More British Letterers Part 1

From 2000 AD #52, Feb 18 1978, this and all 2000 AD images © Rebellion 2000 AD Ltd

Having written about the lettering of Dave Gibbons, I felt I should also look at the work of other British letterers. I’ve only seen a small sample of British comics work except for some that was reprinted in the U.S., and my resources for this are more limited both for information about the letterers themselves, and access to art scans, but I’ll do what I can and we’ll see how it goes. The name I’ve heard and seen most often is that of Tom Frame, who was the main letterer for Judge Dredd stories in 2000 AD for decades, the sample above is from his first story as the regular Dredd letterer. His narrow letters are so consistent they could easily be mistaken for type, but for most of his career it was all hand lettering. He became so associated with Dredd that even other letterers felt the character did not look or sound right without Tom’s lettering.

Tom Frame from David Bishop’s website

Thomas William Frame was born Oct 19 1931 in Sunderland, England. In 1939 his family had moved to Kettering, Northamptonshire, and by 1956 he was living in London. I have no other information about his early life, art training, or how and when he got into comics.

From 2000 AD #4, March 19 1977

Tom’s first credited work in the Grand Comics Database is for this story in issue 4 of 2000 AD, though there is an unsourced single page reprint dated 1962, so it’s likely Tom was lettering well before this. There’s some type on this page as well as Tom’s hand lettering, but it all seems pretty similar at this size.

From 2000 AD #499, Dec 6 1986

Here’s a closer look at a later non-Dredd story. I think the title and credits are by the artist, but the lettering is Tom’s. I have to admit when I saw his work occasionally in reprints, I thought it was type. You have to look very closely to find differences between pairs of the same letter, but they are there.

From 2000 AD #620, April 1 1989

Another Dredd example with some fine display lettering sound effects. The credits shield has a bit of humor for his name, “John Tom” to go along with the other two creators named John.

On his blog, writer David Bishop said about Frame:

His lettering was as much a part of Dredd as the future lawman’s badge or gun. Tom took a great deal of care with and pride in his work, and rightly so. But he wasn’t just a letterer. For a long time in the early 80s Tom coloured the covers and centre-spread of 2000 AD, making the most of the primitive printing facilities used on the weekly. If you ever needed a living embodiment of curmudgeon, Tom was it — but he was kind-hearted grouch, with a face that spoke volumes about a life well lived. He was a demon on the pool table, frustrating his opponents and smiling at their misfortunes. But most of all he was an exemplary professional who cared about telling stories and always strove to do his best, even if he did leave the occasional set of artwork in a curry house after a long night’s drinking!

From 2000 AD #1426, Feb 16 2005

At some point Tom joined the digital lettering age by using fonts created from his hand lettering, as seen above. I can’t think of a letterer whose work was better suited for that transition. One interesting feature is the letter I, which has tiny serifs. They’re so small that they work equally well inside words as they do for the personal pronouns. Tom’s career since 1977 included lettering several hundred stories, the majority featuring Judge Dredd. He died of cancer on July 14, 2006 in London. A center-spread memorial to him featuring the work of many artists appeared in 2000 AD #1508 dated Oct 4, 2006.

From 2000 AD #3, March 12 1977

Next I’ll look at a few other early 2000 AD letterers, and it’s quickly apparent that the style Tom Frame was using, with small, narrow letters, was essentially the house style for the magazine, and perhaps for other British comics of the time. This example is by John Aldrich, and it’s pretty similar to Frame’s work except in the emphasized words, which get wider and more square at times. I have no information on Aldrich except that letterer Annie Parkhouse, in a 2006 interview, said of letterers she admired:

Johnny Aldrich, with whom I shared an office. He used a Graphos pen, which I could never master, and relied on a blob of dried ink to build up for his inimitable style.

From 2000 AD #150, Feb 2 1980

A closer look at Aldrich lettering from a few years later, and here you can see it’s gotten a bit wider, with distinctive S shapes and a very slight lean to the left.

From 2000 AD #862, Nov 20 1993

A later example from Aldrich with a nice variety of display lettering in the balloons and sound effects. I don’t see any lettering credited to Aldrich after this year.

From 2000 AD #1, Feb 26 1977

Yet another regular at 2000 AD was Bill Nuttall, beginning with the first issue, though the GCD has a few possible previous credits, and he actually had a much earlier start. Nuttall’s style is wider than Frame and Aldrich, and his letters are somewhat closer to what you might find in American comics.

From 2000 AD #1, Feb 26 1977

A closer look at Nuttall lettering from another page of the same story. It’s a bit less consistent than others in the issue, but I actually like that. The word ALIEN in the last balloon has squared corners.

From 2000 AD #358, March 3 1984

This later example shows Nuttall’s work getting narrower, perhaps to fit the magazine’s overall style, but it still has a little bounce and variety that make it appealing. the horizontal strokes are all angled up from left to right, a conscious choice that adds variety and energy. I like the special balloon style at lower right.

Bill Nuttall lettering sampler, courtesy of Richard Starkings

In 1983, Richard Starkings wrote (or rather hand-lettered) a long missive to Nuttall asking for advice about becoming a letterer. A few days later he received back an equally long letter full of advice, as well as this sampler containing a variety of styles and also some information about Bill himself. From it we learn he was born in 1923 in Barnsley, Yorkshire, and came to London in 1949, where he attended the Camberwell School of Art and then the Central School of Art. He also says that year, when he was 26, he took his first job as an artist. From the letter we can infer he began lettering comics some time in the early 1950s.

His letter has lots more information about his tools and working process. He writes:

For many years I used a Rapidograph [pen], which has lots of character. Now I use Rotrings — they have less character, but are quicker. Sizes range from 0.1 to 0.8. Also you will need a set of William Mitchells Script Pens for doing heavier display-type work and onomotapoeia.

Richard told me this letter and sampler changed his life, and he feels extremely fortunate to have made this encouraging connection. Parts of both letters can be seen on the inside covers of the book Comic Book Lettering the Comicraft Way by Starkings and Roshell (Active Images, 2003). Richard found out from Bill’s son that he was able to retire to a cottage in Chislehurst, Kent and paint during his final years. He passed some time in the 1990s, we haven’t discovered when.

From 2000 AD #3, March 12 1977

One more of the 2000 AD letters was Tony Jacob, and I’ve found out nothing about his life, training, or career other than credits in the Grand Comics Database for this title from 1977 to 1986. I’m guessing he was also an older person with a previous career in comics. His style is in the same mold as others we’ve looked at, though on this page all the caption and balloon lettering is slanted except for some computer data captions. Some of his balloons are rounded rectangles.

From 2000 AD #358, March 3 1984

This later story shows more individual style, the letter E is almost a C with a center stroke, and the letters are no longer slanted except for the emphasized words. The display lettering at bottom right is well done.

From 2000 AD #498, Nov 29 1986

A late story lettered by Tony, some of his balloon shapes are still close to rounded rectangles, and others are wavy bursts rather than pointy ones. I like this lettering, but that’s all I can say about Tony Jacobs.

From 2000 AD #2, March 5 1977

Another letterer at 2000 AD with a career stretching back to the 1940s was John S. “Jack” Potter, though I only have credits and images for his lettering from this magazine. Potter’s work is again in the style of Frame and others seen above, the magazine’s house style, with narrow letters drawn very consistently. I found a well-written obituary for Jack that fills in many details about his career. He was born in 1921 and began working in an art studio in the 1930s. He was in the Air Force in World War Two, and then with an ad agency for a few years after that. Jack drew some humor strips for Mick Anglo’s studio in the late 1940s, but beginning in 1953 concentrated on lettering for magazines like Thriller Comics, TigerLionKnockout, and Valiant through the 1960s and early 1970s. His name only became known to readers with the advent of 2000 AD’s credits boxes, but he was busy on the title from the beginning, as seen above.

From 2000 AD #585, July 30 1988

A typical story page from a decade later shows Jack’s letters getting a little wider.

From 2000 AD #585, July 30 1988

This detail from another page gives a closer look at his work, which I like. Still very regular, but with a bit more personal style in evidence. In the memorial, letterer Derek Pierson said:

Jack Potter was THE man, when it came to lettering! He was the man we all strived to match…but could never quite! Johnny Aldrich and I and a few others admired his expertise and we used to copy every letter of the alphabet to try and capture his style.

British editor David Hunt said:

Without fail, Jack would visit us on a weekly basis to deliver his finished lettering and to pick up new scripts/artwork for him to complete in the following seven days. Easy-going, friendly, a ready wit and with a smile on his face, it was always a pleasure to have Jack in the office.

Jack Potter died on Sunday, 5 October 2014, aged 93, survived by his wife Doris and son Steve, who was also a letterer, see below.

From 2000 AD #53, Feb 25 1978

Steve Potter is the son of Jack Potter, and they both worked as letterers at 2000 AD at the same time for a number of years. I can’t think of any other case like that. Steve’s style is very similar to that of his dad’s, but it also has a bit more roundness like that of Tony Jacobs. I’m not sure if Steve did the feature title on this story, but it looks great.

Steve Potter, date unknown, image found online
From 2000 AD #53, Feb 25 1978

A closer look at part of another page, The angled bottom legs of his L and E give his lettering that slightly rounded look that I find appealing, and the display lettering in the burst is well done.

From 2000 AD #759, Nov 30 1991

Later hand lettering by Steve with effectively creepy lettering for the creepy character Judge Death. I don’t think Steve created this style, but he does it well.

From 2000 AD #1199, June 28 2000

This more recent story is lettered by Steve with digital fonts based on his hand lettering. The fonts capture his style well, retaining the curved bottom legs of the E and L. Steve also worked on HALO JONES, STARLORD, ROBO-HUNTER, NEMESIS THE WARLOCK and other titles into the early 2000s.

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

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