Lettering TOM STRONG

All images © America’s Best Comics (DC Comics, Inc.).

In a recent review of the first two Tom Strong collected editions, Augie De Blieck wrote:

“Tom Strong was raised in a chamber with multiple gravities by a father who used him as a science experiment. That’s harsh, but it made him super strong. He’s bulkier. He walks lighter in normal gravity. The thing that puts the characterization over the top, though, is the lettering. Todd Klein consistently made sure all of Tom Strong’s word balloons were slightly bigger than everyone else’s. The balloons and tails, themselves, had a thicker line. The letters were just a bit larger. It became an additional way to sell Tom’s largeness that 99% of other letterers never would have thought of.”

Very flattering, but some on Augie’s message board questioned whether the larger lettering was my idea or Alan Moore’s, as directed in his script. Augie emailed me to ask, and I had to say I wasn’t sure. Alan tends to leave most lettering decisions to me when we work together, but occasionally he does give some direction, and my copy of the script for issue 1 is long gone. (Alan was faxing them to me, and at the time I had a thermal-paper fax, whose images faded away in a few months.)

What I do have, though is a style sheet that I made up before starting to letter the first issue, which I faxed to Alan for his approval. He thought it was all fine. I know most of the ideas were mine, perhaps they all were. If the script to TOM STRONG #1 is out there somewhere, that would answer it, otherwise we’ll just have to keep it an open question. Here’s the style sheet:

This is not something I usually have time to do. On books like SANDMAN, the many styles were added gradually, as the story called for them. And I should add that I’m not a fan of using a variety of lettering styles for no good reason. They should be there only if they add something to the story. In this case, I read the script for the first issue, and I saw all these iconic pulp characters that seemed to call for individual styles.

Timmy Turbo came up first, at the beginning of the issue. Alan suggested a more cartoony style for him, and artist Chris Sprouse drew Timmy somewhat in the manner of Tin-Tin, by Belgian artist Hergé, a pulpish character with a cartoony art style. I thought his speech should stand out from the crowd, even from his own family, in a mix of upper/lower case and upper-case emphasized words, with a thin balloon that had wavy sides. Why? I really can’t say, it just seemed like the right look for him. Perhaps it emphasized his youth and his enthusiasm.

Tom’s voice, I thought, like the rest of him, would be a bit louder and stronger than everyone else, so his lettering and balloon border should be a little larger and bolder. (Did Alan suggest it? Still not sure.)

The robotic steam-powered butler, Pneuman, needed something with a mechanical feel, but not too mechanical. His speech is constantly interrupted by clicks and scratches as he chooses his words from old phonograph recordings made by Tom’s father. (And how this could possibly work is one of the largest mysteries in the entire series!) His balloon borders are squared with two kinds of electrical symbols, small triangular zig-zags, and morse-code dot/dashes, just to be completely over the top, as Pneuman is in his own way.

Oddly, for Tom’s ape companion, King Solomon, I decided his balloon lettering and border would look good in the exact style of the Tin-Tin series as translated into English. Why this one for him, and not Timmy? Again, I don’t know, it just seemed to match his very British P.G. Wodehouse speech pattern. Some things defy explanation.

For the Ozu native language, spoken by the people of Attabar Teru, the island where Tom grew up, I wanted something elegant, and found it using a wedge-tipped dip pen and adding swashes (extended strokes) wherever they’d fit. I later made a font in this style called TKOrnate that turned up in FABLES as the indicator of Arabian Nights dialogue.

And finally, the location caps used a style something like the lettering style of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant in a ragged scroll.

Those were the styles I used on the first issue, others were added as needed, and only where needed.

So, while the question Augie asked remains open, I think I can safely say most of the lettering decisions on TOM STRONG, and all the America’s Best Comics were, for better or worse, mine.

7 thoughts on “Lettering TOM STRONG

  1. Kyle Latino

    That’s the interview that sent me here.

    I have to say, the lettering was one of those things I didn’t notice at first, but in a good way. Halfway through the first story arch, I realized that I was hearing these voices, Tom’s especially, in a certain way. Then I saw that Tom spoke bigger than everyone else in that issue, and on further inspection, every issue prior! What a treat to discover that!

    But now that I think about it, Pnueman’s is the balliest to me. I mean, empty spaces in the outline for someone who isn’t whispering? Courage.

  2. ]@/\/\!3

    That’s some very cool insight, even if you don’t feel
    that you’ve answered the question fully.

    You seem to go above and beyond to make the
    characters feel and read as uniquely as possible.

    I think that’s one of the reasons you continually
    win the Eisner award, Todd.

    It’s definitely one reason that I’m your fan.

    Keep up the great work.
    I’ll be reading.

    -Jamie

  3. Kris Black

    I love to see your “behind the scenes” work. I’ve never thought about creating a lettering guide for characters on the books I’ve done. I don’t think that it would have been truly necessary but it is a great idea for future projects. Solomon’s balloon and lettering is my favorite and what I think the most rewarding as a supportive element into his character.

  4. Pingback: Kris Black's Comic Book Lettering

  5. Chris Bissette

    That’s a great insight into the way you work. I’d never really thought about how the way a character’s speech is lettered can affect the way they come across. I guess I don’t pay anough attention – with the exception of Delirium’s word balloons in SANDMAN I have to admit I’ve never really looked too closely at the lettering. I guess most casual readers don’t. I’m definitely going to go back and take a closer look at your work now.

    I’ve also just received ‘Comic Book Dreams’, and it’s as gorgeous as I hoped it would be. Thanks again.

  6. Pingback: Todd Klein on Tom Strong | Script Diddy

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