CHARLES BIRO – Letterer

Charles Biro by Bob Wood from DAREDEVIL COMICS #12, Aug 1942, © Lev Gleason
Charles Biro courtesy of Michael T. Gilbert

Charles Biro was much more than a letterer, he was a comics writer, artist, logo designer, cover designer, and co-editor of a successful line of books from publisher Lev Gleason from 1941 to 1955, but my article approaches his work with an emphasis on lettering and logo design. Research by friend and fellow comics historian Alex Jay has been particularly helpful, and this article would be much poorer without it. You can find his article on Biro HERE, and information from Irv Watanabe about Biro he provided is even more helpful. I also appreciate the help of Michael T. Gilbert, who provided photos.

From a promotional brochure for an unpublished FOXY GRANDPA newspaper strip, 1937. Top image shows Charles Biro at right. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Charles Biro was born in New York City May 12, 1911 to Czechoslovakian immigrants. The family spent some time in France, but then lived in Queens. His brother Louis was an advertising artist in the 1930 census, and in a 1932 newspaper article about his sister’s wedding, Charles is described as a sketch artist for the Van Beuren Film Corporation of Manhattan. This was an animation studio, part of R.K.O., and he worked there until 1937. That year he drew sample strips for FOXY GRANDPA, above, for the Harry “A” Chesler Syndicate, a comics packager, along with at least one other strip, GOODBYLAND. In 1938 he moved to the comics publisher MLJ, later home of Archie Comics. Charles’ art training was sporadic, he attended several art schools in the 1930s. In 1938 he married Frances Bishop, and they moved to Sunnyside, Queens.

From BLUE RIBBON COMICS #2, Dec 1939, © MLJ

For MLJ, Biro created, wrote and drew features like this one, as well as Steel Sterling and Sgt. Boyle, and soon became the art director. At MLJ, Biro met his creative partner Robert “Bob” Wood. Irv Watanabe was working as a letterer at MLJ, and in letters written to Jerry DeFuccio for a never-published Biro biography in 1984 (courtesy of Alex Jay), Watanabe described Biro:

I first met Charlie in 1940, while I was at MLJ. He was always fun loving & had to be the main attraction. I think he was kind & generous. He used to give story plots to Joe Blair many times & in return would receive free lunch.

Bob Wood, Lev Gleason, and Charles Biro in front of Biro mural, courtesy of Michael T. Gilbert

In 1941, Biro and Wood left MLJ for a better offer from publisher Lev Gleason. It was a lucrative deal that included profit sharing and earned them each 40 to 45 thousand dollars a year, according to Watanabe. Irv joined them when they offered to double his page rate from 50 cents to a dollar, and Watanabe worked for them at Gleason until about 1954.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #1, July 1941, © Lev Gleason

Wood and Biro’s work for Gleason began with this eye-catching cover drawn by Charles and inked by Bob, with the logo and design by Biro, as would be the case with all his Gleason covers. Irv Watanabe wrote:

Charlie did all the covers of every mag he put out. He even designed all the logos & copy on the cover & even the editorials. He loved to write.

The photo of Hitler is one selling point, but the logo also sells it, though it’s a bit of a mixed bag graphically. The existing characters Daredevil and Silver Streak had appeared earlier in other Gleason titles, but this one, anticipating America’s involvement in World War Two like CAPTAIN AMERICA #1, was a big seller, and launched Daredevil’s own series by Biro and Wood.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #2, Aug 1941, © Lev Gleason

The second issue has a much better logo, one that lasted for many years. The staggered letters in an arc are tied together by open telescoping, with a small figure to cement the identification. The top blurb, also long-lasting, shows the kind of hype that Biro often used, and that Stan Lee admired and echoed later at Marvel in the 1960s. Some of the cover lettering is type, but the one at lower right is lettered by Biro. His signature is hard to see, on the stair post to the left of it. From this point on, all the Gleason covers by Biro were designed, drawn, inked, and lettered by him as far as I can tell. He did interior stories for a while, but by 1942 he was mainly writing stories and producing covers.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #2, Aug 1941, © Lev Gleason

The first story page has a different Daredevil logo version by Biro, the caption lettering might be by Irv Watanabe, who had this to say about Biro’s working methods and assistants:

Charlie did things the last minute so we got caught in the crisis deadline. I used to work 2 days & nights—sometimes 3 without much sleep. We went to his apartment, first at Sunnyside then Jackson Heights, Queens. He used to start off with a big first page splash then worked on 6 panels & often he’d run out of pages & wound up with 15 to 20 panels on the last page! He penciled the whole 1 to 16 pages & left dialogue to the last but at times I insisted [he do it] as he went along. So grudgingly he’d put copy on 6 or 8 pages then finished the story. Meantime, Norman Maurer, Joe Kubert or Carl Hubbell would tackle inking in figures. I also did the backgrounds on nearly all the stories. After Charlie penciled & put copy in, he’d take a snooze for about 30 minutes & then come back to put only the faces (ink) of all the leading characters. Later to simplify things we’d have hundreds of heads in different poses & sizes on stats & he’d paste them in. Everything was in his head. He created his strips as he went along. He never worked from a script or penciled a rough sketch. 

From BOY COMICS #3, April 1942,© Lev Gleason

Publisher Lev Gleason knew Biro & Wood were a success, and for their next project, he allowed Biro to self-promote the team right on the cover. The logo by Biro is simple and very strong, the kind that could be read from across the street, and their new creation, Crimebuster, would again prove popular with readers and run for many years. Some captions here are type, but Biro’s enthusiastic bottom central caption, and he and Wood’s exciting art, sell the idea perfectly.

From CRIME DOES NOT PAY #24, Nov 1942, © Lev Gleason

While DAREDEVIL COMICS and BOY COMICS were a success, it was this title that made the most money for Biro and Wood, as well as Lev Gleason, a book that started the crime comics genre, though it was already popular in pulp magazines. The stories were very violent, and horrifying images like this were common. Readers bought them in droves. Not only is Biro’s name on the art, he and Bob Wood are listed as editors under the logo along with publisher Lev Gleason, the first time I think that was done on covers. Taking his cue from crime pulps, the logo is very Art Deco, and CRIME is by far the largest word. Crime comics ostensibly showed criminals being caught and punished, but readers were attracted by the terrible things they did, as touted in Biro’s cover lettering.

From BOY COMICS #8, Feb 1943, © Lev Gleason

Biro’s covers just kept getting better. Here the villain, Iron Jaw, is a concept readers loved, and they were equally attracted to Crimebuster’s monkey assistant. The caption lettering by Biro is excellent, and the angles make it more interesting. More about Biro and Wood from the Irv Watanabe letters:

Charlie was very good to me. During the war years he raised my salary from $100 to $190 per week. In those years that was pretty good for anyone. Charlie’s success was his personal appeal to kids & a certain personal charm. Charlie went out of his way for charities & got involved with important people—police chief, fire chief, boys’ club of N.Y. His mind was always toward kids, though. A few times he’d stop by a playground & talk to comic book lovers & tell them a coming episode of the book—Daredevil, Boy or Wiseguys. I think his love was Daredevil. It was uncanny how he could dream up a story on the spur of the moment. It was fun to watch him tell a story with all the animation, yelling and crying to get across emotion. His great talent was the way he put feelings to all his characters. It was very exhaustive after finishing the story but he loved telling them. There also should be a mention of Bob Wood, his partner who, too, was a writer & artist of The Claw. I also lettered & did backgrounds [forhim]. Too bad he was an alcoholic & due to his carelessness brought down the Biro-Wood team. 

Does Biro sound like anyone else in comics to you? The Little Wise Guys were introduced as supporting characters in Daredevil, and later took over the book. Wikipedia says about Bob Wood:

Wood’s personal life was marred by drinking and gambling addictions, and he served a total of three years and eight months in prison between 1958 and 1963 for manslaughter.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #18, Aug 1943, © Lev Gleason

Perhaps the line of type below the logo was printed on the cover board, why else would Biro put his big caption both above and below it? Somehow that works anyway. This cover seems busy, but the focal point is Daredevil, and don’t miss following his hammer strike up to the top left. Somehow Charles got away with including Mickey Mouse.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #32, Sept 1945, © Lev Gleason

I love the newspaper lettering on this cover, and all the Art Deco extras behind it. The Little Wise Guys are taking a more prominent role.

From BOY COMICS #26, Feb 1946, © Lev Gleason

Crimebuster kind of bridged the genres of superheroes and crime comics, which kept him around longer than many other superheroes. These explosive captions on the left are exciting.

From CRIME DOES NOT PAY #44, March 1946,© Lev Gleason

Biro and Wood’s crime comics were violent, and I’m sure hated by parents, though they did not reach the level of gore later found in EC Comics. Biro’s over-the-top captions make it all sound like fun, don’t they? More about Biro’s writing from Irv Watanabe:

Later in his career when he was popular & financially successful, he relegated his stories to Fran, his wife, who I think was a very good dialogue writer. Charlie would first tell her the plot & she’d letter in the copy as Charlie continued penciling. This was in 1942, ’43 ’44. Charlie would put in the first phrase in pencil & she’d put in the rest. After she finished, Charlie edited it & then I took over. He & his wife, Fran, were a very good comic book team. They’d discuss plot & situations—never discuss what other writers or artists were doing. They were trend setters—always looking ahead. I never saw them read competitor books or even saw an issue anywhere at home or at the office.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #42, May 1947, © Lev Gleason

By this issue, the Wise Guys had joined Daredevil in the logo, they were similar to Simon and Kirby’s kid gangs. Note the personal message to readers from Biro at lower left, you can see how appealing that was. The balloon shapes for shouts from the crowd are interesting, scalloped rather that bursts, with extra motion lines around the outside. I also like the music in one balloon, and all the extra question marks in the arrow banner.

From CRIME AND PUNISHMENT #1, April 1948, © Lev Gleason

This spinoff from CRIME DOES NOT PAY has another effective logo. Note more of Biro’s unique take on shouting in the first two panels. The Crime host character is an odd idea, and the scallops in his balloon suggest only the reader can see or hear him.

From CRIME DOES NOT PAY #63, May 1948, © Lev Gleason

The burglar alarm sound effects on this cover caught my eye, and there’s another of Biro’s shouting balloons. These captions are full of gangster slang, some of which I’ve never heard, but readers probably knew it from gangster movies. That claim of six million readers might be hype, but the books were certainly selling well. While Biro did the crime covers, he doesn’t seem to have been involved in the stories as writer or artist. Bob Wood was, and also his brother Dick Wood, among others. More about the team from Irv Watanabe:

Charlie loved gambling—Bob, too. One day they were figuring how many miles it was from N.Y. to Chicago by air. The bets went this way, (not card playing but craps & short time gambling chances.) 850 miles (Biro), 800 (Bob) for $50. They changed minds again, 900 miles (Biro) 875 (Bob) for $50. Changed again 925 (Biro) 915 (Bob). Changed 4th time, another figure for another $50. The winner, Charlie collected $100. During the early morning hours, Charlie & Bob had nothing to do so they started pitching pennies against the door. Each penny was for a buck. In walked Lev Gleason to see the commotion! Charlie yells, “Lev, wanna join in?” Gleason had better things to do. Charlie lived to the hilt—not much drinking though. During the war many of the leading cartoonists went on tours for the war effort—like Goldberg, Caniff etc. Whenever they got on stage for a chalk talk, Charlie got the biggest ovation to the dismay of the other cartoonists—simply because kids understood comic books & not syndicated artists.

From DESPERADO #1, June 1948, © Lev Gleason

Starting in 1948, Biro and Wood began branching out into other genres like westerns. The logo on this one takes up almost half the cover, with the name in three increasing sizes. Who could resist that, or the desperate scene below?

From BLACK DIAMOND WESTERN #9, March 1949, © Lev Gleason

Later the book changed to this title with another giant Biro logo using effective Old West wanted poster lettering. I also love the note at left pinned to the wall.

1949 Biro-Wood Christmas Card, from Joe and Jim Simon’s book The Comic Book Makers (Vanguard, 2003)

While they worked exclusively for Lev Gleason, Biro and Wood essentially ran their own shop with many employees, as seen above with their most popular characters. Bellman, Grandenetti and Watanabe all had long comics careers.

From TOPS #1, Sept 1949,© Lev Gleason

This was an attempt by Biro to break into the slick magazine market (dominated by titles like LIFE and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST) with comics aimed at adults. It did not succeed, and ran only two issues. They’ve recently been reprinted in a deluxe new edition from Fantagraphics prepared and with historical articles by Michael T. Gilbert. Sadly, adults were not interested, nor were children, but lots of fine work appeared inside. It’s hard to see, but in the top left caption, Biro is trying to coin a new name for comics: illustories.

From LOVERS’ LANE #1, Oct 1949, © Lev Gleason

Biro had more success with romance comics, following the popular trend started by Simon and Kirby in 1947 with YOUNG ROMANCE. Another use of Illustories is in the top heart caption. Like TOPS, most of the cover lettering is type, perhaps to appeal to older readers, though those readers were more likely to be young girls. Even so, Biro has included a warning, “Not intended for children.” The book has a comics code seal from an earlier incarnation of that idea than the one begun in 1954.

From BOY MEETS GIRL #1, Feb 1950, © Lev Gleason

These romance books have classy logos and mostly type on the covers, this one had painted cover art. They were trying to compete not only with romance comics from other publishers, but teen movie magazines and romance novels.

From CRIME AND PUNISHMENT #25, April 1950, © Lev Gleason

Meanwhile, the crime comics continued to roll along with covers by Biro and contents by others, perhaps now a little less violent. Charles is pushing his new word “Illustories” harder here. It never caught on, perhaps because it’s longer and harder to pronounce than “comics.”

From UNCLE CHARLIE’S FABLES #4, July 1952, © Lev Gleason

This fairy tale comic was probably intended to compete with similar ones from Dell. The painted cover is great, and Biro’s logo is well done. It didn’t last long. Whether kids ever thought of him as Uncle Charlie is a good question, but the persona he projected in his comics was friendly and welcoming.

From UNCLE CHARLIE’S FABLES #1, Jan 1952, © Lev Gleason, courtesy of Michael T. Gilbert

Here’s a good example of Biro interacting with children, though I’m sure the photo was staged.

From DILLY #1, May 1953, © Lev Gleason

Perhaps feeling pressure from parents and others angry about crime comics, Biro was trying other things like this Archie knock-off. The logo is bland for him. Another title that didn’t last long.

From SQUEEKS #1, Oct 1953, © Lev Gleason

Biro tried a funny-animal title featuring Crimebuster’s monkey side-kick. Not only does the word balloon feature motion lines around it, the logo does too. Never one to shy away from promotion, he calls it “The World’s Funniest Comic.” Readers must not have agreed, it also didn’t last long.

From DAREDEVIL COMICS #121, May 1955, © Lev Gleason

With the stricter new Comics Code in effect, Biro tried to make this title all about the Little Wise Guys, and Daredevil no longer appeared in it. Bob Wood’s name was missing from the masthead, apparently he and Charles had had a falling out. Soon after this, Biro left Lev Gleason and comics behind and moved into the field of graphic design, which his covers had certainly prepared him for. In 1962 he began working for NBC television as a graphic artist, and remained there until his death in 1972. I’d love to know what he did for NBC, but I’ve found no record of it. Though little remembered today, Charles Biro had an impact on comics of the 1940s and 1950s that other creators admired and readers enjoyed. Thanks to the letters written by Irv Watanabe, we can also now credit him for his superbly done logos and cover lettering.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

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