The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 2


Image from the website of Mark Simonson.

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. In an article about Charlton In COMIC BOOK ARTIST #9, 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 called the typositor machine.

“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.”

Thanks to Scott Dutton who wrote about this on his blog. I think Irving has the Typositor machine (which produced large type for titles on a roll of photographic paper) confused with the Vari-Typer, but the idea of someone at Charlton having a font made for the Vari-Typer 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 created the font for the Vari-Typer some time in the mid to late 1950s.


On issue 60 of Charlton’s ATTACK cover-dated November 1959 are examples of large Typositor type (the open lettering at the top and bottom) and two blocks of the Masulli font typed on the Vari-Typer and then pasted on the art.


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. The Vari-Typer 160 was able to adjust space between the letters using the dials above the keyboard, but it was a laborious practice that an article I found by Fred Woodworth (it starts on page 8 of that newsletter) says could slow production to 10 words per minute. I suspect whoever did the typing at Charlton didn’t bother with this at all, and that’s why there’s so much extra space around the letter I for instance. The uneven blackness of the letters suggests typewriting, too, the kind of 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, Varityper used a font they already had for that. The article by Woodworth states:

“Vari-Typer fonts were made in about four sizes (usually 6 or 7 point, 8 or 9, 10 or 11 and 12 point, with a very few in 13 point size.) Besides the many printer-style fonts, there were scripts, mathematical fonts, fractions, and fonts having special characters for Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German and other languages that utilize the western alphabet. For non-western languages there were fonts of Russian, Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, Korean, Kazak, Azerbaijani, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Tadjik, Amharic, Gurmukhi, Tamil, Arabic and Hebrew. In addition, some fonts included boxes, stars, diamonds and other elements of ornamentation. Also available were segments for drawing vertical and horizontal lines, and there were even ‘cartoon’ fonts for setting copy for comic strip balloons.”

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


Blue Beetle © DC Comics, Inc.

The font credited to “A. Machine” that I remember seeing in Charlton comics was a different one, as seen in this 1967 issue of BLUE BEETLE, thanks to Maggie Thompson for the scan.


A closer look shows there are two styles, a regular one for the balloons and a slanted one for the captions. 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. Whether it was a font made by Vari-Typer for Charlton, or simply one of their existing “cartoon” fonts is unknown. 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, 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. More research is needed to pin down the earliest use of Vari-Typer comics lettering at Charlton.


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 Garamont, Lanston#248, 1921

Image source: 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, but that got easier with the advent of phototypesetting where the drawn letters simply needed to be photographed precisely to create the font.


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.

SHATTER © First 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.


In this panel from the book you can see it featured black and white interior art using 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 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, recently told me:

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!



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 hard to read here as well.



Another comic following the same path was this one 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, but it may have been created with computer software by or for the artist, Pepe Moreno. 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 at the beginning of the first line for the personal pronoun as in comics lettering, but not at the end of the first line, a lettering error.

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

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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