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COMPUTER LETTERING

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 1 sample

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.

Deathblow 20

©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.

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All text and images ©Todd Klein, except as noted. All rights reserved.

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