In addition to his comic book lettering, I’ve long known that Ira Schnapp worked for many years on the Superman newspaper strip. The sample above from original strip art of 1948 has his distinctive question mark and characteristic square letters, but when did he start? That question is one I’ve been researching over the last few weeks, looking closely at the many strip reprint books and, where those are not yet available, printed strips in period papers at newspapers.com. My conclusion is that Ira took over lettering the strip in late October 1943, replacing Frank Shuster, the brother of original Superman artist Joe Shuster, who had been the main letterer since early 1940. For more on that, see THIS article. Lettering on the strip has never been officially credited, so I have only style comparisons to work with, but Ira seems like a good candidate for the job. He had revamped Joe Shuster’s Superman logo in 1940 (Ira’s version first appeared on the cover of SUPERMAN #6 cover-dated Sept-Oct 1940), and Superman creators Siegel and Shuster certainly knew his work on that. Ira created several variations of that logo in the early 1940s for copyright applications, and I think would have been available as a letterer in 1943, as he was not yet very busy with similar work on DC comics story pages. In this post we’ll look at examples through the 1940s and into the 50s and 60s when Ira was the main letterer, seeing if we can trace consistent style elements.
I think the last week of daily strips lettered by Frank Shuster are dated 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.
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.
By 1944, Ira’s lettering on the dailies is getting more regular and confident. He’s still using some style elements from Frank, especially the unconnected R, but again he doesn’t always remember to do it that way.
This strip from a few days later seems a bit farther from the Frank Shuster model. In some ways it’s clearly an imitation of what Frank was doing, with wider letters than what we saw later from Ira, but those letters are generally less curvy than Frank’s, and the R is often constructed differently. It’s made like a P with the right leg descending from the loop in a separate stroke. The question marks are not quite what Ira would do later, but they’re close. The balloon shapes match Frank’s exactly, but perhaps they were pencilled in by artist Wayne Boring on both strips. In 1942, DC hired Joe Shuster assistant Wayne Boring directly to draw the strips for them, and that may have made the transition to Schnapp as letterer easier. Note that DAILY PLANET is italic or slanted letters, something Frank Shuster never did. Frank would have underlined it.
By December 11th, the lettering is looking more like what Ira Schnapp would be doing for most of his career, less wide, very regular, with straight horizontals and verticals.
Jerry Siegel had an unusual way of indicating thoughts to be lettered, surrounding them with parentheses, AND quote marks AND dashes. The balloon shape still has the same style and tail as speech balloons. By the time of this early 1945 example, Jerry was serving overseas in the Army, and no longer writing the strip, but his styles like this one continued to be used for years, I suppose to keep from confusing regular readers. I don’t think this style for thoughts was used anywhere else other than on Superman.
Ira also followed the styles for emphasis of Frank Shuster, using both a thicker pen for the most emphasis and underlining for less. The line BEEN SO EMBARRASSED is a tight fit, and Ira has lettered it with narrower letters that look more like his later work. The Ogies in the story are invisible, hence the odd balloon tail going to no one.
Sometimes the R’s have right legs that curve up at the end, similar to what Frank Shuster did, but still constructed differently, with those legs attached to the bottom of the loop. Perhaps this was Ira trying to keep that element from the earlier lettering. Everything else matches his style. R’s like this with curved right legs were often used in Ira’s early years and continued to show up occasionally right to the end of the strip in 1966.
Newspaper reproduction of the strips was never great, and the original art, where I can find it, better represents what the lettering actually looked like. For one thing the lettering strokes are thinner than nearly all the printed versions. As was usually the case, original strip art was done quite large in the early years. The strip this is from measures 19.5 inches wide by 6 inches high. I estimate the letters are about a half inch high, about twice the size of what I was doing when I started lettering comics in 1977. That was after art size for comics in general had been reduced to save paper and make color separations easier in the early 1960s. It seems like it would have been a bit easier to make such large letters. Wayne Boring used Craftint paper which had a preprinted halftone dot screen that was revealed when you brushed a Craftint chemical on it. The dots have faded, but you can see how it worked.
An early appearance of Superman annoyance Mr. Mxyzptlk, and again where there’s less room, Ira’s lettering looks more like what he did later. The S becomes noticeably narrower, for instance.
While Ira was the main letterer on Superman dailies, he didn’t do all of them. There are brief breaks with strips lettered by others, and this is from the first one of those running from August 27 to September 8 1945. This lettering is very standard comics work with none of the style points I associate with Schnapp. Note the G has a wide serif in the middle extending both ways, which Ira’s does not. I don’t know who did it.
With the September 10 strip, Ira is back. There are gaps like this through his entire run, rarely more than a week or two of strips. A newspaper strip is a relentless grind, and everyone needs a break from that at times.
Ira’s question marks were not always the same, especially early ones. These are more rounded than what he would usually do later, but even then there was some variety.
The question marks here are closer to the angular look of his most frequent later style. Note that Ira is now following Frank Shuster’s style for newspaper names by underlining them. Generally underlining is not considered proper style for comics, but it continued to be used for years in this strip.
Ira usually did thicker pen lines for emphasis, but on the word I here he’s also made it italic and given the letter serifs at the top and bottom. The non-emphasized I above that also has serifs, and they began to appear on personal pronouns in the previous months, but they were not used a year earlier. I’m thinking that way of making personal pronouns stand out and read correctly began around this time. An I without serifs works best inside words, and that was always the standard.
Clark’s thought balloon in this strip is now using the more modern border style of a trail of bubbles rather than a tail, though the Siegel thought style is still present in the lettering.
In this larger lettering for YOWLP! I see the beginnings of the display lettering style Ira would later use on comics covers.
The parentheses around the words GASP are the earliest style for words that indicate breath only, no voice. Later they became broken or dashed parentheses, and the dashes gradually turned to point toward the letters in the style most common by the early 1960s, what I call breath marks.
Signs in the art, like these newspaper headlines, were usually also done by the letterer, and these are clearly in Schnapp’s style. Note that Lois’s thought balloon does not use the Siegel style, but that may have been an error by the writer, as it continued to be used later. The question mark in her balloon is Ira’s typical later style like a small 2 over a period.
And that brings us back to the standard Ira Schnapp lettering style of the late 1940s that began this post. Note that the black line through the bottom of this strip indicates where it was photographed for reproduction at a smaller height. The strips were offered to papers in both the taller and shorter versions. Other than brief stints by others, Ira continued to letter most of the dailies until they ended in 1966.
The earliest Superman strips were first reprinted by DC Comics and Kitchen Sink Press starting in 1999. Those dailies ran from 1939 to 1942. Then IDW issued two series of daily strip hardcovers reprinting strips from 1942 to 1949 (Golden Age) and 1959 to 1966 (Silver Age). A third series (Atomic Age) is planned to fill the gap, but not yet published, so for those I had to find the strips in scans of old newspapers on the website newspapers.com. I did find them all to complete my tally, but while readable they are often poorly reproduced, so I won’t show many here. The sample above is one of the clearer examples.
One interesting surprise was a run of 18 strips from Dec 31, 1951 to Jan 20, 1952 lettered by Gaspar Saladino, sample above. Gaspar had only been at DC about two years at this point, and was considered a good choice to fill in for Ira, something he also did on comics covers when Schnapp wasn’t available. Gaspar’s style is quite different, wider and more angular, but it worked fine.
By 1954, Ira’s style was generally always narrower than in the 1940s, with most letters fitting into a square. The loops of the P and R are more triangular, and the S is less rounded and often has a nearly straight section at the middle. The question mark is usually small and in this style. Emphasis is now usually done with bold italic letters rather than just bold or underlined. This is essentially the same lettering style Ira was using on comics pages at the time.
By 1957 the quirky Siegel thought balloon style had been left behind, though an equally quirky treatment of an IDEA is used here. Curt Swan was now the regular penciller.
Around 1960, all thoughts became italic, perhaps a suggestion from editor Mort Weisinger to make them stand apart. I always tried to make the bubble tail point toward the character’s brain rather than his mouth, but there’s room for neither in this panel. It still works, we know who’s thinking.
For a while Ira seemed to be using more rounded question marks, perhaps another directive from Mort Weisinger, though he sometimes forgot and reverted to his usual style. Wayne Boring had returned as regular daily artist by 1962, and I think he was inking the balloon borders with a brush here, something Ira wouldn’t have done. It’s interesting to know that Jerry Siegel had also returned as scripter, though that information was not made public, so two of the original team worked together on the final years of the strip. Most of the stories were adapted from ones used previously in the comics.
By 1964, Ira’s question marks were almost all in his typical style, but thoughts remained italic. Ira’s work was getting less even and regular by this time. He was seventy years old when he lettered this strip, and very busy with all kinds of work at DC. I don’t know how he kept up with it, and his lettering accuracy is showing the strain of the workload and his age, I think. The art size was also somewhat smaller, about 17 inches wide by 5 inches high, so Ira was also required to letter smaller than in the past.
As the strip came into its last years, there were more gaps when it was lettered by someone other than Ira, though he did letter the final week. Above is the very last panel of the final strip. There were 8,516 dailies in all, quite a long run from 1939 to 1966. Below is a list of those lettered by Schnapp.
#1496 (10-25-43) to #1760 (8-26-44), #1767 (9-4-44) to #2072 (8-25-45), #2085 (9-10-45) to #2414 (9-28-46), #2421 (10-7-46) to #2714 (9-6-47), #2721 (9-15-47) to #3026 (9-4-48), #3039 (9-20-48) to #3644 (8-26-50), #3651 (9-4-50) to #3752 (12-30-50), #3771 (1-22-51) to #4063 (12-29-51), #4081 (1-19-52) to #5096 (4-16-55), #5104 (4-26-55) to #5840 (8-31-57), #5853 (9-16-57) to #5960 (1-18-58), #5962 (1-21-58) to #6032 (4-12-58), #6034 (4-15-58) to #7232 (2-24-62), #7245 (3-12-62) to #7376 (8-11-62), #7397 (9-3-62) to #7490 (12-22-62), #7515 (1-21-63) to #7556 (3-9-62), #7571 (3-25-63) to #7712 (9-7-63), #7737 (10-7-63) to #7862 (2-29-64), #7877 (3-18-64) to #8018 (8-29-64), #8043 (9-28-64) to #8162 (2-13-65), #8199 (4-5-65) to #8312 (8-14-65), #8337 (9-13-65) to #8480 (2-26-66), #8511 (4-4-66) to #8516 (4-9-66)
If my math is right (and there’s a lot of math here) Ira lettered 6,696 daily strips. Using the rough rule of thumb of two daily strips equal one page of comics in amount of work, that’s the equivalent of about 3,348 comics pages, and all in addition to the many actual comics pages, covers, house ads and logos Ira was also doing for DC in these years.
Next time we’ll look for Ira’s work on the Superman Sunday pages. Other articles you might enjoy are on the Comics Creation page of my blog.
More info on the strip reprints.