There are many early comic books where the letterers are unknown. Credits for lettering were unheard of at the time. In many cases the artist did his own lettering, but if an artist was successful enough to hire someone else to do it, those names are often lost to comics history.
One exception is in artist studios where the assistants are partially or fully known, and that was true with Bob Kane’s studio in the early years of Batman. Some of Kane’s assistants had careers in comics long after they stopped working for him, and several were around long enough to supply information to comics historians about what they did. The Grand Comics Database has a lot of that data, where it’s known, and I’ve used it as a resource here. Robert Kahn was born October 24, 1915 in New York City. After high school he changed his name to Kane and studied art at Cooper Union before working at Fleischer Animation Studios in 1934. He began selling humorous and funny animal stories to comic book publishers in 1936, including National Allied Publications, the company that became DC Comics. With the success of Superman, DC was looking for more heroic adventure features, and in 1939 Bob Kane sold them Batman, which he co-created with writer Bill Finger.
Bob Kane is notorious for hiring other artists and writers to produce Batman work for him and taking all the credit, but at least in the first few years there’s now a pretty good record of who did what. I’m going to focus on DETECTIVE COMICS, for which Kane’s studio supplied Batman stories to National/DC Comics from 1939 to 1943, and possibly later. Stories done for BATMAN and WORLD’S FINEST COMICS follow a similar pattern. In the beginning, before Batman was a hit, it’s safe to assume that Kane did everything himself, including the lettering. Looking at the first page of the first Batman story, above, the lettering is uneven, but easy to read, and fairly typical for the time. Let’s compare it to other examples of early Kane comics work that came before Batman.
This is from the earliest Kane story I can find a scan of. I think the lettering must be by Kane, and it’s fairly similar to the Batman example. For instance, the G has a wide serif in the center going both ways. The M in both has mostly straight sides.
Another early story by Kane with similar lettering. The G again has the wide central serif, but the M here has more angled legs.
Another early Kane story that was drawn in 1937 for the Iger & Eisner studio and first printed in the British comic WAGS #40. A similar serif in the G, and these look more like the ones in the Batman story. All this lettering is uneven and not well done, but better than some from this period. Note that it’s produced with a pointed pen rather than a wedge-tipped one. I think we can see that Kane himself most likely lettered at least the first Batman story, and probably the first few. Once he knew Batman was a hit and he could sell stories about him regularly to DC, Kane began hiring assistants to help with the art. He’d already hired writer Bill Finger, who is now known as the co-creator of Batman, even though Bob Kane took all the credit while Finger was alive, and until near the end of Kane’s own life in 1998. In fact, it was in Bob’s contract with DC that only he would have a credit on all Batman stories no matter who actually worked on them. That policy held for many years.
Batman stories in DETECTIVE COMICS 30 to 35 (Aug 1939 to Jan 1940) had lettering and backgrounds by Sheldon Moldoff. He was born April 14, 1920 in Manhattan and raised in The Bronx. Moldoff was introduced to cartooning by future comics artist Bernard Bailey when they lived in the same apartment house as children. His first sale to DC was a sports filler appearing on the inside back cover of Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, and he probably met Bob Kane around then.
Moldoff’s lettering on these early Batman stories looks good, better than the previous ones credited to Kane. The letters are more even and consistent, and they line up well in horizontal rows.The upper and lower case in the newspaper panel is well done for the time.
A closer look shows that most letters would fit into a square. The vertical lines tend to lean slightly to the left in places. There are variations in the letters, but overall the lettering has a professional look. Sheldon was a talented artist, and it didn’t take long for him to find other work in comics. He became the regular Hawkman artist beginning with FLASH COMICS no. 4, April 1940, and was soon doing lots of covers and stories for All-American Comics, which merged with DC a few years later. That explains why he wasn’t a Bob Kane assistant for long. Moldoff was drafted in 1944, and returned to his art career in 1946. He worked for several publishers before returning to DC as a “ghost artist” for Bob Kane on Batman from 1953 to 1967. In 1967 he was let go by DC with other creators over a benefits dispute and afterwards worked in animation and on promotional comics for restaurants. Sheldon was a fan favorite at comic book conventions in his later years. He died in 2012.
Moldoff was replaced by Jerry Robinson as background artist and letterer on Batman stories in DETECTIVE COMICS 36 to 42 (Feb to Aug 1940). Sherrill David “Jerry” Robinson was born January 1, 1922 in Trenton, NJ. He attended Columbia University in New York City as a journalism student. In the summer of 1939, his mother sent him to a resort in the Pocono mountains for the final week before school started. In the book “Jerry Robinson, Ambassador of Comics” by N.C. Christopher Couch (Abrams 2010), Jerry said he was wearing a white painter’s jacket that he’d used as a canvas for his cartooning. “I just drew various stuff all over it.” His first day at the resort, Jerry threw on his jacket and headed to the tennis court. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Who did the cartoons?” The questioner was Bob Kane, who had created Batman a few months earlier. He asked seventeen-year-old Jerry if he’d be interested in working on Batman comic book stories. Jerry decided he was, once he’d seen an example, and had soon taken the job while still attending school. He, Kane, and Bill Finger gathered first in Kane’s apartment to hash out the stories, and Kane would pencil them before Robinson took the art home to finish. Later Kane rented a room for their studio in the New York Times building. Soon Jerry and Bill Finger had also created Robin and The Joker.
Robinson’s lettering is all italic, and narrower than either Kane’s or Moldoff’s. I find it a little harder to read than either, and it’s pretty uneven, but Jerry did add interest with decorative initial capitals in the captions. They’re somewhat crude, but the idea is good: a black circle in which the first letter of the first word in the caption is created in white negative space. Robinson said his R chest symbol for Robin came from that same idea. The scroll caption in the fourth panel doesn’t work very well, but it’s also a nice touch.
A closer look. Jerry was trying to get the many words into as small a space as possible to leave more room for the art, and at times pushes the boundary of readability. The decorative C in CHINATOWN gave him some trouble, it reads more like COHINATOWN. What I see here is someone figuring out lettering as he went along, and getting paid to do it, which is not a bad thing. National/DC Comics was anxious to publish whatever the studio could produce. Within a year, Robinson had become the primary inker on Batman. He also designed many of the story logos, as well as the cover logos for Robin’s first appearance and Batman’s own title.
Beginning with DETECTIVE COMICS 43, George Roussos was hired to help on Batman stories, where he soon took over the lettering and some inking as well as penciling backgrounds. He was born August 20, 1915 in Washington, D.C. and was orphaned as a child, then sent to live in the Brooklyn Orphan Asylum in New York. Roussos had no formal art training, he learned by studying the comic strips he liked. He went on to a long and prolific career in comics. His nickname early on was “Inky” because of his facility with a brush. Alex Jay has more about Roussos HERE.
Roussos’ lettering followed Robinson’s example of being all italic. It tended to be small, as seen above, but the letters were well formed and consistent. It’s generally easy to read, with the one quirk being the unusual exclamation marks.
A closer look shows they’re a wide triangle over a dot. A bit hard to read at first, but once you get used to them they’re fine. George’s question mark was very small, but in general I like his lettering. It was on all the Batman stories in DETECTIVE from issues 43 to 59 (Sept 1940 to Jan 1942), and perhaps some later ones.
After working for Bob Kane for about a year and a half, Robinson, Roussos and Finger all took an offer from DC to work for them directly. Robinson said this happened in 1940 after about a year of working for Bob Kane, who may have continued to do some penciling for a while, but in 1943 he stopped working on Batman comic book stories to focus on a Batman newspaper strip that ran from 1943 to 1946. Perhaps the move was a bit later in 1941, but while they may have worked in the DC Comics bullpen, Robinson, Roussos and Finger’s Batman stories continued to look and read about the same for the next few years. Robinson moved on to other comics publishers around 1946 and eventually found a career as a comic strip creator and a political cartoonist. In later years he founded the Bill Finger Award, connected to the Eisner Awards, for under-credited comics creators, in honor and memory of his friend Bill, who passed in 1974. Robinson died in 2011. George Roussos worked for many comics publishers, including Marvel, where in 1972 he became the company’s in-house colorist for many years. He died in 2000.
From issues 60 to 72 (Feb 1942 to Feb 1943), a very different style of lettering appeared on the Batman stories. It’s larger and more angular than what Roussos was doing.
The letters, made with a wedge-tipped pen, tend to lean to the left, and most of the horizontal strokes slant up a bit from left to right. The S has a wide horizontal central stroke. The exclamation marks have a single stroke over a dot. The Grand Comics Database suggests these may be lettered by Ira Schnapp, but it’s nothing like his work, as we’ll see later in this article. I don’t know who the letterer is, perhaps someone else in the DC bullpen or a freelancer hired by the company.
Stories in issues 73 to 83 (March 1943 to Jan 1944) have what may be the work of another unknown letterer. The Grand Comics Database credits them to George Roussos, but this is quite different from what he was doing a year or two earlier, so I don’t quite buy it. If he did claim it, his lettering went through a serious transformation.
A closer look shows the lines of lettering have lots of space between them, and the letters tend to lean slightly to the left. The shapes are consistent, and this looks pretty good, if a bit small.
Richard W. Sprang, born July 28, 1915, was a commercial artist who came to New York in 1936 and found work in pulp magazines. As those declined over the next decade, he took on more and more comics work. In 1941, he did a few Batman stories for DC that were held in inventory in case Bob Kane was drafted. They saw print in issues 84 and 85 in 1944. After that he did other Batman stories that appeared in the character’s self-titled book.
The image quality here is poor, but the lettering and art are credited to Sprang. The lettering is close to what George Roussos was doing at the time, so perhaps Sprang was told to imitate that.
Sprang also taught his wife Lora to letter, and she did that on many of his stories, and later on lots of stories for DC not by Dick. This story is credited to her on the Grand Comics Database, and it’s the first of what I think are new Sprang stories for DETECTIVE, not older inventoried ones. Lora Sprang used a pen name, Pat Gordon, though I’m not sure why, as lettering at the time was never credited anyway. If this is her work, it looks good, very even and regular letters that fill the balloons and captions well. One odd thing is that the exclamation points mimic those of George Roussos from 1941 with a wide triangular shape over a large dot. The Batman stories in issues 87 to 99 (May 1944 to May 1955) have art by Dick Sprang, and the lettering is credited to either Dick or Lora (as Pat Gordon) on the Grand Comics Database. Dick Sprang continued to be one of the Bob Kane “ghost artists” at DC until 1963.
Here are two panels from a story with lettering credited to Dick Sprang. It’s all italic, and again the exclamation marks are similar to what George Roussos did when he was the main letterer. Dick and Lora Sprang moved to Arizona in 1946, continuing to work for DC by mail. They divorced in 1951, and Lora moved back to New York, where she continued to letter for DC until 1961. After retiring from comics as a full-time job, Dick returned for occasional stories, and like Sheldon Moldoff, he became a favorite at comics conventions in his later years. He passed in 2000.
With issue #100, letterer Ira Schnapp began working on these Batman stories, and his style was quite different from everything that came before. Ira used a pointed pen for lettering rather than a wedge-tipped one, so his letters don’t have the thick and thin variations, for instance.
A closer look shows Schnapp in his prime. He was lettering the Batman newspaper strip at this time, as well as the Superman strip, and lots of other stories for DC, and beginning to letter covers and logos too. His lettering is a bit sedate, and slightly Art Deco at times, but very readable and consistent. A few later stories have lettering credited to Pat Gordon (Lora Sprang), but from this point on Ira did most of them
I hope you’ve enjoyed getting into the weeds with me in this post. With so many 1930s and 1940s stories with lettering that can’t be credited, I find it refreshing that much of it for Batman can be.