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. Writing is made of alphabets or glyphs that repeat in a myriad of combinations. The quest was to reproduce those glyphs reliably to order without having to create each one anew. This seven part series will explore that quest.

Gutenberg printing press, Sholes-Glidden typewriter
Left, replica of the Gutenberg printing press. Right, the Sholes-Glidden Typewriter, the first commercially available model.

The first attempt was the printing press, and as that evolved, it gradually replaced the creators of hand-lettered book manuscripts —often monks in monasteries — with a new technology. Many things still needed to have hand-made copies, though, as in the case of the U.S. Constitution, above, lettered by Jacob Shallus, and many other kinds of legal documents. In the early 1800s the job of “engrosser,”  “penman,”  “scrivener,”  or “copyist” was filled by legions of such letterers keeping records of all kinds for businesses, courts, and governments. The invention of the typewriter began to gradually replace those jobs with typists in the later 1800s as commercially successful machines were released. By 1900 or so, the majority of written documents were being typed rather than hand-copied. This undoubtedly put many scriveners out of work and was probably a source of tumult and outcry at the time.


That worked for many documents, but not all. Music manuscripts had to be transcribed by “music copyists” from composer’s hand-written originals, a skill that required lots of musical knowledge as well as drawing skills. Printed music was usually made from steel engravings of what the music copyist produced by hand, but the engravers needed the clear, clean pen and ink drawings to work from. Interestingly, the job of transcribing music manuscripts by hand survived until the 1990s, when computer software was finally able to do it equally well, in the hands of the right person.


The combination of pictures and words has often been another area where hand-made letters work best, as in this example from the Bayeux Tapestry created in England in the 1100s. It’s done in needlework, but any kind of art that includes letters, from paintings to sculpture, needed to have those letters created by the artists.


From the earliest days of sequential art, cartoonists added text to their pictures with pen in hand, as in this example by Rudolphe Töpffler from “Histoire de M. Jabot” of 1833.


When Töpffer’s work was first translated into English and released in America in 1842 as “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck” (considered to be the first American comic book), the publisher found it easy enough to replace the artist’s hand-lettered text with type, especially since that text was usually in a box below the art. While less organic and interesting than the original script, the type did the job of getting the ideas across, and thus the effort to marry art with type was present in American comics from the beginning.

Little Nemo detail

Many of the comic strips that developed for newspapers continued to use hand-made lettering, as this example from “Little Nemo in Slumberland” by Winsor McCay from around 1910. The convention developed to use all sans-serif capital letters because they were easier to read at small sizes, something that has persisted to the present day in comic books.


The styles varied greatly, here’s a looser one by Rube Goldberg from 1929…


…and a more conservative style from Hal Foster on Tarzan in 1933, with an interesting unfinished lettering change at the end of the second line. (Tarzan © Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.)

Barnaby by Crockett Johnson

A few strips used type instead of hand lettering, like “Barnaby” by Crockett Johnson. The font seen here is probably  Futura Demi Oblique, and in the 1940s when the strip ran, the type would have been set in galleys to Johnson’s specifications, then cut out and pasted onto his art. Even with that, it must have saved the artist time or he wouldn’t have used it. I think the simple linear style of the art makes it a better match for this font than, say, a typical adventure or humor strip. (Barnaby ©  Estate of Ruth Krauss.)


Later uses of type in comics can be found in MAD Magazine (example above from 1979, art by Angelo Torres) and HIS NAME IS SAVAGE by Gil Kane from 1968. Personally I think it works less well with these styles of art. (Mad © EC, His Name is Savage © Estate of Gil Kane.)


With the introduction of Wonder Woman in ALL-STAR COMICS #8 dated Dec. 1941 – Jan. 1942 a new kind of lettering entered the scene, one that looked more like type than hand lettering. (Wonder Woman © DC Comics, Inc.)


In fact, it WAS done by hand, but using the Leroy lettering system consisting of a scriber, technical drawing pen, and templates. The Leroy system was created for use in architectural and engineering drawings, and came to Wonder Woman comics first from artist H.G. Peter and his assistants. In 1945, Jim and Margaret Wroten began doing it, with much better results. Jim was a salesman for Leroy, and quite proficient at using Leroy. I’ve written an article about the Wrotens and their work HERE, and most of what I know about them can be found in THIS excellent blog post by Bhob Stewart.


In addition to WONDER WOMAN, the Wrotens lettered many stories for EC Comics, as above… ( © EC)


…but someone else did Leroy lettering for CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, where they used upper and lower case templates much more often. The example is from Issue 165A, art by George Evans, from 1961.

While this was something the Wrotens could do well and quickly, it was still all hand work, and not really on the path toward the goal of making lettering in comics easier, except perhaps for them. And having tried the Leroy system myself, I can attest it’s a lot harder and more time consuming than regular hand lettering for everyone not named Wroten. The dream of comics lettering that could be produced by typing was instead developing at small publisher Charlton in the 1950s. I’ll continue with that next time.

More articles you might enjoy can be found on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.

5 thoughts on “The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 1

  1. Jared Osborn

    Have you read the article from Comic Art magazine #8 from summer of 2006 called “Of Labels, Loops, and Bubbles” by Thierry Smolderen? It’s an interesting look at how the word balloon developed over time. I stumbled onto it years ago and it stuck with me.

  2. Ryek Hvek

    A lot of fine comic art has been degraded by the advent of computer lettering. Even if the computer lettering is improved, it will never have the flair and visual appeal of the finest hand lettering.

  3. Pingback: Must read: Todd Klein’s history of lettering — The Beat

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.