I’m often asked about the style of lettering used in the Golden Age Wonder Woman stories, the same style used in many of the EC horror comics of the 1950s. It has a mechanical look, but is actually pen and ink, made with the Leroy lettering system of scriber and templates manufactured by the Keuffel and Esser company, and created for many comics by Jim Wroten and his wife Margaret. The Leroy system was intended for technical artists doing things like machine parts diagrams and architectural drawings. I got one years ago, before I started working in comics. Here’s what mine looks like:
The scriber holds a technical inking pen on one arm. A second arm has a pin that follows letters on the template. A third arm has a pin that slides along the bottom groove to help keep the letters aligned horizontally. Templates come in different sizes, and you can make vertical letters or slanted letters, with the angle changed by adjusting the pin arm of the scriber. Thickness of the letters can be changed by using different size pen points. When lettering you would place your comics art on a drawing board, taped in place and made level using a t-square. Then you would place the Leroy template against the top edge of the t-square. While holding the t-square with one hand or arm to keep it from sliding vertically, you would form one letter at a time with the scriber, pen and template, sliding the template horizontally to get the correct letter in the correct spot, and of course shifting the scriber’s pin to the right letter on the template.
It all sounds more complicated than it works in practice, but in fact it’s a monstrously difficult and time-consuming way to letter a comic. I tried lettering a 6-page SUPREME story with it once, and it took me about three hours per page, more than five times my usual speed for hand-lettering. As with all things, I’m sure you’d get faster with practice, but I vowed to never do it again, and made a computer font from my Leroy letters for any future need. But the Wrotens must have become quite facile with it, as they lettered thousands of comics pages that way.
It’s interesting to see that on the early Wonder Woman effort above, there was only one size template used, and bold italic words were lettered by hand. All the lettering is slanted to the right, the style used for the early WONDER WOMAN stories I looked at. Some words are emphasized by underlining, something you almost never see in comics. Recent research suggests that artist H.G. Peter was doing the Leroy lettering at first, then he passed that task to his assistants. The lettering takes a leap forward in quality in 1945 when Jim and Margaret Wroten were hired to do the Leroy work. The Wrotens moved into a studio downstairs from WW artist H. G. Peter on the same floor as the writer, William Moulton Marston. Through Marston they met publisher, M.C. Gaines, and that led to lots more lettering work.
By the time of their work in EC Comics, the Wrotens were using a variety of Leroy templates to use for different size lettering. They used vertical letters for regular text and a larger size slanted to the right with a thicker pen point for emphasized words. I believe the Wrotens did only the actual lettering, leaving the balloon and caption borders for the artists of the stories. This accounts for the wide variety of balloon shapes and styles at EC in particular. One EC artist, Harvey Kurtzman, hated the mechanical look of the Leroy lettering, so when possible he had the stories he drew or wrote lettered by Ben Oda.
After the demise of the EC horror line, comics work for the Wrotens seems to have declined. Gilberton also used Leroy lettering on many of their comics, but I don’t believe it was by the Wrotens. Not much is known about the Wrotens, other than what I’ve read in THIS excellent blog post about them. You can read more there.
I had always been curious about this lettering style. I blamed the lack of uniformity in the letters to shoddy printing or bad repro work. Never even thought it was hand made. It was extensively used in México and Spain’s adaptations of comics, too.
The 1940 census has James Wroten as a salesman, which is what he was at the time. Working for Keuffel & Esser, and selling and demonstrating drafting tools – including equipment for Leroy Lettering.
Per in an interview with Margaret Wroten by Bhob Stewart, they went into comics full time in 1945 to 1955, with clients being DC, EC, Fox, Hillman, and Post-Hall Syndicate. After 1955, she says “He went into doing charts, badge cards, formulas for chemical houses and floor plans for trade shows all over the country. “
Thanks for the insight, Steven. Where can I read that interview?
Cheers for that fascinating look at a style that always looked curious in US comic books. British comics I grew up with in the Seventies used a similar style, especially the DC Thomson titles. Maybe it was Wroten, or a similar system/British knock-off).
I’ve found the article about the Wrotens by Bhob Stewart, here’s a link:
Lots of great information on how they worked and who they worked with!
i made a faux-Leroy font myself a few years back, for a Vertigo OGN called “A Death in the Family”. it was a lot of fun to use, although the critics hated the lettering on that book.
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OK! Thanks for all the great information. Two days ago, I acquired a Leroy set in brand new condition. I frankly didn’t know what I would do with it. I was just about ready to put it out for sale when I ran across this site on the web. No more question about it…I will use it to letter my own comics, which I intend to introduce sometime in early summer. LOOK FOR IT! Thanks again and thanks for the great blog Todd.
Is there a different font style for a Leroy set? I’m trying to make a certifucate.
If you mean different letter styles, I haven’t seen any.
Hello. I found this while searching for some of the Leroy templates. While going through some old boxes, I found my old drafting stuff, including my Leroy scribe. I was a draftsman in the early 80’s. Most of the drafting was still done manually but early CAD systems were starting to become widely available.
Anyway, FYI, you don’t need the body of the pen when using the scribe. Since the scribe clamps onto the pen at the bottom, all you need is the pen base and ink reservoir. It makes it much easier without that long pen barrel hovering overhead.
One other thing that came to mind, I don’t know if you have discovered this but the pin that follows the letters has two sizes of points. That brass cap unscrews and you can flip it over for smaller or larger templates.
Thank you for the interesting read, I never realized they did comics with these.