Perhaps it’s because of the recent Captain America film, but I’ve been seeing a lot of things online relating to Cap lately, including several about letterer Howard Ferguson, who worked in the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in their early days when they were producing the original run of CAPTAIN AMERICA comics, among others. Here’s what Joe Simon says about him in his book “Joe Simon, My Life in Comics”:
In 1939 … we brought in a letterer, too. The letterer’s name was Howard Ferguson, and he was the best ever in the business. Howard was from Detroit. His wife had left him, and he came to New York with his daughter Elsie, who was his pride and joy. She was maybe eight or nine years old at the time. Howard’s mother was an “America Firster,” one of the people who pressured the government not to get involved with World War II. The group had been organized by a Yale student. Its ranks included future President Gerald Ford and Sargent Shriver, the man who founded the Peace Corps. Howard didn’t agree with the Firsters, so he had a lot of heated arguments with his mother, and held a lifelong grudge against her.
Howard was a chain smoker who drank coffee all day. When we got his pages, there were always coffee stains and cigarette burns on them. But he was unlike any other letterer in the business. One time I brought Will Eisner in to see for himself. He came up to the studio.
“Will, look at this,” I said. Howard was working on a page, and usually when you letter, you do penciled guide lines first, so your lettering can fit neatly within the lines. But Howard didn’t bother with this extra step.
“Wow,” Eisner said. “I’ve never seen anybody do that before.” The lettering was straight as can be. I mean, Ben Oda was great, but nobody could do the work that Howard Ferguson did.”
Now, at the time the bar for comics lettering was pretty low. Many artists did their own lettering, at least at first, and when they could afford to hire an assistant, that person often did it. The quality of lettering throughout comics in the early 1940s covered a wide range from barely readable to pretty good by today’s standards, but rarely great. In an article on the Simon & Kirby Museum website blog by Harry Mendryk, he discusses and shows early Simon and Kirby lettering by both of those artists, and also the work of Ferguson. You can read the articles HERE. (One caveat, I’m not sure all the examples for Ferguson are by him, I think there’s another hand in there.)
By any standard Ferguson’s work was miles better than what either Simon or Kirby did themselves, and really is quite nice, though I wouldn’t put it in the category of “great” myself. And that trick of lettering without guidelines? I’m sure it was a time saver, and handy skill, but that in itself did not make the lettering any better or worse. On the Digital Webbing message board, and in private messages to me, George E Warner had this to say about Ferguson:
“Howard Ferguson (Captain America’s original letterer) was one of Timely/Marvel Comics best letterers in my humble opinion. At the time he was active in the industry no one but Howard could dress up a comic like he did.”
Okay, Ferguson has his fans, so let’s look at some of his work on CAPTAIN AMERICA #1, cover dated March, 1941. I put the contents page at the top of this post, and it’s quite good, with a variety of styles that work together well, and solid, handsome regular lettering. A fine start to the issue and the work of Ferguson.
Here’s the title page to Cap’s origin story. Let’s remember that everyone involved was still pretty new to comics, and as always, the story was done quickly to meet a deadline. In those terms it’s fine, if a little rough around the edges. The first caption has much larger lettering than the rest, perhaps to draw us into the story, or just to fill the space left there by Kirby in his pencils, but it looks a little odd, and I don’t like the backward-angled initial A. The titles are nice, though would probably look better without the horizontal line shading.
Here’s a closer look at a panel from page two, where we can see some of Howard’s balloon lettering: very even, with consistent straight strokes and almost perfectly rounded curved strokes, very easy to read and pleasant to look at. His rounded G has a small, high serif, and there’s another small vertical downstroke at the top of the C, two letterforms that help identify his work. He also had a distinctive J that you can see on the Simon & Kirby museum link above, but that letter does not show up in any of my closer examples, though there is one in the first balloon on page 1 above. Angling the place caption is not a great idea, but it does allow him to fit it into this crowded panel better. Note that the balloon lettering is done with a wedge-tipped pen to give it a calligraphic line that varies from thick to thin depending on the angle, while the caption uses a regular pen point with one consistent weight, slightly heavier on average.
Three things that caught my eye on this final panel of page three. First, the unusual wavy outline to the caption box, with the lines extending beyond the corners. I like that look, though I think it would be more appropriate on a horror story. On the other hand, it’s a moment of tension in the tale, so perhaps an okay choice. Second, the lettering style for this caption has changed pens to the calligraphic wedge-tipped one. Third and most important: why is it over the heads of the two characters? That’s a really bad idea! Could Ferguson have just been following Kirby’s pencils and lettering indications? If so, it’s Kirby’s bad choice. No way to know at this point, but if I were there at the time I would have suggested running the caption along the top of the entire panel, moving the balloon down to the bottom right, and making sure the characters’ heads were in the shot.
This unusual panel layout from page 4 works well, and shows Kirby’s love of machinery. The only thing I don’t like about the lettering is the initial capitals in the first two captions. First, they both lean away to the left, second, each is in a different style.
On the final panel of page 5 we have another wavy caption border, and again for a tense moment, so Ferguson was being somewhat consistent. Not sure I like the large BUT at the beginning. Another identifying letterform by Ferguson seen on this page is the letter S where the bottom stroke is shorter than the center stroke. He didn’t always do it that way, but often enough to make it distinctive.
So, we’ve seen Ferguson doing open lettering earlier in the story, but here his sound effects are solid letters without much character, and I think quite weak, not supporting the art well. At the time sound effects often weren’t open letters, but even in size these are disappointing.
On page 7 Howard goes to town on those newspaper headlines, and makes it all work beautifully. I’m not sure why he went with a wavy edge to the open lettering, but he seems fond of that approach. It’s okay here, and I know from experience that when you’re doing open lettering freehand, without any pencilled guidelines, any sort of variation to the edge works to hide inconsistencies in the letter shapes, so that may be why he did it.
At the end of the story is another large panel giving Ferguson a chance to shine with a variety of styles in this house ad (and early marketing ploy!) I like this a lot except for the texture on the arrow, which may not be him anyway.
One final house ad, which is probably from a later issue. A nice variety of styles, but again I’m not crazy about the wavy outlines on the open lettering at the top. The large initial S is a little strange too, and the word BEWARE has an interesting reverse effect but the B is missing the upper opening. (And that could just be the reproduction here.)
To sum up, Howard Ferguson was a fine letterer, and identifying him as the main one for the work of Simon and Kirby from the late 30s to about 1953 (the latest credit I can find) is a great addition to my own knowledge of early letterers, and hopefully yours as well. I wouldn’t put him in the top level of lettering masters, but certainly he did professional and consistent work that any letterer could be proud of. And now you know who Captain America’s first letter was!