SAM & JOE ROSEN – Letterers Part 1

Sam Rosen from MARVEL TALES ANNUAL #1, 1964. All Marvel images © Marvel.

In this three-part article I’ll explore the work of lettering brothers Sam and Joe Rosen, focusing on Sam in Parts 1 and 2, and Joe in Part 3. Much of the biographical info is from THIS post by Alex Jay, and I appreciate his help!

Samuel H. Rosen was born April 4, 1922, Joseph Rosen was born Dec 25, 1920. Their parents were Russian immigrants, with father David having a fruit stand in Coney Island, Brooklyn by 1930, and their five sons were all born in New York City. In the 1940 census the family was living on Mermaid Avenue, Coney Island, and was receiving federal and state relief money to help them get by. Mother Esther cared for the family, the oldest brother, Morton, age 23, is listed as disabled. Joe was 19 and Sam was 18, both were attending college. Younger brothers Jacob, 16, and Emanuel, 12, were in school. We don’t know if Joe and Sam had any art training. David Anthony Kraft published a short interview with Joe in issue #7 of Comics Interview (Fictioneer Books, Jan 1983) in which he described how they began lettering comics:

My father had a fruit store in Coney Island. In 1940, one of the customers he was well acquainted with mentioned that her son was an artist for Timely — the company that’s now Marvel Comics. The son, George Mandel, is now a novelist. This was during the Depression. My father asked her if her son could maybe do something for Sam. So Mandel introduced Sam to the big letterer of the time, Howard Ferguson, who was working for both Timely and Fox. Fox was Ferguson’s lesser account, and soon he gave it to Sam. Sam got me my first lettering job, at Fox, doing THE BLUE BEETLE.

I’ve already written about Howard Ferguson at Fox and Timely HERE, and I’ve listed what I believe are all the stories he lettered HERE. Howard was working with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in their studio, and probably also sometimes at home, or in the Fox and Timely offices. The Fox work I’ve found for him begins with Sept 1940 cover dated issues, probably work done in the spring of 1940, and runs to Sept 1941 issues, probably work done in the spring of 1941.

From THE BLUE BEETLE #8, Aug 1941, © Fox Publications

Assignments at Fox weren’t Howard’s to give, but he could help Sam Rosen learn to letter in Howard’s own style and then recommend him to Fox as his replacement. Above is what I think is an example of Howard’s lettering at Fox late in his time there. It includes his style points of a small downward serif at the top of the letter C, and a G with a small serif in the middle going both ways. The letters also tend to lean slightly to the left.

From THE BLUE BEETLE #9, Oct 1941, © Fox Publications

This lettering from the next issue is quite similar, but I see some differences. There’s less space between the lines of lettering, they almost touch in some places. These letters tend to lean slightly to the right, and the balloon shapes are different, tucked closer around the lettering with less air between the letters and the art. Some letters are quite uneven, like the word DEMAND in the center. I think this is Sam’s work, doing his best to imitate Ferguson.

From MYSTERY MEN COMICS #24, July 1941, © Fox Publications

Here’s a full page of Ferguson lettering from another Fox title featuring The Lynx.

From MYSTERY MEN COMICS #25, Aug 1941, © Fox Publications

I think the Lynx story in the next issue is lettered by Sam, it again has less space between the lines, tighter balloons, and some uneven work.

From MYSTERY MEN COMICS #31, Feb 1942, © Fox Publications

A few months later, Blue Beetle stories no longer had lettering very similar to Howard Ferguson’s. Perhaps this is by Sam, or possibly by Joe Rosen, who said his first work was on this character. Other stories from this time and later look nothing like any of their lettering to me.

There’s another interview that mentions Sam Rosen in 1941, working for the Sangor Shop, a comics packager for publishers, also known as Cinema Comics. In Alter Ego #81 (TwoMorrows, Oct 2008), Jim Amash interviewed artist Everett Raymond Kinstler, who said that when he was hired at Cinema Comics, there was another artist working there:

His name was Sam Rosen, and he was a letterer. There was a bullpen that was maybe 10’ by 20’, which contained a couple of drawing tables. Rosen had a drawing board in there.

From THE SPIRIT, first story, June 2, 1940. All Spirit images © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

Now we come to a confusing part of Sam Rosen’s lettering career: working for Will Eisner as the letterer of THE SPIRIT, in a weekly newspaper insert known as The Spirit Section. There’s no doubt he did that, Joe Rosen confirmed it in his interview, but exactly when is hard to determine. In the 1970s, comics historian Cat Yronwode created a Spirit Checklist which included credits for all the weekly Spirit stories. The first one, above, lists the letterer as Zoltan Szenics with a question mark. Szenics was a letterer at the time who might have worked for Eisner. Usually at the beginning of a new feature, the artist does the lettering, but Will had already been co-running the Eisner-Iger studio, another comics packager, so he had access to freelancers like Szenics. The letters are unusually tall and narrow, except for the round ones, with a definite Art Deco look, similar to the lettering of Charles Armstrong on Prince Valiant.

From THE SPIRIT, June 23, 1940

This is the fourth strip, with what looks like exactly the same letterer to me, though Cat’s Checklist says it’s by Sam Rosen.

From THE SPIRIT, June 30, 1940

The fifth strip has a different, and more conventional lettering style with letters that would mostly fit into a square. Could this be Sam’s first work? The problem is that Joe Rosen said he had learned from Howard Ferguson, and Howard was just getting started on his own lettering career at Fox at this time. Beyond that, this doesn’t look like what I think Sam was doing when he followed Rosen at Fox.

From THE SPIRIT, July 14, 1940

This looks the same as the previous example, with the addition of some upper and lower case work in the first panel that might be by Will Eisner himself, who was an excellent letterer, and often did the feature logo and at least some of the lettering on the first page of these strips. Cat Yronwode did consult Will Eisner while doing her Checklist, but I don’t know if he offered opinions on the lettering. If those credits are from him, perhaps he didn’t remember correctly when Sam Rosen started working for him. Could the first three stories be lettered by Will himself, and the following ones by Szenic? Could early stories be by Szenic in two different styles? Yronwode has Sam Rosen as the letterer of all the stories from issue 4 on, which I don’t think is correct.

From THE SPIRIT, Sept 9, 1940

The lettering on this story is a little smaller, but otherwise matches the previous example.

From THE SPIRIT, Dec 15, 1940

Again about the same lettering style here. I feel sure this can’t be by Sam Rosen yet, there must have been someone else lettering for Will. It reminds me of the lettering of Ira Schnapp at DC Comics, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps this is still Szenic.

From THE SPIRIT, June 15, 1941

One year into THE SPIRIT, and this lettering looks a little different to me, but we’re still not quite at the point where I think Sam Rosen’s lettering was starting to appear at Fox. Notice how the leg of the R is very low and the letters are wide. There’s also a wedge-tipped pen being used I think, making the vertical strokes narrower. This could be the work of Sam Rosen, even though it looks nothing like what I think he was doing at Fox, but could he have landed work with Eisner so early? Maybe so.

From THE SPIRIT, Aug 3 1941

This is the same style, wide letters made with a wedge-tipped pen, something Sam would have learned from Howard, and looking more confident. Again, the letters are wide, and the right leg of the R is very low. I’m thinking this is Sam Rosen lettering.

From THE SPIRIT, Dec 28, 1941

This lettering is a bit more relaxed and lively, a good match for the art, is it by Rosen or someone else? I’m not sure. The low R leg suggests Sam.

From THE SPIRIT, June 14, 1942

This style is a bit different again, still wide, but less relaxed and more like earlier examples, though it leans a bit to the left. The R leg is not as low. It’s always possible that someone else was filling in as letterer on any one of these strips.

From THE SPIRIT, Sept 13, 1942

Very wide letters, and the R leg is lower again. Like the previous one, leans a bit to the left.

From THE SPIRIT, Nov 15 1942

This style is different again, not made with a wedge-tipped pen, and the letters are often different from previous examples. This is the closest example I can find to what Cat Yronwode said was the final story lettered by Sam Rosen, the one for Nov 29, 1942.

From THE SPIRIT, Dec 13, 1942

This example looks the same as the previous one, and these may be early examples of lettering by Martin De Muth, who Cat Yronwode credits as letterer from Dec 6, 1942 to June 29, 1947.

World War Two was now on, and Joe Rosen enlisted in the Army Air Corps on August 21, 1942 and was discharged August 28, 1945. Sam enlisted in the Army on February 20, 1943, it’s not clear when he was discharged. It’s very unlikely he would have been lettering while serving, but he was probably back in New York looking for work by 1946. In the book Will Eisner: Conversations by Will Eisner & M. Thomas Inge (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), artist Jules Feiffer said this about going to work for Will in 1946 at 37 Wall Street in lower Manhattan:

Will sat where the receptionist ordinarily would, in the outer office where he had his drawing table, a rather dark, windowless room, and inside, a larger room than where Will lived, were his staff: letterer Sam Rosen; John Spranger…Dave Berg, and I forget who else was around at the time.

So, Sam seems to have gone back to work on The Spirit, though he doesn’t show up in 1946 in Cat Yronwode’s Checklist. Let’s look at a few more examples.

From THE SPIRIT, Feb 14, 1943

This example looks different again, with more rounded letters. Perhaps this is early lettering by Martin De Muth, and the previous two examples are of someone else filling in. Either that or De Muth was a fast learner. Note that here the M’s have slanted sides, while in all the earlier examples they were vertical, and the R legs are not as low.

From THE SPIRIT, Jan 14 1945

Later in De Muth’s run as letterer, he’s using a wedge-tipped pen but his letter shapes and balloon shapes are about the same, including slanted outside legs on the M in RANSOM and higher legs on the R’s.

From THE SPIRIT, Jan 6 1946

The same style in this example, though the balloons are more rounded.

From THE SPIRIT, May 5 1946

But this one is different. It’s closer to the Sam Rosen examples from 1942, with wide letters that lean slightly to the left and very low legs on the R’s. Perhaps this is by Sam, returned from the Army, and getting back into it, though the M’s here have slanted outer legs, so perhaps this is just someone else filling in.

From THE SPIRIT, Sept 29 1946

This example has wide letters made with a wedge-tipped pen. The M’s have vertical outer legs, but the R legs are not as low as in Sam’s earlier work. Overall it looks professional and confident. This might well be by Sam Rosen. I’m not sure how long he stayed with Eisner this time, but in 1947 Will hired the man he called his best letterer, Abe Kanegson, whose first strip I think is dated May 18, 1947. Cat Yronwode has it as July 6, 1947.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pin down Sam’s work on The Spirit, and I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but it’s time to move on. We’ll try to pick up Sam’s trail again in 1948 in Part 2.

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

2 thoughts on “SAM & JOE ROSEN – Letterers Part 1

  1. Haydn

    Looks like an interesting series!

    Sam Rosen (with Artie Simek) gave Silver Age Marvel its particular “look.” Sam’s work in the comics field seemed to be quite sporadic in the two decades prior to 1963.

    I think you’ve identified a prototypical example of early Sam Rosen in Mystery Men #31. His distinctive wide S’s and G’s are already in evidence, along with his diagonal exclamation points. Among the early Spirit strips, the one from Dec. 28, 1941 is the most convincing match for Rosen’s early work, to my eyes.

    One thing that always signals Sam Rosen’s work for me is his J’s–a relatively narrow top bar and a swooping curve below. Martin DeMuth, whose work looks a lot like Rosen’s otherwise, omits the top bar from his J’s–a possible way to tell their 1940s work apart.

    Will Eisner must have had phone numbers for multiple letterers in the 1940s. I suspect that the Feb 14 1943 strip might be early Artie Simek. The nearly rectangular U’s remind me of his later work, along with the oval shape of his R’s, and the slope of his M’s (among other details). The Sept 29, 1946 strip, however, looks like early Ben Oda to me, especially the bold lettering. I’m reminded of his early work on Mad, and his lettering for the S&K Studio.

    Of all the people you mention, only Howard Ferguson was old enough to have a fully formed calligraphy style in the early-to-mid 1940s, which makes lettering credits difficult to determine. Anyway, it’s fun to do this kind of sleuthing and handwriting analysis. Looking forward to Part 2!

  2. Todd Klein Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’m pretty sure Simek was not in comics before 1944, see my article HERE. It’s unlikely Ben Oda was lettering for Eisner in 1946, he was just getting started with Simon and Kirby, but with few facts to go on, anything could be possible.

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