JIM NOVAK – Letterer and Logo Designer

From STAR WARS #1, July 1977, image © Marvel and Disney

I’ve long admired the lettering and logo design work of Jim Novak. When I started working at DC Comics in 1977, he was doing some of the best lettering at Marvel. We met once, briefly, at a convention, and I spoke to him briefly once on the phone, but I didn’t know him. I regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to do so. Jim passed in 2018, so there’s no longer any chance to change that. For this article I’m relying on several sources: Alex Jay’s blog, Jim’s interview in Comics Interview #1 (Feb 1983, Fictioneer Books), some photos from the files of David Anthony Kraft, a recent conversation with his wife Lidia, and a remembrance by Pat Brosseau, as well as insights I can draw from his work. The lettering on the page above is typical of that work: strong, wide letters made with a Hunt 107 wedge-tipped pen and I think the 107 was just pressed harder for bold emphasis. The style is similar to that of Gaspar Saladino, but somehow cleaner and more regular than that of the man Jim called “The Master.” It’s fairly large for the time, and takes up a lot of the page, but never interferes with the storytelling. Beautiful work.

Jim Novak, 1973, from his high school yearbook

James Richard “Jim” Novak was born on September 14, 1955, in Chicago, Illinois, the oldest of four children. At some point his family moved a few miles west to Hillside, IL, where Jim and his siblings went to high school, and where he did art and lettering for his senior yearbook. In his Comics Interview with David Anthony Kraft, Jim said:

I was always interested in every facet of comics. I had and still have a twelve-by-twelve foot room in my parent’s basement. I used to go down there and do the writing, drawing and lettering on a whole book of my own at about age thirteen, fourteen or fifteen.

There was a guy who painted signs and he was looking for an assistant. I needed a job and said I could learn, so he hired me. It was pretty easy for me, and I learned to design lettering. And I figured that was a good way to break into comics. I also learned how to use a pen and a brush and got to be pretty good. When I was seventeen, I went to New York and spoke to John Verpoorten at Marvel and he said he would let me know about a job. I was getting homesick and moved back. I told him I didn’t think that I could hack it in New York. About a year and a half later, I was working at the sign shop again and was really sick of it, because I had done everything there was to painting signs. That’s when I came back to New York, but Marvel wasn’t hiring at the time. I went to DC and got my first [lettering] job from Jack Adler for WONDER WOMAN. I was there for two or three jobs.

From WONDER WOMAN #214, Oct-Nov 1974, image © DC Comics

The lettering on this story is credited in the Grand Comics Database to Gaspar Saladino with a question mark, but I believe it’s Jim’s first comics story lettering. The shapes of the letters are very much like what he would be doing soon at Marvel, and not as much like Gaspar’s at the time. The Star in STAR in the title shows his creativity. Jim continues in Comics Interview:

As I did the work, I remember thinking I was never going to get anywhere in this business, because it took me three hours to do a page — and, at that time, the rate was four dollars a page at DC. As time went on, I got faster and the rates have improved dramatically.

That trial by fire learning process is one I remember well, and quite typical. Jim said:

Then Marvel called me back and Sol Brodsky said they had a staff position. I felt it would be in my best interest to work on staff and get the benefit of other people’s experience. I was on staff almost three years.

From MARVEL SPOTLIGHT 25, Dec 1975, image © Marvel

I think Novak took that job in the Marvel Bullpen in 1975. There he would have been doing paste-ups and corrections on comics pages, and beginning to land freelance lettering assignments to do at home. Above is the first story where he’s credited as letterer, but he may have worked on stories for the black and white magazines before this where letterers weren’t credited. The lettering here is a bit stiff, but quite professional. In the interview, Jim said:

That’s when I started to learn about lettering and I got better and better. A few of the people in the field who helped me out are Danny Crespi, who took me under his wing; Irving Watanabe, who gave me a lot of advice, and whose lettering you hear little about; and Gaspar Saladino, purely for style. Roy Thomas gave me CONAN and liked my work. I was on staff almost three years. I thought then maybe I should freelance.

From HOWARD THE DUCK #7, Dec 1976, © Marvel

Jim did indeed get better quickly, this story from a year later than the previous example shows his balloon lettering in the style he would use for many years. It’s based on the style of Saladino, but Jim’s letters are a bit more rounded and very appealing to the eye. Here his open display lettering in the burst balloon and the sound effect are strong and full of energy.

From STAR WARS #1, July 1977, image © Marvel and Disney

By 1977, not only was Novak lettering many titles for Marvel, he was also being tapped as a logo designer, or in this case a logo revisionist. Alex Jay’s article on the complex history of the Star Wars logo shows the version that Jim did used a different W, differently shaped R’s, divisions between the first two and last two letters (but those were restored for issue two of the comic), and a much heavier outline. In the interview, Jim said:

The STAR WARS logo has kind of an unusual story behind it. They brought in their logo from the studio and Stan Lee wasn’t crazy about it — the letters weren’t Marvel style. So I ended up redoing it. It was way before the movie even came out.

Alex Jay thinks Jim’s design may have influenced what the studio did going forward, but his exact logo was only used on the comics. Jim added:

I don’t recall seeing the one they probably spent a couple thousand dollars on. [I was paid] twenty-five dollars.

From IRON MAN #124, July 1979, image © Marvel

Going freelance meant time for even more story lettering for Jim, like the example above. Here his balloon lettering looks a bit narrower. The story title uses a block letter style he liked with 45 degree angles on some corners.

From POWER MAN AND IRON FIST #50, April 1978, image © Marvel
From DAREDEVIL #166, Sept 1980, image © Marvel

Jim was also working as a logo designer. As that job is rarely credited in print, we probably don’t know all the logos he designed, but these are ones credited to him that I always liked. The first uses perspective to push out the center at the reader, and in the second, the shapes are curved in perspective, not an easy thing to do. Novak was certainly looking at the logo designs of Gaspar Saladino for inspiration, and even copying some of Gaspar’s letter shapes, but his designs are still strong and original.

From POWER MAN AND IRON FIST #68, image © Marvel

Novak’s sound effects were always dynamic and impressive too, even when lousy printing tried to bury them, as on this page.

From CREEPSHOW, 1982, © New American Library

Jim did more work for this 1982 film directed by George A. Romero from a screenplay by Stephen King. In the interview, Jim said:

It’s basically a movie about a kid reading a comic book. His father grabs it away from him and throws it out the window. The wind comes and blows the pages. It stops at a splash page and the camera zooms in, and the movie goes into live action from there. It’s made up of five stories very much influenced by EC Comics. Jack Kamen was working with them, and he’s an old-time EC artist who knows Marie Severin. She referred him to me. They first needed a title for the promotion pieces. I designed the CREEPSHOW logo and brought in one sketch, which they loved. About a year later they needed the splash pages, ads, and I guess the last page of each story. Each segment has its own title, which I did. The concepts were basically mine and they loved them, so I was really happy.

The comics version of the movie also came out in 1982 with scripts by King and art by Berni Wrightson. Novak did all the lettering. In the interview he mentions seeing his logo in six-foot-high letters in Times Square, NY. That must have been thrilling!

Jim Novak designing the logo for Comics Interview, 1982. This and following photos by Michael Plotino from David Anthony Kraft’s archives, courtesy of Shaun Clancy

In 1982, Marvel staffer and writer David Anthony Kraft decided to publish a magazine consisting only of interviews with comics professionals for his Fictioneer Books imprint. Other magazines ran interviews as part of their content, this was the first, and perhaps only one to do it exclusively. Recently photos have surfaced in a collection bought by Shaun Clancy from the Kraft estate showing Jim Novak designing the logo. Above is the best view of the logo in progress, with the sheet of reference material. The idea was that each letter in the word INTERVIEW would be in the style of a different well-known comics logo.

A better view of the reference sheet. This was done in Novak’s home, with photos taken by Michael Plotino, the brother of Jim’s wife Lidia.

Still working on the penciled letters.

The best photo of Jim himself at work, with lots of pens, pencils, and other drawing tools in the background.

My favorite photo from the group is of Jim and his wife Lidia. She told me they met at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by friends in 1980, and they were married in July, 1982.

From Comics Interview #1, Feb 1983, © Fictioneer Books

The final logo doesn’t work very well as a logo, but it’s great as a quiz for readers. Without doing research, I can only identify five of the sources.

From CLOAK AND DAGGER #1, Oct 1983, image © Marvel

Novak continued to create more fine logos for Marvel like this one, which again has complex curves and perspective.

From WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #1, April 1985, image © Marvel

The main word of this logo uses traditional telescoped letters in two-point perspective with WEB OF and the spider as effective contrast.

From DOCTOR STRANGE #72, Aug 1985, image © Marvel

Whenever I picked up a Marvel book lettered by Jim, I enjoyed looking at the lettering as much as reading the story. He made it seem effortless.

In a remembrance letterer Pat Brosseau wrote about Novak, he said:

I first met Jim Novak when he was appointed the new production manager of the Marvel bullpen [in 1987] and I was also working there. I had read his name many times before this in the credits of my favorite Marvel comics and greatly admired his lettering style. He had an easy-going personality and was super friendly to me, just a kid from Vermont and fresh out of art school. He also had a unique style of management when he was my boss, installing a bullhorn outside his office and berating you if he saw you come in late in the morning, but always in a funny way. He didn’t stay long with his role at Marvel, maybe a year, and then he returned to his thriving freelance letterer career.

From THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK #16, June 1990, image © Marvel

Here’s a closer look at Novak’s balloon lettering. Many letterers that worked for Marvel used a similar style, but I think Jim did it best.

From ELEKTRA ASSASSIN #1, Aug 1986, image © Marvel

This logo design shows creativity and contrasting styles that work together perfectly.

From THE PUNISHER: WAR ZONE #1, March 1992, image © Marvel

Jim liked angular letters, and three-dimensional shapes, both included in this fine logo.

From FANTASTIC FOUR #402, July 1995, image © Marvel

Look at the energy and creative shapes in this massive sound effect. Great stuff! But changes were coming to comics as digital lettering began making inroads. In his remembrance, Pat Brosseau wrote:

At first [Jim] seemed interested in the possibility of lettering digitally, buying a computer, scanner, and Fontographer, but he seemed to lose interest at some point in the early 2000s. Maybe because it just wasn’t the same to him as his beloved hand lettering.

Jim’s wife Lidia confirmed that, while he tried digital lettering, he didn’t find it as satisfying as pen lettering, and didn’t get far with it.

From SPIDER-GIRL #25, Oct 2000, image © Marvel

The last lettering credit I found for Jim was on this story, and it’s all hand lettering. Magnificent hand lettering, but not what Marvel wanted by this time. It seems that Jim found the perfect job, he was excellent at it, and he loved it, but changes in technology took it away from him. Lidia said it was the tragedy of his life, and when he could no longer letter comics by hand for Marvel, he lost interest in lettering. Jim didn’t pursue lettering work for other companies. He had never been comfortable with attention or admiration from fans, and he withdrew from the world of comics conventions too.

Lidia told me that Jim loved nature and animals. Their yard became a showplace for his landscaping and gardening projects, and he enjoyed feeding birds and animals there. He worked for a while at a nearby garden center, where he found some new friends, but eventually decided he was happier at home with Lidia and their cats. She said he did a lot of writing, but it was mainly for himself, he didn’t try to get it published. Jim’s world shrank, and depression became a gradually growing factor that weighed him down. Jim passed on April 20, 2018, and he will long be remembered for his fine work, admired by fans, and by other letterers like myself. He is missed by his friends, and especially by Lidia.

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

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