KEN BRUZENAK – Letterer

From AMERICAN FLAGG! #1, Oct 1983, image © Howard Chaykin Inc., this and all original art images courtesy of Heritage Auctions

When the first issue of Howard Chaykin’s AMERICAN FLAGG! was published in 1983, readers were startled and impressed by the amount and variety of lettering from newcomer Ken Bruzenak. Lettering professionals like myself were even more impressed! Ken was a newcomer to comics lettering, but not a newcomer to the world of comics.

Ken Bruzenak, 2020, © Kristie Bruzenak

Kenneth Steven Bruzenak was born August 30, 1952 and grew up in Finleyville, Pennsylvania. Some of his favorite comics creators were Jim Steranko, Joe Kubert, Al Williamson, Wally Wood and Jack Kirby. He loved pulp heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage, which were appearing in paperback series in the 1960s. That brought him to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Robert E. Howard’s Conan. In 1971, he went to a Detroit Triple Fanfair and met Steranko for the first time, briefly. In an excellent interview with Jon B. Cooke published in Comic Book Artist #8 (May 2000, TwoMorrows), Ken remembered:

A couple of months later, there was a Seuling con in New York. I went there, and Steranko was running a seminar on how to write and draw comic books. He ran it three evenings, from 8 PM until 2 in the morning. I still have the folder he prepared. It cost $200. There were eight of us that took this class in a hotel room. We started talking. We talked on the phone a few more times, afterward. He’d just bought a three-story row home in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he was starting up SUPERGRAPHICS. He said he was putting the final touches on The History of Comics Volume Two at that point, and had this big building that needed renovation. I kind of promoted myself as being able to do painting, fixing up the house, work like that.

From THE STERANKO HISTORY OF COMICS VOLUME 2, 1972, © Jim Steranko

Steranko hired Bruzenak first as a handyman, but he was soon doing print production work too, including paste-ups on The Steranko History of Comics Volume 2 (1972, Supergraphics). From 1974 on he was the main Supergraphics production man, and also did writing and editing on Steranko’s news and features magazines Comixscene/Mediascene and Prevue. Ken worked as Steranko’s assistant until 1984, he describes it as an Old World apprenticeship. But Ken was hoping Steranko would teach him how to draw comics, and there never seemed to be time for that.

From OUTLAND, Heavy Metal Volume 5 #4, July 1981, image © Jim Steranko

In 1980, Ken lettered Steranko’s OUTLAND, serialized in Heavy Metal in 1981, and published in Europe as a graphic album, but not in America. Ken also inked signs and backgrounds on OUTLAND and Steranko’s CHANDLER, which was lettered with type. Ken told me he patterned this lettering after Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon.

From WARP #4, June 1983, © 1First Comics

After OUTLAND, while continuing to work for Steranko, Ken began looking for other work as a letterer. Artist Dan Adkins had become a friend, and took him to DC and Marvel. No work was offered, but Marvel editor Mary Jo Duffy gave Bruzenak a good tip. She knew Howard Chaykin was looking for a letterer on a new book he was planning for First Comics. Ken went to see Chaykin at his New York studio, Upstart Associates. In the 2000 interview, Bruzenak said:

Howard and I had been circling each other for years, like a couple of alley cats. Howard’s story is he was in the Neal Adams “Jets” gang, and I was in the Steranko “Sharks” gang. We knew each other, but were not friendly. Howard looked at my samples, and he knew, working for Steranko, I had solid training. Chaykin took a chance that our differences would mesh, rather than conflict, but he wasn’t ready to start on AMERICAN FLAGG! just yet. He made a phone call to First Comics and recommended me. I started working on the Frank Brunner book WARP at First Comics.

Ken’s initial issue of WARP WAS #4. He also lettered issues of E-MAN at First, and later JON SABLE, FREELANCE. At the time, Ken said he was a fan of John Costanza’s lettering, and in the sample above, his letters are more rounded like John’s. Ken said:

When I started lettering comics, it was like, “Wow! I’m getting paid so much more money, and it’s so easy! I’m not having to sit up five days straight to meet a press date!” And I did! You know, [for Steranko] when press time was upon us, we were doing 24, 36, 48-hour days regularly. Stay up 48 hours, sleep six,stay up another 36…that was “normal.”

From AMERICAN FLAGG! #1, Oct 1983, First Comics, this and all FLAGG! images © Howard Chaykin Inc.

When FLAGG! arrived a few months later, readers and professionals alike were impressed not only by the complex, layered storytelling, but by Bruzenak’s wide variety of lettering for balloons and signs. Ken said in the interview:

WARP got what it needed, but FLAGG! needed more. When Howard started asking for signage — to me, a sign is a formal typeface, a sign is not just hand-lettering that says “Exit” or something, and Howard asked for a ton of signs. Honestly, Howard overwrote the first six issues, and he was surprised at how much he wrote. I was obliterating so much artwork, it was crazy. The first three issues I probably knocked out half of what Howard drew. [laughs] He’s not stupid. He saw that I was giving him exactly what he wanted. When he asked for a sign in the background, for it to be legible, I had to take a certain amount of space, and if there was a balloon with that, and then there was the figure work on top of that…Howard saw that what he was asking for led to this, and subsequently, he didn’t need to put as much drawing in the panel, so he started doing less and less penciling on the page before I got it. We were working on that goofy DuoTone board which had to be lettered with felt tip pens. Ink would take on it, but Howard had a particular kind of felt tip pen he was using, and I got a batch of them, and was sanding them on emery board to get a point I could letter with! Technically, I was playing with tools I’d never handled before, and then I started doing all this signage. I remember around #4 or 5, he said, “We’re going to have TV screens all over the place, and I need signs.” Then he got sick. So, his part of the job came to a stop for a week, and in that week, I did 40 or 50 signs, TV screen-type things, “Inter-Species Romance,” and “Plexus Rangers.” I sent that to him as a package when he was sick, and he called me up and said, “Holy sh*t!” [laughter] “Okay!” That’s when we really started going crazy doing signage and typefaces. Setting type, having robot type, mixing formal type with balloon type for special effects, using typography as an artistic element on the page. Howard was encouraging all the way, “Go for it, try it.” When I decided to use the formal type — this was before personal computers — I had to have the local newspaper set galley type, which is really a science you know? You count characters, and spaces, and you send it out, and it comes back three days later, and it fits or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t fit, you’re there with a razor blade slicing it up, trying to make it fit. All of a sudden, I’m handing Howard $600 bills for type! He kept saying, “Go for it!”

From AMERICAN FLAGG! #4, Jan 1984, First Comics

Ken’s hand lettering is equally impressive on the book, with this Old English style a good example. The DuoTone art board had preprinted but invisible tone patterns that were made visible with brushed on liquid chemicals, a darker and lighter tone activated by different chemicals.

From AMERICAN FLAGG! #5, May 1984, First Comics

Bruzenak’s balloon shapes were equally creative, using an outline with dots and dashes to represent broadcast voices, and in and out zig-zags for song lyrics on this page. Both styles were soon being imitated by other letterers, including myself. Notice the marker is dark gray rather than black, but it printed fine.

From AMERICAN FLAGG! #5, May 1984, First Comics

In this example, some of the lettering shapes shift to Cyrillic versions to show the characters are being spied on by Russians, a clever idea and fine result.

From AMERICAN FLAGG! #10, July 1984, First Comics

In issue #10, Bruzenak’s sound effects are not only important and uniquely styled, but as written by Chaykin, also funny (Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow was the refrain of several early 1960s doo-wop songs). Again, Ken’s marker lettering looks a bit faded, it was probably darker when he did it.

From DOC STEARN…MR. MONSTER #1, Jan 1985, Eclipse Comics, images © Michael T. Gilbert

Another long working partnership with writer/artist Michael T. Gilbert began in 1984. In the Cooke interview, Ken said:

Michael called me. He’d seen FLAGG! and he gave me a call, because he wanted wild and wacky stuff. So we did some! It was fun. Funny material was something Chaykin didn’t do a lot of, though when Howard had the cat in AMERICAN FLAGG!, I loved those pages! Michael is like wall-to-wall humor. Even when he’s blowing a werewolf’s brains out with a .45, it’s funny! I knew that for a horror comic, it was going to be all this drippy, gothic, Old English stuff. I didn’t reference comics. I have tons of type books.

From DOC STEARN…MR. MONSTER #1 Jan 1985, Eclipse Comics, images © Michael T. Gilbert

I think Gilbert’s looser style allowed Ken to explore a wide range of more organic display lettering and balloon styles. His calligraphic captions on this page are excellent, and his work adds to the mix of over-the-top humor and horror. Though sporadic, Ken and Michael continued to produce Mr. Monster comics for many years.

From THE INCREDIBLE HULK #302, Dec 1984, image © Marvel
From STAR WARS #91, Jan 1985, image © Marvel

Once FLAGG! was out, the comics world took notice, and Ken was suddenly in demand. He accepted work from Marvel on a variety of titles like THE INCREDIBLE HULK, STAR WARS, and later SILVER SURFER. In 2000, Ken said:

I was the first celebrity letterer. I didn’t realize how big I was until I talked to Tom Orzechowski, when I went out to California. Orzechowski told me he was getting instructions from Chris Claremont to “do things like Bruzenak does.” I feel so bad about that, because Tom does stuff that I envy. The celebrity lasted about three years. Whenever somebody started up a new book, they wanted me. It was nice! Now I’m hustling to get any work at all.

From THE SHADOW #3, July 1986, DC Comics, image © Condé Nast
From BLACKHAWK#2, April 1988, image © DC Comics

Ken continued to work with Howard Chaykin often, as on these two projects for DC, which are full of creative sound effects and fine balloon lettering. More would follow. He also worked on other titles for DC and Marvel as well as for Dark Horse, Malibu, Tekno, and Image.

From AZRAEL: AGENT OF THE BAT #58, Nov 1999, image © DC Comics

As mainstream comics turned to digital lettering more and more, Ken had fewer clients for his hand lettering, which is what he much prefers to do. Of digital lettering, Ken said:

It’s more about technology than art. It’s becoming erratic in quality, without real personality or individuality. It’s just typing, but that is the way things are going to be.

Ken Bruzenak logo designs for DC, 1980s, images © DC Comics

When I asked Ken about his favorite logo designs, he said:

Mostly the ones not picked. Chaykin’s logos work the best.

The Shadow logo above is one not picked, a different version was on the book. Bruzenak’s logo for DC’s THE QUESTION cleverly incorporates a question mark inside the Q which also suggests a magnifying glass, and his WONDER WOMAN logo incorporates the revised chest emblem designed by Milton Glaser’s studio without allowing it to overpower the character name. Ken did logos for DC and other publishers in the 1980s and later.

Perhaps Ken’s best work has been with Howard Chaykin. When asked about his favorites, Ken told me:

AMERICAN FLAGG!, BLACKHAWK, and THE SHADOW were peaks for creativity. Those were special in terms of ideas and concepts. I think SATELLITE SAM was a good job, and DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA. Everybody remembers me for FLAGG!, but few want me to apply such a heavy-handed approach, or leave room for it on the page. I keep finding ways to hold my interest, interacting with the art as much as possible. I love the comics form.

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

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