FRANK SHUSTER, SUPERMAN LETTERER Part 1

Frank Shuster, 1937, from senior play cast photo, John Hay High School yearbook.

I’ve been researching the lettering of Ira Schnapp at DC Comics for some time, and the one area still to be done is DC’s newspaper strips, beginning with Superman. I’ve gradually acquired all the reprints of the strip available so far, and I thought I should begin at the beginning to see if I could determine who had lettered them. At the start of any strip, it’s almost always the artist who does his own lettering, and it was so with Superman. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster became friends in high school in Cleveland, Ohio, drawn together by common interests like science fiction, movies and comic strips. They spent years working on Superman strip samples and trying to sell them to newspaper syndicates which distribute strips to newspapers around America and the world. They had no success, and finally offered Superman to National Allied Publications, soon to become National/Detective Comics (DC), as Major Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson’s company was taken over by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz around the same time. Siegel and Shuster had already been doing comics for the Major beginning in 1936, but they were struggling to make a living from it.

Editor Vin Sullivan wanted Superman as the lead feature in a new title they were launching, ACTION COMICS, so Jerry and Joe cut up and reworked some of their newspaper strips to fit the comic book format. It was a huge hit, and history was made. Jerry and Joe’s deal with DC was a terrible one, but it took a while for them to realize quite how terrible, and they were paid well at first once Superman proved a success. Meanwhile, DC was anxious for them to supply as much Superman material as they could. Soon a side deal was made between DC and the McClure Syndicate for a Superman daily newspaper strip, and later a Sunday strip as well, making Jerry and Joe’s original plan a reality. In addition to his stories in ACTION, a comic with only stories about him (SUPERMAN) was launched, and the character also began appearing in WORLD’S FINEST COMICS. Before long Siegel and Shuster were swamped with work and making enough money to hire help in getting the Superman strips and comic pages done, and the Siegel-Shuster studio in Cleveland began to grow.

From MORE FUN COMICS #7, Jan 1936.
This and all following images © DC Comics except as noted.

One of the first Siegel and Shuster sales to the Major was Doctor Occult, under the pen names Leger and Reuths. Above is a page from his second appearance, which was surely lettered by Joe Shuster.

Here’s a closer look at two panels. The lettering by Joe is pretty typical for newspaper strips and comics of the time, though there was a lot of variety in that work. Block capital letters were most common. Underlining words for emphasis was seen as often as making those words bolder. Joe might have formed his lettering ideas from favorite newspaper strips he and Jerry both liked such as Buck Rogers:

From the Buck Rogers strip of Jan 8, 1929 by Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins, © John F. Dille Co.

Joe’s lettering is not far from what Dick Calkins was doing on the Buck Rogers strip. His balloon shapes were different, but rounded rectangular shapes like Joe’s were also common. The main concern at the time was making the text easy to read, style was not an important issue, though some strips definitely had a lettering style.

From DETECTIVE COMICS #1, March 1937

Another early feature from Siegel and Shuster was Slam Bradley, sample panel above, again surely lettered by Joe. The lettering is similar to that of Dr. Occult from a year earlier.

From ACTION COMICS #1, June 1938

This brings us to Joe’s lettering on the early Superman strips used in ACTION, which again is quite similar to the previous examples.

A closer look at the first panel confirms this. Joe’s lettering makes little effort toward style, it just gets the job done with generally square block letters that are easy to read.

The first two Superman daily strips, Jan 16-17 1939

When the syndicated daily Superman strip began in January, 1939, Joe Shuster’s lettering again matches his earlier work, though his balloons are now rounder, but things were already changing in his studio. In an article by James Vance published in the Superman strip collection, “Superman: The Dailies 1939-1940,” he describes a help wanted ad Jerry and Joe ran in Cleveland newspapers in 1938 looking for artists. One of the first they hired was Paul Cassidy, and he soon had the job of “ghosting” art for Siegel and Shuster strips like Slam Bradley, Federal Men and Radio Squad, all published by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Also hired around the same time was artist Wayne Boring, and Cassidy and Boring were the initial core of Cleveland’s Siegel and Shuster comics studio or shop, soon joined by others like Leo Nowak, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka and more. Once Superman work increased, these artists were called on to do whatever they could to keep things moving. Vance quotes Cassidy as saying, “I did all kinds of stuff, from pencilling to lettering to inking everything but the faces. Shuster’s vision was pretty bad by then, but he still inked all the faces.” Joe Shuster had struggled with poor vision since childhood, and it would make his career in comics a constant battle that he gradually lost. Some of the early daily strip lettering seems to be by other hands, though it’s all close to Joe Shuster’s work.

The Shuster Family, from The Saturday Evening Post, June 21, 1941. Left to right, brother Frank, mother Ida, Joe, father Julius and sister Jean. Image © Curtis Publishing.

Frank Shuster, Joe’s brother, was about four years younger, born April 29, 1918. I haven’t found out a lot about him, but my friend and fellow comics historian Alex Jay provided some helpful research and I also learned a few things from Brad Ricca’s fine book “Super Boys.” Like Joe, Frank had artistic talent, and did cartoons for his school newspaper, the John Hay Ledger, where he’s listed as Staff Cartoonist and Humor Editor. Frank acted in school plays like “Merton of the Movies,” and he wrote a jokes and humor column for the school paper, so in that way was also like Jerry Siegel, who did the same. In fact, Jerry and Frank tried to launch a mail-order school for humor writing, one of many projects that went nowhere. In October 1940, Frank and Joe were almost the same size and weight, according to their draft cards. Frank was 5 feet 5 inches and 125 pounds. Joe was 5 feet 6 inches and 127 pounds. Brad Ricca says, “Frank was a rebel soul; after graduating high school in 1938, he became a hobo by choice at seventeen and rode the trains for a while, wanting to see more of the country around him. He came back, though, and did some clerical work and was never very far from Joe.”

When Frank returned, it’s likely he began helping out at the comics studio, and apparently lettering is what he did best. In the Ricca book, his sister Jean mentions he lettered Superman, and there’s another source for that. Around June 1940, New York reporter John Kobler came to Cleveland to interview and write a story about the kids who created Superman for The Saturday Evening Post. It was published in the June 21, 1941 issue. When Kobler introduces the Shuster family, he writes of “brother Frank—who now works as a letterer on the Siegel-Shuster staff.” He also mentions that staff consisted of five artists, including Frank, “jammed cheek-by-jowl into one of the world’s tiniest rooms, furiously pencilling and lettering panels at the rate of one thirteen-page story, one Sunday page and six daily strips a week.”

Superman Daily strip Jan 29, 1940

With that information, I looked for a distinctive style starting around 1940, and I found one. The lettering is more even and regular than Joe’s model, with letters that lean slightly to the left and are sometimes wider than a square. Notable features include a tendency to not connect the loop of the R with the left leg, not always the case, but often. The word balloons are made of scalloped, rounded shapes with open tails that tend to extend into the balloon. Emphasis is sometimes done with underlines, but also with bolder letters, as in BLITZEN. This seemed likely to be the first Frank Shuster lettering, and this style continued and gradually evolved into an even more distinctive version over the next few years. There is one gap with lettering by someone else, but otherwise Frank lettered all the daily strips from this point until ones dated mid November 1943. Lets look at examples.

From Superman Daily Sept 5, 1940

By September 1940, Frank’s letters have become more curved. The right side of the R is now usually made with a large upper loop that continues into an upward curved right leg, again often not connected to the left leg. The right leg of the N is more curved, and there are subtle curves in many of the horizontal strokes. The round letters O and C continue to be almost perfectly round. The G is also round with a serif in the center. This style is one I had already seen in Superman stories in the comics, and I was happy to be able to put Frank’s name to it.

From Superman Daily March 8, 1941

Scripter Jerry Siegel had an unusual way of indicating thoughts to be lettered. He surrounded them with parentheses AND quote marks AND dashes too. In this example, Frank has made it clearer by using a dotted border on that balloon, though it still has a normal tail.

From Superman Daily May 3, 1941

Here’s Frank’s version of a radio or burst balloon with sound coming from a speaker, though the burst shape might be by the artist. Frank uses two different pen thicknesses to create emphasis on these panels.

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

Original art from a few early Superman strips can be found on the Heritage Auctions site, allowing us a closer look at Frank’s lettering. These samples from a typical page during Frank’s tenure show his work with more accuracy than the printed volumes. You can also see that the words to be lettered were put in roughtly by the pencil artist in blue, the common method at the time. This allowed the artist and letterer to both know exactly where the balloons would fall so enough room was left and the artist wasn’t drawing things that would be covered by lettering. Frank then drew horizontal guides for the top and bottom of each line of lettering in blue pencil probably using an Ames Guide before adding his letters in ink with two pen points, a thinner one for regular letters and a thicker one for emphasized words like SUPERMAN. Frank used a dead-line point that gives a line of even thickness, unlike the wedge-tipped pens many letterers use that create thicker and thinner lines depending on the direction of the stroke. Frank’s elegant style is even more evident here than in print. Notice how close together some letters were, often touching, but it still reads fine.

From Superman Daily Dec 19, 1942

This panel from 1942 shows how Frank’s style continued to evolve, and also that he could letter in other styles when appropriate. These letters are either stretched horizontally or compressed vertically, whichever way you want to think of it. There’s less roundness than before in many of the letters, though the shape of the R is about the same, if less curved. The serif on the G now goes only inward.

One area of information Alex Jay found is both helpful and puzzling, and that’s Frank’s military service. Here’s his draft card from 1940 listing his mother Ida as his primary contact and brother Joe as his employer. The family name had been Schuster when they were in Canada, and Ida still used that spelling. Frank did here too, though the draft board has typed at the top SEE FRANK SHUSTER and corrected his address, perhaps because he moved after filling this out.

The second image, the other side of the card, has personal details and a note that he wears glasses. Joe’s very poor eyesight would have made him ineligible to serve. Frank’s eyes were not as bad, and he served as a Warrant Officer, which often meant a desk job. His records show he enlisted (or perhaps was drafted) on Nov 2, 1942 (another record says Oct 19) and was released on March 3, 1946. Somehow Frank was able to continue lettering Superman dailies almost a year into this service, and a bit longer on Sundays. Some strips could have been done well ahead, but not enough to cover that entire time. Possibly Frank was stationed near home so he could get to the studio when on leave. Perhaps he was able to do it in the evenings and on weekends while serving. Gus Arriola, the writer and artist of the Gordo comic strip had to halt it when he was called up, but then resumed the Sunday strip, keeping up with it that way while serving in the Los Angeles area. It’s also possible that another letterer took over using a very similar style to Frank’s, but it sure looks like his work to me. There’s no record of where Frank served. Alex reports many such records were lost in a fire.

From Superman Daily March 22, 1943

This panel from 1943 is surely still by Frank, matching the ones above, and again slightly more curved than the 1942 example.

From Superman Daily Oct 21, 1943

I think the last week of daily strips lettered by Frank is Oct 18-23. Above is a panel from one of those. Notice the shape of the question mark as Frank usually made them: a single curve over a period. Frank’s letter R’s continue to usually have unconnected loops, his round letters are very round, and his lettering in general is very regular.

From Superman daily Oct 25, 1943

With the daily strips of the following week I detect a change of style, but it’s subtle and it took me a while to notice it. The letterer is successful in imitating Frank Shuster’s style in general, but these letters are not quite as regular. Some of the letter R’s don’t connect, as per Frank, but some do, as if that was not a natural choice. Most telling are the question marks like the two in the last balloon here. They’re smaller, and they make a double curve sort of like the number 2. That question mark style is one of the best ways to identify the lettering of Ira Schnapp, and I believe he took over the Superman dailies at this time.

Another panel from the same week with another Schnapp question mark, and if you compare these examples with the ones above, I find it believable that they are by two different people. Ira Schnapp was a good candidate to take over from Frank. Jerry and Joe knew his work from his redesign of the Superman logo that first appeared on SUPERMAN #6 in 1940. Schnapp was an accomplished lettering man, though not yet doing much comics work, so he was available, and also a good choice on that basis.

From Superman Daily Nov 27, 1944

From that time forward, Schnapp was the regular letterer on the daily strips for decades, right up until they ended. I’ll be covering Ira’s work in another post.

Superman Sunday 1A Oct-Nov 1939

Now let’s look at the Sunday pages. The first one, above, was an introduction to the character and not part of the regular series. It would have been offered to papers wanting to run the strip as a teaser, and probably ran on different dates in different papers. The lettering is by Joe Shuster, and two of the panels are reused from ACTION COMICS #1.

From Superman Sunday Nov 5, 1939

The first regular Sunday page debuted on November 5, 1939, and the lettering is a little different and I think not by Joe. Assistants were already at work by then, and this looks like the lettering of Paul Lauretta, who had a distinctive wide round-topped A. Lauretta only worked with Shuster for a short time, and lettered (and perhaps did some inking) on several early Sundays.

From Superman Sunday Dec 3, 1939

This Sunday is lettered by someone else, probably another assistant.

From Superman Sunday Dec 10, 1939

The sixth Sunday page of December 10, 1939, sample above, has lettering by Frank Shuster, the earliest by him to be published. The balloon shapes are still very much like Joe’s, but the lettering is larger and has those distinctive R’s.

From Superman Sunday March 17, 1940

Perhaps this was a tryout of sorts because Frank’s lettering does not return on Sundays until #20 dated March 17, 1940 even though he was lettering the dailies by the end of January. (Some earlier Sundays might be lettered by Frank still finding his style, I’m not sure.) Now Frank’s balloon shapes are rounded and scalloped like what he did on the dailies.

From Superman Sunday June 16, 1940

Frank’s lettering appeared on some Sundays, but not all, until #33 dated June 16, 1940. Frank then lettered all the Sundays to November 14, 1943, missing only one on Sept 19, 1943. Again, many of these had to have been lettered when he was in the service. Let’s look at some examples.

From Superman Sunday Nov 17, 1940

Sound effects were not yet an important part of Superman strips, but appeared occasionally, as here. It’s impossible to say if they were lettered by Frank or by the artist.

From Superman Sunday March 21, 1943

By March 1943, Frank’s lettering usually had a wider look when there was room. Wider examples are here except on the right side where he lettered narrower to fit.

From Superman Sunday Nov 14, 1943

Here’s a panel from the last Sunday I think Frank lettered. Note his question mark shape, a single loop and his characteristic letter R’s.

From Superman Sunday Nov 21, 1943

The next Sunday has no question marks, but I think the style is noticeably different, and matches the Schnapp examples I gave for the dailies pretty well.

From Superman Sunday Nov 28, 1943

The following Sunday has Ira Schnapp question marks with a double bend, and while the lettering is a good match for Frank’s style, I see enough differences to be convinced it’s not by him. This is also not typical for Ira Schnapp’s later work, so at this point I think he was still finding his way and trying his best to imitate his predecessor.

From Superman Sunday June 4, 1944

By 1944, Ira’s lettering was getting more confident, though it’s still fairly different from his later work. I will talk about that in another post, but I think Ira was also the main letterer of the Superman Sundays for the rest of the run.

Below is a list of Sundays and dailies I believe were lettered by Frank Shuster.

Dailies: #325 (1-29-40) to #372 (3-23-40), #397 (4-22-40) to #1494 (10-23-43)

Sundays: #6 (12-10-39), #20 (3-17-40) to #23 (4-7-40), #26 (4/28/40), #33 (6-16-40) to #202 (9-12-43), #204 (9-26-43) to #211 (11-14-43)

Look Magazine 2/27/40 special color strip 4pp

That’s 1,146 dailies and 184 Sundays plus that 4-pager, which was equivalent to one Sunday, so make it 185 Sundays. How does that compare to comics pages? I filled in as letterer a few times for Gaspar Saladino on the DC strip The World’s Greatest Superheroes (later just Superman) in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Dailies were drawn two on a page of comics art paper turned sideways, and two daily strips were considered (and paid) the same as one page of comics lettering. Sundays were much larger and considered the same amount of work as two comics pages. Using that as a rule of thumb, Frank’s work on Superman strips was roughly equivalent to 943 pages of comics lettering, quite a lot of work. And he did more on Superman comics stories, which I will look at in Part 2.

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