LETTERING ALTERNATIVE COMICS Part 3

From CEREBUS THE AARDVARK #1, Dec 1977, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Dave Sim

In the final part of this series I’ll look at creator-owned work, both self-published and at smaller publishers, with a focus on stories lettered by the creators. At the top of that list is Dave Sim’s CEREBUS, not only one of the first self-published series, also one of the longest and most successful, and definitely the best lettered.

Dave Sim, 2015, by Sandeep Atwal

Dave Sim was born May 17, 1956 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He was reading comics by the age of eight, and began creating his own soon after. He began placing work in fanzines and comics like QUACK! from Star*Reach in the 1970s, and in 1977 he and his partner, Deni Loubert, began self-publishing CEREBUS bi-monthly through their own imprint, Aardvark-Vanaheim.

From CEREBUS #1, Dec 1977, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Dave Sim

At first the comic was a parody of Marvel’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN with humorous elements along the lines of HOWARD THE DUCK, but the stories gradually grew longer and more intricate. Sim’s balloon lettering was always excellent, with regular, even letters and creative balloon shapes.

From CEREBUS #29, Aug 1981, Aardvark Vanaheim, Dave Sim, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

In issue #26, Sim began a 25-issue storyline, “High Society,” in which swords and sorcery took a back seat to politics. That trend would continue for another 250 issues. Though “LATER” on this page is type, the rest shows how Sim’s lettering became ever more varied and creative, with the (perhaps) telepathic balloon shape of many bubbles the most interesting. The large sound effects are outlined with a small pen and then filled in, leaving texture created by small white spaces. I also like the way Dave indicates Cerebus’ tone of voice by the shapes of his balloons in the third panel, and unlike many letterers, he always leaves plenty of air in his balloons around the lettering, making them easier to read.

From CEREBUS #53, Aug 1983, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Dave Sim, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Parody and satire of mainstream comics, as well as musicians and politicians, continued to play a part in the stories, as in this Sim version of Marvel’s Wolverine. His over-the-top melodramatic “comic book caption” speech gets ever larger and more heavily bordered balloons, and the character’s letters are given texture by multiple small pen lines.

From CEREBUS #106, Jan 1988, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Dave Sim & Gerhard

Beginning with issue #65, Sim had help from the artist Gerhard, who did the backgrounds, but Dave continued to draw and ink the main characters and do all the lettering. At times that lettering was incredibly detailed and busy, as here, but all in service to the story. Dave’s balloon lettering also gained new elements like reverse white-on-black letters. The thought balloon in the last panel needs only a bubble tail to be understood as that, and I like the frameless captions at the top.

From CEREBUS #214, Jan 1997, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Dave Sim

As the CEREBUS epic entered its final third on the way to an incredible 300 issues, the stories became increasingly internal as Cerebus wrestled with personal demons and addictions. Sim’s ability to express all that clearly through a wide variety of lettering techniques is remarkable. With the second-by-second interplay here between the character and his inebriated alter-ego, the lettering makes it interesting and easy to read, even when some letters are touching and running together. The small detail of extra emphasis by a single curved line through open letters, as with NEVER and SECONDS here, is something I believe Dave created.

From CEREBUS #216, March 1997, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Dave Sim and Gerhard

This page is one of many with tour-de-force lettering. There’s so much going on here, but it all serves the story. I love the folds in the large sound effects and the fragmented balloons. The shaky letters in the balloons evoke mood perfectly. Has a hangover ever been done better in comics? I could fill this article with more excellent Dave Sim lettering, but I need to move on. Aardvark-Vanaheim also published other creator-owned series like JOURNEY by William Messner-Loebs, FLAMING CARROT by Bob Burden, normalman by Jim Valentino, NEIL THE HORSE by Arn Saba (Katherine Collins), MS. TREE by Max Collins and Terry Beatty, and PUMA BLUES by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli. Some of those moved to Renegade Press, the company Loubert started after she and Sim split.

From FANTASY QUARTERLY #1, Spring 1978, IPS, © Richard & Wendy Pini

ELFQUEST was another long-running self-published series from Wendy and Richard Pini, even though the first issue was put out by a small underground comix publisher, as seen above. With issue #2, the book came from their own WaRP Graphics imprint. Wendy did the lettering on the first 20-issue series, but hired others to letter for her later. Her lettering is easy to read with a few stylish touches in the credits and title. Like CEREBUS, the story is pure fantasy, this time about elves with complex relationships in a dangerous world, one that readers quickly came to love. The series continued for many years from several publishers, but always under the control and copyright of Richard and Wendy. They also published series by others, including Marty Greim’s THUNDERBUNNY and the first issues of Colleen Doran’s A DISTANT SOIL.

From E-MAN #1, Oct 1973, Charlton, Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton, © Joe Staton

Before I go further, I have to acknowledge E-MAN, a wonderfully funny and appealing science fiction superhero series from Charlton created by Nick Cuti and Joe Staton. Charlton was an old-school publisher working on the same model as companies like DC and Marvel, and retaining all rights to their non-licensed properties, but this book was so original and unique, it stood out from the crowd there. Joe Staton did his own logo, cover lettering, and fine balloon lettering, slightly cartoony and leaning left a bit, a perfect companion to his art. Nick’s writing was charming and chock full of great characters and ideas. When Charlton went under in the 1980s, Cuti and Staton bought the rights to the series, and were able to put out more of them at other publishers like First Comics and Comico. Later Nick sold his half to Joe, who retains the copyright. It wasn’t self-published or originally creator-owned, but it got there eventually. Backups by others also became creator-owned, like Rog-2000 by John Byrne.

From The Buyer’s Guide For Comic Fandom #177, April 8 1977, © Krause Publidations, Alan Hanley cover

In pre-internet days, finding back issues of comics was often difficult. One way to shop was through ads in this tabloid-size newspaper started by Alan Light in 1971. Most of the content was ads, but TBG also ran a small amount of editorial content, like a news column by Murray Bishoff, a comics history one by Don and Maggie Thompson, and occasional short new comics by self-published artists like Alan Hanley’s “Goodguy.”

From The Buyer’s Guide for Comics Fandom #225, March 10 1978, © Fred Hembeck

The most successful of these artists was Fred Hembeck, who began submitting pages like this one in 1977, a combination of fanboy love for comics, humor, and gentle criticism. Hembeck narrated through his own caricature, and fans loved his work.

From THE BEST OF DATELINE: @#$%”, 1979, Eclipse, © Fred Hembeck

Here’s a section of another Hembeck page so you can see the lettering. It’s loose and cartoony, just like the art, a good match. Hembeck’s pages were collected in several trade paperbacks from Eclipse, Fantaco, and other publishers, and he went on to do regular features and comics for DC and Marvel, generally spoofing the company’s characters. Fred almost always used trademarked and copyrighted characters in his work under “fair use” for humor, so the strips are not exactly creator-owned in the same way as others shown in this article, but he was still able to profit from the printed collections of his pages. TBG became Comics Buyer’s Guide in 1983.

From LOVE AND ROCKETS #1, 1981, © Los Bros. Hernandez

The 1980s brought more independent creators to comics, including Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez, though only the first issue of their LOVE AND ROCKETS was self-published. The property was quickly picked up by Fantagraphics and became one of the company’s most popular and successful creator-owned series. Jaime’s stories take place in Los Angeles, while Gilbert’s are often set in Central America. Both have large casts and complex storylines that drew in readers.

From LOVE AND ROCKETS #3, Summer 1983, Fantagraphics, © Jaime Hernandez

Each of the brothers did their own stories, though Gilbert and Jaime were the main artists. This one is by Jaime. The lettering is all italic and closer to printed writing than comics lettering, but it reads fine. I like the wavy balloon in the last panel. The series ran for decades, and included spinoffs featuring the work of just Jaime or Gilbert.

From STARSLAYER #2, April 1982, Pacific Comics, © Mike Grell

New publishers were springing up to take advantage of the direct market’s growing number of comics retailers. Pacific was a distributer which became a publisher in 1981, attracting popular artists from the big companies like Mike Grell by offering to let them keep ownership of their creations.

From STARSLAYER #2, April 1982, Pacific Comics, © Dave Stevens

The backup story in this issue was the first chapter of Dave Stevens’ THE ROCKETEER, which went on to its own series, and eventually became a film. Dave’s art and lettering on this first page is already accomplished, and would improve, though Dave elected to have the entire Rocketeer story relettered by Carrie Spiegle when it was collected later. The handsome feature logo and Art Deco “Aerodrome” sign show that Stevens knew how to design letters well. Pacific Comics did not last long, but creators were able to take their properties to other publishers under similar deals. The success of these smaller publishers forced Marvel and DC to try their own lines of creator-owned comics, Epic from Marvel and Vertigo from DC, which had their own popular hits.

From NEIL THE HORSE #1, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Feb 1983, © Katherine Collins

NEIL THE HORSE from Aardvark-Vanaheim by Arn Saba (now Katharine Collins) was full of Art Deco style and early animation cartoon characters. The lettering is quiet but effective, I particularly like the question mark in the last balloon. The series was full of characters that sang and danced.

From JOURNEY #1, March 1983, Aardvark-Vanaheim, © William Messner-Loebs

JOURNEY: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire by William Messner-Loebs is another popular creator-owned property that began at Aardvark-Vanaheim, telling of frontier life in 19th century Michigan. The lettering is somewhat uneven, but easy to read, and improved over time. Bill went on to a long career as a writer for DC and other publishers.

From ECLIPSE MONTHLY #1, Aug 1983, Eclipse, © Marshall Rogers

Eclipse was another independent publisher that welcomed creator-owned properties like Cap’n Quick and a Foozle by Marshall Rogers. Marshall had made his reputation drawing Batman for DC a few years earlier. This project is quirky and unique, and features his own lettering and logo. The lettering is small, but shows skill and variety.

From ECLIPSE MONTHLY #1, Aug 1983, Eclipse, © Doug Wildey

Also in that issue was the first installment of RIO by Doug Wildey, a veteran of comics and animation who was able to do a creator-owned project for the first time. Wildey’s skill and experience on western comics is clear, and his lettering is professional and appealing.

From MARS #1, Jan 1984, First Comics, © Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel

First Comics was another small publisher that ran creator-owned projects. One of the best was MARS by Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel, an innovative approach to science fiction and fantasy storytelling. Marc Hempel’s logo is a brilliant design that defies genre and tradition to create something new and unique. Nothing like it before or since. His lettering on the first issue also shows creativity in the balloon shapes, and is very well done. He was joined on the lettering by Kathy Mayer as the series went forward. MARS ran twelve issues, and is one of several successful projects and series from Mark and Marc, who formed Insight Studios in 1978, and who also publish the work of other creators like Frank Cho.

From TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #1, May 1984, © Mirage Studios

TMNT, self-published by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, became a surprise hit in 1984 after they advertised it in The Comics Buyer’s Guide. Drawing on ninja stories from Marvel’s DAREDEVIL and other mainstream comics, the four turtles soon had a growing fan base. The lettering by Kevin Eastman is uneven and more like printed handwriting than lettering, but as with many other small press and undergrounds, it suits the art well, and the rough brush-bordered captions and balloons add interest. This book spawned many imitators, but none lasted long. The property became a lucrative franchise spreading into toys, video games, and animated cartoons, and was sold to Viacom/Paramount in 2009.

From ALBEDO #2, Nov 1984, Thoughts & Images, © Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai was born in Japan in 1953 and was in Los Angeles by 1982, where he began working in comics as a letterer for GROO THE WANDERER by Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier, something he’s continued to do ever since. In 1984 he created Usagi Yojimbo, a rabbit ninja warrior wandering from adventure to adventure in ancient Japan, who first appeared in the comic above.

From a 1985 Fantagraphics house ad introducing Usagi Yojimbo © Stan Sakai

Readers loved Usagi, and he appeared in many comics from several publishers including Fantagraphics, Mirage, and IDW, always with Sakai’s charming art and professional lettering. I particularly like the open exclamation point with a drop shadow in the last panel.

From THE ENCHANTED APPLES OF OZ, April 1986, First Comics, © Eric Shanower

Eric Shanower was born in 1963 in Florida. He graduated from The Kubert School in 1984, and worked as a letterer and artist for DC and other publishers. In 1986 he began a series of beautiful graphic novels based on the Oz books of L. Frank Baum, a page of the first one is above. The lettering is as excellent as the art. It’s a bit hard to see here, but one distinctive feature of Eric’s lettering is the long central arm of each E.

From AGE OF BRONZE #1, Nov 1998, Image Comics, © Eric Shanower

In 1998, Shanower began AGE OF BRONZE, a long series telling the story of the Trojan War in great detail. Again, the art and lettering are terrific. As of 2019, 34 issues have been published by Image. Eric and his partner, David Maxine, have their own publishing company, Hungry Tiger Press, which focuses on Oz-related books and material.

From EIGHTBALL #1, Aug 1989, Fantagraphics, © Daniel Clowes

Many new creator-owned projects in a more realistic vein emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, and some rose to popular success, like EIGHTBALL by Daniel Clowes. Fantagraphics published many of them. This series has a film-noir vibe, but includes elements of humor and satire as well as sex and horror. The art and lettering are carefully crafted and professional. I like the variety seen on this cover and story page. One serialized story in the book, “Ghost World,” became a film with a screenplay by Clowes.

From HATE #1, Spring 1990, Fantagraphics, © Peter Bagge

Peter Bagge is another popular creator of the time, his series HATE uses cartoony dark humor to illustrate stories of Buddy Bradley and his young friends struggling to cope with middle-class life in New Jersey. Bagge first got attention in Robert Crumb’s WEIRDO, which he took over as editor for a while. He began working for Fantagraphics in 1985 with NEAT STUFF. I can’t find an interior page of this book, but the cover is full of Peter’s stylish and amusing lettering.

From BONE #1, July 1991, Cartoon Books, © Jeff Smith

One of the best loved and most popular self-published series in the 1990s was BONE by Jeff Smith. His animation-inspired art and humor drew readers into a complex fantasy world that appealed to fans of all ages. Smith started out lettering his pages with pen and ink, but soon found it quicker to use digital fonts developed from his own lettering. I think this page has some of each, the larger words are hand-drawn, the smaller ones are a font. Somehow they work well together, and Smith’s balloon shapes are varied and appealing. Special styles for some characters appeared later in the series, which ran for many years.

From ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #1, Winter 1993, Fantagraphics, © Chris Ware

In 1993, new work by Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware, ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY, began appearing from Fantagraphics in a wide variety of formats and sizes. Ware’s art and lettering was meticulous and full of detail. It draws from old comics as well as book illustration, and the lettering is full of variety and Art Deco style. My only issue is the small size of some of it. You can see in the detail from this page of original art how consistent and creative the work is. Ware’s books have sold well and represent the acceptance of comics as literature and art in the wider world, even while his subject matter tends to be somewhat bleak and depressing.

From BLANKETS, July 2003, Top Shelf, © Craig Thompson

The world of alternative comics continues to grow and evolve, with many new projects now foregoing monthly issues in favor of complete graphic novels, with new publishers like Top Shelf emerging to publish stellar examples such as BLANKETS by Craig Thompson. Craig is another creator whose lettering I admire for its variety, texture, and energy. Traditional book publishers have also entered the comics market, publishing original creator-owned works along the lines of this one. Not all are successful, but comics on a wide variety of topics are now a fixture in book stores and libraries as well as comics shops, and are sometimes award winners thanks to new generations of fine creators. There are more I wish I had room to feature here, but I encourage you to explore the world of alternative comics yourself and find your own favorites.

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

One thought on “LETTERING ALTERNATIVE COMICS Part 3

  1. Kit

    “The series ran for decades, and included spinoffs featuring the work of just Jaime or Gilbert.”

    Is still running! The latest issue came out last week (volume IV, #14), and a 40th-anniversary box set of The First Fifty issues came out last year. (Seven hardcovers of facsimile issues, with an eighth of additional material.)

    Jaime phased out the italics by issue 6 or 7, and further refined his lettering in the next few years; as his art developed a greater variety and control of line width, and eschewed skinny hatching, his lettering likewise developed richer weights and more expressive curves.

    Notable re that Bone page is that once he’d developed the font, Smith went back and re-lettered the early issues for future collections – it became very uncommon for him to mix such expressive hand-lettering with “normal voice” computer lettering once he’d made the switch, in my recollection.

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