What follows is the second part of the 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.”) This picks up about a quarter of the way through the slide show I put together for the panel. For these posts, I’ve reformatted the images to fit better here, and in some cases have links to larger versions. All images are © the respective companies and copyright holders.
Todd Klein: This is a piece by John of the HEAVY METAL staff, and I thought this was interesting not only because John drew and lettered it, but also because of how small the staff is. They were putting out a monthly magazine?
John Workman: A monthly and specials. Also, I worked a lot for NATIONAL LAMPOON at the same time.
Bob Greenberger: Put out by the same company.
TK: A lot of material for that size staff.
BG: The publisher Len Mogul who we talked about earlier is the top left head.
TK: And here’s a picture of John in a NATIONAL LAMPOON humor article, which I enjoyed.
JW: We did occasional modeling for different articles, so I was a policeman in one thing, and a protester protesting nothing in another one, and this guy, and various other things. Fun stuff to do.
TK: Here’s one of John’s efforts in a Foto Funnies for NATIONAL LAMPOON. You want to talk about that?
JW: This is a lesson for anyone who wants to be creative in any way and it also talks about a particular weakness of mine. I have to tell you, 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, I won’t tell you who, 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. She would call at the end of the day and say, “Did you show that to Lampoon?”
Finally, to get Cathy off my back, I thought, “I’ll go down to the Lampoon offices, show my Foto Funny to the editor, and he can say, ‘thanks but no thanks,’ and that’ll be it.” I took the Foto Funny downstairs to P.J. O’Rourke’s office, and P.J. was not in. So, I left it on his desk with a little note. By the time I got back up to my office the phone was ringing, and it was P.J., and he said, “Yeah! Do this!” So, I got together with a photographer, and Cathy and I talked John Badalamente into playing Elvis. I directed the thing in Central Park, and I was feeling like the poor man’s Harvey Kurtzman because he used to do the same sort of photo stories for HELP and for PLAYBOY, and here I was following in his footsteps. The Elvis Foto Funny was printed, and it went through the roof. Everyone loved it. It sold to different countries, and I got extra money for that. The head of the company, Matty Simmons, loved it so much that he wanted to use it on one of the phonograph albums that Lampoon did. Try as hard as they might, they couldn’t translate the visual part of that into just sound, so it didn’t appear there.
But Let this be a lesson to you. If you come up with an idea that you think is good, stick to it. You may be wrong, but if somebody says “No, no, no,” don’t listen to them. Stick to your guns.
TK: I agree with that.
Illostratos by Klein, 1974. A larger image is HERE.
TK: This is something I did for a literary magazine in 1974 when I was doing fanzine art and later on when John was at HEAVY METAL, he asked, “Do you have anything I could use?” I thought of this and I showed it to him, and he said, “Yeah, I can use that,” so he did. And I actually got paid quite a bit for this thing that I’d done for free. (laughter)
BG: In other words, don’t throw anything out.
TK: This is another thing that John was instrumental in, he had a series called “June 2050” because of his birthday.
JW: Yeah, I was born on June 20th of 1950, but the little stories in this series are set in June of the year 2050 … which seemed a long way off in the early 1980s.
TK: He was commissioning various people to do one-pagers for this series, it was all one-pagers I think.
JW: Yeah. Jack Harris [in the audience] wrote several of them.
TK: John said, “Do you have any ideas?” And I said, “Yeah, if I can find a good artist.” Fortunately, Murphy Anderson, who was a very good artist agreed to do this with us, and it was perfect for him because he was a big Buck Rogers fan, so this is he and his wife pretending to be Buck and [Buck’s partner] Wilma, and we all enjoyed that one.
JW: And, of course, Murphy had drawn Buck.
TK: Yes, he had been an artist on Buck Rogers comics and newspaper strips.
TK: John, do you want to talk about B.J. Butterfly?
JW: Yeah, this is a slightly different version of it than what appeared in HEAVY METAL. She was unclothed in the original, and it was in black and white. There’s a bit of a story here, I’ll quickly tell it. I saw a movie years ago that I thought I would hate, but that turned out to be wonderful. It was called “Red Sky at Morning,” and was based on a novel by Richard Bradford, if I remember correctly. When it ran on network TV, it was censored as I expected, but also they dropped really stupid, insipid narration into this beautifully done movie that was set in the 1940s. When it appeared on TV in the 1970s, every mid-70s cliché was in this dumb narration. The movie has never been released to any kind of home video, so you can only see the NBC version. I wrote this little story about a girl from another dimension who comes into our world to watch old movies that she’s wild about, and she and the cat there have little talks about singers from the 1950s. It’s an unusual one. I did two of them, but in this one, I wanted to say something about how dumb those NBC people were.
STARSTRUCK by Michael Wm. Kaluta and Elaine Lee, 1981. Larger version HERE.
TK: And here’s me on an early page from STARSTRUCK where I got to use a lot of different styles, as I was saying. There’s a few in this one already but there were pages that had a lot more than this. Mike and Elaine would look at what I had done and think of other things I could do that were even more difficult, so it just kept growing and growing, sort of like SANDMAN. I should add that I did not do the handwritten letter on this page, that’s all Kaluta.
TK: This is my first high-profile story for DC, “Batman: Year One” by Miller and Mazzucchelli, which at the time was just four issues of the regular BATMAN comic because there were no special series then. If you had a Batman story it ran in BATMAN or DETECTIVE, that was all they had. It’s still in print. I think it’s the oldest thing I’ve done that’s been continuously in print. I also designed the logo from a thumbnail by Frank Miller.
[I was wrong about this. UNTOLD LEGEND OF THE BATMAN was a 1980 three-issue series by Len Wein, John Byrne and Jim Aparo, but what had much more impact was Frank Miller’s BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS from 1986, a four-issue square-bound series, the year before “Year One.” Mini-series featuring DC’s main characters was still a new idea at the time, though. That would soon change.]
TK: TIME TWISTERS, John?
BG: Oh, that was a fun one.
JW: 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. There’s a little tip of the hat to Wally Wood down near her feet there, that character with the big eyes, and then off to the left the orange guy is sort of my hello to Moebius. It was great fun. It was printed in eight different countries in eight different languages and I never saw the other seven. But I wrote and drew several covers for the company. There was another one with a lot of dialogue on it, it looked like an early ‘50s EC in that respect, and they got so mad at me because they had to translate it and reletter it in seven languages. That was the last one I did for them. (laughter)
TK: One of John’s big hits early on.
JW: The Thor frog, yeah.
TK: You did talk about Walter a little bit.
JW: Yeah, yeah.
TK: It’s one of my favorite pages, and I love the sound effect, too.
TK: This is one people may not have seen before, a pin-up you did for THOR.
JW: 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. I don’t know if you can see mine, they’re kind of “eh,” but Joe did them beautifully.
TK: Those boots remind me of the Wicked Witch of the West.
BG: That’s right, yeah, especially with the stripes.
TK: This was a series I wrote and lettered. It was kind of cool to have my name on the cover, because that was something DC was just starting with then, giving cover credits to the creators. I also designed the logo.
BG: I got to DC in ’84 and OMEGA MEN was floating along there. Then Todd came in with Shawn McManus. It was one of the under-appreciated runs on a book from that era because everyone was focused on the bigger, shinier stuff, but this was solid science fiction at a time when there wasn’t a lot of science fiction being done in comics, and I have to give Todd a lot of props for making that work. (applause)
BG: Uncollected and worth a find in the dollar bins.
TK: Yeah, they’re not too expensive, you can get ‘em cheap. I really loved Shawn’s artwork and especially his covers, which were wonderful.
TK: And then SANDMAN came along. This is the tile page of the first issue and just a random page from later in the run. I guess I’ve talked about that a lot of times, but it was really fun all along, and in the beginning, nobody was paying attention so we could do what we wanted, which was nice. If we wanted to do something weird, nobody had any problems with it. As it got further along it became more difficult for Neil [Gaiman] because he knew everybody was watching and paying attention, so he felt like he had to keep topping himself. That’s finally, I think, what did it in because he ran out of things that could top what he’d done before.
TK: John did DOOM PATROL around the same time. Want to talk about that at all?
JW: It was so strange. (To Greenberger) Well, you edited…
BG: Yeah. DOOM PATROL #19 we brought in a new creative team and I stripped it down so that everybody was new, and I picked John because I knew I wanted a distinct, atmospheric look to the lettering to match Grant Morrison’s scripts and Richard Case’s pencil art. You just ran with it and stuck with the run of the book, right?
JW: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Richard, I’m sure, did the title on that and I just inked it, but the one thing I remember about that whole run, I got the pencils to have a go at my lettering on them, and there was one drawing of the little girl…
BG: Yeah, Dorothy.
JW: …and it was so beautiful. And I thought, “Now this is going to be inked, and it’s going to change the character of the whole thing. It will still be nice, but it won’t be that penciled panel.” So, I went over to an ad agency near where I live and I had them make a screened shot of the panel that I liked so much. I had even figured out the number of dots per inch after the reduction, what I would need…
BG: His production experience came in handy.
JW: …and I gave DC their choice of going with the inked version or the penciled version, and they went with the penciled version. Was it Danny Vozzo who colored it?
JW: It looked like a painting, he really did a great job.
BG: DOOM PATROL’s one of the books DC decided was weird enough that, when they started doing in-house coloring, we could play with that and let the coloring help keep the book atmospheric and different. He played a lot with the skin tones so Dorothy was really pale, and some of the others were different, so it all worked together.
TK: Another piece by John, this is something you’ve done a lot of versions of, right?
JW: Yeah, this goes back to 1963. I saw an episode of “The Outer Limits,” and somewhere Alan Moore was watching the same episode of “The Outer Limits.” It was about these scientists trying to fool people into stopping their fighting by presenting them with a fake villain that was supposedly going to come after them. He turned that idea into WATCHMEN, and I turned it into ROMA. Somewhere along in there I also read a book called “The 27th Day,” and then I saw the Gene Barry movie later on. It was the same sort thing, these aliens…well, I won’t go into it, but it was, “How do you get people to stop their fighting?” I did ROMA starting in earnest around 1980 or 81. It was supposed to go into HEAVY METAL. It didn’t. It wound up being serialized in DARK HORSE PRESENTS. This particular incarnation of it is part of the most recent printing where I reformatted the whole thing, added some new stuff and published it as a graphic novel.
TK: I had worked with Alan Moore even in his early days at DC. I lettered a couple of SWAMP THINGs, and when I was writing OMEGA MEN, Alan was briefly my backup writer. He wrote backup stories in the first few. That was kind of interesting! I just loved his writing. I did work with him again on a series called SUPREME for Image, and then when that fell apart, we put together the America’s Best Comics universe with various titles that I lettered most of, and I did all the design work for the covers, and a lot of the interior design. I was kind of the art director for it, unofficially. That was a lot of fun, it was a great project. Unfortunately, it spoiled me for later design work because, every other design job I’ve had since you had to please a whole bunch of different people, which was not as much fun. All I had to please with this one was myself and Alan. (laughter)
TK (To John): This is your Archie story.
JW: Oh, yeah. I had always wanted to do the writing and artwork on an Archie story and the writing and artwork on a Batman story. I still have to do Batman. I did this in 2003. It was one of the earliest things I did for Archie’s publishers. I didn’t want to ink it, I was hoping they’d give it to Bob Smith to ink, but they gave it to John D’Agostino. He did a fine job overall. He did one odd thing. This story is taking place on a beach on a bright, sunshiny day. In the middle panel on the second page at the top John put solid black in the background, I never could quite figure that one out. Anyway, it was fun. writing and drawing and lettering it. I’ve written other stuff for Archie and they reprint them a lot, which is nice. I finally got my wish to do Archie.
TK: I love those balloon tails, they’re so cool.
TK: In 2002, I started working on FABLES, which turned out to be my longest-running and largest franchise. 150 issue of FABLES, 50 issues of JACK OF FABLES and lots of other miniseries and spinoffs.
BG: You do ‘em all?
TK: I did ‘em all, yes.
TK: Every Fables page has been lettered by me. That was a huge amount of work, and when it was over I was really tired. (laughter)
TK: An interesting thing about FABLES, in the beginning there was no set artist, it was going to be like SANDMAN where they would change artists regularly, have different artists do different arcs. Lan Medina did the initial arc and Mark Buckingham did the second arc, and they were both working at the same time. Bucky (Mark) just loved it so much he said, “I want to be the regular artist.” He muscled his way in there and was the regular artist for most of the rest of the series.
TK: Me and Neil, 2007, just to get a photo in there. This is at Alan Moore’s wedding.
TK: And here’s John and artist Frank Thorne at John’s 60th birthday party.
JW: We combined it with Frank’s 80th birthday.
TK: Ah, I wasn’t sure why you were both in front of the birthday sign, but now I know.
BG: That’s cool!
TK: It’s a nice picture of you both, I think.
JW: Ah, yeah.
TK: I came back to SANDMAN in 2014, and of course Neil didn’t want to do the same thing he’d done before, so we went way overboard on the lettering on this one. Then J.H. Williams III went way overboard on the art, and it turned out pretty good.
TK: And John is doing RAGNARÖK.
JW: Yup. On the boards, on the actual artwork.
TK: Above is a page of Walt’s art, lettered. That’s what he gets from Simonson. Not much there, very sketchy. It’s kind of like a Joe Kubert layout.
JW: Oh, yeah.
TK: And below is the finished page. When you’re the writer, the penciler and the inker you can go pretty loose on the pencils I think.
TK: This is a recent BATMAN story that John lettered. Anything to say about that?
JW: Yeah. They restarted BATMAN for the third time, I guess…
TK: Probably more than three. (laughter)
JW: Tom King is 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.
BG: I really like those vertical oval shapes on a number of the panels to fit the words in without obscuring the art. That is a creative touch.
JW: That is the most fun as far as doing this stuff on the computer. Again, 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. I did three versions of an Archie page recently just to make one that worked.
TK: Unfortunately, choices give you things that take more time sometimes.
TK: And this is a new Batman series that I’m lettering that has not come out yet, but it will be starting in October I believe. Sean Murphy is writing and doing all the art and I’m lettering it. It’s a pretty cool series. It’s called BATMAN: WHITE KNIGHT. There might be a bit of reference to BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT, I don’t know…and that’s it for the slides. (applause)
BG: Before I open this up to questions, we always talk about influences and all and even though both of you got into the field not necessarily wanting to be letterers, this is what you’re best known for. Once you started doing the lettering, did you go back and look at the comics you read growing up and pay more attention to the lettering and figure out which letterers were really impressive to you?
TK: I got into comics history more and more as I got older, especially when I started doing my blog because I wanted material to write about. I started researching the guys I grew up with like Ira Schnapp and Gaspar Saladino, who was a friend and role-model. Yeah, I did start looking a lot more at that stuff and thinking about what they did and how they did it. It’s a great subject to explore.
BG: Todd’s blog talks about the things he’s read, talks about things he’s done, about the birds he watches and the work he’s currently doing, but the history stuff, the deep drill down into these early letterers and the people who gave DC its unique look early on, Gaspar and others… he did a multi-part on the DC offices in its different buildings complete with floor plans where we could reconstruct them. Just amazing stuff if you like any of that history.
How about you, John? Influences.
JW: Moebius was a huge influence. Very early on, when I realized that my lettering was awful, I thought, “Well, I’m gonna steal.” And I looked at John Costanza and Ben Oda and Gaspar especially and tried to do what they were doing. I took a 1946 issue of COMIC CAVALCADE, and I liked the lettering on, I think, the Green Lantern story, so I looked at the A’s and I made a million A’s, and the B’s and made a million B’s and such, and that helped. As I said, I don’t think I hit any sort of truly professional level until I was up at DC and actually cranking out the stuff there…the first BATMAN book that I lettered was one that Mike Grell drew, and I thought, “Oh, Grell’s gonna kill me, I’m destroying his artwork.” I still think I did a lousy job, but they kept giving things to me. I hope I’m learning to this day. You learn by doing.
TK: And one influence I left out was you, John Workman, because when I started at DC, you were one of the guys who I was looking at and admiring their work, and you helped me get started with techniques and tools and all that. You were one of my mentors.
BG: There are a lot of letterers these days, but early on there weren’t that many. It was a little fraternity, you all talked to each other and shared tips and… (to Tom Orzechowski in the audience, shaking his head) …no?
TO: I was in San Francisco, I didn’t talk to anybody.
BG: You talked to Lois [Buhalis]!
TO: She came later, she was an apprentice of mine.
BG: Okay, my impression was, unlike any of the other disciplines, you guys spent more time together.
TK: Except for Tom. (laughter)
BG: Got a few minutes for questions, anything you want to know about these gentlemen, their careers, their lettering, their—Mr. Orzechowski?
TO: For John, I heard you say you’re lettering with a tablet, are you lettering with a Cintique directly on the art, or on a tablet looking at a monitor?
JW: On a tablet. I like that, I can move my hand and look…the drawings I’ve done recently have all been done that way. People look at it and say, “How do you do that?” but, it’s no problem.
TK: Practice. (laughter)
Audience member: In the situation like with SANDMAN where you have a character assigned a certain typeface, what role does the sound of the voice play? Obviously, it’s a medium without sound, but do you have a voice of Lucifer in your head, do you have a voice of Dream?
TK: Yeah, with any character, any situation like that, the lettering is like the soundtrack, so you have to have a visual representation of what you think the voice might sound like. That’s part of how you come up with a style.
JW: One quick thing, I did a run of THOR books several years ago and I stole from you (meaning Todd).
TK: I stole from you on the new DOOM PATROL, by the way.
JW: Oh! (laughs) That sounds fun. The writer and editor wanted these aliens to have a definite look to their speech, and that was all the guidance I got. I thought, “Gee, when Todd did Sandman, it was white on black and I could do something like that.” And somebody mentioned the aliens were kind of “oily,” so I fixed up these balloons so they had a white highlight in them that looked oily, and then I had to be very careful to maintain that look. You were my impetus for that.
Audience member: Has the advent of computer lettering meant less work for people in your profession or just different work?
TK: Yes and no. Depends on the person. Some people did not want to get into computers and were eventually pushed out, some people like me embraced computers and wanted to do both and stayed busy.
JW: I’ve found that writers these days are much more likely to say, “Uh, I think we need to change those final three pages,” and there’s a lot of rewriting. I’m working right now on the RIVERDALE comic book based on the TV series, or kind of loosely based on the TV series. The TV people are writing it and I’m finding that there’s a lot of reworking of the dialogue on that. It kind of bothers me.
TK: I just did an article on my blog called “Lettering Tips for Comics Writers,” and one of the points in that was that you should not consider your script for lettering a first draft that you’re going to change later once you see it, because that’s what a lot of the younger writers and editors are doing now. They consider the lettering draft as the first draft, and you end up doing two, three, four more versions later, and you usually are not paid for that.
BG: And time is money.
JW: DC did institute some sort of thing where, if you do more than a certain number of changes per book I think…?
TK: Right, but I think you’re considered kind of a crybaby if you actually bill them for it. (laughter)
BG: We’re about out of time, last question.
Audience member: With creators that you’ve worked with previously, do they still have a chance to surprise you, or do you know what to expect from them?
TK: I would say Neil Gaiman continues to surprise me. He does things that I don’t expect, so his stuff is always the most fun to work on. Alan Moore, on the other hand, has a certain approach to comics such that I can kind of predict where it’s going, so with him it’s not as fresh for me. Still wonderful to work on, though.
JW: For me, Walt Simonson is always surprising. I don’t know how he does it. It’s the same thing with Tommy Lee Edwards. You’d think he’d reached some point where he’s going to stay there for the rest of his life, but he always goes beyond that point. How these guys do that, I do not know.
BG: And with that, thank you for being here, thank you for your questions and your patience as we worked out the tech stuff, we got through all the slides anyway. Appreciate you being here, thanks. (Applause)
Thanks to Bob and John for helping me put this article together, and for a fun panel! Part 1 and other articles you might enjoy are on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.