JOHN COSTANZA – Letterer and Artist

Written, drawn, and lettered by Costanza, from G.I. COMBAT #133, Jan 1969, © DC Comics

In the late 1960s, a new letterer was brought into the field by Joe Kubert, and he began a prolific career at DC, Marvel, Western, and other publishers as both a letterer and an artist of humorous and funny animal stories and cartoons. He was one of the busiest guys in comics from the 1970s through the 1990s.

John Costanza, Dover High School Yearbook, 1961

John Costanza was born Aug 14, 1943 in Dover, New Jersey to an Italian father and a Puerto Rican mother, John and Teresa. In a 1983 interview with David Anthony Kraft in Comics Interview #5 (June 1983, Fictioneer Books), John remembered:

I have been drawing children’s stuff ever since I was a young boy and worked in my grandfather’s barber shop. I would be in the back room drawing pictures on paper bags. That’s the beginning of my success story. My grandfather would hang them up over the cash register. He was the first one to give me any kind of encouragement.

John graduated from Dover High School in 1961. He was soon in the Air Force, stationed in Berlin during the Berlin Crisis. In 1963 he married Mary Lee Calenti and they eventually had three sons: Neil, Brian, and Kevin. In a 1999 interview with Jim Amash in Comic Book Artist Collection Volume 2 (2002, TwoMorrows), John said:

The only art training I had, aside from my high school art classes, was a correspondence course that I took right after I got discharged from the military. It was Norman Rockwell’s Famous Artist course. I was married and had one son at the time and that was all I could afford. I was a jet engine mechanic in the Air Force. I would draw all the time — caricatures of other G.I.s and cartoons of pilots ejecting out of aircraft. I even got to do some safety posters for my base when I was reassigned to New Mexico. I always knew I wanted to draw for a living, and I knew I wanted to draw humor. But I had no idea how to get into the business.

From Tales of the Green Berets Daily, Oct 17 1967, image © Chicago Tribune Syndicate, image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Then the opportunity of a lifetime came along. My wife had a friend who had a beauty salon and had a customer whose husband was a comic book artist. He was looking for an assistant to help him on a comic strip called [Tales of] The Green Berets. That man was Joe Kubert. I made an appointment to meet with Joe at his house, and I remember being nervous as hell, but we got along fine. One of my jobs was going to be to letter the strip — so he was the one who taught me how to letter. He was a great teacher and a lot of fun to be around.

From G.I. COMBAT #139, Dec 1969-Jan 1970, © DC Comics

When Joe left the strip to return to DC as an editor/artist for the war titles in 1968, he took John with him. In the 1999 interview, John said:

[Joe] offered to introduce me to Carmine Infantino, who was head of the comics group at the time. Carmine and the production department were looking for a letterer who could come in and work in-house every day. They offered me the job after meeting with me, and I accepted, and I quit my regular job. My first editor was Joe Kubert, naturally, and I worked on most of his books — he was and still is a great guy. Some other great guys were Joe Orlando — being a MAD reader, I recognized Joe Orlando’s name and was blown away at the opportunity to meet him — there was Julie Schwartz, Murray Boltinoff and Mort Weisinger. I went into the office every day. I worked in the production department but I worked as a freelancer — I just occupied a drawing table there.

That position of staff letterer had been filled by Ira Schnapp for about 20 years, but he had recently been retired. Gaspar Saladino would have been the next likely one for the job, but he was already very busy freelancing and working at home for DC, which is why they hired Costanza. I think he was the last one to take that position, before and after that there were always letterers in the production department, but they did other production work during their staff hours and lettered at home most of the time. In addition to lettering for DC, John did short humor pieces for Joe Kubert like the one at the top of this article, and he was soon also doing funny animal art elsewhere.

From TOM AND JERRY #285, Aug 1974, © Western Publishing

In the 1999 interview, John said:

Someone gave me a name of an editor up at Western Publishing who was looking for someone to pencil a small comic book, one of those giveaway books. I believe it was for Kinney Shoes. I called and met with Paul Kuhn who gave me my first penciling job drawing Smokey Bear. I’ve done a lot of work for them over the years.

I wasn’t able to find any of John’s Smokey Bear work, but above is another Western comic he drew and lettered.

From GREEN LANTERN #76, April 1970, © DC Comics

Costanza lettered all kinds of comics for DC, including the ground-breaking run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories written by Denny O’Neil with art by Neal Adams. DC was not yet crediting letterers, so readers didn’t know his name, but his work is excellent.

From BATMAN #226, Nov 1970, © DC Comics

John’s was a fast letterer, and his work was soon appearing in many DC titles like this one. The loss of Ira Schnapp meant there was room for someone new, and Costanza filled that role well, though he shared it with another letterer, Ben Oda.

From NEW GODS #1, Feb-March 1971, © DC Comics

When Jack Kirby arrived at DC in 1971, John was assigned to Kirby’s Fourth World titles, at least for a while until Kirby hired his own letterers in California, where Kirby was then living. Notice that reversed page number 13 at lower right? John did that to secretly mark longer stories he lettered. In the 1999 interview he said:

I don’t remember exactly what made me start inverting the page #13. I guess it’s probably because Marvel used to give the talent credits in their books — and to make things even worse, they gave each one a special little Marvel name like “Jazzy” John Romita. I wanted one of those names, and when I went to work for Marvel later on, Stan Lee gave me one: “Gentle” John Costanza! I got to use it once before they discontinued that practice.

From THE ADVENTURES OF JERRY LEWIS #123, March-April 1971, © DC Comics

I think John’s lettering is particularly good on humor titles like this one, which he had a natural affinity for. The note written by sidekick child Renfrew is nicely done, and I love the story title.

From MISTER MIRACLE #1, March-April 1971, © DC Comics

Out the same month was this Jack Kirby classic with fine lettering by John. The story title is typical of Costanza’s work at the time, casual yet appealing. 

From SICK #82, March 1971, © Hewfred Publications

Here’s a side of John Costanza’s art few know, in the style of Jack Davis for MAD imitator SICK. In the interviews, John said:

I just called them up and made an appointment to see a gentleman named Paul Lakin who gave me jobs he would write. Jack Davis was a big influence on me. So was Mort Drucker. But I would just stare at Davis’ stuff and put myself into his situation. That is more or less how I trained myself.

From NEW GODS #4, Aug-Sept 1971, © DC Comics, image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

A closer look at some of Costanza’s early lettering for DC. He used a pen nib with a slight wedge, and the letters are angular, but also with a little bounce and beginning to show the curves he would use more later. The sound effects are a little looser and well-drawn. The balloon shapes, which I remember seeing John draw easily freehand, are almost perfect curves.

From DAREDEVIL #81, Nov 1971, © Marvel
From SUB-MARINER #43, Nov 1971, © Marvel

As if he wasn’t busy enough, John began lettering for Marvel Comics in 1971, at first using the pen name Jon Costa. The titles on both these stories are well done. I think he was no longer working in the DC production department by that time and therefore able to letter more easily for companies other than DC, following in the footsteps of Gaspar Saladino in that regard. It wasn’t something DC liked, but if you were good enough and kept turning in assignments on time, there wasn’t any reason for them to complain. John was certainly fast enough to make it work. In the 1983 interview, John said:

An average page can take twenty to thirty minutes, but you can get into a page that can take you up to an hour. In order to get out the amount of lettering that I do, I am working constantly. My days are pretty long. I’ll work at night and I’ll work on weekends on the children’s stuff — but, to me, that isn’t work, when I go into my artwork. I enjoy that and it keeps me going.

From THE INCREDIBLE HULK #156 and JUNGLE ACTION #1, Oct 1972, © Marvel

While Gaspar Saladino was lettering most of the covers at DC, at Marvel Costanza did some in the early 1970s before Gaspar and Danny Crespi began to dominate that specialty. I think John’s cover lettering is excellent, with strong balloons and effective captions, but he told me he was never comfortable with that kind of high-profile work. In the 1999 interview, Costanza said:

Gaspar Saladino did all the cover copy and logos [at DC] at the time. He would come in a couple times a week and sit at his table next to mine and do his thing. We became good friends then and I admired his work — very inspiring.

In the 1983 interview he said:

I’m really not into Gaspar Saladino-type logo lettering. He is terrific. I wouldn’t think of doing that type of lettering.

From 1ST ISSUE SPECIAL #6, Sept 1975, © DC Comics

This is the only cover logo I’ve found which I believe was designed by John, perhaps from a layout by Jack Kirby, though the rounded letters are very Costanza.

From YOUNG ROMANCE #197, Jan-Feb 1974, © DC Comics

No lettering, but that’s John’s picture on this text page. In the 1983 interview, John reported:

They used a photograph of my face for the romance books. They used to call it Marc – On the Man’s Side. It was sort of a male ‘Dear Abby.’ But I had nothing to do with it outside of their using my photograph.

From GRIMM’S GHOST STORIES #26, Sept 1975, © Western Publishing

Costanza did all kinds of lettering work, including Hostess Twinkies ads like this for several publishers. Here you can see he’s arrived at the rounder letters he would use for the rest of his pen lettering career. John also reported in the interviews that in addition to lots of art and lettering for Western, including a favorite series called CRACKY, he did art for Marvel, Peter Pan Industries, National Lampoon and others.

From CAPTAIN AMERICA #200, Aug 1976, © Marvel

On this title, John worked with Jack Kirby again, and finally was able to letter in his own credit, which must have been gratifying. Costanza was lettering more for Marvel than for DC in the 1970s.

From SECRETS OF HAUNTED HOUSE #41, Oct 1981, © DC Comics

But in the 1980s, John returned to do more for DC again. In the 1983 interview he said:

I’ve just signed a three-year contract to letter exclusively for them. They are very good about keeping me busy. DC has really changed — right from the unsung heroes of the production department all the way up to the real Wonder Woman, Jenette Kahn. They are all terrific — to me, anyway. [Regular assignments are] AMETHYST, LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, RONIN, OMEGA MEN. I do a lot of Len Wein’s books like SWAMP THING. They are pretty good books.

John Costanza, from the 1983 interview in Comics Interview #5, photo by Ron Fontes, courtesy of Shaun Clancy
From CAMELOT 3000 #1, Dec 1982, © DC Comics

John was there for the resurgence of DC into the new direct market with titles like this, one of the first on better paper that allowed his lettering to be seen more clearly.

From THE SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #21, Feb 1984, © DC Comics

John was also tapped to letter most of Alan Moore’s stories in THE SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING, marking the rise of Alan’s star in America. The title and credits in the body parts here were designed by penciller Stephen Bissette, but beautifully lettered by Costanza.

From THE SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #36, May 1985, © DC Comics, image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Moore was always interesting in pushing boundaries, and he probably asked for these character-specific ragged captions, which Costanza realized perfectly.

From BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS #3, Aug 1986, © DC Comics, image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

John’s sound effects had a chance to shine in this high-profile project with writer/penciler Frank Miller, and again he came through with fine work.

From ANIMAL MAN #2, Oct 1988, © DC Comics

John’s lettering was popular at DC, and a favorite of editor Karen Berger on the books for older readers that would soon become the basis for her Vertigo imprint. This story title is typical of his work at the time, done freehand with lots of interesting shapes and bounce.

From CONAN THE BARBARIAN #273, Oct 1993, © Marvel

In the early 1990s, digital lettering had begun to make inroads at Marvel Comics, and John decided he needed to keep up with that trend. He created fonts from his own lettering around 1992 and used them at Marvel through the rest of the decade, though at DC he was still doing pen lettering. John’s font is pretty similar to his pen lettering, but notice he doesn’t have a serif I to use for the personal pronoun I. The lettering is a little stiff, and the balloon shapes are too perfectly oval, but most readers wouldn’t notice those things, and it works well enough. I think at the time this was done, Costanza would have been printing out the lettering and pasting it on the art, but I’m not sure. Marvel began moving to an all-digital workflow by the mid 1990s. DC Comics did not follow that trend until 2002.

From DISNEY ADVENTURES Vol 6 #7, May 1996, © Disney

John used his font for lettering at Disney Comics, where I believe he also did some art.

From LOONEY TUNES #55, Aug 1999, © DC Comics

At DC, John was able to keep doing pen lettering for a few more years, on humor titles like this as well as many others.

John Costanza, 1999, from Comic Book Artist Collection Volume 2,

In the 1999 interview, when asked by Jim Amash what makes a good letterer, John said:

Discipline, hard work — I don’t know. Some might say a computer and a load of fonts — it seems like anybody can letter these days. I don’t want to sound as if I’m down on computers, because I’m not; I use computers myself. All the work I do for Marvel is completely done on a computer. But there’s nothing like doing it directly on the boards — and when it’s done you have an original piece of comic art with all the empty spaces for balloons and captions filled in. It’s just my opinion. By the way, all my lettering for DC is hand-lettered with the exception of an occasional special project. Thanks, DC.

From SIMPSONS COMICS #196, Nov 2012, © Bongo Comics

Costanza’s talent for humor art found a home at Bongo in the 2000s, where he was adept at working in the Matt Groening style of the popular Simpsons cartoons. This is the latest example of that I could find. Some time after this, John dropped out of comics. Perhaps he decided to retire, I haven’t been able to contact him to ask. After more than forty years with his nose to the grindstone, John is certainly entitled to a rest, and I hope he’s enjoying it. Fans of his lettering and art, including myself, have admired his work for decades, and will long continue to do so.

Continue to next article. Back to book.

6 thoughts on “JOHN COSTANZA – Letterer and Artist

  1. Nick Caputo

    Todd,

    Another excellent overview of a lettering career, I’ve always found Costanza’s style to be distinctive and pleasant. One of the top in his field. I was also pleased to discover some years back his artistic efforts in the humor field. I’m glad you put a spotlight on Costanza, who is not recognized as often as Oda, Schnapp, Saladino, Simek, or the Rosens, but who I feel rates up there with the best,

  2. Clem Robins

    Great essay, Todd.

    When I did occasional staff work at Marvel, one of my jobs was to do corrections on John’s work. Danny Crespi taught me how John filed a Speedball B6 point and how he held it, rotating it 90° for straight body copy, and holding it normally for bold. It was a great method, and I ended up adopting it for the rest of my hand lettering career.

    I never got to meet him, but I love his work.

  3. J C

    Hi Todd! Great article. I work for a company called CGC Comics and I’ve been attempting to reach out to John Costanza in some way but to no avail. Would you happen to know the best way to contact him? Thanks in advance.

  4. Todd Klein Post author

    I’ve tried to reach him several times over the last twelve years to no avail. If he’s still alive, he doesn’t want to be reached.

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