From the early days of newspaper comic strips, the credited artists often hired others to help with the demanding workload. Those helpers were not named, and are generally unknown. Strip assistants did many kinds of work including background penciling, inking and lettering. Sometimes entire strips were farmed out to others with no input from the creator, as happened with MUTT AND JEFF, for instance. There were probably always some strip artists who specialized in lettering, but the earliest one I have a name for is Charles F. Armstrong, who lettered newspaper strips for Hal Foster, beginning with TARZAN, and continuing for many years on PRINCE VALIANT. Armstrong’s style, as seen above, is very regular, and at first glance looks like type, but a closer look shows the minor variations of pen lettering.
Harold Foster was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1892. He had a talent for drawing, and by 1921 had moved to Chicago, where he attended several art schools and worked at the Jahn & Ollier Engraving Company. Later he was hired by Chicago’s prestigious Palenske-Young Studio doing advertising illustration and magazine covers. His workmates were Paul Proehl, William Juhre and Charles F. Armstrong. In his excellent Foster biography, Brian M. Kane writes,
Charles quickly became a “fishing pal” and introduced Hal to the fantasy writings of James Branch Cabell and Lord Dunsany. Everyone at Palenske-Young was an extremely capable artist. Juhre would go on to illustrate the TARZAN daily strip after Rex Maxon’s departure. Proehl and Hal both handled the major illustration jobs for the studio. Charles F. Armstrong was a highly respected calligrapher and probably did all the lettering on the TARZAN Sunday pages. Later, Hal would hire him to do the lettering on PRINCE VALIANT.
In 1928 Foster agreed to produce a comic strip adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hit novel, Tarzan of the Apes. He broke it down into 10 weeks of daily strips, five square pictures per day with typeset text below, for a total of 300 panels. It premiered in Britain in November 1928, and in America on January 7, 1929. After its 60-day run, Foster went back to advertising work and another artist, Rex Maxon, continued the strip. Burroughs was not happy with Maxon, and campaigned to have Foster brought back. When the effects of the Great Depression hit the Palenske-Young Studio in 1930, assignments for all the artists were hard to find, and with the September 27, 1931 page, Hal Foster began producing the Sunday Tarzan strip, above, with Maxon continuing on dailies. Foster parceled out the work to his studio mates with the other men doing background penciling, inking and research, and Charles Armstrong lettering. Foster paid them out of his $75 fee per Sunday, each assistant receiving $15 per week. While the earlier strip by Foster used typeset captions, for these new Sundays, he (or the United Features Syndicate) wanted lettering, and Armstrong’s work was a good choice. His lettering was very regular in an Art Deco style that today seems small for the art, but the strips were printed very large, a full tabloid page of about 11 by 17 inches, so would have been easy to read.
In 1934, Foster became dissatisfied with his financial arrangement on TARZAN, and began thinking about a new strip he could write and draw that did not need to pay royalties to another creator. The strip would take place in the days of King Arthur, and developed gradually over the next two years. In late 1936, Foster quit TARZAN and began devoting his full efforts to PRINCE VALIANT IN THE DAYS OF KING ARTHUR for King Features. The first strip appeared on Feb 13, 1937, and again was lettered by Charles Armstrong in a similar style to what he had used on TARZAN.
The lettering on VALIANT was even more Art Deco, with thin, carefully drawn shapes, larger than what he did on TARZAN, and Foster’s originals were huge, 26 by 34 inches, so the original letters would have been about 3/8 inches high. Everything was in caption form, with spoken dialogue in quotes and slanted. The strip was a success, and became one of the most popular strips in the nation, carried by many newspapers. It would remain so for decades.
Charles Armstrong was born Karl Gustav Holmstrom to Swedish parents in Liverpool, England on March 22, 1904. A few years later the family had relocated to Colorado, and then his parents divorced, and the boy’s mother changed their last name to Armstrong, and renamed her son Charles. They lived in Chicago, where Charles first attended the Glenwood Academy, then the Art Institute of Chicago. By 1925, he was working for the Palenske-Young studio, where his calligraphy skills were valued, and his friendship with fellow artist Hal Foster led to his lettering TARZAN Sundays. In 1935 he married Beatrice MacGregor and they settled in Detroit, Michigan. Their son Geoffrey was born in 1936. I’m not sure how Armstrong was still able to letter the TARZAN Sundays, they must have been sent to him by mail from Foster in Chicago at first, and in 1936, Hal Foster and his family moved to Topeka, Kansas, so artist and letterer were even further apart when PRINCE VALIANT was begun. Foster clearly valued Armstrong’s work, though, and they remained partners on the strip for many years.
By 1942, Armstrong and his family were living in Boston, where Charles became a naturalized citizen in 1943. Around 1944 they moved again to the small village of Grant Corner, near North Salem, New York. Charles opened a studio, Armstrong Process Lettering, at 299 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, where he did logos and lettering for advertising. He might have commuted to the city by train on the Harlem line. Through all this, he continued to letter PRINCE VALIANT, and also in 1944, Hal Foster and his family moved to Redding, Connecticut, about a half hour’s drive east of the Armstrong home, so the friends were once more able to spend time together, and no doubt pass the strip pages back and forth more easily.
By 1949, the strip had reached its classic format, with the handsome Old English logo seen above that Charles Armstrong may have lettered. He also did Old English style calligraphy at the beginning and end of each page. His regular letters are amazingly consistent, though clearly hand-drawn.
It’s hard now to understand just how popular PRINCE VALIANT had become by the 1950s. Hal Foster’s work was carried in hundreds of newspapers, and known by almost everyone. It was adapted for an ambitious wide-screen Hollywood film released in 1954 starring James Mason, Robert Wagner, Janet Leigh, Debra Paget and Sterling Hayden. Perhaps as part of the publicity for the film, the popular TV show “This Is Your Life” featured Hal Foster on April 14, 1954, and Charles Armstrong was one of the guests. You can see it on YouTube. Armstrong’s part is short, but the show is entertaining, and Foster seems very surprised. Some of the film’s stars also appear.
Another look at the Old English style Armstrong used for the Next Week blurb at the end of each strip. The regular lettering above is getting wider here, with the round letters closer to perfectly round. When I was asked to imitate this style a few years ago, I had to use a straight edge and circle templates, I couldn’t get close to this precision freehand. Note the faint cut lines between some lines of lettering, perhaps an editorial change made after the page was sent in.
This picture shows an older Armstrong, perhaps taken in his Manhattan studio. His hair is whiter, and he’s wearing glasses for the first time in these photos. I don’t know how long Armstrong Process Lettering was in business, but probably at least into the 1960s.
By 1959, the lettering looks different, at least on this page. It’s possible Armstrong was still doing it, but if so, the letters had become even wider, and had lost some of the distinctive style of the earlier work. Or possibly this is by someone else filling in for Charles, which I think is more likely.
This detail from 1960 looks more like Armstrong to me, but is perhaps not quite as consistent as his earlier work. Charles would have been nearly 56 at the time.
This again looks like Armstrong from 1962 with about the same quality as two years earlier.
On this example, where the art is more tanned with age, you can see lots of white correction paint along the tops and bottoms of the letters, and around the Old English words at the end. Is this Charles struggling a bit to keep his work up to his own standards?
By this example from 1964, the lettering of VALIANT had been passed to Ben Oda, one of the most prolific letterers of the time, who was also lettering many other newspaper strips as well as comics pages. While trying to keep the Armstrong style in place, Ben’s work has many small differences, most noticeable in the shape of his S. Ben’s Old English is well done, but also different from Armstrong’s, the capital T being a good example. Oda lettered the strip from this point until his death in 1984, well after the time that Hal Foster was drawing it. I haven’t looked closely at strips drawn after that, but by the time Gary Gianni began drawing VALIANT in 2004, the syndicate was doing the lettering with computer fonts based on Charles Armstrong’s work, which continues today.
By 1985, Armstrong and his wife had retired to Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, where these photos were taken. His family has many fond memories and photos of that home. Charles died there on November 12, 1993 at the age of 89, the same age as Hal Foster at his death in 1982. Judging by these poorly-focused examples, Armstrong’s advertising work must have been impressive and valued by clients, but it’s his lettering for Hal Foster that will long be remembered by fans of comic strips, and by letterers like me. I hope this article will help give him the credit that work deserves.
Many thanks to Alex Jay, Brian M. Kane, and Armstrong family members Lynne Caldwell and Sharon Armstrong Raymond for research help and images.