DAVE GIBBONS – Letterer

Dan Dare from 2000 AD #56, 18 March 1978, IPC, © Rebellion 2000 AD Ltd

My knowledge of British comics artists and letterers is sparse, but there’s one I know quite well, Dave Gibbons, as we worked together on American comics starting in the 1970s, and have kept in touch. Dave is unusual in that he almost always lettered his own comics work, something as rare in mainstream British comics as it is here in America. The page above is early work by him which already shows a fully professional and excellent art style, and equally excellent lettering. Dave’s work has been consistently good ever since. In April, 2020 I interviewed Dave about his career and lettering, and all the quotes below are from that.

Dave Gibbons by Todd Klein, 1999

David Chester Gibbons was born April 14, 1949 in London, England. Growing up he enjoyed British comics by artists Frank Hampson, Ron Turner, Frank Bellamy and Don Lawrence because of the detail and precision of their work. He also liked American comics, and told me his favorites were:

The usual suspects, basically anything that was by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko [at Marvel], and anything that was edited by Julie Schwartz [at DC]. It was the artists I followed more than the writers, it would have been Kirby, Ditko, Infantino, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood and the whole EC gang. The only EC comics I’d seen when I was a kid was Mad. I think if I’d known there were all those science fiction comics it would have made my head explode.

Dave continued:

I always loved the comics form, so all the drawings I did when I was growing up were pages of comics with word balloons and captions on them. To me they were an essential part of it. Of course my lettering back when I was eight to ten years old was sort of childish. But my father had trained as an architect, and he worked for the local planning authority. In the evenings and in his spare time to make some extra pin money, he drew plans for houses. Because he worked for the planning department, he knew what would get through and be approved. I’ve got these vivid pictures of him sitting in our dining room in the evening drawing buildings. There were always drawing instruments, India ink and watercolors. I used to look over his shoulder. At one point I think he got worried that he was going to get caught, although there was really nothing underhand involved. The most giveaway thing about an architectural drawing is the lettering style. So, initially what he would do is rule lines out and pencil in the lettering, and then I would ink over the top of it, and the slight inconsistency that I added would disguise it. That was done with a Rotring [technical drawing] pen in ink. Then I graduated to ruling in the lines and blocking in the lettering. It was in an architectural style with a mix of upper and lower case, much more technical looking and without the sort of bounce that you get in a good comic balloon. I went on to be a building surveyor because it was very difficult to see how I could achieve my lifetime ambition of drawing American comics, living in England as I did. Architecture was in my dad’s blood and it was suggested I might do that, but really my heart wasn’t in it, so I compromised by being a building surveyor. There we were again taught formally how to do lettering.

Dave always used Rotring technical pens and India ink to letter. He also tried Pelikan Graphos pens, which were a hybrid technical fountain pen with dip pen style nibs that were popular with other comic book letterers, but Dave’s tool of choice was the Rotring pens, different sizes for bold and larger letters.

Dan Dare from 2000 AD #56, 18 March 1978, IPC, © Rebellion 2000 AD Ltd

A closer look at Dave’s lettering from the page above. It’s very regular and even, but informality is added by curves in nearly all the strokes, even the I in FIFTY. The E’s and L’s are quite rounded at the bottom, helping to keep the lettering from seeming too stiff and mechanical. For the large lettering in the top balloon, Dave chose a thick pen that almost filled in the centers of the A’s, but it reads fine.

Dan Dare from 2000 AD #57, 25 March 1978, IPC, © Rebellion 2000 AD Ltd

Dave got a building surveyor job in London, and said:

It just so happened it was around the corner from IPC Magazines, the biggest publisher of comics in the United Kingdom. I got to know a couple of people who worked there through comics fandom, like Dez Skinn, and I used to go and visit him at lunch hour. I made friends with a lot of people who were working there who were also fans, and were my contemporaries. A lot of the older people who had joined post-war were now retiring, and, just as in American comics, there was a sudden turnover and new blood. I hung around and looked over people’s shoulders to see how they worked. One guy I made friends with was Steve Parkhouse, and he used to letter with a Rotring pen. He explained to me how he did it and how he sized the lines on a ruler. We weren’t familiar with the Ames guide, that seems to be a very American tool. Lettering in British comic books in those days was done on finished artwork, penciled and inked artwork, so it was often on a thing called patch paper, which was a good quality paper with a sticky back. If there wasn’t room on the artwork, you would draw and letter your balloons on that, cut them out and stick them down on the artwork. I perfected my own lettering style looking at Steve Parkhouse, Gaspar Saladino, John Costanza and one of my particular favorite letterers, Sam Rosen.

While on one of his visits to IPC, Dave was offered the chance to letter a page, and that was his foot in the door, and his first paycheck in comics. Dave said:

I got to be known as someone who was quite reliable, and when I stopped being a building surveyor, the first jobs I did when I was trying to break into comics full time were lettering other people’s artwork. That was an important part of my development as an artist as well, I got to study original art up close and see just what it should look like.

Dave started as an artist working on horror and action features for both IPC and DC Thomson in 1976. When IPC’s new title 2000 A.D. began in 1977, Dave was the regular artist on the feature Harlem Heroes. Later he switched over to Dan Dare, as seen above, a project he loved because he’d been a fan of the original series by Frank Hampson. Dave told me:

By that time my style was pretty much set. And I was unusual among British artists in that I did letter my own work. I could do lettered artwork as quickly as I could do unlettered artwork because I didn’t have to draw the bits that were under the balloons. I think one of the things they really liked was that when they got a job from me, it was ready to go.

Indeed, Dave’s style in both art and lettering has been very consistent since that time.

From DOCTOR WHO WEEKLY #3, 31 Oct 1979, Marvel UK, image © Marvel
From DOCTOR WHO WEEKLY #4, 7 Nov 1979, Marvel UK, image © Marvel

Marvel UK was the British arm of America’s Marvel Comics which existed to reprint American features. When it began in 1972, the American spellings had to be anglicized, and Dave did some of that early in his career. In 1976 Marvel UK began creating original material for the title CAPTAIN BRITAIN WEEKLY, and in 1979 launched DOCTOR WHO WEEKLY, depicting the popular British science fiction TV show, under the editorship of Dez Skinn. Dave Gibbons was hired as the artist and letterer of the main Dr. Who comic series. Some of those were reprinted in America by Marvel, starting in 1981, with much success. Dave’s work thus became known in the U.S. to both pros and fans.

In the early 1980s, as they had done earlier with artists in the Philippines, DC Comics made a recruiting trip to London seeking British artists to work for them. Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando came over, set up in a hotel room, and British artists came to present their work. Dave was one of them. He told me:

DC basically offered more money, original art return, royalties, reprint fees, even the paper to draw on, and of course it was DC, who I loved as a kid. They got me on board, but they didn’t really have anything solid lined up for me to do, so I started off doing backups.

Dave was able to make his ambition to work in American comics come true with short stories at DC, most often Tales of the Green Lantern Corps in the back of GREEN LANTERN beginning with #161, February 1983.

From GREEN LANTERN #171, Dec 1983, image © DC Comics

I had the pleasure of working with Dave as a writer and letterer on some of them, one of the few times Dave’s art was lettered by someone other than himself. On those stories, I did the lettering over his finished art on vellum, which was photostatted, and then pasted onto the art, as seen above.

From GREEN LANTERN #179, Aug 1984, images © DC Comics

With issue no. 172 of GREEN LANTERN, Dave became the lead story artist, working with writer Len Wein. His comics were as popular in America as they had been in the U.K. Dave’s lettering style fit in perfectly in American comics, perhaps because he had loved and studied them growing up, and doing lettering changes for Marvel UK on American lettering probably didn’t hurt. In the detail above, Dave’s lettering seems more angular and less rounded than in his previous work, with an S shape that reminds me of Gaspar Saladino’s lettering. Dave did GREEN LANTERN for about a year. While that was ongoing, Dave had been talking to writer Alan Moore about a new project Alan was working on, WATCHMEN, and Dave knew he wanted to work on that when it was ready.

From SUPERMAN ANNUAL #11, Sept 1985, image © DC Comics

There was also another Alan Moore project before that, published in SUPERMAN ANNUAL #11. Dave said:

The first convention DC ever paid me to go to was in Chicago, and they had a cocktail party. I went up to Dick Giordano and said, “This new thing that Alan’s writing, I’d like to draw it.” Dick replied, “Okay, what does Alan feel about it?” “Oh, he’d like me to draw it.” “Okay, it’s yours.” I reeled away from that, thrilled, but not actually realizing what it would mean, and I bumped more or less straight into Julie Schwartz who said, “Hey, Dave! Where are you going to draw some Superman for me?” I said, “Who’s writing?” He said, “Who do you want to write it?” I said, “Alan Moore.” He said, “Sure, fix it up.” It worked out well that we had that to do while we were developing WATCHMEN.

I like the title on this story, and the fact that Dave have himself a lettering credit.

From WATCHMEN #2, Oct 1986, this and all Watchmen images © DC Comics

WATCHMEN was a groundbreaking project in many ways, including Dave’s suggested storytelling device of making most pages a nine panel grid. Dave also experimented with lettering styles, with Alan Moore’s encouragement. Dave said:

Watchmen was so full, and it was so vital that the lettering read well and didn’t obscure anything important in the pictures, the lettering would be the first thing I would both pencil and ink. Then I would start doing the drawings and make any adjustments so it wouldn’t cut off people’s heads. I really don’t think Watchmen would have been feasible if I hadn’t lettered my own work.

From WATCHMEN #2, Oct 1986

Perhaps Dave’s most memorable lettering style was the unusual mix of upper and lower case letters in Rorschach’s Journal, with their slightly ink-splattered captions.

From WATCHMEN #1, Sept 1986

Rorschach’s speaking voice also had a special style and balloon shape that, to me, suggests a scratchy, guttural delivery.

From WATCHMEN #2, Oct 1986

Dr. Manhattan’s balloons had a double border to allow a pale blue color inside with a white outline around it. Note that all the present-day balloon shapes are angular rather than rounded…

From WATCHMEN #4, Dec 1986

…though in scenes from the past, balloons were rounded.

From WATCHMEN #3, Nov 1986

Dave also did an excellent job with all the signs and newspaper headlines, as seen here. WATCHMEN changed comics, has remained on best seller lists, and has been a fan and critical favorite since it came out. Both the writer and artist’s reputations were secured. As Dave said:

The rest is history.

Each issue took about two months to produce, it was a solid two years of work.

The most profitable work I’ve ever done, and the most enjoyable.

From GIVE ME LIBERTY #1, June 1990, Dark Horse, image © Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons

Dave’s next major project as an artist and letterer was with writer Frank Miller on GIVE ME LIBERTY and later series featuring Martha Washington, depicting the life story of a young female soldier in a dystopian future America. It was Dave’s first creator-owned project, I believe.

From MARTHA WASHINGTON GOES TO WAR #1, May 1994, © Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons

The series came out sporadically, with a great final issue, MARTHA WASHINGTON DIES in 2007. In the detail view above, it’s interesting to see that Dave’s lettering has grown somewhat more rounded again, especially the S’s.

From THE ORIGINALS, Dec 2004, Vertigo/DC Comics, image © Dave Gibbons

From 1990 on , Dave began to spend more time writing comics for others to draw. He did some writing for 2000 AD and for DC, beginning with the miniseries WORLD’S FINEST (1990) drawn by Steve Rude and Karl Kesel. Other writing work followed for DC and Dark Horse as Dave was able to expand his areas of expertise. Dave is very proud of THE ORIGINALS, a graphic novel he wrote, drew and lettered for DC in 2004. Around 2000, Dave commissioned Comicraft to create fonts based on his hand lettering, and much of what he’s lettered since then has been with those fonts. In 2006-2007 Dave wrote THE GREEN LANTERN CORPS, bringing him full circle at DC.

From THE SECRET SERVICE #6, June 2013, Marvel, image © Millarworld, Marv Films & Dave Gibbons

In 2012-2013, Dave was artist and letterer for this six-issue series. He used his fonts, which are remarkably close to his hand lettering.

In 2017, Dave produced a how-to book with Tim Pilcher titled How Comics Work, and in 2023 Gibbons authored Confabulation, An Anecdotal Autobiography. Dave also worked on the game Beyond A Steel Sky for Apple Arcade.

Image © Dave Gibbons

Dave is always busy exploring new ideas and new venues, while still keeping a hand in comics, and our rare chances to catch up at conventions are a treat. Long may it be so!

Continue to next article. Back to book.

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