Image © DC Comics, Inc.
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 comics almost exclusively 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, they only had one size template and pen, and for larger words had to use hand-lettering. All the lettering is slanted to the right, the style used for all the WONDER WOMAN stories I looked at. Some words are emphasized by underlining, something you almost never see in comics. The Wrotens had a studio downstairs from WW artist H. G. Peter, and they became friends, leading to Peter using them to letter his comics pages. Through Peter they met his publisher, M.C. Gaines, and that led to lots more lettering work.
By the time of their work in EC Comics, the Wrotens had 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. Some EC artists, like Wally Wood, hated the mechanical look of the Leroy lettering, and Wood was a fine letterer himself, so when he had time he lettered his own stories, or tried to get them lettered by pros like Ben Oda.
After the demise of the EC horror line, comics work for the Wrotens seems to have declined, but I recently discovered more of what I believe is their Leroy lettering for CLASSIC COMICS published by Gilberton. That brings their lettering up to at least 1961. Not much is known to me about the Wrotens, other than what I’ve read in THIS excellent blog post about them. You can read more there.