Images © Charlton Comics or the respective copyright holders.
Yesterday I wrote about the Famous Artists lesson on lettering and showed this mini-comic cover, mentioning it contained the only information I could find on comics lettering when I was trying to get into the business in the mid 70s. I got it then, and I believe I still have it somewhere, but haven’t seen my copy in many years. Several readers sent me the entire booklet in PDF form, so I thought I’d write about what it contains on comics lettering, a mere four pages out of 36, but it was enlightening to me then, and is still somewhat useful now for anyone interested in hand-lettering.
I’m putting the first and last of the four pages together because they contain continuous text, with the pages between having drawn instructions and samples. So, let’s look at what’s written here. Everything is short and to the point.
A. TOOLS: Speedball B-6 is what many letterers were using when I started at DC, but for regular balloon lettering they usually filed down the sides of the point to make a thinner line, a tricky job that I never really mastered. I did nearly all my balloon lettering with technical drawing pens instead for my first few years. When I tried dip pens again, I used a C-6 wedge-tipped point instead of the rounded B-6. Also note that the name of the plastic lettering guide is misspelled, it’s “Ames.” Most of this is covered better in the drawing below.
B. YOU BEGIN TO LETTER: The one thing I highly disagree with here is the last sentence, “Some letterers prefer to underline emphasized words.” Maybe someone at Charlton did that, though I don’t recall seeing it, but at DC and Marvel, no one did that. I tried it occasionally when the script called for a hand-written note, and was once reprimanded by Julie Schwartz for it. “Nothing in comics is underlined!” he told me. (I still do it for hand-written notes…)
D. BALLOONS: The description and differences between Dialogue and Thought balloon shapes point out one of the problems with the older style of dialogue balloons, which where shaped with large, wide scallops (see the examples below). When you do that, there’s less to set them apart from thought balloons which also have scallops, though smaller and more of them. Of course these days thought balloons are rare, so it’s not much of an issue, but the movement to mostly oval and round speech balloons can be seen as a way to keep them separate from thought balloons visually.
E. PANELS: I kind of miss inking panel borders, one of the letterer’s jobs for the vast majority of comics art when I started, and until computer lettering took over. A few artists insisted on inking their own borders, but most were happy to have the letterer do it. Now it’s often the inker’s job, and the inker also has to completely ink all the art even where the lettering will cover it, where with hand-lettering part of each panel was already accounted for. No wonder inkers hate computer lettering!
G. SWIPES: I never really had this, just a large comics collection. When I was on staff at DC, of course, the world’s greatest swipe file was right in the Production Room, rows of file cabinets with all kinds of reference: logos, panels clipped from old comics art, cover photostats, piles of original cover lettering by Gaspar Saladino and others. And mine, too, after I was there a while.
Here’s the first of two hand-lettered pages by Frank Bravo, dated 1973. I don’t know the name, but Charlton didn’t always give lettering credits, so that’s not surprising. As a letterer he wasn’t really that good. His basic alphabets are okay, but some of the other work on the open title here and the display lettering on the next page is barely of professional quality. Perhaps he was a staffer who pitched in on lettering when needed. And remember, Charlton was kind of the low end of the comics business, pay wise, so perhaps their standards were lower. I know on some Charlton books they did lettering with a kind of giant typewriter (credited as A. Machine), and some of their artists like Joe Staton and Jim Aparo did their own lettering. That aside, all the advice and examples given above are perfectly fine for a beginner, and the information about the Ames Lettering Guide (spelled right here) is what put me in the know on that subject, and very similar to MY OWN instructions for new letterers. I never used the angled edge of the guide for italic guidelines, though, I just winged it, as did other letterers I learned from.
Here’s where Frank Bravo goes off the rails a bit, some of this is pretty dubious, though it does get the idea across. But, looking at these examples when I was trying to letter samples to show to the comics companies, I was already thinking, “I can do better than that!” I might have been wrong then, but once I got rolling it was true, at least. And remember, this booklet was all the help available to someone outside the business at the time, so really, I owe a lot to Charlton for it! They used to give these away with a subscription to any of their titles, and I bet they got a lot of subscriptions that way.