I was saddened to learn from his daughter Lisa that my creative inspiration as a letterer and my friend Gaspar Saladino died on the morning of Thursday, August 4th, 2016. He was 88 and a few weeks short of his 89th birthday. At first I was too sad to write much about it, but having seen a number of articles online with wrong or incomplete information, I decided I needed to remember him here with the most correct information I can gather. Sources include the website “Dial B for Blog,” the Grand Comics Database, and my own interviews and research.From FUNNY PAGES Vol. 3 #8.
Gaspar was born in Brooklyn, NY on September 1st, 1927, as confirmed yesterday by his family. As a child, Gaspar was a fan of comic strips like “Secret Agent X-9” by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond. Gaspar was also a comics reader and budding artist, as evidenced by the fact that he submitted a drawing of an airplane to the comic FUNNY PAGES that was published on a fan art page in the Oct. 1939 issue, Volume 3 #8. Gaspar was 11 at the time. (How he would have laughed if I’d been able to show it to him. I just saw it yesterday for the first time myself.)
For high school, Gaspar enrolled in Manhattan’s High School of Industrial Arts (later renamed the High School of Art and Design), commuting to school by subway from Brooklyn. Many of its students became comics professionals, including Neal Adams, Jack Adler, Frank Giacoia, Joe Giella, Dick Giordano, Sol Harrison, Carmine Infantino, GIl Kane, Bernard Krigstein, Joe Kubert, Joe Orlando, John Romita Sr., and Alex Toth. Of these, Gaspar reported in an interview with Kirk Kimball, “Joe Kubert I knew of. And I knew Carmine and Gil Kane. I knew Joe Orlando. Joe was in my grade. Alex Toth was in the grade below me.” Joe Giella was also a classmate of Gaspar. While he was in high school, some of the New York comics studios employed students, and Gaspar did a little inking for Lloyd Jacquet Studios, but described them as “occasional one or two-pagers.”
Gaspar graduated in the class of 1945, and though World War Two had ended, he was soon drafted into the Air Force. He reports: “I was stationed in Tokyo, Japan, which was wonderful. It was a very educational experience. I worked with the AACS (Airways and Air Communication Service) doing public relations. I didn’t do any lettering or artwork at all.” Gaspar was part of the U.S. occupation force in Japan overseen by General Douglas MacArthur, who Gaspar remembered as being an impressive figure.
After two years in the service, Gaspar returned to Brooklyn and was soon out pounding the pavement looking for work. His original direction was toward fashion design, but he found little work in that field. Finally, in 1949 he put together some sample comics pages that he drew, lettered and inked, and took them to National Comics (now DC Comics) where the Production Manager Sol Harrison, a graduate of the High School of Industrial Arts himself, was known to be friendly to other graduates. Several of Gaspar’s former schoolmates were already working for the company. Harrison showed the samples around to the editors, and Julius Schwartz expressed interest. Julie said that, while he didn’t like Gaspar’s art enough to hire him for that, he did like his lettering, and offered him regular lettering work, which Gaspar was happy to get.
When he started working at National (DC) in the fall of 1949, Gaspar told me they sat him in the production room between veteran lettering man Ira Schnapp (not long on staff himself) and production artist Mort Drucker, later of MAD MAGAZINE fame. He began lettering mainly for Julie, but Julie’s office-mate Robert Kanigher was soon using him as well. It was freelance work paying $2 a page, but done in the office five days a week. Gaspar lettered about nine pages a day, on average, or 45 pages a week. At the end of the week he’d fill out a voucher for the work and get a check for about $90, which was good money in those days, and he was quite happy with the work and the job.
I’ve researched Gaspar’s first DC work in a series of blog articles beginning HERE and found his first printed lettering appeared in ROMANCE TRAIL #5 cover-dated March-April 1950. That would have gone on sale in January or February 1950, and been produced the previous fall, October or November 1949. Before long, Gaspar was moved to a drawing board right in the office shared by Julie Schwartz and Bob Kanigher, where he was always available to make lettering corrections and do new stories, a time saver for them. As you can see from the example above, lettering in those days could fill half the page at times, and must have taken a long time to do, but Gaspar thrived at DC and lettered tens of thousands of comics pages through the next five decades, all by hand, produced in pen and ink one letter at a time on the original artwork, or sometimes in later years on vellum overlays. Gaspar was soon the favorite letterer of 1950s DC mainstays like Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Joe Kubert, but his influence spread further. Writer/artist Larry Hama recently wrote: “I learned my lettering alphabet from Wally Wood, who based his on Gaspar’s. Woody said it had the most ‘zip.'” Gaspar had long runs on Julie’s titles like THE FLASH, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, THE ATOM, GREEN LANTERN and others, and did lots of work for Kanigher and other editors too.
Eventually Gaspar began working at home, and for a while also worked in the home of artist Carmine Infantino to help him get his pages done faster, he told me. While working there he met his wife-to-be Celeste, and they were married in 1957. At first the couple lived in Queens Village, then moved to a home in Plainview, Long Island in 1959, where they lived the rest of Gaspar’s life. They had three children, Greg (born in 1960), Lisa (1962) and Peter (1965). At present there are five grandchildren: Jordan, Brea, Jackson, Alyssa and Kaila.
Carmine loved Gaspar’s work, and when he became DC’s Art Director in 1966 and soon the Editor-in-Chief, one of the changes he made was to gradually shift the premiere lettering assignments at the company: logo designs, cover lettering and house ads, from veteran letterer Ira Schnapp to Gaspar, who brought a new level of energy and excitement to that work, as seen above, not to mention an amazing amount of creativity. When Ira left the company in 1968, nearly all that work went to Gaspar until the late 1970s, and he continued to do a much of it into the 1990s. While this new special work may have caused him to cut back on his story page lettering some, Gaspar continued to letter plenty of pages as well.
Favorite examples he cited were SUPERMAN VS. MUHAMMAD ALI and the other tabloid-sized comics he lettered in the 1970s, where the extra size gave him more room to be creative, and SWAMP THING, where, at writer Len Wein’s direction, Gaspar expanded the repertoire of comics story lettering with new styles and evocatively creepy captions and balloon lettering.
Gaspar also did many of the company’s best-known logos from the late 1960s on, with his SWAMP THING logo being my personal favorite, and that of many, but there were hundreds of others. Gaspar’s cover lettering was always a treat to see, and in 1985 I put together a collection of it that you can see HERE.
In 1971 and 1973 Gaspar won the Academy of Comic Book Arts’ SHAZAM award for best letterer. Why he was never nominated for later awards like the Kirby, Eisner and Harvey is something I never understood. In addition to plenty of DC work, Gaspar also found time to letter for MAD MAGAZINE, NATIONAL LAMPOON, the 1970s Atlas Comics (he designed all their logos) as well as quite a bit of work for Marvel Comics. When he lettered whole stories for Marvel, he often used the pen-name L.P. Gregory, but in the 1970s Gaspar was also the unaccredited “page one” letterer for much of the Marvel line. They hired Gaspar to make splash pages and story titles look their best.
When I started working at DC in 1977 I was blown away seeing and working with Gaspar’s lettering in person, such as the examples above. I learned a lot from the work of other letterers, but Gaspar was the one who constantly impressed me. At that time, Gaspar would come into the DC offices once a week to turn in work and pick up new assignments. He was doing lots of cover lettering and quite a bit of story page lettering regularly, and logo designs from time to time. Gaspar was always smiling and friendly, with a hearty laugh. Traces of Brooklyn remained in his voice, and he talked and joked with everyone. He was friendly and polite, a gentleman. I got to know him, and liked the person as much as the work. When he would sit down to do corrections or last minute cover lettering in the production room, I would sneak glances to see how he was doing what he did. I never actually asked him to show me how to do anything, but I absorbed what I could from those brief looks and the work itself. Gaspar was testy at times about the fact that so many letterers tried to copy his work, but he needn’t have worried. We could never copy his innate brilliance and talent. Many letterers at the time were trying to imitate Gaspar, with Jim Novak at Marvel perhaps getting the closest.
A few times while I was on staff at DC, Gaspar would come to work every day in the production department, helping out with corrections and general work, as well as doing his own. I’m not sure why he agreed to do that, but I’m guessing he liked the atmosphere and camaraderie, making a change from working at home. The article above discusses one of those times. His daughter Lisa also worked with us in Production for a while from 1984 to 1986. Gaspar did not stay on staff with us long.
I left the DC staff in 1987 to pursue a full-time freelance career, and after that I saw Gaspar only occasionally until 1989, and then not at all for decades. We would talk on the phone from time to time. Digital lettering was on the rise in the 1990s, as I’ve written about at length HERE. Desktop computing was making inroads in traditional comics production, and comic book fonts were being created and used by people like Richard Starkings and myself. By the late 1990s, most of DC and Marvel’s cover lettering was being done digitally, and by the early 2000s, interior page lettering had switched almost entirely to digital. Gaspar was one of the old guard letterers who had no interest in digital work, and who were gradually pushed out of the comics lettering business. I believe Gaspar’s last regular lettering assignment ended with THE FLASH #190 cover-dated November 2002, sample above. Though he did occasional work after that for DC and others, Gaspar was essentially retired from comics at age 75.
In 2013 DC began a new series, BATMAN ’66, based on the Batman TV show. To help recapture the look of the period, editor Jim Chadwick hired Gaspar to do cover lettering, sample above. Gaspar’s work appeared on the covers of issues 3-5 and 7-10 before poor health caused him to give up the assignment. It would be his last published comics lettering for DC. It extended his working time for the company to about 63 years, a career that few have equalled.
When I began writing a blog for my website in 2007 I took a renewed interest in comics and lettering history, and I began calling and talking to Gaspar more frequently about his life and work. We both enjoyed those talks, reminiscing about the old days, and I learned a lot. In August of 2014 I was surprised to hear Gaspar say to me he was interested in attending that year’s New York Comic-Con in Manhattan in October. Despite his 63 years in comics, Gaspar had never had much interest in comics fandom, and had never been to a comics convention, though I know he had been invited as a guest to several, including the San Diego Comic-Con, invitations he’d always refused. Apparently he’d been seeing TV ads for the show, and wanted to see the massive spectacle for himself. Gaspar asked if I could meet him there and make arrangements for us to attend the show together for a few hours. He would be accompanied by his son-in-law Mitch Weinreb. I was happy to do that, and I also alerted many of my lettering friends who I knew were fans of the man, and suggested they might join us. Some did, and we all had a great time at the show, which I wrote about HERE.
Gaspar Saladino and friends at NYCC 2014, photo courtesy of David Marshall. Left to right: logo designer Alex Jay, letterer Clem Robins, letterer Chris Eliopoulos (below Clem), Gaspar, Todd Klein, David Marshall, letterer Janice Chiang and letterer Tom Orzechowski.
It was a wonderful day, and I’m now particularly happy we had that time together. Gaspar’s health was not the best, and he needed a wheelchair or cane to get around, but his cheerful smile, strong voice and hearty laugh were all as I remembered them, and he was truly amazed to see the kind of attention comics and he himself garnered there.
I last spoke to Gaspar in the spring of 2016. He was in the hospital with health issues, but told me he hoped I could come visit him in Plainview this summer, something we had talked about for a few years. Sadly, it was not to be. Gaspar was always humble about his own work, and I know he would have been surprised by but also appreciate the love and attention he’s getting now on social media and comics sites. When DC’s previous lettering legend Ira Schnapp died in 1969, it went unnoticed and unmarked by the company, something that bothered Gaspar. “It was like Ira never existed,” he once told me. I’m sad for the loss of my friend, but happy to be able to help keep his work and memory alive.