The invisible art in plain sight: A look at the art of lettering

Fri, June 9th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Michael Thomas, Contributing Writer

[Lettering Feature]Let's disabuse those of who read this of your illusions about comic book lettering: It is not for those of you who want any kind of star-power. It's not for those of you who want to live the Travis Charest lifestyle (take on more than you can chew and then after the bomb has dropped and everyone's pissed, then say, "My bad!"). It's not for those of you who like to ink every last nook and cranny on a copy of Greg Capullo's last penciled pages put up on the Web site until it's perfect.

Lettering is invisible to many that read comic books. Name five letterers off the top of your head. Starting... NOW! That's right, Richard Starkings, Tom Orzechowski, Todd Klein, that guy who does the Flash and John Byrne's font (yes, it's achieved sentient status at this point). The point being, that many can't name very many and if it doesn't have a top ten list in Wizard, well, it's not very valid, is it?

Letterers deal with worse deadlines than any other profession in the business. Writers blow deadlines, then the artists blow the deadline and the deluge of lateness from the creatives up the food chain who took the time to play N64 the night before builds up and lands in the lap of the letterers, sometimes being asked to letter an entire issue within a 24-hour period (or less). Even when they achieve said Mission Impossible, they're not given their full due.

This article is intended as an eye-opener for those of you have never bothered to understand that a book lettered by Comicraft and by Rick Parker (points if you know who this is) have two different feels. It's also intended to enlighten on how lettering really fits in to the whole picture.

Lettering is to comic books what back-up singers are to music: often over-looked, but if done wrong, it's noticed in a bad way. It's as critical an element to the overall look and feel of a story just as much as the dialogue, the art or the colors.

[Chris Eliopoulos]
Chris Eliopoulos
Chris Eliopoulos has been lettering for the better part of a decade. He has lettered many of Marvel's X-books in the 90s, but is probably most well known for his lettering on Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon and various spin-offs thereof.

"I was told when I started was that the job of the letterer is to not get noticed," he said. "If you're doing your job correctly, no one will see the lettering."

Todd Klein backs up being told of this unwritten rule of thumb for lettering. Klein is well known for his work on Neil Gaiman's Sandman and now Alan Moore's ABC line of comics. Klein rebuts with a cinema analogy.

"[W]hen a soundtrack is really good, I do notice it, and it adds to my enjoyment of a good movie," Klein said. "I don't see why lettering can't do the same for comics."

[Comicraft]
Comicraft
Richard Starkings is the president of Comicraft, a lettering house that letters comic books in the all-digital format, and First Tiger of Active Images, seller of a good amount of the fonts used in said comic book lettering. He says that his work as an art assistant and editor of Marvel UK's reprint titles taught him to respect the overall feel of the comic book.

"My experience as an art assistant and editor of Marvel UK's reprint titles taught me to design each issue as a whole unit. I saw how important typography was to the identity of a book and I learned how to blend and contrast typeset lettering elements with hand-rendered letterforms," said Starkings. "In the eighties in England the only MacIntoshes we knew were the overcoats we wore to work on rainy days. Back then, we worked with repro cameras and regular typesetters. Nevertheless, the experience of working with 'mechanical' type definitely opened me up to the concept of working with a computer as a tool."

Influences abound in this world of lettering. Most will talk, like most other comic book creatives, about other others in their profession.

    Steve Craddock: Notably on the black and white Captain Britain magazine (and collected TPB), and V For Vendetta.

    Jim Novak: Whose work can be seen in Marvel Universe: The Lost Generation.

    Bill Oakley: Brilliant stuff in Starman since the start and some early Uncanny X-Men work (pre-Orz).

    John Workman: the Hulk and Orion currently, but whose work on the Mighty Thor with Walt Simonson set the standard in lettering high adventure.

    John Costanza: Nightwing now, but look at almost any Marvel book in the 70s and many a DC book in the 80s with a steady style that compliments any magazine.

Tom Orzechowski
Tom Orzechowski
Except for brief periods of absence, Tom Orzechowski lettered the bulk of Claremont's run on X-Men, as well as most of the spin-off books and Annuals until his final X-contribution in X-Men #4 in 1993. His clean, crisp style and manga-like sound effects set him apart from the crowd and keeps him in the business today, lettering Spawn among other titles.

Talk to Orzechowski and he'll talk about poster artists (Alphonse Mucha, whose 19th century style influenced many a hippie poster in the 60s), typographers (Hermann Zaph) and calligraphers (Arthur Baker). These are people who live, breathe and work with type.

I received an email almost three years ago from Starkings about some samples I sent him.

"When you work with type it is important to realize that you are working WITH it, it is not working FOR you," Starkings wrote in the 1997 email. "You must study the work of designers you admire and seek to understand what it is that appeals to you about the way they present text and images. Look OUTSIDE Comics."

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE...

Orzechowski said, as far as hand lettering goes, the process has not changed since the 1930s. "I'm working for DC and Wildstorm right now in the traditional method, lettering on the pencils, balloons drawn by hand, with the boards then going to the inker."

In the last decade, however, the process has begun to go the way of most things: digital. "As digital color, production, and prepress became the norm, digital lettering became inevitable," said Chris Warner, Editor-in-Chief/Specialty Books Editor for Dark Horse. "Letterers were out front on this initially, but publisher demand -- and the commercial availability of a wide variety of fonts -- now drives the process."

Starkings agrees that there is now greater publisher demand for electronic lettering, but insists that letterers are still leading the field. Not only did Comicraft develop the electronic process which publishers are taking advantage of today, Comicraft's sister company, Active Images, is also the source of the largest selection of commercially available comic book fonts designed by hand letterers.

He said that the pace of comic book production in the United States, since moving here in 1989, was "somewhat intimidating."

"When I moved to the States from England in 1989 I found the pace of production in the US to be somewhat intimidating. Editors routinely expected perhaps 14-22 pages of lettering to be turned around overnight," said Starkings. "The demand for quantity put rout to quality, deadlines punished dedication and -- on the rare occasions when timeliness and volume were immaterial -- over-worked editors and paste-up artists were careless with any work of which I felt proud."

This pushed him to find a way to not only preserve the deadlines he was being given but also the quality of work he was trying to maintain.

But as his prevalence has shown, that aspiration has come to full fruition. He used his first computer generated letters on Marvel's Sleepwalker and Hellstrom in 1992 and has been doing well since then.

Many letterers got on the digital lettering road in the early 90s. Klein said that he had started using them in 1994, using a font based on his hand lettering. He says that he does about half of his work that way. Eliopoulos says that that he does the bulk of his lettering electronically. Even Orzechowski, on the record as eschewing much of the digital process, made himself a body copy font in 1992, using it mostly for manga projects that he does.

[Todd Klein Letters]
Todd Klein
"There are still many fine hand letterers out there," Klein said, "but the ones who haven't moved with the times and learned to work on the computer are having a harder and harder time getting work. Some have been pushed out of the business altogether."

THE FONT VERSUS THE HAND

Since the dawn of the industrial age, there has always been a certain fear of getting away from the hands-on work of our ancestors. While most of us do not worry about a Univac writing, drawing, or coloring comic books, lettering is a different animal.

From the time that monks copies texts to when Gutenberg brought the printing press to when the dot matrix printer made it debut, lettering and typography has always been a hand art. From the kanji of Chinese and Japanese script to the billboard posters of the Old West to the poster artists of the French artists, the type has been the work of blood, sweat and tears. A human hand, carefully crafting a type style.

Now the letters are drawn by hand once, scanned once in Photoshop, edited maybe in Illustrator, exported to Fontographer and eventually generated electronically as members of font families for use in this weekís hot comic.

The question on your lips is, "Is hand lettering dead?"

"Hand lettering is still alive," Klein said, "though the opportunities to do it are waning as more and more publishers and artists turn to digital lettering for convenience or other reasons."

"That's a strange question," says Starkings, "I still use my hands to do my work. No one I know uses their hands to letter; they use a tool called a pen. I use a tool called a computer. It's just a different skill. Pens are filled with ink, my computer is filled with fonts. Many of the fonts I have created were originally designed using pen and ink. Computers don't letter comics. People do. Electronic Lettering guarantees a finesse and polish which pen and ink cannot, and consequently moves the responsibilities of the letterer away from the precise and studious role of calligrapher, to the more flexible and far-reaching role of graphic designer. The question I've been asking myself is not 'Is Hand Lettering Dead?' but 'How can Comic Book Lettering serve its purpose in imaginative and inventive new ways?' Most recently we have created a series of fonts based on the handwriting of the artists who create the books on which we work. Naturally enough, only the rhythm of THEIR penwork, the pressure THEY place on each stroke and each period, can truly complement the mood and rhythm of THEIR artwork."

Orzechowski does not see it that way.

"[C]omic book lettering looks the way it does because it's traditionally been done by hand," he said. "By comparison, comic book fonts are something like clip art, available for use by anyone who isn't prepared to pick up a pen and acquire the skill... [Fonts] can be manipulated, but the user is just cutting, pasting and modifying in order to simulate the look of people who created this art form with pen and ink, and maybe a love of what they were doing."

Klein sees it even bleaker.

"The real shame is that there is no longer much of any place for someone to learn hand lettering and get any pay for it," he said, "so no new hand letterers are being trained (at least in this country, and I doubt many elsewhere). In that respect, it may die out with the generation that came into the business in the 1980s and early 90s."

Naturally, Starkings sees things rather differently; "I like to think that Comicraft made an impression not because we pioneered computer lettering, but because we raised the bar for lettering in general and provided rather more variety than comic book readers had cometo expect. David Cody Weiss and Willie Schubert were working with computer fonts long before I came along; whether or not a letterer is working electronically is beside the point. What has become more prevalent is the demands placed on letterers by artists and writers. No one ever used to ask me to change my lettering style for a particular project when I worked as a 'hand letterer'; they were just happy to have found someone whose work was crisp, legible and delivered in good time. Now that editors, writers andartists understand that books CAN be lettered in different styles, there's a demand that never existed before. Dig the new breed!"

As Klein said, many of the letterers in the business ten years ago are no longer in the business. Good ones find other outlets for their creative endeavors.

Eliopoulos has written and drawn his own popular comic, Desperate Times (www.desperatetimes.com). Klein said that that he's dabbled in writing, inking and coloring. Orzechowski co-wrote (with Andrew Grossberg) Spawn 19 & 20, which led into Daring Escapes featuring Houdini, also for Image. As well, he's an editor on Spawn.

"I've always advised letterers to learn other skills and pursue other work, in and out of comics," said Klein. "Many of the most successful letterers now and in the past have done other kinds of work, too."

Up to this point, lettering does not sound like much of a glamorous job, but then why do some of these guys keep with it, in some cases, for over two decades?

One answer is the people.

Eliopoulos credits it to his main patron Larsen.

"I've told Erik that I will letter the book as long as he does it, no matter what I'm doing--I enjoy it and would do anything for him," Eliopoulos said. "He asks my opinions and in some cases, uses my ideas in his book. He gave me the chance to do my own strip and, unlike most others in the business, looks at lettering as an art, not something that should be done in a minute and not care one way or the other how it looks."

"I'm still a comics fan," Klein said, "and I often have the chance to work with creators I admire and am thrilled to work with."

"I get to work with Tim Sale, Chris Bachalo, Brian Bolland, Ian Churchill, Jeph Loeb, Joe Casey, Jose Ladronn, Joe Madureira, Joe Quesada and Jeff Campbell," said Starkings. "Not only are these people some of the most talented guys around, they also happen to be some of the nicest people I know, and they all love comics... Why WOULDN'T I keep coming back to work?!"

Despite the love of comics that these letterers all have, theirs is an edgy optimism.

"Anyone hoping to make their sole living on comics lettering these days has a very hard road ahead," Klein said.

"Right now comics don't seem to be reaching the audiences we need to reach to survive as an industry. It's not in my nature to fiddle while Rome burns. Comicbookfonts.com was a very deliberate first step toward moving the focus of my business away from service; HipFlask.com is a second step," Starkings said. "I'll never stray very far away from the business of comic book production, but I don't see myself FOCUSSED ON lettering ALONE five or ten years from now."

And we'll see who is leading the field in lettering in ten years.

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