LETTERING ALTERNATIVE COMICS Part 1

From HEROES, INC., 1969, © Wally Wood

The rise of underground comix in the 1960s combined with widespread cheaper methods of printing were eye-opening to many creators and would-be publishers, and led to new types of comics, often creator owned or self-published. In this three part article, I’ll look at several trends that began then and developed to a wider range of comics through the second half of the 20th century and beyond, of course focusing on work lettered by the artists. First I’ll examine books and stories by established creators, already busy in mainstream comics, who tried to widen their market and influence through self-publishing, or placing their own copyrighted creations with new small publishers and new kinds of adult-oriented magazines. One of the first to try this was Wally Wood, his HEROES, INC. is comics size and self-published, includes adult material, and unlike most undergrounds, was full color throughout like regular comic books. Wood did the cover logo and lettering, but I think most of the interior lettering was by others. Sadly, this book did not get much distribution and failed to sell well.

Wallace Wood, 1968 © Bhob Stewart

Wallace Allan Wood (June 17, 1927 – November 2, 1981) was born in Minnesota and began reading and drawing comics at an early age. He joined the Army in 1946. After his discharge in 1948, he came to New York looking for comics work, and found it first as a letterer for Fox romance titles, working his way up to backgrounds and inks. In 1950 he began at EC Comics, and quickly became one of their best artists, working in all their comics, but particularly remembered for his science fiction stories and his work for MAD. Wood went on to a prolific career at many comics publishers, including DC and Marvel, as well as doing illustrations for science fiction magazines and comic strips. He hired assistants, and they often lettered his work, as Wood found it more cost effective to focus on his art.

From WITZEND #1, Summer 1966, © Wallace Wood

Wood’s first self-published effort was a slick black and white magazine that included some of his own art, and plenty more by his artist friends or assistants like Al Williamson, Angelo Torres, Ralph Reese, Archie Goodwin, Jack Gaughan, Frank Frazetta, Gray Morrow, Harvey Kurtzman, Reed Crandall, Bill Elder, Art Spiegelman, Steve Ditko, Don Martin, Roy Krenkel, Roger Brand, and others, who relished the chance to do whatever they wanted without censorship.

From WITZEND #2, 1967, © Wallace Wood

Wood’s own work was usually lettered by others, I believe he only designed the feature logo for this story. After the fourth issue in 1968, he turned the magazine over to Bill Pearson, though he continued to contribute to it.

From the CANNON newspaper strip, © 1970 Wood & Richter

From 1970 to 1974, Wood wrote and drew two newspaper strips for American soldiers stationed in Germany, published in Overseas Weekly. CANNON was a spy thriller, while SALLY FORTH combined humor and science fiction. Both strips included nudity and adult material. From 1976 to 1978, Wood self-published collections of these strips, and they sold well in comics shops and by mail. While many of the strips were lettered by his assistants, I think the first CANNON strips were lettered by Wally himself, as seen above. Wood used a wedge-tipped pen, and his balloon lettering is similar to that of Frank Engli on Terry and the Pirates, a comic strip he probably enjoyed reading as a child.

From THE KING OF THE WORLD, 1978, © Wallace Wood

Also in 1978, Wood self-published the first book of a planned fantasy trilogy that he wrote, drew, and lettered, sample above. It was an ambitious project, colored by his ex-wife Tatjana Wood, that he wasn’t able to finish before his death in 1981. Wood’s alternative comics were a small part of his prolific output, but they were influential and are well remembered today.

From MR. A #1, 1973, Comic Art Publishers, © Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko, one of the most popular mainstream comics artists in the 1960s, had work published in Wally Wood’s WITZEND lettered by others, including his creation Mr. A., as seen above. From 1973 to 1975, Ditko’s creator owned work appeared in several comics from small publishers like this one, lettered by Steve himself. The work was often ideological and symbolic rather than typical storytelling, with lots of interesting and creative lettering, sometimes mixed with type.

Steve Ditko in his studio, 1959, image found online

Stephen John Ditko (November 2, 1927 – June 29, 2018) was born and raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. After high school he served in the Army in Germany, and then moved to New York City in 1950, where he attended art school. He started drawing comics in 1953, and in 1954 began a long association with Charlton Comics. In 1955 he started working for Atlas Comics, as Marvel was then known, and became a busy artist on short stories for their mystery/horror titles. In 1962 he helped create Spider-Man for Marvel, which was a hit, and followed it with his own creation, Dr. Strange. For a few years, Ditko’s Marvel work was popular and his fame grew, but he left Marvel over compensation and credit disputes. He returned to Charlton, and also did work for DC Comics. Ditko worked for many publishers, including Marvel, from the 1970s on, but in the 1990s returned to more personal ideological work co-published with Robin Snyder for the last three decades of his life.

From MR. A #1, 1973, Comic Art Publishers, © Steve Ditko

Ditko’s lettering in MR. A is unusual in several ways. First, he uses large display lettering as backgrounds in a way that’s similar to rock concert posters, running the letters and words close together, even overlapped. Second, his captions and balloon lettering are highly stylized with Art Deco influences. It can take a bit of work to read, but is certainly creative.

From MR. A #1, 1973, Comic Art Publishers, © Steve Ditko

Only the cover and this center spread have color, and here the color helps the large display lettering stand out, while the caption on the walkway is in perspective. Whether you find this kind of comics appealing or not, Steve certainly gave readers lots to chew on.

From THE AVENGING WORLD, 1973, Bruce Hershenson, © Steve Ditko

More symbolic work appeared in this comic from another small publisher with equally interesting lettering that’s not only part of the art but part of the storytelling too.

From THE DITKO PUBLIC SERVICE PACKAGE, Feb 1991, Robin Snyder & Steve Ditko, © Steve Ditko

When Steve returned to this kind of work in 1990, he sometimes commented on the comics industry he’d long been a part of, as seen on this delightful cover with lots of fine lettering. The books from Snyder and Ditko were often long, this one is 116 pages, and crowd-funded through Kickstarter. Ditko fans looking for more of his work in the 1990s to 2010s could find plenty of it here.

From THE DITKO PUBLIC SERVICE PACKAGE, Feb 1991, Robin Snyder & Steve Ditko, © Steve Ditko

Again, the work is ideological, but sometimes also biographical, and despite his reluctance to appear in public, Steve expressed his feelings about comics and his career in graphically interesting ways that provided answers to questions fans might have ask in person if they could. The lettering is well done and often distinctive. I particularly like the folded thought balloon at the center of this page.

From the Spirit Section, Dec 8 1940, © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

If you were lucky enough to see them, Will Eisner’s Spirit stories were innovative and excellent. They began appearing in 1940 in comics-style inserts in some Sunday newspapers, and continued into the early 1950s. Eisner was not only talented, he was a smart businessman, and he was wise enough to secure a contract with his publisher that allowed him to retain the copyright to The Spirit and the other stories in the Spirit Sections. Eisner employed letterers for his stories from the start, but he often did creative feature logos on the first Spirit story page, and sometimes the lettering on those too. Since the inserts were not appearing alone on newsstands, it wasn’t important to have a large, consistent logo, and that allowed Will to do a wide range of different versions and designs.

Will Eisner at work, 1941, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

William Erwin Eisner (March 6, 1917 – January 3, 2005) was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents. His father encouraged his interest in art. Will was one of the earliest comic book artists, beginning in 1936, and with a partner, Jerry Iger, became one of the first comics packagers, producing material for several publishers. In 1939, he was given the chance to create a unique comics insert for newspapers by Quality Comics publisher Everett M. “Busy” Arnold. Will sold his half of the lucrative packaging business to Iger, and the Spirit Section was born.

From the Spirit Section, June 22, 1941, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

Since Will was using letterers, it’s not always clear what was done by him on the Spirit splash pages, but I think this amazing page was probably all his own work, as the large lettering is so much a part of the story. Letterers used by Eisner included Zoltan Szenics, Sam Rosen, Martin deMuth, Ben Oda, and Eisner’s favorite letterer, Abe Kanegson from 1947-50. Clearly Will himself was a talented letterer when he wanted to be, but as with Wally Wood, he found it more cost effective to hand that part of the job to others in many cases.

From the Spirit Section, Feb 22, 1948, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

Here’s a fine example of Eisner’s work as a logo designer, making the feature title an architectural masterpiece within the story. It’s so well integrated, readers may not even have seen it at first. The caption is lettered by Abe Kanegson.

From THE SPIRIT #2, March 1967, Harvey, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

The Spirit Sections ended in 1952, and Will went on to a busy career doing instructional comics for the U.S. Army and other kinds of commercial comics, but since he retained ownership of The Spirit, he occasionally put together reprints like this one with new covers. It has one of his impressive architectural logos, though the rest of the lettering is probably by Harvey Comics regular Joe Rosen.

From THE SPIRIT #1, Jan 1973, Kitchen Sink Press, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

In 1972, Eisner teamed with underground comix artist and publisher Denis Kitchen for a new mix of reprints and original stories. On this cover, Will did all the lettering himself as well as the impressive logo. I think his balloon lettering reflects the work of Abe Kanegson. There were only two issues, but they led to a regular reprint series from Warren Publishing with new Eisner covers that introduced another generation to the character.

From A Contract With God, 1978, Baronet Publishing, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

Beginning in 1978, Will was inspired by younger creators to launch a series of very personal and often biographical books completely from his own mind and hand, the first being A Contract With God. Many others would follow until his death in 2005. Eisner’s lettering on them was again his take on what Abe Kanegson had been doing for him on The Spirit about three decades earlier, and it’s imbued with a loose style and a career full of knowledge.

The Dreamer, 1986, Kitchen Sink Press, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

This book was a fictionalized story of Will’s own early days in comics, and as he went on, his lettering got even better. The Eisner books were both a sales and critical success, and they’ve been kept in print. Will also taught comics in New York, and is honored yearly by the awards ceremony named for him, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. The Spirit continues to entertain new readers in both reprints and new stories by others.

From THE ROOK, June 1980, Warren, image © Alex Toth

One other comics creator fits into this group, though only briefly. Alex Toth was already a legend when he decided to create Bravo For Adventure, originally planned as a European graphic album. When that deal fell through, Toth placed in in one of the Warren magazines, but retained the copyright. His art and lettering for the project were excellent.

Alex Toth, 1968, by Vincent Davis

Alexander Toth (June 25, 1928 – May 27, 2006) was born in New York City to immigrant parents. His artistic talent was noticed in grade school, and he attended the School of Industrial Art, later the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan in the 1940s, with many other aspiring artists who would also end up in comics. He began working for DC Comics in 1947, and handled many popular features. Toth was drafted and served in the Army from 1954-56, and then resettled in Los Angeles, where he did comics for Western/Dell that led to a long career in animation starting in 1960. He continued to do comics from time to time for DC and others.

From an unpublished page intended for STRANGE ADVENTURES #13, Oct 1951, image © DC Comics

Toth had a distinctive writing style that was essentially comics lettering with his own personal angular look, as seen above. In his early days at DC, most of the stories he drew were lettered by his school friend Gaspar Saladino, but this early example shows his own lettering style was already in place then. Gaspar may have been influenced by it.

From THE WITCHING HOUR #1, Feb-March 1969, image © DC Comics

When Toth made later appearances at DC, after gaining success in animation, he was sometimes allowed to letter his own work, as seen here. His regular lettering is angular and bouncy, but easy to read. The letter shapes are mostly similar to Saladino’s except for the letter Y. His sound effects are also more angular than most of Gaspar’s, and I find them appealing.

From THE ROOK #3, June 1980, Warren, image © Alex Toth

By the time of Bravo for Adventure, Toth’s style was a bit more angular, and his Y was now a standard comics one. He makes great use of larger, bolder letters for emphasis, and his sound effects are still fine.

From THE ROOK #3, June 1980, Warren, image © Alex Toth

Toth’s storytelling was always excellent, and here he makes good use of sound effects and thought balloons containing only punctuation. His thought balloons are oval with only the bubble tails different from his speech balloons. His balloon lettering has appealing bounce, and some letters lean to the left a bit.

From THE ROOK #4, Aug 1980, Warren, image © Alex Toth

Toth did amazing air battles, and here the sound effect add a lot to the story. Look at the extreme perspective of EEEEE in the first panel, it adds so much depth, as do the stacked gunshot sounds.

I think Alex was disappointed this project didn’t get off the ground as planned, and he never tried another creator-owned one, but the work is loved by many, and has been reprinted several times.

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

3 thoughts on “LETTERING ALTERNATIVE COMICS Part 1

  1. Ron Kasman

    A minority opinion about Steve Ditko– he was one of the most interesting artists in the history of comics but that didn’t mean he was a good letterer. His lettering was poor graphic design. I don’t know why he didn’t hand that part of the art off to someone else– perhaps he liked the control. It might have had something to do with his budgeting.

    I think of lettering comics as being sort of like making pottery. Neither are great art forms but you still need a professional who knows how to do it. Being a great penciller will not make a great letterer if he hasn’t researched the matter, had instructions or at the very least given a great deal of thought to it. It is not an add on. Ditko didn’t give the lettering on his work the respect it deserved.

  2. Nick Caputo

    Hi Todd,

    A fine look at a quartet of master artists and their lettering techniques. Wood and Toth are two favorites in this category, perfectly complimenting their art. Eisner also had a charm and personality as well. While Ditko’s lettering, although crude at times, at its best (like some of the examples you’ve featured) has unique qualities and adds to the personal nature of his stories. I don’t think he avoided a professional letterer due to finances, it was likely more that he had total control of the published work.

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