A unique letterers in comics from the 1970s to the present is John Workman, whose distinctive letter shapes and style make his work stand out from the crowd. He’s perhaps best known for his many collaborations with writer/artist Walt Simonson, as on THOR, above, where large letters for Odin add to the drama, and John’s balloons, open at the panel borders, make a style statement, and leave more room for the art. John has also had a long but sporadic career as a writer/artist, as well as being the art director of Heavy Metal for a few years. We met in the DC Comics production department when I was hired in 1977, and have been friends since.
John Elbert Workman, Junior was born June 20, 1950 in Beckley, West Virginia. He and his family lived in West Virginia and Maryland, then moved to Aberdeen, Washington in 1958, where John grew up. John told me he started collecting comics in 1961, buying them used for five cents each. He loved the Marvel books of the 1960s as well as Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel from an earlier era, but what impressed him most were the EC comics he found. Later he was a fan of Will Eisner’s The Spirit and the Disney duck stories of Carl Barks. He started getting work published in small local fanzines, then reached a wider audience in a California one called Voice of Comicdom in 1967, where he shared space with future comics writers and editors Bill Dubay, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein. He was also drawing and sometimes writing for local advertising. During this time he met fellow artist Bob Smith through a mutual friend, and they began to collaborate. John met comics creator Basil Wolverton in 1969, who was very encouraging, as was Carl Barks when he saw a Donald Duck sample page John had done. In 1972 John, with help from Bob, did two comics series, the science-fictional Sindy and the humorous Fallen Angels for two California-based men’s magazines.
In 1974, John met upcoming comics artist Dave Stevens, of The Rocketeer fame, at a small comics convention in Portland, Oregon, and Dave encouraged John to submit his work to a new magazine being launched by Mike Friedrich, Star*Reach. John created the short story Key Club and sent it off to Friedrich, and it was published in issue #2. I think both the art and lettering are terrific. I liked it so much, I bought this page from John. In a 2017 panel at the Baltimore Comic-Con that Workman and I did together with Bob Greenberger, John said, “I wondered, ‘Why am I here with Neal Adams and all these people? How did that happen?’ I found out years later there was a guy who was supposed to have a story in that issue, but he didn’t get it done, so Mike put mine in. The guy was Dave Stevens.” Despite John’s modesty, Mike Friedrich liked his work and published more of it in later issues, and he was very supportive of both John and Bob Smith. He set up a phone call with Dick Giordano, then at Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates studio in New York. Both Dick and Neal liked their work and encouraged them to come to New York City, which they did in late June of 1975.
John said, “Bob Smith and I piled into my old green car and drove 3,000 miles to New York in order to work in comics. We got some work immediately from Marvel, but when we went over to DC, nothing was happening there. We met editor Jack C. Harris and writer/production man Bob Rozakis, they liked our stuff. We made a later appointment with editor Gerry Conway to show him this Plastic Man thing we had in mind. When we showed up that day, Gerry was in conference with a writer, so we were waiting in the reception area. Bob Rozakis came by and said, ‘Oh, you guys are here again. Who are you here to see?’ I mumbled, as I tend to do, and said ‘Conway,’ and Bob replied, ‘Oh, he’s not busy, come on!’ We followed him down the hallway past Gerry Conway’s office and I wondered what was going on. I looked at where he was taking us and the sign said, ‘Carmine Infantino, Publisher.’ Bob took us in there, we showed Carmine our work, and we got jobs immediately, because of my mumbling. So, I advise you to mumble whenever you can.” Bob Smith was hired as a freelance inker, while John took a drawing board in the DC production department, which like Marvel’s bullpen, was where comics art was prepared and corrected for printing. He was soon picking up freelance lettering work there, too.
John now dislikes his earliest lettering for DC, and said, “I wasn’t happy with what I was doing until I worked on the DECTIVE COMICS issues. Artist Marshall Rogers and I talked beforehand about what he had in mind for the lettering. I went back and looked at the style of lettering in early issues of BATMAN. It was the first stuff I did where I felt I had linked to the art so the art and lettering became a single thing.” Among the style points I like are the rounded rectangle balloons and the reversed first letter of the captions.
On this cover with larger balloon and caption lettering, John’s mature style is emerging in the wide, angular, thin-line letters that are unlike what anyone else was doing at the time.
On his lettering tools, John told me, “I used Speedball pens at first. Later on I read about a type of Sheaffer fountain pen Jim Aparo used. I got one and found that my stuff suddenly acquired a bit of the look of Aparo’s lettering. Around the same time I started using Rapidograph technical drawing pens. They seemed to do the trick, and I had a bit more control than I did with the Speedball pens. I was using those when I went to work at DC. In 1976, I was walking past an art supply store with a sign in their window about Faber-Castell TG-1 technical pens at $4 each. I bought a few. That night, a Rapidograph I was using to letter a story for DC literally fell apart in my hand. I opened up the Castell and was incredibly happy with that pen. I used Castells for decades, and still do.” John was my informal lettering teacher at DC, and I followed his lead to the Castell pens, which I also still use.
John also designed logos for DC while on staff, though on a freelance basis. These are two of my favorites. Both have a rough energy that suggests the art of Jack Kirby as well as the dynamic logos of Gaspar Saladino. More about John’s DC logos here:
After working on staff in DC’s production department for about two years, John’s career took a sudden turn when he was offered a job on the staff of a new magazine from the publisher of National Lampoon. He wrote, “One day, Peter Kleinman at Lampoon called me at DC and told me that I’d been recommended for the position of Art Director at Heavy Metal. Neal Adams had made the suggestion. After meeting with him, I got the job.” John left DC near the end of 1977. Much of Heavy Metal reprinted translated stories from the French comics magazine Métal Hurlant and other European sources, and one of John’s job requirements was to reletter those stories in English. John reports, “I hand-lettered, on vellum over enlarged copies of the pages, reduced the letters to final printed size, and placed the lettering on print-size photostats of the art. The people who did our film work then incorporated my lettering into the final films used for plate-making. When I started at Heavy Metal, I immediately made some changes that streamlined the process and saved money. Those relatively simple changes saved over $40,000 for the company. The majority of the work was done on staff unless we were under deadline pressure. Then I took work home with me and did some at night while watching TV.” In our 2017 panel, John said, “What I learned at Heavy Metal was incredible. I didn’t try to be Moebius or Druillet, but I tried to simulate what they were doing, and I learned so much from Moebius.”
While still on staff at DC, John lettered a three-part Captain Fear story drawn by Walt Simonson, their first work together. It was published later in THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER #254-256, August-October 1981. When the adaptation of the film Alien was given the green light in 1979, John first wanted to have Carmine Infantino draw it and Walt Simonson ink it. In our panel, John said, “I called Carmine and his phone was busy, so I called Walt, and we talked a bit, and by the end of the conversation Walt was doing the entire job. Walt brought in Archie Goodwin. His ideas, his storytelling…it couldn’t have been better.” John, of course, lettered the book, and in the sample page above you can see his style of balloon borders that open at the panel edges was in place by then, and often seen on his work since. John told me he got the idea for that from earlier work by Carmine Infantino and Al Williamson. The creative partnership of Simonson and Workman continued for decades at Marvel Comics and other publishers, and ALIEN, THE ILLUSTRATED STORY was the first comic to appear on the New York Times best-seller list.
Workman seems to have blossomed at Heavy Metal, becoming more than just a reletterer of foreign stories. After a while he brought in his brother Bill to help, as seen above.
In the 2017 interview, John said, “My wife is involved a lot in this particular thing. She was working for one of the Wall Street firms, and one of the guys she worked with was a fellow named John Badalamente, who was a very nice guy, had a very interesting life, and weighed about 450 pounds…a big fellow. One Saturday morning, Cathy and I were going to a grocery store. On the way, we started kidding about how John was not really John Badalamente…he was Elvis Presley, and he had faked his death and was now living in Brooklyn. As we kidded about this, we realized that we had what could be a possible Foto Funny for Lampoon, so when we got back from the store, I sat down and, in 15 minutes, I drew up a Foto Funny in comics form. I took it into the office on Monday figuring I’d show it to the Lampoon people, but I made the mistake of first showing it to one of my compatriots, and that person said, ‘I don’t really think Lampoon would be interested in it.’ So, discouraged, I tossed it into my desk drawer and went about my work. But my wife, bless her, kept bugging me about it. Finally, to get Cathy off my back, I took the Foto Funny downstairs to [editor] P.J. O’Rourke’s office. He said ‘Yeah, do this!’ Everyone loved it. It sold to different countries, and I got extra money for that. If you come up with an idea that you think is good, stick to it.”
John exited Heavy Metal in 1984, but before that he’d started taking freelance lettering assignments, becoming the regular letterer on Walt Simonson’s THOR with issue no. 337. It was a stellar run well-liked by readers and fans, and John’s lettering was an important part of the book. Walt and John’s work together seems a perfect symbiosis. Simonson is a good letterer himself and knows how to lay out the sound effects and place the balloons well. In the first example, there’s lots of lettering, but it’s all easy to follow. And the dynamic sound effect and special balloon in the second are full of energy. John also had a long run lettering THE FANTASTIC FOUR written and drawn by John Byrne, and worked on GRIMJACK at First Comics. In 1987 he reunited with Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers on SILVER SURFER at Marvel.
From time to time, John was also able to get some of his art and writing published, this cover for British reprints is a nice example. In the 2017 interview, John said, “It’s one of my favorite pieces of my own art because it all just flowed right out. Usually I have to fight that piece of paper to make everything work, but this one was so easy, and I loved drawing all the monsters.”
About this pinup, John said: “For the 400th issue of THOR I did a drawing of Sif, Thor’s lady friend, and I asked before I even started on it if Joe Sinnott could ink it, and they said yes, and I was so thrilled. I did tighter pencils than I should have. I found out later that Joe likes to work with loose pencils, but he did a beautiful job on the inks, and he did things I never would have thought of, the background elements and all. Clouds are hard to do. Joe did them beautifully.”
John returned to DC on DOOM PATROL in 1987, including memorable stories written by Grant Morrison. John said, “It was so strange, I really enjoyed it.” I particularly like John’s version of electric balloons in the second example. By the mid 1990s, John was also lettering for Topps, Image, Dark Horse, Malibu and Tekno. After the boom and bust in comics in the 1990s, John mainly worked for DC and Marvel, though he also lettered Erik Larsen’s SAVAGE DRAGON for Image. The Englehart-Rogers-Austin-Workman team returned for BATMAN: DARK DETECTIVE in 2005, which John enjoyed.
Archie Comics was looking for a new letterer in 2003, and Bob Smith, already working for them, recommended John, who said, “I enjoyed working for Archie, even at the reduced page rate. The amount of lettering per page was less, so the pay worked out fine. In addition to lettering, I wrote a few stories and also realized a long-standing goal by writing, penciling and lettering a two-page Archie story,” seen above. John’s lettering for Archie continued for years, and he particularly liked working on MEGA MAN for them. On the story shown, I love the rambling balloon tails.
Beginning in 2014 John continued his partnership with Walt Simonson on the series RAGNARÖK from IDW, a different take on Norse mythology. If anything, John’s lettering has become more personal and stylized but is still easy to read and appealing. The first example is a page of Walt’s layouts that John received and lettered. Below is the final printed page. When you’re the writer and artist, you can afford to work pretty loose, Walt’s layouts remind me of a few I’ve seen from Joe Kubert.
Another series of this title ran six issues, ending in 2020. I find both Simonson and Workman at the top of their game here.
John returned to BATMAN in 2016, and said this about the series: “Tom King was the writer and David Finch the artist on that. I loved the artwork and Tom’s writing is very good. That first one was an especially difficult page because of all the jumping around of viewpoint and time on those first three panels.”
When not working with Walt Simonson, where he still letters on the art boards, John has come up with a creative and unusual method of doing digital lettering. He letters on a tablet over digital scans of the art, so it’s really a combination of hand and digital work. John said, “That is the most fun as far as doing this stuff on the computer. This is hand-lettered into the computer, but where I have my real fun is in the placement of the balloons. I move things around a lot, trying to make everything work.”
In recent years John has also had runs on Superman comics for DC as well as projects at Image and Marvel. I hope he continues to share his unique lettering style with all of us for many years to come, and I also hope we continue our long friendship.