More Comic Strip Lettering

Calvin and Hobbes Daily by Bill Watterson, May 20 1986, © Universal Press Syndicate

In other articles I’ve written about some of my favorite comic strip artists who did their own lettering like Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and Gus Arriola’s Gordo, as well as early strip letterers Charles Armstrong and Frank Engli. I wrote about many early comics strips and their lettering in this series:

Lettering Terms and Pioneers Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

I also wrote about the comic strip lettering of men known primarily for comic books (or not at all) in these articles:

Ben Oda – Prolific Letterer

Frank Shuster, Superman Letterer Part 1

Gaspar Saladino’s Newspaper Strip Lettering

Ira Schnapp’s Newspaper Strips Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

Saladino (and Schnapp) Lettering on DONDI

That covers a lot of strip lettering, but there have been hundreds of fine strips, and many of them have interesting and creative lettering. In this article I’m going to do brief looks at some I admire, mostly more recent strips. There are a few problems I have to overcome. First, strip letterers are never credited, so I’m looking for strips where the lettering and art style match, suggesting they were lettered by the artist. That points toward gag-a-day humor strips. Second, adventure strips tend to have a more uniform lettering style, are sometimes lettered by assistants, and/or in later years use digital fonts, so I’m steering clear of those. Some strips I like have bland lettering that doesn’t do much for me, so I’ve skipped those too. There are probably many strips with great lettering I haven’t seen, but here you’ll find ones I know and like that have what I consider original and interesting lettering. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson is a fine example, as you can see in the sample above, and he’s one of several creators here who started out as newspaper editorial cartoonists, a job which requires the cartoonist do their own lettering unless they’re using typeset captions, and that skill carried over to their comic strip work. More on Watterson below.

King Aroo Daily by Jack Kent, Dec 25 1962, © McClure Syndicate, this and all original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

My first and oldest example is a strip often compared to Pogo, at least as far as the art style goes, and it features some of the same kinds of word play and humor as that strip, but perhaps not as well done. Jack Kent’s lettering had a more generic look when the strip began in 1950, but by the 1960s, it featured this appealing style with very curly S’s that seem to match the calligraphic look of the art. The other letters lean to the left a bit, and are almost as quirky, but easy to read. I also like the one-sided balloon tails. King Aroo missed the success of Pogo, and ran in a limited number of papers until 1965.

From The Wizard of Id Daily by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart, May 6 1969, © Creators Syndicate

Johnny Hart already had a popular strip, B.C., when he collaborated with his friend Brant Parker on The Wizard of Id in 1964, which also became a long-running hit. Here’s where I run into trouble over the lettering, it looks the same as on B.C., so does that mean Hart lettered and Parker did the art? That’s possible but seems unlikely. Perhaps an unknown assistant lettered both? The lettering is appealing and the sound effects have a 1950s advertising look, but this is one of many strips where the letterer isn’t clear to me.

Broom-hilda Daily by Russell Myers, Nov 11 1972, © Tribune Content Agency

Russell Myers began Broom-Hilda in 1970, and it’s still running today. I feel more confident that the lettering is by him as well, as it matches the style of the art perfectly. I like the sound effect in the first panel, with shading and drop shadow, and the larger display lettering in the last panel is great, too.

From Hagar the Horrible Daily by Dik Browne, Nov 28 1973, © King Features Syndicate

Dik Browne began doing advertising art and comics and broke into strips as the artist of Hi and Lois, a collaboration with Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey fame. Hagar the Horrible, his own creation, began in 1973, the story of a funny Viking family. Although the lettering is pretty standard, it has nice bounce, and I’m guessing Browne’s advertising work trained him as a letterer. Later he had help from others, including his son Chris, but I think this early strip is very likely lettered by Dik himself.

Shoe Daily by Jeff MacNelly, Jan 22 1981, © Tribune Media Services

Jeff MacNelly is another strip artist who began as an editorial cartoonist for newspapers in 1970. He started Shoe, about a group of birds who work for a newspaper, in 1977, and this is a fine example of serif typewriter style lettering from it. The lettering clearly matches the art style, and also MacNelly’s editorial cartoon lettering. He continued to do both to much acclaim until his death in 2000.

Calvin and Hobbes Daily by Bill Watterson, April 21 1986, © Universal Press Syndicate

Another fine example from one of my all-time favorite strips, Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson drew and lettered it for about ten years from 1985 to 1995, and it was hugely successful, but Bill became unhappy over the size and reproduction of the strip, and in later years has refused all public appearances and contact. This is one strip we can be sure was lettered by the artist, as he called it a “low-tech one-man operation,” and said he did the lettering with a Rapidograph pen, and used a crowquill pen for odds and ends. His sound effects here have the same manic energy as the art. The balloon lettering leans left a little, and the ink in his pen is thinner and lighter than other ink on the page, but it reads fine and works well.

Bloom County Daily by Berkeley Breathed, Jan 17 1987, © Washington Post Writers Group

Berkeley Breathed is another artist who began briefly as an editorial cartoonist before selling Bloom County, his first comic strip. It owes a debt for its look and style to Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, but I feel both the art and lettering soon became better than that inspiration. In this example, the large letters in the third panel with trailing dots below echo the agony of the character perfectly, but in a funny way. All the lettering is lively and full of energy. If you look closely you can see the blue pencil guidelines Breathed put in first for the lettering, but where he wanted larger letters, he ignored them. This strip also ran originally for about ten years, later morphing into other strips starring some of the same characters, including Opus the penguin, perhaps the standout.

Pickles Daily by Brian Crane, Sept 2 1992, © Washington Post Writers Group

Brian Crane’s lettering on Pickles reminds me of Charles Schulz’s on Peanuts, both have rounded Y’s and large, bouncy letters. Crane doesn’t often explore the possibilities of lettering as Schulz did, but I still find his work appealing.

From Liberty Meadows Sunday by Frank Cho, April 5 1997, Creators Syndicate, © Frank Cho

Liberty Meadows is a strip I’ve never seen in a newspaper, but I’ve enjoyed reading the collected editions, and read reprints online. The strip ran from 1997 to 2001, and then continued in a comic book series for a few more years. Today Frank Cho works mainly as a cover artist for comics, a book illustrator, and does private commissions. His lettering is unique and personal, with lower case A’s among the capital letters, and slight bounce and roundness overall. His display lettering is large and effective. This is an early strip, his letter S has become more stylized since then. We can be sure Frank does his own lettering, he recently did a lettering demo video and posted it on Facebook and Instagram. I can’t link to it here, but look him up in either place to find it. Frank uses an Ames Guide to draw horizontal guidelines, and a Micron Pigma marker for lettering and balloon shapes.

Mother Goose and Grimm Daily by Mike Peters, March 27 2001, © Tribune Media Services

Mike Peters is another editorial cartoonist who began Mother Goose and Grimm as a sideline, and it’s had a successful run ever since. Again, the lettering is a stylistic match for the art, both use wedge-tipped pens I would say, with corner pointing on the emphasized words with a smaller pen. In the first balloon you can see a lettering change was pasted in by Peters. Mother Goose is a very stylized goose, while Grimm is her sarcastic dog, and the real star of the strip. Mike’s balloon and panel borders are made with lively brush lines, similar to those of Walt Kelly on Pogo.

Mutts Daily by Patrick McDonnell, April 2 2003, King Features Syndicate, © Patrick McDonnell

Another favorite strip (for years) is Mutts by Patrick McDonnell. I love the art, the humor, and the lettering. There’s no doubt Patrick is drawing the lettering, the style matches the art perfectly, right down to the open texture in his display lettering and music notes here. There’s an old-style underline in the first balloon for just a little emphasis, while in the second the word SING is thicker for the same reason. McDonnell has the rare ability to convey a great deal of expression, body language, and information with just a few choice lines.

Mutts Daily by Patrick McDonnell, Nov 15 2008, King Features Syndicate, © Patrick McDonnell

I’ve only found a few examples of Patrick’s original art online, hand-colored by him, but in many strips he plays with the ideas and conventions of lettering and sound effects in clever and funny ways. He clearly knows his strip and lettering history. The strip began in 1994. His cat Mooch and dog Earl are friends and the strip’s stars, their owners and acquaintances are supporting players. It’s a strip that makes me happy, and a wonderful example of a cartoonist who does it all himself.

Cul de Sac Daily by Richard Thompson, March 26 2008, © Universal Press Syndicate

Richard Thompson began working as a newspaper staff artist and cartoonist in 1982. He launched Cul de Sac in 2004, the whimsical adventures of the Otterloop family, starring children Alice and Petey, a comic book fan, as seen above. His art and lettering used lots of thin lines and mixed case letters that lean left, but are easy to read. The strip approached the level of psychological insight achieved by Peanuts, but with a more modern take. Sadly, Thompson died of Parkinson’s Disease in 2016 after a long and courageous public struggle to keep his strip going, which he did until 2012.

Pearls Before Swine Daily by Stephan Pastis, March 19 2013, © Andrews McMeel Syndicate

Stephan Pastis took an unusual route to becoming a strip cartoonist, beginning his career as a lawyer who liked to draw, and gradually learning from the work of other cartoonists and summoning the courage to submit his ideas to newspaper syndicates. Pearls Before Swine was accepted in 2000, and has been running ever since. The animal characters are clearly human stand-ins that express various aspects of Pastis himself, who also appears in the strip. His lettering is fairly bland, but I like the narrow letters made with a wedge-tipped pen or marker, and you can see in the example that he’s following penciled guidelines. The lettering is interesting enough to get into this article, and the strip often makes me laugh.

Zits Daily by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, Nov 22 2017, © King Features Syndicate

Jim Borgman had a long career as an editorial cartoonist before teaming up with writer/artist Jerry Scott to create Zits, the funny adventures of teenager Jeremy Duncan and his family and friends. Scott writes, Borgman letters and does the art, and his lettering skills are excellent, as seen not only in the regular balloons here, but especially in that dynamic burst scream. It’s another strip that makes me laugh often, and impresses me with its art and lettering skill.

There you have my comic strip lettering picks not covered elsewhere. I’m sure there are more that deserve praise and attention, these are the ones I know and like best.

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

9 thoughts on “More Comic Strip Lettering

  1. susan dorne

    hi Todd:

    You should check out Wallace The Brave (on go.comics.com. It’s my favorite strip now.

  2. John Wood

    I miss Calvin and Hobbes greatly. It always brought forth memories of my early childhood when I to had a stuffed Tigger who went on great and wild adventures with me. I still have him, though a bit worn and floppy now. He is getting a much needed rest in a box of long ago memories…

  3. John Wood

    I like this blog very much. I’ve got quite a few comic collections. Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield (Fat Cat three packs), Bloom County, Far Side…. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Monty Wirth

    Hi, Todd. Very much enjoying this latest series of essays on lettering. Small correction, though: the correct spelling of the first name of the “Pearls Before Swine” creator is Stephan, not Stephen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.