THE ART AND HISTORY OF LETTERING COMICS

If you have even a passing interest in lettering, Todd Klein’s writing on the subject and the people who he knew and the people he only knew through their work is gripping. If you want to letter, if you make comics, this is a masterclass in what comics lettering is and can be.  — Neil Gaiman, from his introduction.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This book would not have happened without the encouragement of Charles Kochman, and it would not have been nearly as well-researched without the help of Alex Jay. I also owe a debt to the families of letterers now passed who gave me information and help, and to many living letterers I was able to contact who did the same. Comics professionals such as Mark Evanier and Paul Levitz provided information, as did everyone who answered my questions and threw light on murky subjects. On a personal level, I’m grateful for the support of my wife, Ellen.

All characters, their distinctive likenesses, and related elements are ™ and © 2024, all rights reserved.

Rather than list ownership of images up front, I’ve elected to credit each one, or groups of them, as I used them. All images have copyright notices where ownership is known, where it’s not, they should be considered © the legal owners, if any. All text, except as noted, or where directly quoted, is © Todd Klein 2024, all rights reserved. Quoted material is the property of the source, and used with permission. Thanks to Neil for his introduction, which is © Neil Gaiman 2024.

One advantage of an online book is that corrections or new information can be incorporated as quickly as I can confirm it and add it in, so unlike printed books, this one will remain as up to date as I can make it, and is subject to change at any time.

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CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION BY NEIL GAIMAN

ONE: LETTERING TERMS AND PIONEERS

TWO: WHEN LETTERING BECAME A PROFESSION

THREE: EARLY COMIC BOOK LETTERERS

FOUR: TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES OF LETTERING

FIVE: IRA SCHNAPP, SETTING THE STYLE FOR DC COMICS

SIX: MORE LETTERERS OF THE 1930s AND 1940s

SEVEN: LOGO DESIGN FOR COMICS

EIGHT: MORE COMIC STRIP LETTERERS

NINE: GASPAR SALADINO, MASTER LETTERER

TEN: ARTIE SIMEK AND OTHER MARVEL LETTERERS

ELEVEN: LETTERERS OF THE 1950s AND 1960s

TWELVE: ALTERNATIVE AND UNDERGROUND COMICS

THIRTEEN: LETTERERS OF THE 1970s AND 1980s

FOURTEEN: THE RISE OF DIGITAL LETTERING

FIFTEEN: LETTERING TODAY AND TOMORROW

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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INTRODUCTION by Neil Gaiman

They say that Laozi, the semi-legendary Old Master, wrote down what he knew about the Way in the Tao Te Ching at the request of a city gatekeeper, before leaving the city, and walking out of history into the western wilderness. 

I wrote my first comics for Karen Berger at DC Comics in 1987. It was called Black Orchid, and was painted by Dave McKean. “I’m assigning Todd Klein as letterer,” said Karen. “Todd’s the best we have.”

Todd lettered Black Orchid, beginning perhaps my longest professional relationship, and I did not know how lucky I was then. But I knew I wanted Todd for Sandman, and I never had cause ever to regret that decision. No matter how strange or difficult or time-consuming my lettering request, Todd would always come through for me. He made magic. (And he was not paid more for lettering, say, a character like Delirium, no matter how much longer it took.)

Sometimes I would get other letterers on other projects, and I would discover how lucky I was to have Todd on Sandman, and on anything else I could get him to do.

And he did more than letter. All through Sandman, Todd was our backstop, catching mistakes that proof-editors missed. Todd seemed to understand what I was trying to make in Sandman before anyone else. We talked books – Todd knew more about books than I did, more about design than I did, more about lettering than any other person I have ever met.

Social media happened, and I began following Todd’s blog posts, and his social media posts. I watched him analyse comics logos, saw him explain and describe what was happening in comics lettering, in design, in ways that opened doors in my head and let new ideas in. 

Todd was the best almost 40 years ago, and, a shedload of awards later, he remains the best letterer and the best thinker and explainer about lettering that we have.

If you have even a passing interest in lettering, Todd Klein’s writing on the subject and the people who he knew and the people he only knew through their work is gripping. If you want to letter, if you make comics, this is a masterclass in what comics lettering is and can be. 

On the way you’ll get a view into the world of comics built on knowledge and experience.

We have been lucky to have Todd. We are even luckier that he has written his knowledge down and passed it on. I am also personally grateful that it will be a long time before he heads into the western wilderness.

Neil Gaiman

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The Treasury Spectre by Isaac Cruikshank detail, 1798, courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries

ONE: LETTERING TERMS AND PIONEERS

Comics are the combination of words and pictures that make you laugh, in the newspaper and online, or the comic book adventures of your favorite superhero, and so much more. Most comics fans and readers focus first on the art, but the words are equally important, and the visual presence of those words is an integral part of the unique medium of comics. While some comics are solo creations of a single individual, and while some artists make the words part of their art (and are letterers themselves), the majority of comics are a team effort, and the look, shape and style of those words in comics reveal the craft and artistry of a letterer.

Part 1: Common lettering terms, the evolution of lettering from ancient times, the development of comic strips, and the first creator-owned comics. Read more.

Part 2: The evolution of specialized captions, word balloons, burst balloons, thought balloons, and other balloon styles. Read more.

Part 3: The development of sound effects, open lettering sounds, swearing symbols, and breaking the conventions of comics. Read more.

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From Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, Jan 1 1939, © 1939 King Features Syndicate, Inc., image courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library

TWO: WHEN LETTERING BECAME A PROFESSION

As the twentieth century progressed, comic strips became a larger and more profitable business. The rare creator who owned his work, like Bud Fisher, could do better, but many artists made good money. This allowed them to hire assistants to help with the workload. Read more.

Charles F. Armstrong, Hal Foster’s letterer on Tarzan and Prince Valiant, the earliest professional letterer I’ve discovered. Read more.

Frank Engli, Milton Caniff’s letterer on Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, the second professional letterer I’ve learned about. Read more.

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From Superman Daily strip Nov 1, 1941, McClure Syndicate, © DC Comics, image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

THREE: EARLY COMIC BOOK LETTERERS

Early Superman Lettering by Joe Shuster, Paul Lauretta, Betty Bentley and others. Read more.

Frank Shuster, brother of Joe, Superman’s best early letterer, a detailed study. Read more: Part 1 Part 2

Early Batman lettering by Bob Kane, Sheldon Moldoff, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos, Dick and Laura Sprang, and others. Read more.

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Image © Todd Klein

FOUR: TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES OF LETTERING

Everything you need to know if you’d like to try pen lettering, from pens and ink to drawing guidelines, sample alphabets, balloon shapes, and balloon placement. Read more.

Additional information about pen lettering and how to create it. Read more.

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From ACTION COMICS #252, May 1959, © DC Comics

FIVE: IRA SCHNAPP, SETTING THE STYLE FOR DC COMICS

Millions of comics fans knew and loved his work. For almost three decades he toiled anonymously for his employer, designing hundreds of cover logos, lettering thousands of covers, newspaper strips and house ads, and tens of thousands of story pages, yet readers didn’t know his name or anything about him. Read more.

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From CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #1 inside front cover, March 1943, image © Marvel

SIX: MORE LETTERERS OF THE 1930s AND 1940s

While rarely receiving credit, some letterers made their mark in the early years of comic books through superior work and reputation inside the business. Here are the ones I’ve learned about.

Howard Ferguson, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby letterer, and perhaps the first lettering star in comics, a biography and career summary. Read more.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, a small comics publisher, American Comics Group, had a presence on newsstands alongside bigger publishers like DC, Marvel, Dell, and Archie. One thing that was different about ACG was their lettering. Nearly every cover and most of the stories were lettered by Ed Hamilton, who also designed all their logos and house ads. Read more: Part 1 Part 2

Carl Barks was an artist from the Walt Disney Studios who had a long and popular run at Western/Dell comics with stories featuring Donald Duck and other Disney characters, including some he created like Uncle Scrooge. Though never credited in the comics, fans soon came to know and love his work, calling him “The Good Duck Artist.” For many years he wrote, drew and lettered his stories. Later his third wife Garé became his regular letterer. Read more.

Charles Biro was much more than a letterer, he was a comics writer, artist, logo designer, cover designer, and co-editor of a successful line of books from publisher Lev Gleason from 1941 to 1955, but my article approaches his work with an emphasis on lettering and logo design. Read more.

If you were a reader of comics and newspaper strips from the 1950s through the 1980s, you saw lots of Ben Oda’s lettering, even though most of it was not credited. Ben worked for everyone. He was the lettering star of many comics publishers and newspaper strips, the man they trusted to get things lettered professionally and on time. Read more.

In 1947, Will Eisner hired Abe Kanegson to letter his stories about The Spirit. Eisner said Kanegson was “the best letterer I ever had.” Read more.

There were a few creators in comics whose work was so singular that it was best produced solo, but those creators tended to work on the fringes, not on mainstream books and characters. Basil Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman are excellent examples. Read more.

Early readers of WONDER WOMAN, EC Comics, and others wondered, is it lettering or type? Here’s how it was done by Jim and Margaret Wroten, wizards of Leroy lettering, and Jimmy Thompson, master of Wrico lettering. Read more.

Shorter profiles for Mario Acquaviva, R.A. Burnley, Helen Chu, Ellen Cole, Martin DeMuth, Al Grenet and Melvin Millar. Read more.

Shorter profiles for Gary Keller, Tarpé Mills, Herman Stackel, Daisy Swayze, Zoltan and Terry Szenics, Leo Wurtzel and Irv Watanabe. Read more.

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From DOCTOR STRANGE: SORCERER SUPREME #72, Dec 1994, image © Marvel, logo design by Todd Klein

SEVEN: LOGO DESIGN FOR COMICS

Logo design is an important element of comics, both creatively and from a sales standpoint. A strong, memorable logo helps sell the product, and encourages buyers to identify more comics like ones they already enjoyed. Read more.

Otto Pirkola, Harvey Comics logo designer in the 1950s and 1960s. Read more.

Al Feldstein, EC Comics logo designer in the early 1950s. Read more.

In the 1980s, for the first time, comics publishers like Marvel and DC were willing to pay enough for a freelance designer to make a living doing mainly logos as their contribution to comics. Alex Jay is a perfect example. Read more.

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

EIGHT: MORE REMARKABLE COMIC STRIP LETTERERS

Newspaper strips appeal to a wide audience, both children and adults, and the best of them feature fine writing, excellent art, and creative lettering.

Walt Kelly, George Ward, Henry Shikuma and Pogo, my choice for the finest strip lettering of all time. Read more.

Gus Arriola’s Gordo, bringing humor, Mexican style, and amazing lettering to the comics page for decades. Read more.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts: written, drawn, and lettered by the creator for fifty years. Read more.

More comic strips with fine lettering: King Aroo, Wizard of Id, Broom-Hilda, Hagar the Horrible, Shoe, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Pickles, Liberty Meadows, Mother Goose and Grimm, Mutts, Cul de Sac, Pearls Before Swine, and Zits. Read more.

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Swamp Thing logo from SWAMP THING #1, Oct-Nov 1972, © DC Comics

NINE: GASPAR SALADINO, MASTER LETTERER

My favorite letterer began his career at DC Comics in 1949, and was a prolific letterer and logo designer there for over 50 years, as well as a star at Marvel Comics and other companies. Read more.

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From FANTASTIC FOUR #5, July 1962, image © Marvel

TEN: ARTIE SIMEK AND OTHER MARVEL LETTERERS

These articles study the logo and cover work of letterer Artie Simek and production man Sol Brodsky at Marvel Comics. Part 1 is a biography and career summary of the two men, Parts 2 to 4 are a look at the many logos I think Artie Simek designed from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, and Part 5 focuses on the logos Brodsky and Simek worked on together that helped usher in Marvel’s rise in the early 1960s, and also Simek’s important role in getting printed credits for letterers. Read more: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Brothers Sam and Joe Rosen worked for Marvel at different times, and each had a successful lettering career before that. Parts 1 and 2 of this article focus on Sam, Part 3 is about Joe. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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From GO-GO COMICS #6, April 1967, © Charlton

ELEVEN: LETTERERS OF THE 1950s AND 1960s

In this era, comics were often under attack, and finding work at mainstream publishers was difficult, but some letterers bucked the odds and made a career for themselves anyway.

Ray Perry began working on staff at DC Comics around 1940, I’m including him here for the many text page illustrations and titles he created, mostly in the 1950s, after a long career as fine artist and book illustrator. Read more.

John Costanza was trained by Joe Kubert and brought into comics in 1968, becoming one of the most prolific letterers as well as an artist for cartoon-based comics. Read more.

Jim Aparo was brought into comics at Charlton by Dick Giordano, and while working for DC Comics for many years, was one of the few artists to letter most of his own work. Read more.

Shorter profiles of John D’Agostino, Herb Cooper, Marty Epp, Ray Holloway, Charlotte Jetter and Grace Kremer, who began in the 1950s. Read more.

Others from the 1950s: Morrie Kuramoto, Joe Letterese, Pete Morisi, Rome Siemon, Milt Snapinn, Stan Starkman, and Morris Waldinger. Read more.

Letterers who began in the 1960s: Pat Boyette, Vivian Berg, Al Kurzrok, and Shelly Leferman. Read more.

Others from the 1960s: Jean Simek Izzo, Bill Spicer, Tom Sutton, John Verpoorten, Bill Yoshida, and Mike Royer. Read more.

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Zap Comix #0 back cover, © Robert Crumb

TWELVE: ALTERNATIVE AND UNDERGROUND COMICS

Innovations in printing and new types of distribution opened doors for comics creators and work that could never have seen print in the mainstream markets.

Robert Crumb, one of the earliest, most prolific, and best known underground comix creators, whose fine logos and pen lettering helped attract readers for decades. Read more.

Other underground creators with memorable lettering: Rick Griffin, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch, Vaughan Bode, Greg Irons, Trina Robbins, Victor Moscoso, Bill Griffith, Richard Corben, and Spain Rodriguez. Read more.

Alternative comics had origins in underground comix, but also attracted mainstream comics creators like Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, and Alex Toth. Read more.

More alternative comics, featuring ways aspiring comics creators could enter the field and existing creators could expand their options such as science fiction and comics fanzines, newsstand humor magazines like National Lampoon, independent publishers like Star•Reach, and self-published anthologies like Raw. Read more.

Creator-owned comics from Dave Sim, Richard and Wendy Pini, Nick Cuti and Joe Staton, Fred Hembeck, Los Bros Hernandez, Mike Grell, Dave Stevens, Katherine Collins, William Messner-Loebs, Marshall Rogers, Doug Wildey, Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Stan Sakai, Eric Shanower, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Jeff Smith, Chris Ware, and Craig Thompson. Read more.

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From UNCANNY X-MEN #168, April 1983, image © Marvel.

THIRTEEN: LETTERERS OF THE 1970s AND 1980s

A new generation of letterers — my generation — began entering comics in the 1970s. Leading the charge was Tom Orzechowski, whose work I first saw at Marvel in the early 70s. Read more.

Janice Chiang has had a long and busy career as a comics letterer, beginning in 1975 and continuing to the present, with work at Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Archie, and other publishers. Read more.

A unique letterer in comics from the 1970s to the present is John Workman, whose distinctive letter shapes and style make his work stand out from the crowd. He’s perhaps best known for collaborating with writer/artist Walt Simonson, but John is also an artist in his own right. Read more.

When the first issue of Howard Chaykin’s AMERICAN FLAGG! was published in 1983, readers were startled and impressed by the amount and variety of lettering from newcomer Ken Bruzenak. Lettering professionals like myself were even more impressed! Read more.

Readers of Marvel Comics in the 1970s probably thought they knew the names of all the Marvel letterers because they were listed in the story credits. There was one busy letterer who remained anonymous because his work was mainly on the covers, and therefore not credited: Danny Crespi. Read more.

I’ve long admired the lettering and logo design work of Jim Novak. When I started working at DC Comics in 1977, he was doing some of the best lettering at Marvel, and he continued to do so for many years. Read more.

British artist Dave Gibbons is unusual in that he almost always lettered his own comics work, something as rare in mainstream British comics as it is here in America. Dave is perhaps best known as the artist of WATCHMEN, but his long career is full of fine writing, art, and lettering. Read more.

Brief profiles of other British letterers: Tom Frame, John Aldrich, Bill Nuttall, Tony Jacob, Jack Potter, and Steve Potter. Read more.

Another group of British letterers: Steve Parkhouse, Annie Parkhouse, Elitta Fell, Steve Craddock, Ellie DeVille, and Richard Starkings. Read more.

More 1970s letterers: Frank Thorne, Denise Vladimer, June Braverman, Esphid Mahilum, Dave Hunt, Alan Kupperberg, Annette Kawecki, and Karen Mantlo. Read more.

Also beginning in the 1970s: Rick Parker, Carol Lay, D. Bruce Berry, Bill Pearson, Diana Albers, Adam Kubert, Michael Higgins, Albert DeGuzman, and Clem Robins. Read more.

Letterers who began in the 1980s: Pat Brosseau, Pierre Bernard Jr., John Clark, Susan Dorne, Phil Felix, Tracy Hampton Munsey, Tim Harkins, and Andy Kubert. Read more.

Another group from the 1980s: Michael Heisler, Steve Haynie, Kurt Hathaway, Bob Lappan, Ken Lopez, Jack Morelli, Bob Pinaha, and Ron Zalme. Read more.

A third group of 1980s letterers: Kevin Nowlan, Eric Shanower, Don Simpson, Carrie Spiegle, Bill Oakley, Willie Schubert, David Cody Weiss, and Ty Templeton. Read more.

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From SHATTER #1, June 1985, image © 1First Comics

FOURTEEN: THE RISE OF DIGITAL LETTERING

Part 1: Since the invention of written language, people have tried to find ways to reproduce it more quickly than the age-old method of copying with pen in hand. This six part series explores that quest. Read more.

Part 2: In the 1950s, Charlton Comics tried lettering comics with a large typewriter made by Royal using a font created from hand-lettering. Read more.

Part 3: Like many aspects of publishing in the 1980s, font creation was also undergoing radical changes at the time. It was the release of the program Fontastic by Altsys for the Mac in 1985 that first allowed desktop users to design their own fonts. Read more.

Part 4: In 1990, fan-favorite writer/artist John Byrne added computer lettering to his tool set. Rather than use his own hand lettering to create fonts, Byrne worked with lettering by others. Read more.

Part 5: As digital lettering began to have an impact on comics in the early 1990s in an ever growing number of titles and publishers, more letterers began trying it out. Read more.

Part 6: The gradually increasing presence of digital fonts on comics from many publishers was catching the attention of those who made their living hand lettering for the medium, and some responded by making fonts of their own. Read more.

Digital Lettering for Comics, a basic tutorial on the way I do this. Read more.

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FIFTEEN: LETTERING TODAY AND TOMORROW

Like most things, comics lettering has evolved from its earliest iterations, a process which some bemoan and others embrace. Not only has the physical process changed, the vocabulary and styles have evolved too. For instance, thought balloons were common in comic books for decades, allowing the reader to know exactly what the characters were thinking. Starting with Frank Miller’s influential mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight (1986), narrative captions began replacing thought balloons, which have nearly vanished. Like voiceovers in film and first person narration in fiction, narrative captions are more flexible, allowing room in comics for new storytelling tools like unreliable narrators. 

Digital lettering is still disparaged by some, but it introduced new styles and effects that utilize color and transparency in ways that were impossible before. The same is true for digital coloring. Rather than constricting styles and tools, digital has expanded the possibilities for letterers and colorists, though those new methods can be used poorly. There will always be some elements of comics lettering best done with pen and ink. It’s a trade-off. There are still some, there will always be some creators using the old methods, particularly those doing it all and self-publishing, which is easier today than ever. As we look toward the future, it’s certain that things will continue to change in comics and lettering. At least we have more than a hundred years of tradition and excellent work to inspire us as we move forward. I hope this book has helped familiarize you with some of the letterers who did that work, and will encourage you to look at comics lettering with a new appreciation for the talent and skill of those who create it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Todd George Klein was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on January 28, 1951. He feels silly writing about himself in the third person, and will stop here. Read more.

About my book.