Continuing with more little-known letterers from the early years of comics, and this article would not be possible without the research and information provided by Alex Jay on his blog. Thanks, Alex! Click the linked letterer names to find out more about them there. This page lettered by Gary Keller is full of interesting styles and sound effects. There are shaky letters and balloon shapes from a character suffering from the cold weather in the first two panels, a variety of open letters and sound effects in the second row, an arrow caption in the third, and a thought balloon in the last panel with both bubble tail and shape, and a dotted line.
Gerrett “Gary” Keller was born on July 30 or 31, 1903, in Rockaway Beach, New York. By 1915, Gary and his parents had moved to New Jersey, living in West Hoboken and then North Bergen. On April 30, 1923 Keller and Lillian Schutz obtained a marriage license in Brooklyn, New York. In the 1920s, Gary worked as a chauffer, and his son and daughter were born. By 1930, Gary was working as a sign painter in Union City, NJ, and he and his wife divorced soon after. In 1940, Keller married Helen Gandenberger. Soon after that, he landed a staff job at Timely/Marvel, and by 1942 he was living in Forest Hills, NY. Several Timely staffers were interviewed for issues of Alter Ego (TwoMorrows), details are on Alex Jay’s blog, here’s what they remembered about Keller. Vince Fago said he was a production assistant and letterer. Dave Gantz said he was like a traffic manager for the lettering department. Bob Deschamps was a neighbor of Keller, and Gary helped him get a job at Timely as an office boy soon after World War Two. Allen Bellman remembered him as a manager of some sort. Al Jaffee remembered Gary as the head of the lettering department, and said:
Gary was substantially older than most of us. He and his wife were really survivors of the Depression, and he was a talented guy. If anything, he should have been a mechanical engineer. I saw some of his mechanical engineering, and he was brilliant. But fate throws us into strange occupations during hard times. Gary told me that he had been a traveler. He’d go from town to town, go into a diner, and for a meal, he’d do their showcase lettering. he was an excellent showcase letterer, which was a specialty in those days, but probably unheard-of now with the advent of computers. So he’d get a free meal by doing this work. He rode the rails and came back and married a woman named Helen. Towards the end of the war, they bought a house, which he fixed up a great deal.
There are few lettering credits from any comics in the 1940s, but Timely/Marvel occasionally listed one or more letterers on the inside front cover of an issue, as seen here, the only printed credit I’ve found for Gary Keller. David Gantz is credited with “Special Effects,” which might be coloring in this case, though that term was also used for letterers. I feel any page from this issue is probably lettered by Gary, since he’s credited so clearly.
Here’s part of another page with some charming music. Keller’s letters are all italic with a heavier line for emphasis. The lettering is competent here, but pretty bland. There must be many more examples of his work at Timely from this era, but none I can positively identify.
Gary was probably laid off in the Timely staff purge of late 1949. In the early 1950s he moved to the Woodstock, NY area, where he again found work as a sign painter. Keller passed on February 14, 1988.
In the earliest comics, at least on stories that weren’t reprinted comic strips, it’s pretty safe to assume that the artist did their own lettering, but it’s hard to be sure. Tarpé Mills was one such artist who went on to create a successful comic strip, Miss Fury. Her early comics work, as seen above, has lettering that certainly seems to be from the same hand as the art. Comics creator and historian Trina Robbins, who wrote about Tarpé in her book Pretty in Ink (Fantagraphics 2013), told me she always did her own lettering, and that’s good enough for me! The best things about this early lettering are the story title and the artist signature in the first panel. The rest is readable but uneven, it does the job well enough, and it’s similar to other lettering in comics of the time.
June Tarpé Mills was born Genevieve Mills on June 13, 1915, in the Bronx, according to Alex Jay’s research, though elsewhere her birth date is given as February 25, 1918. Genevieve’s mother Margaret married twice and had children by both husbands, Genevieve was the child of the second husband, Charles Mills. Her older brother Thomas was the son of the first husband, John Tarpey, who either died or disappeared soon after the marriage. Genevieve’s father was not around long either, he was gone by 1920, and by 1925, the family was in Brooklyn with the children of Margaret’s sister, who had died in 1922, also living with them. By 1930, Genevieve had taken the name June Tarpé Mills, creating her middle name from Tarpey, and was working as an artist’s model. June’s art training is unknown, she doesn’t appear to have finished high school, but one newspaper article said she was a fashion artist before working in comics. When she began placing stories at Centaur in 1938, she dropped the more feminine name June, and signed her work Tarpé Mills for the rest of her comics career.
Around 1940, Tarpé created her most famous character, originally known as Black Fury, soon renamed Miss Fury. The lettering is too small to see in this example, but the logo and signature in the first panel can be admired, both created by Mills, and of course she did all the lettering as well. The strip first appeared on April 6, 1941, and it ran to 1952. Unlike most comic strips, Mills spent a lot of time on the clothing and fashions. Lead character Marla Drake sometimes wore a skin-tight black panther skin that gave her great strength in her alter ego of Miss Fury. That and other revealing outfits were controversial at the time, and some papers refused to run them.
Timely/Marvel reprinted some of the Sunday comic strips as a series of eight issues from 1942 to 1945. If the strips were all done with square panels, as seen above, it was an easy conversion. Tarpé’s lettering can be seen better here, it’s become more regular than what she did at Centaur, but it’s still pretty small and leans a bit to the left. Emphasis is done by underlining in several places and a bolder line in others.
This opening panel from the strip gives a better look at the lettering, with an unusual question mark in the second balloon. I love the artist signature.
An even closer look at two panels from the same strip. The lettering works well, though the left slant bothers me a bit, but this is again an improvement from earlier work. The swear symbols in the last balloon are interesting, and notice how much larger and bolder the exclamation points are. While three dashes are used in one place to indicate a pause, other places have a curly em-dash.
Tarpé made a brief return to comics in 1971 with this story, again lettered by her with familiar styles in the left-slanted letters, large exclamation points, and curly dashes. It was the only story by her at the time. Miss Fury was a groundbreaking strip in some ways, and has been collected in reprints a few times, while the character made occasional later appearances with art and stories by others. Mills passed December 12, 1988.
Among little-known comics letterers was Herman Stackel, who drew and lettered this half-page humor feature. I only know it’s by him because a different version of the art, an unfinished one, was found by Alex Jay on Heritage Auctions. The lettering is narrow but lively, done with a wedge-tipped pen except for the bolder letters.
Herman Stackel was born Hyman William Stackel on March 9, 1904, in Kiev, Russia. His family arrived in New York City in 1913 and settled in Brooklyn. Stackel won a poster contest in high school, and in 1923 won a one-year art scholarship to Pratt Institute. That year he also applied for citizenship. Herman graduated from Pratt in 1929 with a degree in Teacher Training in Fine and Applied Art. In 1934, he married Ann Liebman in Brooklyn. Stackel was employed as an art teacher by the Works Progress Administration, and by 1942 was a freelance commercial artist. He served in the Army soon after, his dates of service aren’t known. Around 1942 he began working as a letterer for the Binder Studio and Funnies, Inc., packagers for comics publishers. Artist Leonard Starr met Stackel at Funnies, Inc., and in an interview with Jim Amash published in Alter Ego #110 (2012, TwoMorrows), Starr remembered:
In terms of mentoring or giving lessons, the guy who spent time helping me was Herman Stackel, and that was not artistically. He had a wide range of intellectual knowledge and introduced me to various things, people to read, and stuff to look at. We used to spend hours and hours drinking coffee, and talking. He was at Funnies when I started, and was there after I left. He was a letterer. He was just a terrific guy, and I guess in his later life, work dried up or something. He was very bitter, and I was very, very sorry to hear that. As far as I can remember, he was the only letterer there. He was forty and I was like seventeen, and so it was a whole world I was unfamiliar with, the world that he had experienced on his route to being forty, and he shared his experiences with me.
I don’t know why this version of Stackel’s half-page strip was abandoned half-finished, but it gives us a better look at his lettering, which I like a lot. It has great bounce and appealing style. Many other comics pages were lettered by him, but this is the only one I can positively identify. Herman was still working for Fawcett in 1952, it’s unknown when he left comics. He died in March 1990.
There have been several brother and sister teams who worked in comics, here’s one you probably haven’t heard of. Marc Swayze began his art career assisting comic strip artist Russell Keaton on his strip Flyin’ Jenny around 1940, doing the lettering among other things. In 1941 he went to New York and was hired by Fawcett, where he penciled and inked Captain Marvel stories like the one above, which I think was lettered by someone else. He was credited as the co-creator of Mary Marvel with Otto Binder. Marc was in the Army from 1942 to 1944, but he must have been appreciated at Fawcett and at the Bell Syndicate who distributed Flyin’ Jenny. Back in New York, he was given full control of the strip and also landed a regular assignment on the Phantom Eagle feature at Fawcett. With those in hand, he returned home to Monroe, LA, and taught his sister Daisy to letter for him.
Daisy Swayze (a delightful rhymed name) was born around 1907 in Monroe, Louisiana. She graduated from high school in Monroe in 1926. In the 1930 census, her father was a steamboat captain. She and her sister Mildred were living at home when their mother died in 1941. It’s unknown what Daisy did for a living, but when her brother Marc returned home in 1944, she was ready and able to assist him with lettering. Marc was interviewed in the Fawcett Collectors of America Newsletter #11, November 1978, and #41, Spring 1988. He said:
Daisy did just about all my lettering from 1945 on. She was one of the greatest letterers, according to Roy Ald and Will Lieberson. When I left New York with Flyin’ Jenny under one arm and Phantom Eagle under the other, I wrote my sister — sending her lettering samples — and told her I needed her help doing lettering. She had never claimed to have any art abilities, but took on the assignment. At first it was rough, but eventually she developed her own style. Once I received a letter praising the clarity of my lettering. I had to write back and confess it was the work of my sister, Daisy!
Alex Jay has studied the lettering on the Flyin’ Jenny strip and found a good way to tell Marc’s lettering from Daisy’s. Here Marc lettered the top tier and Daisy lettered the bottom one. Marc’s M’s have angled sides, while Daisy’s have straight sides. Otherwise the two styles are very similar, with Marc’s just a little larger and with the lines closer together. Both were lettering with a wedge-tipped pen. The strip ended in 1946.
For Fawcett, Marc did Phantom Eagle, sample above, and other features mostly lettered by Daisy. Look for her straight-sided M’s. Here the lettering is done with a round-tipped pen.
Later Marc drew romance stories for Fawcett like this one, again lettered by Daisy with a round-tipped pen. After Fawcett got out of the comics business in 1953, Marc worked for Charlton Comics. He was also a musician playing in dance bands, and did oil painting. He wrote a column in Alter Ego from 1996 until his death in 2012.
After her lettering career ended, Daisy found work in the local Tax Assessor’s office for the rest of her life. She died suddenly of a heart attack on May 4, 1972, in Monroe. While her work in comics was largely unknown, her contribution to her brother’s career was an important one.
Next we have Zoltan and Terry Szenics, a husband and wife who were both comics artists and letterers. Will Eisner told cat yronwode that Zoltan lettered the early Spirit stories, panels from one are above. The lettering is very Art Deco, using carefully drawn narrow letters, except for the round C, G and O. I suspect Will wanted something similar to the lettering by Charles Armstrong on Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, It’s pretty close, but this kind of lettering is time-consuming, and perhaps not cost effective for the letterer, and it was dropped for more standard lettering after a few issues. I’m not sure how long Zoltan did them, but Sam Rosen became the regular Spirit letterer some time in 1941.
Zoltan Michael Szenics was born April 9, 1915 in New York City to Hungarian emigrant parents. The family was in Queens by 1920, and Zoltan belonged to several clubs in high school including the art club. Zoltan was also musical, in 1929 he gave a solo violin performance at that year’s graduation. Zoltan graduated in 1933. He found work at the Max Fleischer animation studio in Manhattan. Perhaps he joined a union because, in 1937, he was injured in a fight between picketers and police in front of the studio. Whether that led to him being let go is unknown.
Terezia (Theresa) Woik was born December 26, 1919 in Pestszenterz, Hungary. It’s not clear when she came to New York, but Zoltan must have known her well by 1938 when she was a bridesmaid at his sister Elsie’s wedding. Gill Fox was an editor, writer, and artist for Quality Comics in the early 1940s. In an interview in Alter Ego #12 (Jan 2002, TwoMorrows), Gill remembered:
Well, I pulled in Tony Di Preta to letter, and Zully Szenics, too. They began to help me. Zully would help check art and proofread scripts, but he mostly lettered. His wife became a letterer, too. They were married because of me. Both were Hungarian. He was living with his mother and father and I’d go up there to visit. Once, we were sitting in his room and I saw a girl passing the doorway. I said, “Who’s that?” Zully said, “That’s a girl who came from Hungary to help my mother.” I asked, “Did you ever look at her? She’s beautiful!” Well, a year later they were married. Her name was Terry, and the four of us used to vacation together. Zully came back from WWII and went to art school for nine years on the G.I. Bill. I had met him at Fleischer’s in the inking department, and he was funny as hell. He also inked for us, but he couldn’t create. Zully would set an alarm clock and letter a page before that clock went off. It used to break us up!
Zoltan and Terry were married May 3, 1942, and Terry became a citizen in 1944. Terry must have also had artistic talent, but probably Zoltan taught her what he knew about making comics, and soon they were both getting lettering and inking work at Quality, MLJ/Archie, and elsewhere.
This story is credited Clem and Zoltan for writer Clem Gretter and artist Zoltan Szenics. I think it’s safe to assume Zoltan also did the lettering. I like the texture in the feature logo, but that might have been done for a previous story. The caption and balloon lettering are made with a wedge-tipped pen, and I like the Art Deco H in the caption. The sound effect is lively.
This story is credited Sahle, Szenics and Goggin for writer Ed Goggin, penciler Harry Sahle, and inker/letterer Terry Szenics, at least that’s what the Grand Comics Database says. The inking and lettering are very similar to the previous example, so think this is actually by Zoltan. It’s hard to pin down any comics work by him after the 1950s, but an obituary said he had been a commercial artist, so perhaps he moved into advertising and other work. Alex Jay found a reference to a film strip he did art for in 1969.
Terry continued as an inker and letterer for Archie into the 1960s, though of course without any printed credits. The Grand Comics database says this story is inked and lettered by her. The lettering is definitely different from Zoltan’s here, still done with a wedge-tipped pen, but with some wider letters that remind be of Gaspar Saladino’s lettering in places. Terry may have also penciled some stories for Archie.
When Marvel Comics started adding letterer credits to all its superhero stories in 1962, Terry Szenics was among those credited. Perhaps she’d been working for the company for a while, it’s hard to say. The balloon and caption lettering on this page is smaller than previous examples, perhaps because there was less room. At least there’s no doubt she lettered it.
Another example. Title letters made of many strokes are use effectively, somewhat in the style of Artie Simek. The last new work I see from Terry is from 1965 or so. What she did after that is unknown. She may also have worked in advertising.
The Szenics retired to Florida in the late 1980s, and Terry passed there on April 6, 1995 at age 75, survived by her husband and two sons. Zoltan passed on June of the same year at age 80. Their lives and careers were always closely entwined.
Here’s an ad from Fiction House lettered by Leo Wurtzel with his name at bottom right, the only time he was credited in print. The top display lettering is beautifully done, the rest is professional if less interesting.
Leo Wurtzel was born January 3, 1920, in Manhattan to Austrian emigrant parents. Leo’s father died in 1928, making it a tough struggle for the family. The 1940 census said Leo was a magazine cartoonist living with his mother and brother. His 1941 draft card said his employer was Timely (Marvel) Publications, where he was an artist and letterer. I’ve found no identifications of his work at Timely. Leo joined the Army in 1942, his discharge date isn’t known, but after returning to New York he found work at Fiction House. Artist George Evans remembered him there and called him one of the best letterers of the time.
The lettering on this story is rather different from the ad, but could possibly be by Wurtzel. The sign in the background suggests he had something to do with it, either lettering or inking, but that’s a guess. And that’s as far as I can go with identifying Leo’s comics work. Apparently he had a printed lettering credit in TRUE LIFE SECRETS #5 (Jan 1952) from Charlton, but I haven’t found scans of that issue. I have no other information about what he did for a living after that.
Leo married Lillian Perlman in 1946, and at some point they moved to Brooklyn. His wife passed in 1995. When Leo’s older brother died in 1999, Leo and his two sons and one daughter were listed as surviving family. Alex Jay found a possible obituary for him from 2020, at which time he would have been about 100 years old.
Among the staffers depicted on this Christmas card from Lev Gleason’s comics company is Irving Watanabe. I don’t know who did the caricatures, but this is the only known early depiction I’ve found of long-time letterer Watanabe.
In addition to lettering many of the Lev Gleason comics, Watanabe also occasionally did full art for them, as seen above. The signature at the lower right of the first panel is very stylized and hard to see, but it says Hitoshi Watanabe. The art, story title, and lettering are all quite good, in my opinion.
Hitoshi Irving Watanabe was born February 10, 1919, in Maui, Hawaii to Japanese emigrant parents who worked on a sugar plantation. He was a commercial art major and graduated from McKinley High School, Honolulu. He did about 150 drawings for the book Guidebook for Homemaking in Hawaii by Caroline Wortmann Edwards (New Freedom Press, 1938). He was in New York City working in comics by 1940. In 1984, Irv wrote several letters to Jerry DeFuccio, who was working on a biography of writer/artist Charles Biro that was never published. In one he wrote:
I first met Charlie in 1940, while I was at MLJ. He was always fun loving and had to be the main attraction. I think he was kind and generous. He used to give story plots to Joe Blair many times and in return would receive free lunch. When at MLJ, I was receiving 50 cents a page for lettering but it soon ended when Charlie offered me $1.00.
Biro and his partner, Bob Wood, left MLJ for a lucrative deal with publisher Lev Gleason in 1941. They would essentially be an in-house comics shop for Gleason, as seen in the Christmas card above. They brought Irv with them.
Another single-page piece drawn and lettered by Irv Watanabe, you can see his signature at right under the first caption. Irv’s art was sporadic, most of the time he was lettering. The feature title and display lettering on this page are excellent. The caption and balloon lettering are professional and consistent. According to Watanabe’s letters, working with Biro was not always easy. He wrote:
Charlie did things the last minute, so we got caught in the crisis deadline. I used to work two days and nights — sometimes three without much sleep. We went to his apartment, first at Sunnyside, then Jackson Heights, Queens. He used to start off with a big first page splash, then worked on six panel pages, and often he’d run out of pages and wound up with 15 to 20 panels on the last page! He penciled the whole 16 pages and left dialogue to the last, but at times I insisted [he do some] as he went along. So, grudgingly, he’d put copy on 6 or 8 pages, then finished the story.
Irv left Lev Gleason around 1955 to work for advertising company Johnstone & Cushing, where he lettered comics style advertising and probably other things. He was married and had a son by 1959. I first saw his name as a letterer at Marvel in the 1960s.
Irv seems to have become a busy letterer at Marvel starting in 1968, though the Grand Comics Database has a few credits for him in 1966 at DC Comics and Warren. The example above has a fine title and lots of sound effects. There’s plenty of lettering, but Watanabe makes it work without seeming crowded.
This splash page includes beautiful script lettering by Irv, and at Marvel he was credited for his lettering for the first time, which I’m sure he appreciated.
In the credit box on this story you can see Irv’s reluctance to give himself the same size credit as everyone else, either through modesty or simply a career-long habit of not being credited. I love the open letters in the story title, I can see his advertising experience there.
Irv’s Marvel story credits seem to end around 1978, though he was also doing lettering for comics-style advertising for Hostess cupcakes as late as 1981. By 1989 he had returned to Hawaii, probably in retirement, and he passed there on January 7, 1993 at the age of 73. Much of his work was uncredited, but thanks to Marvel, we have a record of some.
Alex Jay has also written articles about letterers from this time where we can’t find any identified work. On his blog you can read about Angelo Grasso, George Kapitan, Veda Lufkin, and Richard Dean Taylor. If more information about those or other little-known letterers of early comics comes to light, I’ll add it here. Some who may have begun in the late 1940s, but whose known work begins in the 1950s will be in a future article. Thanks again to Alex Jay for generously sharing his knowledge.