LETTERING ALTERNATIVE COMICS Part 2

From Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Future Civilization #3, Jan 1933, © Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

In Part 1 of this series I looked at comics professionals using alternative comics as a new market, this time I’ll focus on other ways aspiring comics creators could enter the field and existing creators could expand their options, focusing on those who lettered their own work. Fanzines, or amateur magazines on a particular genre or topic, have their roots in the 19th century. Science fiction fanzines emerged in the early 1930s, allowing fans to form friendships, share ideas, and network. Printing methods were crude, often messy, and print runs were limited by the machines involved, but Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, for instance, published the first incarnation of Superman in the one above. Another early science fiction fanzine, The Time Traveller, was produced by Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, later editors at DC Comics, along with Forrest Ackerman, later editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

From Alter Ego #1, Spring 1961, © Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas

The crude printing methods of fanzines were also used by aspiring comics professionals starting in the early 1960s. Here’s some writing, art, and lettering by Roy Thomas in Alter Ego, for instance. I find the writing and lettering better than the art in this case! Of course Roy became a long-time professional comics writer and editor. Other early comics fanzines like Xero by Dick Lupoff, Pat Lupoff, and Bhob Stewart, and Comic Art by Don and Maggie Thompson were the beginnings of comics history research, at least in America. Don and Maggie were later editors of The Comics Buyer’s Guide, an important source of comics news from 1971 to 2013.

From National Lampoon Volume 1 #1, April 1970, © National Lampoon Inc.

In 1970, National Lampoon, a new monthly national humor magazine hit newsstands, an outgrowth of the Harvard Lampoon. It had some comics content from the beginning, though at first by veteran artists like Joe Orlando and Frank Springer. Soon, younger artists like Neal Adams were doing occasional comics parodies like Son-O’-God Comics, lettered by Gaspar Saladino.

From National Lampoon Volume 1 #22, Jan 1972, © Gahan Wilson

In 1972 the magazine started a small comics section in the back of each issue with a Funny Pages header by Michael Wm. Kaluta, and usually a one-page Nuts comic by cartoonist Gahan Wilson, as above. Wilson’s cartoons had been appearing in magazines like Playboy and The New Yorker since 1957. Nuts was about the grim realities of childhood, sort of the opposite of Peanuts by Charles Schulz. Gahan’s lettering seems based on comics he read as a child, but has its own personality and charm, just like the art.

From National Lampoon Volume 1 #22, Jan 1972, © J. Jones

Also in the first and in many installments of the Funny Pages was Idyll by Jeffrey (Catherine) Jones, who had already begun getting work in comics and as a magazine and paperback artist, but this venue allowed Jones to produce creator owned comics. The lettering is easy to read, and the balloons follow an early comic strip style of using a single line as a tail.

From National Lampoon Volume 1 #23, Feb 1972, © Vaughn Bode

The next issue saw the first appearance of Vaughn Bode’s Cheech Wizard, already discussed in my Underground Comix article, with Vaughn’s charming cartoony lettering. The Funny Pages was a new mainstream market that also published work of underground artists like Bobby London, Trina Robbins, and Shary Flenniken, as well as cartoonists who had not done comics previously.

From STAR•REACH #1, April 1974, image © Howard Chaykin Inc.

In 1973, professional comics writer Mike Friedrich became the publisher of a new line of comics that welcomed both established pros and underground artists, which he called “ground-level comics.” It was one of the first independent publishers that reached beyond the underground comix market, finding readers from mainstream comics as well. The content included some nudity and adult subject matter, but was not as explicit as many undergrounds. Star•Reach was both the company name and the main anthology. Friedrich used pro letterer Tom Orzechowski for his logos and some of the story and cover lettering, as here, but the books also included work lettered by the artists.

From STAR•REACH #1, April 1974, image © Walter Simonson

For example, young comics pro Walt Simonson did fine lettering on this first page of his story in the first issue. The title, based on Celtic letters, and the caption based on Old English are both excellent. Other creators lettering their own work in the series included Steve Skeates, Mike Vosburg, Lee Marrs, John Workman, and Joe Staton.

From THE FURTHER FATTENING ADVENTURES OF PUDGE, GIRL BLIMP #2, April 1975, © Lee Marrs

Lee Marrs had already published one issue of this humorous comic through underground publisher Last Gasp. Mike Friedrich put out a new printing and two more issues. Lee’s charming work falls somewhere between slice-of-life autobiography and situation comedy, and her lettering is a perfect compliment to the art. Marrs did all kinds of comics for Friedrich, and was soon also working for DC Comics and other comics publishers. Today she runs her own digital design and animation company.

From QUACK! #1, July 1976, © Michael T. Gilbert

Another title from Star•Reach featured funny animals and again provided a way into comics for creators who would have long careers. MIchael T. Gilbert’s The Wraith, perhaps inspired by Will Eisner’s The Spirit, was introduced in the first issue. Both his lettering and his balloon shapes had lots of variety and creativity. Other creators who lettered their own work included Ted Richards, Alan Kupperberg, Ken Macklin, and Dave Sim. Star•Reach comics didn’t last into the 1980s, but for a few years provided an important alternative to mainstream comics, and many other independent publishers soon followed, finding fans through comics shops, part of the new direct market.

From COMIX BOOK #1, Dec 1974, cover by Pete Poplaski, © Marvel and Kitchen Sink

In 1974, Marvel’s Stan Lee and underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen teamed up on a new anthology, COMIX BOOK, hoping to bring underground artists to a wider audience, but generally using less raunchy art and stories than many undergrounds.

From COMIX BOOK #1, Dec 1974, © Denis Kitchen

It was an interesting experiment, and featured the work of both underground creators and some established pros whose work seemed to fit, like Basil Wolverton. In this intro, Kitchen explains the premise with his own art and lettering.

From COMIX BOOK #1, Dec 1974, © Howard Cruse

Howard Cruse’s Barefootz is both cute and disarming, the kind of work that mainstream comics readers might have liked. His lettering is small, with lots of air around it in the balloons, but easy to read.

From COMIX BOOK #1, Dec 1974, © Skip Williamson

Skip Williamson was another underground artist with a cartoony style, and large rounded lettering that fills up this page. COMIX BOOK was a worthy attempt, but did not sell well, and Marvel dropped it after three issues. Kitchen put out two more on his own.

From MÉTAL HURLANT, Jan 1975, © Les Humanoïdes Associés, cover by Moebius

My research is mainly focused on American comics, with a few brief looks into Great Britain, I don’t have the language skills or information to explore the wider world of international comics, but in 1975, French magazine MÉTAL HURLANT began making waves, the work of a group of young European creators that included Moebius (Jean Giraud), Phillippe Druillet, and Jacques Tardi, and a book that also featured new work by American Richard Corben.

From Blueberry: La tribu fantóme, (The Ghost Tribe), 1982, Hachette, © Jean Giraud

Of course the lettering (or type) was in French, with Jean Giraud’s lettering being particularly personal, lively, creative, and impressive, as seen in this later example. In 1988, Moebius had this to say about his lettering:

If an artist’s lettering style is truly not legible, then he should learn. I learned my own lettering from Jije, who himself was very influenced by the American masters, like Caniff. I do the best I can. My letter is alive, it dances on the paper. It reflects my personality.

I couldn’t agree more! I hope European comics historians will write about the lettering for comics in their own languages.

From HEAVY METAL #1, April 1977, © Heavy Metal, art by Jean-Michel Nicollet

In 1977, National Lampoon started HEAVY METAL, a new magazine-sized comics anthology that reprinted most of the content of Métal Hurlant, as well as comics by other European artists and some Americans. While there was nudity and sexual content, it was generally milder than many underground comix, and the slick package was a success and sold well, bringing more thoughtful and adult material to a wider range of American readers. The European stories were translated and lettered with type, or hand-lettered by Americans including Harry Blumfield, John Workman, Adam Kubert and myself. The American work was sometimes lettered by the artists, as with Vaughn Bode.

From ROCKETS BLAST COMICOLLECTOR (RBCC) #120, July 1975, cover © Stephen Fabian

As the seventies progressed, some fanzines became larger and slicker magazines, perhaps using Wally Wood’s WITZEND as a model. They were offset printed on good quality white paper, and featured the work of top illustrators and comics artists on the covers. RBCC was one that did an excellent job of presenting some new comics material, comics history, comics creator interviews, comics reviews, and comics news and ads. It was another way for would-be creators to get a foot in the door.

From ROCKETS BLAST COMIC COLLECTOR (RBCC) #120, July 1975, © Don Rosa

Perhaps my favorite new comics work in the magazine was the serialized Pertwillaby Papers by Don Rosa. The series ran for years in Don’s college newspaper, the example above is reprinted from there. Pertwillaby, looking a bit like Don himself, had remarkably dangerous and exciting adventures around the world, some inspired by Don’s favorite comics creator Carl Barks and his Uncle Scrooge stories. The art was complex, crowded with detail, and perhaps not the most accomplished, but readers like myself loved it. The writing included a good dose of humor, and elements of science fiction at times. Don’s lettering was small and busy, but still well worth reading. Don also did a comics, TV, and movie history column for RBCC called Information Center from 1974 to 1979, often illustrated with his art.

From THE COMIC READER #196, Nov 1981, cover © Mike Mignola

THE COMIC READER was another comics news fanzine that ran from 1961 to 1984 under several titles and editors, beginning with Jerry Bails, and later Paul Levitz. It provided fans with news of upcoming titles and issues at a time when that information was hard to come by, and the covers were a place for aspiring comics artists, and later also pro artists, to show off their work.

From THE COMIC READER #168, May 1979, © Jim Engel

Toward the end of its run, TCR also printed comics by aspiring pros like Jim Engel, above, whose lettering has appealing cartoony bounce, but also an impressive variety of styles and sizes. Other comics seen here were by Chuck Fiala and Fred Hembeck.

From THE COMIC READER #196, Nov 1981, © Don Rosa

Don Rosa continued his Lance Pertwillaby adventures in this magazine under the title Captain Kentucky. I think both the art and lettering show improvement in this example. Rosa went on to international fame as a writer/artist of stories about Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge beginning a few years later, though with lettering by others.

From ARCADE #4, Winter 1975, Print Mint, cover © Robert Crumb

Another slick magazine attempting to present underground comix to a wider audience, ARCADE, ran seven issues in 1975-76. Published by underground mainstay Print Mint, and founded by cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith, their ambitious plan was to show how underground comix connected to artistic and literary culture. It featured both old and new work by established artists like Robert Crumb as well as newer creators. Content was raw at times, and the project did not find the audience it was looking for.

From ARCADE #1, Spring 1975, © Kim Deitch
From ARCADE #1, Spring 1975, © Art Spiegelman

Kim Deitch and Art Spiegelman were two artists in the magazine whose self-lettered work goes beyond the usual comix topics, with well-made art and well-crafted titles and lettering.

From RAW #1, July 1980, © Art Spiegelman

In 1980, Art Spiegelman and his wife François Mouly began RAW, a large, slick magazine with excellent production values that showcased a wide variety of comics and other work by underground, European, and American creators. It sold surprisingly well, and was a critical hit, showing the tide had turned for this kind of thoughtful, adult material in America.

From RAW #4, March 1982, © Charles Burns

New artists like Charles Burns gained attention and fame in RAW before going on to their own solo publications. Burns’ careful, slick art and lettering hearken back to comics of the past, while presenting disturbing images of a new era.

From RAW #4, March 1982, © Art Spiegelman

But by far the most famous work to come from the magazine was MAUS by Art Spiegelman, serialized from 1980 to 1991 in RAW, and later a multiple award-winning book. It was the story of Spiegelman’s father in World War Two, a heart-wrenching account of the Holocaust casting Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Spiegelman’s lettering is as cartoony as his art, but that makes the story more approachable, and the work is well-crafted and effective. MAUS can be seen as the mature culmination of both comics and comix, using sequential art to tell important stories, and it was the inspiration for many new works that followed.

In Part 3 of this series I’ll look at creators as self-publishers, and the rise of creator-owned properties in comics.

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

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