The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 2

Image from the website of Mark Simonson.

Previously, I wrote: some time in the 1950s, Charlton Publications bought this or a similar model of Vari-Typer, a machine designed for small businesses to set their own type. It worked like a typewriter, and employed a single-use carbon ribbon that left a very clean impression on paper as large as 13 inches wide. The machine could hold two fonts on the central “Type Shuttle,” and many interchangeable fonts were available from Vari-Typer.

New research and information from Alex Jay on his blog HERE shows that the typewriter used by Charlton was not from Vari-Typer, but from Royal. It had an extended carriage like the one above, and as with the Vari-Typer, it had a single-use carbon ribbon that made very clear impressions.

The proof that Royal made the font for Charlton comes from this catalog entry in the 1964 National Office Machine Dealers Association Blue Book. The Charlton font, named Cartoon, was among those offered for sale by Royal. There was only a single style, which matches what you can see in the typewriter above.

Perhaps to match the Royal font, Vari-Typer also produced one called Cartoon, as seen in this sample, but it wasn’t used by Charlton, and I don’t know of any uses of it in comics. It reminds me of Charles Schulz lettering on Peanuts, but that was all hand-lettered by Schulz, though it’s possible Peanuts licensed products might have used it.

In an article about Charlton In COMIC BOOK ARTIST #9 (Aug 2000, TwoMorrows) author Christopher Irving writes:

One unique aspect of the Action Hero books was in the lettering, often credited to “A. Machine.” In reality, the rather constipated lettering was done on a large comic-font typewriter.

“Pat Masulli designed a comic typeface for a large typewriter,” [artist Frank] McLaughlin said. “The comic pages would fit in the typewriter and the copy would be typed right on the artwork. The results were a complete disaster that caused many more problems than it solved. It was a typical attempt to cut corners, but the finished product suffered greatly.”

The idea of someone at Charlton having a font made for a typewriter brings us a step closer to the perennial wish of being able to create comics lettering by typing. Pat Masulli was a comics artist who had begun working for Charlton in 1950 as a colorist, but by 1955 he was the executive editor. I think it’s likely he had Royal create the font in 1958, and I believe he used his own lettering for the font. Alex Jay suggests it was made from Jon D’Agostino lettering. We don’t agree on this point, but Alex’s theory is also reasonable, and we’ll never know for sure. (I argue that D’Agostino would not have agreed to allow his lettering to be used because he and other hand-letterers would then have less work at Charlton. I also don’t think the letters in the font look like Jon’s lettering.)

From WAR #60, Nov 1959, Charlton, this and all original comics art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

On the cover of issue 60 of Charlton’s ATTACK are examples of large Typositor type (the open lettering at the top and bottom and probably the large lettering at lower right, all made with a different machine) and two blocks of the Masulli font typed on the Royal and then pasted on the art.

From WAR #60, Nov 1959, Charlton

Up close you can see what an odd font it was, with strangely shaped M and W characters, but at first glance it certainly does look like hand lettering, though very poorly spaced. I do give Masulli credit for creating a serif I for personal pronouns, something the Vari-Typer Cartoon font doesn’t have. The uneven blackness of the letters suggests typewriting, too, the effect manual typewriters have when some letters are struck at different strengths, or parts of letters impact the carbon ribbon with less strength. It’s still clear and readable. Notice that the numbers are in a different style, suggesting Masulli didn’t provide them, and when the font was made, Royal used one they already had for that with numbers that don’t look hand-drawn.

An article on THIS website describes the author meeting a woman named Veronica who said she was employed by Charlton to type lettering on the art starting in 1958 for a $1 an hour minimum wage, which certainly jibes with the idea that the purpose was to save money. Veronica’s brother worked at Charlton, and he got her the job.

Whether Charlton’s was the first “cartoon” font I don’t know, but the Masulli font showed up in many Charlton comics for some years, and you can see in the Royal typewriter approach many elements that would later be echoed in fonts for desktop computers.

From THE BLUE BEETLE #2, Aug 1967, image courtesy of Maggie Thompson

The font credited to “A. Machine” that I remember seeing in Charlton comics was a different one, as shown in this 1967 issue of BLUE BEETLE. It must have gone into use later.

From WAR #13, April 1979, but possibly reused from an earlier war comic, Charlton

A closer look shows there are two styles, a regular one for the balloons and a slanted one for the captions. The slanted font was also used for emphasis, with added underlining by the typist to make it more obvious. This font looks less like hand lettering and has the same letter-spacing problems as the other one, with the sans-serif I the most obvious. All the letters are narrower, so it takes up less space on the page, but the overall look is more mechanical. The fact that there are two styles suggests regular letters in the lower case positions and slanted letters in the upper case positions, much the way some early digital comics fonts were done.

Comic Book Artist #9 also published an interview with Dick Giordano who talked about Charlton’s second Royal typeface which replaced Royal Cartoon:

We got “A. Machine,” a Royal typewriter with an 18-inch carriage—that’s when we had 12-inch paper, plus the little edges on it—and we used to type on the lettering. We had customized letters made for this Royal electric. We used to run the pages right into the machine [using] two-ply paper, and type right on the paper. It wasn’t pasted up. [laughter] Royal developed a special ribbon, you could only use it once. When the key hit the paper, it would put a lot of ink on the page, and it’d leave a white spot on the tape, and after you took the page out, you basically had to let it dry for a while. That ink might smudge. My wife ended up being the typist. The stories with lettering credited to “A. Machine” are basically my wife. I got Charlton to send the machine up to my house, after we got it working and I showed her how to do it.

I think the letterer credit to “A. Machine” only happened when the second font was used. Giordano says the font employed by his wife was also created for Charlton by Royal, but it’s unclear if Charlton provided the letters. As Frank McLaughlin said in his quote above, it might have saved time in some cases, but created lots of problems as well. Any mistake would have to be corrected by retyping and patching in a new section of lettering over the typed one (you can see such a patch for the word YONDER), and if the artist got ink on the lettering or otherwise damaged it, that would have to be patched as well. It was a clever idea, but in the end not terribly successful, I think. No other comics company thought it was worthy of imitation as far as I know. Alex Jay’s research suggests the first use of the Royal Cartoon font at Charlton was in MY SECRET LIFE #27, Feb 1959, where it only appeared in some places, while others had hand lettering. See his article for details.

Typesetting was undergoing many changes itself at the time. Early typesetting was created with individual letters made of wood or metal (usually lead) set one at a time in rows, then composed into pages. The Linotype machine, above, a massive object usually found in newspaper offices and printing plants, was introduced in the late 1800s.

It set paragraphs of type in large blocks using hot lead, as seen here. But as offset printing gradually replaced letterpress printing (with metal plates) through the first half of the 20th century, metal type was no longer needed or desirable, and photo-typesetting came into its own. That used film negatives of each letter that were exposed on photographic paper to create “cold type” in galley form, easy to paste onto a layout for printing on offset presses. The Vari-Typer was the small business version of cold type production. The earliest computer typesetting methods were hybrids that connected a computer terminal to a photo-typesetting machine.

Frederic Goudy, Drawings for Garamond, Lanston#248, 1921, image courtesy of the Rochester Institute of Technology

Fonts used in typesetting have always begun as drawings of letters or glyphs by type designers. Above is a fine example by Frederic Goudy from his 1921 design of the font Garamond (the Italic version). The creation of a font with metal type was a long and complicated process beginning with very large letter drawings.

Lower case letters drawn by Ed Benguiat for his font Playbill, 1965, image courtesy of the School of Visual Arts archives

That became easier with the advent of phototypesetting where the drawn letters simply needed to be photographed precisely to create the font. I can’t tell the actual sizes of these two font letter drawings, but the more recent one is probably smaller. It’s interesting to see how Benguiat made one shape for the O, C, and E that could be photographed once, then cut or masked to produce those letters. I’ve done similar things for comic book logos.

Mac 128, 1984, image © Apple

Type design was largely still in the hands of a few talented designers working for type houses until the mid 1980s, but with the introduction of Macintosh desktop computers by Apple that could work with graphic images and fonts, things began to change. Above, the Macintosh 128K, the first all-in-one desktop computer with MacPaint graphics software, got things rolling in 1984. By 1985 Aldus had released Pagemaker 1.0, the first page layout program, and work produced with it could be printed on Apple’s Laserwriter home printer in crisp print-ready black and white. With these elements, desktop publishing was born.

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

It didn’t take long for the first all-digital comic series to arrive from writer Peter B. GIllis and artist Mike Saenz. SHATTER initially appeared in a one-shot from First comics in June of 1985, though a preview was featured in the March, 1985 issue of computer magazine BIG K, so the work must have been well underway in 1984. According to Wikipedia:

The Shatter artwork was initially drawn on a first-generation Apple Macintosh using a mouse, and printed out on an Apple dot-matrix Image Writer. The print-outs were then photographed like a piece of traditionally drawn black-and-white comic art, and the color separations were applied in the traditional manner for comics at the time.

From SHATTER #1, June 1985, image © 1First Comics
Chicago font ® Apple

In this panel of art from the book, pre-coloring, you can see it used textures and tones with large dot patterns and lines. The lettering was typed in the Chicago font featured on the early Macs in oval balloons that certainly have the feel of comics lettering. Chicago was designed by Susan Kare for Apple along with a other fonts with city names, all registered trademarks of Apple. Chicago was used throughout the operating system on Mac computers, and has the advantage of being simple, bold and easy to read.

This was particularly important at small sizes, where the font looked more like this on screen and nearly as bad when printed. The Apple fonts, like most digital fonts of the time, were “bitmap” fonts, built with square pixels. The smaller the size, the more abstract and jagged they looked. It wasn’t the most elegant font, and didn’t look much like traditional comics lettering, but it could be typed rather than drawn one character at a time, a plus for the artist and an important step forward to digital lettering. On this series, the font Chicago seemed to match the look of the art quite well, both had a clunky squared-off feel. More traditional comics lettering probably would have seemed out of place. Russ Maheras, a friend of Saenz at the time, told me in 2014:

I got to see his whole Mac setup and a demo on how he would draw. There were no styluses or anything, and he drew with a mouse! I tried and the results were like a first grader’s drawing. He laughed and told me it took a while to get the hang of it. I thought he was nuts! But he sure went a long way with some crude technology!

Fourteen regular issues of SHATTER came out from 1985 to 1988, though by other artists after issue #2.

From IRON MAN: CRASH, 1988, images © Marvel


Mike Saenz went on to create the first digitally produced graphic novel, above, published in 1988, with a different font that appears less jaggy and more like traditional typesetting, therefore actually farther from the look of comics lettering. The upper and lower case seems too small and hard to read here as well. I think the full color art, though still bitmapped, looks better than what Saenz did on SHATTER.

From BATMAN: DIGITAL JUSTICE, 1990, images © DC Comics

Another comic following the same path was this one by Pepe Moreno from 1990. It features a font that at least attempted to imitate traditional comics lettering, though it still looked rather mechanical. I don’t know anything about the font, and haven’t seen it used elsewhere, it may have been created with computer software by or for the artist. While the letters are a little more organic, they’re still very regular and square looking. The round-cornered rectangles of the balloon shapes push toward a more digital feel overall, but perhaps that was the intent. Notice the serif version of I is used for personal pronouns. The slightly italic version for emphasis doesn’t work well for that to my eye, it’s not different enough.

The innovations led by Apple not only spawned desktop publishing, but desktop font creation as well. And fonts that looked more like hand lettering were on the way. We’ll examine some in Part 3.

Continue to next article. Back to book.

One thought on “The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 2

  1. Paul Houston

    As “innovative” as those three digital comics were, they were also a chore to read. Shatter being the most interesting of the three, in my opinion.

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