HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Comic book lettering involves putting in all the words on a comics page, as well as the balloons or borders around them, any signs, titles or sound effects, and sometimes panel borders. In the early days of newspaper comics, the writing, art and lettering were generally done by the same person, but as they became increasingly popular, appearing more frequently, comic strip creators began parceling out portions of their work to different people, perhaps hiring a writer to help with the story, and one or more art assistants to help with the art. Often an assistant was given the task of adding the lettering. By the time comic books came of age in the 1940s, the huge volume of work demanded by publishers had encouraged an assembly-line process, dividing the creation even further into: writer, penciller, letterer, inker, colorist, with any number of people assisting on these jobs. By the late 1940s (perhaps earlier) it became possible to make a living just lettering comic strips and comic books for artists, studios or companies that didn’t have the time or desire to do it in-house. The career of freelance letterer was born, and by the 1950s, letterers such as Gaspar Saladino, Sam Rosen, and Ben Oda were as busy as could be lettering comics strips and pages for publishers like DC Comics, Marvel Comics and King Features. Note that I’ll focus on DC in this account, as it’s the company I’m most familiar with.
Gaspar Saladino lettering, early 1950s, ©DC Comics, Inc.
Cover lettering is a specialized subset of comic book lettering, usually assigned to a either a staff letterer or one of a few top freelancers. It may involve standard word balloons, as below:
©DC Comics, Inc.
but usually requires something extra — display lettering. This is lettering that gives an extra visual punch in some way to draw attention. Use of open lettering filled with a color is common. Display lettering is similar to the headlines in a newspaper or the subtitles on a magazine cover. It’s intended to sell the content of the comic to a potential buyer, both visually and in what it says. On occasion, it can be so provocative it becomes the main selling point, as in this famous Flash cover:
Flash #163, ©DC Comics, Inc.
The words, or cover copy, are usually written by the editor, sometimes with suggestions from the artist, and the cover image is based on what the editor considers the most exciting scene inside, though DC editor Julie Schwartz had a interesting alternative, especially for his science fiction anthology books, STRANGE ADVENTURES and MYSTERY IN SPACE. He’d have a brainstorming session with one of his artists, like Murphy Anderson, and they’d come up with a half dozen intriguing cover images, then Julie would pass them on to his writers, telling them to write a story around the picture. Presently many covers have no cover copy, just a hopefully enticing picture, putting the task of selling the book squarely on the artist’s shoulders.
Beginning in the 1940s, but becoming all-pervasive in the 1950s through 1960s, the cover lettering of Ira Schnapp (along with his logo designs) helped define the distinctive look of DC Comics covers. Schnapp was classically trained as a carver of stone inscriptions, and brought that sensibility to his work for comics. (You can read more about Ira Schapp HERE.) Below are some examples of Ira’s work that will be instantly recognizable to longtime comics readers.
Copyright © DC Comics, Inc.
When I began in the comics business in 1977, all the elements on a page of comics were done by hand. Today it’s possible for all of them to be done on a computer, though much of the artwork is still done by hand first, then scanned onto a computer. The evolution of desktop publishing powered by inexpensive but powerful desktop and laptop computers, especially those made by Apple, began in the 1980s, and started having an impact on comics lettering soon after, though the effects were gradual.
The first place I recall seeing computer-generated lettering was in the work of writer/artist John Byrne, who made fonts from existing lettering to save time for himself, such as in this example from Hellboy:
Hellboy, Seeds of Destruction #1, Dark Horse Comics, ©Mike Mignola
Unfortunately, Byrne made the mistake of using existing lettering by other people without always getting their permission first, as in this case, where the lettering came from artist Dave Gibbons. Another early user of computer lettering was David Cody Weiss. But computer lettering really started making an impact with the availability of the first commercial comic book font, WHIZBANG,which I believe I first saw advertised in The Comics Buyer’s Guide around 1990. It’s still available, though for a time was so prevalent that readers complained about many books having the same look.
In the early 1990s Richard Starkings and his partner John Gaushell began created comic book fonts and started COMICRAFT, which has become the major source of comics fonts, though they have competition from others such as BLAMBOT. Richard was the first to not only promote his fonts by lettering with them himself (and soon developed a staff to help him), but also selling fonts commercially on his company’s website, and has been very successful doing so.
At first computer lettering was always printed out and pasted onto the comics artwork, but after a few years, as comics coloring moved into desktop publishing, digital lettering files began to be used in a more effective way by combining them directly with digital art files, eliminating the physical paste-up stage altogether. When I saw this happening in the early 90s, I realized it would be the way of the future. I had met Richard Starkings and John Gaushell in San Diego in 1993, and in 1994 asked them to help me get started with computer lettering by creating a few fonts for me from my hand lettering. I bought my first Mac computer in late 1994, and started learning how to make it all work, and how to make fonts myself.
EARLY COMPUTER WORK
The first book that I fully computer lettered was this one, Deathblow #20, for Jim Lee’s WildStorm Productions.
The fonts Comicraft made for me worked well, and I used them as a template to make more, including some of the sound effects fonts seen here. There will always be something missing from computer lettering that I feel I can only capture with hand lettering: a freshness, roughness, variety of letterforms made up on the spot. Computer lettering has its limits, but when done well can certainly do an admirable job, and it provides a lot of technical shortcuts. Even on this early job, the lettering was applied to the colored art files digitally, skipping the tedious physical pasting of the balloons on the art that was the norm at the time, at least when the lettering wasn’t done right on the art before it was inked. WildStorm was ahead of the curve there. Marvel came around a few years later, DC held to traditional production methods the longest, into this decade, but now nearly all lettering is digitally applied. By 1995 the revolution had begun.
WHAT DESIGN MEANS IN COMICS
When I started working in the comics business in 1977, there were no real publication designers in comics. Companies such as DC Comics and Marvel Comics had art directors, but their job usually consisted of working with the existing artists drawing the company’s stories, especially in creating covers, helping solve any problems with the art in the production process (such as making complex art changes), and finding new art talent. Of course, at the time, comics were largely considered a throwaway medium mainly intended for children. But that was changing even then, as publishers began to cater to adult fans, and soon, to collect their magazines in book-form reprints of various kinds. As they entered the new territory of producing actual books, real graphic design skills were needed, and companies began to hire designers.
In that interim period of the late 70s to mid 80s, anyone with a little graphic design experience was tapped to work on new projects. One of my early jobs working in the production department at DC Comics was putting together a tabloid-size magazine about the upcoming Superman Movie, the first one starring Christopher Reeve. My previous job had been doing graphic design work on air conditioner manuals, so I had some basic skills. Here’s a sample page.
©DC Comics, Inc.
Pretty simple stuff by today’s standards, but remember, this was in the days before desktop computers and digital design. Each page had to be laid out on paper, the page “mechanical.” A typewritten script was needed for all the type, which was then sized and laid out in rough form by cutting and pasting copies of the script, or by arcane markings and measurements that could be interpreted by a typesetter. These layouts were sent to an outside type house who produced cold type (photographically created rather than with metal type) in galleys, which were then pasted onto the page mechanical by hand. Photographs were indicated by black boxes. Slides or large black and white photo prints were attached to the page when it went to the separation house, who prepared the photos and dropped them into the boxes by physically cutting and stripping in photographic negative film. Color blocks and design elements, such as the ones on this page, were prepared on an acetate overlay using rubylith or red film for the color areas. As you can see, a set of skills was used that are now largely forgotten. Today I could produce the same page in a quarter the time, and without the need of anything other than the script, photos, my desktop computer and a good scanner.
By the way, if you look closely, you’ll see a credit for front cover design of this book: Neal Pozner. Neal was later brought in to DC as their first real publication designer, having had experience with that in the advertising and music fields, I believe. Neal and I didn’t get on well, but he certainly raised the design standards at DC, and made many changes for the better. Though it’s hard to tell from the way the credits read, the actual page layouts on this magazine were done by Joe Orlando. They were essentially comic book thumbnails: small layouts with areas of pictures and type roughed in. It was my job to turn those into finished mechanicals.
I did plenty of that kind of hands-on design work in my ten years on staff at DC, but after leaving to begin full-time freelance lettering in 1987, there weren’t many such opportunites, and to be honest, I had plenty of lettering work, so I wasn’t really looking to do more publication design. But after getting my first desktop Mac in 1994, I soon found there were desktop design programs that would allow me to do that sort of work again if I wanted to. I learned basic skills in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Quark Xpress in the process of learning how to letter on the computer that would also be useful in page and publication design.
Meanwhile, comics companies were also going through the digital revolution, gradually doing more and more of their work on desktop computers. Covers were the first area to go this route. In 1997 I was asked by DC design director Georg Brewer if I’d like to help them through a work crunch by doing some digital cover design work on their “Secret Files and Origins” series. I said sure, and over the next few months I did several. Here’s an example.
©DC Comics, Inc.
This was digital design in baby steps: Georg provided the art, the logos, some of the fonts, and a script. I put things together in Quark Xpress. It was a great way to learn, and I enjoyed the new challenge.
So what does good publication design mean in comics? I think it means tying together the diverse elements of a page with a cohesive plan. In the above cover, the plan is to make it look like a mainstream personality magazine such as PEOPLE, with a bit of tabloid sensationalism thrown in to pique the potential buyer’s interest. That’s the goal, of course, getting someone to buy the product. In comics, a great piece of artwork is the strongest selling point, but good design elements can certainly enhance that, and bad ones can detract from it. Choosing fonts that work well together and support your design plan is important. It’s also the job of the design elements such as the Logo and Cover Copy (the words) to clearly tell a potential buyer what they will find inside the product. If it’s not clear, they may move on to something else. With interior design for things such as text articles and features other than story pages, the same principles apply, but with the emphasis on making the page clear and easy to read, engaging the reader rather than pushing them away with difficult to decipher layouts and hard to read type. In my opinion, simple is always better than complex in this area.
In 1998 I was hired to letter most of the new line of comics being planned by Alan Moore and his collaborating artists for WildStorm Productions (later part of DC Comics). But in talking to Alan, I found he wanted more from me than just lettering. Using Chris Ware’s ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY as an example, Alan wanted the entire line to have a comprehensive look, a design plan that tied it all together.
“Oh, they have on-staff designers now that handle that sort of thing,” I told him.
There was a pause. Then Alan said something like, “Well, youcould do that, couldn’t you?”
I thought about it for a moment, recalling the hundreds of cover logos and all the cover lettering I’d created, and the at least minimal experience I’d had with digital design at DC Comics, and allowed that I probably could! And thus I began working on cover and interior designs for the America’s Best Comics Line.
Working closely with Alan and the artists, as well as line editor Scott Dunbier, I developed the logos and look for the covers of each of the four initial series: TOM STRONG, PROMETHEA, TOP 10 and TOMORROW STORIES. In addition to the regular series artists, I enlisted the help of premiere comics painter Alex Ross to provide alternate covers for the first issue of each book. Alex also helped me with the design of the ABC “star” symbol, which I had been struggling with. Alex did a terrific job, and he gave me confidence that I could pull this project off.
In the sidebar topics at right I’ve included my favorite ABC designs, with comments. I’ve also included some examples of the interior design work I did for the regular ABC books as well as THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, a creator-owned series that began separately, but was added to the ABC line before the first issue was published. I was brought in to design covers and inside text pages beginning with the second volume, and all the collected editions. Finally, I’ve added some other design work done for DC Comics more recently for FABLES and other books. A reasonably complete list of my design work can be found in theKLEIN LETTERING ARCHIVES section of this site under OTHER STUFF.
While comics publication design is not my main focus, I certainly have enjoyed working on these projects, and hope to do more in the future.
A few years ago I was a guest at a convention, doing a panel about myself and lettering. As often happens, someone in the audience asked, “How can I learn more about doing my own lettering?” And for the first time I was able to give an answer I’ve always wanted to give: “Well, you can buy my book!”
Comic Book Font Designs