HOWARD FERGUSON – SIMON & KIRBY LETTERER

From CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1, March 1941, image © Marvel, image courtesy of Michael J. Vassallo

In the early days of comics, lettering was often done by the artist himself, but in a few cases success meant an artist or studio could hire someone just to do the lettering. That was the true for the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, which began in 1940, doing work for Fox Publications and then Timely/Marvel Comics, among others. In his 2011 autobiography, Joe Simon, My Life In Comics (Titan Books, 2011), Simon puts the date at 1939, but elsewhere he says he began working at Fox in December 1939, where he met Kirby, so 1940 seems more likely. Joe wrote that as they gained clients they hired Charles Nicholas to work for them as a penciler, inker and scripter, and soon “…we brought in a letterer, too. The letterer’s name was Howard Ferguson, and he was the best ever in the business.” Howard is probably known today (if at all) as the letterer of most of the first ten issues of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS, as seen above. Howard’s balloon lettering developed and grew more confident over the first year with Simon & Kirby, but right from the start he was trying to add extra creative touches: variety in styles, special treatments for the first letter or word of a caption (as shown), special caption styles, and more. I call these things “creative extras,” and they were almost always present in his work except in the last few years. Clearly he wanted his lettering to stand out from the crowd, to be noticed and appreciated, and it certainly was by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

In this article I’ll outline Howard’s entire life and career, with the help of research done by Alex Jay and myself and information from his granddaughter, who I recently contacted online. A separate article will focus on his lettering and work in detail.

Edith and Howard Ferguson, probably late 1930s, courtesy of Patty Thomas.

A rare photo of Howard, with his third wife, Edith. It’s undated, but late 1930s seems likely. The palm trees suggest a Florida vacation or honeymoon. Patty Thomas and her siblings never knew their grandfather, he died well before they were born, as did their grandmother. Patty told me that Howard and Edith’s daughter, her mother Elsie, never spoke about Howard or his family, but Patty did remember a few helpful things that I’ve added to his story, and she found a few photos like this one.

Howard Grant Ferguson was born July 4, 1895 in Washburn, Wisconsin, according to his draft cards (his Social Security application has 1896) to Grant and Minnie (Marion) Ferguson. Both Howard’s father and his mother’s father, were railway clerks, and lived at the same address in Superior, Wisconsin in 1899. For more details on Howard’s early family life, see Alex Jay’s article HERE. At some point, Howard’s parents divorced, and his father moved to Duluth, MN. Howard and his mother lived with his maternal grandmother Elsie in Superior in the 1905 Wisconsin state census. By 1907, Minnie had married Arba Hawley, and they also were in Duluth. In the 1910 census, when Howard was about 15, he, his mother and step-father, maternal grandmother, and three-year-old step-brother were all at the same address in Duluth, 131 West 3rd Street.

Howard graduated from eighth grade at the East End School in 1910, and was a freshman at Duluth Central High School in 1911. That year his family moved to Detroit, MI, where they would live for many years. In the 1914 Detroit city directory, Howard is listed as a student, so he probably graduated from high school there, but by 1916 he was working as a stock clerk in Detroit. That year, at age 21, he married Ida Trombley on December 26.

Ferguson’s World War One draft card dated June 5, 1918

Howard’s draft card (it’s unlikely he was called up to serve) shows he and his wife Ida and nine-month-old daughter Virginia living at 148 Chene Street, Detroit. His employer was Dae Health Laboratory, a drug manufacturer of products like Nuxated Iron with questionable health benefits. The back of the card described Howard as short, with slender build, blue eyes and light-colored hair. The 1918 Detroit city directory said he was a shipping clerk. In the 1920 census, he was a telephone company clerk. Up to this time there’s no evidence of Howard being interested in an art career, but in the 1921 city directory, he’s listed as an artist. Perhaps he studied showcard lettering from books, or took a course somewhere. By 1923, he was working for the S.M. Epstein Company, which specialized in jewelry advertising. In 1925 he worked as an artist for the Detroit Ad-Service. He may have worked on print ads and/or store signs for these companies, and his home address changed several times, suggesting he was struggling.

Ferguson’s family life changed in 1927. Divorce from Ida was finalized on April 8, 1927 in Detroit. The cause was “extreme cruelty,” and alimony was granted. His daughter Virginia was nine years old. Eight days later, on April 16, Howard married his second wife, Marjorie V. Crawford, a twenty-year-old from France. This marriage probably didn’t last more than a few years. Meanwhile, his future third wife, Lillian Edith Stanton, married her first husband, Henry Smith Lockwood, on June 27, 1930, in Queens, New York. Again, that marriage must not have lasted long. The 1940 census shows that both Edith (as she was known) and Howard were living in Detroit in 1935, and they must have met there and married some time before 1940. The census of that year has them living with Edith’s parents Arthur and Lillian Stanton and sister Marjorie in Jamaica, Queens, New York at 173-43 103rd Road. Howard’s occupation was “artist doing private work,” in other words, a freelancer. With his advertising background, he was probably getting similar work in Manhattan, and he found more with the newly formed Simon and Kirby studio in 1940. He was about 45 years old, much older than his new employers.

From SCIENCE COMICS #7, Aug 1940, © Fox Publications

Joe Simon was born Oct 11, 1913 in Rochester, NY to poor parents, his father was a tailor. He showed early artistic talent, and did art for his high school newspaper and yearbook. After graduation, he worked at newspapers in Rochester and Syracuse, and in 1937, moved to Manhattan looking for work as an artist. He got into comics in 1939, first by working at Funnies, Inc., Lloyd Jacquet’s studio, which packaged comics for publishers who did not produce their own stories, or enough of them. His first story, a six-page western, appeared in AMAZING-MAN COMICS #10 from Centaur dated March 1940. Keep in mind that comic books were always dated about two months later than when they actually went on sale, and often were being created two or three months before that at least, so Simon’s first story might have been drawn in the summer or fall of 1939. In December, 1939, Simon answered an ad for artists at Fox Publications, and not only landed comics work, he was hired as an editor, though never so credited in the books. That would happen a lot, Joe must have come across as knowing what he was doing in comics, even from the start.

Another artist working for Fox was Jacob Kurtzberg (later known as Jack Kirby), born Aug 28, 1917 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, also to a poor family whose father was a tailor. Jack loved to draw and knew he wanted to make a living at it. He was entirely self-taught, studying the newspaper strips he liked, and in 1936 he began working on strips for a small syndicate. He also found work at the Will Eisner and Jerry Iger packaging studio, and by late 1939, he’d taken a staff job with Fox. Joe was impressed with his work when they met there, and especially his drawing speed, and when Jack heard Joe was also doing other comics work on the side, he asked if he could join him. The Simon and Kirby studio was born. Simon rented a small office near the mid-town Manhattan publishers they were working for, and when he and Kirby went there after work hours at Fox, they began turning out new material to sell to other publishers, or to order. Their work was soon in demand, and they never looked back. Both Joe and Jack could do everything, but each had strengths: Joe was good at logos, covers, and splash pages, and was the better businessman and salesman. Jack was a fast penciller who loved to draw and he was full of ideas for characters and stories. Both did some writing, inked pages, and lettered. Soon they could afford to hire more help, which is when Charles Nicholas and Howard Ferguson were hired, the first of many Simon and Kirby assistants.

It’s not known if Howard had any prior comics experience, but everyone in comics at the time was new, and they were all figuring it out as they went along. An early page by Ferguson, above, is one of several one-page magic trick fillers created for Fox. I think Howard did the art as well as the lettering. Perhaps he had an interest in magic tricks, and wrote it as well, but that’s unnown. Ferguson was working for Simon and Kirby, but these might have been done directly for Fox, where the editor and buyer was Joe Simon. The page was probably done in early 1940.

From DARING MYSTERY COMICS #6, Sept 1940, © Marvel, image courtesy of Michael J. Vassallo

Simon, Kirby, and Ferguson did a lot at Fox, but were also freelancing to other publishers like Timely, now known as Marvel Comics. The page above has art by Joe Simon and early lettering by Ferguson, who I think also did the feature logo, perhaps from Joe’s layout. Notice the open THE at the beginning of the first caption, one of Howard’s “creative extras.” His early lettering is clear and readable, but not yet in the style he would be using in a few months. I don’t know who was paying for Howard’s lettering at Fox, he might have been paid directly there, but on other freelance work, he might have been paid by Simon & Kirby out of their fee.

From WEIRD COMICS #7, Oct 1940, © Fox Publications

Another filler page, and this one is signed by Ferguson at lower right, a sure sign he also did the art. This page has lots of creative extras: a creepy title, large open letters in the captions, and smaller ones at the beginning of the text in some. The feature mimics “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,” and the art is well done in that style. Howard had found a home for his art and lettering, though he was mainly lettering. In his book, Joe Simon said of Ferguson: “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. Nobody could do the work that Howard Ferguson did.”

From CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1, March 1941, © Marvel

After about three months as editor for Fox, publisher Victor Fox found out about Joe and Jack working for other companies, and they were out. In their own studio they worked on features like BLUE BOLT for Novelty/Curtis, and stockpiled new stories of their own in hopes of selling them. World War Two had begun in Europe, and that’s when the idea for Captain America was born. Joe and Jack felt a hero was needed who could punch Hitler. Joe reports that they produced an entire issue’s worth of stories. Then Timely/Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman called Simon into his office some time in 1940. Goodman had decided he was too dependent on shops like Funnies, Inc., and wanted to hire his own staff and freelancers to produce comics stories. He offered Simon and Kirby a better page rate to work for him directly. It was freelance at first, but soon Simon showed him the Captain America stories, and Goodman loved them. So much so that he decided to publish Cap in his own title right away, instead of the usual process of adding him to an anthology. CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS was a hit, and full of Howard Ferguson work. Above is the contents page he lettered, showcasing the variety of styles and creativity he brought to the project.

From CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1, March 1941, © Marvel

Howard’s regular lettering had also changed by this time, he was now using a wedge-tipped pen that gave each letter more variety of widths, depending on which direction the strokes were going. He might have picked up this idea from Frank Engli’s lettering on the newspaper strip Terry and the Pirates, a popular one at the time, though Ferguson kept his letters more rounded than Engli. The result was appealing. Howard’s regular letters tend to lean to the left a bit sometimes, as here. Martin Goodman was so happy with the book, he hired Joe Simon as Marvel’s first editor, and Jack also came in as art director. Martin Goodman’s wife’s cousin, teenager Stanley Leiber (Stan Lee), was Joe’s office boy and assistant. Howard was soon getting all the lettering work he could handle on a variety of Marvel titles, but he continued to do some work at Fox for a while. In Comics Interview #7, (Jan 1984, Fictioneer Books), David Anthony Kraft interviewed veteran letter Joe Rosen about getting his start in comics. Joe said:

My father had a fruit store in Coney Island. In 1940, one of the customers he was well acquainted with mentioned that her son was an artist for Timely—the company that’s now Marvel Comics. The son, George Mandel, is now a novelist. This was during the Depression. My father asked her if her son could maybe do something for Sam. So Mandel introduced Sam to the big letterer of the time, Howard Ferguson, who was working for both Timely and Fox. Fox was Ferguson’s lesser account, and soon he gave it to Sam. Sam got me my first lettering job, at Fox, doing THE BLUE BEETLE.

This was generous of Howard, but of course, the work assignments were not really his to give. What he could do was coach Sam Rosen to sharpen his lettering skills, and bring him to Fox as a suggested replacement. I see Ferguson lettering at Fox through issues published in the first half of 1941, and one as late as Sept 1941, but remember the lead time and post-dating. Howard’s last work for Fox may have been in early 1941. Soon after, very similar but somewhat different lettering began appearing, probably by Sam Rosen.

From CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #5, Aug 1941, image © Marvel, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

I’ve found a scan of only one page of original art from that original Captain America run by Simon, Kirby, and Ferguson. I wonder if that’s a Ferguson coffee stain at the top center? Surprisingly, Howard did very little lettering on issue #2, and none on #3. My guess is that Simon and Kirby were scrambling to get up to speed with a volume of work they weren’t expecting. Comics were longer then, and each issue had about 50 pages of Cap stories, and a few other features too. They hired more help to get everything done on time, including the lettering. By issue #4, about half the lettering is by Ferguson, and he did all the Cap stories in issues 5 to 10. How many of Howard’s creative extras can you find on this page?

From CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #10, Jan 1942, image © Marvel

On this later Captain America page, all the regular lettering is slanted to the right, but still has Howard’s creative extras. For a while, Simon and Kirby gave up their own office and did all their work at Timely. Howard may have lettered there, or at home, probably both. Simon and Kirby had signed a lucrative deal that was supposed to include a share of the profits. CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1 sold nearly a million copies, and should have generated lots of profit for everyone, but when royalties were paid, Joe and Jack got almost nothing, due to creative accounting by Goodman that subtracted the entire cost of running Timely from the book. Simon was disgusted, and he and Kirby secretly went to National/DC Comics in search of a better deal. They found one.

From ADVENTURE COMICS #87, Aug 1943, image © DC Comics

DC offered Simon and Kirby a sweet arrangement, more than twice what they were making at Marvel. They continued to work at Marvel for a short time, but when management there heard of the deal, they were fired. Howard may have continued to letter at Marvel for a while, but Simon and Kirby moved on to DC, where at first they tried to come up with new features, but nothing was working, so they agreed to revamp two existing DC properties in their own style, Manhunter and Sandman, each appearing in ADVENTURE COMICS. The Simon and Kirby versions began in issue #72 dated March 1942, and were therefore probably produced in the fall of 1941. Joe and Jack opened a new studio in Tudor City, a large apartment complex on East 42nd Street, Manhattan favored by comics artists.

Surprisingly, Howard Ferguson did not letter the earliest DC stories. Perhaps he took some time off. His wife Edith gave birth to their daughter Elsie on January 5, 1942, that would have been a good reason! Elsie remembered that she was born in the home of her grandparents, the Stantons. On his World War Two draft card, dated April 27, 1942, we see Howard and his family living at 110-33 207th Street, Hollis, Long Island, New York, a small single family home built in 1930, and now in Jamaica, Queens. The money he was making in comics had allowed Howard and Edith to afford their own place, though they were probably renting it. Mrs. Edith Ferguson is listed as the person who would always know his address. Howard’s employer is Simon-Kirby Productions in Tudor City. In his book, Joe Simon said Howard’s daughter Elsie “was his pride and joy.”

From BOY COMMANDOS #1, Dec 1942, image © DC Comics

With the success of Sandman and Manhunter, Simon and Kirby added new features they created, Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion, each appearing in existing DC anthologies, and the former soon getting its own popular title that reportedly outsold SUPERMAN at first. Beginning with stories appearing in comics dated Aug 1942, Howard Ferguson was lettering nearly all of them again, two fine examples are above. The Sandman logo predates Simon and Kirby, but Ferguson did everything else on these exciting splash pages. Simon and Kirby were now a franchise, even advertised as a team in DC house ads, and Howard’s lettering was an important component of their style. But America had now entered World War Two, and DC was afraid their popular new team would be enlisted out of the comics business. They urged Joe and Jack to stockpile as many stories as they could in case that happened. Howard turned either 46 or 47 in 1942, so despite his draft card, he was considered too old to serve.

From PRIZE COMICS #38, Jan 1944 © Prize

In 1943, Joe Simon enlisted in the Coast Guard, hoping it would keep him closer to home. It did, but he was stationed in New Jersey and then Washington, DC, so had little time for comics. Jack Kirby was drafted into the army, and in 1944 was on Normandy Beach under General Patton, seeing the war close up. After finishing the lettering on stories that Simon and Kirby had stockpiled, Howard was not offered further work at DC as far as I can tell, but found some at a smaller company, Crestwood/Prize, where his lettering appeared in PRIZE COMICS from late 1943 to early 1946. He even did some magic one-pagers, as above, which leads me to think this was a personal interest, and perhaps written by him too. Howard’s signature is at lower right, and his creative extras are present. Most of the PRIZE features were pale imitations of those from other companies, but it paid the bills. When Joe and Jack got back to New York, their DC contracts had expired. Jack took some individual freelance work at DC, but the company was no longer interested in package deals from studios. Their editors had grown used to the extra control of hiring their own freelancers individually. Simon helped Kirby at times, but was looking for a new deal elsewhere.

From BOY EXPLORERS #1, May 1946, © Harvey Comics, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Alfred Harvey of Harvey Comics had befriended Joe and Jack when they all worked at Fox, and he offered Simon and Kirby that deal. They put out two new titles, STUNTMAN and BOY EXPLORERS, with fine lettering by Howard Ferguson, example above.

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Alex Jay found this document showing Howard’s page rate was $5, quite high at the time for lettering I think, and reflecting his years of valued work for Simon and Kirby. By comparison, when Gaspar Saladino started at DC Comics in 1949, he was making $2 a page, and considered it a good income. Unfortunately, these books didn’t sell well, and lasted only a few issues each, with unused material appearing in other Harvey titles later. Simon and Kirby moved on to other small publishers like Hillman, and for Crestwood/Prize they did then-popular crime comics. Howard Ferguson’s work appeared there in HEADLINE COMICS. Then his lettering stopped, and Simon and Kirby hired a new studio letterer, Ben Oda, who was soon lettering all their stories, and became one of the most prolific letterers in the business over the next few decades. What happened? Here’s what Joe Simon remembered in his book:

Howard Ferguson had been our letterer back in our first stint at Crestwood when we were doing “The Black Owl.” But around the time we were working on STUNTMAN and BOY EXPLORERS for Harvey Comics, or soon thereafter, Howard passed away. Given all of the coffee and cigarettes he had consumed, I suppose we weren’t really surprised. While Jack and I were getting re-started at Crestwood, we found Howard’s successor, the second-best letterer in comics, Ben Oda.

Memory is a tricky thing, and Joe’s book was written more than fifty years after the events described. Someone did die in 1946, but it wasn’t Howard, it was his wife Edith. Howard’s granddaughter Patty Thomas said her mother Elsie told her that Edith died when she was four. Patty also had a funeral notice from a newspaper with the date, Jan 29, 1946. Elsie had turned four a few weeks earlier. Alex Jay found Edith’s death certificate. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in Nov 1945, and admitted to Triboro Hospital, Jamaica, Queens, on Jan 15, where she died at age 34. What a devastating blow to both Howard and Elsie. Patty said the loss was very hard on her mother. While grieving, Howard also had to take care of a child who was not yet old enough for school. He and Elsie were again living with Edith’s parents and sister, and I’m sure they helped, but some time in 1946, Howard decided to return with Elsie to his own family in Detroit. Late in life, Elsie put together a scrapbook about her childhood. She wrote, “After my mother passed away in January, 1946, my father and I went to live with Grandma Hawley in Detroit, MI. We lived there for only two years. When Grandma passed away, we moved back to Queens Village, NY with Grandma and Grandpa Stanton and Aunt Marge…my mother’s parents and sister.” Marion (Minnie) Hawley died on Dec 20, 1947, so it’s likely that Howard and Elsie were back in Queens by mid-1948.

Undated photo of Howard and Elsie, courtesy of Patty Thomas

I would guess Elsie is about 7 here, so perhaps it was taken about 1949. This is also from the scrapbook Elsie put together late in her own life, and of the few photos of Howard in it, I like this one the best. He looks happy with his daughter, his favorite person, and she looks equally happy.

From HEADLINE COMICS #24, May 1947, © Prize

So how does the move to Detroit line up with the published lettering I found by Howard? The work for Harvey on BOY EXPLORERS and STUNTMAN was probably all done before the move, though some was published later in other titles. BLACK CAT COMICS also has Danny Dixon stories in issues 4-6, the last of those dated June-July 1947, I don’t know if they were done for the cancelled titles. At Prize, Howard lettered lots of stories in HEADLINE COMICS #23-25, the last of those issues dated July-Aug 1947. At Avon, Howard lettered stories in COW PUNCHER COMICS #6-7, the latter dated May 1947, and one of those even has his lettering credit. Publishers (and artists) rarely hire letterers who must work by mail, as it adds too much time to the process, corrections must be done by someone else, and deadlines are relentless, but possibly that was tried for a while with Ferguson, at least until Simon and Kirby hired Ben Oda. Perhaps by then Howard had found work again in Detroit in advertising. It’s also possible that all the comics work lettered by Howard published with 1947 cover dates was finished before he left, and just took time to see print. Certainly the ones penciled by the very fast Jack Kirby could have been done well ahead. I’m guessing that Howard and Elsie were in Detroit from mid 1946 to mid 1948. I found no comics lettered by Ferguson that have 1948 cover dates.

From SLAVE GIRL COMICS #2, April 1949,© Avon

When he returned to Queens, I’m sure Howard went to Simon and Kirby looking for lettering work, but as far as I can tell, they didn’t give him any. They must have been happy with Ben Oda, who might not have been as creative as Howard, but he was young, fast, and willing to work long hours or overnight to meet deadlines. Possibly Joe and Jack remembered Howard as being difficult to work with at times. Howard must have been disappointed or angry about this, but he went around to other New York publishers and picked up lettering work here and there. The story above has his lettering credit. He did work for Avon, Gilberton, Seaboard, St. John, and Stanley Morse through 1953. He might also have found work in advertising.

From YOUNG BRIDES #21, March 1955, © Prize

Meanwhile, Simon and Kirby’s career went through ups and downs typical of comics. At Prize, they had great success creating a new genre: romance comics. It began with YOUNG ROMANCE in 1947, and expanded to two more titles, YOUNG BRIDES and YOUNG LOVE. Girls hadn’t had many comics aimed at them to that point, and they bought them in droves. It was a trend soon imitated by all the other comics publishers. They also put out BOYS RANCH (their favorite comic) and BLACK MAGIC, an early horror title. Nearly all the stories were lettered by Ben Oda. In 1953, Simon and Kirby were talked into starting their own comics publishing company, Mainline Comics, renting space at Harvey. They put out four titles in four popular genres: BULLSEYE: WESTERN SCOUT, FOXHOLE, IN LOVE and POLICE TRAP. All those I could find scans of were lettered by Oda. It became a financial disaster when POLICE TRAP was featured in congressional hearings on crime comics, and then their distributor, Leader News, went bankrupt. Mainline was gone by 1955. They found a home for their unpublished issues at Charlton Comics, known for their low pay rates, but Charlton at least had its own printing plant and distribution system. Howard Ferguson must have reconnected with Simon and Kirby in 1954, as he lettered some Charlie Chan stories they did at Charlton, among other things. Suddenly, Howard was back on Simon and Kirby romance stories at Prize, too, like the one above. It was a subdued Ferguson, with very few creative extras, but he always did a nice job on story titles, and his lettering, while slightly changed in style, was still easy to read and appealing. I think he was following what Ben Oda had been doing, and soon nearly all the romance stories, and also some on a new Captain America satire, FIGHTING AMERICAN, were by Howard. Ben Oda had expanded his workload to include a number of newspaper strips and other comics publishers, and perhaps he was now too busy to handle all the Simon and Kirby work.

From ALARMING TALES #4, March 1958, © Harvey Comics

For the last few years of his life, Howard Ferguson was once more with Simon and Kirby. In a 1987 interview with Greg Theakston, published in The Jack Kirby Quarterly #10, Summer 1998, Joe Simon said: “Ferguson wanted to be with us. His problem was that he used to over-advance himself with publishers and he couldn’t go back [laughter]—you can’t go home again. But he did love to be with us. He thought we were creative.” Howard also lettered stories by them at Harvey, the last one printed is above, featuring a few creative extras, just like in his early days. Perhaps it felt like coming home.

Courtesy of Patty Thomas

Howard died on April 18, 1957 at about age 62, another difficult blow for Elsie. Alex Jay found one death record, and we have this memorial card from his funeral from Elsie’s scrapbook. We don’t know the cause of death. Elsie was fifteen, and now orphaned, but she continued to live with her mother’s family. In his book, Joe Simon said, “At the funeral, Alfred Harvey generously gave Howard’s beloved daughter Elsie a substantial check to help her out.” She married Kenneth Mott in 1961, and they had three children. Elsie lived in Queens and on Long Island, NY, then moved to the Detroit, MI area again in the 2000s. She died in 2018. I was able to find two of her children through Facebook with information Alex Jay discovered about her funeral. I’m sorry we couldn’t have connected with Elsie before she died, her daughter Patty thinks Elsie had no idea about the scope and quality of her father’s lettering work, and the respect it had then, and has now.

Before I leave Howard’s life story, I want to discuss some quotes about him from Joe Simon and Carmine Infantino. In his book, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics (Titan Books, 2011), Joe first mentions Howard here about hiring him in 1939 (more likely 1940):

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.

For some time, this statement convinced Alex Jay and I that Elsie was Howard’s child with his second wife, Marjorie, but Alex couldn’t find any record of that. When I discovered Howard and Elsie living with Edith’s family in the 1950 census (released in 2022), I began to suspect Joe Simon had mixed up his memories about Elsie. When I contacted Howard’s granddaughters and showed them the quote, even they wondered if there could have been two daughters named Elsie, but I think Joe just combined his memories of Howard from when he was hired with later ones when he returned to working with Simon and Kirby around 1954, when Elsie would have been about age twelve. Nothing else makes sense to me. I’ve already shown how his statement about Howard dying in 1946 was misremembered, though perhaps when Howard moved back to Detroit, he kind of died in Joe’s mind, as they had to hire a new studio letterer. As for the statements about Howard’s mother, I have no idea about those, but certainly Howard went back to live with her in 1946, so he couldn’t have held that much of a grudge. Howard may have talked about his wife leaving him (one of the first two wives), but if that statement was about Edith, he might have meant she left him by dying, and Simon misunderstood. A bit later in his book, Joe writes:

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.

While this would have saved time, the ability didn’t make Ferguson’s lettering any better. It could have made it worse if his alignment went off track, but if he could do it, more power to him. I certainly never could! I’ve also heard this story about a least one other letterer.

At the 1998 San Diego Comic-Con, Joe Simon was interviewed by Mark Evanier. When asked about Ferguson, Joe said:

Howard Ferguson was the greatest letterer and Ben Oda was the second greatest letterer. Howard Ferguson was a middle-aged man from Detroit, and like everybody else in the business he was living hand-to-mouth. He came here, he got divorced; he brought his daughter, Elsie, to live with him. I think his wife left him, he said. He was the only letterer I ever heard of that could draw in a straight line without doing the penciled lines. Just like a machine and very, very creative. He was a big part of our effort, of our creativity. He was great with logos and designs, everything. We’d just rough out the stuff and give it to Howard, and he’d give us back beautifully-inspired, inked lettering and logos. The only problem was that there’d be coffee stains on every page. (laughter) He’d drink like 30 cups of coffee a day.

In this quote, we see some of the same errors of memory as in Joe’s book, but here he says other nice things about what Howard was able to do for Simon and Kirby. I suspect the amount of coffee Howard drank and the amount of stains continued to grow each time the story was told, as such things do.

In the book, Carmine Infantino, Penciler Publisher Provocateur (TwoMorrows, 2010), Jim Amash asked Infantino about Ferguson:

Yes! He was a crusty, old bastard. [chuckles] He was one hell of a letterer. He was a fat, older, German guy—very tough. Jack used to say, “Don’t pay attention to him. He’s all right.” He smoked cigarettes like a train. He had a daughter to take care of because his wife left him. He had a chip on his shoulder all the time, but he could letter. His logos were the best!

In the Jack Kirby Collector #34, Infantino said to Amash:

Ferguson. He was unbelievable. Great letterer. Cranky, very cranky, old guy. You say hello, he would say, ‘Go to hell….’

These Infantino quotes are copied from Alex Jay’s article HERE.

Carmine worked with Simon and Kirby briefly at Marvel in the Captain America days, and again at Prize in the late 1940s, but these memories seem more like Ferguson in the 1950s, or simply retellings of stories from Joe Simon. Hard to know at this point. Certainly Howard had reason to be cranky in the 50s, and Carmine’s description of him as older and fat fits better with that. I found no record of Carmine working with Simon and Kirby in the 1950s when he was very busy at DC, but Infantino might have visited the Simon and Kirby studio then.

I wrote an article about Howard’s lettering for CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS in 2011, since removed. I didn’t like his work as much then, I’ve come to appreciate it more, especially after seeing the rest of it. One thing I discussed in that first article which I haven’t here was the great house ads he did at Marvel. He also may have done some at other publishers, and designed logos for them as well. It’s harder to pin those things down, but I see suggestions of Howard’s style on logos at Avon and Seaboard, for instance, where Joe Simon was not involved. And of course he may also have been getting other freelance work in advertising in New York while working in comics. I hope these articles will bring new appreciation to the work we do know, which goes well beyond those Captain America stories, and I feel deserves to be better remembered.

Thanks again to Alex Jay and Patty Thomas for research help and images.

For a more detailed look at Ferguson’s lettering and a list of all his work I was able to identify, see THIS article.

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

5 thoughts on “HOWARD FERGUSON – SIMON & KIRBY LETTERER

  1. Harry Mendryk

    Terrific work. It is really great how you put together Ferguson’s personal history. It was always a mystery to me, and as you pointed out some of Joe Simon’s remarks did seem to be at odds with what little could be gleamed from the comics themselves. I was particularly excited to see the work he did for Fox, something I had completely missed. I’m looking forward to your next chapter.

  2. Nick Caputo

    Todd,

    Another excellent examination on one of the greats. It’s fascinating to discover that Ferguson also drew early on as well. Perhaps he assisted Simon and Kirby on jobs when deadlines loomed.

    This is a fascinating account and its wonderful to see the spotlight shine on a supremely talented and often unheralded, but important component, of the Simon and Kirby studio.

  3. Kurt Busiek

    Minor correction: Stan wasn’t Martin Goodman’s nephew — he was a cousin of Goodman’s wife, Jean.

    He was the nephew of Robbie Solomon, who also worked for Goodman and was likely instrumental in getting Stan hired. This is probably why he’s been described as Goodman’s nephew so often, the two get mixed up.

    Fascinating article, as always!

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