Sans, these shirts are channeling a lot of our peripheral feelings about a reviled typeface into Garner’s last words. It perfectly conveys Garner’s utter helplessness as New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled him to death.
And Comic Sans on the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts serves another purpose too: it helps to humanize seemingly god-like basketball stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James who are often expected to fit into an inoffensive, commercialized mold. As young black men growing up in this country, James and Rose would have once been just as helpless to defend themselves against a broken system as Eric Garner was. By wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, these powerful men are symbolically returning back to their youth to be powerless all over again, just like Garner.
And while the symbolic message is moving either way, it is the almost naive quality of Comic Sans that really drives home the message of these shirts: just compare how much more humble the Comic Sans version of the shirt is compared to the more conventional version worn by the Brooklyn Nets, which uses what appears to be the Franklin Gothic font.
It’s okay to hate Comic Sans, of course. After all, what typefaces you like is ultimately a matter of taste. But no matter how much you might personally dislike Comic Sans, don’t dismiss a powerful, heartfelt message just because you don’t like its typeface, especially when it’s being used well (as it is here). That’s not a matter of taste. It’s classism, and classism is just a shade removed from the racism that cost Garner his life. Which, ultimately, is what we’re trying to rise above.