More 1930s-1940s Letterers Part 1

From SUB-MARINER COMICS #25, Spring 1948, lettering by Mario Acquaviva, image © Marvel

I’ve already written articles about the best-known and most prolific comics letterers of this period, but there were others who I feel deserve to be profiled, at least briefly. Since letterers were rarely credited, there are many pages of comics from these years whose letterers are unknown, but thanks to the research of comics historian Alex Jay and others, we do have some information on the following people. Most of what I know about them is from Alex’s blog, he’s graciously allowed me to summarize his research and use some of the images he gathered. This two-part article would not be possible without his help, and if you want to know more, click the linked letterer names to go to the articles about them there, where you’ll also find plenty of other comics and design history information. Thanks, Alex!

Mario Acquaviva, Aug 1942, from a Timely Comics group photo, courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Mario Ciro Acquaviva was born on May 2, 1917 in Manhattan, New York City to Italian emigrant parents. They and Mario’s siblings also lived in Queens and The Bronx when he was growing up. In the 1940 census, he was an artist with the Works Progress Administration. Any art training he had is unknown. He enlisted in the Army in Jan 1941, but seems to have served near home until 1944. In Oct 1942, he married Lucy Zaccarde. Around that time, he began working for Timely/Marvel comics. He’s credited in KRAZY KOMICS #5, Jan 1943, as “special effects,” which probably meant lettering. He undoubtedly lettered many comics pages, and perhaps also designed logos, though we don’t know which ones. In 1944-45 he served in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge, and after his discharge returned to Timely.

Secrets Behind the Comics, 1947, front cover, this and other images from the book © Stan Lee

In 1947, Mario worked with Timely’s editor-in-chief Stan Lee on this 100-page pamphlet self-published by Lee. Most of it is hand-lettered by Acquaviva, so it gives us plenty of Mario’s lettering to look at, and a few pages are by Mario explaining how he letters comics, the first such how-to I know of. Those are below.

As you can see, Mario’s lettering is very even and regular, almost like type, and similar to but not the same as Leroy lettering. It’s probably done with Speedball style B pen points, which give a consistent line, so no thick and thin variations. Artie Simek, who was also at Timely then, had a very similar lettering style, perhaps he modeled his after Mario’s.

Here’s Mario himself as drawn by artist Ken Bald, who I believe did all the figures and other explanatory art for the book. The examples of a Sub-Mariner page shown are hard to see here, they may have been clearer in the actual book.

Acquaviva shows pencil guidelines for lettering being drawn with a T-square and pencil, so if he used an Ames lettering guide, it’s not shown or mentioned. He used a Speedball FB-6 pen for the lettering. At the time, art was generally drawn twice the size it would be printed, so an unmodified FB-6 (the same as a B-6 but with a Flicker double ink reservoir) would probably have worked fine, with perhaps a B-5 for bold emphasis.

The shown finished page is the same one in printed form at the top of this article, so that’s at least one story we know was lettered by Mario! It’s not clear if Acquaviva survived the 1949 Timely staff purge, I suspect he was laid off then along with all the letterers other than Artie Simek, but he might have been kept on for a few more years. By 1953, Acquaviva was working as an inker for Dell on Roy Rogers comics, which he did for several years, and by 1959 he was working as an inker and letterer for Archie Comics, which continued into the 1970s. In 1981, he and his wife retired to Florida, where he passed March 14, 2007. He was survived by two daughters and their families.

From KEEN DETECTIVE FUNNIES #8, July 1938, © Centaur

An early comics artist who lettered his own work, Ray Burley, credited himself as R. A. Burley on this and other stories he wrote drew and lettered. His style is similar to that seen in comic strips of the time, pretty regular and even, but with just enough variation in the letters to make it interesting. The title is nicely done in an Art Deco style. The balloon shapes are roughly rectangular, but uneven, and the balloon tails are partly open and partly a single line.

R.A. Burley as a young man, photo from pulpartists.com

Raymond Albert “Ray” Burley was born on February 23, 1890, in Ainsworth, Nebraska. By the 1900 census, he and his parents and two brothers were living in Blaine, Washington state. By 1910, the family was in Everett, Washington, and Ray, age 20, was employed by the Westbrook Sign Company as a sign painter. He was in New York City by 1917, where his draft card says he was an unemployed artist. He served in the Army from 1917-1919. After his release, he studied at the Art Students League in New York, and found work as an illustrator for pulp magazines and children’s books. He also did comics stories for Centaur through the early 1940s as well as for DC Comics.

From ANIMAL COMICS #14, April 1945, Western/Dell, © Oskar LeBeck, lettering by Ray Burley

From the mid 1940s into the 1950s, Ray Burley worked as a letterer for Dell, where he often lettered stories by Walt Kelly. Kelly was a fine letterer himself, but perhaps thought it made more sense to use a regular Dell letterer to save time. In The Best of Pogo: Collected from The Okefenokee Star (1982), Kelly’s assistant George Ward recalled Burley:

… All those beautiful comic pages were lettered by an old-timer named Ray Burley who lived in the West Village about six blocks from my apartment. Burley was an interesting character. He always had a pipe in his mouth. He did a beautiful lettering job and Walt was very pleased with his work. However, we did laugh that every time we got the lettered pages back from Burley, we had to clean the pipe ashes off. 

Burley’s lettering was usually all italic, as seen above, and the character logo and story title may have been penciled by Kelly, while the balloon shapes were added by Kelly or perhaps George Ward as part of the inking.

From POGO POSSUM #11, Jan-March 1953, Western/Dell

Burley continued to letter Pogo stories for the character’s own title at Dell, and by that time Walt Kelly was also doing Pogo as a comic strip, so busier than ever. This all-black page must have saved him a little work, and it highlights the Burley lettering well. In the 1950s, Burley’s reputation as a painter grew, and he was commissioned to paint some large murals. More on his career is HERE. In the 1960s, Ray moved to San Diego, CA, where he began a new career as a fine art painter of seascapes that were exhibited in galleries. I haven’t found any examples. Burley passed away on October 4, 1971, in San Diego, CA, age 81.

From NEW ROMANCES #13, Sept 1952, © Standard/Pines

In the late 1940s, two women who lettered comics roomed together perhaps to save money. Nadine French King was one, and I’ve found no confirmed lettering examples from her, but she was interviewed by John Benson for his book Confessions, Romances, Secrets, and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics (Fantagraphics, 2007). Nadine had this to say about working for comics publisher Archer St. John, and about her roommate:

I started working for him in 1948, probably sometime that spring. At that time I shared an apartment with Duffy Mohler and her little girl, Liane. Duffy had been married to “Red” Mohler who, I believe, was a cartoonist, but they were already divorced when I met Duffy. She had studied art at Syracuse and had gotten a job in the art department at Parents Magazine when she came to New York. That’s when she started lettering. She started for a few cartoonists, and eventually she was lettering for just about everybody in comics.

Mohler had been lettering for a few years when they met, and she taught King to letter when they roomed together. An example of Mohler’s lettering is above, I find it very professional and polished, probably lettered with a wedge-tipped pen. The title and scroll captions are well done, as are the balloon shapes.

Mohler’s work at the time wasn’t credited, but Alex Jay found this scan of the original art of the same page where you can just make out the name Duffy Mohler written at upper left under the story number R672-1.

Helen S. Chu, 1941

Helen “Duffy” Sui Fong Chu Mohler was born Sui Fong Chu on June 11, 1917, in China. She was given the English name Helen by her parents when they settled in America. Her father, George Chu, had been born in San Francisco, but returned to China to marry, where Helen was born. George came back to America in 1917 to establish himself in a laundry business, and his wife and daughter joined him in 1921 in Philadelphia. By 1922, George had moved his laundry business to Gloversville, NY, where Helen and her siblings grew up. Helen’s art talent was already evident in school, she had a display of her watercolors in a town storefront in 1932. After high school, she was a student at the College of Fine Arts at Syracuse University, majoring in painting, where she received honors. She graduated in 1941. Moving to New York City, she attended the Art Students League and the Grand Central School of Art. She landed staff jobs at Parents magazine and Fawcett, where she began lettering comics. In 1944 she married cartoonist William “Red” Mohler, and acquired the nickname Duffy. Their daughter Liane was born in 1945, and they divorced in 1946. An article about her on the Women in Comics website says:

She lived with Nadine French, who also lettered and worked as support staff for St. John. Being a freelance artist gave Mohler the flexibility she needed as a single mother, and she found work with a wide variety of publishers. Throughout her commercial career, she continued her work as a fine artist.

From WEIRD WAR TALES #103, Sept 1981, image © DC Comics

In addition to Fawcett, St. John, and Pines/Standard, Mohler worked for Gold Key, Archie, and DC Comics, and probably others, into at least the early 1980s, as seen above, the only story I’ve found with a printed credit for her. I haven’t found any examples of her fine art. Mohler passed away on June 19, 2008. The Social Security Death Index said her last residence was New York, New York.

From CAT-MAN COMICS #30, Dec 1945, © Continental

L. B. Cole was an artist, editor, and publisher of comics starting in the 1940s. At first he ran a shop that packaged work for several publishers. In 1942 he married Ellen Kovach, and he taught her to letter. She became a prolific letterer on his comics. Above is a close look at her work. She used a wedge-tipped pen to give a variety of thick and thin lines, and her letters leaned to the left. Her S has a short lower curve that makes it seem ready to fall to the left, but generally her work is professional and appealing.

Ellen Cole © E. B. Boatner, 1970s

Ellen Kovach Cole was born Helen Dolores Kovach to Austrian emigrant parents on December 20, 1918, in Maxwell, Pennsylvania. When she met L. B. Cole in Manhattan, she was a waitress. After their marriage in 1942, she began helping her husband with his comics work. In an interview published in Comic Book Marketplace, #30 (December 1995), L. B. Cole remembered:

We were hard pressed to get letterers, particularly, and editors, because we were doing a book every calendar day. Basically, we were turning out 365 books a year. She was and is a very brilliant lady. At that time she edited every piece of copy that came out of the company. Well, she started to practice what was called thick and thin lettering. It was not but about a month that she became so adept at it that she was producing about 20–30 pages a day, maybe more. Literally the best lettering that I have seen, but of course I am a bit prejudiced. However everybody said that her lettering was about as good as it ever gets. She oversaw the lettering that we had to buy from other outside help.

From CAT-MAN COMICS #29, Aug 1945, © Continental

Here’s another example of Ellen’s lettering, and I think we can be sure it’s by her because she appears as a character in the story. This example has slanted lettering for the captions, two of which have an interesting notched lower border.

The Coles got out of comics in 1964, starting a new business making instructional films. Beginning in the 1970s, they were popular guests at comics conventions, sparking new interest in L. B.’s work. He died in 1995, and Ellen passed on March 7, 2007, in New York. Ellen’s lettering was never credited, but it had a major impact on her husband’s successful comics career.

From THE SPIRIT SECTION, April 10 1943, image © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

Will Eisner’s THE SPIRIT had several letterers over its decade-plus run. From late 1942 to about 1946 it was Martin DeMuth, sample above. His lettering was regular and even, but fairly sedate. I like the Art Deco style of the larger emphasized words on this page. DeMuth’s comics career wasn’t a long one, and it was preceded by a creative and unusual occupation he and his wife Flora came up with that provided them with a steady income and lots of interesting travel.

Flora and Martin DeMuth, 1930

Martin Smith DeMuth was born in Cardington, Ohio on April 16, 1895. By the 1910 census, he and his family were living in Marion, Oregon. In his first year of college in Berkeley, CA in 1916, his drawings were being published in the college magazine. Martin was drafted in 1917 and served in the Army until 1919. By 1920 he was living in Manhattan, where he won a poster contest. He was then a student at Columbia University and attending the Art Students League. He also worked for the Army Recruiting Service drawing posters and doing cartoons and articles for their newsletter, a job which included travel to places like Hawaii. Martin met illustrator Flora Nash in New York, and they were married in 1926, but couldn’t afford a honeymoon. They came up with a clever scheme to get one, proposing to a cruise line a service they could provide to passengers: a daily Memogram postcard of activities, sights and events illustrated by either Flora or Martin, and printed by them through some secret process in their stateroom. The postcards could be then mailed home by passengers to entertain their families. Some examples are HERE. The DeMuths made this their occupation for six months of each year from 1926 to about 1939, and Martin was soon also doing lectures and slide shows to entertain passengers on ships and potential ones on land.

From THE SPIRIT SECTION, Jan 21 1945, image © Will Eisner Studio, Inc.

By 1940, many cruise ships were out of commission due to World War Two. I don’t know how Martin transitioned from those tour adventures to lettering The Spirit for Eisner, but in the example above you can see he was quite good at serif mixed-case lettering, probably something he’d been doing for his Memograms. I also like the swear symbols in the first balloon.

From THE SPIRIT SECTION, Sept 23 1945, image © Will Eisner Studios Inc.

Martin was also good at script lettering, and it probably amused him to be lettering his own name in this example. Martin was still occasionally lettering The Spirit as late as 1950, and he continued his travel lectures in the 1940s. I don’t know what he did for a living after that. Martin passed on March 6, 1961, I believe in South Kent, CT. Flora later moved to Hawaii, where she passed in 1976.

From BLACKHAWK #33, Oct 1950, Quality, image © DC Comics

One area of comics with even fewer established credits than story lettering is logo design, especially during the early years. Some are known and well-documented by me on my blog, but many logo designers are unidentified. Al Grenet was an editor and logo designer for Quality Comics. He claimed to have designed all their logos, but I doubt that based on other information about him. I do think he designed this handsome logo for BLACKHAWK, replacing the existing block letter one with this more interesting curved and telescoped version that features a large B and Art Deco style. This logo was used for many years by Quality, and then DC Comics.

Al Grenet with unknown artist, 1955, photo © Al Grenet

Alfred “Al” Grenet was born Alfred Grünberg on February 28, 1915, in Budapest, Hungary. Grenet and his family left Europe and arrived in New York in 1920. Al filed to become a citizen in 1936, and became one in 1939. By that time he was already working in comics. In an interview with Jim Amash published in Alter Ego #34 (March 2004, TwoMorrows), Grenet said:

I started out at seventeen as an errand boy in a drugstore. I got promoted to cashier and was in charge of the errand boys. I saw an ad in the newspaper — Walt Disney was looking for artists. I went up and took the test, but they didn’t like what I did, so I did other jobs until 1938, when I saw another ad in the paper for an artist. It was Eisner & Iger. They gave me a week’s trial and I stayed there for five years, until I went into the Army.

Grenet began as an apprentice who erased pages and corrected mistakes during his first year at Eisner & Iger. After that he did lettering and backgrounds. He enlisted in the Army in March 1943 and served until Dec 1945. When he got back to New York, there was no place for him with Iger, so he found a job as a production artist at Quality Comics where he eventually became the editor.

In the Amash interview, Al claimed to have designed all the Quality logos from the early 1940s on, but that doesn’t agree with other known facts. Eisner and Iger, among other comics packagers, may have been supplying Quality with stories and covers, but it seems unlikely Grenet would have been assigned cover logo designs there so early in his career. Also, some of the Quality titles began while Al was in the Army. I do think he had become their main logo designer by the mid to late 1940s when he was on staff, and I’ll show a few more he probably did below.

From HEART THROBS #1, Aug 1949, Quality Comics, image © DC Comics

When Quality got out of the comics business in 1956, some of their titles were bought by DC Comics, including this one. Grenet’s logo is effective but predictable for a romance comic, and DC kept it without the hearts for about two years before having Ira Schnapp do a new one.

From LADY LUCK #86, Dec 1949, © Quality Comics

This was a short-lived title, but I like the four-leaf clovers behind the block letters.

From BUCCANEERS #19, Jan 1950, © Quality Comics

A nicely-crafted telescoped logo in an ornate 19th-century style.

From G.I. COMBAT #1, Oct 1952, Quality Comics, image © DC Comics

In my opinion, this is Grenet’s best logo for Quality. The ragged stroke ends, the bullet holes, the staggered letters, and the deep drop shadow all capture the danger and drama of wartime stories. The bullet holes soon disappeared, but the logo remained the same otherwise through the Quality run and a very long DC Comics run to 1987. You can find more probable Grenet logos in Alex Jay’s article.

Grenet’s work at Quality allowed him to marry and raise a family on Long Island. When Quality stopped publishing comics, Grenet edited other magazines for them, also designing their logos, until the company folded in 1957. Then he became a freelancer and a salesman. In 1978 Grenet moved to Florida. He passed away on August 1, 2006, in West Palm Beach.

From COO-COO COMICS #22, Feb 1946, © Pines

The Sangor Shop was a comics packager started by Ben Sangor in 1939 that used artists in New York and Los Angeles, the latter drawn from the animated cartoon arena. Head of the Los Angeles studio was Jim Davis (not the creator of Garfield) who did a lot of the art himself and hired others from animation to do more. Once sent to New York, Sangor packaged the mostly funny animal stories for his nephew Ned Pines, and also for his own comics company, the American Comics Group, as well as National/DC Comics and others. Once they got busy, Davis decided they needed a letterer, and he hired Melvin “Tubby” Millar for that. An example of his stylish and appealing lettering is above, according to the Grand Comics Database, who I’m relying on to identify the work. The letters have great curves and curls, and wide letters made with a slightly wedge-tipped pen.

Melvin Millar, image found online

Melvin Eugene Miller was born May 6, 1900 in Portis, Kansas. His father was a railroad worker. He served in the Navy from 1918 to 1922. There are several differing reports of Melvin’s art training, two say he studied at Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, two say he was at the Kansas City Art Institute, but after that he worked for a time at a film advertising company in Kansas City, and then headed to Hollywood to find work in animated cartoons, changing the spelling of his last name to Millar. He was successful, working for Warner Bros. from 1931 to 1944 under Leon Schlesinger, where he became friends with Fritz Freleng and often worked on Porky Pig cartoons. Later he also worked briefly for Disney, and became a teacher at the Hollywood Art School. He became the main letterer for Jim Davis and his comics studio around 1945, and continued into the 1950s, while also doing cartooning, children’s books, and single-panel strips for syndication for many years.

From GIGGLE COMICS #47, Nov 1947, © American Comics Group

Having been an animator himself, Tubby, as he had been known since childhood, was adept at adding the same kind of roundness and curves to the lettering as the artists did in the art. Here his title and open letters are beautifully done.

From REAL SCREEN COMICS #26, Oct 1949, image © DC Comics

The lettering is smaller on this story, probably because there’s more of it to fit in, but it has many of the same curved letter shapes. If Millar also did the panel and balloon borders, their appealing brushwork and variety are a great match for the art, but they may be by the artist, Jack Bradbury.

From FOUR COLOR #468, May 1953, Western/Dell, image © Disney

Millar is also credited on a number of Dell Disney stories as letterer, though the style is more subdued and less curvy. If this is his lettering, perhaps he decided to do it more like other Dell comics of the time, or possibly this is by someone else.

Millar was married twice, his first wife, Myrtle, died in 1940. His step daughter continued to live with him until at least 1950. By 1967, he was remarried to Helen. and in an interview with the Valley News, said:

A cartoonist is an artist, but an artist is not necessarily a cartoonist. Artists reflect themselves, whereas cartoonists reflect the situation in a gentle satire. It’s the humor or satire of the idea that makes the cartoonist.

Millar passed on Dec 30, 1980 in Burbank, CA, having lived his dream. He was active as a cartoonist into the 1970s.

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

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