JANICE CHIANG – Letterer

From JUNGLE ACTION #16, July 1975, image © Marvel

Janice Chiang has had a long and busy career as a comics letterer, beginning in 1975 and continuing to the present. Above is an example of her early work while briefly on staff at Marvel. Her later style had not yet fully developed, but you can already see her talent and creativity.

Janice Chiang, 1980s, photo by Danny Louie

Fay Janice Chiang was born in The Bronx, New York December 28, 1955, and grew up in East Elmhurst, Queens. Her parents, mother Hop Kun and father Bay Doc, were Chinese immigrants. In a 2010 interview with Michael Aushenker (published on his Cartoon Flophouse blog in 2012), Janice remembered:

My father came to New York when he was thirteen-and-a-half, sponsored as a paper son [a fake relative] with a Chinese laundry or restaurant business. He did hand laundry. My mom and dad ran a business at home. They were really accessible. My dad converted the garage attached to our apartment building into a hand-laundry storefront. I had two older sisters and a younger brother. One of my sisters is Fay Chiang, a well-known poet. All of us connected with the fine arts. The creativity in the family home situation fit into writing and artwork. My sisters Fay and Jean were at Hunter College, so I was the third Chiang there. When we went to Hunter, Fay was in the anti-war movement. She was bringing literature into the house from progressive thinkers, from the Black Panthers. It gave me a broad view of what was going on.

Basement Workshop, an Asian-American multi-arts organization, was taking up community issues, Civil Rights issues. Larry Hama was a founding member of that organization. He’s an artist and musician. That’s how I got into comics. Larry’s sort of my big brother and mentor. I’ve known Larry since I was thirteen. I never finished Hunter College, I just left. Basically, I made a lot of decisions that were unconventional. Struggle is a big part of my life. You see something and you move forward rather than stand there and being scared. Larry Hama’s partner, Ralph Reese, taught me how to letter. They were working together under the name of Crusty Bunkers [the gang of inkers at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios]. I’d go there, and Ralph would show me a few things and then I’d go home and work on it, different kinds of lettering and somehow it evolved. The big-name letterer I really liked was Joe Rosen. I loved Rosen’s hand because he had an interplay of thick and thin lines. I don’t like blocky, one-dimensional strokes. That goes back to my background. My father taught me how to use a calligraphy brush.

From ASTONISHING TALES #31, Aug 1975, image © Marvel

In 1975, Janice joined the Marvel Bullpen with help from Neal Adams, who contacted staffer Danny Crespi. Soon she was trying out her lettering skills on stories like this one. Janice recalled:

The Bullpen was one big open area. Freelancers would come in and drop off their art. I was younger than most people there. I was nineteen. I was fixing letterers like Jean Simek, Annette Kawecki, and Sam Rosen. John Verpoorten was my supervisor. I worked there for three months, and then I left the comics industry, going back to community organizing. I worked on how to get the word out if there’s a demonstration by creating graphics. I did that for a couple of years. Once you know time/date/place, you’re off and running. I would do artwork, I learned to silk screen. Back then, I was a rebel, a mover and shaker, a revolutionary. To get jobs for Asian-American construction workers, African and Latin construction workers, a lot of people came out of the antiwar movement. They would teach us how to close down a construction site.

That’s how I met my husband, Danny Louie. Around the construction of the Confucius Building, a high-rise development, a federally-funded project in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. There was a big structure being built and no Asian-American workers on site. We said, “Something’s wrong here.” The builder refused to hire Chinese applicants. Outraged by this blatant discrimination, a coalition of Chinatown residents, students, and professionals came together to demand the right of access for Asian-Americans to some of those construction jobs. The leaders formed Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFEE, later to become AAFE) to coordinate demonstrations, marches, and picketing around the Confucius Plaza site. After six months of unrelenting demonstrations, the Confucius Plaza struggle ended with AAFE’s first victory for minority rights and equal employment opportunity when the builder was pressured into hiring twenty-seven minority workers, including Asian Americans.

From THE UNCANNY X-MEN #149, Sept 1981, image © Marvel

I spent five years in Chinatown. For a period, I worked in auto factories. In 1980, my son Calvin was born, and I was thinking, “How am I going to raise him?” So I said, “Let me see if they remember me at Marvel.” Luckily, the Bullpen was intact: Danny Crespi, Morrie Kuramoto and Jack Abel were there, Marie Severin. This time, Louise Jones Simonson was an editor, I was so happy to see a woman editor. Louise gave me my first book to letter, a Conan issue drawn by John Buscema. It scared me. I thought to myself, “Take a deep breath! Sit down!” I was really nervous. I‘d pencil it and come back and ink. It took so long. It took two hours for one page. I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous!”

Despite that initial fear, Janice did well, and Louise gave her other freelance lettering assignments, like one above. Soon she was busy on many Marvel titles, with long runs on CONAN THE BARBARIAN, TRANSFORMERS, ROM, ALPHA FLIGHT, and more. As often happens, her speed increased with practice.

From AVENGERS ANNUAL #11, 1982, image © Marvel

This page shows Janice using special balloon styles, including one inked with a brush, and one with square sides.

From CONAN THE BARBARIAN #158, May 1984, image © Marvel, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

A closer look shows Janice’s appealing rounded style. Her line is thick and thin, and her touch is light. Her balloon shapes are hand-drawn and generally symmetrical. Janice said:

I use a [Hunt] Crowquill and Speedball C-6, for inside the balloon lettering, B-6 to outline balloons and bold lettering; a B-5.5 for borders and sound effects lettering; and the Crowquill for balloon points and for touch-ups. I have a glossary of 40 styles that came from drawing them in pen and ink, but what I handle in general is about eight to ten. You don’t want to make things too complicated.

From WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #282, June 1982, image © DC Comics

By 1982, Janice was also lettering for DC on stories like this one. I remember meeting her around that time when she brought finished pages into the production department, where I was working. As a freelancer, and not under contract, Janice was able to take work wherever it was available. In 1983 she also began working for First Comics.

From ELFQUEST: SIEGE AT BLUE MOUNTAIN #3, July 1987, image © Richard and Wendy Pini

In 1986, Janice lettered Wendy and Richard Pini’s ELFQUEST at Marvel, and that continued into later Elfquest work for Apple Press and WaRP Graphics, as seen above. I love the title treatment with letters that shift from black to open in a broad triangular shape suggesting a mountain.

Since about 1985, Chiang has lived in Woodstock, New York, with her husband, Danny Louie. When asked by Michael Aushenker how she managed to work so far away from Manhattan early on in her career, she responded that, in the old days:

Federal Express helped me out. I’d overnight it from Woodstock. Basically, we built up the Federal Express business here. It was insane. When I was doing a lot of monthlies, I’d work on five to ten pages at a time…and I never dropped the hot potatoes.

From FIRESTORM, THE NUCLEAR MAN #68, Feb 1988, image © DC Comics
From HAWK AND DOVE #4, Winter 1988, image © DC Comics

Janice was also busy at DC, where she worked on popular characters like Firestorm, and was the letterer of early work by Rob Liefeld on HAWK AND DOVE. Her somewhat small letter size allowed more room for the art, and that’s always popular with artists.

From IRON MAN #249, Nov 1989, image © Marvel

This page from IRON MAN shows Janice using decorative first letters in her captions, and appealing open block letters with thick verticals and thin horizontals.

From GHOST RIDER #41, Sept 1993, image © Marvel

For GHOST RIDER, Janice came up with black flame sound effects and balloon borders. She said:

I did this crazy flaming balloon. When I came into the industry, it was pretty straightforward. I would think, “Let me do something special for Ghost Rider. Why don’t they run away and scream? It’s a skull with a flaming head.” I was working out at the gym and I had an idea. “I know, let’s give him a flaming balloon.” That was fun. I started weight training because it takes a lot of will power to make me sit still. That’s basically for fifteen years — there were no weekends. I don’t know how I did it. My husband was able to be out in the woods and raise my son. He worked in advertising. You’ll have to ask my family that, but basically we’re all alive and standing!

From BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER #1, Sept 1998, image © Dark Horse and The WB network

In 1998, Janice began lettering this series based on the popular TV show. She worked for many publishers in the 1990s and later, including Acclaim, Disney Comics, Scholastic, Tokyo Pop, Continüm, Random House, NBM, and Papercutz.

From IMPULSE #50, July 1999, image © DC Comics

Janice had a long run on this Flash spinoff title, I love the creative credits in the center panel. While DC remained friendly to hand-lettering until 2002, at Marvel and other publishers there was an increasing trend toward digital lettering in the mid 1990s. Janice said:

In terms of going from hand lettering to digital lettering, it was not difficult. What was difficult was that nobody would show me. This was in 1996. Marvel did a lockout on hand-letterers in ’96. That whole year, I didn’t letter a comic. Jon Babcock — he pulled together a bunch of us traditional hand-letterers: Jack Morelli, Phil Felix, Mike Higgins — at Jon’s house. He said to us, “You guys need to see how this works.”

From DEMON: DRIVEN OUT #3, Jan 2004, image © DC Comics, digital lettering by Janice Chiang

If you look any of my work, it’s as if I hand-lettered it. Not one sound effect is repeated. I’ve learned to use Illustrator as if I’m hand lettering. But I find it very straitjacketing to use InDesign, as in the Manga translation industry. I feel so much freedom using Illustrator to create sound effects. That’s the fun of it. For anyone in the industry, there’s a time when there’s a lot of work and there are fallow points. You have to be ready for a change of style or methodology. In 1996, [at Marvel], the hand letterers had no work. I just sat down and drew the letter forms, balloons and sound effects I used in my work. I created a glossary for myself. I think a lot of people who ran digital thought I would drop by the wayside and disappear, but having done it for so long, you don’t stop the way you’re doing something. You learn a new way to look at things. The people who were there at the digital divide, when they see me today, they’re uncomfortable.

From LIFE WITH ARCHIE #1, Sept 2010, image © Archie Comics

Janice continued to do hand-lettering for Archie Comics in the 21st Century, as seen above, and I think her warm, rounded style is a perfect match for the art. I also like the story title.

Daily from The Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip, Aug 24, 2011, image © Marvel

Her hand-lettering skills have been on display for many years in the Spider-Man newspaper strip. The larger size of this stacked Daily gives an excellent look at Janice’s calligraphic approach to lettering, in many places you can see the heavier starting point of her strokes and the effective variation in the line weights.

From SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN #1, Dec 2019, image © DC Comics

Janice is sometimes asked to use fonts designed by others, as on this page, but she makes the work her own with clever color effects and caption shapes, as in the second panel. She’s proud to have worked on SHATTERED: THE ASIAN AMERICAN COMICS ANTHOLOGY for The New Press in 2012, on DC SUPER HERO GIRLS, and on Gene Luen Yang’s SUPERMAN SMASHES THE CLAN for DC. She’s currently working for Storm King Productions on titles like JOHN CARPENTER’S TALES OF SCIENCE FICTION. Janice recently received awards for her work from Comics Alliance and ComicBook.com, and in 2023 she was honored with an Inkpot Award at San Diego’s Comicon International for her achievements in the world of comics. I can’t think of a more deserving person to receive it.

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

4 thoughts on “JANICE CHIANG – Letterer

  1. Chuck Maly

    Janice’s lettering always intrigued me. She was the first Letterer that I “recognized” the style of when I saw it. She was an influence to me to becoming a Letterer myself.

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