Images © King Features Syndicate, Inc.
As you may know, the comic strip “Prince Valiant” began in 1937, created by Hal Foster, who wrote and drew it until 1971, an amazingly long run. Above is a panel from early in the strip, in 1938, showing the original lettering style.
Here’s a closer look. The lettering is hand-drawn, but very uniform, also by Foster as far as I know. I suspect the round shapes were inked using a circle template, and the straight and angled strokes were done using a small straight-edge or triangle. The letters that don’t fit into those categories, like the S and R show the most variation, and are probably just drawn freehand. I can’t say what kind of pen Foster might have been using in 1938, but a technical drawing pen, the kind used for drafting lettering, is the likely choice. I’ve always admired this style, and have imitated it a few times, noteably on a page or two about the magician Zatara in THE BOOKS OF MAGIC mini-series written by Neil Gaiman for DC Comics. I found it very time-consuming, and not something I’d want to do often, but it’s kind of fun occasionally.
After Foster, the artist (and eventual writer) on Val was John Cullen Murphy. When he retired in 2004, the strip art went to Gary Gianni, who I’ve known and worked with for a while. Gary showed me some of the strips at the San Diego Comicon, and pointed out that the lettering was being done by someone at King Features using fonts created from Foster’s original lettering. Printouts of that lettering had been (lightly) pasted to the pages by Gary.
It looked fine, but Gary said, “I sometimes sell these to people who don’t like the pasted-on lettering. Would you be willing to replace it with hand-lettering on the art if a buyer wants to pay your fee for that?” I thought it was a great idea, as long as there wasn’t a huge amount of them, and Gary assured me it would probably only be a few a year. We settled on a fee, and I’ve been doing them occasionally ever since. I have three pages now that I’m working on. The one above still has the type pasted on.
Here another that I’m working on now. I remove the pasted lettering, put it on my light box, and then using it as a guide, pencil in all the text on the art. The bottom panel has been inked, the rest is still pencils.
Here’s a closer look. Note that most of the lettering is in Foster’s original style, while the first and last lines of the page are in Old English, something that he began a bit later than the 1938 example I showed above. That’s actually the most fun part for me because it has so much variety.
Here’s a closer look at that pencilled caption, showing the first step in inking: using a circle template on the round letters: C, D, G and O. When that’s done I begin inking the straight lines with a small triangle, which I’ve just begun here. This was done with a technical drawing pen, a Faber-Castell TG1 size 2.
Here are all the straight vertical and angled strokes finished. Next I’ll go through and ink all the remaining letters and parts freehand.
And here’s the finished caption, only needing to have the pencil lines erased, which will happen when everything is inked. When the pages are all lettered, I’ll send them back to Gary. I like to think I’m doing this the same way Hal Foster did it, though I’ll never know for sure. Some of the letterforms are a little different from the 1938 example, probably taken from a later period, but it’s essentially the same. I’d call the text lettering Art Deco in style, the latest thing when the strip was new, while the Old English taglines and logo are perfect for the period depicted.
I think Gary’s doing a great job with Prince Valiant. His style is not an imitation of Foster, but it has many of the same qualities. Wish my local paper carried the strip, but at least there’s a great collection available, as well as the Flesk Publications book about the making of the Valiant pages. Both highly recommended, and linked below. And it’s nice to have a tiny share of the work on this historic icon of comics history, even if only a few people will ever see it.