EARLY SUPERMAN LETTERING

From ACTION COMICS #1, June 1938, image © DC Comics

Until the publication of this comic book, newspaper strips dominated the comics world of the 1930s, but Superman would soon change that. From his first appearance, he was wildly popular, and sales of ACTION COMICS containing his stories increased in sales quickly. Who was creating Superman stories?

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, early 1940s

Jerome “Jerry” Siegel was born October 17, 1914 in Cleveland Ohio. Joseph “Joe” Shuster was born July 10, 1914 in Toronto, Canada. In 1924 his family moved to Cleveland where Joe met Jerry in high school and the teenagers began their long collaboration, starting with a science fiction fanzine. Siegel and Shuster first prepared Superman as a comic strip and tried for several years to sell it that way before turning to comic books as a last resort. Meanwhile, beginning in 1935, they had become regular contributors to the comics of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson with features they created like Doctor Occult and Federal Men. Siegel wrote the stories and Shuster did the art, but they had a hard time making a living at it, until the success of Superman. That meant the lettering was probably all done by Joe Shuster.

From NEW FUN #6, Oct 1935, Doctor Occult by Siegel and Shuster, image © DC Comics

Here’s a sample of Joe Shuster’s lettering, pretty standard for the time, easy to read, and effective enough, but nothing special.

From ACTION COMICS #1, June 1938, this and all Superman images © DC Comics

The lettering in the first Superman story, which had been prepared as a newspaper strip a few years earlier, is just the same, and also by Joe Shuster. But Joe had poor eyesight, and when Superman was a success, and National (DC) Comics demanded more and more stories about him, the Siegel and Shuster Shop was born, and assistants were hired. The shop worked out of the pair’s home town of Cleveland, Ohio. Comics historians have identified some of the assistants in the Cleveland years as Paul Cassidy, Dennis Neville, Wayne Boring, John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Hi Mankin and Ed Dobrotka. But who was doing the lettering? Probably several of the assistants lent their hands to it. In an interview in Amazing Heroes #41 (Feb 1984, Fantagraphics), Boring reported he did some of the lettering.

From ACTION COMICS #8, Jan 1939

The earliest Shuster assistant so far identified as a letterer is Paul Lauretta, who lettered and inked most of the Superman stories in ACTION COMICS issues 6-10. In the sample of his work above, the lettering is similar to that of Joe Shuster, though the letter “A” is rounded at the top. I’ve written about Lauretta HERE.

From Superman Daily strip Nov 1, 1941. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

In January, 1939, Siegel and Shuster’s original dream of a Superman newspaper strip became a reality when National (DC) Comics made a deal with the McClure Syndicate. Siegel wrote and Joe Shuster illustrated with help from his growing studio, including his brother Frank Shuster, who became the regular letterer of the strip, and many comics stories as well, beginning in early 1940. Frank’s style is distinctive and professional, with regular letters that mostly fill a square shape. His letter R is particularly memorable, having a very rounded right leg that often doesn’t connect to the left leg, and his work improved the overall look of the Superman pages and stories he lettered. I’ve written about Frank beginning HERE. He lettered the Superman newspaper strip and comics stories until about 1943, when he was drafted into the Army. His main replacement was Ira Schnapp, beginning a busy career as a full-time letterer for National/DC Comics. Ira was older, and was not drafted like so many other young comics creators.

From ACTION COMICS #28, Sept 1940

In ACTION COMICS issues 28 to 34, the Superman stories are illustrated by Hardin “Jack” Burnley. Born January 11, 1911 in New York, Burnley was the first artist contracted directly by the publisher and not Siegel and Shuster to help fill their Superman needs. He began as a sports cartoonist for King Features, and started selling single-page sports fillers to DC in 1938.

When the company hired Jack Burnley to work on Superman, and other characters later, all his comics were lettered by his sister Elizabeth “Betty” Burnley Bentley, born August 2, 1916, the youngest of the family’s four children. Betty wrote about that period in a short essay for Robin Snyder’s newsletter The Comics! Volume 14 no. 10 (2003):

My brother, Jack Burnley, asked me in 1939 if I would like to do the lettering on the Superman cartoons he was illustrating. I had never done lettering before, but I do have artistic talents, so I was interested in giving it a try. Jack was pleased with my efforts, so I went to work for him in his apartment and I also kept up the files of material that might be useful. I never worked for Detective Comics [DC] nor met any of the [other] artists and writers, but I did hear stories of them and know their names. After a while, Starman and Batman were added to the lettering assignments. This all turned out to be a fun job for me in many ways. Jack has a very extensive collection of Jazz records that we listened to as we worked. My other brother, Ray, had joined us and was inking some of the backgrounds. Jack’s wife, Dolores, provided treats from the kitchen and so we were a family group and it was very pleasant working there. So it went for about three years. Then World War Two was going on and I felt that I should contribute something to the war effort. I regretfully stopped working for Jack, became a draftsman in a Defense plant and helped to design experimental planes for the Navy.

From ACTION COMICS #31, Dec 1940

In that same issue of The Comics by Robin Snyder, Jack Burnley remembered:

My sister, Betty Bentley, did all of the lettering in my comics work from late 1939 until the end of my Starman series in September, 1942. She had considerable artistic talent but was untrained and had no interest in pursuing an art career. Her lettering was straightforward, aimed at complete legibility, with no stylistic flourishes.

The lettering on that first story is a bit stiff and uneven as Betty learned on the job, but three issues later, the lettering had settled into a professional groove that matches her brother’s art well. If anything I think it’s better than the Joe Shuster model she was probably told to follow.

So, even though comic books were considered the lower-class stepchild of newspaper comic strips, they were providing steady work, financial success, and even professional careers as letterers for a few. The same thing was happening with other popular features and characters, as comics gathered momentum.

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

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