What follows is a transcription of a panel that John and I did at the 2017 Baltimore Comic-Con moderated by our friend and former co-worker at DC, Bob Greenberger. I recorded it on my phone and transcribed it later. The panel was held on Sept. 23rd. Both John and I have edited our comments to make them clearer and more correct and complete. (As John puts it, “to make sense of my incoherencies.”) I created a slide show to accompany the panel, but technical difficulties between my laptop and the Con’s projector kept us from using it until almost halfway through. It worked out fine, though, we got to all the slides. For these posts, I’ve reformatted the images to fit better here, and in some cases have links to larger versions. I’ve added some additional images in this first of two parts. All images are © the respective companies and copyright holders.
Bob Greenberger: The gentlemen to my left and right have a wealth of material to talk about and Todd created a lovely slide show that should give everybody a better sense of it, so, today we’re talking about lettering. To my left is John Workman, who arrived at DC with Bob Smith hoping to become an artist and somehow became a letterer. He also became an accomplished art director at HEAVY METAL magazine and an artist of not enough work. To my right is Todd Klein who also got started in DC’s Production Department, lettered all sorts of lovely work, wrote some stuff, helped run the Production Dept., saved many an editor’s career, is best known today for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman and the artists on SANDMAN. So, gentlemen! What was it like in the 70s getting started, breaking into the field?
John Workman: I blundered into DC. Prior to that I’d been doing advertising work out in the state of Washington. I also did a couple of men’s magazine comics with Bob Smith, kind of a poor man’s “Little Annie Fanny.” I also wrote prose stories for them, I was happy to be in there with Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch and people like that, but I really wanted to be working in regular comics, and that didn’t happen on what I considered a professional level until I appeared in STAR*REACH. I did a short story for STAR*REACH, for Mike Friedrich. After that I got in touch with Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, and they said, “Oh yeah, come on out, we’ve got plenty of work for you.” So, 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 to New York and got some work immediately from Marvel, but when we went over to DC nothing was happening there, we didn’t get any work. But we made an appointment with Gerry Conway to show him this Plastic Man thing we had in mind. We showed up the day we were supposed to be there, and Gerry was in conference with a writer, so we were waiting in the reception area. We had seen Jack Harris and Bob Rozakis previously; they liked our stuff. 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 and I wondered what was going on. I looked at where he was taking us and the sign said, “Carmine Infantino, Publisher.” I thought, “Wait a minute!” He took us on in there and we got jobs immediately…because of my mumbling. So, I advise you to mumble whenever you can. (laughter)
BG: Todd, how did you get mixed up in all this?
Todd Klein: I was working at an air conditioner company making installation manuals but I was a comics fan, and I thought, “Let me try to get a job in comics.” I put together a portfolio and I went to Marvel and DC in New York. Marvel had nothing for me, but I happened to be at DC at just the right time because someone in the Production Department was taking a two-week vacation and they needed a person to fill in. They gave me that, then the guy came back and said he was going to another job, so they offered me a full-time position. This was the biggest lucky break of my life! While I was there I learned all about comics and how they’re made, and lettering was one of the elements. I tried all kinds of things because the job did not pay very much, so everybody in the Production room did some kind of freelance work as well in the evenings or when they could. I tried inking, coloring, writing, I did all kinds of things, but lettering seemed to be the best match for me because I was already interested in calligraphy. That’s how I got started with lettering. For the first ten years of my career I was on staff in the DC Production Department and doing freelance work at home as well. After that I went freelance full time, my workload increased, and I’ve been there ever since.
[After this Todd is busy with the tech guys trying to get the slide show up and running.]
BG: Okay, you each said you fell into lettering…
JW: Because it was easy. (laughter)
BG: But each of you has risen to acclaim, so why don’t you describe what you see as your role as letterer, and then we’ll get into the art side of it.
JW: I never liked my own lettering. I would draw what I thought was a decent page, and then I’d ruin it with lousy lettering, so I realized how important the lettering could be. None of this really congealed until I was up at DC. I was fooling around with different types of balloons, I wasn’t happy with what was the traditional balloon at that time. I didn’t make any inroads until I was working with Marshall Rogers on DETECTIVE COMICS, on the Batman stuff. Marshall had an unusual way of drawing. He wanted to be an architect originally, and he brought a lot of that to what he did. I came up with a style of balloon that worked with Marshall, though it didn’t necessarily work with anybody else, and I finally hit my stride when I started working with Walt Simonson on THOR. We decided to just do oval balloons, and I thought that maybe that was too simple, but it really worked. It was fun. If somebody whispered, you’d have a little tiny “ohhh” in the middle of this massive balloon. It became a part of the artwork. After that I realized that I could work off the artwork. I became an extension of the person who had done the original pencils. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. But I finally brought everything together, or I tried to anyway.
BG: There was a graphic look to that work where the sound effects were part of the shape and size of the panels. Was that you or Walt’s idea?
JW: Both of us.
BG: Did people start asking for that on other books, or was that just Walt?
JW: I tried to adapt elements of that to other people. I remember when I was lettering FANTASTIC FOUR with John Byrne writing and drawing, I tried to do a traditional Marvel balloon…the sort that Art Simek and Sam Rosen had done, and that was great fun, and it was almost being conservative compared to what Walt was doing, but if there was a chance to do an open-letter “KA-BLANNG” or something like that, as a part of Byrne’s stuff…or anyone else’s…I always went for it.
BG: From there you were getting work at both companies. Were you adapting your work to the penciler, to the character, to an editor’s requests?
JW: To some degree. By that time, I was up at HEAVY METAL, and what I learned there was incredible. [While lettering English translations of European material] 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. Mostly, I worked off of the art. Nobody ever told me I’d gone too far or anything like that, so I kept going farther and farther.
BG: To this day, no one has said, “STOP!”
BG: Well, that’s cool!
JW: Oh, wait a minute, I did something for Titan recently and they told me, “Don’t overdo it,” so I pulled back a little bit for them.
BG: HEAVY METAL. You went over there to be an art director, and you did things like ALIEN with Archie Goodwin and Walt, right? What sort of work was there to do as art director considering most of the stories were just being brought over from Europe to America?
JW: Our publisher…Len Mogel…believed that no American could touch the French guys except for Richard Corben. He loved Corben’s work because he’d first seen it in a French magazine, but he didn’t initially realize that Corben’s from Kansas. (laughter) There was a bit of a block there. Ted White, Julie Simmons-Lynch, and I tried to get more and more American guys into it. For the movie adaptations we did, I had to bring in local guys. There’s a funny story about ALIEN. One of my heroes was Carmine Infantino, and I told you how he hired me. He was freelancing again at that time, and I thought that for ALIEN, I wanted Carmine on the pencils and Walt Simonson on the inks. I called Carmine and his phone was busy, so I thought, “I wonder what Walt would say about the inks,” so I called Walt, and we talked a bit, and by the end of the conversation Walt was doing the entire job. Carmine should have gotten off the phone. (laughter)
That worked out so well. Walt brought in Archie Goodwin. I thought that maybe I would write the comics version of ALIEN, or maybe Walt would do it, but Archie was one of the greats as far as being an editor, a writer and an artist. His ideas, the storytelling…it couldn’t have been better. With Walt and Archie, I had sense enough to step back and just let them go, and what they did we printed. We didn’t change a single thing. The only things that I had a hand in were the cover and book design. Even there, Archie was essential. I roughed out a big title ALIEN and a space background for the cover, and the ship was there, floating in space below the logo. Archie looked at it, and in two seconds he said, “Let’s drop tentacles down from the logo and have them encircle the space ship.” 20th Century-Fox got mad because it was better than their poster. (laughter) The book sold really well, and I was happy to see the recent reprint of it.
BG: It’s held up very nicely, hasn’t it?
BG (to Todd, who has been working with an A/V guy trying to get the slide show running): Are we getting any closer?
TK: No. I can talk to you though.
BG: I’ll talk to you, Todd! John’s lettering became part of the art and part of the page, whereas I think your calligraphy background played more of a role in the evolution of your work. How did that evolve?
TK: The first time I was asked to do a lot of styles was STARSTRUCK, which I did directly for Michael Kaluta and Elaine Lee. They were producing it for a Spanish publisher originally, and then it was used in HEAVY METAL. They were asking for all kinds of different styles and that was a stretch for me because I hadn’t done that yet. By working with them, and getting experience with all kinds of different styles, I was able to develop that further for other books at DC and eventually Marvel and so on. SANDMAN came along eight years later or so and I was primed for it because I’d had experience by then doing a lot of styles, so when Neil Gaiman asked for that I could do it.
BG: Was there any pushback from the publishing side about being too out there with the lettering?
TK: No, I don’t think so, I always kept it readable, that was the hardest thing to do.
BG: And I gather your production experience led you to believe you could do the negative balloons for Sandman, so it was white lettering on black?
[I didn’t explain it at the time, but the Sandman lettering was done normally, then the DC Production department made reverse (negative) Photostats of those balloons, cut around the borders, and pasted them over the original lettering.]
TK: Yeah, and I was not in favor of doing that because I knew that Production could screw it up a lot, and they did. (laughter)
BG: But you knew how to fix it.
TK: I knew how to fix it, but I was no longer on staff by then. It worked out okay in the end. When they did the Absolute Editions, I did have to fix a few things that were almost unreadable.
BG: Wow. Over time were there favorite writers you enjoyed lettering?
TK: Yeah, Neil is obviously the first one, I just fell in love with his work right away, I felt like we were kindred spirits. Alan Moore came soon after, again someone I enjoyed working with a great deal.
BG: Despite his wordiness?
TK: Yes, and I was still trying to write comics then, so when I first saw Alan Moore’s scripts I just gave up writing because I said, “There’s no way I can do anything like this.” (laughter)
BG (to Workman): Back over to you for a second, with the arrival of digital lettering in the 1990s, you would letter on-screen, then print it on crack-and-peel paper and then Exacto cut and…
JW: I didn’t really do any of that until around 1999. Something happened that I didn’t expect. I knew that computer lettering was coming in, just as computer coloring had in the late 1980s. What I didn’t expect was that Marvel and DC would decide to do their computer lettering in-house.
BG: That came later, but yeah.
JW: I know John Costanza was doing computer stuff way back when, but it was all kind of primitive. I did a lot of overlay things. I’d letter on a sheet of vellum over a same-size Xerox of the original art, and then I’d scan that in and reduce it and place it on the print-size artwork they’d send me, and it dawned on me…I would look at the lettering blown up huge on the screen, and I’d think, “Oh geez, I could fix that a little,” and what I was doing was taking the humanity out of the lettering. And I had to hold back and stop doing that. I also realized, “Why don’t I just letter it right into the computer?” And that’s what I do mostly now. In doing so, I have to be deliberately messy in order to give it a human look.
BG: Interesting. Deliberately messy.
JW: A little long, a little short, if my hand slips or something…I use a Wacom tablet and pen, and if my hand should slip I think, “Okay,” and I leave it alone. When it’s reduced down it has more of a human feel about it. I also use commercial typefaces that have a hand-lettered look about them if I’m doing something where the payment is low, but for the normal stuff I still hand-letter it into the computer.
Audience member: You don’t have your own John Workman font or anything?
JW: I’ve thought about that. A guy from Spain actually sent me a John Workman typeface that he’d developed, but I’ve never played around with it much. It would still be almost like setting type. I know there’d be two versions of each letter and all that, but when I do stuff where I’m using a commercial font, even there I go in and play with it to make it my own rather than just leave it as it is.
BG: It used to be, back in the dim days of comics, the artist would get the script and he would pencil the page, and he would leave space for the balloons. I remember looking at pages by Curt Swan and some of the others who would actually write in the dialogue, and therefore they made that part of their design and left appropriate space, and that doesn’t happen anymore. So how difficult is it for you to fit everything in and still see artwork?
JW: It’s relatively easy…
BG: Whoa! Success!
JW: …I just sort of look at the art and figure, “Oh, this balloon can go right there,” and I like to do the stuff at the same size I originally did it and then reduce it down, that also helps with the look of it. If I’m off a little bit, I can tinker with it, but it’s not a big problem. The only book I do right now where I’m actually lettering with pens and ink right on the actual artwork is RAGNARÖK by Walt Simonson. He prefers…as do several people…to have the lettering right on the boards.
TK: I think most artists prefer that, but most companies won’t let them do it anymore.
BG: Because of time?
TK: Yeah, well, also it doesn’t fit into their system because they have international clients who want the lettering separate.
BG: So, Todd, would you like to take over for a little bit?
[Twenty-two minutes into our hour-long panel, my slide show was finally ready to be seen.]
TK: Okay, let me get to the slide show here…
TK: This is a piece of art that John did for the small press magazine called STAR*REACH and when I first met John I bought this page from him because I liked his art so much. This is part of the page, not the whole page. (To John) Do you want to say anything about this story?
JW: A quick story: I went to a small convention in Portland, Oregon, and there was this guy there. I was 23, maybe 22, this guy was 17, and I remember he wore a Ray Bradbury white suit, and he could draw like the dickens. Bob Smith and I, we were sweating blood, trying to reach a professional level, and this guy was so good. It was Dave Stevens, who later did THE ROCKETEER. We showed one another our artwork, and he said, “You know, there’s this thing called STAR*REACH, and you oughtta see what you could do with that.” On the way home I came up with a story and I wrote a full script, which I almost never do, and I did the first page and made a copy of it and sent it off to Mike Friedrich, and he put it in the next issue of STAR*REACH. He had called or written back and said, “Go ahead, do it,” and I wondered, why am I in here with Neal Adams and all these people, how did that happen? I found out years later that 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. (much laughter)
TK: I see a lot of Wrightson in that, in the inking.
JW: Oh yeah, Wrightson was my hero at the time.
TK: And this is the kind of thing I was doing, art for small press and fan magazines. This was for a comics fanzine, the back cover of RBCC.
BG: RBCC was one of the fanzines of the time, so to get in there was a bit of a coup.
TK: I was doing a lot of that and getting paid nothing but having a good time, that’s what I was up to before comics.
TK: Here’s John. Bob Smith told me this was probably after an all-nighter by John.
TK: This is the kind of thing that John and I often did while on staff at DC, a title box for a letters page that John drew, inked and lettered, which first appeared in 1977. (To John) Did you do a lot of this sort of thing?
JW: Yeah, more than I can remember.
TK: I did too. Some of it was freelance, some was on staff, I don’t remember which was which now.
TK: Here’s John’s lettering on DETECTIVE COMICS with Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, which is where I first got to know John’s lettering work. I was always very impressed by this.
BG: You can see the balloon shapes were very different than what people were accustomed to in 1977.
JW: I thought that was the first time I hit a real professional level with balloons, although I kinda cringe when I see how thick some of the tails are.
BG: Another thing to notice is the sound effect, which is probably larger than was usually done at the time.
TK: I think that was in the pencils, wasn’t it?
JW: Yeah, Marshall drew it, I just inked it.
TK: This was the sample story that I did when I came to DC to try to get work. I had no professional experience or anything like that. The only comics original art that I had was a page from a romance comic that I bought at a convention. I modeled my lettering after what I saw there, and then later I found out that it wasn’t considered good lettering, but I did what I could. This story has never been printed or seen by anyone, though the first page is on my website.
TK: Here I am at my desk in 1978, photo by my boss Jack Adler. This is around the time of the first Superman movie I think. There are other pictures with Jack Harris and Christopher Reeve from the same photo shoot.
TK: This is work that I did on staff. Above is the inside front cover of a tabloid comic. I did everything there except the type. Below is one of my early lettering jobs for a New Gods story in 1978.
Goodbye card by Todd Klein for John Workman. A larger version is HERE.
TK: John and I only worked together on staff for a few months because at the end of 1977 he went to HEAVY METAL, and this is a goodbye card that I drew and lettered for him, and then it was signed by pretty much the whole staff of the company.
BG: So, wait, (to Todd), you left, and (to John) you came back to replace Todd?
TK: It wasn’t that close.
JW: I came back in 1988.
TK: I left staff in 1987, so kinda.
BG: Just trying to figure out the timing. So, there’s a keepsake. (To John) It’s framed and hanging on your wall?
JW: Yeah, it’s in the upstairs hallway.
TK: I think I got John’s face pretty good there, actually.
JW: and my dollar shoes, too.
Continued in Part 2. Other articles you might enjoy are on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.