Comics are the combination of words and pictures that make you laugh, in the newspaper and online, or the comic book adventures of your favorite superhero, and so much more. Most comics fans and readers focus first on the art, but the words are equally important, and the visual presence of those words is an integral part of the unique medium of comics. While some comics are solo creations of a single individual, and while some artists make the words part of their art (and are letterers themselves), the majority of comics are a team effort, and the look, shape and style of those words in comics reveal the craft and artistry of a letterer. Often in the history of comics letterers went uncredited and unnoticed, except by others inside the comics business who recognized their value and sought to hire them. The best letterers had a vital impact on the final product, even if readers didn’t know their names, or recognize their existence. My blog, and its dozens of articles about letterers and their work, is my own effort to redress that inequity. It’s my love letter to the craft and art I’ve made my career, an overview of the lettering work that informed and inspired me, and the sum of what I’ve been able to learn about those who created it. It’s an ongoing process for me, and for you, my readers, that I hope you enjoy as much as I do. In this three part article I’ll start by describing various lettering elements and then looking at how comics and lettering developed. In parts 2 and 3 I’ll go into more detail about some of the elements and how they evolved.
Here’s the cover of one of the first comics I ever owned. Let’s look at the various lettering elements on it. Almost everything here except the cover art by Curt Swan and Stan Kaye is by Ira Schnapp, DC’s main letterer and designer at the time.
A) Company symbol, in this case the DC Bullet
B) Book logo
C) Comics Code Authority seal of approval
These three items along with the price, date, and issue number (all typeset here), make up the “trade dress,” or elements that repeat on every issue of the series.
D) Word or dialogue balloon
E) Thought balloon
F) Caption or blurb describing the contents or story
There are more possible cover lettering elements, including other types of balloons and blurbs, but this cover has a nice variety.
H) Recurring character description and character logo, in this case by Danny Crespi
I) Creator credits, something that did not start appearing regularly in comics until the early 1960s at Marvel, this and all other lettering is by Mike Royer.
J) Caption, with decorative larger first letter
K) Story title, perhaps sketched in by Kirby
L) Burst balloon
M) Rough balloon
N) Sound effect
Not lettering, so not labeled, but the Indicia is all the publishing and legal information at the bottom.
In the days when comics were entirely created by hand, letterers were expected to add sound effects, signs, titles, and anything of noticeable size created with letters (though some artists preferred to do their own large letters or sound effects). Often they also inked the panel borders. Logos and company symbols were generally designed once and used many times. While in some cases graphic designers were hired for that as a separate job, in comics it was often letterers who got those assignments, as well as jobs like lettering house ads and other kinds of ads, title pages, and so on.
There are comics with no words. Early examples are the woodcut novels of Flemish painter and graphic artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972) and similar books by artists like American Lynd Ward.
While comic books and strips without words are uncommon, many comics have wordless stories or sequences. Notable examples are the mostly wordless comic strip Henry by Carl Thomas Anderson, the GON manga series by Japanese cartoonist Masashi Tanaka, and short pieces by Walt Kelly. There are many more.
Comics sequences using only words are also rare, but a memorable example is the fight scene in a snowstorm by John Byrne, lettering by Michael Higgins, above, which was controversial at the time, with fans labeling it a stunt and a cheat, if I recall correctly. Nothing wrong with the lettering, though!
More recently, sections of this large graphic novel by Craig Thompson include instructional sequences that are all lettering and calligraphy, also by writer/artist Thompson. In this case, the design and layout are as important as the text.
In most cases both images and words work together to complete the comics reading experience. Comics can have everything in a single panel, as in comic strips like Dennis the Menace, but generally they’re a series of images that tell a story using the passage of time: sequential art. Even single-panel strips with recurring characters imply a sequential story over multiple examples. The origins of comics are a subject of much discussion and differing opinions, and many have tackled the subject, but I’ll give it a try next.
People have been telling stories with pictures at least since the Neolithic era cave paintings from earlier than 40,000 years ago found around the world. Pictures became codified into language in ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphics, above, and more subtly in ancient Chinese writing. Ancient Greek pottery told stories in pictures with captions or labels.
Beginning in late Roman times, illuminated manuscripts of holy texts and other written works beautifully combined written words with illustrations.
The Bayeux Tapestry dating to the 11th century, tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in a series of pictures with descriptive text running through its seventy scenes and over 220-foot length. These are all early examples of words and pictures combining to tell stories, and there are many more from many cultures.
Printing had a large effect on storytelling with words and pictures because it allowed each image to be seen by many more people. Woodblock printing developed in China as early as 220 A.D., first as a method to put images on cloth, then on paper by the fifth century. It had come into use in Japan and Europe by around 1400 A.D. It remains in limited use today, and in the 20th Century, entire books of sequential art were created with it, as in the example shown earlier by Frans Masereel, and the one above by Lynd Ward. Cutting away the areas of each block that would be uninked or white was laborious, but many copies could be made. It was not a process to fill newsstands, though, and creating small but readable lettering with this method was also difficult.
Engraving on metal began to appear in Europe in the 1400s in jewelry-making. By the 1700s it was being used in printing. Lines are cut in a sheet of metal, usually copper at first, later steel, with sharp tools called burins. The finished image is covered with a viscous black ink, then wiped off with a rag leaving ink in all the incised areas. Slightly moistened paper is pressed onto the inked plate in a press, transferring the ink to the paper. Several hundred copies of an engraved image can be made this way, more with steel plates. By the end of the 18th century, this form of print-making, easier than cutting woodblocks, was being used by artists to create satirical and political cartoons like the one above by Isaac Cruikshank.
The print includes word balloons written in handsome script with interesting snake-like tails, proof that the idea was not new in comic strips or comic books.
The image is symbolic, and parts are labeled like signs, while a well-lettered caption runs across the bottom.
At upper right is a caption with repeated uses of D—— for Damn, an early example of censored lettering, in this case censored by the artist.
And finally, in small script on the bannister is “Designed by Mary Cruikshank.” She was Isaac’s wife, and clearly a part of his artistic work. I wonder if she did the lettering and added her own credit?
Rodolphe Töpffer was a Swiss school teacher with a talent for drawing and caricature. In the 1820s he began drawing humorous stories in a series of panels with captions to amuse his students and friends. The first one drawn, though not the first published, is shown above. It was printed using an early form of lithography called autography that allowed Töpffer to draw with a pen on special paper rather than inscribing lines as in engraving, giving the art a looser and more cartoon-like feel that looks familiar to us today. His captions were written in cursive French below each image, sometimes telling the story, sometimes giving dialogue. This and other similar books by Töpffer are considered the first European comics. An unauthorized translation of Histoire de Mr. Vieux-Bois, replacing the cursive writing with typeset text, was published in England in 1841 and in the United States in 1842 as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, now considered the first American comic book.
By the 1870s, new rotary presses that printed on rolls of paper made printing large runs much easier, and many new magazines were begun, including some that focused on humor like Punch in England and Vanity Fair and Puck in America. Political cartoons were common in all of them, as well as other humorous drawings.
This page by Charles Samuel Keen features a series of panels, loosely sequential, and word balloons containing cursive script. The balloons and tails are similar to what Cruikshank was doing about 80 years earlier. It sure looks like a comic strip to me.
Comic strips as a form of storytelling developed gradually in America from the late 1880s to the late 1890s. One impetus was the circulation war between two New York City newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Both papers developed hugely popular Sunday color supplements made possible by new four-color rotary presses and photographic reproduction. In addition to many other kinds of features, they ran what we now call comic strips. Artists were able to draw images with pen and ink, and those images were photographically reproduced as black line art. Color was added by a separate photographic process. One of the earliest comic strips was Hogan’s Alley by Richard F. Outcault, who had begun doing political cartoons for the humor magazines a few years earlier. Outcault started working for Pulitzer’s newspaper in 1894, and was lured to Hearst’s paper in 1896 where he did a similar strip. The original Hogan’s Alley was then taken over by George Luks.
Hogan’s Alley and Outcault’s other strips had lots of lettering, most of it on signs. The featured character, a bald-headed barefoot boy in a long nightshirt, who became known as The Yellow Kid, had his dialogue written on his shirt, though Outcault and Luks occasionally also used word balloons for other characters.
Following the tradition of many political cartoons, Outcault’s signs and other lettering are mostly all capital block letters, which are easier to read at small sizes, and that became the standard lettering style for most comic strips. While some strips followed this example of one large panel, others began dividing their page into smaller panels, thereby using sequential storytelling.
One of the first strips to tell stories in a series of panels was about two naughty boys and their parents, The Katzenjammer Kids, begun by Rudolph Dirks in 1897. It was also one of the first to regularly use speech balloons, as seen in the example. The strip is the longest running in comics history, with new strips appearing until 2006, and it’s still appearing in reruns. Once strips like these proved to Hearst and Pulitzer that they sold newspapers, comic strips and their creators had found a permanent place in American popular culture, and that popularity spread to the rest of the country and later the rest of the world. Characters such as The Katzenjammer Kids, The Yellow Kid, Outcault’s Buster Brown, Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan and his Alphonse and Gaston, Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff and others became well known to readers who followed them avidly in the Sunday supplements and later on the daily comics page. Not only were the strips a success, so were the cartoonists, who were often the subject of salary bidding wars between rival publishers like Hearst and Pulitzer.
The comics sections of these and other papers became so important that the page one strip often included elaborate titles drawn just for that day’s Sunday paper by the strip artist.
Dirks must have been paid well to make it worth his while to hand-letter this title for the entire comics section, not to mention drawing a large extra panel of the strip.
Perhaps the most celebrated early comic strip artist today is Winsor McCay, who began creating strips in 1903. This example of his best-known comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland showcases his amazing artistic talent.
As you can see, McCay’s lettering was usually conservative and small with narrow letters and word balloons whose borders hugged the lettering as if to leave as much room as possible for the drawings. Of course the size of the printed page was quite large, about 15 by 21 inches, so perhaps the printed lettering is not as small as it seems here.
McCay’s amazing strip always ended the same way, with Nemo falling out of bed and waking up from his incredible dreams. The newspaper strips of the 20th Century’s first decade were truly incredible, and more wonders were to come, as creators stretched the boundaries of what readers understood, and established a new visual language. We’ll look at more of that in Part 2.
In the early days of comic strips, the art and characters, what we would call today the intellectual property, was assumed to belong to the newspapers that bought them, and the strips were often copyrighted by the newspapers. This led to lawsuits when creators moved from one paper to another, beginning with R.F. Outcault’s strip Hogan’s Alley featuring the Yellow Kid. When Outcault moved from Pulitzer’s New York World to Hearst’s New York Journal American in 1896, a court case decided that the strip name belonged to Pulitzer, who hired another artist to continue it. Outcault was able to draw a very similar strip for Hearst, but had to put it under another name, and he had no right to stop Pulitzer from continuing Hogan’s Alley. A similar thing happened when The Katzenjammer Kids creator Rudolph Dirks moved from Hearst’s paper to Pulitzer’s. There a court case determined that Hearst owned the name, and he continued the strip with other artists, while Dirks retained rights to the characters, and continued his strip with Pulitzer under the name Hans and Fritz. Both strips went on for many years.
Harry Conway “Bud” Fisher was born in Illinois in 1885. He was a sports cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle in the early 1900s. On November 15, 1907 he began a daily comic strip on the sports page titled A. Mutt about a hapless fellow betting on horse races. Fisher’s was the second attempt at a daily strip, the first being A. Piker Clerk by Clare Briggs, which lasted mere months starting in 1903 in The Chicago American. After only a few weeks, Fisher’s strip was noticed by William Randolph Hearst, who made a deal with Fisher to bring it to his paper, The San Francisco Examiner. In the final A. Mutt strip by Fisher in The Chronicle on December 10, 1907, the artist lettered a copyright notice into the bottom right corner, “Copyright 1907 by H. C. Fisher.” The Chronicle let it go by, or perhaps no one noticed it, but this small bit of lettering allowed Bud Fisher to gain control over the copyright of his strip, and stop The Chronicle running a version by another artist. The following year Fisher’s strip gained another main character, Jeff, and Mutt and Jeff went on to become one of the longest-running and most popular comic strips in America. Fisher moved his property several times to different distributors, gaining income and licensing rights, and the characters were in a series of films. By 1916 he was making more than $150,000 a year, an immense sum then, when the average yearly income was about $700. That barely noticeable bit of lettering changed the course of Fisher’s life, and also changed comics history, establishing an early example of creator ownership that others would strive to follow in the decades to come.